Airborne assaults were planned to secure both flanks of the invasion early to protect the landings from enemy interference. Before the night 5/6 June was over, a total of 8,000 British/Canadian and 16,000 airborne soldiers would have landed by either parachute or glider.
The British contingent was allocated with taking the eastern areas of the assault zone as well as specialised missions targeting key sites and installations. The most famous of these were the attacks on Pegasus Bridge and the Merville Battery.The British 6th Airborne Division was allocated tasks that would secure the Allied left flank, to the east of the landing beaches. A key element of the Divisional plan was the capture of two key bridges early on. One of these would become famous as Pegasus Bridge . Other priorities were the destruction five bridges over the River Dives plus, crucially, the destruction of the Merville Battery.
The four-gun Merville Battery posed a major threat to any landing on Sword beach. It had to be put out of action before the seaborne forces arrived. The task as given to the 9th Battalion The Parachute Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway. The German battery was protected by machine guns, mines and barbed wire with a garrison of 130 men. It was regarded as a very tough nut to crack so an ambitious plan was prepared. 100 Lancaster bombers would saturate the position with 4,000 lb bombs at 0030, shortly before the Paras landed on a drop zone not far away. Once assembled the paras would attack the battery , assisted by the arrival of gliders with engineers and extra explosives who would land directly on the enemy position.
Unfortunately the RAF bombers overshot and most of their bombs landed harmlessly to the south. The paras were badly served by the air force and the drop was widely dispersed. Many drowned in the flooded area of the Dives estuary. When Lt Col Otway arrived at his RV there were only 150 men out of the 600 he was expecting. , and there was so much antiaircraft fire on the gliders and their transport aircraft that many planes went way off-course, dropping men a long way from their intended locations. Otway considered aborting the mission, but did not. He later said "that failure was not an option"
Lacking much of their equipment the men improvised on the run and, despite only one of the gliders arriving, the attack went ahead. In a superb show of bravery they advanced through the minefields without mine detectors and surprised the enemy. Despite their lack of numbers, the quality of their training stood them in good stead, despite heavy casualties. In a remarkable feat of arms, the battery was soon captured and was put out of action for the crucial period of the landings on Sword Beach.
Interestingly, the museum at Merville today has the story about the German battery commander on D-Day. After being told that a glider had landed, he promptly telephoned his superior officer to ask for instructions. However his superior was most unhappy about being woken up and he was tersely told: "Go back to sleep. One glider is not an invasion."!
The US airborne forces comprised two divisions – the famous 82nd and the 101st airborne divisions (Screaming Eagles), and were given the job of securing the right flank of the landings on the Cotentin peninsula. Like all airborne forces on D-Day, because of the confusion and navigation problems of a night drop, they suffered from widely scattered drops and often units ended up with less than 50% of their unit strength.
The US airborne assault comprised two divisions – the 82nd (All American) and the 101st (Screaming Eagles). They were tasked to secure the right flank of the landings, blocking reinforcement from Cherbourg and to protect the exit routes from Utah Beach. As with the British, because of the confusion and navigation problems of a night drop, they suffered from widely scattered drops far from their designated landing zones, and often units ended up with less than 50% of their unit strength, making it extremely difficult to carry out operational objectives.
Fortunately, the dispersion created more confusion for the Germans than it did for the Americans. There were countless examples of small groups of men who got on with what they were trained to do, often with stragglers from other units joining them. These ad hoc groups showed great bravery and resource wreaking havoc behind enemy lines. By the dawn of D-Day they had largely achieved their objectives. They suffered very heavy casualties, including the attack on the fiercely defended Sainte Mére Église where some paratroopers were inadvertently dropped on the town itself and were picked off by the German defenders as they came down.