History of the Second World War, Volume 5

behind them the gliders for which the paratroops must clear the way. The last warning of the brigadier commanding the British 3rd Parachute Brigade may well serve for all: 'Do not be daunted if chaos reigns: it undoubtedly will. The drop of the US 101st Airborne Division as fully plotted as all subsequent information has made possible spatters the map over an area 25 miles long by 15 miles broad and with small iso­lated elements even further afield. Very few of these had even an outside chance of becoming part of the division. The men had been loosed as it seems recklessly upon the winds of Heaven and thence to the flooded hinterlands and maze of closed country behind Utah Beach. The US 82nd Airborne Division largely due to the arrival of one regiment reasonably on its objectives fared a little better but of the remainder of the division only 4% were dropped in their zones west of the Merderet river. Thus the tasks of the division west of the Merderet and the crossings of the Merderet and Douve rivers, could not be fulfilled. The division had become a regiment. At dawn when the seaborne landings were incoming on Utah Beach the 101st Airborne Division mustered 1100 men out of 6,600. By evening its strength had grown to 2500 men. The 82nd Airborne Division at least 4000 men short on the day was still only atone- third of its strength three days later. Both divisions had lost great quantities of equipment and almost their entire glider-borne artillery much of it in the floods of the Merderet and Douve rivers. Neither division was able to prepare adequately for the arrival of its glider-borne follow-up the losses were severe and tragic. Yet the remarkable fact is that so great a confusion was created in the enemy by this incoherent scattering of men in their midst that there was no possibility of reserves supporting the beach defenders. By the time the US 4th Infantry Division came into land the battle of Utah Beach was virtually won. No coherent pattern has ever emerged from the struggles of the isolated remnants of the airborne divisions on that day nor will such a pattern ever emerge. The individual contributions of many men who fought bravely alone orin twos and threes will never be assessed. Even those who gave up without a fight toadded rather than subtracted from enemy bewilderment. The Pathfinders of the airborne divisions did not do well. Many failed to find and to mark the dropping zones some beacons were missing entirely especially west of the Merderet in country infested by enemy others were wrongly placed. Pilots under fire for the first time many of them 'inadequately briefed took wild evasive action lost indirection the cloud banks and overshot the dropping zones. Many came in too fast and too high and spilled out their 'sticks of men adding greatly to the normal hazards of jumping. Major-General Maxwell Taylor commanding the 101st dropped with a nucleus of his divisional HQ and struggled all through the today make contact and to bring some sort of order out of chaos. He felt 'alone on the Cotentin. In the upshot the pattern maybe seen dimly in the struggles of half-a-dozen colonels each managing to group between 75 and 200 men round him aided by the tell-tale click-clack of the toy 'crickets with which everyman was provided. By a stroke of remarkable fortune a small band of men ambushed and killed the commander of the German 91st Division returning from an 'exercise conference to his headquarters. Thus the 91st Division trained in the role of defence against airborne attack, and forming almost the sole available reserve behind the defenders of the Cotentin coast was deprived of its commander and severely handicapped. There was no 'shape or dimension to the airborne enemy no focal point or points to counterattack no time to think no commander with the temerity to commit troops with the strength and purpose of knowledge. While many German officers were sure that this must bethe beginning of the main Allied assault —so long awaited and expected —and that the battlefield was Normandy others including Lieu- tenant-General Speidel Rommels Chief-of-Staff and Lieutenant- General Blumentritt Chief-of-Staff to Rundstedt were doubtful. Thus the German military machine remained hesitant and palsied, its slender reserves uncommitted its armour waiting Rommel out of touch Hitler sleeping. These things gave the airborne troops on the western flank an initial advantage of which perforce they were unaware and saved them from the possibility of annihilation. Throughout the whole day and night the 101st Airborne Division, reduced to much less than the effective strength of a single regiment, was not only isolated from its own widely scattered units but also incomplete ignorance of the fate of the 82nd Airborne Division. Ironically it may have achieved at least as much in its confusion as it could have hoped for incoherence for chaos bred chaos. The one effective landing The story of the 82nd Airborne Division is simple. Two of its regi­ments with the tasks of clearing the area west of the Merderet river and in the angle of the Douve were not in the fight. It fell to one regiment to save the day and to fight the one clear-cut battle fought by the US airborne forces on D-Day. While scores of men struggled in the swamps of the Merderet dragging themselves to­wards the dry land of the railway embankment concerned in the main with the problem of survival the third regiment had dropped in a fairly tight group to the north-west of Ste Mere-Eglise. This was not due to chance but to the determination of the pilots to find their targets. Long before the dawn Lieutenant-Colonel Krause, finding himself on the outskirts of Ste Mere-Eglise with roughly a quarter of his battalion bounced the town without waiting for more and taking the enemy completely by surprise began to estab­lish a solid base. By the afternoon the town was securely held and four recognisable actions had developed apart from a score or more of fragmentary encounters in the hopeless wilderness west of the Merderet. The 82nd Airborne had dropped on the fringe of the assembly area of the German 91st Division and its position from the outset was much more precarious than that of the 101st. All troops however fragmentary were at once in the midst of the enemy and fighting for their lives within minutes of finding their feet. Some small groups up to 50 or 60 strong fought all day in the ditches and hedge­rows within 1000 yards of others with whom it was impossible to make contact. Often they were unaware of their nearness. The performance of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions on D-Day may only be seen in fragmentary terms. At the end of the day the divisions had not made contact. Each believed it had lost some two-thirds of its troops. Neither one had cause for satisfaction, or the haziest idea of what was happening. All that they could do was to wait for the morning. Fortunately the enemys confusion was equivalent to almost total breakdown. Hammered savagely and incessantly from the air handi­capped by the chance of a conference at Rennes of their senior commanders coinciding with the assault their communications disrupted and with as it seems a premonition of inevitable doom, their resistance was as fragmentary as that of the airborne troops infesting their imaginations as well as their fields. Many surren­dered almost without a fight. Major von der Heydte commanding the German VI Parachute Regiment probably the finest enemy troops available in the Carentan area has told of his difficulties in getting orders from his senior commanders. From the church steeple of St Come-du-Mont he had a personal view of the seaborne armada on the western flank. It seemed to him curiously detached from reality almost peaceful. At noon the sun was shining and the whole scene reminded him 'of a summers day on the Wannsee’. The immense bustle of landing craft and the warships fading into the horizon lacked to his ears the orchestration of battle. Von der Heydte sent his three battalions into battle one to the north to attack Ste Mere-Eglise another to the north-east to protect the seaward flank in the area Ste Marie-du-Mont the third back on Carentan. Von der Heydte almost at once lost contact. Organised defence on the western flank had crumbled. 1800 t
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