All of the aircraft which transported the 1st Airborne Task Force to France were American C-47's of the Provisional Troop Carrier Air Division, comprising the 50th, 51st and 53rd Troop Carrier Wings. These were based at 11 airfields across a 100 mile stretch of Italian west coast, from Rome to Follonica.
The 51st Wing, based around Rome, were to carry all of the 2nd Parachute Brigade's first lift except for the 1st Independent Parachute Platoon, who would take-off from Marcigliana with the 9th Troop Carrier Command Pathfinder Unit. The 64th Troop Carrier Group at Ciampino would transport the 4th Parachute Battalion and all of the 5th Battalion except for their Support Company Headquarters and "B" Company, who would fly alongside the 6th Battalion from Galera with the 62nd Troop Carrier Group. Split between these two airfields were Brigade Headquarters, the 2nd Parachute Squadron, and a detachment from the Provost Section.
The First Lift, codenamed Operation Albatross, began at 01:20 on the 15th August 1944, when the pathfinders took-off from Marcigliana. The main force followed 20 minutes later, but naturally fell far behind as they began the slow business of circling and forming-up. The aircraft from Ciampino and Galera flew in separate streams before merging over Civitavecchia, they then proceeded towards the North-Eastern tip of Elba where their 125 C-47's fell in at the rear of the formation carrying the remainder of the 1st Airborne Task Force. From here, the aircraft flew across the Mediterranean in a direct line towards Agay on the French coast, brushing the Northern tip of Corsica. This route had been selected to maintain a safe distance from the invasion fleet, so as to avoid any repetition of Sicily where the several parachute aircraft had been shot down while flying directly above the Navy.
The airborne armada reached the French coast without incident, and encountered no enemy fighters or even anti-aircraft fire as they headed inland. As they began to make their final approach to the drop zones around Le Muy, they nevertheless encountered a very different sort of opposition in the form of that most British of problems; the weather.
Arriving an hour and 20 minutes in advance of the main force, the first troops of the 2nd Parachute Brigade to land on DZ-O were three 12-man sections of the 1st Independent Parachute Platoon, whose task was to mark the zone with their navigational aids. The fourth section was flying with Brigade Headquarters in the main formation, to act as a reserve pathfinder force for the later lifts.
As the Platoon approached the drop zone they encountered a scene reminiscent of Exercise Thistledown, with thick cloud and ground mist obscuring the valley, making accurate navigation extremely difficult. The American pathfinders were badly scattered, but thanks to the skill of their aircrews the British were much more fortunate and all three sections landed on target. The drop was not without incident, however, as Private Morley was killed when his parachute failed to open, also the Platoon had problems forming-up, not just because of the fog but the trees, hedgerows and vineyards in the vicinity were much more dense than had been anticipated. Furthermore, even though they had landed on DZ-O, they were still a mile and a half from the area chosen for their navigational aids, but by 04:20 the Platoon had successfully set up their Eureka and Crest beacons as well as their lights, although due to the fog these were of negligible value.
The Main Drop
The 6th Parachute Battalion and Brigade Headquarters arrived on schedule at 04:54, and thanks to the Independent Platoon they had a very accurate drop, and none more so than Brigadier Pritchard, who landed within 30 metres of one of the beacons. Subsequent waves were less fortunate. The lead aircraft of the formation carrying the larger part of the 5th Parachute Battalion and elements of the 4th, developed an electrical failure and could not detect either beacon. With apparently no means of instructing another aircraft to take over, the group drifted off course and scattered their paratroopers near Fayence, 10 miles North-East the drop zone. Consequently only 73 of the Brigade's 125 aircraft reached the correct area.
Those who landed on target nevertheless experienced great difficulty in forming-up in the murky conditions. No enemy troops were encountered, yet a little firing could be heard around the drop zone as roving bands of paratroopers mistook each other for Germans. It is possible that this confusion was due to the close proximity of DZ's A and O, leading to British and American troops bumping into each other; certainly one man of the 5th Battalion was fatally wounded in such an encounter. Yet these were very isolated incidents, and slowly men began to arrive at their designated rendezvous points.
Several members of the Brigade may have been rather surprised to see the figure of Major-General Eric Down, their former commander, wandering around. He had since been given command of the 44th Indian Airborne Division, but happened to be in the Mediterranean at the time of Operation Dragoon and had managed to smuggle himself aboard one of the Brigade Headquarters aircraft as an observer.
After several hours of waiting for troops to report in, the effects of the misdrop and the weather conditions became all too apparent. The 6th Battalion had fared by far the best and could account for a not unreasonable two-thirds of their strength, but only about a third of the 4th Battalion had turned up whilst the 5th Battalion, most of whom were in the process of assembling into four separate groups far to the North-East, could only muster one understrength company. The vast majority of those who were missing would report in over the coming hours and days, but in their absence the paratroopers on DZ-O began to go about their business.