Major-General Richard Gale, commander of the 6th Airborne Division, was first informed of the specific role that his men would play in the invasion when he was briefed by Lieutenant-General Frederick Browning, commander of the 1st British Airborne Corps, on the 17th February 1944. In the preceding months of training, Gale had been very wise to prepare his men for every conceivable operation that they might be asked to undertake, and although the possibility of an independent Brigade action had been taken into account, it had, however, not occurred to him that anything less than the entire Division would be employed during the invasion.
At the time of this briefing there were not enough transport aircraft available to fly all of the Allied Airborne Forces to France, and so Gale was greatly disappointed to learn from Browning that all that was required of him was to select a single Parachute Brigade to capture the bridges over the River Orne and the Caen Canal, six miles inland at the eastern-most point of the invasion area. Gale immediately recommended his elder and more experienced 3rd Parachute Brigade for the task, but he was very concerned for their well-being as such a small and isolated unit would surely be very hard pressed until the relieving ground forces arrived.
Gale's fears, however, were not to be realised, because within a week of this first briefing, news came to him that both 38 and 46 Groups of the RAF, who provided the British Airborne airlift capability, were to be made available for the invasion, and so the entire Division could now be brought to bear in Normandy. The original bridge objectives remained, but with increased manpower the scope of the operation was broadened to include other tasks.
At the centre of the 6th Airborne Division's position was Ranville, a small village at the heart of what was a most strategic area, geographically speaking, as it held sway over the region and was relatively easy to secure against attack. Ranville lay six miles to the south of Sword beach but was separated from it by the Caen Canal and the River Orne, which ran parallel to each other, less than half a mile apart. One mile to the west of the village were the only bridges in the area that crossed these water obstacles. Three miles to the north and to the east of Ranville was a ridge, encompassing several villages and a forest. This ridge, although not lofty by any standards, was high enough to overlook the entire British invasion area, and so with both it and the bridges denied to the Germans, they would be unable to challenge the left flank of the invasion area.
The primary tasks of the Division were as follows:
1. To capture intact the two bridges running over the River Orne, near Ranville, and the Caen Canal, at Bénouville, both of which were connected to each other by the same road with a mere 500 yards between them.
2. The destruction of the Merville Battery, a heavily fortified gun emplacement, four miles to the north-east of Ranville. The Battery overlooked Sword Beach, and it was therefore seen as a tremendous threat to the invasion as its four guns could account for thousands of lives as the sea-borne troops came ashore. To attack such a well defended position would take a considerable toll on the unit which assaulted it, yet there was no other way. Either bombers or battleships could have attacked it, but only a direct hit from the heaviest of ordnance would deal the required blow. A single bombardment from the sea or air a few hours before the invasion would be most unlikely to succeed. To be sure of destroying it, the Royal Air Force would have had to mount numerous raids against what was but one of many gun positions along the coast, and to do so would have drawn far too much attention to the Normandy area. Gloomy though the prospect was, there was no realistic alternative to an infantry assault.
3. The destruction of the River Dives bridges. Seven miles to the east of Ranville, running more or less parallel to the River Orne, was the River Dives, across which enemy counterattacks were certain. In order to delay these for as long as possible, the 6th Airborne Division was ordered to demolish the four bridges that crossed the River at Robehomme, Bures and Troarn, and a further bridge over the smaller River Divette at Varaville. From Varaville in the north to Troarn in the south, these objectives spanned an area of some seven miles.
4. Once these primary tasks had been completed, the Division was then to deny the ridge, to the north and east of Ranville, to the enemy, as well as to capture as much as possible of the terrain between the Rivers Orne and Dives. In the north, the coastal strip, running between Sallenelles and Franceville Plage, was to be taken along with as much as possible of the ground approaching Cabourg, at the mouth of the Rives Dives. Finally, to the south of their area, the Division was to harass any enemy reinforcements moving from the east in the direction of Caen, units whose clear intention was to cross the Orne and challenge the invasion.
The two eastern-most of the invasion beaches, Juno and Sword, were to be assaulted by I Corps of the 2nd British Army, and it was under their command that the 6th Airborne Division were to come. It was estimated that elements of I Corps would link up with the Division at some stage on D-Day, and to the fore of all these would be the Commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade, commanded by Brigadier The Lord Lovat. They were to land on Sword Beach with the first wave of infantry, and then push inland with all speed to effect a link-up with the 6th Airborne Division, under whose command they were then to come. With the Division tolerably reinforced and firmly in place, it was then expected to take its place in the front line, like any other infantry unit, holding the Orne bridgehead until such a time that they could be relieved and withdrawn to England.