The cost of continuous fighting over the three months that they served in Normandy had taken a considerable toll upon the ranks of the 6th Airborne Division, whose casualties stood at almost 50%. Of the approximate ten thousand men of the Division who had taken part in the Normandy Campaign, including the Glider Pilot Regiment, one thousand one hundred and forty-seven were killed, two thousand seven hundred and five were wounded, and nine hundred and twenty-seven were declared missing. The 1st Special Service Brigade, who had come to France with two thousand three hundred and ninety-eight men, suffered eight hundred and ninety casualties.
Such a heavy price cannot be said to have been given in vain. The 6th Airborne Division, together with its supporting arms of the 1st and 4th Special Service Brigades and the Princess Irene and 1st Belgian Brigades, had performed magnificently throughout the three months that they had fought in Normandy. On D-Day, despite a severe loss in strength, they had achieved all that was asked of them, and over the following days they were steadfast in the face of numerous heavy counterattacks, never yielding any ground to their opponents. On a battle ground across which dozens of Divisions had fought and suffered, the 6th Airborne Division is certainly amongst those who made an astounding contribution to the success of the invasion, and therefore the liberation of Europe from Nazi oppression.
The Poor Drop
Regardless of how admirably the 6th Airborne Division had performed, there were questions to be asked, and none more so than the very poor drop that led to so many men being scattered and lost. Of the entire deployment over both lifts, only the landing of gliders on the coup de main raid, and on the first night and on the evening of D-Day, could be described as a success. As was always the case, several gliders were lost due to broken tow ropes and other malfunctions, however the overwhelming majority arrived safely.
The same cannot be said of the drops of the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades. Due to the extreme level of their training, paratroopers are precious commodities, and it is therefore not at all satisfactory that half of them should become casualties from the moment that they jumped into action. There are a number of reasons why the drops were scattered, and although human error was to blame in some instances, it would be completely wrong to damn these.
The Airborne movement was in its infancy during the Second World War and so tactics for deployment were devised entirely on a trial and error basis. There had been numerous training exercises throughout the War, but prior to Normandy the British had never before dropped an entire Airborne Division into action. Previously, there had been only two operations that had involved single brigades, a further three with individual battalions, two with a force of company size, and one of platoon size. As a consequence, Airborne strategists did not have a wealth of experience to draw from. The simple fact is that, at the time of the Normandy Landings, no blueprint existed for the ideal conduct of Airborne warfare.
The contributing factors to the poor drop were as follows:
1. Poor weather conditions. If given the choice, it is likely that General Eisenhower would not have opted to invade on the 6th June because, although the state of the weather had improved, it was still far below the ideal requirements. Everybody suffered as a result of the weather. Rough seas made life dreadful for the assault infantry, and many of the amphibious tanks that were to swim ashore with the first wave had sunk. For the Airborne troops, the weather resulted in high winds over the drop zones, which not only carried the paratroopers off course, but in so doing widely dispersed units which had jumped from the same aircraft and so complicated the procedure of forming up on the ground. It must be said, however, that the poor weather also convinced the Germans that an invasion would not take place, and as a result they were at a low state of alert when the first troops began to land. Whether casualties would have been higher or lower as a result of a perfect drop, in ideal conditions with the Germans expecting an invasion, is entirely open to speculation.
2. Weaknesses in pathfinder deployment. The pathfinders on all three drop zones were, to a greater or lesser degree, dropped off course. The 3rd Parachute Brigade suffered more from this because some of the pathfinders bound for DZ-K were mistakenly dropped at DZ-N, and so they set up their Eureka beacons on the wrong zone, while the pathfinders at DZ-V were too widely scattered to be effective. On this latter zone, one of the Eureka beacons was so badly damaged during the drop that it was inoperable, whilst another was too far from the zone to be any use, and so it was that the 3rd Parachute Brigade effectively jumped blind. The pathfinders arrived half an hour in advance of the main force, and although this may appear to be a long time, it was later realised that if they were dropped even slightly off target then they would have great difficulty in accomplishing their tasks in time. The possibility of such a miss-drop was regarded as a necessary hazard, although an inquest into the drop concluded that there would have been a greater chance of hitting the target had more pathfinders been used as opposed to just a minimal force.
3. Navigational errors. A high number of the aircraft deployed their sticks of paratroopers off-target. The Royal Air Force had been accustomed to navigating by night since the early days of the war, however on the 6th June a number of factors arose to complicate an already difficult business. As indicated above, many of the pathfinders were dropped off-target and so some of the Eureka beacons and lights, which were to guide the aircraft to the zones, were set up in the wrong place, if they could be set up at all. Aircrews were in the habit of correcting their bearings by identifying features on the ground, such as coast-lines, rivers, roads or towns, but unfortunately patches of low cloud had descended on Normandy that night, and this made it particularly difficult to locate such features. The matter was not helped by the fact that the River Dives and the River Orne were similar in appearance and the general direction in which they flowed, and so many crews mistook one for the other.
4. Methods of deployment. There were two possible techniques for aircraft to drop their paratroopers. 38 Group, who carried the 5th Parachute Brigade to DZ-N, were more experienced in the handling of Airborne troops, and they were trained to fly in formation, but each crew was left to decide when they were over the drop zone and so order their troops to jump. 46 Group, carrying the 3rd Parachute Brigade to DZ's K and V, were not so experienced, and so used the technique that American crews used, to leave the business of navigation to the lead aircraft and to order their troops to jump when those in the lead aircraft do so. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and whether one or the other works better or worse is purely down to luck. Individual navigation has the benefit of most of the aircraft reaching the zone at the risk of a few drifting far wide. By acting as a group, if everything goes according to plan, all of the paratroopers can be dropped on target, but if the leading aircraft makes a slight error or, as in the case of Normandy, there were no beacons to guide 46 Group to the zone, all the paratroopers are dropped off target.
5. Slow exits from aircraft. Several sticks were scattered because some paratroopers were slow in jumping, through no fault of their own. Anti-aircraft fire over the drop zone forced many planes to take evasive action, and this aggressive manoeuvring threw the paratroopers about the aircraft and so slowed the drop. Also, those paratroopers who were carrying particularly heavy equipment had difficulty in jumping, largely due to the design of the aircraft that they were using. The 3rd Parachute Brigade jumped from 46 Group's Dakotas, ideal aircraft for paratroopers, however the 5th Parachute Brigade were carried by 38 Group, who used a variety of obsolete bombers which had been converted to the parachute role. Travelling in and jumping from these aircraft was neither a comfortable nor smooth experience.