The Plan

 

The objectives assigned to the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy were ambitious, not merely because their targets were numerous and spread across a wide area, but because once these had been completed it was expected that they should hold an area of some twenty-four square miles. This was a lot to ask of a lightly-equipped Division in a particularly sensitive area, i.e. the left flank of the invasion, guarding the only bridgehead across the River Orne.

 

Major-General Gale's estimation of enemy reaction and the means that could be employed to disrupt it were very thoroughly thought out. The emphasis of his defence was placed upon each of his battalions occupying strategic points, mainly villages which were sited upon significant junctions in the road network; areas which the Germans would need to secure if their armour was to advance on the bridges.

 

In this respect, Gale was greatly assisted by the lie of the land. If securely held, the ridge that stretched from Le Plein to the Bois de Bavent effectively scuppered any attempts to attack from the north and the east. Similarly, the ridge at Le Bas de Ranville, together with a number of villages in the area which closed off key routes, secured the southern flank. In addition to these points, Gale desired a second line of defence, should the enemy succeed in breaking through, and for this he had the position at Ranville, which appeared to have been designed for such a purpose. The effectiveness of the Ranville position was most ably demonstrated on the 10th June during the opening of the Bréville Gap, when German units drove in between the 3rd Parachute and 1st Special Service Brigades, only to find the 5th Parachute Brigade blocking the way at Ranville.

 

The attempts by the 6th Airlanding Brigade to capture Escoville and Sainte Honorine failed, and so the southern flank of the 6th Airborne Division was not made as secure as it would had these two villages been captured. This cannot be attributed to any particular failings in the plan because, desirable though these two locations were, they were by no means essential to a defence. If it had been possible for the Division to be transported to Normandy in a single lift, these areas may have been easily taken. As it was, there were only enough aircraft to fly in half of the Division on the first night, and these units had more pressing priorities elsewhere. The capture of Escoville and Sainte Honorine were therefore secondary objectives. By the time that the 6th Airlanding Brigade was ready to move towards them on the morning of the 7th June, the Germans were of course fully alert to the Airborne presence, and so the capture of the two villages was regarded as more of a hope than an expectation.

 

In spite of the thorough plan that Gale and his staff had produced, the Division struggled to hold its gains during the first week, and the two parachute brigades in particular were sorely pressed. The bridgehead was not made truly secure until Bréville fell and further reinforcements came to the aid of the 6th Airborne Division, namely the 4th Special Service Brigade and, in particular, the 51st Highland Division assuming control of the southern flank. Ambitious though the objectives of the 6th Airborne Division were, their fragile state cannot be attributed to a poor ground plan, rather the failure of the air plan to deliver the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades more accurately to their drop zones. If any single factor can be said to have hampered the Division at this time, it was low manpower arising from the scattered drop. The fact that the Division gave no ground whatsoever, in spite of all the enemy fire that was directed against them, can only be attributed to the high calibre of its soldiers.

 

 

Notable Successes

 

In a night of scattered drops, loss of equipment and rapid improvisation, the one undeniable complete success of Operation Tonga was the capture of the Bénouville and Ranville Bridges. Despite the difficulties experienced in the landing, i.e. No.3 Platoon's crash and No.4 Platoon arriving at the wrong bridge, it had been a thoroughly remarkable achievement on behalf of the glider pilots, and their efforts were matched by the speed and ferocity with which the coup de main force went about overcoming the garrisons and securing the two bridges. To this day, "Pegasus Bridge" remains one of the most celebrated exploits in the history of the British Airborne Forces.

 

Had the Division consisted of lesser men, it was possible that the scattering of the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades could have led to the failure of the Operation to secure the Orne bridgehead. Paratroopers are trained, however, to compete as equals against a much larger and better equipped enemy, and their deeds in Normandy did not disappoint. The 7th Battalion in Bénouville and the 12th Battalion at Le Bas de Ranville on D-Day are examples of a magnificent performance against all odds. No better example can be found than that of the destruction of the Merville Battery by the 9th Battalion, where this wholly ill-equipped force stormed and destroyed the garrison of a heavily fortified gun emplacement. According to military logic, such an attack ought not to have been possible.

 

Even so, there has been some criticism of Lt-Colonel Otway's tactics to assault the Merville Battery, with commentators pointing to the extremely complex plan which, as all such plans do, encouraged chaos in the heat of battle. There is certainly some merit in the theory that the more complicated the design, the more likely it is to fail, however this is not so clear cut an argument with the Merville Battery. The most obvious failing was the attempt to land three coup de main gliders inside the Battery to coincide with the start of the attack, however the success of this manoeuvre did not dictate the success of the overall assault. The main thrust of Otway's plan, to create a diversion at the main gate, land the gliders and then charge the main force over the minefield, was that the garrison should be taken completely by surprise and attacked from all sides, not knowing which way to turn for the best. Each of these thrusts were completely independent of the other and neither relied on another for its success, and in this respect the assault achieved its object of causing confusion amongst the defenders and preventing their fire from being concentrated. The plan that Otway created went awry not because it was too complicated, but because the 9th Battalion were extremely unlucky on the drop and lost a great deal of their specialist equipment and more than three-quarters of their infantry strength. No strategy could account for such an extreme turn in events. If the drop had gone smoothly then the glider assault may well have worked if the Battalion had been able to use their Eureka beacons and flares to guide them to the Battery.

 

 

Another area where the 6th Airborne Division exceeded expectations was in the break-out from the bridgehead. As they had so few vehicles, other than those of the 1st Belgian and Princess Irene Brigades and what could be borrowed from I Corps, many doubted that they would be able to maintain a pace with the other Divisions advancing alongside them. Nevertheless, through intelligent use of their limited resources, not to mention the fact that both paratroopers and commandos are trained to march faster and for longer than regular infantry, their advance proved to be both rapid and efficient. The Division won high praise from the doubters.

 

The following message was sent to Major-General Gale, via I Corps, from Lieutenant-General Crerar, the commander of the 1st Canadian Army, under whose command the 6th Airborne Division fought:

 

Desire you inform Gale of my appreciation immense contribution 6th Airborne Division and all Allied contingents under his command have made during recent fighting advance. The determination and speed with which his troops have pressed on in spite of all enemy efforts to the contrary have been impressive and of the greatest assistance to the Army as a whole.