The Normandy Landings

Operation Tonga, the objectives of the 6th Airborne Division on the 6th June



Paratroopers drinking tea and eating sandwiches in the hours before take-off

Paratroopers drinking tea and eating sandwiches in the hours before take-off

Members of a parachute field ambulance sharing cigarettes with their aircrew

Gunners of the 3rd Anti-Tank Battery beside their Hamilcar glider prior to take-off

Paratroopers playing cards before take-off

Men of the 4th Anti-Tank Battery drinking tea before take-off

Four officers of the Independent Company synchronise watches

Major-General Gale's Horsa glider, shortly before take-off

Men of the Independent Company emplaning

Paratroopers emplaning on the 5th June

Paratroopers in good cheer en-route to Normandy


At 22:30 on the 5th June, the first of six Halifax aircraft from 298 and 644 Squadrons, each towing a Horsa glider containing men of Major Howard's coup de main force, began to take-off from Tarrant Rushton. At 23:00, from RAF Harwell and Brize Norton, twenty-eight Albemarles of 295, 296, 297 and 570 Squadrons took to the air with the pathfinders of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company and the advanced parties of the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades.


Approximately thirty minutes later, the main body of the 5th Parachute Brigade left the airfields of RAF Fairford and Keevil. 38 Group, whose aircraft also flew the coup de main and pathfinder sorties, contributed a total of one hundred and nine aircraft for this lift, bound for DZ-N. The Stirlings of 190, 196, 299 and 620 Squadrons each provided twenty-three of their aircraft, reinforced by eight Albemarles of 296, and nine from 297 Squadrons.


At the same time the Dakotas from the five squadrons of 46 Group, 48, 233, 271, 512 and 575 Squadrons, took off and headed for DZ's K and V, with one hundred and eight aircraft carrying the 3rd Parachute Brigade and a further seventeen towing Horsa gliders. 38 Group contributed additional support, with the Albermarles of 295 and 570 Squadrons carrying between them four loads of paratroopers to DZ-K, and a further sixteen, accompanied by four towing Horsas, to DZ-V.


Several hours later, at approximately 01:40 on the 6th June, having allowed enough time for the Engineers to clear the landing strips on LZ-N, the remaining aircraft of 38 Group took off with the main glider lift. The four-engined Halifax bombers of 298 and 644 Squadrons each towed seventeen gliders for this lift, included in which were four of the large Hamilcar gliders, with the Albemarles of 295, 296, 297, and 570 Squadrons towing eleven, eight, nine and ten Horsas respectively. Following on some time behind these, at 02:30, three Albemarles of 297 Squadron left Brize Norton, each towing a Horsa glider carrying engineers and paratroopers of the 9th Battalion's "A" Company, who were to land directly inside the Merville Battery and assist the remainder of their unit in destroying the garrison.


The towing of gliders is always a precarious business and it was common for a small number of these to cast-off prematurely, due to broken tow ropes or similar malfunctions. Operation Tonga was no exception and several gliders ditched over England only minutes after take-off, while others came down in the English Channel and some, having made it to the French coast, fell several miles short of the landing zone.


Conditions for the airborne drop were, as they were for the troops at sea, not ideal. The flight across the Channel was uneventful, but as soon as the aircraft crossed into France, sporadic bursts of light flak came up at them. The formations, flying slowly and at a very low altitude, were far from difficult for anti-aircraft gunners to hit and a number were damaged, to a greater or lesser degree, while others were shot down. 620 Squadron suffered the worst of it with three of its Stirlings brought down, aboard one of which all six aircrew and nineteen men of the 7th Battalion and 591st Parachute Squadron were killed following a direct hit as the aircraft struggled to locate its drop zone. In comparison to what might have been expected, however, resistance was slight and the drop was able to take place with little in the way of serious enemy interference.


The real difficulty came from the weather. Patches of low cloud had gathered over Normandy and obscured some of the terrain, making navigation a complicated affair. The most worrying aspect, however, was that from the air, the River Dives and the River Orne appeared to be very similar, and in poor visibility a number of aircrew mistook one for the other.