The Normandy Landings

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


Army Group B had two armies on the French coast to guard against an invasion. Based in the Pas-de-Calais area was the Fifteenth Army, whilst the Seventh Army was spread around Normandy. Priorities for men and equipment were always given to the Fifteenth Army as it was expected that the invasion would come in their sector. The Allies encouraged this view by, amongst other tricks, heavily bombing the Pas-de-Calais whilst, by comparison, precious little ordnance fell on Normandy.


The area where the 6th Airborne were to land happened to be upon the border between the Seventh and Fifteenth Armies, and so it was hoped that the landings would create some initial confusion between the Germans as to which army had responsibility for dealing with the Division.


The Seventh Army had several divisions occupying the coastline, while others were based further inland so that they would be free to move against the invasion when and wherever it came. In the first hours of the landing, it was expected that the 6th Airborne Division could be attacked by no fewer than three infantry and two panzer divisions. This is, however, a highly misleading assessment as all of these units were spread over a very wide area and, with other responsibilities, would not be able to commit anything like their full strength against the Airborne men. When the invasion came, they would also have to contend with the more pressing task of confronting the British and Canadian divisions landing in the Gold, Juno and Sword areas, and in addition their static defensive commitments along the coast would remain in order to guard against the possibility of further amphibious landings.


Of the infantry divisions, the Fifteenth Army's 711th Division, based to the east of the River Orne, were the best equipped of all, possessing a range of artillery pieces, a number of obsolete tanks and some thirteen thousand men. They were, for the most part, however, based to the east of the River Dives, and so would have difficulty in bringing their might to bear once the bridges across this River had been destroyed. To the west of the Orne was the 716th Division, who were overstretched and unusually weak in terms of men and equipment. It only had eight battalions available to it, two of which consisted of Russian soldiers who had joined the Wehrmacht either because they hated the Communists or the only alternative was starvation in a Prisoner of War camp. Further to the west, south of Gold Beach, was the 352nd Division, elements of which could be made available against the Division within the first twenty-four hours of the landing. The principal threats, however, were the excellently equipped 12th S.S. Panzer and the 21st Panzer Divisions, each consisting of some twenty thousand men. The 12th S.S. Panzer Division was based some distance from the area of the landings and it was estimated that it would be at least twelve hours before their vanguard entered the fold. The more immediate danger was presented by the 21st Panzer Division, centred to the south of Caen, however on the eve of the invasion they were unexpectedly moved much closer and into Caen itself.


The first few hours of the landing were a critical time for the 6th Airborne Division because a concentrated attack, before they had been able to properly form up and dig in around their objectives, could lead to a failure. Such an attack, however, was extremely unlikely because the first hours of an invasion are always one of total confusion for the defender. It was estimated, therefore, that the chief opposition to the 6th Airborne Division in the first twenty-four hours would be restricted to small, isolated counterattacks by whatever units were immediately available. After this time, when the Division was better entrenched and reinforced by the sea-borne landings, it was anticipated that much larger formations, supported by tanks and artillery, would be ranged against them.