The 6th Airlanding Brigade, the second of the 6th Airborne Division's Brigades to be formed, came into being in May 1943, under the command of Brigadier The Honourable Hugh Kindersley. The role of the Airlanding Brigade within the Division was to provide additional infantry strength to support the two parachute brigades, to which its men may have lacked the edge in training, however the airlanding battalions were stronger by several hundred personnel and were also equipped with twice the number of anti-tank guns, mortars, and Vickers medium machine-guns.
The task of raising the Brigade was not so difficult as two fully trained battalions were immediately to hand to form the basis of its strength. The 1st Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles and the 2nd Battalion The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry had, since October 1941, been a part of the 1st Airlanding Brigade, but they were left behind when the remainder of that four battalion-strong Brigade was called to North Africa to take part in the Invasion of Sicily, its first operational deployment. Shortly after the 6th Airlanding Brigade was completed by the arrival of the 12th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment, a new unit that was unacquainted with Airborne warfare.
The initial proposal for the Invasion of Normandy was that only the 3rd Parachute Brigade were to be used to capture the Bénouville and Ranville Bridges, with the 2nd Battalion The Ox & Bucks Light Infantry providing a company to seize both objectives in a coup-de-main raid. When it was subsequently decided to use the whole of the 6th Airborne Division in the landings, the 3rd Parachute Brigade were instead directed on to the high ground to the east of Ranville, whilst the 6th Airlanding Brigade were given charge of the capture of the bridges. Hopes of seeing the Brigade deployed with the First Lift were soon dashed, however, when it was noticed that the Germans were erecting mined poles and other obstacles on any open area of land where an airborne drop could take place. These posed such a threat to a large-scale glider landing that the 5th Parachute Brigade were instead ordered to secure the bridges, allowing the 6th Airlanding Brigade to fly in on the following evening with the Second Lift, by which time the zones would have been cleared of much of the obstacles. Nevertheless one of the Brigade's units, "D" Company of the 2nd Battalion The Ox & Bucks Light Infantry, reinforced by two platoons of "B" Company, were still to seize the bridges in a coup-de-main raid and therefore have the honour of being the first British troops to land in Normandy.
The coup-de-main raid was a famous success, and the landing of the 6th Airlanding Brigade on the evening of the 6th June proceeded tidily with few casualties resulting from enemy action. The attempts to capture Sainte-Honorine and Escoville on the following day, however, did not succeed and both the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry suffered many casualties in the attempt. A great deal of heavy fighting followed, however the Brigade occupied a firm defensive position and was never in serious difficulty. Amongst the numerous casualties the Brigade suffered in Normandy was its commander, Brigadier Kindersley, who was seriously wounded during the attack on Bréville. His place was taken by the experienced Brigadier Edward Flavell.
Returning to England in September 1944, the Brigade, like the remainder of the Division, concentrated first on replacing its losses, and then undergoing extensive training in street fighting and assault river crossings for a likely return to Europe.
This return came sooner than anticipated, when the 6th Airborne Division was called to Belgium to assist with the containment of the German offensive through the Ardennes forest region. The Brigade, however, was spared the intense fighting that had taken place in the American sectors, and for the most part their actions were confined to patrols and minor skirmishes. Several months of similar activity followed in various parts of Belgium, and later Holland, before the Division was withdrawn to England to prepare for the final assault on Germany.
The Rhine Crossing
On the 24th March 1945, the 6th Airborne Division left its bases in England and flew to secure a bridgehead over the River Rhine at Wesel. With almost the entire Division being deployed alongside the 17th US Airborne Division, Operation Varsity was the largest single lift of airborne troops ever attempted. Each of the three battalions of the 6th Airlanding Brigade were assigned different landing zones, with the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, the 2nd Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry, and the 12th Devonshires arriving at LZ's U, O, and R respectively, zones which collectively encircled the town of Hamminkeln.
All units of the 6th Airborne Division met with heavy fire as they came in to land and many casualties were suffered in the air, but no unit suffered so heavily as the 6th Airlanding Brigade; its slow moving gliders being extremely vulnerable to anti-aircraft and machine-gun fire. Several gliders were shot out of the air and entire platoons were lost in a single stroke, and to complicate matters further, the Allied artillery bombardment had shrouded the area in smoke, making it very difficult for the glider pilots to identify their correct landing areas. In all, the Brigade suffered more fatalities during this landing than it had in the two and a half months that it had spent in Normandy.
It took ten minutes for the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry to complete their arrival on LZ-O, however in terms of dead, wounded, missing, and gliders landing astray, the Battalion lost half of its strength in this time. Enemy opposition on the landing zone was much heavier than expected, and for some time confusion reigned as isolated groups of the Battalion attacked and overwhelmed the numerous enemy defences that had cost them so dearly. Despite the disastrous landing, the Battalion quickly achieved all of its objectives, principally securing the crossings over the River Issel, with "B" Company sitting upon the road bridge and "C" Company on the railway bridge. By the end of the day the Battalion had lost all but a third of its infantry strength, with one hundred and three dead and a further one hundred wounded.
The 12th Devonshires suffered no less at LZ-R, again losing a very large part of its strength during the landing, yet they too quickly went about attacking the enemy in the vicinity, and very soon their objective, the clearing and capture of Hamminkeln, had been attained. As in most areas, the action was vicious, but brief, and by the afternoon resistance had been broken to such a degree that the surrounding area was relatively peaceful. In all, the Devons suffered one hundred and ten dead and thirty wounded.
The 1st Royal Ulster Rifles were charged with the capture of a bridge over the River Issel as well as securing the surrounding terrain. "D" Company, landing very close to the bridge in a coup-de-main capacity, rapidly gained their objective, despite numerous casualties and missing two of their four platoons. As they were attacking towards the Bridge, the Company was faced with the daunting prospect of five self-propelled guns approaching their position, however once one of these had been knocked out at very close range with a PIAT, the rest dispersed. The remaining Ulstermen encountered the same resistance to their landing as had the other battalions of the 6th Airlanding Brigade, nevertheless they too succeeded in gaining all of their objectives and were in firm control of their area by the afternoon. The day, however, had cost them two hundred and fifty-nine casualties.
The Brigade remained in its positions on the 25th March, whilst the Allied ground forces reinforced the bridgehead and prepared themselves for the advance, which began on the following morning. Despite their severe casualties, the 6th Airlanding Brigade led the Division's eastwards push at 09:00, with a Squadron of Churchill tanks of the 3rd Battalion The Scots Guards, a troop of Shermans of the 44th Tank Regiment, and a troop of self-propelled anti-tank guns in support. The 12th Devonshires formed the vanguard and they were soon in contact with two companies of enemy infantry, which were quickly swept aside without loss and sixty prisoners were taken. The Brigade objective was the high ground near Brunen, and here the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles and the 12th Devonshires encountered much tougher opposition. The latter's "B" Company was faced with a perilous assault over open ground, however they proceeded so swiftly that their casualties were not as heavy as they might have been, and after a struggle the high ground was taken.
The Parachute Brigades subsequently took over the advance, but the 6th Airlanding Brigade was back in the lead on the 29th March, with the 2nd Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry advancing on Coesfeld. It was near here that the Battalion was halted by fire from 20mm guns, but their mortars and machine guns quickly put this menace to flight before two-company attack could go in. On the following morning, the Battalion entered the town without meeting opposition, but learned that an SS force was preparing to make a stand on the high ground a short distance outside of it. The 1st Royal Ulster Rifles put in an attack on this position with a Squadron of tanks from the Grenadier Guards in support, and despite meeting heavy opposition they secured the area.
During the following days the Brigade pushed on through Greven and Ladbergen, involving themselves in numerous skirmishes on the way, until reaching the outskirts of Lengerich on the 2nd April. The town was being held in strength by the Germans, and after a softening up bombardment, "C" Company of the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles put in an attack. A good deal of resistance was met and the enemy put in a determined counterattack upon the Ulsterman, who nevertheless held firm and were in control of the situation by midday. Elsewhere in the vicinity, the 12th Devonshires had an equally difficult time dealing with soldiers of an officer cadet battalion, who successfully fought off two attacks made by the Devons and ambushed them several times, whilst even their stragglers in the battalion's rear caused difficulties. By the end of the day, however, the Devons had won through and taken fifty-one prisoners at a cost of twelve dead and four wounded.
Leaving this area behind, the Brigade began to establish crossing points over the River Weser and pushed on for a further ten miles along the river to the edge of Kutenhausen. Resistance here was strong and the Grenadier Guards lost two tanks during the initial exchange whilst the 2nd Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry made their attack. Their main opposition was enemy artillery, which caused a number of casualties but could not prevent "C" Company from securing a bridgehead over the Weser. A successful attack was made to clear the village of Wietersheim, but "A" and "D" Companies struggled until nightfall to overcome the enemy dug-in around Frille. During the following days, the Brigade fought for control of a number of villages in the area to allow for the 11th Armoured Division to move through them. Yet little opposition was met beyond skirmish level, and piece by piece the area was secured. The most serious action was experienced by the 12th Devonshires, who had crossed the river in the early hours of the 6th April to secure the village of Lahde, but unfortunately none of their support weapons had been able to accompany them due to the strong river currents. This cost them dearly as "D" Company was attacked during the afternoon by four Panther tanks, and despite several well-aimed PIAT rounds, there was little the Company could do to deter the tanks from shelling them. It was not until a communications breakdown had been overcome and an artillery shoot forced the tanks to back away, but by this time they had taken fifty-one of the company's men prisoner.
At the end of May, the 6th Airlanding Brigade was returned to England with the remainder of the Division.
It had been intended that the 6th Airborne Division would be sent to the Far East to take part in operations against the Japanese, however the rapid conclusion of that conflict resulted in them being sent to Palestine instead, where they found themselves in the unfamiliar role of policing the worsening political situation. The Division was to remain here until 1948, however the 6th Airlanding Brigade did not last that long as the age of the glider was coming to an end. The Brigade was disbanded in early 1946.
Commanders of the 6th Airlanding Brigade
Brigadier The Hon. Hugh Kindersley
Brigadier Edward Flavell
Brigadier Hugh Bellamy DSO