THE SECTOR OF THE BRITISH AIRBORNE TROOPS

To the east of the Orne estuary, where the Plain of Caen and the Dives marshes converge, there lies a stretch of lowland which the Germans had deliberately flooded in 1944. This was where the men of Major-General Gale’s 6th Airborne Division were to jump, in the night of June 5th-6th. They had been given the vital task of taking up position here in order to shield the left flank of the landing zone from German counter-attacks when the Allied forces launched their assault at dawn.

Certain groups was allocated specific targets. The 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Ox & Bucks), for instance, commanded by Major Howard, was to capture the bridges of Ranville and Bénouville intact. Lying just a few hundred metres apart along the same road, they provided the only means of crossing the Orne and its canal between Caen and the sea, and would enable the units landing on Sword Beach to come and reinforce the airborne troops without delay. Landing shortly after midnight, on board six gliders, the paratroops successfully brought off their audacious coup de main without any major difficulties.

Another, very different, mission consisted in destroying a series of bridges over the Dives and its affluent the Divette, in order to prevent any rapid intervention on the part of the units of the Fifteenth German Army which were stationed east of the river. Nobody is ever likely to forget the sight of Major Roseveare and his handful of men hurtling through the village of Troarn on board their jeep, on their way to blowing up the bridge at Saint-Samson.

For its part, the battalion of paratroops led by Lieutenant-Colonel Otway was ordered to capture the Merville battery so that the nearest landing beaches would be safe from the fire of its guns. Although some of the men had been dropped a considerable distance away, it was decided to go ahead with the assault anyway. After a furious mêlée, which left only a few survivors on the German side, the battery was taken. It was then that they realized that the guns were of a far smaller calibre than had been expected and would not, therefore, have posed any real threat.

During this time, the bulk of the 6th Airborne had landed on Norman soil shortly before 1 am, though not without a few mishaps. Many men became lost, some falling straight into the marshes. Ranville, captured at around 2.30 am, had the distinction of becoming France’s first liberated village. Shortly afterwards, an initial wave of gliders arrived with fresh troops and heavy weapons. A second wave was to follow that evening.

In the face of early German counter-attacks, a defensive perimeter was rapidly established around the Bénouville and Ranville bridges, which is where the first reinforcements advancing from Sword Beach met up with the men of the 6th Airborne early that afternoon.