World War II: 101st Airborne Division Participate in Operation Overlord
In their baptism of fire, the green paratroopers of General Maxwell Taylor's 101st Airborne Division performed like seasoned veterans in Operation Overlord.
By John M. Taylor
At approximately 1:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division landed heavily in a French pasture near the village of Ste. Marie-du-Mont in Normandy. Major General Maxwell Taylor had no time to reflect on the fact that he was the first United States general ever to parachute into combat, as well as the first American general on enemy soil in Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of France.
Manipulating his shroud lines, Taylor narrowly avoided a tree. Next he struggled to extricate himself from his harness. From a nearby field came the sound of a German machine pistol like "a ripping seat of pants." After ten frustrating minutes of fighting buckles and snaps, Taylor used a knife to cut himself free. Pistol in one hand and an identifying metal "cricket " in the other, the general set out in the darkness in search of American soldiers.
The 101st was one of three Allied airborne divisions supporting the amphibious assault on Normandy. The British 6th Airborne Division had the task of securing bridges on the eastern flank of the landing beaches. The U.S. 82nd Division had as its primary missions the sealing of the central Cotentin Penin-sula from any attack from the south and the destruction of bridges over the Douve River north of its junction with the Merderet. The 101st was to secure the exits of four causeways behind Utah Beach, Exits 1, 2, 3, and 4; destroy bridges over the Douve northwest of Carentan; and capture two bridges northeast of the town.
These were ambitious objectives, particularly because a few weeks earlier the role, if any, to be played by the Allied airborne had been very much in question. Although airborne advocates such as Generals Matthew B. Ridgway, James M. Gavin, and Taylor were sold on the concept of "vertical envelopment, " the Allied high command was not. In Sicily, elements of the 82nd had been dropped so haphazardly that some paratroopers drowned in the Mediterranean. In addition, despite an elaborate system of recognition signals, aircraft carrying American paratroopers from North Africa to Sicily had been shot down by trigger-happy gunners on U.S. Navy vessels.
In the weeks leading up to Overlord, Air Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, General Dwight D. Eisenhower's deputy for air, had predicted disaster for the airborne operations. German fighters and flak, he believed, would inflict severe losses on the slow-moving C-47 transports. Moreover, while some soldiers could be evacuated from the beaches if Overlord should fail, paratroopers dropped farther inland would be at the mercy of German defenders. Leigh-Mallory was even more caustic with regard to the proposed glider landings, predicting that casualties "will not only prove fatal to success of the operation itself but will...jeopardize all future airborne operations." Nevertheless, Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley insisted that the airborne assault was essential to the success of Overlord, and Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower supported him.
If gliders were to be used, Leigh-Mallory wanted operations to begin at dusk on June 6 rather than in the pre-dawn. Ridgway, however, argued successfully that the lightly armed airborne troops would require their pack artillery and communications from the outset on D-Day. Ridgway carried his point, but the glider operation remained a challenge. Tall poles erected in possible landing areas -- "Rommel asparagus " -- were one problem; the Norman hedgerows were another. A typical hedgerow, designed to control cattle, began with a stone wall about three feet high. Soil was then packed around the wall, and shrubs and trees planted on top. For the Germans, every hedgerow was a natural defensive barrier; for an incoming glider, every hedgerow was a potential deathtrap.
And the Germans were ready. Five divisions, plus several smaller units, were stationed in the area of the Allied landings. One of these was the 91st Air Landing Division, which had been en route to Brittany when diverted to the Cotentin Peninsula. Another potent reinforcement was the thirty-five-hundred-man 6th Fallschirmjäger (Paratroop) Regiment.
The 101st's role called for its parachute component, sixty-six hundred men in three regiments, to land in darkness and secure the four causeways leading inland from Utah Beach. It was a vital assignment, for the Germans had flooded low-lying areas behind the beaches, obliging any invading force to funnel across a few causeways in order to move inland. Overlord would be primarily a parachute operation for the 101st, because the one area where Leigh-Mallory carried the day concerned the gliders. Since they would come in after the Germans had been alerted by paratroop landings, the division was allocated only fifty-two gliders, enough for about three hundred men and some pack artillery. Most of the division's 327th Glider Infantry Regiment became part of the amphibious landing.
Army airborne divisions were elite units, and paratroopers were volunteers. Most officers were in their twenties, and many enlisted men were no more than seventeen or eighteen. But the 101st Division, unlike the 82nd, was as yet unbloodied. The practice in World War I had been to allow a new division to get its bearings in a quiet sector before moving into the front lines. There would be no quiet sector for Taylor's "Screaming Eagles." They would drop into German-occupied Normandy, where training and zeal would have to compensate for lack of combat experience.
If the 101st was an elite unit, the Troop Carrier Command (TCC) was not. The air corps' best pilots opted for fighters and bombers; the transports got what was left. Moreover, TCC pilots had not been trained in night flying or in formation flying in bad weather. As Stephen Ambrose has noted, "The possibility of a midair collision was on every pilot's mind." During the first hours of D-Day, when the great armada of C-47s encountered both clouds and groundfire, formation flying went by the board and many paratroopers were dropped wherever it seemed most convenient.
For a variety of reasons, the American paratroopers underwent a wild night. In the words of one survivor, men landed "in pastures, plowed fields, grain fields, orchards, and hedgerows. They landed at the base of antiglider poles, in tall trees and small trees. They landed on rooftops, in cemeteries, town squares, backyards, paved roads, and in roadside ditches. They landed in canals, rivers, bogs, and flooded areas."
Private John Fitzgerald jumped, looked up to check his parachute, and watched as enemy bullets ripped through it."I was mesmerized by the scene, " he later recalled, adding that