Tim Blagg

Blagg: Airborne gamble

Every year at this time, many of us stop and think back to that awful, yet wonderful day in 1944 when thousands of American, British and Free French troops stormed ashore along the beaches of Normandy and began the final countdown of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Most have seem “The Longest Day” or “Band of Brothers” or “Saving Private Ryan” and they know something about the ordeal of those soldiers who had to get off the beach on D-Day and fight their way inland against strong German defenses.

One part of that story is that of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, who, along with the British 6th Airborne, jumped or rode gliders behind German lines to sow confusion and capture key points to help the beach assault.

If you’ve seen the movies or read about the operation, then you know that some of the low-flying transport aircraft went astray or were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Troopers were scattered all over the peninsula and had to exercise great discipline and determination to accomplish their mission. Many simply moved toward the sound of gunfire.

Gliders crash-landed or hit German obstacles erected to prevent such assaults. The carnage was terrible.

But their presence did in fact confuse the defenses, and key bridges and road junctions were taken and held until advancing troops from the landings could reach them.

In all, the airborne assaults were a success in Normandy.

But most people are not aware of the awful record of such landings prior to D-Day. In fact, it’s a wonder that American and British planners continued to order them, after the disasters in Sicily and Italy in 1943.

The 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne was given the job of jumping behind the invasion beaches, much as they did later in France. Strong winds scattered the force. The British air-landing troops fared even worse. Just 12 of the 147 gliders landed on target and 69 crashed at sea, drowning many heavily laden soldiers. Those glider troops who did find their target, a bridge, were surrounded and captured.

Then, several nights later, a reinforcement drop of the 82nd Airborne was — incredibly and stupidly — routed over the beaches. Jittery gunners who had been attacked night and day by the Luftwaffe opened fire and shot down 23 of the transports. Then they shot at the descending paratroopers.

The losses were catastrophic.

In light of this record, it’s a wonder that airborne troops were included in D-Day. The German high command, when confronted by similar losses in their airborne assault on Crete, had vowed never to use paratroopers again ... and they didn’t.

From 2013, the landings at Normandy are an interesting footnote to history. We know they succeeded, and that a mere 11 months later, Hitler was dead and the Allies controlled all of Europe.

But in June of 1944, attacking over the beaches in the face of some of those most formidable defenses ever built was not a sure thing.

It was a gamble that paid off — a gamble in which men’s lives were the wager.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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