Scattered! An American Airborne Diorama
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
Late in the night on June 5th, 1944 the engines of the Douglas C-47 Skytrains came to life across airfields in England.
American paratroopers, weighed down with 150 pounds of gear, joked and prayed with one another before heading towards their chalks.
They were on a one-way trip across the English Channel and beyond the Atlantic Wall.
Operation Overlord had begun.
The Atlantic Wall
The Atlantic Wall was a series of German coastal defense fortifications extending from the French-Spanish border to the northern reaches of Norway. Erected between 1942 and 1944, this defense network was meant to guard against an Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.
Gun batteries and beach obstacles, made famous in pop culture, were supplemented by wooden poles known as Rommel's Asparagus, and flooded river-lands. The former to guard against Allied glider landings, and the latter to drown any parachute attempts.
To Allied planners, it was clear that any assault on the Atlantic Wall would suffer high casualties.
Neptune: Order of battle
Operation Overlord refers to the Allied invasion of Normandy, France on June 6th, 1944 and the ensuing consolidation of forces into a well defended area called a lodgement. The opening maneuver of Overlord was Operation Neptune, where American, British, and Canadian forces famously landed at the five beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword on what is commonly referred to as "D-Day".
Preceding these landings, were combat drops of American and British airborne forces to the eastern and western flanks of the beachheads.
The American airborne assault: Albany and Boston
In the predawn hours of June 6th, American forces from the 101st Airborne Division ("Screaming Eagles") and 82nd Airborne Division ("All Americans") were to make several combat drops on the western flank of the Allied invasion force.
Their principal goals were as follows:
Support U.S. VII Corps with the capture of Cherbourg for use as a deep water port
Secure the approaches to Utah Beach
Capture exits to Utah Beach
Establish crossings over the Douve River at Carentan
Assist with the merging of Utah and Omaha Beaches with U.S. V Corps
Mission Albany, the first drop, was to be conducted by nearly 6,900 paratroopers from the 101st during the midnight hours of 0020 - 0140 on June 6th. Among the last of these soldiers to land in Normandy were members of the "Filthy Thirteen".
The Filthy Thirteen were from the 1st Demolition Section of the Regimental Headquarters Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Despite earning their nickname by using their hot water ration for cooking instead of bathing, they are most famous for sporting Native American mohawks and war paint in battle.
While Mission Albany was wrapping up, Mission Boston was just beginning. From 0121 - 0244 another 6,400 paratroopers, this time from the 82nd Airborne Division jumped into the countryside.
In a little over 2 hours, the population of the French countryside grew by over 13,000.
Although the troops landed when they were supposed to, they did not land where they were supposed to. A combination of cloud cover, German anti-aircraft fire, poor performance from the Rebecca/Eureka radio navigation platform, and night conspired to scatter the airborne forces away from their landing zones.
The result of the poor landing performance was soldiers forming into units with whomever they could, even if that meant inter-divisional squads.
Reinforcements: Chicago and Detroit
Parachute infantry like the ones that have landed in Normandy up to this point are lightly armed. To provide reinforcements, two additional glider-based missions, Chicago and Detroit were scheduled to take place in the pre-dawn hours of June 6th, followed by more in the evening and the next day.
Gliders, such as the Waco CG-4, have the advantage of being able to carry heavier equipment such as anti-tank guns and artillery, and to land groups of soldiers (called "slicks") together. However, they are vulnerable to ground-based obstacles like Rommel's Asparagus that lie in wait to sheer off a wing.
Another oft-overlooked vulnerability to airborne forces is the threat of friendly fire. To mitigate this risk, black and white "Invasion Stripes" for easy identification were hastily painted on aircraft, sometimes with only hours to dry.
Dawn approached and our scattered airborne troops formed up. As they did, calls of "Flash", followed by the password "Thunder", rang out across the countryside. Relieved that they were no longer alone, they marched forward into unknown futures and in the shadows of obstacles and destruction.
Operation Overlord was one of the most complex battlefield maneuvers of all time. It is rich with stories of untold heroics and sacrifice. This diorama focuses on one specific aspect of the operation, the American airborne operations, and I have tried to capture some of the defining markers. In future posts, I will cover more stories from Overlord's countless participants, Allied and Axis alike.
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