Here is the fourth episode of a piece of our history. Read the first one here, the second one here, and the third one here.
They were the first
Just before midnight on the 5th of June 1944, the night before D-Day, 8000 British and 16.000 American airborne units were sent off to land by parachute and glider behind enemy lines in Normandy. Their overall mission was to ease up the Allied land invasion by attacking the Germans in the rear, cut of their supplies and take out coastal batteries. The generals called it ‘vertical surrounding’, they would surround the Germans from the coast and from the air. But things weren’t going exactly as planned. Many of the Allied Dakota pilots performed poorly that night. Due to a combination of cloudy weather, unsteady navigation and an extreme reaction to the German flak the pilots released their parachutist with great carelessness. Sometimes the pilots had to be forced at gunpoint to resume their course instead of aborting the drop. As a result most of the para’s landed miles away from their planned drop zones. Hundreds of men landed in flooded areas and drowned instantly due to the weight of all the equipment they were carrying. Thousands of young soldiers found themselves struggling in the darkness. Alone or in small groups of other lonely figures they had to find a path through the hedges and swamps to their many miles away rendezvous point. But the Allied paratroopers were the first to set foot in German occupied France, they had ‘Early Access’.1 2
Harold Canyon, aged 20, HQ company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment:
“I remember how helpless I felt at the time while sitting in the airplane. Next I remember the plane was being hit in the front with machine-gun fire and then they ordered us to stand and hook up. I remember how hard it was to stand up with all the weight that was strapped on me. When I approached the door, the top of the airplane opened up by an explosive shell. As I turned into the doorway the plane started going into its death spiral. I rolled over and got out. When I felt the opening shock of the chute, I looked up and saw clusters of ammunition tracers going through it.
When I had hit the ground, I lay there momentarily, fully expecting a German to run up and stick me with a bayonet, but nothing happened,. I had landed thirty yards in front of a German bunker which already had been taken out. I cut all the straps, grabbed my carbine and ran for a hedgerow. Then I saw two Germans approaching on the other side of it. I threw a gammon grenade at them and at the same time they fired on me. I was knocked out by the blast of my own grenade but it had also silenced the two Germans. After a while I heard someone else approaching. It turned out to be a couple of paratroopers. They shouted ‘Thunder’ and I replied ‘Flash’ but they didn’t heard me and started shooting. They stopped when they heard me swearing. No one can swear in American like an American. I’m not sure what happened then. We talked and later I was alone again. I was now lying in a gully when I heard two Germans approaching. I could tell they were Germans because the leather they wore creaked as they walked. They stood over me and looked down on me, I played dead. I had to go to the bathroom and I went. It’s quite possible the Germans mistook what they saw for blood. After a while I opened my eyes and they had gone, I crawled deeper in the gully and just before I fell asleep I heard a glider come crashing through the trees.” 3
Sergeant Jake McNiece (US Army paratrooper of the 101st Airborne Division) with war paint and Mohawk ready for ‘Early Access' into Normandy, June 1944. He was the leader of the Filthy Thirteen, an elite demolition unit whose exploits inspired the novel movie "The Dirty Dozen”. 4
U.S. paratroopers fix their static lines to jump before dawn on D-Day June 6, 1944. 5
A drowned U.S. paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne Division 6
1 Max Hastings, Overlord, D-Day and the battle for Normandy 1944 (London, 2015)75-76.
2 Esben Sylvest, ‘Gedropt in de nacht, D-Day, Mission Albany’, Historia, wetenschap in beeld(3/2014)26-33.
3 Russel Miller, Nothing less than victory, the oral history of D-Day (London, 1993)194-196.
5 http://vcepinc.org/D-Day_files/image007.jpg and https://nl.pinterest.com/pin/573012752564142741/