Operation Boston (ii)

This was the US airborne delivery of Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne Division to the area of Ste Mère Eglise on the south-eastern side of the Cotentin peninsula as part of the first stages of the ‘Overlord’ invasion of Normandy (5/6 June 1944).

A nocturnal parachute assault, ‘Boston’ demanded the delivery of 6,420 paratroopers by almost 370 Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft into an intended objective area of about 10 sq miles (26 km²) to each side of the Merderet river on the Cotentin peninsula of northern France some five hours ahead of the D-Day landings of ‘Overlord’. Scattered by bad weather and Flak fire, the US drops in fact delivered the 82nd Airborne Division over an area up to four times as large as that planned.

Colonel George V. Millett’s 507th Parachute Infantry and Colonel Roy E. Lindquist’s 508th Parachute Infantry were tasked with blocking the German approaches to Utah Beach from points to the west and south-west of the Merderet river; they were to seize causeways and bridges over the Merderet at La Fière and Chef du Pont, destroy the road bridge over the Douve river at Pont l’Abbé, and secure the area to the west of Ste Mère Eglise and establish a defensive line between Gourbesville and Renouf. In the process the units of the two regiments would also disrupt the German lines of communication in the area, establish roadblocks to slow the movement of German reinforcements, create a defensive line between Neuville and Baudienville in the north, clear the area of the drop zones to the units’ boundary at Les Forges, and link with Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s US 101st Airborne Division.

Colonel William E. Ekman’s 505th Parachute Infantry jumped accurately and captured its objective, the town of Ste Mère Eglise, which proved essential to the success of the division as the town was a crucial German communications crossroad behind Utah Beach.

For the accomplishment of its tasks, the 82nd Airborne Division was divided into three forces, namely a paratroop element (Force A comprising the three parachute infantry regiments and support detachments under the command of an assistant divisional commander, Brigadier General James M. Gavin), a gliderborne element (Force B comprising the 325th Glider Infantry, the artillery battalions, and airborne support elements under Ridgway, the divisional commander), and a seaborne element (Force C comprising the division’s remaining combat elements, support troops and attached units including armour, which were to land on Utah Beach under the command of another assistant divisional commander, Brigadier General George P. Howell).

‘Boston’ was the second of the two airborne operations to support Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army, the operation being preceded by the ‘Albany’ drop of the 101st Airborne Division to the south-east one hour earlier.

In overall terms, each of these operations comprised three regimental-sized landings, and in the case of the 82nd Airborne division these were to be on Drop Zones T and N to the west of the Merderet river from north to south, and Drop Zone O to the east of the river, just to the north-west of Ste Mère Eglise. Each parachute infantry regiment was transported by three or four ‘serials’, which were formations containing 36, 45 or 54 C-47 transport aircraft, totalling 10 main troop-carrying serials. The main combat assaults were preceded at each drop zone by three teams of pathfinders who arrived 30 minutes before the main assault to set up navigation aids, including Eureka radar transponder beacons and marker lights, to aid the C-47 aircraft in locating their drop zones in the dark.

In an effort to gain an element of tactical surprise, the aircraft carrying the paratroopers approached Normandy at low altitude from the west.

The aircraft lifted off the ground from 22.30 on June 5, assembled into formations, and flew to the south-west over the English Channel at 500 ft (150 m) to remain below the lower edge of the German radar cover. Over a stationary marker boat codenamed ‘Hoboken’ and carrying a Eureka beacon, the aircraft turned to the south-east and flew between the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Alderney to their initial point on the Cotentin coast near Les Pieux.

Over the Cotentin peninsula several factors now combined to degrade the accuracy of the drops, including solid cloud cover over the entire western half of the 22-mile (35-km) wide peninsula at the penetration altitude of 1,500 ft (455 m), ground fog over many drop zones, and intense Flak. The weather conditions broke up and dispersed many formations and the Flak scattered them still farther. But the single factor that most affected the success of the paratroop units, because it magnified all the errors resulting from the above factors, was the decision to make a massive parachute drop at night.

The ‘Boston’ drop began at 01.51. The 505th Parachute Infantry, assigned to jump on Drop Zone O, was scheduled to arrive 10 minutes after the last serial of ‘Albany’. The C-47 aircraft carrying the 505th Parachute Infantry did not experience or else overcame the difficulties that had plagued the drops of ‘Albany’. Pathfinders on DZ O turned on their Eureka beacons as the first aircraft passed over the initial point, and lit markers on all three battalion assembly areas. The 2/505th Parachute Infantry, which was the first to jump, was accurate but jumped from above the planned altitude, while the C-47 aircraft carrying the 1 and 3/505th Parachute Infantry were off course but nonetheless managed to adjust before the time of the jump. Most flights were able to fly in formation above the clouds and none encountered serious Flak fire. As a result the 505th Parachute Infantry enjoyed the most accurate of the ‘Boston’ drops, half the regiment dropping on or within 1 mile (1.6 km) of its DZ, and 75% of it within 2 miles (3.2 km).

The other regiments were more significantly dispersed and eight aircraft were shot down, several of them while still carrying their paratroopers. The 508th Parachute Infantry experienced the worst drop of any of the regiments. The pilots of this regiment’s transports did not appreciate the thickness of the cloud until they had entered it, and had then to take evasive action to avoid collisions. Minutes later the aircraft emerged into fierce Flak fire. In need of pathfinder aids, the pilots discovered that the sets near DZ N were ineffective or not turned on. Even so, the flight leaders navigated accurately to the drop zone, but most of their flights were no longer in formation: 25% of the 508th Parachute Infantry came down within 1 mile (1.6 km) of the DZ, and another quarter within 2 miles (3.2 km). Fully half the regiment was unavailable for its assigned tasks, however, because it had reached the ground to the east of the Merderet river, and half of those jumped more than 10 miles (16 km) away or were missing. 1st Lieutenant Malcolm D. Brannen, Headquarters Company, 3/508th Parachute Infantry came down between Picauville and Etienville, south of the DZ. Near dawn, just after observing the landing of reinforcements by gliders in ‘Chicago’, Brannen and the group of paratroopers he had assembled fired on an automobile headed for Picauville at high speed, and in a brief firefight, Brannen shot and killed Generalleutnant Wilhelm Falley, commander of the 91st Luftlande-Division.

The 507th Parachute Infantry’s pathfinders had landed accurately on DZ T, but because of the presence of German troops in the vicinity could not illuminate their marker lights. As a result many of the C-47 aircraft carrying the regiment straggled and only three ‘sticks’ jumped onto the DZ. From 30 to 50 sticks (450 to 750 men) landed nearby in grassy swampland along the river. Estimates of drowning casualties vary (‘a few’ to ‘scores’) within an overall D-Day divisional loss of 156 killed in action, but much equipment was lost and the troops had difficulty assembling. Almost 30 sticks of the 507th Parachute Infantry came down in the area of the 101st Airborne Division and were temporarily attached to that formation.

The headquarters company of the 1/507th Parachute Infantry, carried by the last serial of the night, was dropped 5 miles (8 km) beyond Carentan at Montmartin en Graignes. This unit rallied other stragglers and fought off attacks by SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Werner Ostendorff’s 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ for five days before 150 men managed to infiltrate back to Carentan in small groups.

Timely assembly enabled the 505th Parachute Infantry to accomplish two of its missions on schedule. The 3/505th Parachute Infantry had captured Ste Mère Eglise by 04.30 after small firefights, established roadblocks and taken up defensive positions against expected counterattacks. The 2/505th Parachute Infantry established a blocking position on the northern approaches to Ste Mère Eglise with the 3rd Platoon, Company D, while the rest of the unit reinforced the 3/505th Parachute Infantry as this latter came under heavy attack from the south by infantry and armour at mid-morning. The platoon delayed two companies of the 1058th Grenadierregiment at Neuville au Plain for eight hours, allowing the troops in Ste Mère Eglise to repel the threat from the south.

According to some historians, the 1/505th Parachute Infantry did not achieve its objective of capturing bridges over the Merderet at Manoir de la Fière and Chef du Pont, though this is disputed by both the company and regimental commanders. This version states that Company A was unable to take the bridge near La Fière, a farm 2 miles (3.2 km) to the west of Ste Mère Eglise, despite the assistance of several hundred troops from the 507th and 508th Parachute Infantry who had jumped into this area. After several attempts to force a passage over the causeway or outflank the defences had failed, Gavin stated to commit troops elsewhere and accompanied one force to take the bridge at Chef du Pont. The commander of Company A categorically denied this, stating that the company took the bridge.

Lindquist, commander of the 508th Parachute Infantry, was left in charge at Manoir de la Fière and led an assault at noon that destroyed the German defence and allowed his men to link with an isolated group on the river’s western bank. As a result of poor communications and poor assumptions, the lodgement was not consolidated and therefore was overrun by a German counterattack an hour later. A US counterattack by Company B of the 508th Parachute Infantry crossed the bridge but was broken up and the survivors forced to swim the river to safety. Lindquist brought the entire 1/505th Parachute Infantry into the line to defend against further counterattacks. Supported by intense artillery and mortar fire, the 1057th Grenadierregiment and 100th Panzer Ersatz- und Ausbildungsabteilung, a training unit with captured French tanks, including 19 R-35, eight Hotchkiss H-38, one Char B-1bis and one Somua as well as three obsolete PzKpfw III tanks, overran the 1/505th Parachute Infantry’s command post late in the afternoon of 6 June before being stopped by bazookas and a 57-mm anti-tank gun, destroying several tanks on the La Fière causeway.

At this point Gavin returned from Chef du Pont and withdrew all but one platoon to strengthen the defence at Manoir de la Fière.

None of the 82nd Airborne Division’s objectives of clearing areas to the west of the Merderet and destroying bridges over the Douve was achieved on D-Day. However one composite battalion of the 508th Parachute Infantry seized a small hill near the Merderet and disrupted German counterattacks on Chef du Pont for three days, effectively accomplishing its mission. Two company-sized pockets of the 507th Parachute Infantry held out behind the German centre of resistance at Amfreville until relieved by the seizure of the causeway on 9 June.