Operation Chicago

This was the US gliderborne landing of elements of Colonel George S. Wear’s 327th Glider Infantry of Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s 101st Airborne Division on the western flank of ‘Overlord’ (6 June 1944).

The landing took place in the area held by the 914th Grenadierregiment of Generalleutnant Dietrich Kraiss’s 352nd Division and the 1057th Grenadierregiment and 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment of Generalmajor Bernhard Klosterkemper’s 91st Luftlande-Division of General Erich Marcks’s LXXXIV Corps in Generaloberst Friedrich Dollmann’s 7th Army within Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’.

The gliderborne element of Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne Division was to operate on the northern flank of ‘Chicago’ in the parallel ‘Detroit’ to take and hold the area between St Germain de Varreville and Ste Mère Eglise, but in the event the two gliderborne operations served largely to reinforce the divisions’ paratroop elements delivered in ‘Albany’ and ‘Boston’.

‘Chicago’ was the 27th serial of the airborne assault, and was flown by the Douglas C-47 Skytrain troop-carrier and glider-tug aircraft of Colonel William B. Whitacre’s 434th Troop Carrier Group based at RAF Aldermaston. One Waco CG-4A glider was towed by each aeroplane, and the complete force carried 155 men, one bulldozer, 16 57-mm (6-pdr) anti-tank guns, 25 small vehicles, 2.5 tons of ammunition and 11 tons of equipment including one SCR-499 radio set for the divisional headquarters command post.

‘Chicago’ was primarily an artillery reinforcement mission, and on board 44 of the gliders were A and B Batteries of the 81st Airborne Anti-Aircraft Battalion, while the other eight gliders carried small elements of the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, the 101st Signal Company, the anti-tank platoon of the 327th Glider Infantry, and a surgical team of the 326th Airborne Medical Company. Also accompanying the glider serial in a last-minute change was the assistant divisional commander, Brigadier General Don F. Pratt, who had been designated to command the seaborne echelon.

The operation had initially been schemed on the basis of glider release at twilight on the evening before the amphibious landings, but to protect the gliders from ground fire the time was changed on May 27 to 04.00 on D-Day, some two hours before dawn. The designated destination in France was Landing Zone (LZ) E, an area co-located with and slightly overlapping one of the paratroop drop zones, DZ C. The area had been selected as central to the operations of the division and because a radar beacon was to be placed there so that the serial commander could home on the right LZ using the SC-717 search radars installed in flight leaders’ aircraft. The LZ was a triangular area 1 mile (1.6 km) in width at its base along the road connecting les Forges (a hamlet to the south of Ste Mère Eglise) and Ste Marie du Mont. The zone was 1.5 miles (2.4 km) in depth and its eastern edge ran through Hiesville, the divisional command post some 2 miles (3.2 km) to the west of Ste Marie du Mont. In addition to its central locality, the fields within the zone were on average twice the length of most others in the vicinity. Many of the fields, however, were bordered by trees 40 ft (12 m) in height and not hedgerows, a fact which did not show up well on aerial reconnaissance photographs.

The first of the 52 tug/glider combinations took off at 01.19, and bright moonlight enabled the tugs to assemble in 13 flights of four tug/glider combinations. Shortly after assembly the glider carrying the command post radio broke loose from its tug and landed, and the radio was retrieved and transported during the evening of the same day in ‘Keokuk’, but the accident meant that the 101st Airborne Division would be out of radio contact with other invasion forces until it had been reached by Major General Raymond O. Barton’s 4th Division moving inland from Utah Beach.

The weather along the glider force’s approach route had moderated from the dense cloud bank and ground fog that had severely disrupted the parachute drops two hours earlier. Because they were in trail and not close-formation ‘V’ formation, the tug/glider combinations were able to penetrate the clouds without losing formation. The columns attracted German anti-aircraft fire, however, and one C-47 and its glider went down near Pont l’Abbé on the Douve river, to the west of the landing zone. Seven transports and several gliders also incurred damage.

The commander of the 434th Troop Carrier Group was guided to LZ E by a ‘Eureka’ transponder beacon set up there by the pathfinders, the BUPS beacons having been damaged in landing and rendered inoperable. Although it had been placed in the wrong section of the LZ, the T shape formed by green marker lights was observed by pilots of the arriving C-47 tugs.

At 03.54, six minutes ahead of schedule, 49 of the 50 remaining pilots released their gliders at the designated point from an altitude of 450 ft (140 m), while the remaining tug, which had strayed out of formation, released its glider to the south of Carentan.

During their specified 270° turns to the left after release, most of the glider pilots lost sight of the marker lights. The moon was setting by release time and obscured by scattered clouds, so without reference to the markers the glider pilots no longer recognised the landing zone. Just six gliders landed on the LZ itself and only 15 others in fields within 880 yards (805 m) of it. One group of 10 landed in a field near les Forges. Of the remaining 18, all but one landed in fields to the east within 2 miles (3.2 km) of the LZ. Almost all of the gliders crash-landed in the smaller fields outside the LZ after overshooting to clear unexpected trees.

The German Flak was ineffective in the dark, and even though most of the gliders struck a tree or ditch, the majority of the loads were successfully landed. In one glider Pratt was killed along with the co-pilot, and the total casualties were five dead, 17 injured and seven missing.

At dawn the divisional command post sent out a large patrol to assist the reinforcements in removing their equipment from the crashed gliders (very few were damaged so badly that their payloads could not be removed immediately) and to guide them to Hiesville. Collecting and assembling the equipment was a lengthy process, but at 12.00 the patrol returned with three Jeeps, six anti-tank guns, 115 gliderborne troops, and 35 German prisoners.

The final casualty list for the 101st Airborne Division on 6 June was 1,240 men, representing some 20% of the formation’s D-Day strength.