Operation Tonga

This was the British parachute and gliderborne landing by Major General R. N. Gale’s 6th Airborne Division within ‘Overlord’ (6 June 1944).

Lieutenant General F. A. M. Browning’s British I Airborne Corps comprised two divisions and several independent brigades, but only Gale’s 6th Airborne Division was used in the airborne role during ‘Overlord’, with Brigadier the Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade (comprising Nos 3, 4, 6 and No. 45 [Royal Marine] Commandos landed at Ouistreham on 'Sword' Beach, and with No. 4 Commando (augmented by the French Nos 1 and 8 Troops of No. 10 Inter-Allied Commando) then coming under divisional command after a conventional landing over 'Sword' Beach.

‘Tonga’ proper comprised the first of two lifts, carried out in the early morning of 6 June and reinforced during the evening of the same day by a third lift in ‘Mallard’ (ii). The tasks entrusted to the 6th Airborne Division were to land, by parachute and glider, on the eastern flank of the Allies’ assault area, around the Orne river in the general area of the village of Ranville, about 6 miles (9.6 km) to the south of 'Sword' Beach and 10 miles (16 km) to the north-east of the city of Caen. The purpose these landings was to hold the left flank of the Allies’ assault area, especially key bridges, and so prevent German armour from ‘rolling up’ the beaches from one end.

Within this overall scheme, ‘Tonga’ had four main objectives. The first was to capture intact the two bridges over the Orne river near Ranville, and over the Caen Canal at Bénouville, which were a mere 500 yards (460 m) apart on the same road, in the sub-operation named ‘Deadstick’. The second was the destruction of the German artillery battery at Merville. This battery was a heavily fortified gun emplacement 4 miles (6.5 km) to the north-east of Ranville and, commanding 'Sword' Beach, was seen as a considerable threat to the invasion as its four guns could account for thousands of lives as the sea-borne troops came ashore. The third was the destruction of the bridges over the Dives river, which lies about 7 miles (11.25 km) to the east of Ranville. It was certain that German counterattacks would be launched from this direction to threaten the entire eastern flank of the invasion area. In order to delay these for as long as possible, the 6th Airborne Division was ordered to demolish the river’s bridges at Robehomme, Bures and Troarn, and another bridge over the smaller Divette river at Varaville. The fourth, to be undertaken after the first three tasks had been accomplished, was to secure the Ranville area and be ready by dawn to fight off German counterattacks. In particular the division was to occupy the ridge several miles to the north and east of Ranville and at all costs deny its use to the Germans as it overlooked the invasion area and would seriously compromise the stability of the eastern flank should it fall back into German hands.

‘Tonga’ would use about half of the 6th Airborne Division, in the form of Gale’s divisional headquarters, Brigadier S. J. L. Hill’s 3rd Parachute Brigade and Brigadier J. H. N. Poett’s 5th Parachute Brigade, complete with their attached engineers and medical services, a company of gliderborne infantry, and a battery and a troop of anti-tank guns. To reinforce this initial force, ‘Mallard’ (ii) would deliver most of the remainder of the division, principally two battalions and one company of gliderborne infantry of Brigadier the Hon. H. K. M. Kindersley’s 6th Airlanding Brigade, a battery of light artillery, and the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment in whose strength was a troop of Tetrarch light tanks. This latter operation would make history as the first time that field artillery and tanks had been flown into battle by air. This reinforcement mission also arrived just as Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision was launching a counterattack on a vulnerable point on the invasion beaches, and the appearance of troop-carrying gliders over their heads was instrumental in persuading the German armoured force to pull back lest it be cut off.

The initial assault was the 'Deadstick' coup-de-main seizure of the bridges over the Orne river and Caen Canal by 181 men (four platoons of D Company and two of B Company, 2/Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and 30 men of the 249th Field Company [Airborne], Royal Engineers) under the command of Major R. J. Howard and delivered in six Airspeed Horsa gliders on the strip of land between the two target bridges. Three of the gliders landed within 55 yards (50 m) of the Bénouville bridge (now known as Pegasus Bridge in honour of the airborne forces) at 00.16.

The first, Glider No. 92, containing Howard and No. 1 Platoon of the coup-de-main force, landed heavily and came to an abrupt halt when, as had been planned during the briefings, it pushed its nose through and penetrated the first belt of barbed wire around the bridge. This sudden halt catapulted both glider pilots through the cockpit screen and stunned them, together with all of their passengers. Within a few seconds, however, the men had regained their senses and realised that all around them was quiet. The noise of the crash had not alerted the Germans at the bridge as they thought the sound to be that of debris falling from a damaged Allied bomber. No. 1 Platoon was quickly out of the glider and its men went about the tasks for which they had been training for months. Several men knocked out a machine gun position, while the majority of the platoon, led by Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, rushed over the bridge to capture the other side. Once across western side of the bridge, Brotheridge dropped a grenade into another machine gun position but was shot through the neck in the next instant and mortally wounded. Brotheridge was the first British soldier to die at German hands on D-Day.

As No. 1 Platoon started its attack, No. 2 Platoon landed safely in the second glider and immediately moved to help in the clearance of the Germans from the eastern end of the bridge. No. 3 Platoon was not so lucky as the abrupt halt of its glider as it landed had torn the fuselage from the wing and left a dozen men trapped in the wreckage; one other drowned in the adjacent lake. The platoon’s commander, Lieutenant Smith, was injured as a result of the crash and was hurt further by the grenade-wielding German whom he encountered and killed several minutes later. However, Smith continued to lead his men and helped to secure the western side of the bridge.

Throughout all of these actions, the accompanying Royal Engineers had ignored the German fire directed at them as they climbed all over the bridge, looking for wires to cut and demolition charges to remove. The Germans had clearly prepared the bridge for demolition but, fearing an accidental explosion or sabotage by the French resistance, had not actually placed the charges.

After overcoming the initial shock of this sudden and violent assault, the German garrison fought back, but defeat was inevitable and many fled the scene. As the firing died down, Howard knew that, for now at least, the Bénouville bridge was safely in British hands.

A few hundred yards to the east, spanning the Orne river, stands another structure, the Ranville bridge now known as Horsa Bridge. This was the second objective of the coup-de-main assault, and was attacked by the men of the other three gliders, one of which landed miles away from the bridge and so played no part in the raid. The other two gliders, however, landed on target. No. 6 Platoon landed first and proceeded to attack the bridge, but by this time the sound of fighting in the direction of Pegasus Bridge had alerted the German garrison. Fortunately, their defensive capability amounted to only a single machine gun, whose crew fired a few ineffective rounds as the British came into view, and then fled in the face of No. 6 Platoon’s accurate mortar fire. A few minutes later, No. 5 Platoon, who had landed 700 yards (640 m) short of the landing zone, arrived at the bridge, unaware that it had already been taken. The men ran across it, expecting to come under fire at any moment, but in the gloom before them there appeared the unmistakable shape of Lieutenant Fox, commander of No. 6 Platoon. So ended the brief struggle for Horsa Bridge.

The coup-de-main raid had been a complete success: with comparatively few casualties, the British had taken both bridges in just 10 minutes.

The parachute brigades of the 6th Airborne Division landed by parachute 40 minutes later, one of their many tasks being to reinforce the defenders of the bridges, which were successfully held, against little German interference, by Howard’s men for two hours before the first reinforcements arrived. The role of the 7/Parachute is frequently overlooked in this regard, for its men were the relieving force which bore the brunt of the German counterattacks in the area to the west of the Caen Canal throughout 6 June. The battalion had dropped as some 600 men but, as a result of a confused and scattered drop, less than half of this total had assembled at the rendezvous point and all of the battalion’s support weaponry, mortars and medium machine guns were missing. Nevertheless the battalion distinguished itself in holding a wide bridgehead around Pegasus Bridge against constant German probing attacks, frequently supported by armoured vehicles. In particular the battalion’s A Company, based in the nearby village of Bénouville, suffered the most severe fighting and was eventually cut off from the remainder of the 7/Parachute.

The first relief was by No. 6 Commando, led by Lovat. The arrival of these troops did little to help the defence of the bridges, however, as their orders were to cross over the bridge and help secure the area to the east of the Caen Canal, which the remainder of the 6th Airborne Division was currently holding. The remnants of the 7/Parachute’s A Company continued to hold until 21.15 on 6 June when British infantry, in the form of 2/Royal Warwickshire, arrived from the invasion beaches and secured Bénouville, so allowing the evacuation of A Company’s many wounded. The company’s remaining 20 men followed at about 24.00.

Each of the Merville battery’s four guns was sited within a casemate of reinforced concrete 6 ft 7 in (2 m) thick with 6 ft (1.8 m) of earth above that. As these casemates could be destroyed only by an unlikely direct hit from the heaviest of ordnance, it had been decided that British paratroopers would attack and destroy the guns a few hours before the start of the landings on 'Sword' Beach. The 9/Parachute was selected for the task. The northern end of the battery was protected by an anti-tank ditch, 14 ft (4.35 m) wide and 300 ft (90 m) long, with the remaining circumference protected by two belts of barbed wire, the inner belt 8 ft (2.4 m) high, and in between was a minefield 50 to 82 ft (15 to 25 m) wide. The garrison of gunners and sentries amounted to 160 men, and was supported by numerous machine gun emplacements and three 20-mm anti-aircraft cannon.

Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, commander of 9/Parachute, had formulated a complex plan to assault the battery. Firstly, an advance party of four men was to land in advance of the remainder of the battalion, move quietly to the battery, and finally cut holes in the barbed wire and clear paths through the minefield. Secondly, at 00.30 and before this reconnaissance party had reached the battery, 100 Avro Lancaster and Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers of the RAF would attack the battery with 4,000-lb (1814-kg) bombs in the hope of destroying the position altogether or at the least of inflicting considerable damage on the defences. Thirdly, at 00.50 the main force of the 9/Parachute would land and head for the battery, which it was to reach by 04.00. With it would be a troop of Royal Engineers from the 591st Parachute Squadron, and a mass of equipment including mine-clearance devices, Bangalore torpedoes for dealing with the barbed wire, and two guns of the 4th Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery, which would be used to puncture the steel doors which sealed each of the casemates. Fourthly, at 04.30, No. 4 Platoon would make a diversionary attack on the main gate area while two sniper groups fired at the Germans in the battery’s pillboxes, machine gun emplacements, and Flak towers. Fifthly, three Horsa gliders, containing most of the battalion’s A Company and more Royal Engineers, would land inside the battery itself and attack each of the casemates with Sten sub-machine guns and flame-throwers. At the same time C Company would make the main assault by proceeding along the cleared paths through the minefield, quickly followed by the remainder of A and then B Companies. In the event of failure, the light cruiser Arethusa, would open fire on the battery with her 6-in (152-mm) guns at 05.30 if no success signal had been received.

The entire plan was complex, and fell apart. As a result of navigational errors, low cloud, and the dropping of the pathfinders so far astray that they were unable to mark the drop zone for the 9/Parachute, the paratroopers were scattered anywhere up to 10 miles (16 km) from the zone. Otway waited at the rendezvous point, but by 02.50 had gathered only 150 of his 650 men, and nothing else: none of the Jeeps, anti-tank guns, mortars, mine-detectors, medical personnel, sappers or the naval liaison party had arrived.

With time pressing, Otway was left with no choice but to attack with what he had under command. When 9/Parachute arrived at the battery its men found that their reconnaissance party had gone about their business excellently, having made a thorough study of German positions as well as clearing four paths through the minefield. The RAF bombing raid had, however, missed the battery completely and its bombs fallen well away to the south, doing no harm to the Germans but landing dangerously close to the reconnaissance party.

By 04.30, the battalion had been reorganised into four assault groups, led by Major Parry and consisting of A and C Companies, which were to proceed along two of the paths cut through the minefield. As they were forming up, however, they were spotted and engaged by as many as six German machine guns. A small party of paratroopers under Sergeant Knight engaged the three guns near the main gate, taking out their crews with bayonets and grenades, while the only Vickers medium machine gun available to the battalion dealt with those on the other flank. Knight then led his group around to the main gate and improvised the diversionary attack by opening fire with everything at its disposal, which successfully distracted the Germans.

As all this was taking place, two of the assault gliders approached the battery, the third having come down in England after its tow rope snapped. The gliders were to have been guided to the battery by troops on the ground using Eureka beacons, but none of these had been recovered from the drop so the glider pilots had to rely on their eyes. Their view was further obscured by clouds and smoke from the bombing raid, which resulted in one of the gliders mistaking a village 2 miles (3.2 km) away for the objective. The other found the battery and was making its final approach when it was spotted and engaged by a machine gun, four of the men inside being wounded and the glider being thrown off course to come to rest 750 yards (685 m) away. The glider was a wreck and several men had been hurt in the crash, but the men nonetheless disembarked in time to detect and ambush a party of Germans marching toward the battery.

As the glider flew by, Otway gave the order to attack. Parry blew his whistle, the Bangalore torpedoes were detonated for further clearance of the barbed wire, and the four assault groups charged forward. In the darkness, the marked paths were not clearly visible and so it was inevitable that some men strayed from the path and onto mines. Three German machine gun positions fired on the assault groups, but were soon silenced by the battalion’s Bren gunners and snipers. Amid the German fire and exploding mines, the paratroopers pressed on toward the casemates. Initially taken by surprise, the German garrison quickly recovered, first by shooting flares into the sky to illuminate the area, and then by bringing shellfire down outside the wire, and even arranging for an artillery battery at Cabourg off to the north-east to fire directly onto the minefield.

Otway ordered in his reserve to deal with the final machine guns engaging his assault teams, whose men were by now pouring into the casemates and engaging their defenders in hand-to-hand combat. The guns, which were to be destroyed with specialist explosive which had not been recovered after the drop, were knocked out one at a time using the Gammon anti-tank bombs which each man carried. The fighting began to die down as the garrison was at last overcome, and by 05.00 it was all over.

Inside and around the battery the scene was one of carnage, with dead and wounded of both sides lying everywhere. Of the German garrison, only six were unscathed. Of the 150 men of the 9/Parachute who began the assault, 65 had been killed or wounded. The guns which had posed such a threat to the invasion, even though they were found to be obsolete 100-mm (3.94-in) weapons instead of the modern 150-mm (5.91-in) pieces which had been expected, had been destroyed and many lives were saved as a result.

The assault upon the Merville battery, by a small and wholly ill-equipped force, is still regarded as one of the most outstanding achievements in the history of the Parachute Regiment.

The task of destroying the four bridges over the Dives river and one bridge over the Divette river fell to the 3rd Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers. In the northern area at Varaville and Robehomme they were supported by the Canadian 1/Parachute and in the south at Troarn and Bures by the 8/Parachute. B Company of the Canadian 1/Parachute was to escort sappers of the 3rd Parachute Squadron to destroy the bridge at Robehomme, but two of its three platoons had landed in the flooded areas that surrounded the drop zone. Many men of the 3rd Parachute Brigade landed in the water that night, the majority, after hours of struggling, making their way to safety although many had been forced to abandon all their weapons and equipment to avoid being dragged under the water’s surface; an unknown number of paratroopers did in fact drown.

B Company’s No. 5 Platoon, however, landed on dry ground and headed for the bridge, gathering together men from various units on the way. This included some men of 8/Parachute, who should have been 7 miles (11.25 km) away: as a result of low cloud and navigational difficulties, like those of all the paratroop units in Normandy, the 8/Parachute’s drop had been badly scattered. The men reached the bridge to find other paratroopers present, but none of the engineers had any of their HE charges with them. An attempt was made to destroy the bridge using 30 lb (13.5 kg) of explosive taken from Gammon bombs, but the result was considerable damaged rather than destruction. The bridge was finally demolished at around 06.00 when a party of engineers arrived with 200 lb (90 kg) of explosive.

The Canadian C Company was to accompany other engineers to Varaville to destroy the bridge over the Divette stream. The scattered drop badly drained the company’s strength, however, and only 15 of the original 120 men set off for the village. Engineers of the 3rd Parachute Squadron succeeded in destroying the bridge at about 09.00, but the remnants of C Company struggled for a further hour before finally overcoming the garrison of Varaville.

The 8/Parachute, 7 miles (11.25 km) to the south-west, had experienced great difficulties in forming up after the battalion’s scattered drop. In addition to the usual problems, the pathfinders who were to mark their drop zone in advance of the main landing had been mistakenly dropped at Ranville, 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north of the position where they should have been dropped, and as a consequence the men in 14 of the 37 Douglas Dakota transport aircraft carrying the 8/Parachute jumped there instead. By 03.30, only 141 men had gathered at the rendezvous point, and with this force Lieutenant Colonel Pearson began his advance upon Troarn.

To cover his rear, Pearson established an ambush of two PIAT anti-tank weapons along the road to intercept any units moving toward the battalion’s rear, and a few hours later this group engaged and destroyed six vehicles of Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision.

The 8/Parachute was not yet strong enough to attack Troarn, so it halted at a crossroads 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north of the village in the Bois de Bavent.

No. 2 Troop of the 3rd Parachute Squadron was ordered to make its way to Bures to destroy the two bridges over the Dives river in that place, a task which had been accomplished by 09.15.

Major Roseveare, commander of the 3rd Parachute Squadron, was already on his way to Troarn in a Jeep with some of his men. Th is little party drove straight through the village and in so doing attracted a great deal of fire from the German garrison. The men in the Jeep returned fire with their machine guns and raced through the village unscathed, except for one man who fell out of the Jeep at speed and was captured. Roseveare and his party arrived at the bridge, beyond the village, and set up their explosives, and by 05.00 a 20-ft (6.1-m) gap had been blown in the centre of the bridge.

The 8/Parachute knew nothing of this, however, and was preparing to make its own way to Troarn. When No. 2 Troop returned from Bures, it were ordered to move on Troarn with the battalion’s No. 9 Platoon to protect it. The group was involved in several highly successful skirmishes with German troops on the way, and when it reached the now-destroyed bridge, it laid additional charges and doubled the damage.

With all of its primary tasks complete, the 6th Airborne Division now prepared itself to defend its gains. Of the 5th Parachute Brigade, the 7/Parachute was still fighting hard in Bénouville to the west of the Orne river, while to the east of this river the 13/Parachute had captured Ranville several hours after it landed. The 12/Parachute was positioned a little to the south of Ranville, dug in along a small ridge which screened the division against attack from the south. The 12/Parachute was attacked by elements of the 125th Panzergrenadierregiment several times on 6 June, and despite the significant losses it had incurred in its drop, the battalion had the support of well-sited anti-tank guns, and was thus able to hold its ground most successfully and dissuade further attacks.

The seriously understrength 3rd Parachute Brigade was charged with holding the large ridge lying to the north and east of Ranville. The 8/Parachute and Canadian 1/Parachute had already established themselves in woodland of the Bois de Bavent and the village of Le Mesnil respectively. In the north, the 9/Parachute had left the Merville battery and was proceeding toward its final objective, the village of Le Plein. The battalion had only 80 men left, however, and despite an attempt to take Le Plein, it was too weak to overwhelm the Germans in the village. Instead the men of the battalion concentrated themselves in the Château d’Amfreville and tied down the Germans throughout the day. During the afternoon, the 1st Special Service Brigade arrived to take over responsibility for the northern sector of the ridge, and the task of driving the Germans out of Le Plein and digging out the 9/Parachute from among them fell to No. 4 Commando. Despite suffering numerous casualties as a result, the commandos had secured the village by the fall of night, and the remainder of the brigade similarly occupied various positions in the northern sector. For the time being, the ridge was secure.

‘Tonga’ had been a complete success, despite the scattered drop which denied the paratroopers, at the very best, 50% of their strength. The arrival of the 6th Airlanding Brigade and other units in ‘Mallard’ (ii) did much to consolidate the positions gained on the first night. Subsequent attempts by the 6th Airlanding Brigade to expand the air-head to the south by capturing the villages of Escoville and Longueval were unsuccessful, but in spite of frequent battles, the southern flank was not hard pressed by the Germans.

In the north and east, however, it was a different story. On 8 June, Generalleutnant Erich Diestel’s 346th Division, a well-equipped formation of Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s 15th Army, crossed the Dives river and during the next four days launched a succession of violent attacks on the 3rd Parachute Brigade and 1st Special Service Brigade in the hope of ripping the crucial ridge from their grasp. Both units were extremely hard pressed, especially the 3rd Parachute Brigade which had been severely understrength from the moment it landed in Normandy. Both brigades fought with great cunning and extraordinary tenacity, however, and inflicted notably severe losses on the 346th Division. Indeed, in just four days, they successfully shattered the division’s offensive capability. On 10 June, the 346th Division had exploited a gap in between the two British brigades, but this came to nothing as the 7/Parachute and 13/Parachute had been positioned in Ranville to combat just such a threat, and the German force was destroyed with an estimated 400 men killed and 400 more taken prisoner.

The Germans had always maintained a foothold in Bréville, a village on the ridge situated between the areas held by the 3rd Parachute Brigade and 1st Special Service Brigade, and this position was a platform for the German attacks, each of which threatened to destabilise the entire position of the 6th Airborne Division. On the night of 12/13 June, after the 3rd Parachute Brigade had only just managed to fight off the attacks on it during the day, the decision was made to deal with Bréville and eliminate the threat. The responsibility fell to the 12/Parachute and, despite heavy losses, the battalion managed to capture the village.

This success was extremely significant, for from that day no other truly serious attacks were made on the 6th Airborne Division.

The arrival of Major General G. H. A. MacMillan’s 15th Division did much to make the 6th Airborne Division’s positions solid, the Scots troops of this formation assuming responsibility for the whole of the southern flank, allowing the airborne troops to concentrate on holding a considerably shorter east-facing line. For the next two months, the division did not advance, but remained in its positions, and did excellent work in patrolling among and harassing the adjacent Germans.

On 17 August, with the German defence in Normandy cracking, the division was given the order to follow a planned withdrawal of the Germans in their area. Despite lacking the vehicles and many of the support weapons that an ordinary land-based army formation had on its establishment, the 6th Airborne Division won high praise in the rapidity of its advance, overcoming stubborn German rearguards, forcing numerous crossings across rivers, and pursuing the Germans to the mouth of the Seine river.

Here the 6th Airborne Division’s part in the Normandy campaign ended as the formation returned to England in the first week of September to await further service.