Operation Albany

This was the US aerial delivery of Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s 101st Airborne Division to the area just to the north of Carentan in German-occupied France, in the angle of the east coast of the Cotentin peninsula and estuary of the Douves and Vire rivers, as one of the first stages of ‘Overlord’ (5/6 June 1944).

Some 6,930 paratroopers jumped from 432 main force Douglas C-47 Skytrain troop carrier aircraft into an intended objective area of roughly 15 sq miles (39 km²) located in the south-eastern corner of the Cotentin peninsula of German-occupied northern France five hours ahead of the D-Day landings. The airborne landings were badly scattered over an area twice as large as the intended area, largely by bad weather and Flak, with some troops dropped as far as 20 miles (32 km) away.

The division nonetheless took most of its objectives on D-Day, but required four days to consolidate its scattered units and complete its mission of securing the left flank and rear of Major General J. Lawton Collins’s US VII Corps of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army landing on 'Utah' Beach, and to be reinforced by 2,300 glider infantry troops landed from the sea.

The 101st Airborne Division’s objectives were to secure the four causeway exits behind 'Utah' Beach and so facilitate the inland progress of Major General Raymond O. Barton’s US 4th Division, destroy a German coastal artillery battery at St Martin de Varreville, capture buildings nearby at Mésières believed to be in use as barracks and a command post for the artillery battery, capture the lock in the Douve river at La Barquette (opposite Carentan), capture two footbridges spanning the Douve at La Porte opposite Brévands, destroy the highway bridges over the Douve at Ste Côme du Mont, and secure the Douve river valley. In the process, the 101st Airborne Division’s units would also disrupt German communications, establish roadblocks to slow the movement of German reinforcements, establish a defensive line between the beach-head and Volognes, clear the area of the drop zones to the unit boundary at Les Forges, and link with Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s US 82nd Airborne Division landed farther to the north-west in ‘Boston’ (ii).

The German forces opposing ‘Albany’ included the 3/1058th Grenadierregiment of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Falley’s 91st Luftlande-Division in the vicinity of St Côme du Mont, the 919th Grenadierregiment of Generalmajor Eckkard von Geyso’s 709th Division behind 'Utah' Beach, the 191st Artillerieregiment of the 91st Luftlande-Division equipped with 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzers, and the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment sent to Carentan during D-Day.

‘Albany’ was the first of the 1st Army’s two major parachute missions, with ‘Boston’ following it by one hour. Each mission consisted of three regiment-sized landings. The drop zones of the 101st Airborne Division lay to the east and south of Ste Mère Eglise and, from north to south, were lettered A, C and D. (There had been a DZ B, allocated to Colonel Howard R. Johnson’s 501st Parachute Infantry before changes to the original landing plan on 27 May). Each of the division’s three parachute infantry regiments was transported by three or four ‘serials’ (formations containing 36, 45, or 54 C-47 aircraft), totalling 10 serials and 432 aircraft, which were complemented by 11 pathfinder aircraft of the same type. The serials were scheduled over the drop zones at six-minute intervals, and the paratroopers were organised into ‘sticks’, which was an aeroplane-load of 15 to 18 troops.

The main combat jumps 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 transports in locating their DZs in the dark.

In an effort to secure a measure of tactical surprise, the transport aircraft were routed to approach Normandy at low altitude from the west. The aircraft lifted off from 22.30 on 5 June and, once assembled into their planned formations, flew south-west over the English Channel at 500 ft (150 m) to remain under the lower edge of the German radar cover. At a stationary marker boat codenamed Hoboken and carrying a Eureka beacon, the aircraft turned south-east and flew between the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Alderney to their initial point on the Cotentin coast at Portbail, codenamed Muleshoe. Over the Cotentin peninsula a number of factors combined to degrade the accuracy of the forthcoming drops: these factors included solid cloud 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 German anti-aircraft fire. The weather conditions dispersed many formations and the Flak scattered them still farther. However, the single most important factor militating against the success of the operation was the decision to make a large-scale parachute drop by night.

The men of the 101st Airborne Division jumped between 00.48 and 01.40 on 6 June. The first wave, inbound to DZ A, which was that farthest to the north, was not surprised by the cloud and maintained formation, but navigating errors and a lack of Eureka signal caused the first error. Although the 2nd Battalion of Colonel George V. H. Moseley’s 502nd Parachute Infantry was dropped as a compact unit, it jumped on the wrong DZ, while the battalion’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Steve A. Chappuis, came down virtually alone on the correct DZ. Chappuis and this stick captured the coastal battery soon after assembling, and found that it had already been dismantled after an air raid. Some 70 of the 502nd Parachute Infantry’s 80 sticks dropped in a disorganised pattern around the impromptu drop zone set up by the pathfinders near the beach.

The commanders of the 502nd Parachute Infantry’s 1st and 3rd Battalions, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick J. Cassidy and Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole respectively, took control of small groups and accomplished all of their D-Day missions. Cassidy’s group took St Martin de Varreville by 06.30, sent out a patrol under Staff Sergeant Harrison C. Summers to seize the XYZ objective, a barracks at Mésières, and established a thin defence line between Foucarville and Beuzeville. Cole’s group moved during the night from near Ste Mère Eglise to the Varreville battery, then continued and captured Exit 3 from 'Utah' Beach at 07.30. The group held the position during the morning until relieved by troops moving inland from 'Utah' Beach. Both commanders found Exit 4 covered by German artillery fire, and Cassidy recommended to the 4th Division that it should not attempt to use this exit.

The division’s 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion did not fare nearly as well. Its drop was one of the worst of the operation, and the battalion lost all but one of its 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzers, and dropped all but two of 54 loads some 4 to 20 miles (6.4 to 32 km) to the north, where most ultimately became casualties.

The second wave, assigned to drop the 506th Parachute Infantry on DZ C, 1 mile (1.6 km) west of Ste Marie du Mont, was badly dispersed by cloud, then subjected to intense Flak for 10 miles (16 km). Three of the 81 C-47 transports were lost before or during the jump. Even so, the 1/506th Parachute Infantry was dropped accurately on DZ C, landing two-thirds of its sticks and the regimental commander, Colonel Robert F. Sink, on or within 1 mile (1.6 km) of the DZ. The 2/506th Parachute Infantry, much of which had jumped too far west near Ste Mère Eglise, eventually assembled near Foucarville at the north edge of the 101st Airborne Division’s objective area. It fought its way to the hamlet of le Chemin near the Houdienville causeway by mid-afternoon, but found that the 4th Division had already seized the exit hours before. The 3/501st Parachute Infantry, also assigned to jump onto DZ C, was more scattered, but assumed the task of securing the exits.

An extemporised company-sized team that included Taylor, the divisional commander, reached Exit 1 at Pouppeville at 06.00. After a six-hour house-clearing battle with units of the 1058th Grenadierregiment, the group secured the exit shortly before units of the 4th Division arrived.

The third wave of the 101st Airborne Division also encountered severe Flak, losing six aircraft. The troop carriers still made an accurate drop, placing 94 of 132 sticks on or close to the DZ, but part of this was covered by the pre-registered fire of German machine guns and mortars, which inflicted heavy casualties before many of the men could rid themselves of their parachutes. Among the dead were two of the three battalion commanders and the executive officer of the 3/506th Parachute Infantry.

The surviving commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert A. Ballard, gathered 250 men and advanced toward St Côme du Mont to complete his mission of destroying the road bridges over the Douve. Less than 880 yards (805 m) from its objective at Les Droueries, Ballard’s group was checked by elements of the 3/1058th Grenadierregiment. Another group of 50 men attacked the same area from the east at Basse Addeville but was also pinned down.

Johnson, commanding the 501st Parachute Infantry, collected 150 men and captured the main objective, the lock at La Barquette, by 04.00. After establishing defensive positions, Johnson went back to the DZ and assembled another 100 men to reinforce the bridgehead. Despite naval gunfire support by the 8-in (203-mm) guns of the heavy cruiser Quincy, Ballard’s battalion was unable to take St Côme du Mont or to link with Johnson.

An officer of the 3/506th Parachute Infantry, Captain Charles G. Shettle, put together a platoon and achieved another objective by seizing two foot bridges near La Porte at 04.30 and crossed to the eastern bank. When its ammunition was almost exhausted and it had knocked out several machine gun emplacements, this small force withdrew to the western bank. The force doubled in size overnight as stragglers came in, and repulsed a German probe across the bridges.

Two other noteworthy actions near Ste Marie du Mont involved units of the 506th Parachute Infantry, both actions concerning the seizure and destruction of 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzer batteries of the 3/191st Artillerieregiment. During the morning, a small patrol of men from E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry under 1st Lieutenant Richard D. Winters overwhelmed a force some three to four times its size and destroyed four guns at a farm called Manoir de Brécourt.

At about 12.00, in the course of a jeep reconnaissance, Sink was informed that a second battery of four guns had been discovered at Holdy, a manor between his command post and Ste Marie du Mont, and that the battery’s defenders had a force of some 70 paratroopers pinned down. Captain Lloyd E. Patch of the Headquarters Company of the 1/506th Parachute Infantry and Captain Knut H. Raudstein of C Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry led an additional 70 troops to Holdy and enveloped the position. The combined force then continued on to seize Ste Marie du Mont. A platoon of the 502nd Parachute Infantry, left to hold the battery, destroyed three of the four guns before Sink could send four Jeeps to save them for the US airborne soldiers’ own use.

At the end of D-Day, Taylor and his assistant divisional commander, Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, returned from their foray at Pouppeville. Taylor had control of approximately 2,500 of his 6,600 men, most of whom were in the vicinity of the 506th Parachute Infantry’s command post at Culoville, with the scanty defence line to the west of St Germain du Varreville or with the division reserve at Blosville.

The ‘Chicago’ and ‘Keokuk’ glider airlifts had brought in limited reinforcements and had resulted in the death of Taylor’s other assistant divisional commander, Brigadier General Don F. Pratt. Colonel George S. Wear’s 327th Glider Infantry had come across 'Utah' Beach, but only one of its three battalions had reported in. The 101st Airborne Division had nonetheless accomplished its most important mission of securing the beach exits, but had only a tenuous hold on positions near the Douve river, over which the Germans could still move armoured units. The three groups clustered there had limited contact with each other, but no contact with the rest of the division. A shortage of radio equipment caused by losses during the drops exacerbated his control problems. Taylor made the destruction of the Douve bridges his division’s first priority and delegated the task to Sink, who issued orders for the available battalion of the 327th Glider Infantry to lead three battalions to the south during the next morning.