- Pre-planned Drop zones and Landing zones.
Drop zones and landing zones for the 7,000 paratroops of 6th Airborne Division
The drop zone planned for the 9th Battalion was designated DZ V. Many problems manifested themselves for the airborne operation. Firstly bad weather with a strong wind from the West increased the risk of being carried to the East and the marshes flooded by Rommel. Secondly the short time from crossing the French coast and arrival over the DZ, a distance of just 5Km. There was also the German anti-aircraft artillery to contend with. Thirdly DZ V bordered the vast expanse of flooded marshes. All features of the terrain were obscured by the water, whose depth in some places was to prove fatal for paratroops encumbered with their equipment. Lastly the drop was at night, which further complicated matters.
- The Pathfinders.
The pathfinders of the 9th Battalion were the first to take off for Normandy
Several groups of Pathfinders of Terence Otway’s 9th Battalion took off in the first 30 minutes of D Day. It was 0030 hours. The Pathfinders were commanded by Major Alan Parry. The Pathfinders were to reconnoitre the Battery and report to the Colonel Terence Otway at the DZ rendezvous, clear mines and mark safe lanes for the assault parties, mark the DZ and the rendezvous, and covertly lead the Battalion to the Battery. The task of cutting the barbed wire, clearing mines and marking safe lanes fell to Sergeant Major Miller.
In Normandy the wind was getting stronger over the coastline. The static lines were attached (a long strap that was clipped to a steel cable in the aircraft and would cause the parachute to open when the man dropped out) The red light came on, then the green and one by one the stick left the aircraft. Sergeant Major Miller quickly regrouped and set off in the dark towards the Battery. He knew the route by heart because of the rehearsals they had undertaken back in England near Newbury. Suddenly they heard the unmistakable drone of a fleet of RAF bombers. They flung themselves into cover; heavy bombs began to explode all around them. Miraculously they were unscathed. The planned bombing of the Battery had missed its target by some distance. To their right, Gonneville was in flames. As the bombing subsided, through the dust Miller continued his approach as quickly as he could. Time was tight.
They arrived at the Battery, having avoided a German patrol that challenged them. They started on their mission. They crawled in, cut the barbed wire and then withdrew to await the arrival of the mine detectors and marking tape for the safe lanes. They were disappointed, a paratrooper arrived but with empty hands. All the equipment had been lost in the drop!
Sergeant Major Miller did not give up. With Lieutenant Paul Greenway, they would find and lift the mines with their hands, and mark the safe lanes with the heels of their boots.
Alan Parry was able, having landed outside the DZ, to make the rendezvous.
- The lift of the Dakotas with 750 men.
The 9th Battalion in its entirety took off for Normandy
Just two months after he had learnt about his mission from the Intelligence Officer in Headquarters, Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway was jumping out of a Dakota heading for DZ V. The Dakotas were painted with white bands (the sign of Allied Air Forces in Operation Overlord) and flew in formation. In total, for 6th Airborne Division, the engines of 400 Dakotas throbbed in unison. The aircrew led sticks of paratroops with their kit to their assigned places. Inside, two rows of men faced each other. The pilots looked at their instruments; they kept a stable position, speed, altitude, course, pressure…. They were approaching France, then the coast came into view, they could see Normandy. In two minutes time the Dakotas carrying the 9th Battalion would fly level at the correct speed and altitude for jumping. But the flak began coming at them…
- The German flak.
Thick anti-aircraft artillery fire added to the difficulties provoked by bad weather
From the moment the coastline came into view the air raid sirens sounded. The anti-aircraft gunners fired their air-burst and tracer shells. Searchlights and tracer fractured the night sky, shells reddening the darkness as they exploded. The wind was gusting strongly from the West and the dust raised by the earlier bombing obscured visibility. The flames from fires burning, notably in Gonneville, the features of the terrain obscured by floodwater burning all made it difficult for the navigators of aircraft carrying the 9th Battalion to get their bearings, the two rivers, the Orne and the Dives could be easily mistaken.
The only option was to descend to the altitude for jumping and fly at the requisite speed, that is to say, slow.
The flak intensified, the aircraft were blown off course by the blasts of shells exploding all around. The paratroops were thrown against each other in the aircraft hull, kit and equipment strewn around and the odour of petrol leaking as the aircraft moved violently. The formations of Dakotas were broken up, their engines screaming at maximum power to evade the deadly shells. The risk of mid-air collision was considerable. The fuselage rocked and the flashes of light from exploding shells compounded the nightmare. In the middle of this everyone nonetheless looked for the red light that would change to green.
Things got worse when the pilots carrying the 9th Battalion found that none of the Eureka beacons that were to mark Drop Zone V was working
They were flying blind in a hail of fire. The red lights came on, followed by green and the 9th Battalion began to jump in. For some, the red light came back on and they were left inside the aircraft. Some pilots turned for a second run, others were reluctant, but more paratroops were able to jump. The drama continued. The sticks were widely scattered. It was the 9th Battalion that was most harshly affected by the dispersion of the drop.
- The disastrous reality of the 9th Battalion jump
600 paratroops disappear into the marshes flooded by Rommel
Some paratroops were injured on landing, some found themselves totally isolated, lost… Some paratroops found themselves without their equipment or weapons. Some landed in the flooded marshes. Brigadier James Hill was one of these and he found Rommel’s asparagus for good measure. Terry Jepp, Royal Army Medical Corps was another.
Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway landed close to a building occupied by Germans. They saw him. Other paratroops came across German patrols. Whichever way they turned they found only difficulty, adversity, pain…
However, even in these extreme circumstances every paratrooper had a single aim, to get to the rendezvous on the DZ as quickly as possible. Each of them wanted, as quickly as possible, to get into this enemy-infested area. But the greatest catastrophe was to be the fate of almost 600 men, 600 elite, 600 of Terence Otway’s 9th Battalion. They were to die cruelly in the vast expanse of low land flooded by Rommel.
This was the awful truth that Terence Otway was to realise. 600 of his men had not made it to the rendezvous.
A dreadful reality…