Jumping Into Darkness — and History

When you think about D-Day on this 75th anniversary, there is much that stimulates a kind of awe. Strictly as a military problem the thing was one possible FUBAR (ask a Vet) piled upon another. At the big levels, strategic and operational, it was daunting, to put it mildly.

There was, in the first place, the enemy. In the 20th century, the Germans had built an awesome military reputation. They had fought the whole world, twice, and come very close to victory in 1914 and, again, in 1941. Close enough, in that case, that some of their advanced units could see the skyline of Moscow. If not for a couple of impulsive decisions by Hitler, they might have gotten there before winter and Russian re-enforcement from the East stopped them.

Allied planners knew they were facing a veteran enemy that was no pushover. Meanwhile, for many of their own troops, it would be their first time in combat.

And then, it was a joint operation. The British and Americans spoke a common language but were in military temperament as opposite as those of their most conspicuous generals — Montgomery and Patton. The Western Front experience of World War I had, understandably, made the British conservative and methodical. The Americans had come to that war late, when tanks were at last coming into their own. They were inclined to the offensive and to taking the initiative.

There were also difficulties of a sort of housekeeping nature. Different weapons. Different TO&E’s (ask that veteran, if he is still around) and, in the end, emotional differences. The Americans were rich and arrogant. The British were stretched thin and prideful.

Joint command was a challenge. Fortunately, the fates produced an unassuming general who had the gifts of command and diplomacy necessary to pull it off. The appearance of Eisenhower was one of history’s great acts of fate.

Still … even if relations between the allies were frictionless, there were still the purely military challenges. Retaking France — and Europe — would require an amphibious assault. This is one of the toughest problems in war. As had been proven, once again, in the Pacific a few months earlier when the United States Marines — who trained in amphibious tactics and wrote the book on its doctrines — had struggled to take a small island called Betio in an atoll known as Tarawa. The Marines were bold and aggressive beyond measure. But still … the island they assaulted had been cut off from resupply, had no air cover, and was open to shelling from surface ships for days before it was attacked.

The challenge of getting from the water, across open beach, against the prepared defenses of an enemy that can be resupplied and reinforced from its rear … it is formidable.

And, then, history is filled with examples of the challenges inherent in military alliances. One could consult Napoleon’s enemies on this. There were also many lessons from the past on the conduct of amphibious operations. Lessons learned, then.

But, then, there was also this new element that had come into its own since the last war. Air power.

The allies would have controls of the skies over the beaches and the move inland, this much was almost certain and very welcome. They could also do something that was entirely new to this war. They could move airborne infantry over the enemy’s font and into his rear where they could cut off resupply routes to the beach, disrupt command and control, and generally create havoc.

Paratroopers might be the key to a successful invasion of Europe.

And the plan depended on it.

Depended, that is, on ten thousand or so young men who would be flown across the English Channel in C-47s and dropped into France at night.

Most of these young men were too young to vote or buy a legal beer and had probably never flown in an airplane before they were drafted. Most had still never been in an airplane when it landed, though they had plenty of takeoffs behind them. They had all volunteered for jump school. They might say it was for the money — an extra fifty dollars a month in “jump pay” — but nobody would believe that. Some general — maybe it was Eisenhower — is said to have asked a paratrooper if he “Liked jumping out of airplanes?”

“No sir,” the man said. “I just like being around guys who do.”

The fact that they would be jumping into France at night probably came as no surprise to the men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne. And, anyway, there is a ritual in the airborne where one trooper says to another, “How many jumps you got?”

“Fifty.”

“Yeah? How many night jumps?”

“All of them.”

The troopers had to carry everything with them so they were loaded with their own rifles, ammunition, and grenades and also carrying elements of the various “crew served” weapons. Add a mortar base plate to all your other gear and the load might weigh in at 130 pounds.

The first planes took the pathfinders in. Some were able to mark drop zones as planned. But others never made it. Pilots in many of the planes that followed couldn’t find marked DZs so they put their jumpers out where it looked like they might come down in open country. A lot of this country was flooded and under the weight of all that gear, many paratroopers drowned before they could get out of their harnesses.

But, then, they had jumped. Others were never able to get out of their airplanes and look up to see if they had a clean opening. German flak damaged the planes they were flying and killed them in the air. Or knocked the plane out of the sky and killed everyone aboard.

Some of those who were “lucky” and got out and had a clean opening, came down over German troops and were shot and killed while they were still in the air. Some got hung up in trees and wires. One got hung up, famously, on a church steeple and hung there for a couple of hours, playing dead while the church bells rang and made him deaf. That episode became a famous movie scene.

The church was in a town called Sainte-Mère-Église. It was the first French town to be liberated on D-Day.

The paratroopers accomplished what they had come to do. That is … create confusion in the German rear and keep reinforcements from getting to the beach. They were there to ensure the success of the landings and they accomplished their mission. Out of the chaos, they were able to create enough cohesion and find enough leadership, often from the lowest ranks, to hold until relieved by troops moving up from the beach.

The price was high. In the first 24 hours of D-Day, the 82nd Airborne took a higher percentage of men killed in action than Pickett’s division had in its charge up Cemetery Ridge.

Something to remember on D-Day.

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Author: Geoffrey Norman

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