The Near-Disaster and Ultimate Triumph of Allied Airborne Forces on D-Day, June 6, 1944
“Gentlemen, do not be daunted if chaos reigns; it undoubtedly will.” So said Brigadier S. James Hill, commanding officer of the British 3rd Parachute Brigade, in an address to his troops shortly before the launching of Operation Overlord–the D-Day invasion of Normandy. No more prophetic words were ever spoken, for chaos indeed reigned on that day, and the many more that followed.
Much has been written about the Allied invasion of France, but Flint Whitlock has put together a unique package–a history of the assault that concentrates exclusively on the activities of the American, British, and Canadian parachute and glider forces that descended upon Normandy in the dark, pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944. Landing in the dark in the midst of the unknown, the airborne and glider-borne troops found themselves fighting for their lives in the very jaws of the German defenses, while striving to seize their own key objectives in advance of their seaborne comrades to come.
If Chaos Reigns details the formation, recruitment, training, and deployment of the Allies’ parachute and glider troops, including such little-known vignettes as the role played by “para-dogs”animals who dropped with the paratroopers to provide sentry duty. There are also many never-before-published first-person accounts by the veterans who were there–from paratroopers to glidermen to the pilots and aircrewmen who flew them into the battle, as well as the commanders (Eisenhower, Taylor, Ridgway, Gavin, and more)–that make for compelling, “you-are-there” reading.
If Chaos Reigns is a fitting tribute to the men who rode the wind into battle and managed to pull victory out of confusion, chaos, and almost certain defeat.
As he drifted down toward a farmhouse that he recognized from the briefings to be a German battalion headquarters, Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, commanding the British 9th Parachute Battalion, could see that he was being carried by the wind away from the hump of the Mervilee Batterys four casemates. With no time to steer his chute, he slammed against the wall of a house and dropped several feet into a garden where two of his men already lay. A German, having heard the thud, opened an upstairs window and looked out. Seeing movement, he fired at the Brits; one of the Brits responded by tossing a rock through the window. Otway and the two men then high-tailed it out of the garden and took cover nearby while the Germans inside the house rushed out to look for whomever was disturbing their peace.
Meanwhile, the plane from which Otway had jumped was circling the area, for only seven men of his stick had managed to jump on the first pass; the pilot made two additional passes over the area. Suddenly there was a loud crash of breaking glass. Otway’s batman, Corporal Joe Wilson, had just come down on the glass greenhouse attached to the headquarters farmhouse. Luckily he managed to avoid being killed or captured by the Germans and took off for the battalion’s rendezvous point (RV) in the woods more than a mile from the battery.
Moving to the rendezvous point, Otway managed to pick up a few 9th Para stragglers along the way but, when he counted noses, he found that he had only a handful of troops. Waiting in the woods, Major Alan J.M. Parry, his second-in-command and the commander of A Company, whispered, “Thank God you’ve come, sir.”
“Why?” asked Otway, fearing the worst.
“The drops bloody chaos, sir. There’s hardly anyone here.”
It was true. 9th Para was scattered over more than fifty square miles; the bulk of the unit was missing, dropped into trees, marshes, flooded areas, and villages–everywhere except Dropping Zone V. At 0235 hours, nearly an hour and a half after the drop, only 110 of the battalions 750 men had reached the RV. Forty more stragglers came in during the next fifteen minutes, but there were no jeeps, guns, trailers, anti-tank weapons, or, except for twenty lengths of Bangalore torpedoes and a few pounds of plastic explosive, demolition equipment. The sappers, mortars, radios, signal equipment, mine detectors, and naval bombardment party were all missing. And most of the Canadians of A Company, who were supposed to provide flank security, were nowhere to be found. The battalion had one Vickers machine gun, one Bren gun, and a Very flare pistol that, ironically, was only supposed to be used to signal the Navy once the mission had been accomplished. Otway glanced at his watch: nearly 0300 hours, and the battery had to be taken by 0530 or else the light cruiser HMS Arethusa would begin shelling it.
Otway lay in hiding for a half hour observing the German sentries wandering around inside [the wire], smoking, and they hadn’t got a clue. But he was in a terrible quandary.
Should he wait awhile longer in hopes that the men and equipment he needed would show up or should he launch the attack with what he had at his disposal? Given the circumstances, no one would have blamed him if he decided to abort the assault and move on to the secondary objectives (which were many). After another hour of hopeful waiting, Otway realized that he could not delay the assault any longer and called for a meeting of his available officers and non-coms. He told them that despite their diminished numbers the attack would proceed; all of his subordinates supported that idea, even though they knew many of them would likely die in the effort.
“Let me start by saying how much I enjoyed reading this new book from Flint Whitlock…. The book…provides a really excellent and well-balanced view of the airborne operations on D-Day as well as tackling the background that led up to the events on that most famous of days….
” …the author does a great job of organising the stories of how that chaos sorted itself out so well and makes for a very readable set of accounts to give the wide story of the airborne operations that played such a vital part in the success of the D-Day landings.”
Military Modeling magazine (UK)
“Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Army paratrooper Flint Whitlock has written a gem of a book that highlights the ‘fog of war’ as seen by American. British and Canadian airborne units when they parachuted behind enemy lines to be the vanguard of the D-Day invasion….
” What makes Whitlock’s book such a good read is his no-holds-barred style of writing that accurately depicts the combat that these “devils in baggy pants” endured. The fighting described is intense and savage….
“Another wonderful aspect of the book is the lesser-known battles that were fought, especially by the Canadians, who have received scant recognition for their tremendous contributions to the campaign….
“Whitlock’s book is a worthy tribute to the airborne and glider units that spearheaded the D-Day invasion….”
WWII History magazine
“Before the first troops waded ashore on Normandy beaches, 30,000 American, British and Canadian paratroopers dropped out of the night sky to seize vital bridges and other choke-points. The drops generally did not go as planned. The fighting that ensued often took the form of desperate combats fought by under-strength groups of men determined to seize and hold their objectives until relieved. Flint Whitlock chronicles the development of the Allied paratroop effort and their role in the D-Day invasion in this exciting 2011 release from Casemate Publishers.
“Whitlock, himself a former Army paratroop officer, subtitled his book THE NEAR-DISASTER AND ULTIMATE TRIUMPH OF THE ALLIED AIRBORNE FORCES ON D-DAY, JUNE 6, 1944, and that is an apt summary of the night drop. During the run-in to their Normandy targets, the Allied troop carrier groups ran into heavy anti-aircraft fire and obscuring cloud cover. As a result, the men of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the British 6th Airborne Division were scattered about, landing miles from their objectives and often without needed equipment. Hurriedly banding together and orienting themselves, the various units set off to attack and seize prime targets such as Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Carentan and the Merville Battery. Initially thrown into confusion by scattered drops, the Germans were slow to respond but eventually moved against the Americans, British and Canadians. Bitter fighting ensued but, as Whitlock states, through ‘the courage, cunning, and indefatigable spirit of the Allied airborne/glider soldier,’ the Allies triumphed.
” As Whitlock relates in IF CHAOS REIGNS, that triumph had its roots in pre-war experiments involving ‘vertical envelopment.’ Initial American, British and Canadian interest in airborne ops accelerated due to the Germans’ successful use of paratroopers and gliders in their 1940 blitz, the attack on Crete, etc. However, the path to the Allied airborne success on D-Day was often convoluted, marked by hit-and-miss experimentation, lack of funding, innovative pioneers such as Bill Lee, John Rock and ‘Tommy’ Burns, far-sighted leaders like Churchill and Hap Arnold not to mention industrial incompetence as in the disastrous U.S. program to produce a combat glider.
“In short, IF CHAOS REIGNS is an exciting, informative history of the D-Day drops and a marvelous tribute to the British, American and Canadian ‘sky soldiers’ who landed in the pre-dawn hours of 6 June 1944. A great read…Highly recommended.”
Michael O’Connor (amazon.com reviewer)
“This book puts you right in the battles with the first person accounts of these fighting paratroopers. These men are truly of the greatest generation. Very well written, I highly recommend this book for some real insight to what these men went through to defeat the German war machine.”
Sgt. Cal (amazon.com reviewer)
“This is a book for anyone with any interest in the airborne operations phase of D-Day. A well-written and well-researched book, it does lean slightly towards the American troops; however, saying that, the British and Canadian efforts are not ignored by any means.
“After a brief description of the way it must have been on an airborne operation, with a vivid description of being transported in a plane with enemy flak ranging in on you, the book then goes on to describe the reservations that some senior planners of the overall operation had about the airborne/glider phase, with the possibility of part, or possibly all of it being cancelled.
“The book gives a description of the creation of UK, US and Canadian airborne forces and how they were starting from scratch, and were forced to learn by the mistakes that were made and how eventually the standard for the following soldiers to be trained as military parachutists was set. Interesting was the Canadian outlook, by sending men to both Britain and later the US and then taking parts of both regimes and melding them into their own training regime before being shipped as a full unit to join as a formed unit to join the British 6th Airborne Division.
“The chapter written about the American glider procurement program is very interesting and shows that the thorny issue of suppliers being given contracts that they are plainly unsuited for is nothing new, with tales of quality control almost non-existent and companies creaming money off at a phenomenal rate. The tale of the Robertson Aircraft Corporation who were using parts supplied by a coffin manufacturer being a case in point.
“The book describes the conditions in the waiting areas in England before the invasion and the incessant training the troops were under which slackened off just before the invasion was finally given the go ahead. The book gives good accounts of the chaos that occurred when the drops were underway, through a mixture of pilot error or panic, pathfinders in the wrong areas or contact with the Germans and the attempts by the various units to try and complete their assigned missions, which as a whole they did achieve, and quite impressively too when the size of units was reduced by as much as 65%.
“Units were spread all over the Norman countryside and this is shown in one glider of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment landing eighty miles away from their assigned landing zone. The descriptions of what it was like in a glider coming down into hostile territory are excellent.
“As said, this book does tend to focus mainly on the American troops actions, some very well known (i.e. Saint-Mere-Eglise) but also some lesser known battles, at least to me, such as La Fiere. The villages and bridges may have been insignificant in size but were vitally important in the overall plan for the invasion.
“This is a very well written and researched book. The author, a former American airborne soldier, writes very well and has obviously written the book with a lot of thought to honour the troops who fought and died in this phase of the invasion.
“All in all I found this book very interesting and informative. I have been to Normandy several times and in reading this book I have learnt a few things that I was unaware of and this book has helped in my understanding of some battles, particularly around Ranville and Benouville. A great book, well worth a read for anyone who is interested in the invasion of Normandy, in particular the airborne/glider phase. 5 out of 5.”
Engr172 (amazon.com reviewer)
“The D-Day landings began during the night of 5-6 June when the first paratroops were dropped into Normandy. During the day they were followed by thousands of British, American and Canadian airborne troops, some dropped by parachute and some landed (or crashed landed) in gliders. This book focuses on the actions of those airborne troops on D-Day, and in some cases on the next two or three days as they struggled to join up with the troops coming from the beaches….
“The book starts with a brief history of the development of airborne troops, from the earliest pre-war experiments with paratroops to the German successes of 1939-41, ending with the costly capture of Crete. He then moves on to look at the development of airborne troops in Britain, the United States and Canada, the build-up to D-Day and the Allied plans for the day. This takes up much of the first half of the book, leaving part of the first half and all of the second half for the detailed account of the fighting in Normandy on D-Day. This part of the text is supported by a large selection of eyewitness accounts from participants in the day’s events, which help give an idea of the general level of chaos and confusion that dominated after the scattered landings.
“By focusing on all Allied airborne forces involving on D-Day, Whitlock allows the readers to compare their different experiences, while the eyewitness accounts and detailed narrative allow the individual paratroops and glider troops to come to the fore.”
See this Review: HistoryofWar.org
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