Memories of D-Day: The Air Forces and Airborne Troops

British troops at Pegasus Bridge after its capture (IWM B 5288)

British troops at Pegasus Bridge after its capture (IWM B 5288)

D-Day could not have happened without support from the air. The Royal Air Force, United States Army Air Force, and other Allied air force units and personnel provided protection and support as the fleet crossed the English Channel and as the troops landed on the beaches. Airborne troops landed by glider and parachute on both flanks of the beach landings, to defend against German counter-attacks.

Mr E. Purchese was a medic in the Parachute Regiment, and landed by air on the east side of the main beach landings:
“ My unit was 225th Para Field Ambulance, 5th Para Brigade, 6th Airborne Division. We were at Keevil Camp for a week before the invasion, being briefed in detail for our drop near the River Orne. Take off was about 23.00 hours on 5th June. After running into tracer fire, which was returned by our rear gunner, as we crossed the French coast we dropped at about 01.00 hours near Ranville. We made our way to a pre-arranged rendezvous, thence to Ranville where villagers in the dark (approximately 03.50 hours) whispered ‘Bonjour’ [‘Hello’] from bedroom windows. We arrived at a chateau (picked previously from aerial photographs). Our second-in-command knocked and asked if there were any Germans inside. There were, and four or five surrendered and were made prisoners. We then entered and set up our various departments. I was in a surgical team, and we started operating about the time of the main seaborne landing, which was announced to us by a thunderous barrage from the Navy. We operated all day and had two hours sleep early on 7th June. We used a landing light from a glider for the surgeon to see by. Many lives were saved by plasma, the bottles slung from rigging lines cut from parachutes. We also had some of the first penicillin used for troops.”
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

Mr R. G. Lloyd was also a member of 6th Airborne Division:
“I was in the 12th Parachute Regiment, 6th Airborne Division, and we took off in converted Stirling bombers from airfields in various parts of southern England at about 21.30 hours on the 5th June 1944. Our flight across the Channel went off without incident, thanks to the supremacy of the Allied air forces. Incidentally our aircraft had a Canadian crew. In the very early hours of D-Day we were dropped a few miles inland behind the Normandy beaches. As I left the aircraft I could see some light flak coming up, slowly it seemed, like long strings of flaming sausages.
After landing safely in open country, my first impression was not what I expected. It was very quiet. After releasing myself from my parachute and retrieving my kitbag which contained a small radio set, I commenced my stealthy walk towards what I thought should be our rendezvous. I found a crossroads and a few of my comrades. We discovered later that like many of our division, we had been scattered far and wide in the darkness, and so had not time to get to the rendezvous. We then made our way in a small party across open country to our objective, where about 100 of our unit were already in position. From now on, enemy opposition increased, and for a few hours we had a very hectic time. Shells passed overhead – this was H.M.S. Warspite firing her big guns at targets well inland. We could hear the noise of the beach invasion. Daylight came. Yes! This was D-Day and I was in Normandy.”
flak = fire from anti-aircraft guns.
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

Mr C.J. Woodward served in the RAF, and witnessed the assembly of the gliders that would carry the Airborne troops over to Normandy:
“ I was the pilot of a Stirling aircraft of 161 Squadron on a mission dropping spies behind enemy lines on the night preceding D-Day. We had had a special briefing in which it was emphasised as being critically essential that there should be absolute radio silence, no matter what we saw. We were on our way out from Tempsford in Bedfordshire. At about 3,000 feet we were suddenly confronted by the most awesome sight. The whole night sky, high above and filling the whole area in front, was filled with myriads of red, blue and white lights rotating very slowly like one vast coloured whirlpool. It seemed impossible not to be engulfed, and we were without lights. Although we knew that something was going on, we were not aware that the French landings were imminent, so there was no explanation of the phenomenon. It was, of course, the gliders and their tug aircraft marshalling in the area, I believe, of Benson. All the members of my crew except the rear gunner crowded into the cockpit in amazed disbelief. Because of the dead quiet of the radio silence, the sight was unbelievably uncanny. Suddenly the spell was split wide open. ‘What the f…g hell are all those bleedin’ lights?’ It was a Canadian voice, and he must have accidentally pressed his transmitting button in his excitement. I have always wondered what any German listening watch who picked up that transmission must have thought.”
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

Group Captain P. W. Stansfield flew over the fighting in Normandy on D-Day in his Spitfire:
“ On the 6th June 1944 I was second-in-command of 34 Wing, a 2nd Tactical Air Force Photographic Wing based at Northolt. Flying a Spitfire XI of 16 Squadron, I was detailed for a flight over the beachhead at 3pm, to photograph the Airborne HQ at Ouistreham, where ground signals were to be displayed in case of a failure by the Airborne HQ radio equipment. So great was the procession of ships and craft in convoys crossing the Channel as far as the eye could see, that it was unnecessary for me to fly a compass course. I merely flew in the general direction of the convoys. Except for some German flak batteries to the landward side of the Airborne HQ, who fired some rather unpleasant-looking orange tracer shells at me (and missed) I think I only saw what I thought was one German fighter, which I avoided by popping into the cloud, doing a turn and coming out in a different direction. After two or three runs over the target to ensure I had identified and photographed the Airborne HQ, I climbed out to sea and set course for Northolt.”
Airborne HQ = the headquarters of the British 6th Airborne Division, which had landed by air to protect the east side of the main beach landings.
flak batteries = groups of German anti-aircraft guns.
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

Photographs courtesy of the D-Day Museum, the Imperial War Museum, US Navy/US Coast Guard, and The News, Portsmouth. Images may not be copied without permission.