There are a handful of stirring military actions through history that stand out for the dogged bravery of those involved. During WWII there are two actions that stand out and they are both airborne forces actions. Arnhem may have been beset by difficulties, some avoidable, but the parachute and glider troops involved performed magnificently, and fought on long after anyone could reasonably expect, inspired by the earlier action in support of D-Day that is so ably recounted in this book. The author has provided enormous detail from thorough research and told the story from the planning. There are many single colour images through the body of the book and they add to the telling of a moving and extraordinary tale.
NAME: The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, Their Capture, Defence an Relief on D-Day
CATEGORY: Book Reviews
AUTHOR: Neil Barber
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: soft back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWII, World War Two, Second World War, D-Day, Airborne Division, paratroops, gliders, vertical insertion, special forces, light infantry
DESCRIPTION: There are a handful of stirring military actions through history that stand out for the dogged bravery of those involved. During WWII there are two actions that stand out and they are both airborne forces actions. Arnhem may have been beset by difficulties, some avoidable, but the parachute and glider troops involved performed magnificently, and fought on long after anyone could reasonably expect, inspired by the earlier action in support of D-Day that is so ably recounted in this book. The author has provided enormous detail from thorough research and told the story from the planning. There are many single colour images through the body of the book and they add to the telling of a moving and extraordinary tale.
The parachute made its appearance during WWI as an escape system that should have been available to every pilot but was issued first to observation balloon crew and then, reluctantly, to German fighter pilots. Allied pilots had to make do with a pistol to avoid the agony of diving towards the ground with flame leaping back at them from the engine and fuel tank. After WWI, soldiers soon thought of using parachutes as a means of delivering light infantry behind enemy lines to seize key points. The Russians built a significant airborne force but, in their case, the soldiers were often expected to jump from the aircraft’s wings at very low level without a parachute, relying on banks of snow to ease the impact. The Germans also built a formidable airborne force, as part of the Luftwaffe, and they not only ensured every trooper jumping from an aircraft had a parachute, but they also built assault gliders, equipped with machine guns to suppress enemy fire during the landing phase. Initially their gliders were small troop carriers, but they were to go on to build giant gliders that could carry artillery and vehicles in addition to troops. They also began to build gliders with engines that could assist in take-off and, potentially, allowed gliders to self-recover after delivering troops and cargo. Eventually some German gliders were operated as powered planes, particularly in maintaining the air bridge to the Afrika Korps from airfields in Sicily and Italy.
British and US progress to building airborne forces was slow until the outbreak of WWII. British agents and soldiers were parachuted into Occupied Europe to support the various developing resistance groups and to attack specific high value targets. The development of an airborne force by the British was inspired by the brilliant German pinpoint attacks on Belgian forts in 1940, and further encouraged by the large scale German airborne assault on Crete, although the heavy losses suffered by the Germans reduced their own enthusiasm for airborne assault, with German paratroops being used largely as ground-based light infantry after their invasion of Crete.
British and US troops allocated to the D-Day operations enjoyed a number of advantages. The excellent DC3/C-47/Dakota twin engine transport was available in some numbers by early 1944. It was capable of dropping paratroops and of towing assault gliders. It could be landed on grass fields with relatively short strips, but it was more economical to use gliders and have the DC3 tugs available to return and air drop ammunition and other supplies once the airborne troops were on the ground. The DC3 was also reinforced by a selection of medium and heavy bombers that had been transferred from bombing operations to paratroops and as glider tugs. The result was that the Allies had a considerable and well-equipped airborne force available for D-Day, but they would be operating in numbers that had not been previously employed and operating in airspace heavy with all types of combat aircraft.
One of the factors that allowed the Allies to achieve rapid success in landing and breaking out from their Normandy beach heads was the attack in depth that depended on the airborne forces to provide that depth, together with bombers and ground attack aircraft. Any amphibious assault faces a very critical stage as troops and equipment are landed under the enemy guns at a time when they are least able to fire back. Once ashore, they have to advance through enemy shore defences and move inland. Until they break out from the beaches, they are especially vulnerable. Once they have broken out they can form traditional columns and battle lines as a land force. On D-Day a number of traditional and new technology and tactics were employed. Warships were used for heavy bombardment of enemy defences, batteries and strong points. Aircraft were also employed in considerable numbers to tactically bomb key enemy positions and supply routes. During the landings, some landing craft were equipped with rocket batteries and guns to sail in with the infantry and tank landing craft to provide local suppressive fire on enemy defences with the intention of keeping enemy heads down until the infantry and armour were ashore and better able to fend for themselves. In many respects this was a traditional approach to assaulting the enemy shore. Aircraft were a new development, but there also a number of new devices. Swimming tanks were used with some success, small difficult targets as they approached the shore and able to use their guns as soon as they began wading through shallow water. They were followed by swimming trucks (DUKW) that carried ammunition and supplies, and tank landing craft delivered special armour to sweep the beaches for mines and assault strong points with demolition guns and flame throwers.
This impressive selection of new and proven technology in considerable numbers gave D-Day a good start on the beaches, but there was a race between bringing adequate numbers of troops, guns and armour ashore against the German need to rush reinforcements to the battle zone and launch counter attacks before the invaders became established. This was where airborne forces really came to the rescue. Dropped and landed ahead of the beach landings, they were to join up with the French resistance fighters and wage guerilla war on the German supply lines, and to take and hold key positions until the beach landers had come ashore, broken through the coast defence chain and advanced inland to relieve the airborne forces, exploiting their possession of key communications points. This where the irony for any invading force lays. They need to prevent enemy reinforcements reaching the coast and this could have been achieved by bombardment of bridges and the use of special forces and guerillas to blow bridges, rail lines and tunnels. However, as the landing force broke out from the beach, they would need working bridges, roads and rail lines to allow them to rapidly advance inland and on towards the enemy’s homeland.
Dropping paratroops and landing gliders sounds fairly easy, but there are many challenges. A number of these could not be addressed until the helicopter had developed into a viable troop carrier. Today, airborne forces can be delivered by helicopter, casualties can be flown out by helicopter and the forces that are already on the ground can be moved around by helicopter to position them for changing conditions and to move them forward as required. In 1944, airborne forces were less flexible. Landing parachutists was not too difficult, provided that the weather was kind. US paratroops dropping into Normandy were scattered by unfavourable wind. Glider troops were better able to deal with the weather, but they did need to land as close as possible to the target and seizing bridges meant water and marshland obstacles. Once on the ground, paratroop and glider passengers became infantry and could only move at the speed of a foot soldier, carrying only personal weapons in the main and having limited ammunition. If they landed away from the target, or needed to redeploy to meet enemy resistance, they were at a disadvantage against an enemy that had vehicles and armour. If they moved far from their intended positions, they could be denied resupply by air drops because of limited communications with headquarters and aircraft. In the main, any planned resupply would involve blind drops, hoping the aircraft were on target and the airborne troops were still in control of the drop zones.
The action to take and hold the Pegasus and Orne Bridges was a considerable success against all of these potential obstacles. It was carried out with professional dedication and bravery. Once in possession of the target bridges, the troops then had to hold out until relieved and relief inevitably arrived later than expected because the relief force had to fight off the beaches and through enemy territory to reach the bridges.
The author has told this story very effectively and done full justice the the heroic actions by the fledgling airborne forces. It is a moving story and the specialist knowledge of the author of the area and period is further elevated by the use of dramatic personal accounts that make this a memorable account of a thrilling and inspiring tale. Highly recommended.