591 History Part 3 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
"Whatever Happens the Party is On"
On 4th June the word flashed round "Tonight's the Night", but an hour before the first troops moved off for the airfields, it was learnt that bad weather had forced a postponement for 24 hours. At noon the following day, however, the news was that whatever happened, the party was "on" that night. The weather was still such as would have meant the immediate end of any normal airborne exercise, but this was not a normal exercise and General Eisenhower could wait no longer. In the late evening the troops moved over to the airfield, chutes were fitted, the final inevitable hot tea went the rounds and, while the O.C. [Major Wood] went round wishing each sapper "good luck", the hundreds of planes marshalled around the darkened airfield broke into a growing roar as one after another "warmed up". The planes began taxiing slowly to the runway and at 1045 the first one took off and the invasion was on.
In Advance of the Van
The flight, on the whole, was uneventful until the coast of France was reached. Here a barrage of anti aircraft fire met the Airborne Armada, considerably upsetting much of the navigation. Since the dropping and landing zones were only between one and two minutes flight from the coastline the upset was a serious matter. Even more serious was the strength of the wind and many of the first waves of troops were scattered widely over areas very far from the correct dropping zones.
[Merville Battery Assault]
Of the two parties of 2 Troop who jumped with the 9th Battalion, one plane load under the command of Captain Jackson were dropped many miles from the objective at Bourgainville. Too scattered to offer effective resistance to the strong enemy forces in that area, they were one by one rounded up and taken prisoner, not, however, without putting up a brave fight for it with their limited arms and ammunition. Sapper D Read was wounded, losing an arm, and Sapper Handley was killed in lone gallant fights against hopeless odds. Lieutenant Best, joining up with a party of infantry, formed a guerilla band who roamed about for 14 days behind the enemy lines, causing considerable alarm and despondency among the Huns before finally being taken prisoner within half a mile of the British lines.
The other plane load under the command of Lieutenant Hinshelwood were dropped in the swampy ground in the valley of the Dives between Varaville and Robehomme. They were widely scattered and, after much tribulation, joined up with an element of "C" Company of the Canadian Parachute Battalion. With them, they helped in the defence of Varaville, where there was much spirited fighting and 17 German prisoners were taken. The next day they withdrew in a hectic forced march to the forward positions of 3rd Parachute Brigade at Le Mesnil.
Of the gliders which were to land on top of the battery position, one broke loose shortly after taking off and got no nearer to the objective than Basingstoke [Hampshire] to the great chagrin of Lance Serjeant Mills and the other occupants. Of the other two, both got into difficulties crossing the coast but, although repeatedly hit, they were finally crash landed, the one half a mile from the battery, the other in an orchard just outside the perimeter where the occupants, including Corporal Saunders, put up a magnificent fight for four hours against a platoon of German reinforcements hurrying to reinforce the hard pressed garrison of the battery.
The task of the sappers had been primarily that of destroying the guns once captured and secondly of lending all possible engineer assistance to the assaulting battalion. The Bangalore torpedo parties were to be provided entirely from the infantry. In the end the 9th Battalion had to carry out the assault with no sapper assistance whatsoever and with their own strength decimated by casualties and the haphazard dropping of the parachutists. The defences were no less formidable than had been foreseen but the objective was secured in the face of tremendous odds, the garrison eliminated and the guns destroyed.
[Clearing Glider Landing Zones]
Meanwhile, 1 and 3 Troops, dropping further to the west on the DZ [Parachute Drop Zone], north of Ranville, had fared little better. Although none of the plane loads actually landed on the D.Z., all were within a reasonable distance. As they leapt from the planes, still lurching and tossing in evasion of the coastline flak, they were met by a hail of small arms fire from every corner, it seemed, of the ground to which they were all too slowly floating. On the ground, however, in the shelter of woods and orchards they were able to gather together in reasonable order and make their way to the R.V.[rendezvous] at a small copse south of the D.Z. This took considerably longer than had been hoped and by 0100 hours only twelve men under Lieutenant James and Lance Sergeant Foster had collected there. Although Foster had dislocated his shoulder in landing, he and Lieutenant James immediately organized the party and started on the clearing of the poles on the D.Z.
As the first piece of luck it was found that most of the poles were flimsier than had been expected and blowing them could be abandoned since they could be pulled down by hand. The plan was to clear four strips running parallel to each other, two for the Horsa gliders and two for the Hamilcars. Working frantically but methodically they had by 0215 hrs cleared the two Horsa strips, during which time they were joined in the work by the majority of the rest of the sappers under Captain Semple who then took command of the party. Apart from the initial phase, enemy opposition was slight since the rest of the Brigade were soon keeping the enemy fully occupied around Ranville and the Ranville bridges.
At 0300 hrs when the first of the Hamilcar [gliders] started to circle overhead their strips had been practically completed. As it happened, it mattered little for, like the Horsas, very few came in to land along the strips at all, but swooped in from every point of the compass, swerving past each other like a swarm of startled bats to crash through the remaining poles and plough their way through the ground. Dawn revealed a scrap heap stretching as far as the eye could see, but the casualties, either to men or equipment, were surprisingly light.
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