82nd Airborne's Stunning 1-Day KIA at Normandy

82nd Airborne's Stunning 1-Day KIA at Normandy {
AP Photo/The Sun Herald, Tim Isbell
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By today’s standards, the 82nd  Airborne’s sacrifice in Normandy seems almost fantastical. When the elite division vaulted Nazi Germany’s Atlantikwall to launch the invasion of occupied Europe, Allied leaders fully expected few of its members would return. It was a suicidal mission, and 82nd Airborne was calculatedly sacrificed inland in hopes of ensuring indispensable amphibious landings along the coast.

Among Allied planners, casualty predictions for 82nd Airborne ranged as high as 75 percent. The most optimistic planners forecast 50  percent casualties, and by casualties, those planners meant deaths, not the generally accepted and all-inclusive definition of the word. But those losses were deemed acceptable in piercing Adolf Hitler’s Festung Europa, and Allied High Command agreed with near unanimity to sacrifice 82nd Airborne to that end.

Triggering that dire concern was the recent arrival in Normandy of two select Wehrmacht outfits, 91 Luftlande-Infanterie ‘Steel’ Division and attached Fallschirmjager Regiment 6. Intelligence had definitively placed two division elements, Grenadier-Regiment 1057 and Artillerie-Regiment 191 at La Haye-duPuits and Besneville, precise locations of two proposed 82nd Airborne drop zones, and suspected Fallschirmjager Bataillon II at Lessay, proximate to the third proposed drop zone.

In marginal concession, 82nd Airborne’s operational plan changed just 10 days before launch. The division’s drop zones were drawn 10 miles back nearer the coast, closer to 101st Airborne, and the division was essentially handed a new mission and an entirely new set of objectives. But ultimately, the change mattered little.   

Just after midnight on June 6, 1944, 82nd Airborne penetrated enemy airspace over Normandy’s Cotentin Peninsula, and eight minutes later jumped into history. On that epic day, since known simply and infamously by its otherwise innocuously coded designation D-Day, 82nd Airborne suffered more proportionate killed than any American division on a single day in history. And the dying came quickly.

The Pathfinders came in first. With the unenviable and exceptionally dangerous task of locating and marking 82nd Airborne’s three regimental drop zones, a trio of Pathfinder teams jumped 30  minutes ahead of 82nd Airborne’s main element. And they suffered terribly.

With only few a jump injuries and against negligible opposition, the 505 Parachute Regiment Pathfinders fared relatively well, but 82nd Airborne’s two other teams were far less fortunate. Of the 507 Parachute Regiment Pathfinders’ two officers and 48 enlisted men, one officer and 20 (42 percent) enlisted were killed, and nearly all the rest wounded. Of the 508 Parachute Regiment Pathfinders’ 50 officers and enlisted, 17 (34 percent) were killed and 21 wounded, for 38 total casualties.

Following a half hour later, the division’s main element arrived to a comprehensive air-defense network fully alerted by the Pathfinders’ jump. Accustomed to firing on fast, high-flying, heavily-armored strategic bombers, enemy gunners made easy work against the slow, low, unarmored transports flying straight and level for their drop zones.   

Of 82nd Airborne’s 369 transport planes, nearly each reported “multiple hits.” Nine (2.4 percent) transports went “destroyed or missing,” while 115 (31 percent) more sustained “heavy damage.” Upon return to England, 44 (38 percent) of those damaged aircraft were designated “Cat E,” or Category E, reflecting “Damaged Beyond Economical Repair,” and never flown again. In all, 53 (14.3 percent) 82nd Airborne transports were either shot down or effectively destroyed, with 124 (33.6 percent) heavily damaged by enemy fire.

With one of three aircraft downed or catastrophically damaged, and nearly all the rest taking multiple hits, the toll among paratroopers crammed inside those thin-skinned transports was inevitably grim. Exact inflight casualties will never be known, but of 82nd Airborne’s 6,420 paratroopers to depart England, just 6,396 survived their inbound flights to jump into Normandy. Given the extensive loss and damage to their transports, many more than just those 24 killed had undoubtedly perished, and countless more were certainly wounded.

Each transport carried an average of 17 paratroopers. The nine downed transports alone carried about 153, while the 115 heavily damaged transports carried another 1,955, for over 2,000 paratroopers directly facing death and serious wounding. Even discounting that the remaining 245 transports had each taken multiple hits, and in which were no doubt additional dead and wounded, over 2,000 paratroopers onboard just those 124 transports suggests a much higher number killed. But counting casualties that frenzied night was simply not a priority, and hardly possible.

While most of those killed in flight, along with some of the more severely wounded, remained onboard the transports for return to England, many more wounded jumped despite their injuries. Some of them died during their descent, others shortly after on the ground, while still others survived to be recovered and cared for, but nearly all of those were ultimately grouped with and counted among the ground casualties. And those ground casualties were legion.

The 82nd Airborne Division was delivered to Normandy in complete shambles. Dense clouds and concentrated enemy fire combined to disperse the division’s tightly ordered aerial formations, and drove nearly each transport off course. Lacking the Pathfinders’ intensive navigational training and radar equipped aircraft, and with the Pathfinders themselves unable to effectively illuminate two of three drop zones, pilots under heavy fire had little hope of recovering to find their respective drop zones. And once scattered, finding those drop zones with even a hint of tactical integrity was largely impossible.

Of the 505 Parachute Regiment’s 117 transports, 22 (18.8 percent) jumped their sticks accurately on Drop Zone O. Another 85 (72.6 percent) jumped theirs within a three-mile radius of the DZ, for 95 (81 percent) sticks inside a negligible operating margin, but the 10 remaining sticks were all tactically lost. One 1st Battalion stick had been shot down, while the remaining nine sticks were each jumped separately, scattered from six to over 15 miles from the DZ. And that drop would represent the night’s rousing success.

The 507 Parachute Regiment’s drop was reprehensible. Of 117 transports, just two (1.7 percent) jumped their sticks accurately on DZ T. Then, in probably the best concentrated drop of the entire night, 38 (32.4 percent) transports jumped their sticks in a relatively tight cluster just two miles east of the DZ. But fatefully, that area just east of DZ T was completely inundated. Thirty-eight sticks, about 680 paratroopers, an entire battalion, came down in a swamp running depths of 3-8 feet.

Weighted down by upwards of 130 pounds of weapons and equipment strapped tightly to their bodies, and their parachute harnesses lacking the British quick-release mechanism, many of those paratroopers never had a chance. Like much that night, it will never be known just how many paratroopers drowned in the Merderet swamp, but 36 bodies, an entire platoon, were eventually recovered from the water. Estimates persist however, that upwards of 100 men, nearly a full rifle company, perished in the marsh.  

Of the 507 of Parachute Regiment’s remaining 77 (65.8 percent) sticks, all were effectively lost. Four (3.4 percent) sticks, three of 1st Battalion and one of 2d Battalion, had been shot down. The next 61 (52 percent) sticks, half the regiment, were strewn in every direction across 15 square miles. Eleven (10 percent) more sticks were each jumped individually 15-25 tmiles from the DZ. One other stick was jumped at St Lo, 30 miles from the drop zone.  

Likewise, 508 Parachute Regiment’s drop was contemptable. Of 117 transports, four (3.4 percent) were shot down, two from 1st Battalion, and one each from 2nd and 3rd Battalions. Only five (4 percent) transports jumped their sticks accurately on DZ N, while six (5 percent) more jumped their sticks within a mile.  Another eight (6.83 percent) sticks were jumped within three miles of the DZ, and 14 (11.9 percent) within five miles, but 84 (71.7 percent) sticks, over 1,400 men, two of the regiment’s three battalions, were strewn in every direction across twenty-square miles.

Two hours behind the paratroopers, 82d Airborne’s first gliders began arriving. They represented America’s first nighttime combat deployment of gliders, and after casualties were counted, they represented America’s last nighttime combat deployment of gliders. Normandy’s patchwork terrain was simply ill-suited to glider landings, especially so at night, and those first-lift gliders arrived over an already raging battlefield. The flimsy, gangly, canvas and plywood aircraft proved even easier targets than had the parachute aircraft.

Proportionately, those first-lift gliders more than doubled the damage to parachute aircraft, and with that came a greater proportional loss of life. But those glider-riders quickly realized running that lethal gauntlet of antiaircraft fire was but the opening threat to their survival that night. Just landing gliders in Normandy would prove every bit as treacherous.

Nearly every glider was destroyed in the landings. Some came down in the swelled Merderet River, or its adjoining swamp, and quickly sank with weapons, cargos, and personnel. Others managed to avoid the water, only to slam violently into any one of hundreds of solid earthen hedgerows randomly dissecting the Cotentin Peninsula, or became impaled by Rommelspargel, the million-plus spiked poles defensively placed in open fields and prairies.

Of the 220 troops to depart England aboard that first glider lift, 58.6 percent were killed, wounded or severely injured.

Those first-wave gliders raised 82nd Airborne’s D Day assault force to 6,692, but they were followed later that day by a second lift, and it fared no better than the first -- 142 or 176 gliders were lost. And as with the first-lift gliders, the attendant human toll in the second-lift was awful. There were 394 total casualties among the 1,190 troops

In sum, 82nd Airborne dispatched 229 gliders on D-Day. Of those, eight (3.4 percent) were shot down, 133 (58 percent) heavily damaged in the air, and 61 (26.6percent) destroyed in landing, for a staggering 202 (88 percent) total glider losses. Of 1,410 glider-troops committed, 473 (33.5 percent) were glider-troop  casualties.

The second glider lift concluded 82d Airborne’s D-Day assault. In all, the division committed 6,570 by parachute and 1,410 by glider, for a total invasion force of 7,980. Of those, at least 24 paratroopers were killed “in the jump,” and 81 glider-troops killed “in the landings,” for a confirmed 205 (2.6 percent) killed in just the initial Normandy assault.

And of course, D Day was only just beginning for 82nd Airborne. Despite disorder and turmoil from disastrous drops and catastrophic landings, the paratroopers and glider-troopers rallied, and with seemingly invincible resilience pushed on toward objectives.

So badly scattered, few of 507 and 508 Parachute Regiments were able to organize in platoons or companies, and none into battalions. For most of them, lost in darkness on unfamiliar, enemy-infested terrain, those early June 6 hours would be a wild melee of ambush and counter-ambush, violent skirmishes for nameless, insignificant little villages, isolated, irrelevant road junctions, or for control of significant-looking terrain features, all in desperate search for units, or objectives, or simply for recognizable landmarks. And alone, or in small clusters, for many of them just reaching those units and objectives would require herculean effort and stout nerve.

Complicating their marathon struggles, the ill-fated drops incidentally landed them amid 91 Luftlande-Infanterie-Division and Fallshirmjager Regiment 6 bivouacs near La Haye-du-Puits, Besneville, Picauville and Saveur le Vicomte. But even that peril barely deterred those paratroopers’ efficacy. Expecting no quarter, nor offering any, they simply carried the fight wherever they found it.   

Testament to the chaotic ferocity into which they had been plunged, and their dauntless tenacity, they shot and killed Generalmajor Wilhelm Falley just fifty yards from his 91 Luftlande-Infanterie-Division command post. They shot and killed Hauptmann Emil Prieskschat in his I Bataillon /Fallshirmjager Regiment 6 command post. They also shot and killed two of Prieskschat’s four company commanders, with the other two going missing and probably dead, and shot and killed three of four II Bataillon company commanders, and wounded the fourth.     

By late June 6, as those scattered  507 and 508 Parachute Regiment elements slowly gained a semblance of organization, the better dropped 505 Parachute Regiment was making legend and legends, and unequivocally establishing 82nd Airborne’s preeminence in Normandy.   

For most of 505 Parachute Regiment, their more accurate and concentrated drop allowed near textbook assembly, and methodical progression toward objectives. Fortunately for 82nd Airborne, the veteran 505 Parachute Regiment held Normandy’s two critical objectives, Ste Mere Eglise and the Merderet River crossing at La Fiere. Fatefully for much of 505 Parachute Regiment, they were headed straight into “the bloodiest small unit action of World War II.”  

As 3rd Battalion moved east to capture St. Mere Eglise before dawn, and 2nd Battalion pushed northwesterly into its own maelstrom at Neuville-au-Plain, 1st Battalion continued assembling on the run in a mile dash southeasterly for La Fiere. In a bitter fight, 1st Battalion took La Fiere and its modest bridge by late morning, but taking La Fiere would prove just the beginning. La Fiere’s Merderet crossing was key to Normandy’s Cotentin Peninsula, the Americans knew it, and the Germans knew it, and German reaction was swift and it was ferocious.

The fighting at La Fiere was epic savagery, inducing Homeric heroism. From the moment 1st Battalion took the little stone bridge, Grenadier-Regiment 1057 poured unrelenting machinegun and mortar fire into its confined position. Then Artillerie-Regiment 191 registered its guns, and mercilessly alternated between pounding 1st Battalion and showering its exposed locus with air-bursts. After several hours the blistering fire relented, and the enemy struck. Tanks, with swarms of infantry, came at 1st Battalion in fanatical counterattack after counterattack throughout the day.

By day’s end, 1st Battalion’s Commanding Officer was killed, his executive officer replacement was killed, and his Battalion S-3 replacement was killed. A lieutenant, John “Red Dog” Dolan commanded 1st Battalion. And Dolan would command 1st Battalion to phenomenon.

Dolan’s own Company A had been virtually annihilated. First Platoon’s commander was killed, Third Platoon’s commander was killed, and when Second Platoon’s commander moved up to replace Dolan in command of Company A, his assistant platoon leader replacement was killed. Dolan’s 1st Battalion command staff consisted of himself and two runners, his fire support a single 57mm antitank gun, handful of mortars, and three bazookas with no more rounds, and his battalion already ravaged by hundreds of casualties.

Out front taking the brunt, Company A’s First Platoon was commanded by its junior squad leader. He had 14 effectives, and six of those were wounded. After a particularly merciless barrage with “artillery shells and mortars coming in like machine gun fire,” the Germans launched another ferocious counterattack. Seeing the enemy wave coming, that accidental platoon leader, “thought this time we’d really had it.”  

Nonetheless, Company A unflinchingly “gave everything we had.” As Company B hurriedly closed ranks in support, and Weapons Company fused two machine gun barrels and fired its last mortar round, 1st Battalion held firm. By time the attack subsided, Company A lost another five  KIA, Company B 12 KIA, and Weapons Company sic KIA, but more than 200 enemy dead and wounded littered the ground in and around their lines, and 1st Battalion lived to fight another round. But barely.

With dwindling numbers and few rifle rounds left, all knew the odds of stopping the next charge were slim. Company A sent a runner in search of Dolan with the desperate plea; “Ammunition and reinforcement urgently needed to stave annihilation.”

Dolan, of course, had neither. Nor had he any intention of conceding the bridge. But what Dolan lacked in bullets and personnel, and rank for that matter, he more than compensated with absolute fearlessness and resolve. “Red Dog” Dolan returned Company A’s runner with La Fiere’s immortal epitaph; “I know of no better place to die.”

And die they did. Prolifically. The 1st Battalion paid a butcher’s bill for La Fiere, but never wavered. In those first 24 hours, 1st Battalion lost 68 killed and more than 200 wounded. Company A suffered the worst of it, with 31 (24.8 percent) killed, and uncounted numbers wounded.

In its parallel fight with Grenadier-Regiment 1058 to take, then keep St. Mere Eglise, 3rd Battalion lost 45 (8.5 percent) killed. In initially blocking armored elements of that regiment at Neuville-au-Plain, then joining 3rd Battalion in direct defense of St. Mere Eglise, 2d Battalion lost 24 (4.4 percent) killed. In those first twenty-four hours, 505 Parachute Regiment had jumped 2,095, and lost 145 killed.

Bloody as was 505 Parachute Regiment’s pitted slugfest, dispersed combats of 82nd Airborne’s two scattered regiments proved no less deadly. The 507 Parachute Regiment had jumped 2,004, losing 123  killed, while 508 Parachute Regiment jumped 1,994, and lost 178 killed. In sum, 82nd Airborne’s three parachute regiments jumped 6,093, and suffered 446 (7.3 percent) killed in ground fighting those first twenty-four hours.

Non-regimental elements had jumped another 327. Of those, Division Headquarters lost 13, Division Artillery 6 , 307 Airborne Engineer Battalion 16, and a small, catholic detail from 504 Parachute Regiment lost 1, for 36 (11 percent) killed.

Jumping at the outset, the Division Pathfinder Company numbered 136, but enhanced by a 14-man security detachment culled from 504 Parachute Regiment, numbered 150, and it lost 38. Of a total 477 non-regimental elements jumped, 82nd Airborne lost 74.

In all, 82nd Airborne committed 6,570 paratroopers on D Day, and 524 were killed in ground fighting. With the 24 killed in the air D Day eve, 82d Airborne’s parachute element suffered a total 544 killed those first twenty-four hours.  

In the first wave gliders, Batteries A and B of 80 Airborne Antitank Battalion landed 160, and lost nine; in the second wave, 319 Glider Artillery Battalion landed 337 and lost 15; and 320 Glider Artillery Battalion landed 346 and lost 24. Of a total 843 cannoneers, 82nd Airborne lost 48.

Mixed among the gun battalions of both glider lifts, Divisional elements landed 477, and 325 Glider Regiment landed a 90-man Pathfinder Company. Comprised mostly from 2nd Battalion, the Pathfinder Company lost 21 (23.3 percent) killed, and Divisional elements had three killed. In toto, 72 (5 percent) glider-troops were killed on the ground. Including the 81 killed inflight, 82nd Airborne’s 1,410-man glider element suffered 153 (10.7 percent) killed in the first 24 hours.

Of its total 7,890-man D Day assault force, 82nd Airborne suffered a staggering 697 (8.7 percent) killed those first 24 hours.

Even by World War II’s standards, five percent killed was considered prohibitive. Few of the war’s most bloodied divisions, in the full course of the war’s deadliest battles, suffered greater than five percent killed. Yet 82nd Airborne suffered upwards of nine percent killed in just the first 24 hours in Normandy.

Even General George Pickett’s division fared better at Gettysburg. In its infamous charge of Cemetery Ridge, Pickett’s division of 6,000 Virginians lost 224 (3.7 percent) killed, numerically and proportionally half 82nd Airborne’s D Day killed.

And many of the other deadliest battles in history fared better: 2nd Marine Division during Utmost Savagery on Tarawa lost 5.5 percent of its men; Anzio’s 3rd Infantry Division lost 1.7 percent of its men on Feb. 29, 1944; the 1st and 29th infantry divisions saw 3.6 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively, killed in action; and the 15th Massachusetts Infantry at Antietam fared better, losing 19.4 percent of its men.

But no contrast better reflects 82nd Airborne’s inimitable sacrifice than with 101st Airborne. The two divisions jumped together, fought side-by-side, over the same ground, against the same enemy, for the same length of time. Yet of a total D-Day commitment of 7,240, 101st Airborne lost 282 (3.9 percent) killed those first 24 hours. Numerically and proportionately less than half 82d Airborne’s killed.   

For context on the enormity of 82nd Airborne’s 697 (8.7 percent) single-day loss, Iwo Jima’s most-bloodied 4,200-man 25th Marine Regiment lost 654 killed in 36 days fighting, while Iwo’s most-bloodied 25,884-man 5th Marine Division lost 9.7 percent killed over those 36 days. Okinawa’s 15,000-man 96th Infantry Division lost 10.8 percent killed, and the 20,000-man 6th Marine Division lost eight percent killed, both over the course of 81 days fighting.

Although 82d Airborne’s D Day wounded will never be known with certainty, adopting the universally accepted 3-1 wounded-to-killed ratio would imply roughly 2,100 (26.3 percent) wounded to 697 killed. That number is of course presumption, and will remain forever so, but history’s consistent validation of that standard would evidence 82d Airborne’s nearness to a ghastly 2,800 (35 percent) total battle casualties those first twenty-four hours.

In any case, 82d Airborne lost one whole battalion killed, and one whole regiment killed and wounded on D Day in Normandy.    

Astonishingly, America barely noticed. No division, nor division-size unit in all American history had ever, nor has since, suffered close to nine percentkilled on a single day. But 82d Airborne’s performance in Normandy was obscured by the larger event, and simply went unremarked.

“It was a time when the world asked ordinary people to do extraordinary things,” and they did, without complaint, and without boast. It was a different time.    

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