The first invaders of Normandy, on June 6, 1944, did not arrive by sea during the day but by air, at night. Some 820 C-47 troop carrier airplanes dropped more than 13,000 U.S. paratroopers of the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions on the Cotentin Peninsula. Their purpose was to seize the crossroads village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise and causeways connecting Utah Beach on the east side of the peninsula with higher land to the west. At the same time, they were to strike German beach defenses facing Utah from the rear, block German counterattacks on the beachhead, take key communication centers, and seize bridges and causeways over rivers and marshes. Approximately 100 additional C-47s dropped gliders laden with more troops and equipment before the first amphibious forces landed. (1)
How well did the pre-dawn troop carriers do? A common impression, derived from histories that relied more on the oral testimony of paratroopers, instead of air crews or organizational histories, is that the troop carriers performed poorly. Books like Stephen Ambrose's D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, John Keegan's Six Armies in Normandy, and Clay Blair's Ridgeway's Paratroopers claim that the troops were scattered all over the peninsula because of the inexperience and poor judgments of the transport pilots. (2) In this paper, I want to explore that impression and raise some other questions. Why were the troops separated so far from each other? Just how scattered were the drops after all? Were there other reasons the airborne divisions took so long to assemble? In short, has history been fair to the troop carrier pilots?
There were nine primary reasons the airborne troops were scattered. First, the paratroopers and some of the gliders dropped at night. There were no night vision goggles in 1944. Darkness obscured the visibility of key landmarks. However skilled the pilots and navigators, they could not manufacture the light needed to see what they were looking for. They had to depend on what little moonlight was available, a few lights set up on the ground by pathfinders, and the dim lights of adjacent transports. Besides that, they had only the light from enemy antiaircraft artillery fire and from the crashes of their burning comrades, which interfered with their observations of the pathfinder lights. (3)
Second, there were unexpected thick clouds. As most of the troop carrier airplanes crossed the coast of France, they entered thick cloudbanks, at different altitudes, that filled much of the sky between 300 feet and 2,500 feet. The planes were to cross the coast at an altitude of 1,500 feet and then descend to 700 feet for the drops. To avoid colliding in the thick haze some pilots instinctively spread out the tight nine-plane V formations into which they had been packed, the ones on the left going farther left and the ones on the right going farther right. Some of the airplanes climbed and others descended. By the time the airplanes emerged from the clouds, some seven minutes later, they were too far apart to see each other in the darkness. They could no longer use each other to determine where and when to drop. The alternative would have been a host of aircraft collisions that would have been much more disastrous. (4) In fact, some sets of transports emerged from the clouds even closer together than when they entered, because the pilots were attempting to keep their neighbors within sight, but overall the formations emerged from the clouds were more widely scattered than planned. (5)
Third, there was heavy flak, especially for later formations, once the troop carrier planes emerged from the clouds along the coast. The Germans launched a tremendous amount of antiaircraft fire when they heard the hundreds of aircraft flying just a few hundred feet overhead. Since the transports were dropping at altitudes of only 700 feet, they were within range not only of antiaircraft artillery, but also enemy machine-gun fire from the ground. Searchlights and tracers illuminated the sky, further blinding the pilots and illuminating airplanes no longer obscured by clouds. Three quarters of the troop carrier pilots had never been under fire before. Many instinctively changed course, going to the right or left, climbing or descending. To avoid being hit, some C-47 pilots increased speed more than 50 knots over the 100 knots prescribed for the drops. (6) Despite these maneuvers, many C-47s fell to flak, although not as many as British Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory had predicted. (7) Of the troop carrier airplanes that were shot down before dawn on D-Day, the great majority unloaded their paratroopers before crashing. (8) Their pilots were determined to keep their planes level as long as possible. 450 of the troop carrier planes returned with damage, and 41 failed to return. (9)
A fourth reason for the dispersal was the lack of navigation equipment aboard most of the airplanes. Only the lead airplanes of each formation or serial carried a navigator or the navigation equipment needed to find the drop and glider landing zones. Only two of every five troop carrier airplanes in Operation NEPTUNE carried navigators. Planners did not want to overload the Eureka-Rebecca systems that depended on beacons set up by the r pathfinders on the ground, so they limited their use. Only a small minority of the airplanes had special navigation equipment such as GEE. (10) The great majority of the troop carrier pilots depended on seeing neighboring airplanes, but those airplanes, despite their zebra stripes, were no longer visible because darkness, clouds, blinding air defenses, and the breakup of the formations. Left without their visual guides, most of the pilots dropped by estimating how far they had gone in a given time since crossing the French coast. (11) It is no wonder that they were often wrong. A few airplanes that had sped up because of flak found themselves...