Shortly after midnight on 6 June, over 18,000 men of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the British 6th Airborne Division were dropped into Normandy. Allied paratroopers and glider-borne infantry were well trained and highly skilled, but for many this was their first experience of combat. Their objectives were to capture key sites behind the beaches and to secure the flanks of the assault areas.
On the approach, the transports faced heavy cloud cover and intense enemy fire. Many of the airborne units were dropped outside of their target areas. Despite German resistance and the confusion caused by the scattered landings, the airborne forces achieved many of their objectives.
The Americans of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions dropped onto the Cotentin peninsula behind Utah beach. They blocked a main road at Sainte-Mère-Eglise and secured causeways across the flooded lowlands, helping the US 4th Infantry Division to break out from Utah beach. The 6th Airborne Division dropped east of the River Orne to support the British left flank. They silenced a German coastal battery at Merville that threatened Sword beach and destroyed bridges across the Dives River to slow the movement of German forces into the area. Glider-borne troops successfully captured two bridges across the Caen Canal and the River Orne. In doing so, they secured the only crossing points between Caen and the sea.
Airborne landings continued throughout 6 June. A wave of Horsa gliders landed shortly after 3.00am, providing critical reinforcements of equipment and ammunition. Troops continued to arrive throughout the evening and by midnight over 23,000 Allied troops had landed by parachute or glider.
Air operations had also played an important role in the preparations for D-Day. Allied bombers attacked road and rail networks to try to isolate the invasion area and make it difficult for the Germans to bring up reinforcements and equipment. Other parts of northern France were also attacked to keep the Germans guessing as to where the invasion would actually occur. On 5 June, the RAF dropped metal strips – codenamed ‘Window’ – and dummy parachutists to confuse the Germans’ radar and distract their forces.
The Allied strategic bombing campaign, which began in 1942, had weakened German industry and forced Germany to commit manpower and resources away from Normandy for home defence. Securing air superiority over the Channel allowed the Allies to carry out aerial reconnaissance, giving them vital intelligence on German coastal defences. Allied air forces flew over 14,000 sorties in support of the landings on D-Day. Having secured air supremacy prior to the invasion, most of these flights were unchallenged by the Luftwaffe.