Planned Paratroopers Drops & DZs

The Operation

At 2305, June 5, 1944, the 507th Pathfinders took off for their first combat mission. From North Witham the formation flew to the southern coast of England, across the channel between the Guernsey and Alderney Islands, to the west coast of the Cherbourg Peninsula in France. From the coastline, it was a straight 20-mile run to the drop zone. The flight over the English Channel was made in close formation without incident. An array of small boats, ships, and landing craft spread across the channel as far as the eye could see. It was an impressive and reassuring sight. Some of the men sang, a few slept, and most of them chain-smoked cigarettes. Off the coast of Normandy, ‘red golf balls’ (anti-aircraft fire) rose to harass the spearhead of the Airborne invasion. The Pilot and Pathfinder Leader were in contact through the Intercom telephone. After passing the coastline it was decided by mutual agreement to change the jump altitude from 600 feet to 300 feet in order to avoid excessive casualties from small arms fire during the descent. Although no small arms fire could be heard because of the noise of the plane’s motors, it was obvious, because of the density of the flak, that the ground was probably as well covered by small arms as the sky was with anti-aircraft fire. The planes dipped to an altitude of 300 feet in order to minimize the effect of the flak.

Paratroopers Stick on a C-47

Shortly after the Troop Carriers had flown into the interior of France the parachutists received the red light warning (ready signal). They stood up, hooked their static lines to the anchor cable, and checked their equipment for the last time; the drop zone was only four minutes away. Landmarks that had been studied in aerial photos were easily distinguished as the planes made their way inland. The planes passed the final checkpoint, a dirt road running through the western edge of the drop zone. The Pathfinder leader (who doubled as jumpmaster) checked the light signals above the door. As he did so the green light (GO) flashed on, and with a shout, he disappeared out the door, followed closely by the 3rd Battalion Pathfinder team. The 2nd and 3rd Battalion Pathfinders jumped simultaneously. The plane carrying the 1st Battalion team dropped out of the formation approximately two minutes from the drop zone due to the intensity of small arms and the 20-MM anti-aircraft fire. They were trailing almost a thousand yards to the right rear when the 2nd and 3rd Battalion teams received the green light. As the men left the planes they could hear plainly the nervous peppering noise of small arms fire coming from the ground. Upon landing most of the men were too startled to know exactly what to do other than to protect themselves from rifle and machine gun fire.

paratroopers prepare to board their C-47 for their jump into Normandy

The Regimental Pathfinder Leader made contact only with the 3rd Battalion Eureka operator, Sgt James Thore, and the Assistant Team Leader, Lt Claude V, Crooks, to assemble by the use of the prearranged assembly lights was out of the question. It would have invited concentrated fire or an attempt to capture the Pathfinder team intact, thereby completely preventing the accomplishment of the Pathfinder mission. It was quickly decided that the best plan of action was to walk along the line of flight eastward in an effort to contact other members of the Pathfinder team. In case they were unsuccessful in finding more men they knew that the one Eureka carried by Sgt Thore would be sufficient to guide all three serials of the 507-PIR to the drop zone. The three troopers stealthily made their way down the field for approximately 500 yards to the east but made no contact. There were no signs of any activity of the 1st and 2nd Battalion Pathfinder teams. Time was drawing close for the approach of the first serial (2nd Battalion). Enemy rifles and machine guns could still be heard not far distant. Inasmuch as the drop zone was a series of small fields the Eureka was set up in the corner of the main center field, where advantage could be taken of fair cover and concealment. The search for other members of the Pathfinder team was abandoned. It was better to be sure of having one Eureka operating on time than to try to find a light or two and risk losing everything. Immediately after it was set up, the Eureka triggered on the first serial ten minutes prior to scheduled arrival. It was a relief to know that contact had been made.

Para Jump - Note the Pathfinder T on the ground

When the planes came into sight it was noticed that a great amount of irregular dispersion existed in the formation. It was later learned that this was due to a thick fog bank over the coast and to concentrated antiaircraft fire. The serial flew beyond the Pathfinders and parachuted about one-half mile to the east. They jumped at 0232. Although they had missed their exact area, which was the center, it looked as though they had still landed on the eastern extremity of the drop zone. However, several sticks jumped into the correct area. Six minutes later, at 0238, the scheduled time, the second serial, 3/507, hit the drop zone in approximately the same general area covered by the first serial. This serial should have parachuted into the western section of the area. At 0244 the final serial, 1/507 + Hq Company Group, also jumped into the eastern end of the drop zone, the correct area for this serial. During their descent, the parachutists were fired upon by German ground troops.

The Eureka was kept in operation for twenty minutes after the last serial had passed the drop zone. Several stray planes flew over during this time but kept going towards the east without dropping any men. A total of 89 planes flew over the area. From later reports it was determined that only 63 dropped their troops on or near the designated drop zone. Immediately after silencing the Eureka the party of three Pathfinders led by the Regimental Pathfinder Leader proceeded directly to a prearranged rendezvous point at the drop zone where they were to contact the Regimental Commander. When they arrived at this spot they found no sign of any paratroopers. The three Pathfinders decided to remain there until daybreak, and, if no one showed up, to proceed to the Regimental Command Post, located approximately 1500 yards southwest of their position. Sporadic firing continued throughout the night. At times German voices could be heard from adjacent hedgerows. It became quite obvious to the three Pathfinders that keeping the Eureka set, classified as secret equipment, with them, would not be wise, and they planned to destroy it at the first opportunity by using a detonator installed inside the set for this purpose.

M-1918 LF&C Knuckle

At daybreak, the men made an attempt to reach the Command Post but were stopped by sniper fire from several points. After moving 300 yards to the south they found good cover in a hedgerow and remained there through the day. After dark the Eureka set was blown up and the men made their way southward to the location previously chosen for the Regimental Command Post. Again, upon arriving, they found no signs of Airborne troops. They stopped here for the remainder of the night and part of the next morning hoping that someone from the regiment would show up. However, no one came. An examination of the area after daybreak showed no signs of recent occupancy. Fighting could be heard to the northwest, and the three men made their way in that general direction, guiding themselves by the sounds of the firing. At dusk, they contacted Capt Paul F. Smith, Commanding Officer of Fox Co, who directed them to the Regimental Command Post. The Regimental Commander had assembled approximately 150 men who were holding a defensive position about 500 yards west of Amfreville. The other Pathfinders, whom the Regimental Pathfinder Leader had not been able to locate, also Jumped into situations that had not been covered, in the text.

The 1st Battalion Pathfinder team, led by 1/Lt George R. O’Briant landed approximately 500 yards southeast of the drop zone. The use of assembly lights was prohibited by a German machine gun that was firing in the immediate area. Lt O’Brian joined the Eureka operator after he hit the ground, and together they moved to the southeast edge of the Drop Zone and attempted to put the set into operation. The set would not work, however, so after the final serial had passed they blew it up and worked towards the eastern end of the drop zone where the bulk of the parachutists had dropped. On the way, they picked up seven members of their team. Just before dawn, they met 1/Lt Charles Ames and three men from the 2/507 team. Both team members joined the main forces at the eastern end of the drop zone. One Eureka set was lost on the 1/507 Jump. Straps supporting the set snapped with the opening shock of the parachute and it broke away from the operator.

Demolition Trooper with T5 Parachute, Demolition Kit, Leg Bag

In the case of the 2/507 Pathfinder team, it too was unable to assemble on the ground due to enemy action in the drop zone. However, 1/Lt Charles Ames, Assistant Team Leader, picked up the Eureka operator, assistant Eureka operator, and a security man. Lt Ames made a search for the other members of his team while the Eureka operator and the other two men worked on the Eureka set, but he was unable to find any of them. At 0220, six minutes prior to the scheduled time for the first serial to drop, they set up the Eureka. It made contact immediately. (Source Lt George R. O’Brian) All three serials came over but dropped beyond the Pathfinders’ position. Host of them dropped between the Merderet River and the drop zone, many drifting into the river itself. Lt Ames withdrew his men 15 minutes after the last serial had passed and blew up the Bureka set. On their way to the eastern end of the drop zone, they encountered rifle fire. Just before daybreak, they contacted members of the 1/507 Pathfinder team. 1/Lt Ralph MacGill, Leader of the team, had broken both ankles on the jump and had been taken, prisoner. Out of the 54 men who comprised the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiments Pathfinders 20 were killed, wounded, or captured. Others who could not make contact with fellow members of their Pathfinder teams in the general confusion caused by enemy firing and the absence of assembly lights made their way to the eastern edge of the drop zone where they joined the main body of troops.

Thompson M-1A1 Cal .45

Operations of the 505-PIR and 508-PIR Pathfinders teams

The 507-PIR Pathfinder Operation was one of three such operations in the 82nd Airborne Division. A picture of Pathfinders in Normandy, as well as a basis for criticism, is not complete without citing the actions of the 505-PIR and 508-PI Pathfinder Teams. The 505-PIR Pathfinder teams dropped on their designated drop zone six minutes early after a smooth run from North Witham. There was little enemy opposition in this area, and the drop zone was organized according to Standing Operating Procedure with the exception of one battalion which did not form its light T due to errors in assembly. Eurekas were set up and made contact with planes fifteen minutes before arrival. All serials jumped their men about ten minutes early on their respective T’s, The third serial jumped its men at a speed in excess of 150 miles per hour (normal jumping speed: 90-110 miles per hour), resulting in ruptures to several men. The landing zone for the 325th Glider Regiment was set up as planned. No casualties were sustained by the Pathfinder teams.

The 508-PIR Pathfinder teams were dropped accurately and on time after running through exceptionally heavy flak from St-Sauveur-Le-Vicomte to the drop zone. Anti-aircraft fire was trained on personnel as they came from the planes. Enemy action was aggressive. One Eureka and two lights were put into operation well in advance of the first serial. Only 20 planes hit the drop zone. These planes belonged to the first serial and were ten minutes late. No planes from the second or third serials arrived over the drop zone. The 508-PIR Pathfinder teams suffered 65% casualties.


Analysis and Critisim

In making a study of this operation it is my opinion that the Pathfinder teams employed in Normandy were not trained well enough to overcome the initial situation in which they found themselves when they landed amid the German-infested hedgerows of the Cherbourg Peninsula. The possibility of hitting a drop zone that was occupied by enemy troops was not considered in training. When assembly lights could not be used there was no alternate method of organizing the men. The presence of the enemy placed the Pathfinder teams in an exceedingly awkward predicament and came very near to neutralizing their mission completely. The blame for the near failure of the Pathfinder operation, however, cannot be directed alone at the sins of omission in the training of the Pathfinders. Pilots of planes in the main serials encountered anti-aircraft fire, fog, and German night fighters after crossing the French Coast and took evasive action to minimize the danger. This resulted in a tragic dispersion at the drop zones. Planes dropped men at altitudes ranging from 300 to 3000 feet, some at excessive speeds.

At the 507-PIR drop zone, no lights appeared. The pilots had been schooled to expect the lighted T as they closed in on the Eureka. The idea that the Pathfinders might be able to set up the Eureka and not the lights were not anticipated in pilot instruction. As a result, the pilots were confused; they hesitated. The red light stayed on too long, and the green light was switched on late; causing the men to be dropped beyond the intended area.

Misinterpretation of aerial photos contributed greatly to the confusion. Maps and aerial photos to all appearances, showed the drop zone to be 2500 yards long and the Merderet River to be a narrow stream. This was not the case. The Merderet River was bordered on the west by a wide marsh, the fringes of which were used for grassing purposes. The marsh contained swamp grass several feet high which concealed water underneath. The marshland was assumed to be pasture favorable for inclusion in the drop zone. Actually, instead of a 2500-yard drop zone, the area measured only 1700 yards, the eastern 300 yards being a swamp. The bulk of the men who jumped on what was assumed to be the drop zone jumped late and consequently hit the eastern 800 yards of marshland, some even landing in the Merderet River proper. Many of those who landed in the Merderet Swamp and River drowned. Those who survived were temporarily unfit for action against the enemy. A few of the planes dropped their men over the fields and orchards that comprised the central and western sections of the drop zone. Others of the 507-PIR planes, scattered by flak and fog, dropped their men far from the Division area. One flight of nine planes dropped troops southwest of Carentan, 11 miles from the drop zone; one plane unloaded southeast of Cherbourg; three planes jumped men south of Valognes, one plane north of Montebourg, five planes south of the Douve River, eight planes in the vicinity of Ste-Mère-Eglise, twenty-four planes east of the Merderet River, three planes in the vicinity of Goubersville and one plane west of St-Sauveur-Le-Vicomte.

The result of this dispersion in enemy-occupied areas and the dropping of troops in unfavorable terrain (swamp and river) was that normal assembly and prompt coordinated action were delayed. The immediate problem confronting the greater portion of the men of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, whether pinned down by enemy fire or struggling in mud and water, was simply one of self-preservation. The use of the 507th Pathfinder Team is justified by the fact that 63 planes found the Drop Zone due to the operation of the two Eureka sets. If evasive action had not been taken by most of the planes causing them to break formation, many more planes would have followed the Eurekas into the Drop Zone. By General Order Number 34, Headquarters 82nd Airborne Division, dated 21 July 1944, the 82nd Airborne Division Pathfinders were awarded the Bronze Star Medal for gallantry in action on the Cherbourg Peninsula.


1. Lights that can be seen for a considerable distance by enemy ground troops must be eliminated. Lights should be constructed so that they can be detected only from the air or by special equipment.

2. Airborne Pathfinders must jump only with the equipment necessary to perform the Pathfinder mission of organizing drop zones and landing zones. Excess ammunition, field bags, gas masks, etc. hinder mobility. Speed on the ground is all-important.

3. Closer coordination and teamwork between the Army Air Force and Airborne Units will work towards singleness of purpose, and a greater effort to keep planes information in order to jump parachutists together on designated drop zones. A wide dispersion of troops seriously handicaps the accomplishment of the mission and violates one of the most important principles of war-Mass Employment.

4. Assembly in difficult terrain without lights and in the presence of the enemy should be stressed in the training of Pathfinder teams.

5. Expert analysis and interpretation of aerial photos and maps will go far towards eliminating the possibility of misjudging the size of a drop zone and landing in areas similar to the marshes hit by Troopers of the 507-PIR.

6. The Eureka operator and his assistant would be much more valuable to the Pathfinder team if they were instructed in the mechanics and maintenance of the Eureka set. With this knowledge, the Eureka operator of the 1/507 might have been able to repair his set and operate it.

7. Every effort must be made to insure that Pathfinder teams are made up of combat veterans, even though they come from personnel outside the using unit. The strain of accomplishing a job as delicate as that of a Pathfinder team’s mission requires all the nervous energy a man possesses. The extra tension of going into combat for the first time is a drawback.

8. It would be a great help to pilots if Pathfinders jumping with lights were trained to use them even in the event that assembly is prohibited by enemy action. If lights were operated and covered by fire from vantage points by the light carriers the job of jumping men on the drop zone would be made easier even though the lights did not form the conventional T.

9. Until other methods of navigation are devised which will eliminate possible errors. Airborne Pathfinder teams are essential to future Airborne operations. Without Pathfinders the chances of the Troop Carriers dropping parachutists on designated drop zones are not good.


Additional Info

Brooke Clark – M-227 SE-11
Marking Panels (Cerises) & TL-122

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