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By air to battle on D-Day

Landing by parachute and glider in the early hours of 6th June 1944, airborne soldiers grasped the initiative to ensure the success of the landings on the beaches of Normandy.

The origin of our Airborne Forces can be traced to 31 May 1941, when Sir Winston Churchill approved the creation of two parachute brigades and a glider force of 10,000 men. The 1st Airborne Division was established in November 1941 with 6th Airborne Division following in April 1943.

Deploying by air to attack key positions behind the forward line of German coastal defences, airborne forces had a key role in the D-Day plan. The 8,500 British and Canadian soldiers of 6th Airborne Division were tasked to secure the eastern flank of the invasion, with the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions holding the western flank.

Known as Operation Tonga, 6th Airborne Division had three specific objectives – to capture bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne intact, to allow Allied troops to break out from the landing beaches; knock out Merville Battery, believed to hold heavy artillery that could fire on the beaches; and destroy bridges over the River Dives, to deny German forces freedom of movement.

The first troops to land on D-Day were D Company, 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who swooped in at 00:15 in six Horsa gliders to seize the Caen Canal and River Orne bridges. Described as one of the “most outstanding flying achievements of the war" by Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the Allied air commander for D-Day, the bridges are now called Pegasus and Horsa Bridge in tribute to the troops’ bravery.

Over the following hours, 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades parachuted into Normandy. Despite scattered drops caused by bad navigation and weather, the airborne troops were able to achieve all their objectives and cause significant confusion and distraction to the Germans as fighting broke out across a wide swathe of countryside.

The division’s actions forestalled German counter-attacks in the early hours of the invasion, when the Allies’ foothold on the beaches was at its most vulnerable. The first link-up with troops from the beaches happened at Pegasus Bridge just after 1.30pm and the division was reinforced with the arrival of 6th Airlanding Brigade by glider on the night of 6th June.

Throughout June and July, the division was engaged in intense fighting to hold the eastern flank of the Normandy bridgehead, before taking part in the break-out to the River Seine.

The 6th Airborne Division was withdrawn from battle on 27th August, having spent 82 days in the thick of fighting in Normandy. Since landing on 6th June, the division had suffered 4,457 casualties, of which 821 were killed, 2,709 wounded and 927 missing.

The division is honoured through the name of 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team - our global response force - which is numbered in tribute to 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions.

Today’s airborne soldiers serve under the same Pegasus emblem as was worn on D-Day as a reminder of the standards of bravery, endurance and humility set for them.

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