Operation Tonga, the British 6th Airborne Division’s parachute drop to secure the eastern flank of the invasion area, began between 1am and 1.30am. At the same time the US 101st Airborne Division began their parachute drop on the western flank, under Mission Albany.
Campbell Gray was with the Parachute Regiment, which was headed for the Ranville area:
We arrived at the airfield near Keevil around 10pm on 5 June and made our way to the enplaning area after drawing chutes. My battalion was being transported by Stirling bombers with Canadian crews. Exit from the bomber was through a rectangular floor aperture at the tail end of the aircraft. Very few of the men had experienced action before, and we were all in good spirits — the great adventure was about to begin.
The signal corporal who was in the next plane to mine came over and shook my hand saying, ‘I’ll see you over there, Jock.’ I never saw him again. He disappeared after being dropped in the wrong area with a number of others, all of whom, except him and the signals officer, managed to rejoin us.
‘Hook-up’ and ‘Stand To’
It would be around 11pm when we got on our way and taxied to the runway for take-off. I must say that no one felt like talking after take-off, and the noise of the engines made it almost impossible anyway. We were scheduled to be dropped around 1am, our drop zone being a few miles inland.
There was some light anti-aircraft fire as we crossed the French coast. At last we got the order to ‘Hook-up’ and ‘Stand To’. I was no. 2 to go. We had to rely on the guy behind us handing us the end of our static line, making sure it was free of entanglement prior to hook-up. All eyes were then glued to the lights above the aperture.
Parachuted into France
When the dispatcher (RAF) bawled ‘Red On’ followed by ‘Green On’, then ‘Go, go, go,’ we went through the aperture as fast as possible. We were going in about 500ft, and it was essential to have a fast dispatch to ensure that we would be closer together on the ground.
It was a moonlit night with some light cloud. I had quite a good descent, landing a bit heavily but safely in a corn field with stalks up to my waist. There was a real danger for us at this point of being shot at by one of our mates, so a simple code system had been devised, the first day being ‘Ham’ to be answered by ‘Egg’, the next day ‘Bread’ and ‘Butter’.
‘Ham’ and ‘Egg’
After releasing my harness and dumping the jump jacket — put on over our outer equipment so that our lines on dispatch couldn’t snag on anything — I gathered myself together. I had to get myself to the rendezvous point, a quarry just on the approaches to Ranville.
As I proceeded, I heard movement just ahead of me. I went to ground immediately and gave the code sign ‘Ham’ and got the ‘Egg’. It happened to be a signaller of my own platoon, who had injured his back in the drop. We got to a hedgerow at the side of the field, but he couldn’t go any further so I had to leave him there and carry on.
We had been told at the briefing not to stop to help wounded or injured men under any circumstances. The objective was top priority and required the maximum number of men to achieve it.
The CO’s signaller
I eventually reached the quarry, guided by the flashing red light of my battalion. Other battalions were guided by a hunting horn or a whistle to their different rendezvous points. The drop zone was coming under fire by this time, but most of us were clear of it by then.
I was the commanding officer’s, the CO’s, signaller and reported to him on arrival. By around 3am we were still at about only half-strength. It turned out that many of my battalion had been dropped in the wrong area, and in some cases it took a few days before they got to us.
In any case, the CO decided to move on to secure Le Bas de Ranville. Resistance was fairly light, the Germans having withdrawn to a wood to the south. By 4am we were well dug in. Things were remarkably quiet for a short time, and then we heard the naval barrage starting and knew that the seaborne landings were about to take place.
Read the whole of his account on BBC People’s War, including an account of the later battle for Breville.
Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Pine-Coffin Commanding Officer, 7th Battalion, Parachute Regiment:
All one could see were other parachutists blundering about as lost as oneself. The Germans were there, too, firing tracer ammunition. Officers and others collected parties and began to search systematically but it was a question of the blind leading the blind.
It was an hour and a half before I found the rendezvous for my party and we were the first there even then. My rallying signal was a bugle and luckily my bugler was with me, and Private Lambert sounded off continuously and we waited and hoped.
They came in as fast as they could but it seemed desperately slow and there was practically none of the heavy gear with them. No sound came from the bridges. I decided to move off when I reached half—strength but this took so long that I gave the order earlier.
No mortars, machine guns or wireless had arrived so we would just have to do without them. The coup de main party’s success signal went up just as we moved off and put new life into us. Half the job had been done: the bridges had been captured.