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The Technology Behind D-Day’s Moonlit Airborne Ops

Posted on Jun 05, 2019
By: Roger Connor
Aeronautics Department

Retaking Western Europe from German control was an enormous undertaking for the Allies in the summer of 1944. The D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, posed particular challenges to avoid the disaster of the earlier trial invasion of Dieppe. American and British commanders knew that to sustain the beachhead, the operation had to happen with surprise and overwhelming force at the landing grounds. To do this, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower relied on paratroop and glider landings to secure the flanks of the Allied forces landing on the five invasion beaches and reinforce them. The Americans would cut off the Cotentin peninsula to the west and the German forces at Cherbourg, while British paratroops and glider-borne infantry secured the eastern flank. However, airborne assaults had a decidedly mixed record. While the Germans had amazed the world with the airborne capture of the Belgian Fortress of Eben-Emael in 1940, the German airborne landings on Crete and the American effort on Sicily had suffered devastating losses, in spite of eventually achieving their objectives. As risky as those operations had been, Eisenhower’s plan added another enormous peril and complication — landing in moonlit darkness.

The complications arising from this plan have played out in a number of Hollywood productions, ranging from D-Day Sixth of June (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1956) to Saving Private Ryan (Dreamworks, 1998), and Band of Brothers (HBO, 2001). Those productions depict an airborne operation gone wrong with heavy losses to flak and paratroopers being scattered about the countryside. In some of the drops, this did indeed happen, resulting in particularly dramatic episodes, which make for great viewing. However, most of the drops went far more smoothly and were too boring to depict on screen. This has resulted in some significant mythmaking about how airborne forces were used and obscures the reality of some truly remarkable hidden stories.

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Story credit: NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM; https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/technology-behind-d-days-moonlit-airborne-ops

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