6th Airborne Division (United Kingdom): Wikis


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6th Airborne Division
The divisional shoulder flash of the airborne forces
Active Second World War
3 May 1943 - 1 April 1948
Country Great Britain
Branch British Army
Type Airborne
Role Parachute Infantry
Size 8,500 men[1]
Nickname The Red Devils
Motto Go To It
Engagements Operation Overlord
Operation Varsity
Battle honours D-Day
Maj.Gen. Richard Nelson Gale

The 6th Airborne Division was an airborne division in the British Army during the Second World War. It took part in Operation Tonga the airborne landings on the left flank of the invasion beaches in the Normandy Landings. It played a small part in the Battle of the Bulge and was involved in Operation Varsity the Allied assault across the Rhine river. At the end of the war in Europe it was planned to send the Division to the Far East for operations against Japan but these plans were cancelled after the Atom bombs were dropped on the Japanese mainland. Instead the Division was sent to Palestine on internal security duties, where it remained until being disbanded in April 1948.



On 23 April 1943 the British War Office ordered that a second airborne division be raised to supplement the original British 1st Airborne Division. The new division consisted initially of key personnel reassigned from 1st Airborne. This included several officers who had fought in North Africa with the 1st Parachute Brigade. For example, Richard Gale had raised and commanded the 1st Parachute Brigade. James Hill had commanded 1st Parachute Battalion. Alastair Pearson had been his second-in-command. Geoffrey Pine-Coffin had been second-in-command of 2nd Battalion.

The core of the new 6th Airborne Division was formed from the 3rd Parachute Brigade and 1st Airlanding Brigade. Both were reassigned from 1st Airborne. Lieutenant Colonel James Hill assumed command of 3rd Parachute Brigade while he was recovering from wounds received in North Africa. At 31, Hill was one of the youngest Brigadiers in the British army. The 3rd Parachute Brigade included the 7th, 8th and 9th Parachute Battalions. Each battalion had been recruited regionally. The 7th had been formed from the Somerset Light Infantry. Many paratroopers of the 8th were from the Midlands. The 9th was formed from the 10th Holding Battalion, The Essex Regiment. Lieutenant Colonels Pine-Coffin, Pearson, and Otway were the commanders the 7th, 8th, and 9th Battalions, respectively.

The 1st Airlanding Brigade was renamed the 6th Airlanding Brigade. It included two glider-borne, light infantry battalions: 1st Battalion the Royal Ulster Rifles (Lieutenant Colonel Jack Carson) and 2nd Battalion the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Lieutenant Colonel Michael Roberts). Later, the 12th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Dick Stephens), which had been formed recently from coastal defence units, was attached to the 6th Airlanding Brigade.

In June 1943, the 5th Parachute Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Nigel Poett, was added. It included the 12th and 13th Parachute Battalions. The 12th Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Reginald Parker) was formed from a Yorkshire battalion, the 10th Battalion, the Green Howards. The 13th was formed from the 2nd and 4th Battalions of the South Lancashire Regiment. It was led by Lieutenant Colonel Peter Luard. Lieutenant Colonel George Bradbrooke's 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion arrived in July 1943. Other units attached to the division included pathfinders, engineers, anti-tank, reconnaissance, medical, and signals units.

In August 1943, the division was reorganized. The Canadians were attached to 3rd Parachute Brigade and the 7th Battalion was assigned to 5th Parachute Brigade. In September 1943, the 6th Airborne Division was almost at its full complement of about 8,500 men. Each parachute battalion consisted of about 650 men. The airlanding battalions were slightly larger with about 750 men each. In February 1944, Parker was made second-in-command of the 6th Airlanding Brigade and Lieutenant Colonel A.P. "Johnny" Johnson assumed command of the 12th Parachute Battalion.


British Pathfinders synchronising their watches in front of an Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle.

During the last hours of 5 June 1944 as part of Operation Tonga, transport aircraft and towed gliders carried units of the 6th Airborne to Normandy where they would land just prior to the D-Day landings that took place on the morning of 6 June. They were to land behind Sword Beach and secure the eastern flank. Some of the objectives included the seizure of the bridge over the Caen Canal (later renamed as "Pegasus Bridge" and the bridge over the Orne River (renamed later as Horsa Bridge) by D Company, 2nd Ox & Bucks (commanded by Major John Howard). And also the destruction of the Merville Battery by Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway's 9 PARA, both of whom were some of the first units to land and achieve their objectives. The landings proved successful, though many units were scattered across much of Normandy. The area around Pegasus and Horsa were successfully defended until they were eventually relieved, having repulsed numerous counter-attacks by the Germans, later on 6 June by Lord Lovat's 1 Special Service Brigade, followed later by elements of the British 3rd Infantry Division.

On 12 June, during the attack on Bréville, British artillery was bombarding it when a stray shell fell short and hit a group of British officers, killing Lieutenant-Colonel A.P. "Johnny" Johnson (CO 12 PARA) and badly wounding Brigadiers Kindersley (CO 6 Airlanding Brigade) and Lord Lovat (CO 1st Special Service Brigade).

From June to August the Division successfully defended the area to the east of the Orne river with the 1st Special Service Brigade and the 4th Special Service Brigades under command. On 2 August 1944 the division became part of the First Allied Airborne Army. In mid-August the division took part in the advance towards the Seine and early in September it returned to Britain to recuperate and reorganise, having suffered over 4,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and missing).


D-Day Timings

  • 0010 Gliderborne troops land north of Caen and capture two key bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canel.
  • 0016 Major John Howard sets up command post and sends message "Ham and Jam" - code for the successful capture of two bridges.
  • 0150 The main body of the division parachutes into Normandy, east of Orne river.
  • 0350 The attack on the village of Ranville begins.
  • 0430 The Merville Battery, east of Sword beach, is attacked by elements of the division. The battery is subdued within 15 minutes however the assault force suffers heavy casualties.
  • 1330 The 1st Special Service Brigade, who landed east of Sword beach during the morning, link up with the division at Pegasus Bridge.
  • 2100 The remaining elements of the 6th Airlanding Brigade begin to arrive via glider.

Ardennes Offensive

On 16 December the Germans launched Operation Wacht am Rhein, a last-gasp offensive against the Allies via the Ardennes forest. The division was rushed to Belgium shortly afterward to assist in repulsing the attack. The fighting took place in awful weather conditions and ended in mid-January 1945.

The Rhine Crossings


By March 1945, the Allies had advanced into Germany and had reached the River Rhine. The Rhine was a formidable natural obstacle to the Allied advance,[2] but if breached would allow the Allies to access the North German Plain and ultimately advance on Berlin and other major cities in Northern Germany. Following the 'Broad Front Approach' laid out by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, it was decided to attempt to breach the Rhine in several areas.[3] Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commanding the British 21st Army Group devised a plan to allow the forces under his command to breach the Rhine. To ensure that the operation was a success, Montgomery insisted that airborne forces support the operation. The airborne operation was code-named Operation Varsity.[4]

The divisions's objective was to seize the high ground east of the town of Bergen, to attack and capture the town of Hamminkeln, and finally to take control of several bridges over the River Issel. It would then hold the territory it had captured until it linked up units from the American 17th Airborne Division, which would land to the south of them.[5] Once these objectives were taken, the airborne troops would consolidate their positions and await the arrival of Allied ground forces, defending the territory captured against the German forces known to be in the area. The division would then advance alongside the 21st Army Group once the Allied ground forces had made contact with them.

To avoid the heavy casualties incurred by the British 1st Airborne Division that had occurred during Operation Market-Garden, both Allied airborne divisions would only be dropped after Allied ground units had crossed the Rhine and secured crossings; the two divisions would also be dropped only a relatively short distance behind German lines, to ensure that reinforcements would be able to link up with them after only a few hours and they would not be isolated.[6]

The Battle, 24 March 1945

The first element of the division to land was the 3rd Parachute Brigade, commanded by Brigadier James Hill.[7] The brigade actually dropped nine minutes earlier than it was scheduled to be, but despite this the unit was successfully dropped onto Drop-Zone A, where it was engaged by heavy small-arms and 20 mm anti-aircraft fire. A number of casualties were suffered as it engaged German forces in the Diersfordter Wald, but by 1100 hours the drop-zone was practically clear of enemy forces and all battalions of the brigade had formed up.[8] The key town of Schnappenberg was captured by the 9th Parachute Battalion in conjunction with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, the latter unit having lost its commanding officer to German small-arms fire only moments after he had landed.[7] Despite taking casualties the brigade cleared the area of German forces and by 1345 hours Brigadier Hill reported that the brigade had secured all of its objectives.[8]

The next formation to land was the 5th Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier Nigel Poett.[9] The brigade was designated to land on Drop-Zone B and achieved this, although not as accurately as 3rd Parachute Brigade due to poor visibility around the drop-zone, which also made it more difficult for paratroopers of the brigade to rally. The drop-zone came under heavy fire from German troops stationed nearby and was subjected to shellfire and mortaring which inflicted casualties in the battalion rendezvous areas.[10] However 7th Parachute Battalion soon cleared the drop-zone of German troops, many of whom were situated in farms and houses, and the 12th Parachute Battalion and 13th Parachute Battalion rapidly secured the rest of the brigades objectives.[10] The brigade was then ordered to move due east and clear and area near Schnappenberg, as well as engaging German forces who were gathered to the west of the farmhouse, which had been taken as the headquarters for the division. By 1530 hours Brigadier Poett reported that the brigade had secured all of its objectives and linked up with other units of the division.[10]

The 6th Airlanding Brigade, commanded by Brigadier R. H. Bellamy,[11] was tasked with landing in company-sized groups and capturing several objectives, including the town of Hamminkeln.[12] The gliders landed in landing-zones P, O, U and R under considerable anti-aircraft fire, the landing being made even more difficult due to the presence of a great deal of haze and smoke. This resulted in a number of glider pilots being unable to identify their landing areas and losing their bearings, resulting in a number of gliders landing in the wrong areas or crashing.[10] The majority of the gliders survived, allowing the battalions of the brigade to secure three bridges over the IJssel that they had been tasked with capturing intact, as well as the town of Hamminkeln with the aid of the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which had been dropped by mistake near to the town. The brigade secured all of its objectives shortly after capturing Hamminkeln.[10]

Later Operations

The 5th Parachute Brigade was deployed to the Far East in July 1945 to take part in the campaign against the Japanese, with the intention of the rest of the division to follow. The war ended suddenly in August with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese formally surrendered on 2 September. Thus the division's move was halted and the 5th Brigade was employed in operations in Malaya and Singapore to assist in the disarmament of the Japanese occupation forces. The brigade subsequently moved to Java, where it attempted to assist in maintaining order against hostile nationalist forces intent on preventing the Dutch from returning to the colony. The division left with the arrival of substantial forces from the Royal Netherlands Army in April 1946.

Elsewhere the division was moved to Palestine starting 15 September 1945 and finishing 6th of November.[13] Originally the aim of the move was to allow the division to make use of the air training facilities in southern Palestine.[13] The deteriorating security situation resulted in the division taking part in internal security duties against Zionist organisations known as Irgun, Haganah and the Lehi (group) who were attempting to expel the British. The 6th Division continued to carry out operations against the groups in difficult circumstances until they were disbanded on 1 April 1948 just before the British withdrawal from Palestine.

In the present-day British Army the 16 Air Assault Brigade (named to perpetuate the 16 Parachute Brigade) is numbered in honour of the 1st Airborne and 6th Airborne divisions.


Order of Battle

The Division order of battle for the invasion of Normandy was as follows:

  • 6th Airborne Division (Major-General Gale)
    • Divisional Troops
      • 53rd (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airlanding Light Regiment, RA (Lieutenant-Colonel Tony Teacher)
      • 2 Forward (Airborne) Observation Unit, RA (Major Harry Rice)
      • 2nd Airlanding Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, RA (Major W. A. H. Rowatt)
      • 6th Airborne Divisional Postal Unit, RE (Captain JCG Hine RE)
      • 22nd Independent Parachute Company (Major Francis Lennox-Boyd)
      • 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Godfrey Stewart)
      • 6th Airborne Division Signals (Lieutenant-Colonel D. Smallman-Tew)
      • 63rd Composite Company, RASC (Major A. C. Billie-Top)
      • 398th Composite Company, RASC (Major M. E. Phipps)
      • 716th Composite Company, RASC (Major E. C. Jones)
      • 6th (Airborne) Divisional Ordnance Field Park, RASC (Major W. L. Taylor)
      • 6th (Airborne) Divisional Workshops, REME (Major E. B.Bonniwell)
      • 10th Airlanding Light Aid Detachment, REME
      • 12th Airlanding Light Aid Detachment, REME
      • 6th (Airborne) Divisional Provost Company, RMP (Captain Irwin)
      • 317th Field Security Section, Intelligence Corps (Captain F G MacMillan / Capt. Donaldson-Loudon)
    • 3rd Parachute Brigade (Brigadier James Hill)
      • 8th (Midland Counties) Parachute Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Alastair Pearson)
      • 9th (Eastern and Home Counties) Parachute Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway)
      • 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel George Bradbrooke)
      • 3rd Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery, RA (Major Nick Crammer)
      • 3rd Parachute Squadron, RE (Major Tim Roseveare)
      • 224th Parachute Field Ambulance, RAMC (Lieutenant-Colonel D. H. Thompson)
    • 5th Parachute Brigade (Brigadier Nigel Poett)
      • 7th (Light Infantry) Parachute Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Geoffrey Pine-Coffin)
      • 12th (Yorkshire) Parachute Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Johnson)
      • 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Luard)
      • 4th Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery, RA (Major Peter Dixon)
      • 591st Parachute Squadron, RE (Major Andy Wood who was captured on 6 June, thereafter by Major Gordon F Davidson)
      • 225th Parachute Field Ambulance, RAMC (Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Harvey)
    • 6th Airlanding Brigade (Brigadier Edwin Flavell)
    • Attached Units
      • The Glider Pilot Regiment
        • No. 1 Wing (Lieutenant-Colonel Iain Murray)
        • No. 2 Wing (Lieutenant-Colonel John Place)
      • HQ, 245th Provost Company, RMP


  1. ^ D-Day - The Normandy Landings
  2. ^ Matthew J. Seelinger (2007). "Operation Varsity: The Last Airborne Deployment of World War II". Army Historical Research. http://www.armyhistory.org/armyhistorical.aspx?pgID=1017&id=139&exCompID=177. Retrieved 2008-05-01.  
  3. ^ Saunders, Tim, p. 41
  4. ^ Devlin, p. 258-259
  5. ^ Harclerode, p. 553
  6. ^ Jewell, p. 28
  7. ^ a b Devlin, p. 624
  8. ^ a b Otway, p. 307
  9. ^ Ministry of Information, p. 139
  10. ^ a b c d e Otway, p. 308
  11. ^ Otway, p. 302
  12. ^ Otway, pp. 302-303
  13. ^ a b Wilson, Dare (2008). With 6th Airborne Division in Palestine 1945-48. Pen & Sword Books Ltd. p. 4. ISBN 9781844157716.  

External links


  • Bernage, Georges (2002). Red Devils In Normandy. Heimdal. ISBN 2840481596.  
  • Devlin, Gerard M. (1979). Paratrooper - The Saga Of Parachute And Glider Combat Troops During World War II. Robson Books. ISBN 0-31259-652-9.  
  • Harclerode, Peter (2005). Wings Of War – Airborne Warfare 1918-1945. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-30436-730-3.  
  • Hickman, Mark. "Pegasus Archive". http://www.pegasusarchive.org. Retrieved 2006-12-07.  
  • Jewell, Brian (1985). "Over The Rhine" – The Last Days Of War In Europe. Spellmount Ltd. ISBN 0-87052-128-4.  
  • Mills, T.F.. "Land Forces of Britain, the Empire, and Commonwealth". http://www.regiments.org. Retrieved 2006-12-09.  
  • Ministry of Information (1978). By Air To Battle - The Official Account Of The British Airborne Divisions. P.Stephens. ISBN 0-85059-310-7.  
  • Otway, Lieutenant-Colonel T. B. H (1990). The Second World War 1939-1945 Army - Airborne Forces. Imperial War Museum. ISBN 0-90162-75-77.  
  • Saunders, Hilary (1985). The red beret: The story of the parachute regiment at war 1940-1945. Battery Press. ISBN 0898390877.  
  • Saunders, Tim (2006). Operation Plunder: The British & Canadian Rhine Crossing. Leo Cooper Ltd. ISBN 1-84415-221-9.  


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