Tonga! Tonga! Tonga!
While the U.S. airborne landings in Normandy during Operation Overlord, involving 13,100 paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions making night parachute drops early on D-Day followed by 3,937 glider troops flown in after dawn– are well known, especially following Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, the British companion drops the same morning gets less attention.
Official caption: “Paratroopers from the 22nd Independent Parachute Company of the British 6th Airborne Division with their divisional “Pegasus” mascot before the start of Operation Tonga (part of Operation Overlord, the Allied landings in Normandy) at RAF Harwell. June 5, 1944.”
Operation Tonga, involving 8,500 men of the British 6th Airborne Division (which included the unsung 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion), was given the key tasks of seizing the two strategically important bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River at Bénouville and Ranville and destroying the Merville Gun Battery behind Sword Beach.
IWM caption: OPERATION OVERLORD (THE NORMANDY LANDINGS): D-DAY 6 JUNE 1944. The Final Embarkation: Four ‘stick’ commanders of 22nd Independent Parachute Company, British 6th Airborne Division, synchronizing their watches in front of an Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle of No 38 Group, Royal Air Force, at about 11 pm on 5 June, just prior to taking off from RAF Harwell, Oxfordshire. This pathfinder unit parachuted into Normandy in advance of the rest of the division in order to mark out the landing zones, and these officers, left to right, – Lieutenants, Bobby de la Tour Don Wells John Vischer Bob Midwood were among the first Allied troops to land in France. Comment: This was Operation Tonga.
Tonga was overall successful, though not without the same sort of brutal fighting that the 82nd and 101st had to pull off on D-Day. While the 6th Airborne Division lost 10 percent of the men who alighted on French soil that day, their war was just beginning, and would within a couple of months lead them to a “Bridge too far.”