Formation of the First Airborne Task Force
The First Airborne Task Force originated in the grouping of all airborne elements available in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO) in February 1944.
On July 8, 1944, the Provisional Seventh Army Airborne Division was created in Lido di Roma. It is renamed "First Airborne Task Force" (FABTF) on July 15th. On the 17th, various airborne units were assembled at various airfield around and more or less distant from Rome, and training began three days later. Major General Robert T. Frederick, former commander of the First Special Service Force, takes command of the FABTF and has barely a month to prepare this force for an invasion. Despite being a paratrooper and an excellent leader and planner, he has no experience in preparing for a large scale airborne operation. To remedy this, 36 officers of the 13th Airborne Division and Airborne Command are sent from the United States to form the FABTF Headquarters. A group of paratroopers from the British Brigade are attached, and although they are organized and equipped differently compared to American units, it is thought that they are not a great inconvenience when conducting the operation, despite that it be an autonomous unit. 9732 Paratroopers and Glider Riders had been integrated into the First Airborne Task Force, known for unloading under the code name "RUGBY Force".
Among the FABTF units, only Bill Yarborough's 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion had already combat having already made 4 combat jumps and had made the first combat jump of the US Airborne on November 8, 1942 at the time. Torch operation.
Although having participated in some deadly skirmishes north of Rome in June and July 1944, the 517th PRCT, the largest unit of the Task Force was going to make its first combat jump.
Few units had ever participated in a campaign, only sister units such as the 550th Infantry Airborne Battalion and the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion would fight for the first time.
The British units of the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade had already fought in Italy, including in the Monte Cassino.
Before the operation, the training of the troops must be intensified, it is the Airborne Training Center which is in charge of organizing the exercises on the aerodrome of Lido di Roma. Pathfinders repeat the DZ/LZ markup procedures. Eureka radio beacons, Hollophane beacons and fluorescent panels will be used.
Race against time
At the beginning of July 1944, the air assets available in Italy were those of the 51st Troop Carrier Wing (TCW) with only two of these three operational groups for airborne operations, the 62nd and the 64th Troop Carrier Group (TCG). In order to fulfill the Dragoon mission as defined in the plans, two additional TCWs are required with a minimum contribution of 450 aircraft.
On 10 July, the 50th and 53rd TCW based in England, are temporarily placed at the disposal of the Provisional Troop Carrier Air Division (PTCAD) in charge of transporting airborne troops of the First Airborne Task Force. The 50th and 53rd TCW, already used in Normandy, each have four TCGs composed of three Troop Carrier Squadrons (TCS) for a total of 396 C-47s. In addition to these two TCWs, the Provisional Troop Carrier Air Division is allocated an additional 12 aircraft for pathfinders as well as five more for its staff or replacements. The two squadrons arrive in Italy on July 16th.
They are operational on the different aerodromes of the PTCAD from July 20th.
It is only on August 11th that PTCAD announces that it is able to carry out the missions assigned to the 1st ABTF for Operation Dragoon.
The chosen route starts from Italy, runs along the coast to the Elba island before continuing towards Cape Corsica and Provence. On the evening of August 14, all the troops are ready for the airborne assault. Meteorologists announce a clear night with the risk of fog over the drop zones.
Distribution and organization of the assault zones
For airborne units three major objectives are defined:
Land in Le Muy area on August 15th at 4:15 to prepare and cover the arrival of gliders, prohibit any enemy movement from Le Muy and le Luc to the beaches, support the landing of the 36th Infantry Division by taking the enemy defenses of Frejus.
In order to ensure these various missions, the Americans define three drop zones divided between the two American Combat Teams and the British Brigade. Two of these DZs will also be used to land gliders during the Dove mission in the late afternoon of August 15th.
These areas are distributed as follows:
- The paratroopers of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team are designated to be parachuted between La Motte and Le Muy on the DZ "A" and must occupy the heights north-east of Les Arcs and south-west of Muy and Trans-en-Provence, to seize La Motte and Les Arcs and to prohibit access to the main roads to Vidauban and Draguignan and clean the DZ for gliders arriving later.
-The 596th Parachute Combat Engineer Company that is part of the Combat Team must seize and blow up several bridges.
- The 509th Combat Team south of the Muy on the DZ "C" has the task of taking and holding the heights south of the Muy, cutting enemy lines and supporting the attack of Le Muy of the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade D-day.
- The 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade must be parachuted on the vineyards west of Le Mitan on the DZ "O" where the command post of the Task Force is to be installed and must occupy the areas east of La Motte and take Le Muy.
- The 551st PIB must raise the paratroopers of the 517th PIR during the Canary mission.
Gliders have LZ "A" and "O" to land.
Planes take off
Between midnight and two o'clock in the morning on August 15, around 6871 American, British and some French paratroopers boarded 270 C-47 aircraft at 10 different airfields around Rome. They are preceded by 121 Pathfinders taking off from Marcigliana airfield charged with marking the drop zones and directing the planes using the "Eureka" beacons (which send pulses picked up by the "Rebecca" transceivers installed under the Dakota fuselage). The marking of the DZ "O" is the only one to be realized in its entirety: for the other Pathfinders, the bad drop or the lack of recovered means or the presence of enemies on the DZ prevents the accomplishment of the mission.
During the duration of the flight on Provence, the Douglas C-47 are somewhat welcomed by the shots of the German ack-ack in approach of the coasts. During the whole flight, there must be no radio transmission apart for extreme emergencies. Luckily, a dense fog covers the area during the night, causing DCA gunners to randomly fire into the sky. The Albatross mission starts at 4:21 with the drop of the 509th on Drop Zone C
The lead aircraft in each serial must flash a light and pass it through the plastic astrodome above the cockpit. Some leaders of serials fail to give the signals, or they can not be seen in the fog; in other cases, the red lights are not lit or it is flashing green instead of red. This apparently causes the premature jump of a 509th stick and one of the 463rd PFAB and twenty of the 460th PFAB. There are many similar incidents. Thus, many parachutists find themselves dropped to several tens of kilometers of their objectives.
No matter where they fell, the paratroopers organize themselves into a small group and begin to sow confusion behind German positions, with the result that the enemy believes that the dropped troops are much larger.
Paratroopers have a psychological advantage over the enemy: They know where they are. They know and will do what needs to be done, while the Germans have no idea what these camouflaged "desperados" are doing around them. The Germans are not keen on rubbing themselves with the Allied paratroopers, but they are still putting up a fierce fight.
The bundles of the containers are particularly difficult to find. The beam lights are supposed to activate during the shock of the opening of the parachute, frequently torn or not working or when they light up, this attracts the attention of the Germans thus shooting.
The cause of all these SNAFU is the big fog pool unexpectedly. But there are other factors, including navigational errors, excessive speeds and altitudes, lack of practice in flight formations, and failures of the green and red lights system for the jump signal.
More than 60% of the parachutists are not dropped on the DZ initially planned. The pilots' navigational errors are such that the 700 paratroopers of 3/517 and a large part of the British brigade are dropped between Seillans and Montauroux 45 kilometers from their DZ and some of these parachutists are sometimes dropped near Cannes! Half of the 509th CT is parachuted to Saint-Tropez. The men of the three units are sometimes mixed on the field and the command of these teams becomes a matter of rank and charisma.
Several gliders must land during the Bluebird mission but due to heavy fog on the LZ O at 8 am, the aircraft turn around and land in Tarquinia.
At the end of the afternoon of August 15, they are joined by more than 2300 Glider Riders, such as heavy mortar units or anti-tank units, land. All the men of these units except those of the 550th IAB were already veterans of the bloody Italian campaign. 736 men of the 551st PIB also land on the Drop Zone A of the Valbourges area at 18:01.
Despite the success of Operation Dragoon as a whole, the result of the airborne operation is negative, Indeed, 60% of US paratroopers land too far from their sector, the figure is 40% for the British. 92 paratroopers and American and British Glider Riders died between August 15th and 19th. In conclusion, the accuracy of the landing of the paratroopers and gliders is deplorable and the fiasco was avoided only because of the lack of reaction of the enemy. This half-failure is cleverly concealed by the optimistic reports of the Airforce, which has not yet shone by the precision of its navigation.
In spite of unforeseen mishaps, the troops engaged, by dint of tenacity, self-denial and courage, led in difficult conditions the missions requested. They allowed the smooth landing and the transport of the land troops on the beaches of the Var coast.