Leaping into D-Day: A paratrooper's tale

Honoring the heroic paratroopers of World War II – with a commemorative 75th-anniversary jump.

‘DRAG EM Oot’: The writer and brother-in-law Jason Gibbs ready to board the C-47 on June 5. (photo credit: MARK GRANAT)
‘DRAG EM Oot’: The writer and brother-in-law Jason Gibbs ready to board the C-47 on June 5.
(photo credit: MARK GRANAT)
When Private Peter Claude Denby-Dreyfuss leapt out of his C-47 Dakota troop transport aircraft into the dark, dangerous, flak-torn night, he did not really know what awaited him at the end of his short parachute drop to the ground. He had no idea that the majority of the paratroops in the two British parachute brigades dropping with him north-east of Caen in Normandy would be scattered far from their assigned drop zones by difficult weather and by German anti-aircraft fire forcing the pilots to take evasive action.
He hadn’t a clue that many of the paratroops would be without support weapons and radios, the lack of which might dangerously cripple the paratroops’ ability to successfully engage the enemy. He probably couldn’t even have imagined that with all these major disadvantages, by the time dawn broke on June 6, his battalion, and the other five battalions of the parachute brigades of the 6th Airborne Division, would have achieved all their objectives.
Peter was not alone. With him, some 4,200 other British paratroops were jumping into the night, possessed with the same uncertainty, heading for the same place, some for the same fate. And about 50 miles to the west at about the same time, some 13,100 American paratroopers of the of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would begin the exact same adventure.
These were the opening moves of Operation Overlord, the crucial moment in which the Allied armies under General Dwight D. Eisenhower began that dangerous leap across the English Channel to land on the shores of Northern France. From there, these forces, once established, could begin to wrest control of continental Europe from its Nazi occupiers. This was D-Day.
The two American airborne divisions on the right (east) flank of the invasion area and the single British airborne division on the left (west) flank were assigned the job of ensuring that those flanks of the vulnerable landing beaches were safe from direct counterattack. They additionally had to destroy vital German artillery batteries to prevent them from shelling the landing beaches, blow up bridges to prevent rapid German reinforcement, capture yet more bridges to ensure swift progress of the seaborne forces inland, and secure exit routes from the least accessible beach areas.
It was never a foregone conclusion that the seaborne landings would be preceded by a mass airborne drop to secure flanks. Some senior commanders wanted the airborne forces to be dropped deeper into enemy territory. Others did not want an airborne drop at all. Mindful of the high losses in previous airborne invasion operations, particularly in Sicily, they feared that unacceptable casualties were inevitable and operational benefit unlikely.
UNDER HIS parachute: The writer takes to the air during the course in Denison, Texas. (Credit: MARK GRANAT)UNDER HIS parachute: The writer takes to the air during the course in Denison, Texas. (Credit: MARK GRANAT)
PETER HAD no time for such fears. He was well-trained and tough. And, rather unusually for a member of the Parachute Regiment, he was German.
His parents were Jewish. He and his parents had fled to England from the Nazi persecution in the 1930s and eventually the son Peter found himself in the British Army.
Not long after the war’s beginning, the War Office realized that the large influx of Jewish refugees from Europe, particularly from Nazi Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, rather than being treated as enemy aliens, could actually furnish much-needed skilled manpower for the British Army. A program was begun to enlist these Jews into the Pioneer Corps – a force whose main mission involved heavy engineering and construction tasks. A March 31, 1940 bulletin from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported:
“Recruiting of Jewish refugees for the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, which is an integral part of the British Army, is proceeding satisfactorily, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency was informed by officials today.
“Several companies have already been enlisted in the Corps, commanded by the Marquess of Reading. They include engineers, lawyers, doctors, commercial travelers and manual workers. The Corps is open to men between the ages of 20 and 50. Every man enlisting has the same chance of advancement as the ordinary Tommy and gets the same pay.
“Wives of the refugee volunteers are exempted from the usual formalities required of aliens when seeking jobs. They also receive the ordinary separation allowances.”
But large numbers of the younger men were parched for revenge for the humiliations that they and their families had endured at the hands of the Nazis, and service in the Pioneer Corps did not satisfy that thirst. Many of these new Pioneer soldiers volunteered for, and were accepted into, Britain’s elite fighting units – those being, of course, the Commandos, the Glider Pilot Regiment and the Parachute Regiment. Peter volunteered for the latter and, graduating from Parachute Jump Course Number 87 at Ringway, Manchester, he was posted to the 13th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.
Like most of the men jumping on D-Day, he had no combat experience. Of all the units dropping from the sky that night, only the American 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment had already been at war as a unit in both the island of Sicily and Italy. With the exception of some of the officers and NCOs transferred from Britain’s seasoned 1st Airborne Division, all of Peter’s comrades in the 6th Airborne were fresh.
Yet they were superbly trained. For more than a year these men had practiced night drops, capturing enemy positions in the dark, street fighting, engaging enemy tanks with light weapons, fieldcraft, weapons – indeed the entire repertoire of the light infantryman. They felt that no task was beyond them.
Still, for most of those landing in the dark in the Normandy countryside, there was confusion and fear. It was something they had all been taught to expect. The commander of the British 3rd Parachute Brigade, Brigadier James Hill, had concluded his final briefing to his subordinates saying, “Gentlemen, in spite of your excellent orders and training, do not be daunted if chaos reigns. It undoubtedly will.”
And so it did.
THE WRITER’S team descends over Sainte- German-de-Varreville. (Credit: DARREN CINATL)THE WRITER’S team descends over Sainte- German-de-Varreville. (Credit: DARREN CINATL)
THE 13th Battalion’s drop was scattered. Only 60% of the roll assembled on the drop zone but the CO, Lieutenant Colonel Luard, could not wait. He led those men that were on hand to take their primary objective, the village of Ranville. It was secured without difficulty by 0400 (4 a.m.).
After D-Day, the paratroops and glider-borne men of the 6th Airborne Division fought to stabilize their fragile bridgehead to the east of the Orne River, culminating in the decisive victory in the struggle for Breville on June 12. A period of “static warfare” for the division followed, in which neither the 6th Airborne nor their opposition attempted to capture any territory. But it was warfare nonetheless, characterized by aggressive patrolling.
And it was deadly. The chaplain of the 13th battalion, Captain Whitfield Foy, described one such patrol on June 19th near Le Mesnil (there are at least three hamlets called Le Mesnil in Normandy – this one is not far from Ranville):
“… following the return in the early hours of a patrol led by Lieutenant “Joe” Hodgson of “A” Company, bringing information on the location of a troublesome S.P. [self-propelled gun]. [Number] 7 Platoon were detailed to attack and destroy the vehicle. After mortar preparation, they advanced, only to run into heavy machine gun fire, were pinned down and forced to withdraw. During this engagement one officer and 14 O.R.s [other ranks] were wounded and 2 O.R.s missing.”
One of the missing “O.R.s” was the German-born Jew, Peter Claude Denby-Dreyfuss. He and Private Stanyon had both been killed in the attack by the machine-gun fire. Their bodies, lying in no-man’s-land, could not be recovered for many days.
The young German-Jewish paratrooper, together with his English teammate, died attempting to destroy a dangerous enemy armored fighting vehicle that was normally impervious to the attentions of lightly armed infantry.
This is the perennial problem of the paratrooper. On landing, he has with him the little that he carries and, if lucky, may be supported by a smattering of heavier equipment delivered by gliders. He is cut off from the more substantial devices of war that his enemy can muster at will: heavy artillery, tanks and other armor, plentiful ammunition for mortars, regular resupply, evacuation for his casualties. All these things are unknown luxuries. Even when linkup with ground forces is made, airborne divisions are scarce on artillery and heavy anti-tank weapons.
For these lacks, the airborne soldier must compensate with superior endurance and military skill. If is for this reason that airborne forces are the elite of any army, carefully selected and highly trained. The bravest. The very best.
How does one pay tribute to men such as these?
THE GRAVE of Jewish Private Peter Claude Denby- Dreyfuss. (Credit: MARK GRANAT)THE GRAVE of Jewish Private Peter Claude Denby- Dreyfuss. (Credit: MARK GRANAT)
Parachuting? At my age?
Even as a child I was a military history buff, and I was particularly fascinated by paratroops and parachute operations, especially those of the British Army. When I immigrated to Israel in 1983 as a young man and joined the IDF, I would have volunteered for the Parachute Brigade, but a temporary knee injury meant that I could not take part in their selection. Instead, I volunteered for another fine unit, the Golani Brigade. My curiosity around parachuting was finally satisfied at the end of my compulsory service when I was posted to the parachute school at Tel Nof to do the IDF jump course, as a reward for good service.
I loved it. I loved the atmosphere of the training, and the careful diligence of the instructors. I loved the various contraptions and devices used to train the troops to exit the aircraft correctly and, even more importantly, to execute safely the proper parachute landing fall (PLF).
I fell in love with the pure physical thrill of the jump. Inside the aircraft, on the run-in to the drop zone, all your senses are under attack. It’s dark. The noise from the engines is deafening. Your body is weighed down by helmet, main chute and reserve chute. Then, at the moment you exit the aircraft door, all those pressures are released in an instant, as if someone had popped a champagne cork. From darkness you are suddenly in bright sunlight, from the noise you are suddenly in total silence, and from the annoying downward pull of all your gear you are suddenly floating weightlessly in the slipstream. It’s an explosion of relief that is almost sexual. The British World War II paratrooper James Sims wrote, “Paratroopers say there are only two real thrills in life: they both last five seconds and one of them is parachuting.”
It’s not even five seconds and the canopy develops and you are now floating. If you are lucky and the leg straps haven’t caught hold of anything hanging loose in the groin area, you can enjoy the gentle ride down to the earth.
Some paratroopers enjoy the exit – with its momentary uncertainty regarding the development of the canopy – far less than the calm ride of the rest of the descent. But for me, the exit is the greatest.
Most of all, I loved that I seemed to be living in history. I loved the way the IDF methods were so obviously based on the British paratroop traditions from the Second World War, and that the training apparatus we used at Tel Nof was so familiar to me from what I had read about “Kilkenny’s Circus” – the equipment used at Ringway during the war. Hardly anything had changed between 1945 and 1985. The parachutes were a little better, a tad safer, but essentially the same. The modern C-130 aircraft were bigger, faster and more dependable, but the experience was the same. In the days in which massed parachute drops were a thing of the past and the role of the military parachutist had been reduced, in the words of military historian John Keegan, to that of a “clandestine interloper,” taking part in a modern military parachute course was a trip into a bygone era.
The three jumps I did were really not enough. As a reservist, I wasn’t in a parachute unit and so I had to shelve the dream of ever jumping again. I watched my older son, Hanoch, join the IDF paratroops and I actually went to observe one of his jumps as many parents do; later my youngest son, Yoav, in different unit, also parachuted. But for me, it seemed, that particular experience was one I would have to remember instead of re-live.
Then, last year, I overheard a telephone conversation between my wife Naomi and her mother in Texas. The part I heard was, “Oh, Mom, Mark would love to do that!” What was it I would love to do?
My mother-in-law, Georgie, is a CPA in Burleson in Texas, and one day that January she got a new client. This was a young man named Shawn Ross. His occupation? Tandem skydiving and packing parachutes.
Shawn explained to Georgie that he packs parachutes for both skydivers and for round canopy commemorative parachutists. The latter are World War II enthusiasts and trained parachutists who dress up in period paratrooper uniforms, get aboard restored, vintage C-47 aircraft from that era and, using round canopy parachutes very similar to those used back then, they parachute at air shows and the like. And every year in June, they parachute into the actual drop zones used by the airborne divisions in Normandy on D-Day.
Interesting as this was, it may have meant nothing at all to Georgie were it not for the fact that her own father, PFC Lorne Duane Thornbrue, had himself been in the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II.
So Shawn introduced Georgie, my mother-in-law, to the Liberty Jump Team.
LIBERTY JUMP Team’s four veterans in Set-Mer-Eglise: (left to right) Bob Noody (506PIR, 101Abn); George Merz (818th MP); Dan McBride (502PIR, 101Abn); and Bill Van Osdol (US Navy).( Credit: PETER PLANK)LIBERTY JUMP Team’s four veterans in Set-Mer-Eglise: (left to right) Bob Noody (506PIR, 101Abn); George Merz (818th MP); Dan McBride (502PIR, 101Abn); and Bill Van Osdol (US Navy).( Credit: PETER PLANK)
Liberty Jump Team
Liberty Jump Team is one of several “teams” or “groups” of similar enthusiasts in the US and Europe that participate in commemorative round canopy parachuting. Liberty is a nonprofit educational organization composed entirely of volunteers who feel strongly about honoring the veterans of all wars, but with a special love for the paratroopers. The Team has close relations with the US Army and is regularly invited to jump with the army on their installations at their special airborne events.
But the highlight of Liberty’s year is the regular trip to Normandy every June to enact commemorative jumps in honor of the paratroopers who led the invasion of Europe. Indeed, Liberty participants were the first civilian parachutists ever to take part in the official French government commemoration of the D-Day invasion, and have been invited by the French government to jump at La Fière every year since 2009. Additionally, Liberty is invited by the mayors of the other towns adjacent to the original drop zones to jump in Normandy each year.
Shawn explained to Georgie that the “big” one was coming up next year, in 2019 – the 75th anniversary of D-Day – which, as the last major occasion in which a large number of veterans would be present (as those that are still alive are well into their 90s), was expected to be a particularly extraordinary event.
Georgie thought of her son, my brother-in-law Jason Gibbs. He would love to do that. And when she told my wife Naomi, Naomi thought of me.
Naomi knows me well.
I would get to parachute again, and I would have an opportunity to pay a small but unique tribute to the heroes of my youth – the British and American paratroopers of World War II. And I would be able to do it in a way that would be meaningful and powerful. Jump out of a Dakota into the actual D-Day drop zones? What could be cooler than that?
STILL FROM the author’s GoPro footage on leaving the aircraft. (Credit: MARK GRANAT)STILL FROM the author’s GoPro footage on leaving the aircraft. (Credit: MARK GRANAT)
BUT IT wasn’t so simple. I initially gave odds of five-to-one against me being able to take part in something that, in addition to being exciting and meaningful, was probably physically challenging. I was already 56, and in February 2017 I had suffered a heart attack and had a stent inserted in one of my cardiac arteries. But never one to be kept down for long, I recovered quickly enough to run the Tiberias marathon in 2018. When I presented this fact, along with a description of the planned parachute jumps, to the cardiologist who had supervised my rehab, he was more than happy to sign my medical release to go and parachute. The odds now looked much better.
I next had to acquire the necessary kit for jumping into Normandy. This led to some interesting conversations at home. At one Friday-night dinner, my youngest son, Yoav, a qualified parachutist, was puzzled. “Let me get this right,” he said. “You are going to climb aboard an 80-year-old aircraft, and jump with a parachute you bought from eBay?” (And Naomi, without missing a beat, quipped, “Is your life insurance up-to-date?”)
I had indeed acquired my chute from eBay, but there was no cause for alarm because the seller of my SET-10 steerable round parachute came well-recommended by the Liberty staff. In March, I journeyed to Denison, Texas, to meet the Liberty people, collect my new eBay acquisition and use it to take part in a parachute refresher course.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the people who run Liberty. Each and every one gives of their own free time to offer people like me the opportunity to jump. Many are the children or grandchildren of World War II paratroopers. Many are also ex-service personnel themselves. The chief instructor, Butch Garner, was in the 82nd Airborne Division and fought in Vietnam, being wounded and losing a leg. He still jumps, using his prosthesis, and you wouldn’t know he was an amputee unless you were told. John Hawkins was our jumpmaster during the course. He is utterly professional, with a mind that can focus like a laser beam. When he sends you out that door into the empty sky, you know that no other person on earth could do a better job of making sure you were absolutely safe.
The members are of all ages and both sexes. There are Vietnam veterans in their 70s and 80s. One of the youngest jumpers this year was a 26-year-old woman, Callie Pruett, who had fallen in love with the whole idea watching a jump at an air show.
There’s a kindred spirit about the team that’s hard to describe, and revolves around the love of parachuting, but even more so, a deep appreciation of the war history and paratrooper lore. To illustrate, one of the men who came to the course to do refresher jumps before Normandy, Patrick Armitage, told me that he and his fiancée Brandi were planning on getting married in Normandy. On D-Day. When he explained that he was bringing neither family nor friends over from the US for the nuptials, I asked, “so who will be at the wedding?” And he said, “You will.” Fair enough. And when I said I would not be able to bring a tux, he told me, “That’s OK, I will be wearing my M42s (the American paratrooper combat uniform worn in Normandy).”
And to me, all that made sense. I was among people who spoke my language.
I completed the course and notched up three more jumps. I was on my way to Normandy.
BRANDI AND Patrick Armitage get married on Utah Beach on June 6. (Credit: MARK GRANAT)BRANDI AND Patrick Armitage get married on Utah Beach on June 6. (Credit: MARK GRANAT)
Normandy, June 2019
Normandy is a remarkable place at this time of year. Wherever you go, there are European and American flags everywhere. You see people of all ages, from all over the world, dressed in the combat uniforms of American or British service personnel from World War II. There are little processions of vintage military vehicles, jeeps, trucks, half-tracks and even tanks. I had brought my stepson, Yosef, 14, with me so he could enjoy some of the atmosphere and perhaps learn some history. Yosef watched all this going on with a keen eye and remarked, “It’s like a mix of [Israeli] Independence Day, Purim and the Pride Parade.”
That may sound funny, but the French are celebrating their very real liberation from an evil tyranny and they do so by dressing up in the garb of their liberators. So Yosef’s comment was actually a fair approximation – and the party goes on for days.
There are different events all over the area and the parachute jumps are just one out of many kinds of attractions. But for the parachutists, the jumps are more that. They are a pilgrimage.
There is yet one higher level of holiness – the veterans. Liberty has two men, Patrick Plank and Dale Lindley, who do not jump. Instead they dedicate their entire trip to bringing over and taking care of a small group of World War II veterans and taking them to events and ceremonies. Given that these veterans are well into their 90s, this is a 24-hour-a-day commitment requiring the utmost dedication. But it’s also the greatest privilege. And if we parachutists are honoring the heroes of World War II, then surely it must mean the most to those who were there, and who are still alive to see what we do. We parachute to honor the memory of the dead, both those killed in the war, and those who died after. But most of all we do it for the living veterans, as our token of gratitude.
Finally, the day came. On the evening of Wednesday, June 5, after a long wait at the airport in Cherbourg, I boarded the C-47, Drag Em Oot, with its engines turning and its very bones rattling. I was alongside friends and comrades about to take part in a sacred act of commemoration. With all the high fives of the excitement of finally getting going and the meticulous observation of technical procedures that ensure our safety, it was the view of the interior of this bullet-scarred warbird that had carried troops into Normandy and Arnhem, the proximity of our friends in their period uniforms, and the sounds of orders barked that were no different than those of the same ritual 75 years ago, that reminded us we were engaged in an act of the greatest solemnity.
Even the thrill of the rapid jump over the Saint-Germain-de-Vareville drop zone, the satisfaction of seeing a perfectly developed canopy, and the concentration required to get down safely onto the ground, could not dispel that solemnity. I was jumping over Normandy – and it wasn’t for me.
It was for all those paratroopers, like my wife’s grandfather PFC LD Thornbrue, who had fought against the Nazi tyranny.
It was for the men who had jumped into the unknown that night on D-Day, at a time not three hours later than our own jump time, 75 years before.
And it was for Peter Claude Denby-Dreyfuss, of blessed memory, whose life was cut short fighting willingly against the greatest of evils.
Finally, on Friday, June 7, 2019, I got to pay my respects to Peter. Some of my Liberty Jump Team friends came with me to the British War Cemetery at Ranville, where he is buried. While we stood by his grave and I spoke of Peter and chanted the memorial prayer, my friends listened respectfully. They observed with me the Jewish custom of placing a stone on the grave.
Together we gave thanks for the freedom that Peter Claude Denby-Dreyfuss’s sacrifice had helped to buy.
And I gave thanks to our Creator for this mighty privilege.
The writer wishes to thank Martin Sugarman, author of Fighting Back: British Jewry’s Military Contribution in the Second World War, and Daniel Levy of www.jewishwargraves.org for their help with the background for this article, and Ian “Spike” Hunter and Tamir Sinai for their encouragement to get him to parachute again.
The author of this piece is a Beit Shemesh-based technical writer for a Tel Aviv hi-tech company; he also owns a translation company