In November 1942, the British War Office made the decision to strengthen the existing airborne forces in preparation for plans to fight back against the German army on a grand scale. Within these new developments, the Essex Regiment was chosen to be converted into a new parachute unit and hundreds of young men volunteered. They were rigorously tested both physically and mentally in order to earn the right to wear the Para Wings shoulder badge (pictured above) and the distinguished red beret that signified them as a paratrooper. Those that qualified went on to become the prestigious 9th Parachute Battalion of the 6th Airborne Division. They were trained to limits beyond their endurance, knowing nothing of the mission ahead, motivated only by the confidence of youth and an ingrained desire to destroy the terrible forces that were in relentless pursuit of taking over the world.
Operation Overlord, the code name for the entire D-Day operation, was meticulously planned and developed over the next eighteen months. It included a detailed objective named Operation Tonga, specifically designed for the 6th Airborne Division. Commanded by Major-General Richard Nelson Gale, the division was tasked with a number of objectives planned to take place in Normandy between the 5th and 7th of June, including the capture of two bridges over the River Orne and the Caen Canal, and the silencing of the Merville Battery. The 9th Parachute Battalion, the battalion that features in my novel, was given the mission to disable the guns at Merville overlooking Normandy’s Sword Beach. If left in operation, the battery cannons would threaten the British landings on the eastern flank of the invasion. If the 9th failed to capture the German soldiers and disable the guns in the hours before the dawn on the 6th June 1944, the armada of British battleships approaching Sword Beach would be facing possible destruction before the invasion could even begin.
This story, more than any other, inspired me to write a novel because my husband’s uncle was one of the 600 plus men of the battalion that dropped into Normandy just after midnight on 5th June 1944; he was one of the 150 that survived the night to fight this battle just before the dawn, and he was one of only 75 that made it through the fight with their lives. I was quite literally blown away by the thought of all those brave young souls going into such a thing. It made me ponder all those lives that were lost, their families and loved ones back home - their lives before this war stole it all from them. And from these thoughts, mostly developed on long solitary walks in the countryside (when I do my best thinking), grew my tale.
If you would like to learn more about these soldiers and their mission, I highly recommend The Day the Devils Dropped In by Neil Barber. He conducted many interviews with the survivors and tells the entire mission across six days using their own words. It’s heart-breaking in its honesty.
You can click on the image below to visit Neil's website, or visit the Facebook page for the book here.