“Nearly 300 pathfinders took part in the pre-invasion.”
IN HIS LANDMARK book D-Day: June 6, 1944, author Stephen E. Ambrose tells the story of Sgt. Elmo Jones of the U.S. 101st Airborne. Moments after leaping out of a C-47 Dakota into the darkness above Normandy, the young paratrooper found himself standing alone in enemy territory. “Damn,” he said to himself. “I just cracked the Atlantic Wall.”
Jones was a pathfinder – one of the specially trained elite fighting men who volunteered to be among the first Allied soldiers to parachute into Occupied France. Surrounded, outnumbered and deep behind the Nazi lines, Jones and his squadmates were charged with a vital task: to secure the drop zones and then illuminate them for the 20,000 other Allied paratroopers that would be arriving within the hour. Nearly 300 pathfinders took part in the pre-invasion. In honour of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, we thought we’d compile some fascinating facts about these remarkable trailblazers.
(NOTE: Originally published June, 6, 2014)
• The pathfinders parachuted into Normandy a full hour ahead of the main airborne assault and six hours before the amphibious troops hit the beaches. Once on the ground, they were to seize the drop zones and use special radio sets and signal lanterns to shepherd Allied aircraft into the target areas. Pathfinders typically jumped in small sections or “sticks” of just 18 paratroopers: one dozen to assemble the special beacons and lights and another six to provide security. Each pathfinder group was assigned its own landing zone to capture and mark. The American drop sites were located a few miles inland from Utah Beach in the west, while the British made their jumps east of Sword Beach.
• One key piece of pathfinder gear was the top-secret “Eureka” radio transponder, an ingenious bit of technology developed in Great Britain in 1943 and then later manufactured in the U.S. The satchel-sized device was designed to emit a series of pulses that could be picked up and measured by Allied aircraft. Using special receivers known as “Rebeccas,” pilots in the lead drop planes could zero in on the pathfinders’ transmissions and then calculate their distance to the objective. As the aircraft closed to visual range, the ground teams helped crews pinpoint the landing zones using special hand-held Holophane lanterns.
• The first American pathfinder units were established in the wake of the botched night airdrops of the 1943 Sicily campaign — a full year before the Normandy invasion. Gen. James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne pioneered the concept and trained his volunteers in infiltration tactics, as well as the use flares, smoke canisters, lanterns and radio beacons. The British established their own pathfinder group, the 21st Independent Parachute Regiment, as early as 1942.
• American pathfinders made their first combat jump on Sept. 13, 1943 — barely a week after being formed. The unit leaped into Italy just minutes ahead of the main Allied drop over Paestum. The outfit managed to guide elements of 82nd Airborne’s 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment right onto the target using lanterns and transponders. During the same operation, pathfinders from the 101st took part in missions around Avellino, while British volunteers jumped onto the Primosle Bridge in advance of a much larger landing. Following their combat debut, the American pathfinder teams were withdrawn from action and sent to a special training camp at RAF North Witham in Lincolnshire, England to hone their skills for the upcoming invasion of France.
• The pathfinders would play a key role in the airborne phase of Operation Overlord. At about 9:30 p.m. local time on June 5, 20 American C-47s carrying more than 200 of the specially trained paratroopers lifted off from an airfield in Southern Britain, cruised out over the channel and made for the Normandy coast. Just after midnight on June 6, the aircraft were over France and the pathfinders hit the silk. Dangerously low cloud cover forced some sticks to jump from only 300 feet. According to D-Day veterans, the planes were so close to the ground that the pathfinders’ chutes had scarcely opened when they were touching down. Once on earth, the teams shed their harnesses, gathered their gear and set about preparing the drop zones for the massive airborne assault that was set to arrive before the hour was out.
• Despite all of those long months of training, pathfinder operations on D-Day were a total mess. Of the 18 Dakotas that made it to Normandy, only one managed to unload its paratroopers over the target. Thick clouds, rotten visibility and heavy ground fire resulted in mostly missed drops. One unlucky group descended right onto a German position and another stick landed in the English Channel.
• Of those that arrived within walking distance of their objectives, many were unable to locate their radio gear in time. Others had lost their signal lanterns during the jump and had to rely on pocket flashlights. Damaged equipment hampered the efforts of still more. Some that did manage to get their gear working transmitted from the wrong landing zones.  Because of the mix ups, most of the main Allied drops on D-Day were scattered across the countryside. Yet despite these considerable setbacks, the airborne portion of Overlord succeeded in sowing confusion among the German defenders.
• Pathfinders would later take part in the August 1944 invasion of Southern France, dubbed Operation Dragoon, as well as the massive yet disastrous September daylight landings in Holland — Operation Market Garden. Pathfinders from the 101st even jumped into Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and used their beacons and lights to facilitate supply drops aimed at relieving the besieged city. Others would take part in Operation Varsity, the last major airborne mission of the war.
• Pathfinders from the U.S. Army’s 511th PIR were also used in the Philippines in 1945. Although the dense jungles in the Far East prevented the same sorts of massive airborne operations that were seen in Europe, Pacific pathfinders served as commandos.
• Pathfinders were deployed to Korea, where they jumped along with the main force at the October 1950 Battle of Yongju as well as with the 3,400 American and Indian paratroops that participated in Operation Tomahawk in 1951. During the Vietnam War, U.S. airborne and air cav pathfinders served as reconnaissance troops and helped secure landing zones during helicopter operations. British pathfinders performed reconnaissance missions in the 1999 Kosovo war, operations in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq.