Of all the moving parts to examine on D-Day, none is more interesting than the story of the Pathfinders. Their task was complex, and enormous in scale. An entire division, 6,600 men, depended on the actions of less than four pathfinder teams. Perhaps the 101st airborne division commander, General Maxwell Taylor, said it best in his memoir when he noted that:
“Parachute-pathfinder teams carrying lights and radar beacons for guiding in the planes were to drop shortly ahead of the main body and mark the landing areas. Theirs was the unenviable task of dropping into darkness into enemy-infested territory and announcing their own presence to the Germans by turning on their lights and beacon signals. These pathfinders were among the real heroes of D-day.”
Although sources conflict over whether or not Pathfinders made a difference in enabling the 101st Airborne Division to complete its mission on D-Day, their story is still captivating because on that day Pathfinders earned their motto of “First in, Last out”. Without Pathfinders, the invasion of Normandy would have been impossible.
Germany knew that an allied invasion of France was imminent. For months, allied spies and intelligence sought to leverage the knowledge gained through the invasion of Sicily and against weaknesses in the German defense of France. General Eisenhower knew that an attack on the coast would not be sufficient to invade because Germany had reserve troops and escape routes. The 101st Airborne division’s task was to seize four causeway exits because it was expected that VII Corps would have difficulty moving inland. The 101st and the 82nd were to jump in 5 hours before the landings on Omaha and Utah beach. The Pathfinders mission was crafted through lessons learned in their first use in the invasion of Italy on 13 September 1943.
The Role of Pathfinders on D-Day
In order for the 101st to seal off the 4 causeway exits and allow VII to successfully move inland, it needed to land in 4 drop zones codenamed A, C, D and E. One Pathfinder team was needed to mark each drop zone. Ideally the Pathfinders would be able to use multiple means of marking as a failsafe for the aircraft that were to follow to be on target with their jumpers. Eureka beacons would put out a signal to aircraft then receive the Rebecca signal from aircraft in reply. It gave away the position of the Pathfinders when it was turned on, which made the Pathfinder’s job more dangerous. Lights were to be used in a similar fashion to what is referred to today as a Ground Marked Release System (GMRS) drop zone, where the aircraft could align itself with lights along the drop heading and the jumpers would jump when they passed a set of lights that was perpendicular to the drop heading. Lights or Eureka beacons alone would not put Soldiers exactly where they were supposed to go. It was difficult for the aircraft to see the lights and get on track with the Eureka beacons because they were forced to fly...