Pathfinders of D-Day


Pathfinder arm patch.

Tuesday marked the 79th anniversary of the Allied amphibious assault in northwest Europe. The first men on the ground were the pathfinders. They were organized in teams of 14-18 paratroopers and jumped an hour ahead of the main body of parachute infantry.

Because each stick jumped from a single plane, it was often not obvious to the defenders that a small group of paratroopers had landed. Thus, they could mark a drop zone in relative calm just before all hell broke loose when the mass of troop carrier planes was spotted by the enemy.

After the badly scattered drops in North Africa and Sicily, the Allied command decided hastily to train pathfinder units for jumps in Italy. The paratroopers and pilots received special training in air navigation so that they would be more likely to find their DZ. Three sticks were assigned to each drop zone so that at least one would be able to mark the DZ. A stick consisted of eight to 12 soldiers to mark the DZ, and six soldiers as “bodyguards.” The hastily assembled pathfinders performed very well in several drops in Italy, so Allied commanders decided to expand the concept for Overlord with better equipment and additional training.

Once on the ground, Pathfinder teams assembled several Eureka directional radar transmitters at the DZ. The troop carriers had Rebecca receivers that would constantly send out a timed pulse. When the Eureka receiver detected the pulse, it would respond with a coded pulse of its own. Thus the pathfinders on the ground were not broadcasting their location until the troop carriers approached.

Since this was a night drop, the pathfinders set up prismatic Holophane lights in a T-shape to mark the DZ. The prismatic lights directed the beams toward the expected approach direction of the troop carriers and (hopefully) away from any German troops nearby.

British pathfinders synchronize their watches before boarding the planes for the flight to occupied France.

Three hundred pathfinders took off at 21:30 on 5 June and flew toward occupied France. At 00:15, the pathfinders jumped onto the continent, the first elements of a mighty combined arms force that would bring Germany to its knees less than a year later. They had to work quickly to set up their beacons for the main body that was only an hour behind.

The pathfinders did not perform as well as they had in Italy, but they were still somewhat useful. Only one team found its DZ, but many were close, so they provided useful beacons for the main body to cluster on. Some were foiled by the same low cloud bank that would confuse the pilots of the main body. A couple of DZs were occupied by German forces, so the Allied pathfinders could not set up. And a few lost most of their equipment when some pathfinder planes when down. While the parachute infantry did scatter on D-Day, they did not scatter nearly as badly as they had in Sicily.

Courageous pathfinders led the way for three divisions of parachute infantry (US 82nd and 101st and British 6th), consisting of 20,000 men, to land an hour later. Another 132,000 would land by sea that day. The most complex amphibious assault in history was underway.

Stick 1, Team C, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne, before taking off for France.

Published in History
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  1. Steve Fast Coolidge
    Steve Fast

    This was actually the WWII Pathfinder patch. The one I inserted into the article is a more modern one.


    • #1
  2. kedavis Coolidge

    The one in the OP looks more like a pin, not a patch.

    • #2
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