The story of the Yorkshire parachute battalion who were first on the ground during the D-Day landings

Paratroopers landing in Normandy on D-Day.
Paratroopers landing in Normandy on D-Day.

Paratroopers played a key role in the D-Day landings, often going behind enemy lines and taking vital tactical positions and towns during the invasion.

And one Yorkshire parachute battalion was among the very first to land in France and take part in the historic military operation.

Paratroopers were used to great effect in the D-Day invasion.

Paratroopers were used to great effect in the D-Day invasion.

The 12th (Yorkshire) Parachute Battalion was decorated for its achievements during Operation Overlord, where they took of the village of Le Bas de Ranville and then defended it against German counter-attacks.

The 12th Battalion's operation

Converted from the 10th (East Riding Yeomanry) Battalion of the Green Howards to parachute duties in May 1943. The 12th Battalion was set up in anticipation of the Normandy landings and joined the 6th Airborne Division.

The codename for the battalion’s mission was Operation Tonga, and they were tasked with taking control of the German-occupied village of Le Bas De Ranville.

Landings on the Normandy beaches.

Landings on the Normandy beaches.

They landed on D-Day - June 6, 1943 - at 00:50 and faced difficulty immediately.

The battalion’s parachute drop was heavily dispersed, and only about two thirds of the group were accounted for when they launched their attack on Le Bas de Ranville.

In spite of this, the 12th were successful in their mission and the village was secured by 04:00. The 12th Battalion dug in and held the important tactical position until infantry advancing from the bach landings arrived to take over.

During their defence of the village, the 12th Battalion were under heavy mortar and artillery fire, and fought off two attacks from German Panzer Grenadier units. Later, the 12th Battalion helped to defend the the River Orne and Caen canal bridges.

Landing craft on the beaches of Normandy.

Landing craft on the beaches of Normandy.

Attacked by German Panzers

The next day they found themselves facing further armoured Panzer units while defending bridgeheads south of Le Bas de Ranville, including Pegasus Bridge. Although they suffered losses including three tanks and the crew of an anti-tank gun, the 12th Battalion fought off the attack.

These actions won the battalions' commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Johnson a posthumous Distinguished Service Order, while Private Francis James Hall of the battalion was awarded the Military Medal for destroying two of the Panzers in quick succession.

As Operation Overlord continued into June 9, the battalion were ordered to support the Royal Ulster Rifles in their assault on Honorine la Chardonnerette, which ultimately failed as the village proved to be too heavily defended.

The withdrawal from the village saw another of the 12th battalion awarded for bravery. Lance-Sergeant John Fennell Nankivell of the 12th Battalion Mortar platoon was awarded the Military Medal for continuing to man the Mortar under heavy sniper fire to cover the retreat.

Many died in the Battle of Breville

The 12th Battalion’s final action as part of the D-Day operation would prove to be costly. On June 12, an under-strength battalion was part of an assault on the village of Breville alongside support from the 12th Battalion Devonshires and the 22nd Independent Parachute Company.

The village was successfully captured, and this helped to prevent the German army from using it as a base for counter-attacks on the bridges at the River Orne and Caen canal.

However, 126 12th Battalion members were killed during the battle at Breville, including their leader Lieutenant Colonel Johnson, who was hit by a shell. The battalion’s three rifle companies were left with only 35 men between them.

After D-Day, the 12 Battalion played a part in the advance on the River Seine before returning to England in September of 1944.

In December 1944 it fought in response to the German Ardenne offensive, and its final action in Europe was as part of the River Rhine Crossing codenamed Operation Varsity. They advanced further into Germany and had reached the Baltic Sea by the time the war was over.

After the war the war the 12 Battalion was stationed in the Far East and later in Palestine.