June 6th, 1944, known as D-Day, was a historic day for France. Almost exactly four years from the date of the Nazi invasion of their country the French people were about to be liberated by an Allied forces combined naval, land and airborne assault on five Normandy beaches. Operation Overlord, as the operation was codenamed, had been planned in great detail.
During the first half of 1944, almost 9 million tons of logistical supplies had arrived in Britain from America. Almost two million troops from America, Canada, and other countries had poured into the United Kingdom throughout late 1943 and early 1944. By late May 1944, the stage was set for what would be the biggest combined forces operation in history.
Overlord was divided into two main operational phases. In the early hours of 6th June, an airborne assault force of more than 18,000 Allied paratroopers was dropped into territory just behind the beaches. Their primary purpose was to provide support for the 132,000 strong seaborne invasion force – men who would disembark from landing craft, directly onto the five beaches. Almost 7000 vessels were involved in the operation, from Battleships and destroyers to escort ships. Naval ships would bombard Nazi coastal defence positions.
One of the British Army officers who took part in the airborne assault was Eric Woodman, commanding the 7th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. Woodman and his men landed by parachute to support the glider-borne, coup-de-main force that had captured the bridges across the Orne River and the Caen Canal.
Eric Woodman was just 23 years old when he led his men against German tanks and heavy artillery that night.
The battalion had been spread over a wide area on landing, and was unable to fully reassemble in time – only half of the men had reached their assembly points and with few supplies retrieved, when they came under heavy fire. The fight went badly, and by nightfall that day, Woodman was the only surviving officer.
Woodman and his men fought on, and with the help of some men from 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, they managed to hold the bridges against repeated German counter-attacks, which were often supported by tanks and self-propelled guns, until reinforcements arrived.
Eric Woodman’s distinguished army career continued until the end of the war and beyond.
All through WWII he served with the 7th Para battalion, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 to 1945 and, in March 1945, assault crossing of the Rhine he was dropped behind enemy lines.
He was awarded a Military Cross for his actions before and on D-Day, and later, in Palestine and the Dutch East Indies. He also served on the British Army staff in Washington DC, finally retiring in 1975.
Colonel Woodman died on January 14th, 2016 aged 94.