Operation OVERLORD: 591st (Antrim) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers in Normandy

On D-Day, 6th June 1944, sappers of 591st (Antrim) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers were among the first Allied soldiers on the ground in occupied Normandy.

Antrim Fortress Company, Royal Engineers (T.A.) formed in 1937, becoming one of the first Territorial Army units in Northern Ireland. They converted to Antrim Field Company, Royal Engineers in 1940. In 1941, the unit designated 591st (Antrim) Field Company, Royal Engineers. As part of 2 Corps, the unit moved to Halifax, West Yorkshire in January 1941, then on to Ely, Cambridgeshire, then joining 54th Division at Woodbridge. In May 1943, the company converted to a parachute unit.

It was then they joined 6th Airborne Division as 591st (Antrim Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers. Around half of the soldiers in the redesignated company were original members of the territorial outfit. The remainder were volunteers from 249th Company, 286th Company, and a fresh intake. On D-Day, 6th June 1944, 591st (Antrim) Parachute Squadron commanded by Major Philip Andrew Wood were among the first to land in occupied Normandy.

Pegasus Bridge and the River Orne

A little after midnight on 6th June 1944, No. 1 Troop commanded by Captain Frank Harbord and No. 3 Troop commanded by Captain Fergie Semple M.C. landed to the east of the River Orne. Their objective was to clear the area for the landing of 6th Airborne Division’s gliders expected at 0330hrs. They successfully completed the task, clearing mines, reconnoitering routes, and laying mines.

Merville Battery

While this was happening, No. 2 Troop commanded by Captain Tony Jackson landed as part of the force tasked with taking out the gun battery at Merville. Scattered throughout the area, only a few sappers reached the Merville guns. The rest joined with other units, fighting alongside them until they rejoined the 591st.

Crash of Short Stirling IV EF295 QS-J

On the night of 5th-6th June 1944, Short Stirling IV EF295 QS-J took off from R.A.F. Fairford, Gloucestershire, England as part of Operation TONGA. The plane flew in over the Normandy coast at a lower altitude than normal. When hit by flak, explosives carried by the the 15 sappers of 591 (Antrim) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers on board ignited. The fire quickly took hold and those onboard began to jump. The Stirling crashed to the west of Château de Grangues, one of two Stirlings and four Horsa Gliders to crash in the grounds and surrounding land.

A German military unit based at the château were dug into slit trenches and based in tents close to the stables. They used the servants’ quarters as a makeshift kitchen banishing servants to love with the owners in the basement.

The first four to make the jump from the burning plane were Major Philip Andrew Wood, Lieutenant Anthony Benjamin Oliviera, Sapper C.M. Bartlett, and Driver F. Jacklin. The first three were captured and remained prisoners of war until the end of the conflict in 1945. Company Second-in-Command Captain Gordon Findlay Davidson (166499) received a promotion on 7th June 1944 to Acting Major of the 591st taking command from the captured Major Wood. Jacklin evaded capture for several weeks, eventually rejoining the squadron.

Last Name First Name(s) Rank Information
Wood Philip Andrew Major 41207. Jumped. Survived. P.O.W.
Oliviera Anthony Benjamin Lieutenant 277794. Jumped, Survived. P.O.W.
Bartlett C.M. Sapper 5669776. Jumped. Survived. P.O.W.
Austin Albert Edwin Sapper 14404888. Jumped. Died as a Result.
Jacklin Frank Driver 14275964. Jumped. Survived. Evaded Capture.

Sapper John Joseph Evans and Sapper John R. Youell both died as a result of the crash along with four members of the plane’s crew. All are buried at Ranville War Cemetery, Ranville, Calvados, Normandy, France.

Last Name First Name(s) Rank Information
Evans John Joseph Sapper 2116526. Killed in Crash.
Youell John R. Sapper 1877562. Killed in Crash.

Sapper C.T. Law survived the crash although sustained serious injuries. He received medical aid before evacuation to a German Military Hospital at Pont-l’Évêque. Like Wood, Oliviera, and Bartlett, he remained a prisoner of war until 1945. Sapper John Reardon-Parker also survived initially but succumbed to his injuries at the château on 7th June 1944.

Last Name First Name(s) Rank Information
Law C.T. Sapper 14504398. Crashed. Survived. P.O.W.
Reardon-Parker John Sapper 14550031. Crashed. P.O.W. Died of Wounds.

The War Crime at the Château

Of those on board the Stirling, ten survivors were either uninjured or only superficially. They became prisoners of war. Within this number, were six members of 591st (Antrim) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers. At approximately 0600hrs on 6th June 1944, the prisoners were taken from the château, forced to lie face down, and were shot in the back.

Last Name First Name(s) Rank Information
Branston Kenneth William Lance Corporal 1878189. P.O.W. Shot and Killed.
Fraser Thomas Andrew Lance Corporal 882124. P.O.W. Shot and Killed.
Kelly William Alexander Corporal 1944972. P.O.W. Shot and Killed.
Thomson George Driver 14283438. P.O.W. Shot and Killed.
Wheeler David Henry Sapper 14537569. P.O.W. Shot and Killed.
Wolfe Frank Sapper 14422902. P.O.W. Shot and Killed.

591st (Antrim) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers remained in Normandy until August 1944.

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