Dorset goes to D-Day
Bo Thörn, a 50 year-old Dorset businessman, is ready to not only jump out of an airplane and reenact his paratrooper days of yesteryear, but will be jumping into history as well.
On June 6, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, Thörn and about 300 other paratroopers from nine nations - some active members of their country's armed forces, and others, like Thörn, retired from military service - will jump from World War II era DC-3 aircraft to honor and commemorate one of the most daring and consequence-laden paratrooper assaults in history. Their jump will be part of the broader commemoration of the historic invasion by Allied forces in 1944 against German-held France that will be taking place that day.
The 300 paratroopers Thörn will be jumping with hail from the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Poland, Finland and Germany, as well as Sweden, where Thörn is originally from. About 50 of the paratroopers will be Swedish, and will include his brother Lars who served in the same unit, Thörn, a former officer, said.
"I've always liked to take on a challenge," he said, adding that the opportunity to take part in the ceremony was an enormous honor and one he was grateful to be able to take part in.
In 1944, airborne units from several Allied nations, including the U.S., led the way for the ground forces which landed later that morning on the five Normandy beaches through pre-dawn assaults on key choke points inland from the coast. Their mission was to thwart German attempts to reinforce their defenses on the shoreline, where the Allied landing forces could have been bottled up and the invasion turned back.
The particular assault Thörn and his fellow jumpers will be commemorating is one originally undertaken by members of the British 2nd and 7th Airborne Battalions of their 6th Airborne Division. Their task was to seize and hold two bridges close to one of the British landing beaches near the town of Caen.
Intelligence reports indicated both bridges were heavily defended by German units and wired for demolition. Not only were they the most direct route for German reinforcements to flow to the battlefield, but they were essential to any British breakout from the beachheads once those were secured. After capturing the bridges, the paratroopers would have to hold them against an expected and ferocious counterattack until troops from the landing beach could break through and relieve them.
Codenamed "Operation Deadstick,"the British troopers, arriving in gliders as well as by parachute, landed shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944, near the two bridges and took control of them after brief firefights. Then came the hard part - holding them. The airborne units stationed at the bridges were in steady combat for more than a week.
One of the bridges was later renamed the "Pegasus" Bridge, after the emblem of the British 6th Airborne Division.
Thörn served in the Swedish Special Forces from 1983-1994, although with some time taken off to attend university. The Swedish Special Forces, an elite hard-to-get-into branch of the Swedish military, is similar to its U.S. counterpart, specializing in small group action, intelligence gathering and surprise commando raids.
He and his family have lived in Dorset since 2007, after originally buying a home there in 2001.
He will be arriving in Normandy on June 2 to take part in the final preparations for the commemoration. The oldest paratrooper taking part in the jump is in his early 60s, he said.
This jump will be a little different from ones he took part in during his active military service. For one thing, it will be in daylight. Most of the jumps he did before were at night. And he won't be jumping with up to 80 lbs. of weaponry and battle gear - just in uniform.
He and some of the other veteran paratroopers went back to Sweden last month for some refresher training, he said.
"It's amazing how if you have been doing something like that once upon a time and have drilled so much, once you have knocked the rust off, all the knowledge is still there," he said.
Flying into a jump on a DC-3 is a noisy and uncomfortable ride. As the drop zone approaches, all the troopers stand up, get in line, and check the gear of the trooper in front of them. A jump master stands near the open door on the plane's fuselage, and when the red light goes green, it's everybody out, as quickly as possible. That's critical, because in a plane traveling at 250 mph, troopers can get separated quickly if one person hesitates, Thörn said.
"The second you leave the plane, it's like you're in a different planet," he said. "Everything is quiet. It's about 45 seconds of bliss until you land." The main thing is to avoid getting tangled up with other nearby paratroopers on the way down, he said.
Dignitaries from several nations, including President Barack Obama, as well as those from the nations who were most directly involved in the 1944 invasion will also be attending the day long ceremonies, which may be the last time many of the veterans who actually took part in the D-Day landings will be in attendance. Somewhat awkwardly, perhaps, so will President Vladimir Putin of Russia, with the recent upheaval in Ukraine not fully resolved and still roiling the diplomatic waters.
Thörn's colleagues and comrades will be jumping and landing near the site of the Pegasus bridge, and he will stay on in Normandy for a couple of days afterwards, he said.
"It is one of my wildest adventures," Thörn said of the jump. "It's hard to describe; I feel so honored to be asked to do it. I am beyond words excited about it."
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