On June 6, 1944 the greatest amphibious landing in history took place on the beaches of Normandy, known worldwide as D-day. For many inhabitants of the occupied countries in the west, this was a day never to be forgotten. Over 130.000 allied troops set foot on French soil to liberate them from German occupation. Just after midnight, on the night of 5/6 June one of the most daring actions of that day took place. British troops landed by glider and in a lightning attack captured the Bénouville bridge over the canal near Caen. Today, this bridge is better known as the Pegasus bridge, named after the flying horse in the division emblem of the 6th British Airborne division. Not only the Bénouville bridge was their objective, but also the bridge over de river Orne, now known as the Horsa bridge.
This article has originally been published in the magazine "Wereld in Oorlog" This Dutch magazine publishes remarkable, poignant and dramatic stories to illustrate important events, developments and military operations in the recent war history. With emphasis on the First and Second World Wars.
In spring 1943, those responsible for planning the allied invasion under the command of the British Lieutenant-General Frederick Morgan, chose Normandy as the location for the invasion of Western Europe. A landing on the beaches of Normandy however had a serious drawback: the left flank was very vulnerable to counter attacks. The strongest German units, the armoured divisions in particular, were situated between Le Havre en de Seine estuary, because the Germans expected the allied invasion at the Pas de Calais. If Generalfeldmarschall (General Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel, in command of the units along the French coast, could bring his troops and tanks across the rivers Seine, Dives and Orne, he could flatten out all allied units on the assault beaches from Sword Beach to Utah Beach in one go. It would, after all, take the allies several days to assemble a force with tanks and artillery, strong enough to repel a powerful German counterattack.
Morgan and his staff decided that the British 6th Airborne Division would be dropped between the river Dives and the waterways of the Orne to protect this vulnerable left flank. The 6th Airborne Division was the second British Airborne Division. In 1942, the 1st Airborne Division was established. It was sent out to Africa and out of the remaining units which were left behind and new volunteers, the 6th Airborne Division was formed. Major General Richard Gale was commander of this unit. Almost immediately after the formation the task of the division during D-day was determined. After General Dwight D. Eisenhower took over the position of Supreme Allied Commander from Morgan, a good many aspects of the invasion plan were modified. The role of the 6th Airborne Division however remained unchanged.
Gale had devised a way to cover the flank of Sword Beach (the leftmost invasion beach, to be stormed by the British 3rd Infantry Division), which he called ‘Operation Deadstick’. Paratroopers were to blow up the bridges over the river Dives. The bridges over the Orne and the Caen Canal, indicated by the British as the Horsa and Pegasus bridge had to be captured intact because these bridges had to be used afterwards by the British. If they were not, they would form a barrier between the infantry on the beach and the airborne troops.
They knew that the bridges were guarded by a German garrison and that preparations had been made to blow them up. Paratroopers would undoubtedly be able to destroy the bridge but not to capture it. The relatively slow progress of such an attack would allow the Germans sufficient time to blow up the bridges. For that reason, Gale decided that the job had to be done by glider troops. A Horsa type glider was able to drop 28 men in the vicinity of the bridge. Given the negligible noise, produced thereby, the British would emerge like thieves in the night and completely surprise the German garrison. After consulting his Brigadiers, Gale chose D-company of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry for the attack. This unit was commanded by Major John Howard. Howard turned D-company into an exceptionally well-trained unit by deviating from the training program of the other companies. During training flights, the door of the glider was already opened before landing, because, according to Howard, the men would be 'trapped like rats' as long as they were within. In addition, he alternated the training between day and night so as to accustom the men to perform their duties in darkness. He allowed his men little sleep, to find out who, even in a situation of mental exhaustion and fatigue, could quickly make the right decisions. D-company did its training in combat operations in bombed cities to be well prepared for street fighting. Moreover, Howard could make use of live ammunition there. D-company was subjected by Gale to various additional training sessions after the unit had been selected. With this he hoped to find out whether D-company was capable of accomplish its task. The training was brought to a successful conclusion and Howard could further elaborate his plan for D-day.
The bridges were a great concern for the Germans in Normandy. They were the only crossing points across the Orne and the Caen canal along the Normandy coast. The canal bridge was defended by a German garrison under the command of Major Hans Schmidt, consisting of troops of the Grenadier Regiment 736 of the 716 Infantry Division. The bridge across the river was only guarded by a few sentries. The German division was undermanned, poorly equipped and immobile. Most of the men came from the eastern bloc of the country, the so called "Osttruppen" Eastern troops. They were often complemented with young and inexperienced soldiers directly from their basic training. The backbone of the division and of the garrison at the bridge, the officers and NCO’s however, were German and consisted mostly of fanatical Nazi’s. On the side of the village Bénouville, the Germans built some small bunkers where the troops slept. They were connected by trenches. Two machinegun nests were placed. On the other side of the bridge, next to the smaller bunkers, a larger bunker was situated, where the explosive charges were placed. The bridges were prepared to be blown up at the moment of the invasion. The fuses were not attached yet for fear of sabotage by the French resistance. Alongside the bridge stood an antitank gun. A machinegun nest, trenches and barbed wire barricades were also placed.
Howard worked out a plan for the capture of the bridges. His orders were to capture the bridges intact and to hold out until they were relieved by paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division and Lord Lovats 1st Special Services Commando Brigade, who were to come ashore on Sword Beach. Howard received two additional platoons of B-company and thirty sappers. The six platoons were divided into two equal groups, one group of three gliders for each bridge. Howard worked out various plans so that he would be prepared for any situation that might occur. He trained his men to capture the bridge with three platoons, but also with one, in case the others would fail to arrive at the bridge. He chose the most ideal landing sites and made plans for defensive actions after the capture.
Howard could plan his actions so carefully thanks to he amount of intelligence he had at his disposal. The RAF had carried out several reconnaissance missions and the photos, thus acquired were used to create a model. Also the French Resistance had passed on the necessary intelligence. So they knew in England precisely how many Germans were guarding the bridge, how many residents there were in the village and how many were sympathetic towards de Resistance or collaborated with the German occupation. Just before D-day, aerial photographs showed that the Germans were digging and placing barricades that would make glider landings impossible. For a moment the British considered the possibility that the Germans received intelligence about the plans. Sergeant Jim Wallwork, the pilot of glider #1, indicated that these barricades would help them with the slowing down. "The planes were too heavily loaded and this would jeopardise the landing. When these piles were in position, they would hit the wings and thus would slow down the landing speed of the gliders."
The six gliders, drawn by Halifax-bombers, departed in the evening of 5 July around eleven o’clock from the RAF base Tarrant Rushton, a small village in Hampshire, in southern England. Before leaving, virtually everyone had shaken hands quickly with the words: "See you at the bridge!" When the formation reached the French coast, the gliders were disconnected from the bombers. They flew on to bomb Caen, which was intended more as a distraction than as a serious attack. Wallwork relied on the compass and stopwatch of his co-pilot. Directly following were #2 and #3, containing the platoons of the Lieutenants Wood and Smith. Howard and his men were in #1 and prepared for landing. Wallwork got the bridge in sight and directed No.1 to the ground. The landing was rough and launched the two pilots from the cockpit to the outside, where they became unconscious. Yet they landed exactly on the spot that had been chosen. Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory named the event the best example of aviator work during the war. The German guard on the bridge heard the crash, but assumed that it was a fragment of a bomber, which occurred frequently.
The men were unconscious for a few seconds. Then everyone unbuckled and worked their way out. Bailey rallied his men for their assault on the bunker. Brotheridge did the same and went for the bridge. At that moment, #2, controlled by Boland, hit the ground. Wood and his men found Howard at #1 and were instructed to disable the trenches and bunkers on the other side of the canal. Upon landing #3, Medic Vaughan was thrown out of the plane. He hit something so hard that he passed out for half an hour. Smith had only half of his men to his disposal, the rest was still stuck in the glider.
Meanwhile, Brotheridge stormed the bridge, followed by his men. The guards took to their heels, while fire was opened from two machine gun nests. Brotheridge threw a grenade which eliminated one of the nests, before getting hit himself. Gray eliminated the other one with his Bren gun. the men of the engineers immediately started with the removal of the explosive charges and the cutting of its cables. Bailey's team had managed to disable the bunker. A mere couple of minutes later the British encountered only sporadic resistance from the other side of the canal. The trenches and bunkers however were captured. Wood was hit in the leg, Smith was wounded in the arm and Brotheridge was in bad shape. Howard succeeded in capturing the bridge intact but lost all his platoonleaders. Presently, Brotheridge would die and thus be the first allied soldier to be killed on D-day.
About four hundred metres away Captain Priday’s men took possession of Horsabridge. Priday himself was not present at the time. His glider had landed about fourteen kilometres further away, near a bridge across the river Dives. His pilot took that bridge for the Horsabridge. The others, the platoons of the Lieutenants Sweeney and Fox too, landed further away from the bridge than intended. Their attack on the bridge proved successful. The only resistance they encountered was a machinegun, but it was eliminated with a mortar. Howard could instruct his radio operator to send the victory code, ‘Ham and Jam’.
The attack had gone virtually according to plan and Howard had control over the bridges. Now, however, his men had to hold out until Lord Lovat and his command brigade would arrive from Sword Beach. Half an hour later, paratroopers would land in the area behind the river bridge, but on the side of the canal bridge, large quantities of German forces and tanks were situated. Soon, the British could hear German tanks approaching from Le Port, but they took the direction to Bénouville. Wally Parr went looking for the PIAT which lay in his glider, but it was damaged and useless. He reported it to Howard: "Sir, the PIAT is kaputt!" Only one device was in working order, so Howards fear for an armoured counter-attack was quite understandable.
The first contact with the enemy followed quite soon. Major Hans Schmidt heard shots and was eager to find out what was going on. He ordered his driver to drive his Mercedes to the bridge. with a motorcycle as an escort. They rushed past the first group, completely surprising the British who quickly recovered and then opened fire. The motorcycle made a rollover and landed in the canal. Schmidt's car was hit also. The major himself was seriously wounded and demanded to be shot because he, as commander of the garrison at the bridge, had let down his Führer, now that the British had conquered this position.
Meanwhile, the dropping of the rest of the 6th Airborne Division had begun. The troops landed, scattered over a wide area, rendering the 5th Para Brigade, who was to reinforce Howards troops at the bridge far from complete after the landing. More than an hour after landing Howard had his defensive line arranged as well as possible. The rumble of tanks was still audible and suddenly a few Mark IV tanks appeared from the direction of the intersection. They moved very slowly in the direction of the bridge, at a considerable distance from each other, wondering what awaited them there. Sergeant Thornton was the only Briton at the bridge across the canal, equipped with a PIAT. Billy Gray recalled: "I thought we'd had it. There was no way we could hold off a tank." The Germans passed the frontline without noticing this and the tank at the front came into the visor of Thornton. His first shot had to be a hit, as reloading the PIAT took a long time. Thornton hit the tank and the projectile exploded. This caused a light show that could be seen for miles around. For many stray paratroopers a very valuable landmark.
When the first German Tank was hit, the others turned back. The first German attack had been repulsed. The disabled tank blocked the T-junction and hence the road to Bénouville and the bridge. Meanwhile the 5th Para Brigade, less than one third of its strength, was on its way to the bridge. Following their arrival, the officers received a short briefing by Howard, who instantly withdrew D-company and kept it in reserve. Lieutenant Richard Todd, who later became known as actor in his roles as Major Howard in "The Longest Day" and Wing Commander Guy Gibson in "The Dam Busters", then lead his troops in Le Port. Major Nigel Taylor entered Bénouville with his unit.
At three o'clock that night, Oberst (Colonel) Hans von Luck's 125th Panzer Grenadier (mechanised infantry) Regiment, part of the 21st Panzerdivision, (armoured division) was ready to attack the British troops at the bridge. This was a well-equipped and -trained unit, located nearest to the paratroopers. Presumably, they would not have been a match for the them. The complexity of the German command structure kept the division, for the time being, in its present location. Only Hitler could give the order to unleash a massive armoured attack, but he was asleep and there was no one who dared to wake him. Moreover, the messages arriving at the German headquarters were very unclear and gave no certainty whether or not this was really the invasion. The only thing Von Luck could do was to give his Panzer Grenadiere (mechanised infantry) the order to march and retake the bridges.
At dawn the landings from the sea began. On Sword Beach the British encountered resistance from the German artillery and in Ouistreham fierce fighting ensued. Soon, they fell behind the tight schedule of Montgomery for the march to Caen. The paratroopers at the Pegasus bridge were fired upon by snipers. Some were injured and had to be evacuated to the aid station in Ranville. There was a constant trickle of reinforcement in the form of paratroopers, alone or in groups. Suddenly from the direction of Caen two German gunboats appeared, coming from the port of Ouistreham. Immediately the British opened fire on the first vessel, that attempted to train his gun on the bridge. With a shot from a PIAT the front vessel was eliminated. Thereafter German frogmen made an attempt to blow up the bridge, but they were quickly noticed and eliminated.
While the attacks on the bridge could be repulsed without great effort, the British at Le Port en Bénouville fared less well. The three companies who fought here had to abandon their position under pressure from the German attackers. Due to losses brought about by the street fighting, they also became increasingly undermanned. Howard sent a platoon of D-company to Bénouville to reinforce the lines. At the beginning of the afternoon, the Germans were supported by motorized artillery and tanks. These units did not belong to the army of Von Luck, but possibly to a Kampfgruppe (assault group) and therefore could operate freely, while the Colonel was still awaiting the approval of Hitler. Some of them could be eliminated by Gammon bombs, heavy grenades that could be used against tanks.
During that afternoon, Von Luck eventually received order to attack the British forces. His vehicles however were immediately noticed by reconnaissance aircraft and came under attack from the allied air force and navy. However, they managed to advance in the direction of Bénouville. In Le Port the British were also attacked by snipers. They should have been relieved by the Commandos advancing from Sword beach, but they had not yet succeeded in breaking through the German lines.
During the planning of the attack on the bridges, Howard, Colonel Coffin and Lord Lovat had agreed on recognition signals to make contact. Lovat would order his bagpipe player to sound his instrument to indicate his approach. Coffin would order his bugler to sound his horn once if the area would be firmly in British hands and twice in case of continued fighting. Around one o'clock in the afternoon, Sergeant Thornton heard the sound of a bagpipe. It was answered by two blasts of the horn. Lovat and his Commandos, followed by a Churchill tank, marched towards the bridges. The British paratroopers had, in fact, accomplished their task, now they gained contact with the bridgehead. They had captured the bridges and made a gallant stand until reinforcement arrived. Around three o'clock, another German gunboat approached from the direction of Caen. The antitank gun next to the bridge opened fire on the vessel and it was soon forced to leave the battle area, billowing out clouds of smoke. By the end of the afternoon, the situation around the bridges was stable. The German grenadiers suffered heavy losses and were no longer capable to carry out large-scale attacks on the troops in Le Port and Bénouville now the Commandos had reinforced the lines. Of the seventeen armoured vehicles they had thrown into the battle, thirteen were lost.
Around 6 pm. that evening the Ox and Bucks pulled back from the bridges. There, the landing of the rest of the Air Landing Brigade of the 6th Airborne took place. Dozens of gliders were grounded and large quantities of supplies were dropped. Heavy equipment, such as jeeps and anti-tank guns were unloaded. Howard received orders to hand over the bridge to infantry units who had pulled up from Sword beach to the bridge and to accompany the Ox and Bucks to the area around Escoville. It was hard for the men who had brought one of the most daring actions of the war to a successful conclusion to leave the bridge. When the Warwickshire regiment arrived. Howard gathered together his men of D-company. Their feelings were perhaps best expressed by Jack Bailey: "It was hard to leave. We'd been here all day and night, it had become our piece of land".
The Pegasus bridge remained in British hands, which prevented the Germans to launch a counterattack against the British troops who came ashore at Sword Beach. The Allies managed to establish a bridgehead and thus the first step was put in the liberation of Western Europe. However in the coming months, fierce fighting would be in store for the allied forces in Normandy before they were able to achieve the possession of Caen.