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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Pegasus Bridge - Part One

Shortly after midnight on 6th June 1944, a German sentry stood guard next to a bridge in Bénouville, in the Calvados department of Normandy, France. Searchlights and tracers lit up the sky, whilst the hum of aircraft engines overhead suggested heavier bombing raids than usual. Suddenly, there was a loud, crashing noise, followed by a shower of sparks, as a dark object came to rest only a few metres away. An enemy bomber - he thought - shot down by flak. Moments later, dark figures were running towards him and all hell was let loose, as bullets and grenade fragments ripped through the air. Though he might not have realised it yet, he had just come across the very first Allied troops to land on French soil as part of Operation Overlord - the long-awaited Allied invasion of France.



Planning for Overlord


Since the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had been advocating for the creation of a second front in Western Europe. Although the Americans had been keen to cross the English Channel into German-occupied France since 1942, the British had urged caution, preferring to focus on defeating the Axis in the Mediterranean, whilst building up their strength for what would surely be a much more ambitious undertaking. By 1943, the Allies had achieved victory in North Africa and successively invaded Sicily and mainland Italy. Planning now began for the much-anticipated cross-Channel invasion, which was to take place in mid-1944.


The initial plan for Overlord was dramatically revised in January 1944, when General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, with General Sir Bernard Montgomery in charge of all Allied ground forces. The two generals insisted that the initial invasion force be expanded from three to five divisions, whilst the landing area was to be widened to include all of the coastline between the River Orne and the eastern coast of the Cotentin Peninsula. Furthermore, three airborne divisions were to secure the flanks of the invasion by seizing key objectives, and then protect the landings from counterattacks until the buildup of sufficient forces.



On the right flank, the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were assigned objectives west of Utah Beach, where they were to capture the few narrow causeways through terrain that had been intentionally flooded by the Germans. On the left flank, the British 6th Airborne Division was tasked with securing the area between the rivers Orne and Dives. Its objectives included neutralising the Merville Gun Battery, which threatened the landings on Sword Beach, and destroying bridges over the River Dives to slow down enemy counterattacks. The most crucial task, however, was the capture of two bridges crossing the Caen Canal and the River Orne. These two parallel waterways would separate the seaborne and airborne forces, and failure to capture the bridges intact would leave the 6th Airborne Division isolated.


The 6th Airborne Division


The 6th Airborne Division, commanded by Major-General Richard Gale, had been formed in April 1943. It consisted of the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades, the 6th Airlanding Brigade, and various supporting units. In February 1944, Gale was informed that his division would get its first taste of action in the upcoming invasion of Normandy. Operation Tonga would see the 3rd Parachute Brigade, commanded by Brigadier James Hill, destroying the Merville Battery and five bridges across the River Dives. At the same time, Brigadier Nigel Poett’s 5th Parachute Brigade would capture the Caen Canal and River Orne bridges. Since these were likely to be wired for demolition by the Germans, they had to be seized using the element of surprise, which was best achieved by a glider-borne assault. Thus, a company from the 6th Airlanding Brigade was to be attached to Poett’s brigade to carry out a coup de main operation.


The 5th Parachute Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Nigel Poett, was tasked with capturing the Caen Canal and River Orne bridges.

The 6th Airlanding Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Hugh Kindersley, included three glider infantry battalions and supporting elements. Whilst the main body of the brigade was to land in Normandy late on D-Day to reinforce the rest of the 6th Airborne Division, Kindersley was asked to nominate his best company for the coup de main operation. He chose 'D' Company of the 2nd Battalion, The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Led by Major John Howard, with Captain Brian Priday as his second-in-command, this unit was to land close to the bridges in gliders, capture them intact, and hold them until the arrival of reinforcements.


Training


Since its formation in 1943, the 6th Airborne Division had been training for the cross-Channel invasion which was sure to come. Airborne soldiers were often expected to fight against superior numbers, without armoured support. Training was therefore designed to encourage self-reliance, with special emphasis on physical fitness, marksmanship, and fieldcraft. Military exercises often included capturing and holding strong points, after which, the troops would march back to their barracks, to get them used to covering long distances in short amounts of time whilst carrying heavy loads. Throughout this period, Major Howard’s company had particularly impressed.


Major Reginald John Howard

Howard had been born in 1912 - the eldest of nine children - into a working-class family in London's West End. Aged 14, he got his first job as a clerk. In 1932, he joined the British Army, where he served with the King's Shropshire Light Infantry (KSLI), becoming a physical training instructor and reaching the rank of corporal by the time he was discharged in June 1938, at the end of his six-year enlistment period. In October 1939, whilst serving with the Oxford City Police, he married Joy Bromley, with whom he would later have two children. Two months later, he re-joined the KSLI, being quickly promoted to regimental sergeant major, before receiving a commission as a second lieutenant in the 'Ox and Bucks' in November 1940. By May 1942, he had been promoted to major and was given command of 'D' Company.


Over the next two years, Howard trained his company to become the fittest in the battalion, often making use of bomb-damaged built-up areas to practice street fighting with live ammunition. To train his men for night fighting, he changed their daily routine so that they rose at 8 pm to complete their exercises, drills and administration throughout the night before retiring at 1 pm. When, in early May 1944, he was informed of his company’s role in the upcoming invasion, Howard became personally responsible for planning the assault on the bridges and training his men for the mission. As the operation approached, 'D' Company carried out a six-day exercise just outside Exeter, where two bridges similar to their objectives were found over the Exeter Ship Canal. At this point, it became apparent that two extra platoons would be needed, and Howard chose two from 'B' Company.


An Airspeed Horsa glider under tow.

The troops were to be delivered to the target area in Airspeed Horsa gliders, which could carry two pilots and 30 passengers. Pilot training involved practice landings on small strips of land, instrument flying using stopwatches for accurate course changes, and fitting their flying goggles with dark glass to get them used to night flying. By May 1944, they had carried out 54 training sorties, flying in all weather conditions, both by day and by night. The pilots were also constantly briefed with thousands of maps and photographs of the landing zones and the surrounding areas, as well as through the use of scale models.


Enemy Dispositions


In the meantime, across the English Channel, the Germans had also been preparing their defences, under the supervision of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel. The two bridges were defended by several machine gun emplacements, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, and concrete pillboxes. Both bridges also had sandbagged trench systems. They were guarded by 50 men from the 736th Grenadier Regiment of the 716th (Static) Infantry Division, which was mainly composed of elderly Germans and conscripts from other occupied countries. The men guarding the two bridges had orders to blow them up should they be in danger of being captured.


Generalleutnant Wilhelm Richter commanded the 716th Infantry Division, whose job was to protect the French coast against an Allied amphibious assault.

Further German units were based nearby. The 21st Panzer Division, based near Caen, was in a position to provide armoured support. Commanded by Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger, it had 146 tanks and 50 assault guns at its disposal, as well as supporting infantry and artillery. One of its sub-units - the 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment - was billeted at Vimont, just east of Caen, whilst elements of the 192nd Panzer Grenadier Regiment were based at Cairon, to the west of the bridges. Further afield were the 12th SS Panzer Division "Hitlerjugend", at Lisieux, and the Panzer Lehr Division at Chartres.


Final Preparations


At the end of May, 'D' Company moved to RAF Tarrant Rushton, in Dorset, where Howard was finally able to brief his men on the mission. Their orders were to seize intact the bridge over the Caen Canal at Bénouville and that over the River Orne at Ranville. The six platoons would be delivered to Normandy in six Horsa gliders, each flown by two men from the Glider Pilot Regiment. Each bridge would be attacked by three platoons, while 30 sappers from the 249th (Airborne) Field Company, Royal Engineers, would be responsible for locating and removing any demolition charges.


Whilst this was happening, aircraft carrying the 5th Parachute Brigade would be heading for their drop zone (DZ) to the north of Ranville. The first reinforcements would be a company from the 7th Parachute Battalion that would initially come under Howard's command. When the rest of the battalion arrived, he would hand over to its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Pine-Coffin. Whilst the 7th Parachute Battalion was to dig in west of the bridges, the 12th and 13th Parachute Battalions would dig in to the east. The bridges were to be held against counterattack until the arrival of the 3rd Infantry Division, which was scheduled to land at Sword Beach at 6 am.


Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, of the Glider Pilot Regiment, was the senior glider pilot on the mission.

On 5th June, the coup de main force made its final preparations. The senior glider pilot, Staff Sergeant James "Jim" Wallwork, had expressed his fears that the gliders would be dangerously overloaded, so Howard decided to leave behind two men from each platoon. A last-minute change saw an injured man being replaced by Captain John Vaughan, the Medical Officer. Each man was issued with his weapon and ammunition, as well as nine hand grenades and four Bren gun magazines. Each platoon also had a 2-inch mortar and a radio. Codewords were issued just before the men boarded their gliders: 'Ham' and 'Jam' would signal that the Bénouville and Ranville bridges respectively had been taken intact, whilst 'Jack' and 'Lard' would indicate that they had been demolished before they could be seized.


Flying In


At 10.56 pm on the night of 5th June 1944, Operation Tonga got underway, as six Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers took off from RAF Tarrant Rushton, towing six Horsa gliders carrying the coup de main force. Howard was in the leading glider, which also carried No.25 Platoon, commanded by Lieutenant Herbert Denham Brotheridge. 28-year-old "Den" Brotheridge, from Smethwick, Staffordshire, was one of Howard’s most trusted officers, and his platoon had been tasked with leading the attack on the Bénouville Bridge. Back in England, his wife Margaret, who was eight months pregnant, awaited his return.


Lieutenant Den Brotheridge.

The other gliders headed towards the Bénouville Bridge carried Lieutenant David Wood’s No.24 Platoon, and No.14 Platoon, from 'B' Company, led by Lieutenant Richard "Sandy" Smith. Captain Priday was in the fourth glider, headed for the Ranville Bridge, together with Lieutenant Anthony "Tony" Hooper’s No.22 Platoon. The last two gliders carried Lieutenant Henry "Tod" Sweeney’s No.23 Platoon, and No.17 Platoon, from 'B' Company, commanded by Lieutenant Dennis Fox. Each glider also carried five sappers and one or two additional 'D' Company HQ personnel. These 180 men in the six gliders would be the first Allied troops on the ground.


The Halifaxes crossed the Normandy coast at seven minutes past midnight on 6th June, at which point the gliders were released. Jim Wallwork had practised the run-in countless times. His co-pilot, Staff Sergeant John Ainsworth, used his stopwatch to time their turns precisely. At 15 minutes past midnight, Wallwork spotted the bridge in the dim moonlight, exactly where it was supposed to be. One minute later, the Horsa made contact with the ground, sparks flashing as it skidded along the river bank until it came to a sudden halt having hit a belt of barbed wire, less than 50 metres away from the bridge. The two pilots went flying through the cockpit screen, while all of their passengers were momentarily knocked unconscious. Yet, within seconds, they had regained their senses, and realising that the Germans had not yet been alerted to their presence, they leapt into action.


An RAF aerial reconnaissance photo taken on 6th June, showing the three Horsa gliders next to the Bénouville Bridge.

One minute later, the second glider landed safely nearby, and the third a minute after that. This last landing was rougher than the previous ones, with the Horsa breaking into two. Some of the men inside were trapped in the wreckage, while others were thrown clear of the aircraft. Lieutenant Smith was among those injured, although he proceeded to lead his men towards their objective. Lance-Corporal Fred Greenhalgh was not so lucky. Knocked unconscious, he ended up in a pond, where he drowned, becoming the first casualty of the operation.

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