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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Pegasus Bridge - Part Two

The Bénouville Bridge

Whilst Wood’s platoon moved to clear the trenches on the bridge's east side, the platoons led by Brotheridge and Smith made straight for the bridge itself. Only two German sentries were on duty, and having belatedly realised what was going on, one of them ran off, shouting a warning. The second fired a flare to warn the garrison at the nearby Ranville Bridge. Moments later, Brotheridge shot him dead whilst his men began clearing the trenches and pillboxes, throwing grenades and shooting anything that moved. All of a sudden, there was a burst of machine gun fire from across the other side, and Brotheridge fell to the ground.

The eastern end of the Bénouville Bridge, from where the assault began.

Smith’s platoon crossed the bridge next, exchanging fire with the defenders. Smith was wounded again, this time by a grenade. By 21 minutes past midnight, German resistance on the west bank of the bridge had ceased. It was only now that Brotheridge’s men realised their platoon commander was missing. After a brief search, he was found lying unconscious by the side of the road. He had been hit in the back of the neck and one quick look from Captain Vaughan, the medical officer, was enough for him to realise that there was nothing that he could do. Den Brotheridge passed away in the early hours of 6th June, becoming the first Allied soldier to be killed by enemy action on D-Day. His wife would give birth to their daughter, Margaret, only two weeks later.

On the east bank, Wood's platoon cleared the trenches and bunkers with little opposition, although Wood himself was wounded in the leg, meaning that all three platoon commanders had become casualties. Whilst all this was happening, the sappers had been climbing all over the bridge, looking for explosive charges to remove. In truth, while the Germans had indeed wired the bridge for demolition, the charges had not been placed, for fear of an accidental explosion. By half past midnight, the Bénouville Bridge was safely in British hands. Howard now waited for news from Ranville.

The Ranville Bridge

The landings of the gliders assigned to the other half of the operation had not gone quite as smoothly. The Halifax towing the leading Horsa cast off its charge eight miles to the east of its objective due to navigational errors. As a result, Hooper’s platoon, together with Captain Priday, ended up at Varaville, next to one of the bridges that was set to be demolished by the 3rd Parachute Brigade. They only realised that they were at the wrong bridge after they had captured it, at which point they decided to make their way towards Ranville. They would eventually rejoin 'D' Company on the following day.

The other two gliders landed much closer to the target. Fox’s platoon landed about 300 metres from the bridge at 20 minutes past midnight, by which point the defenders had already been alerted due to the flare and the sound of firing from Bénouville. The Germans opened fire with an MG 34, which was however swiftly taken out by a direct hit from the platoon’s 2-inch mortar. A few minutes later, Sweeney’s platoon, which had landed around 700 metres short of the target, also arrived at the bridge, to discover that it had already been captured. The coup de main raid had been a complete success: Both bridges had been taken intact in just ten minutes, with just two men killed and 14 injured.

The Ranville Bridge. At the top of the picture is the Horsa which carried the platoon led by Lieutenant Fox, who led his men to capture the bridge.

Confirmation of the successful capture of the Ranville Bridge was radioed to Howard, who immediately ordered his radio operator to transmit the success signal "Ham and Jam". With the first part of their mission accomplished, 'D' Company now dug in around the bridges to defend them until the first reinforcements arrived. With the biggest threat expected to come from Bénouville, Fox’s platoon was sent to help reinforce Howard's men, leaving Sweeney’s platoon in sole charge at Ranville. The night was only just starting.

Arrival of Reinforcements

Shortly after the coup de main force had flown out from RAF Tarrant Rushton, six Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle transports also took off, carrying pathfinders of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company, whose task was to mark out the DZs to be used by the rest of the division. They were parachuted over the area between the rivers Orne and Dives at around 19 minutes past midnight, together with Brigadier Poett and a small team from his 5th Parachute Brigade. Unfortunately, most of the pathfinders were dropped wide due to heavy cloud cover and poor navigation. Poett, who landed north of Ranville, heard the sound of firing coming from the bridges and decided to set off in their direction with the only man he could locate.

Around 30 minutes later, another wave of transports arrived overhead, carrying the bulk of the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades. Due to the problems with the pathfinders and the poor weather conditions, the paratroopers were badly scattered, with some landing miles from their DZs. In the 3rd Parachute Brigade, the 9th Parachute Battalion, tasked with destroying the Merville Battery, suffered the worst from its drop. Their CO, Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, was forced to attack with only 160 men out of the original 600 members of his battalion. Despite suffering a 50% casualty ratio, they succeeded in neutralising their objective, whilst the 8th and 1st Canadian Parachute Battalions succeeded in destroying the five bridges across the River Dives.

Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway.

In the 5th Parachute Brigade, the 7th Parachute Battalion, tasked with reinforcing Howard’s men at the bridges, was dropped east of the Orne, also badly scattered. Howard began blowing his whistle to help guide the men to the bridges. Poett and the soldier he had picked up en route were the first to arrive, just before 1 am. By 1.10 am, Lieutenant Colonel Pine-Coffin decided that he could not wait any longer at the DZ, so he set off for the bridges with only about 100 men of the 7th Battalion. The 5th Brigade's other two battalions - the 12th and 13th - also suffered from the same problems, with neither having more than 60% of their strength when they moved away from their rendezvous points to secure the area east of the bridges.

German Counterattacks

At 1.30 am, with Howard’s men still awaiting backup, two half-tracks approached from the direction of Bénouville. With just a single PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank) and two bombs available, this was a potentially ominous development. Sergeant Charles "Wagger" Thornton, of No.17 Platoon, grabbed the PIAT and calmly waited until the leading half-track had approached his position before he destroyed it with a single shot. The second vehicle quickly withdrew from the area. By the time that 'A' Company of the 7th Parachute Battalion, commanded by Major Nigel Taylor, arrived at the bridges at around 2.40 am, no further attacks had been made, with the Germans having decided to wait for daylight before mounting a more serious challenge.

Pine-Coffin arrived soon afterwards, and, having been briefed by Howard, he crossed into Bénouville, where he established his headquarters. He now had around 200 men available, organised in three companies. 'A' and 'C' Companies were positioned in Bénouville, facing southwards towards Caen, while 'B' Company was despatched to Le Port, facing the direction of Ouistreham. Howard’s company was pulled back into the area between the two bridges and held in reserve. At 3.30 am, Major-General Gale arrived by glider, together with the rest of the 6th Airborne Division HQ and vital equipment, such as anti-tank guns and jeeps.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Pine-Coffin commanded the 7th Parachute Battalion, which was tasked with protecting the bridges from German counterattacks.

In the meantime, the commander of the German 716th Infantry Division, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Richter, had learned of the capture of the bridges and the parachute landings at 1.20 am. He ordered Generalmajor Feuchtinger to move his 21st Panzer Division into position to counter-attack. From around 5 am onwards, the Germans began a series of isolated and often uncoordinated attacks by tanks, armoured cars, and infantry that grew in intensity throughout the day. At 7 am, the landings at Sword Beach got underway. By this point, daylight allowed German snipers to target anyone moving in the open near the bridges. In Bénouville, 'A' Company faced stiff resistance as German infantry repeatedly attempted to outflank its position.

At 9 am, two German gunboats were seen approaching the Bénouville Bridge from the direction of Ouistreham. The lead vessel fired its 20 mm cannon, but one of Howard’s men responded with a PIAT, hitting the wheelhouse. As the gunboat crashed into the canal bank, its escort hastily retreated. At 10 am, the Luftwaffe attempted to destroy the bridge when a fighter bomber scored a direct hit on it. Miraculously, the bomb bounced off the bridge and into the canal without exploding. By this point, however, the 7th Battalion was beginning to struggle, as infantry attacks, supported by armour, continued to probe the British positions in Bénouville. 'A' Company had become cut off from the rest of the battalion, with all of its officers having become casualties, and only 20 paratroopers still able to fight on.

Commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade moving inland after having landed on Sword Beach.

At about 1 pm, the approaching sound of bagpipes was heard, and soon after, the Commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade, recently landed at Sword Beach, arrived at the bridges, led by Brigadier The Lord Lovat and his piper, Private William "Bill" Millin. Although they continued on their way, their arrival reassured the airborne troops that the invasion was going according to plan, and that relief forces were coming. At 9.15 pm, the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment arrived to take over responsibility for Bénouville, and Howard and his men set off for Ranville to join the rest of their battalion, which had arrived late that evening with the rest of the 6th Airlanding Brigade. By midnight, the entire 6th Airborne Division had been deployed. Operation Tonga had been a success, with all objectives achieved.


The successful capture of the two bridges would prove essential in shaping the ensuing campaign. The Germans were prevented from launching a coordinated counter-offensive against the beaches, as the only area available to form up was between the rivers Orne and Dives, and the natural attack line was over the Bénouville Bridge to Ouistreham, and then west along the Normandy coast. Instead, the German Panzer divisions were forced to go around Caen and enter the battle in a piecemeal fashion against the front of the 6th Airborne Division units instead of against their flank.

Over the first week, the 6th Airborne Division held on to its bridgehead across the Orne in the face of fierce counter-attacks. After the capture of Bréville on 13th June, the Germans never seriously attempted to break through its lines again. The next two months saw a period of static warfare, until 17th August, when the Germans began withdrawing from the area, and the 6th Airborne Division began its advance to the River Seine. At the end of the month, the airborne troops were withdrawn back to England to prepare for future operations. Throughout those three months in Normandy, the 6th Airborne Division made a massive contribution to the success of the invasion. Its casualties, however, had been considerable. Between 6th June and 26th August, 821 men were killed, 2,709 were wounded, and another 927 were listed as missing.

British forces crossing the Bénouville Bridge on 8th June 1944.

By the time the division was withdrawn to England, all that remained of 'D' Company were 40 men and Howard himself as the only officer. The rest had all become casualties. The men of the coup de main force were presented with gallantry awards for their role in the operation. Howard was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Lieutenants Smith and Sweeney were awarded the Military Cross, while Sergeant Thornton received a Military Medal. Lieutenant Brotheridge was posthumously mentioned in dispatches. Eight of the glider pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal, including Staff Sergeant Wallwork.

Although Howard began to reorganise his company in preparation for future operations, in November 1944, he was badly injured in a car accident. As a result, he took no further part in the war, although 'D' Company would go on to take part in the Battle of the Bulge, the crossing of the River Rhine, and the advance into Germany. In 1946, Howard was invalided out of the Army as a result of his injuries and ended up working for the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1954 he was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Bronze Palm by the French government. In his later life, he continued returning to Normandy on 6th June every year to lay a wreath at the location where the gliders had landed. Howard died on 5th May 1999, aged 86.


The Bénouville Bridge was eventually renamed Pegasus Bridge after the shoulder emblem worn by the British airborne forces, which depicted Bellerophon riding the flying horse Pegasus. The Ranville Bridge later became known as Horsa Bridge, after the Horsa gliders that had transported the troops into Normandy. The original Pegasus Bridge remained in place until 1994, when it was replaced by a modern version. It is now the centrepiece of the Memorial Pegasus, in Ranville, a museum dedicated to the 6th Airborne Division and the capture of the bridges.

The grave of Lieutenant Den Brotheridge at the Ranville Churchyard.

Many of the airborne troops who died in June 1944 are buried at the Ranville War Cemetery. Den Brotheridge lies in the adjacent local churchyard. Eighty years after the events of 6th June 1944, Major John Howard and his men are still remembered for their role in one of the most daring and brilliantly executed operations of the Second World War.

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