CHAPTER FIVE

COUNTER-ATTACK AND REINFORCEMENTS

HOLDING UNTIL RELIEVED

Walk east along the D514, back towards Pegasus Bridge, and to the open area of land by the side of the canal on your right-hand side; this is where Major John Howard set up his command post, in a trench, in front of a German pillbox. Stop at Point D (Map 2 p.60).

At 0050hrs, precisely as planned, Major Howard heard the distinctive heavy rumble of approaching aircraft. Flying at less than 500ft (152m) an armada of Dakotas, Stirlings and Albemarles was making its way to DZ N in order to drop the men of 5 Para Bde. This area, situated in the cornfields north of Ranville, had been marked by the pathfinders of 22 (Ind) Para Coy with ground flares to aid the navigators and pilots of the RAF. With the arrival of this force Major Howard expected the first troops from 7 Para to arrive very soon and help reinforce his tenuous position – but it was not to be. High winds, reduced visibility and a variety of other factors meant that the 2,200 paratroopers of the three battalions had been spread over a far wider area than had been anticipated. The first large group of reinforcements did not arrive at Pegasus Bridge for another fifty minutes and then, when they did, they were only at one-third strength and missing much of their heavy equipment. It was this loss of mortars, wireless sets and medium machine-guns that would hinder their progress in the hours to come.

An armada of Horsa gliders towed by Stirlings making its way to the drop zone.

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Brigadier Nigel Poett.

German anti-aircraft activity in the area east of the River Orne increased as the 262 Allied aircraft made their way over the DZs and LZs of K,N and V (Map 1, p.26). The night sky was lit up by the searchlight beams and the blue-green tracer fire from the German ground defences. As the canopies of silk began to blossom beneath the aircraft Major Howard, a former policeman, blew on his old police whistle the pre-arranged V for Victory signal; this sound would inform any paratroopers who heard it that the bridges had been taken intact. Furthermore, it was hoped, the sound would help them find their orientation.

At 0052hrs Brigadier Nigel Poett, commander of 5 Para Bde who had dropped with the pathfinders, arrived at the River Orne Bridge accompanied only by a private. He had never received Corporal Tappenden’s wireless call as his own operator, Lieutenant Gordon Royle, had been killed when he attacked an enemy patrol single-handed at the DZ. Nevertheless Brigadier Poett continued on towards Major Howard’s Headquarters and arrived just in time to witness the Germans’ first counter-attack.

When I reached Howard, stronger efforts were already being made by the Germans to regain the bridges. One of these included a tank. The tank was most effectively dealt with by a PIAT [an infantry anti-tank weapon firing a powerful bomb]. It was a short-range weapon and complicated to reload. It was, therefore, essentially a one shot weapon in action, requiring a cool head and steady hand, plus a great deal of courage in facing a tank at close range. Howard’s Sergeant Thornton had all these qualities.

BRIGADIER NIGEL POETT, COMMANDER, 5 PARA BDE.

Continue to walk over Pegasus Bridge and stop by the road outside the entrance of the Café Gondrée at Point E (Map 2 p.60). From this vantage point Howard’s defences can be easily imagined. Back at his command post Howard kept Lieutenant Wood’s No. 24 Platoon of D Coy, and the sappers in reserve on the east side of Pegasus Bridge. The grounds of the Café Gondrée were held by Lieutenant Brotheridge’s No. 25 Platoon of D Coy and Lieutenant Smith – who had now also taken command of Brotheridge’s platoon, had his own No. 14 Platoon of B Coy, in the bunkers and trenches across the road. Up ahead, towards the T junction (now a roundabout), Lieutenant Fox’s No. 17 Platoon of B Coy, waited anxiously for the expected counter-attack.

By 0115hrs, Major Howard had secured his defences as best he could with the relatively small number of men under his command. At 0130hrs his troops were put to the test as the sound of armoured vehicles was heard approaching from the direction of Bénouville towards the T junction just 350 yards (320m) up the road.

The clanking and grinding of the caterpillar tracks became louder as the German armour turned on to the roadway leading to the bridge. The sense of danger was heightened due to the lack of suitable ammunition; the No. 82 (gammon) grenades – ideal for use against tank and armoured vehicle tracks – couldn’t be found and most of the PIATs had been damaged and rendered useless due to the severity of the gliders’ crash-landings. Only one serviceable PIAT was found and the responsibility of firing this fell on Sergeant ‘Wagger’ Thornton, of Lieutenant Fox’s Platoon, who was positioned nearest the T junction.

Although he had two PIAT bombs, Thornton knew that if he missed with the first shot he would not have a chance to reload the cumbersome weapon before the armoured vehicle returned fire. As the vehicles drew closer the men held their fire and paused, with baited breath, in anticipation of the outcome. Thornton, alone in his task, waited nervously for his target to come into range of his first, and only, shot.

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I don’t mind admitting it I was shaking like a bloody leaf as this bloody great thing appears. The lads behind me were only lightly armed with Bren guns, rifles and grenades. They wouldn’t stand a chance if I missed and the whole operation would be over. I was so nervous I was talking to myself, ‘This is it! You mustn’t miss.’ The first tank had begun moving slowly down the road. I pulled the trigger on the PIAT. It was a direct hit. Machine-gun clips inside the tank set off grenades which set off shells. There was the most enormous explosion, with bits and pieces flying everywhere and lighting up the darkness. To my delight, the other tank fled... I was so excited and so shaking I had to move back a bit.

SERGEANT ‘WAGGER’ THORNTON, 2 OXF BUCKS

The spectacular display lasted for nearly half an hour and in doing so blocked the path of the following tanks. It was enough to convince the Germans that the British were holding the bridge in strength and so they decided to wait until dawn before they would counter-attack again. This gave the men of 2 Oxf Bucks a much needed breathing space until their reinforcements arrived.

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Lieutenant Colonel Richard Geoffrey Pine-Coffin.

At the same time as the armoured column arrived at Bénouville, just over a mile (1.6km) away on DZ N, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Geoffrey Pine-Coffin, Commander of 7 Para, could hear the sound of Major Howard’s whistle relaying the success signal at 0130hrs. At this time he also had less than fifty per cent of his riflemen and Bren gunners assembled at the RV. Worse still he had no medium machine-guns, mortars or wireless sets. Nevertheless, he decided he could wait no longer and set off for the bridges.

I set off with my initial attack force [A B C Coys and the Adv Bn HQ]. The plan was for rear Bn HQ to follow up in its own best time, so I left the 2ic [Steele-Baume] to collect in all he could and follow us up, choosing his own time for starting…. As the bridges were intact I took my force over them with all speed and ordered them into their prearranged bridgehead positions in Bénouville… It was 0140hrs when I crossed the canal bridge with this force.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL RICHARD GEOFFREY PINE-COFFIN, CO 7 PARA

On their arrival they passed through 2 Oxf Bucks positions and split up into three companies. A Coy of 7 Para went down the canal path and set up their defences around the houses in the southern part of Bénouville. B Coy of 7 Para went off to the right of the bridge and set up a defence perimeter in le Port and nearby woods; meanwhile C Coy of 7 Para worked their way towards the grounds of the château which was being used as a maternity hospital. 7 Para had barely 200 men between the three companies and, even though some stragglers did join the battalion later, this depleted force suffered severe casualties fighting off the numerous German counter-attacks around the village of Bénouville. In less than two and a half hours of dropping into Normandy, 7 Para had sustained terrible casualties in their initial battle against German forces. The brief war diary entry of 7 Para, for 0325hrs on 6 June, graphically demonstrates their situation:

German self-propelled Hotchkiss 7.5cm Pak 40(SF) auf GW 39 H (f). Similar to vehicle knocked out by Sergeant ‘Wagger’ Thornton.

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The road leading from Pegasus Bridge to the ‘T’ junction between Bénouville and le Port

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Place: le Port and Bénouville. 0325[hrs] Bn occupied objective and held it against various counter-attacks. A and B Coys being heavily engaged. Cas[ualties] killed 3 officers, Capt Parry (Padre), Lt Bowyer and Lt Hill, and 16 Ors. Wounded 4 officers, Major Taylor, Capt Webber, Lt Hunter & Lt Temple & 38 Ors. Missing 170 Ors did not RV after drop.

WAR DIARY 7 PARA

At one point A Coy was cut off and by daybreak they had lost all of their officers. B Coy were under constant sniper fire in le Port, some of the snipers being in the church tower. Corporal Tommy Killeen dealt with this by blowing a hole in the church tower with a PIAT round. Later the corporal was seen removing his helmet in respect before he entered the church!1 Some twelve bodies of German snipers were found in the wrecked church tower.

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Bénouville (le Port) Church today.

German snipers, operating from Bénouville (le Port) Church tower, caused elements of 7 Para problems – Corporal Killeen dealt with this by blowing a hole in the tower with a PIAT bomb.

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One German counter-attack, using tanks as support, was repulsed largely due to the efforts of Private Michael McGee, who single-handedly put one of the tanks out of action by running up to it and placing a gammon bomb onto its tracks. For his action he was awarded the DCM.

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Leutnant Hans Höller on D-Day.

The Germans that advanced into Bénouville were from the 21 Panzer Division. Among them was Panzergrenadier Regiment 192. One of the officers was Leutnant Hans Höller, his section of mobile 75mm (2.95in) Pak 40s, were hidden in the hedgerows about 300 yards (274m) from the château.

We got involved in heavy fighting with a strong parachute unit. We managed to penetrate into half the village, but the parachutists fought bitterly and the exit leading to the coast could not be taken.

LEUTNANT HANS HÖLLER,

PZGREN REGT 192

C Coy were also threatened by the German armour; they were preparing for trouble as a number of German tanks approached their positions in the château grounds when, to everyone’s amazement, the tanks stopped and the crews dismounted and assembled in front of the lead tank for a discussion. Wasting no time, C Coy opened fire on the surprised Germans. Those who survived immediately drove their tanks away from the bridge, heading for the coast. During the fighting the Germans had occupied part of the château, but were eventually driven out by the paratroopers. Although the château was in the middle of the battlefield throughout the month of June, the matron, Madame Vion, continued to run the hospital with efficiency and delivered eighteen babies during the first eight weeks of the invasion.

During the fighting Georges and Thérèse Gondrée, with their two children, had been taking shelter in the Café Gondrée cellar. Georges answered a knock at his door and invited in two armed soldiers in battledress. After a brief exchange of words he took the soldiers to meet his family and soon realized that this was not a German trick but that the invasion had really started. Later Georges Gondrée suggested that the café should be used for the wounded. This offer was taken up when at 0920hrs Captain Urquhart, from 225 Para Fd Amb, established a Regimental Aid Post (RAP) at the Café for 7 Para and 2 Oxf Bucks casualties. To show his appreciation to the Allied troops, Georges Gondrée went into his garden and dug up ninety-eight bottles of champagne that he had buried back in 1940 when the Germans had occupied the country. It was a gesture that turned into a tradition and the Gondrée family have continued to show their gratitude ever since, as no D-Day veteran has ever had to buy a drink in the Café Gondrée.

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A German Marder III self-propelled gun passing a crashed Horsa glider.

As H-Hour approached for the seaborne landings a rumbling crescendo of noise from the naval bombardment nearly drowned out the noise of small arms and mortar fire around the bridge. It was at this time that two Italian prisoners were brought in. It turned out that they were labourers being used to erect the anti-glider poles in the fields around the bridges and Ranville. After some questioning, Major Howard turned them loose and to his surprise they returned to their work in the field. When questioned further, they confessed that they had specific orders to have the poles in position by the end of 6 June. Convinced that the Germans would return, they were more afraid of the consequences of not carrying out their orders than they were of trying to work in a battlefield. So, and to everyone’s amusement, they were left to get on with erecting the poles around the crashed gliders.2

Leutnant Hans Höller and his 75mm anti-tank gun hidden in the hedgerow near Bénouville Château.

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Italian prisoners who, when released, returned to their task of putting up anti-glider poles – much to the amusement of their captors.

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Major General Gale at his HQ at Ranville talking to war correspondent Leonard Moseley (far right) who had jumped with the 6th Airborne.

At around 0900hrs forty-seven year old Major General Richard Gale, accompanied by Brigadier The Hon Hugh Kindersley and Brigadier Nigel Poett, left his HQ in Ranville to discuss with Lieutenant Colonel Pine-Coffin the situation in Bénouville and le Port. Just as he arrived at Pegasus Bridge two German gunboats were seen approaching the bridge from the direction of Ouistreham. The lead boat began firing its 20mm (0.79in) gun at the bridge. 7 Para on the west bank opened fire and at the same time Private Claude Godbold, 2 Oxf Bucks, fired a PIAT bomb which exploded in the wheelhouse. Out of control, the boat ran into the east bank. The other gunboat turned around and headed back to the coast.3

German gunboat crippled by a PIAT bomb launched by Private Godbold, 2 Oxf Bucks.

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Later the Germans tried to destroy the bridge by sending a Focke-Wulf FW190 fighter bomber. The pilot scored a direct hit on top of the bridge, but the single bomb never detonated and bounced off the bridge and into the water, leaving only a big dent on top of the bridge counter-weight. Two German frogmen were also sent down the canal to lay charges on the bridge, but these were seen and disposed of by British snipers.

THE AIRBORNE AND SEABORNE LINK-UP

At 1230hrs4 the men at the bridge heard the unmistakable sound of bagpipes approaching from the direction of Ouistreham. Soon the sight of Piper Bill Millin playing his pipes and Brigadier The Lord Lovat wearing his green beret and carrying a walking stick, came into view. With them there was a Churchill tank and the commandos of 1 SS Bde.

I stopped piping immediately across the road from the café. There was a battle going on. There were huge columns of black smoke and even from where I was standing I could hear shrapnel and bullets or whatever hitting off the metal side of the bridge. Wounded were being carried up from the canal banks and then to the café. It was a real hot spot. Lovat went forward to speak with Major Howard and he said, ‘John, today we are making history.’ Lovat came back to me and said ‘Right, we’ll cross over. Now, don’t play, wait until I tell you.’ So we walked over ducking because of the snipers. We almost got to the other side and he said, ‘Right play now and keep playing all the way along this road until you come to another bridge and keep playing right across – no matter what just keep playing.’

PIPER BILL MILLIN, 1 SS BDE

Not all the commandos were lucky in crossing Pegasus Bridge and several of them were killed by snipers. Captain John Vaughan saw one drop right in front of him. He had been shot in the head through his green beret. Commandos who crossed the bridge later chose to wear their steel helmets. The ground between the bridges offered some relief from the snipers as the trees along the canal bank blocked their field of view. But crossing the next bridge they were once again in the open.

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Piper Bill Millin, 1 SS Bde.

Piper Bill Millin with his bagpipes at the 65th Anniversary. The bagpipes are now on display at the Pegasus Memorial Museum.

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I looked across and I could see two airborne on the other side dug in a slit trench. I kept my eye on those two chaps. They were signalling, ‘down, down,’ and pointing to the sides of the river. They kept looking at Lovat. He was walking along there as if he was out for a walk on his estate... It was the longest bridge I walked over. But anyway, I piped over that, playing the ‘Blue Bonnets Over the Border’. The two airborne chaps thought we were crazy because we hadn’t taken any notice. But I got over, stopped playing the pipes and shook hands with the two chaps in their slit trench. Then from across the road appears this tall airborne officer, red beret on. He came marching across, his arms outstretched towards Lovat; ‘Very pleased to see you, old boy,’ and Lovat said, ‘And we are very pleased to see you, old boy. Sorry we are two and a half minutes late!’ We were more than two and a half minutes late but that’s the famous words of the link-up of the airborne and commandos.

PIPER BILL MILLIN, NO 1 SS BDE

The commandos then advanced towards the high ground around Amfréville to help the men of 3 Para Bde hold a defensive perimeter east of the River Orne. As the afternoon passed by more reinforcements arrived from the beaches. By the evening 3rd Infantry Division, whose main objective was forming the link-up between the airborne and seaborne troops and pushing on towards Caen, had established and were holding a bridgehead 5 miles (8.05km) deep and 4 miles (2.39km) wide between the Caen Canal and Ver-sur-Mer. All that separated British 3rd Infantry Division from the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division, who had landed on JUNO Beach, was the village of Langrune-sur-Mer. This was still being fought for by the troops of No. 48 Royal Marine Commando (48 RM Cdo), a fight that would continue throughout the night of the 6 June. To the east 2 Warwicks, had passed through St Aubin and Bénouville and were dug in around Blainville, while 1 KOSB took up positions in St Aubin which overlooked Bénouville. As they did so, the engineers from 17 Fd Coy moved up and began the task of building relief Bailey bridges across the canal.5

At 2100hrs, as dusk started to settle over the Normandy battlefields, the troops on both sides were greeted with a spectacular display that had never before been witnessed on such a scale in the history of warfare. An air armada of aircraft pulling 244 gliders was heading for the LZ/DZs of N & W. On board over 3,000 troops with supplies and heavy equipment were waiting to reinforce the 6th Airborne Division bridgehead.

Among the reinforcements were 6 Airldg Bde HQ, 1 RUR, 6 AARR, A Coy 12 Devons, 716 Ab Lt Comp Coy RASC, 249 Fd Coy RE, 211 Airldg Lt Bty, two companies of 195 Airldg Fd Amb and the remainder of 2 Oxf Bucks. The landings proved to be a truly memorable experience, particularly for those on board the gliders:

There were just the three of us and we carried, in the glider, a 6-pounder [2.72kg) anti-tank gun and a jeep... When we landed there were several bangs, as we ran over stuff on the ground. The cockpit door was open, and I could see we were approaching a tall hedge at speed. However, we went straight through it and didn’t feel a thing. We finally came to a stop in the corner of a field near Bénouville and immediately removed the tail of the glider. I started to unshackle the gun and jeep and suddenly realized that I was on my own. I looked all around and couldn’t see a soul. I called out and first one head, then another, appeared in the long grass at the side of the field. One of them said they had seen tanks. So I started up the jeep and drove the jeep and gun straight out of the glider without bothering to put down the ramps. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken out the blocks from the springs of the jeep, which were used to make it solid for lashing down, so I got quite a jolt when it hit the ground. I suppose it was a drop of about 5 feet[1.52m]. As it happened, the tanks were Shermans, so no panic.

PRIVATE DON MASON, 2 OXF BUCKS

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Private Don Mason, 2 Oxf Bucks.

On landing the men assembled and moved off towards Bénouville as quickly as possible. As the other companies of 2 Oxf Bucks joined their comrades of B and D Coys at the bridge they received a lot of jovial comments about their late arrival. 2 Oxf Bucks, including Major Howard’s company, then moved into Ranville that evening to prepare for their attack on Escoville the following day.

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Hamilcar gliders landing on DZ/LZ N at 2100hrs on D-Day.

The Germans however, were still well within range of the landing zones and they were constantly firing at the gliders that came into land.

The flight over the channel was uneventful, but things started to hot up once we crossed the Normandy coastline... On touchdown, our undercarriage was ripped away but we completed the fast bumpy landing on skids. All aboard got out of the craft as quickly as possible. On setting foot on Normandy soil I was aware the Germans were using automatic fire, some of which punctured the fuselage of our glider. It was at this time I saw the body of Private Leonard Worgan lying on the grass. He had been killed in the glider by German tracer fire. Being in daylight view of the enemy and under constant fire, it was decided to get away fast from the landing field.

PRIVATE RAYMOND DAECHE, 195 AIRLDG FD AMB RAMC

Private Leonard Worgan was later buried in Ranville churchyard, where he still rests today, near the grave of Lieutenant Den Brotheridge. After their landing 195 Airldg Fd Amb RAMC made its way over the bridges to set up a Main Dressing Station (MDS) in a house in Ranville near the château being used by 225 Para Fd Amb RAMC as their MDS.

Meanwhile at the RAP in the Café Gondrée, one soldier from 7 Para, witnessed the landings while he was sitting at a table just outside the front door of the Café, waiting for his turn to be tended in the aid post.

Georges Gondrée brought me a glass of champagne, which was very welcome indeed after that sort of day, I can tell you... Just

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Reinforcements crossing Pegasus Bridge.

Private Gardner (glider No. 91), Captain B. Priday (with Sten gun) and Lance Corporal Lambley (glider No. 94). Only Captain Priday survived the war.

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before it got dark, there was a tremendous flight of aircraft, hundreds of British aircraft. They came in and they did a glider drop and a supply drop between the bridges and the coast on our side of the canal. It was a marvellous sight, it really was. They were also dropping supplies on the ‘chutes out of their bomb doors, and then it seemed only a few minutes afterwards that all these chaps in jeeps, towing anti-tank guns and god knows what, were coming down the road through le Port, and over this bridge. At that moment I can remember thinking to myself, ‘My God, we’ve done it!

MAJOR NIGEL TAYLOR, 7 PARA

As the men dug in for the night the Germans were already setting up their defences and preparing their counter-attacks. 21 Panzer Division were in place between 3rd Infantry Division and around Caen and 12 SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend were already forward. In the days to come the Allied infantry, paratroopers and commandos found that these élite units were to be more difficult to contend with than the coastal defence infantry of 716 Infanterie Division.

Soldiers of 12 SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend . This élite unit along with 21 Panzer Division were about to give 6th Airborne a hard fight.

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