Operation Deadstick

6 June 1944

WHEN PLANNING FOR the Allied invasion of Europe began in earnest at the start of 1943, teams of military strategists scoured highly detailed maps of Normandy looking for weak spots and strong-points in the terrain. Once the beaches for the amphibious landings on D-Day had been chosen, attention focused on thwarting a German counterattack that risked driving the British, US and Canadian forces back into the sea. Their eyes were inevitably drawn to a small pinprick of a village, deep behind enemy lines, lying midway between the coastal town of Ouistreham and the city of Caen, roughly four miles from the centre of each. The sleepy hamlet of Bénouville comprised no more than a few houses, a church, some smallholdings, a maternity hospital and a café. Hardly could the locals have guessed that, back in England, some of the sharpest military minds in the world had identified their tiny community as the key to D-Day’s success.

The reason for Bénouville’s importance lay right beneath the feet of its inhabitants in the form of two small bridges running consecutively over the Caen Ship Canal and the River Orne. The waterways are almost exactly parallel to one another, separated by 400 yards of flat farmland. Whoever controlled the bridges on 6 June 1944 controlled the course of the battle on the left-hand – eastern flank – of the invasion. If the Allies could somehow capture the bridges before the dawn landings began, and hold them until major reinforcements arrived, they would close off the only feasible route for a German counterattack against the British Army landings at Sword Beach. It was from this direction that German 711th Infantry Division and the tanks of the formidable 21st Panzer Division would race to engage the British as they waded ashore and attempted to break out. In short, whoever held the bridges held the key to D-Day.

It was decided that the most effective way of seizing the bridges was by a glider-borne coup de main operation, under the cover of darkness, a few hours before the main assault forces came ashore. The task would not just represent a mighty responsibility but also a mighty challenge. The 6th Airborne Division, commanded by Major General Richard ‘Windy’ Gale, was tasked with securing the left or eastern flank of the Allied invasion. Gale asked Brigadier Hugh Kindersley, the CO of the division’s glider infantry brigade, to recommend the best group of men to carry out the assignment. Without a second thought, Kindersley put forward ‘D’ Company, 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, known to all as the ‘Ox and Bucks’.

It would have come as a major surprise to his first commanding officer in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry that the gap-toothed private by the name of John Howard would one day play a leading role in the largest invasion in the history of warfare. Howard was plagued by homesickness as a young recruit, but he persevered. He had served for six years when, in 1938, he applied for an officer’s commission only to be turned down in spite of having all the necessary qualities and qualifications. Snobbery may well have been a factor. Howard was from a working-class background. His father was a barrel-maker at Courage Brewery in London and barely brought home enough money to feed and clothe his nine children.

After joining the police, Howard rejoined his regiment when war broke out and rose rapidly through the ranks. This time, there was to be no social prejudice to hold him back. Within five months he was Regimental Sergeant Major and was offered a commission and joined the Ox and Bucks. By mid-1942, he had been promoted to Major and took command of a Company that he soon turned into one of the finest in the British Army.

After impressing the staff officers during a three-day exercise to find the best unit for the D-Day assignment, Howard’s D Company (D Coy) was chosen to spearhead the British assault. The planners considered that two platoons were needed to seize each bridge but, in case of heavy casualties or the loss of a glider, D Coy’s four platoons were reinforced with two extra ones. Howard chose two from B Company, commanded by Lieutenants Dennis Fox and ‘Sandy’ Smith. Most of the 170 men that made up the coup de main party were from London or its suburbs. Howard was invited to play a significant role in planning the specifics of the assault. The two landing zones he chose for the six troop-carrying Horsa gliders were situated in fields between the Caen Canal and the River Orne, so that if the Germans blew one of the bridges, the force would not be stranded on the far bank.

The final three-week training course, which began in late April at Ilfracombe in Devon, was extremely tough even by Howard’s exacting standards. Howard was a great sports enthusiast and he set out to create a culture of fierce competition among his men. His training methods were imaginative and resourceful. He switched between day and night exercises in order to simulate the reality his men would experience on the battlefield. He took the company to bombed-out areas of Southampton to accustom them to a street-fighting environment in a war zone. Only Howard knew why the men were being pushed to the very limits of their endurance, but slowly they began to suspect that they had been assigned some form of special mission. Others might have been pushed to the brink of mutiny by Howard’s punishing regime, but his men not only respected him, they genuinely liked him. For a start, he would never ask them to perform an assignment he wouldn’t carry out himself. He was strict but down-to-earth, ‘one of the boys’ at heart who had risen through the ranks and never forgot his humble background. Far from being aloof and removed, Howard would often sit down with the other ranks and polish his boots with them.

When the training was over, the entire battalion was told to march the 130 miles back to their camp at Bulford on Salisbury Plain, carrying eighty pounds of weapons and equipment. D Coy completed it in just four days, two of them in torrential rain and two under a scorching sun. It was this Herculean effort that convinced the higher authorities once and for all that Howard’s men were the right ones to carry out one of the most momentous tasks in the history of the British armed forces. Under Howard’s training regime, D Coy of the Ox and Bucks, a harmless-sounding unit, had become elite Special Forces in everything but name. Howard was nothing if not meticulously thorough. He thought deeply about every scenario that might unfold on the night and trained all his men in each of the tasks they were assigned so that they were interchangeable.

At the end of May, the extended group of D Coy was split up from the rest of the battalion and driven from Bulford to a camp in the village of Tarrant Rushton in north Dorset, five miles from the picturesque market town of Blandford Forum. As the men climbed down from the trucks and saw the canvas community, the barbed-wire fencing and the guards patrolling the perimeter, they realised that this was no ordinary transit camp. When they were informed that they were not to leave the camp under any circumstances, speculation was rife as to the nature of the special mission they had been assigned. Training was light so as to minimise the risk of injuries. The weather was hot for the first few days and the men spent much of the time sunbathing or playing football and other sports. In the evening, they played cards, gambled, watched films in the tented cinema or went to the NAAFI to supplement their meals. The food, by all accounts, was dreadful, even by the low standards of army catering.

On the morning of 27 May, Howard summoned six platoon commanders to his Nissen hut, the only solid structure in camp, which served as the briefing room. Maps, aerial photographs and Top Secret files lay in neat piles and a twelve-by-twelve-foot scale model of Bénouville, exact in its detail down to the last bush and ditch, sat on a table in the centre of the room. It was now that Howard revealed D Coy’s mission and objective. Slowly and methodically, Howard talked his junior officers through every phase of what had been code-named Operation DEADSTICK. The room soon became thick with cigarette smoke as the men, poring over the model and the RAF’s recce photographs, ran through every step and possible eventuality. It was almost midnight when the meeting broke up.

Straight after breakfast the following day, the group filed back in and another entire day was spent going over the procedure. That evening, Howard addressed the entire extended company and finally put an end to the mounting speculation. He told them everything except the name of the place where they were going. Over the following week, platoon by platoon, the men were summoned to the hut and talked through the operation, until every last detail was drummed into them. ‘They stood round the model, at first struck dumb by its complexity, fascinated and impressed by its detail, and before long they all seemed to know every inch of the area on which they would be working,’ Howard wrote in the private papers that were published almost sixty years after the event.

The following day, the twelve pilots of the six Horsa gliders were brought over and introduced to D Coy. ‘A damn good crowd,’ Howard called them and, helped by some inter-service banter, they quickly struck a close bond with the men who would carry them into battle. Only one jarring note was struck: the pilots were horrified by the combined weight of men and equipment that their unpowered, plywood aircraft were expected to carry. There would be thirty fully laden men in each Horsa, plus extra equipment and ammunition, which made them about three-quarters of a ton overweight. There was no choice but to jettison valuable provisions and equipment. For Howard, the hardest part of all was telling two men from each glider that they’d have to stay behind.

The invasion of Normandy was scheduled to take place on Monday 5 June. Each day in the week leading up to it, fresh aerial reconnaissance photographs and intelligence were fed into the planning of the operation. On 29 May, Howard was alarmed to learn that poles designed to stop aircraft landing were being constructed in the very fields that he had designated as their landing zones. Known as ‘Rommel’s asparagus’, after the German General who had ordered their construction along the Normandy coast, the poles were laid out at intervals and would tear off the wings of all but the smallest aircraft. Howard was told that the white dots in the photographs were just the holes that had been dug, not the poles themselves. But he was only partly reassured. He harboured two fears that would nag him until the moment the gliders were scheduled to land. Firstly, with the holes now dug, it was obvious that the poles could be installed at any time. Secondly, did their appearance suggest that the Germans had got wind of the operational plans and were busy reinforcing their defences in anticipation of their arrival?

Four days before they were scheduled to be flown in, the men were reminded of the dangers that awaited them in France when they were each issued with a small survival kit to help them escape through enemy territory. They were given a small amount of French francs and a number of items to sew into their battledress, including silk maps of France, a file, a hacksaw blade, fishing hooks, a trouser button with a compass embedded in it and Benzedrine tablets or ‘Bennies’, a stimulant to help the exhausted stay alert, which were especially popular with bomber pilots.

Major General ‘Windy’ Gale, commander of the 6th Airborne Division, came down to Tarrant Rushton to address the troops, delivering the memorable lines: ‘The German today is like the June bride. He knows he is going to get it, but he doesn’t know how big it is going to be.’ By Friday night, with forty-eight hours to go, the weather turned for the worst as the hot spell gave way to strong winds and a heavy grey sky. On Sunday morning, a dispatch rider roared up to the camp on his motorcycle and handed Howard a brown envelope. Inside, there was just one word: ‘Cromwell’ – the code-name confirming that D-Day was on the following morning.

Howard’s first course of action was to get the entire company to sit down and write a letter to their loved ones. Most of the men found this task far harder than anything they were asked to do out in the field. Writing the letter put the challenge that lay ahead into sharp focus. Each man asked himself the same question: Is this the last contact I will have with home? Even Howard admitted, years later, that he could barely write to his wife Joy for all the tears welling up. Most of the older soldiers had children and it was especially hard for the eight men in the company whose wives were pregnant.

The weather deteriorated as the day went on and by late afternoon gales were lashing the Channel. Howard was not surprised to be informed that the invasion had been postponed – but he was worried. The longer they waited, the more time the Germans had to strengthen their defences at the landing sites. As wind and rain lashed against the canvas, making sleep almost impossible, Howard prayed all night for a rapid improvement in the weather.

The planners for Operation DEADSTICK were lucky to have a first-class source of intelligence in Bénouville. The Gondrées owned a café situated right next to the canal bridge; every day for four years, the proud French family had served the troops of the local German garrison. When they picked up significant news of German activities, the information was quickly passed along the Resistance’s chain of communication and transmitted to England. Their German customers never suspected for a moment that Thérèse and Georges Gondrée, a friendly and apparently guileless couple, were in fact members of the Resistance. Thérèse came from the Alsace region on the border with Germany and spoke the language of the occupying forces almost fluently. Georges had worked for over a decade as a clerk in Lloyds Bank in Paris and spoke perfect English. Thérèse listened to the troops in the café and passed on any noteworthy news to Georges to translate. He then forwarded the information to the leader of the local Resistance – a Madame Vion, who ran the local maternity hospital a few hundred yards along the canal. Madame Vion then passed it on to the radio operator in Caen, who tapped out the coded message for the intelligence people back in England. Thérèse and Georges often plied their German customers with the local hooch Calvados, an apple brandy, in order to loosen their tongues. The speed with which information was relayed back to the UK was illustrated in the final days leading up to D-Day. On the Friday, Thérèse discovered that the detonator for the demolition charges on the canal bridge had been placed in the machine-gun bunker at the eastern end. By Sunday, Howard was reading the memo in his briefing hut in north Dorset.

The wider intelligence network had provided a comprehensive breakdown of German defences and troop numbers in the area. The bridges were defended by men from a fifty-strong garrison made up of conscripts from occupied countries, mostly from Eastern Europe, but commanded by German NCOs and officers. They were armed with light machine guns, four light anti-aircraft guns and one anti-aircraft machine gun. The bulk of the defences were centred on the left or eastern end of the canal bridge where there was an anti-tank gun in a reinforced concrete bunker surrounded by a series of sandbagged trenches. Gun pits sat at the other corners of the bridge. The river bridge, a quarter of a mile away to the west, was guarded by gun pits, but was nothing like as heavily defended as the canal crossing.

Major Hans Schmidt, the commander of the local garrison, was under orders to place explosive charges on the bridges ready to be blown in the event of an attack. But, fearing that the French Resistance would either defuse them, or detonate them as part of their strategy of sabotaging transport links to disrupt German movements, he decided to keep the charges in a nearby bunker and put them in place when they received news of the invasion.

Howard’s orders from Brigadier Nigel Poett, commander 5th Parachute Brigade, included the lines: ‘The capture of the bridges will be a coup de main operation depending largely on surprise, speed and dash for success. Provided the bulk of your force lands safely, you should have little difficulty in overcoming the known opposition on the bridges. Your difficulties will arise in holding off an enemy counterattack on the bridges, until you are relieved.’

Thanks to the intelligence from the Resistance and the photographs from the RAF’s aerial reconnaissance unit, Howard knew every detail of the local defences – except for one. So as not to undermine the morale of his men, a key piece of information was deliberately withheld from him by his masters at the Planning HQ on Salisbury Plain. Stationed in Caen, five miles down the road, was the 125th Panzer Regiment of the 21st Panzer Division, commanded by Colonel Hans von Luck. The regiment was a very well-equipped, elite unit, trained in the art of counterattacking. Von Luck was one of the most experienced and capable tank commanders in the German Army, hardened by years of heavy fighting in Poland, France, North Africa and the Eastern front. He was an old-school Prussian who enjoyed a clean fight and had developed an admiration and liking for his British foes in the North Africa campaign. Von Luck and the 2,000 men of 125th Panzer Regiment were the ‘difficulties’ to which Brigadier Poett was referring in his orders. The ‘relief’ would be provided by the men of 7th Battalion, 5th Parachute Brigade, 6th Airborne Division. Whether there would be any forces left for them to relieve was another matter.

The first challenge was to get the assault party safely onto French soil. The men were to be flown over the Channel in Horsa gliders towed by Halifax bombers that would release them close to the Normandy coast. From that moment on, the lives of the twenty-eight men crammed into each of the wooden aircraft lay in the hands of the pilots, who had been specially handpicked and trained for the assignment. All twelve were highly skilled airmen who had been put through intense training programmes for the D-Day landings. Glider pilots were a precious asset in the Normandy landings and orders stated that, in a break with normal practice, they were not to be risked in the battle on the ground and that they were to be returned to England at the earliest practicable time for the next mission.

Glider operations had many advantages over parachuting. They could deliver a large body of men to a single spot ready to go straight into action. They were able to carry heavy items of equipment. They approached the landing zone in silence and, with a high descent rate, the pilots could put them down in a very tight landing area. Unlike paratroopers, glider infantry needed virtually no additional training. But there were also many shortcomings and hazards to glider-borne operations. Gliders need flat terrain on which to land and, at 80 mph, even the smoothest landings were violent, painful experiences that often ended in death and injury. The Sicily landings of 1943 highlighted a number of problems. More than 250 men had been drowned after the gliders were released too early by their towing aircraft.

Gliders were also very vulnerable to interception by enemy fighters while being towed, as well as to anti-aircraft and small-arms fire during the final approach. Several gliders were shot down in Sicily by Allied gunners who mistook them for the Luftwaffe. As a result of those blue-on-blue incidents, to aid identification all Allied aircraft involved in the Normandy invasion were painted with black and white stripes on their wings and fuselage.

The assault party was split into two groups of three platoons, one to assault the canal bridge, the other to seize the river bridge. The six Horsas would carry a platoon each. The first group, which was scheduled to land shortly after midnight, was to capture the canal bridge. To do that, a handful of troops in the lead glider had to sprint from the aircraft to take out the machine-gun bunker that stood on the eastern bank of the canal, no more than 100 yards from where they had landed. The rest of the platoon, meanwhile, were to storm over the bridge and secure its western end, which led into Bénouville village. The two other platoons in the group would clear the other enemy positions.

The three platoons of the second group, landing a short distance away, would carry out a carbon-copy manoeuvre at the river bridge. D Coy would then settle into defensive positions and wait to be relieved by paratroopers landing a few miles to the east. Codewords and recognition signals were issued: if the canal bridge was successfully captured, it was ‘Ham’; for the river bridge ‘Jam’. On being told this, the men could be heard wandering through camp shouting ‘Ham and Jam!’ If all went to plan, Howard’s lightly armed men would have to wait no more than an hour for airborne reinforcements to arrive. In turn, the paratroopers would be relieved in the late morning by a large force of Commandos arriving by sea. How the Germans reacted in the hours immediately following D Coy’s assault would be the key factor. ‘Surprise, speed and dash’ were the words used by Poett to describe how Howard’s men were to take their objectives. They might equally have been included in the orders issued to the German units tasked with the counterattack.

The morning after the scheduled day of departure, Howard’s prayers for fine weather were answered – at least in part. It was still blustery and the Channel was still running heavy, but the gales had subsided and clearer weather was forecast overnight. Howard waited anxiously for news. That afternoon, the dispatch rider returned and Howard was handed another brown envelope, once again containing the codeword Cromwell. The camp was filled with a nervous excitement that mounted as the day wore on. The most momentous challenge in the lives of the 180 soldiers and pilots of Operation DEADSTICK drew ever closer – a challenge deeply connected to the lives and fortunes of hundreds of thousands of Allied servicemen who would follow them into the action in the days and weeks that followed. And it was upon the skill and courage of those servicemen that the fate of the Free World and Occupied Europe depended.

After a well-attended church service, a meal with all fat removed was served to the men that evening to reduce the risk of airsickness. (Howard and many of his men had vomited on every training flight in the Horsas. The motion of the glider was different to a powered flight and it induced nausea in most passengers.) The rest of the evening was spent checking equipment, weapons and provisions. The men put on their battledress, blackened their faces and, as the light began to fade, they lined up on parade for the final time at the camp. ‘Everyone was grossly overloaded – and some of the smaller chaps were visibly sagging at the knees under their heavy loads,’ Howard recalled in his diaries. He addressed his men for the last time and was almost overcome by the emotion of the occasion. In his own words: ‘I am an emotional man beneath the surface, a fact that would have surprised many who knew me then, and I found addressing the men as they went into battle very moving. I found my voice breaking several times as I wished them all the best.’

When the men boarded the trucks for the short journey up the hill to RAF Tarrant Rushton airfield, some of them were so heavy with kit they had to be lifted and shoved into the back. RAF personnel from the admin buildings came out to wave them off, instinctively aware that a special mission was about to be launched. The gliders had their numbers, from 91 to 95, chalked onto the fuselage and white ‘D-Day stripes’ painted on their sides and wings. The first three, containing Howard’s group, were destined for the canal bridge; the second, led by his 2iC Brian Priday, for the river bridge. A little further in front were the six Halifax bombers, the paint of their new stripes adding some freshness to their war-weary frames.

Pilots and soldiers greeted each other warmly, bantering amongst themselves over mugs of hot tea and cigarettes. Ever the perfectionist, Howard walked amongst his men, checking that they had blacked out properly. Those who hadn’t were dispatched to supplement their battle paint with the grime from the exhaust of the trucks.

At 2240 the men synchronised their watches. The men squeezed aboard the gliders through the side door, took their places on the floor of the wooden aircraft and snapped on their harnesses. Howard, the last to board, and with a ‘terrible lump’ in his throat, went to each glider and shouted some final words of encouragement. From each one he was met with shouts of ‘Ham and Jam!’ One by one, a minute apart, the six Halifaxes roared down the runway, their gliders on tow, and climbed into a dark sky of broken cloud to 6,000 feet. The largest invasion in history was underway.

The six gliders rolled and bounced in the wind as the Halifaxes pulled them over the Sussex seaside town of Worthing and out to the Channel. All along the coast below them, the largest invading force ever assembled lay waiting to go into action. The twenty-eight men in the back of each glider sat on the floor leaning against the wooden sides of the fuselage, the whites of their eyes gleaming in their blacked-out faces. The atmosphere was thick with smoke and song as the young troopers pulled nervously on cigarettes and belted out a medley of music hall favourites.

The lead glider was piloted by Staff Sergeants Jim Wallwork and John Ainsworth and carried Howard and Number 25 platoon led by Lieutenant Den Brotheridge. They were to be the first troops into the fray, tasked with the vital role of seizing the canal bridge. As soon as the Normandy coast appeared on the distant horizon, Wallwork shouted his order to prepare for cast-off. The men fell silent and waited for the lurch as the two aircraft decoupled and the glider dived below the clouds before levelling out. It had just gone midnight. They had reached the point of no return. Dead or alive, wounded or intact, the men of D Coy, Ox and Bucks were three minutes from their long-awaited encounter with destiny.

When Brotheridge dragged open the side door a few minutes later, the chill night air swept through the cramped compartment. Fields and hedgerows rushed beneath. The only sound was the stream of the air as the unpowered glider floated towards earth. There was a reason why the troops who flew in them called the gliders ‘silent coffins’. The pilots took their bearings from the glistening waterways of the canal and the river, to their right, which cut through the landscape from the coast. Straight ahead of them, six or seven miles distant, balls of orange flame and towers of smoke rose up through the searchlight beams and tracer around Caen as Allied bombers laid aerial siege to the medieval city. Wallwork turned the glider sharp right on Ainsworth’s order and then once again to set up the final approach.

The two bridges were now clearly visible through the Perspex windscreen, but this was not the time to celebrate the navigational skills that had brought them to their target so skilfully. Everyone on board knew what was coming next and they braced themselves. The men linked arms and raised their feet over their heads ready for impact. There was no such thing as a smooth landing in a glider and many legs had been broken in the past. Wallwork battled the controls and adjusted the wing flaps as the glider, wobbling from side to side, went into a steep descent towards the little triangular field by the canal. Wallwork pulled up the nose and the world outside raced by at 100 mph when the seven-ton, sixty-seven-foot-long aircraft made impact with the uneven ground. The glider bounced twice before sliding along the field in an ear-splitting, wood-splintering crash. The nose of the aircraft was sticking into the barbed-wire fence, fifty yards from the bridge, exactly where Howard had jokingly asked Wallwork to place it back at Tarrant Rushton.

The force of the crash-landing had thrown the two pilots through the windscreen and left the men in the back momentarily stunned. Howard’s harness had snapped and he smashed his head on the roof. When he came round, he thought he had been blinded until he realised that his helmet had been pressed down over his eyes. Glider One had broken up on impact, dust and debris filled the air, and the only sound was that of groaning men injured in the crash.

Moments later, as Howard and 25 Platoon staggered out of the wooden wreckage, Glider Two, piloted by Staff Sergeants Boland and Hobbs, made a near-perfect landing close by. Glider Three, with Staff Sergeants Barkway and Boyle in the cockpit, came in between the first two, but theirs was not a happy landing. The Horsa broke up as it slid into the marshy end of the field and into a pond, which had gone undetected during the planning. Barkway and Boyle were catapulted out of the disintegrating cockpit and into the water. Semi-concussed, they hauled themselves out past the heavily laden body of Lance Corporal Greenhalgh who lay dead in the water. (It is thought that he may have drowned while unconscious.) Such was the force of the impact that Lieutenant Sandy Smith, the leader of 14 Platoon, was also hurled through what remained of the cockpit. The German sentries on the other side of the bridge heard the crash of the gliders but they had grown so accustomed to the Allied bombing raids over the years that they assumed the noise was falling debris or a stricken bomber.

Meanwhile Lieutenant Brotheridge, hobbling from the heavy landing, took off towards the bridge with his men in close attendance. Gunfire erupted as they charged down the bridge firing Sten and Bren guns from the hip. Brotheridge was the first to reach the far end and had just thrown a grenade into a gun pit when he was cut down by a burst of Spandau machine-gun fire that sliced through his neck. He slumped backwards to the ground, the first combat casualty of the Normandy invasion. Tracer streaked back and forth and the air was filled with the rattle of machine-gun fire, the thud of grenades and the cries of men. Brotheridge’s platoon wasted no time in dispatching the gun crew as their leader lay slowly bleeding to death. On hearing the news, Howard’s first thoughts were for the young Lieutenant’s wife who was eight months pregnant.

As the three platoons of Group One cleared trenches and gun positions, Howard set up his command post at the end of the bridge near the landing zone along with his wireless operator Lance Corporal Ted Tappenden. The glider pilots, meanwhile, staggered through the dark, stunned into semi-consciousness during the landings. Staff Sergeant Barkway, one of the pilots in Glider Three, which had crashed heavily, was almost immediately felled by machine-gun fire that almost ripped off his arm. (It was later amputated.) But Boyle, and the other glider pilots who had escaped serious injury, braved the enemy fire to lug weapons, ammunition and equipment from the aircraft to Howard’s command post next to the bridge. Wallwork, covered in blood from a gash to the head, freed his copilot Ainsworth who was trapped under the nose of their Horsa and, ignoring his orders to keep clear of the fighting, worked tirelessly to bring up supplies for the troops.

The three gliders of the second group, a few minutes behind the others, were also experiencing mixed fortunes as they attempted to land in the field alongside the River Orne. Only Glider Six, carrying Lieutenant Fox’s 17 Platoon, managed to come down in the designated landing zone. Glider Five, with Lieutenant ‘Tod’ Sweeney’s 23 Platoon, came down three fields away, almost half a mile short of the bridge. What had happened to Glider Four, carrying 2iC Priday and Lieutenant Hooper’s 22 Platoon, no one knew. They were nowhere to be seen and Tappenden was unable to raise them over the wireless. Howard began to fear the worst.

Sweeney’s men set off as fast as the terrain and their loads allowed, crashing through hedges and sprinting across the fields towards the bridge, all the time fearing they might have arrived too late to take the German defenders by surprise. They could hear the crack and boom of battle in the distance and saw the tracer licking through the darkness. When they arrived at the river bridge, panting and sweating under their heavy loads, they were surprised to find Lieutenant Fox’s men already in position. There was mild disappointment among all the men that they had taken the bridge without a fight. Two mortar bombs had been sufficient to send the crew of the machine-gun post sprinting for safety. The W/T set at Howard’s command post soon crackled into life. The word ‘Jam’ confirmed the capture of the river bridge.

Back at the canal, Lieutenant Wood and his men had cleared out the trenches and positions assigned to them on the ‘home bank’ and were on their way back to report to Howard when they were raked by machine-gun fire. Three bullets tore into Wood’s left leg, shattering his thigh bone. His Sergeant and one other also collapsed under the heavy fire. Wood tried to stand up but couldn’t. It would be many hours before he could be evacuated to a divisional aid post, and in the meantime all his men could do was splint his leg with a rifle and give him and the two others an injection of morphine.

Within fewer than five minutes of landing, Howard had only one infantry officer left standing, Lieutenant Smith whose platoon had been badly mauled during Glider Three’s violent landing. In addition to Greenhalgh’s death, two others had been badly injured, including his Sergeant. Smith had twisted his knee in the crash and he was limping as he led his men across the bridge to reinforce Brotheridge’s platoon. On reaching the other side, a German soldier stood up from behind a wall by the Café Gondrée and threw a stick grenade at him. Smith cut the German down with his Sten, but the grenade exploded and tore the flesh on his wrist down to the bone. Not until he and his men had cleared out all the German positions did he allow himself to be treated.

Captain John Vaughan of the Royal Army Medical Corps, the one qualified doctor in the assault party, had been knocked out when Glider Three had broken up on landing, and he was wandering around in a stupor when Howard spotted him. An unmistakable sight with his large drooping moustache, Vaughan was plastered in foul-smelling mud, having been thrown into the pond on impact. After giving him a swig of whisky from his hip-flask, Howard pointed him in the direction of the casualty command post that had been set up near the river bridge. The first casualty he attended to was Lieutenant Wood, whose thigh had been shattered by machine-gun fire – the first injury in what was to prove a very busy night for the dazed doctor.

The five-man Royal Engineer parties attached to each platoon leapt beneath both bridges to cut wires and remove explosives. They were astounded to discover that no charges had been fixed to the structures. So long as Howard’s assault force could hold their positions for an hour or so, there was no chance now of the Germans blowing the bridges. Cries of ‘Ham’ and ‘Jam’ echoed back and forth across the waterways as the three platoons finished mopping up the slit trenches and machine-gun nests. Within ten minutes of the lead glider careering into the landing zone, Howard had achieved his primary objective of seizing both bridges intact. The months of hard training had paid off. It was a brilliantly executed coup de main operation but, as the men took up position in the slit trenches and gun pits, every one of them knew that the real battle was about to begin.

It was ten minutes to one, a little over half an hour after the Ox and Bucks assault party had gone into action, when the men craned their heads skywards. What started as a distant humming soon turned into a loud drone as scores of aircraft filled the darkened skies. The moon cast its light through the broken cloud, revealing a sight, described by all who saw it, as one of the most magical and uplifting of their lives. Hundreds and hundreds of paratroopers were floating towards earth, the silk canopies of their chutes billowing above their heads. They were falling into landing zones lit up by ground flares in farmland a mile or two beyond Bénouville. To their disgust, they could also see streaks of German tracer rising up to greet the men of the 5th Parachute Brigade in blatant violation of the Geneva Convention.

Howard immediately reached for his pea whistle and blew the ‘Victory-V’ signal – the letter V in Morse code – and continued to repeat it at regular intervals through the night. The shrill blasts carried for miles through the night air over the flat landscape. Some of his men grumbled that Howard was only rousing the Germans and giving away their position, but after the battle many of the paratroopers who had fallen far and wide of the landing zone commented that it was the sound of the whistle that had guided them to the bridges. Howard ordered Tappenden to send the message to Brigadier Poett, commanding the 5th Parachute Brigade, that the bridges had been captured. ‘Ham!’ and ‘Jam!’ . . . ‘Ham!’ and ‘Jam!’ . . . ‘Ham!’ and ‘Jam!’, the Corporal repeated over and over. But no matter how often he said it or how loudly, there was no reply.

The drop of the main body of the 5th Brigade was nothing like as accurate as had been hoped. Poor visibility and strong winds were partly to blame, and some of the ground flares, guiding the men down, were laid too far to the east. The net result was that a great number of the men landed in difficult country far from their forming-up points. There was a good deal of confusion as different units became tangled up with each other. Much of the equipment, including the heavy weapons, could not be recovered until daylight. Without mortars and medium machine guns, the already mighty task of keeping the counterattacking Germans at bay was going to be even more of a challenge.

Minutes after the gliders had landed, Brigadier Poett and his HQ unit were dropped a mile to the east of Bénouville, amongst a group of pathfinders from the 22nd Independent Parachute Company, whose job it was to set up the ground flares at the drop zones. Disorientated at first, the sound of gunfire helped guide him through the crop fields to the canal bridge around which Howard had established the bulk of his defences. With no prior warning of his arrival, Howard was a little taken aback when he saw the tall figure of his Brigadier striding over the bridge towards his command post shortly before one o’clock. Tappenden was still monotonously repeating ‘Ham and Jam!’ into the wireless when he arrived, and Poett explained that their own sets had been lost during the drop.

Howard’s delight at the sight of the paratroopers’ floating to earth gave way to an anxiety that mounted with every minute that they failed to arrive. The original schedule envisaged the Brigade’s 7th Parachute Battalion reaching the bridges roughly one hour after Howard, but as they were now scattered all over the countryside, that seemed highly unlikely.

Shortly after Poett’s arrival, the ominous, grating sounds of heavy armour could be heard along the coastal road from Ouistreham, entering the northern end of Bénouville in the area around the church known as Le Port. At the same time, firing broke out behind them near the river bridge, where a section from Tod Sweeney’s platoon was carrying out a fighting patrol. Four soldiers, advancing along the towpath towards the bridge, were met with raking Bren gun fire and died where they fell. Sweeney’s men were horrified to learn the following day that one of the dead was a British paratrooper who had been captured.

A few minutes later, Sweeney’s platoon braced themselves for a major engagement. ‘We heard the grinding of gears and the noise of what sounded like a very heavy vehicle coming round the corner,’ Sweeney wrote years later. ‘I thought, Well, here we go. This is the first tank attack.’ The only defence they had against heavy armour was the hand-held PIAT antitank gun, an unreliable, wayward weapon at the best of times that had to be fired from extremely close range to be effective. Headlights appeared around the corner and the men could make out the distinct sound of vehicle tracks grinding over the tarmac. Sweeney sent a message over the W/T to Howard but, as the vehicles swept around the corner, Sweeney’s worst fears were allayed. It was a motorcycle and an open-topped half-track officer’s vehicle.

The whole platoon opened up as one, blasting the rider off his motorbike, which veered off the road into the river. The tyres of the half-track were blown out in the hail of fire and three men leapt out as a grenade was hurled in their direction. The driver and one other were gunned down as they tried to flee. The third was captured – and he was not at all happy about it. With good reason. He was Major Hans Schmidt, the garrison commander of the bridges who, on seeing hundreds of paratroopers drifting down, was racing to take up his position when he ran into Sweeney’s men. Severely wounded in the leg, he ranted at his captors in perfect English, and continued to do so as he was led to Captain Vaughan’s casualty clearing station between the two bridges. Still shouting, Schmidt proceeded to inform the magnificently moustached doctor that Hitler was going to hurl the British straight back into the sea. He then demanded to be shot for having lost his honour in allowing the bridges to be captured. The doctor soon shut him up by jabbing him in the buttock with a syringe full of morphia.

In Caen, five miles to the south, Colonel Hans von Luck of the 125th Panzer Regiment was growing increasingly agitated. Hearing the news that thousands of British paratroopers were landing up towards the coast, he had roused his men and readied his tanks. Had he advanced immediately to meet the threat, events on D-Day might have taken an altogether different course. But, because of the Führer himself, he was unable to do anything but sit in his HQ and await orders from Berlin. Increasingly suspicious and dismissive of his generals, Hitler had demanded complete control of his armoured divisions; at one o’clock on the morning of 6 June 1944, no one in his staff dared disturb the dictator while he slept. In a further stroke of ill-fortune for the Germans, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the man in charge of repelling an Allied invasion in France, had flown back to Germany the day before to celebrate his wife’s fiftieth birthday, having been told by his naval authorities that the sea was too rough for amphibious landings. “It is my firm opinion . . .” wrote Von Luck in his memoirs, “that by exploiting the initial confusion among the enemy after their descent we would have succeeded in pushing through to the coast and probably also in regaining possession of the two bridges over the Orne at Bénouville.”

While Sweeney and his men apprehended Major Schmidt at the river bridge, the rest of Howard’s men back at the canal crossing prepared themselves for the scenario they had all been dreading: a German counterattack with tanks. They could hear the heavy armoured vehicle crunch and clank its way slowly towards them in the darkness. With the paratroopers of the 7th Battalion still nowhere to be seen, their only means of defence was the misfiring PIAT. Lieutenant Fox’s platoon was patrolling around Bénouville with the other four platoons dug in around the bridge. His Sergeant, ‘Wagger’ Thornton, who was in charge of the PIAT, understood that the three-pound high-explosive bomb needed to be fired from a range of no further than fifty yards to be sure of penetrating the armour. Thornton showed extraordinary composure as he held the thirty-two-pound gun steady and waited for his moment. For his comrades waiting in the trenches and gun pits to the rear, the tension was unbearable as the tank rumbled towards the T-junction at the end of the bridge. When the tank was virtually on top of him, Thornton fired. Private Eric Woods, who was lying alongside the Sergeant, recalled many years later: ‘It must have been a direct hit on the tank’s magazine, for there was an almighty explosion and ammunition continued to explode for more than an hour afterwards. The two remaining tanks quickly retreated from whence they came.’

In hindsight, Thornton’s cool act of courage was a key moment in the Normandy invasion. The continuing explosions from the tank’s magazines gave the impression to all in the vicinity that the British force at the bridge was very heavily armed and involved in a ferocious action. There was the added advantage that the British troops scattered over the countryside used it as a homing beacon. ‘The Paras who were beginning to muster in the surrounding countryside thought we were having a hell of a fight at the bridges . . .’ wrote Howard. ‘The continuing firework display of the exploding tank helped to guide many of the members of 7 Para who were lost in the Normandy countryside down towards the bridges.’

The 600 men of the 7th Parachute Battalion – 7 Para – began landing shortly after D Coy had captured the bridges, but an hour later there was still no sign of them and no contact over the wireless. By about 0100 only fifty of them had reached the rendezvous. A bugler repeatedly blew the rallying signal but only a small number of the force staggered out of the darkness over the next hour or so. 7 Para’s CO, Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Pine-Coffin (known as ‘Wooden Box’ to his men), decided he could wait no longer and gave the order to move off to the bridges, even though they numbered just 150 men, and had no mortars, no machine guns and no wireless. Pine-Coffin claimed his men arrived at Bénouville at 0140. Howard said it was 0300. Brigadier Poett said it was shortly after 0230. Whenever it was, there was plenty of chat from D Coy when the Paras finally trooped over the bridges. ‘Howard’s men were naturally in very high spirits and much friendly banter and chaff took place as the Battalion had hurried past them,’ Pine-Coffin wrote in his account of the invasion. ‘They had done a most splendid job which rendered the task of the Battalion immeasurably easier.’

Pine-Coffin automatically took over command from Howard, whose men became the battalion reserve responsible for the defence of the river bridge. Pine-Coffin’s much-reduced force took over the defence of the canal bridge and pushed out a bridgehead towards the west. ‘The distance between the two bridges was only about four hundred yards, but it contained plenty of evidence of the thoroughness with which Howard’s men had done their job,’ Pine-Coffin added. ‘Many of the Battalion got their first sight of a dead German on that bit of road and few will forget it in a hurry, particularly the one who had been hit with a tank-busting bomb whilst riding a bicycle. He was not a pretty sight.’

At first light, the Germans began to target the small force of lightly armed Paras around the bridge. Snipers were operating from the church tower to the right and from the windows of the maternity hospital, an old chateau, to the left. It was to be nightfall before the sniper threat was finally extinguished, but not before the German marksmen, firing high-velocity rifles with unerring accuracy, had taken a heavy toll on the British forces. Lieutenant ‘Sandy’ Smith recalled that he had just had his wrist bandaged when a sniper shot the medical orderly treating him straight through the chest. There was no point in the British wasting the precious little ammunition they had left by firing back wildly in the vague direction of the threat. They had no choice but to put up with the punishment.

The situation became so hazardous that Doctor Vaughan was forced to relocate his aid post from his position in between the bridges to the Café Gondrée, at the T-junction by the canal bridge where the bulk of the Paras were now dug in. The Gondrées, who had provided so much intelligence about the area, greeted their liberators with tremendous warmth and generosity. Thérèse kissed the blackened faces of every British soldier she met. When it was safe to do so, Georges went into the garden and dug up the crates of champagne he had buried to avoid serving it to the Germans. All day, he dished out the champagne for casualties, medics and soldiers, while a fierce battle raged outside as the Germans launched a series of powerful counter-attacks to retake the bridges.

Relentless, accurate sniper fire was not the only danger that dawn brought. Lieutenant Richard Todd, who was to become a film star after the war, described, in a newspaper article, the scene he witnessed from his slit trench near the church. ‘Minutes before first light, a shattering cacophony erupted, with a glare that made full daylight seem pale as the softening-up bombardment of the German coastal defences began,’ wrote Todd, who was to play Howard in the film The Longest Day. ‘For about half-an-hour the din, the vibration of air and ground, the magnitude of that assault, was far beyond anything I could have imagined. Hundreds of aircraft, American and British, rained thousands of bombs along that strip of gun-positions, trenches and pill-boxes that menaced the landing of our seaborne invasion force. Artillery and batteries of rocket-launchers firing from special craft at sea poured a continuous hail of shells across the water, while naval guns, including the big ones of HMS Warspite, helped pulverise the defences. From our grandstand position at Le Port, I felt sorry for the poor sods cowering in those German bunkers. How could they possibly emerge and fight back? But they did, and with impressive vigour.’

At around 0600 or 0700 or 0800, two or three Spitfires – depending on which account you read – were spotted circling directly over the bridges. Seeing the Allied recognition signals that had been laid out, the fighters dived steeply and then came in low over the bridges, waggling their wings in the ‘victory roll’. They were greeted with loud cheers from the positions around the bridges. One of the Spitfires dropped a parcel in the field as it sped past. When one of Howard’s men brought it in, they were delighted to discover it contained the morning newspapers from England.

Champagne, ‘Spits’ and newspapers might have provided a morale-boosting distraction, but the situation in which the British airborne troops at the bridges found themselves was an increasingly ugly and desperate one. Fighting intensified as the morning wore on and the casualty count grew steadily. Another hundred or so paratroopers trickled into the bridges, but the bulk of the heavier weapons never arrived and small pockets of Paras battled heroically to hold the position as they waited for the main relief to arrive. These were the seaborne Commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade under Lord Lovat who were fighting their way inland from the beaches.

The Germans attacked the bridgehead from all directions and from land, water and air. Patrols probed the British defences and, from time to time, a full counterattack led by tanks was launched. At one point, the Paras’ regimental aid post was overrun and all the wounded killed, including the Padre trying to defend them. The weakened Paras hung on grimly, urged on by shouts of encouragement from their CO Major Nigel Taylor, even as he lay on the ground with a shattered leg. There was no battle front as such. The action was as fluid as it was intense, but every counterattack and every infiltration of the area by the enemy was beaten off.

The Germans attacked from all angles. At one point a gun boat crept up the canal from the direction of the coast, with its crew hidden below deck but its powerful 20-mm gun clearly visible. Lieutenant Wood’s 24 Platoon, now commanded by a Corporal, waited until it was in range and then opened up, first with a hail of small-arms fire and then with a blast from the PIAT gun. Its steering disabled, the boat swerved into the canal bank and the crew were captured. A second boat appeared from the opposite direction shortly afterwards, but two rounds from a PIAT prompted its skipper to make a hasty U-turn and retreat towards Caen.

Shortly after 0900, lying in their slit trenches and gun nests, exhausted by a night of fighting, the troops at the crossings witnessed a peculiar but awe-inspiring sight. Marching in step down the middle of the road between the bridges were three lofty figures in red berets and immaculate battledress. As the sniper rounds whistled through the air, not one of them flinched or broke stride. Closer inspection revealed the new arrivals to be none other than General ‘Windy’ Gale, Commander of 6th Airborne Division, flanked by Brigadier Hugh Kindersley, commander of 6th Air Landing Brigade, and Brigadier Nigel Poett, Commander of 5 Para Brigade. ‘For sheer bravado it was one of the most memorable sights I’ve ever seen,’ wrote Todd.

Taking a chance among the flying rounds, Howard strode out to meet the three senior officers and saluted them. Half hoping for a verbal slap on the back for his men’s efforts, the Major was disheartened when General Gale scowled at him, pointed to an antitank gun lying in the grass and told him to have it stowed away. The men strode on to visit Pine-Coffin in 7th Battalion’s HQ at the end of the canal bridge. ‘The General found Pine-Coffin and his men in fine form, in spite of the hammering they were getting,’ Poett recalled. ‘He was left in no doubt that Pine-Coffin would hold his position.’

In the middle of the morning, a German bomber was spotted diving steeply towards the canal bridge. The troops scrambled for cover, pressing down their ‘battle-bowlers’, braced for the explosion. A 1,000-lb bomb, dropped with perfect precision, hurtled towards the bridge, crashed into the side with a metallic clatter and then splashed harmlessly into the water. Had it detonated, the bridge would have been torn to shreds and dozens of men killed and wounded.

In spite of mounting casualties and no sign of reinforcements, or of their heavy weapons and wireless sets, 7 Para continued to hold the Germans at bay throughout the morning in the wooded Le Port area around the church and in the lanes and fields in Bénouville. It was twelve hours after the Ox and Bucks troops had seized the bridges that Colonel von Luck at last received his orders from Berlin to launch a concerted counterattack. But when the tanks of his 125th Panzer Regiment rolled northwards out of Caen, their location was reported almost immediately by Allied aircraft. Von Luck, a veteran of all Germany’s major campaigns, knew what was coming. Minutes later the bombs began to rain down from aircraft and naval guns offshore, inflicting significant damage on men and machines.

But Colonel von Luck’s regiment was one of a dozen units within the 21st Panzer Division operating in the area, some of which continued to press the bridge positions backed up by artillery. Howard was not the only commander wondering how much longer the overstretched, outnumbered, outgunned and exhausted force could hold out. General Gale had been certain that Pine-Coffin’s men would hold firm, but that had been three or four hours earlier. The Paras’ casualties had risen to almost sixty, roughly a third of the depleted force that had managed to reach the bridges. Howard had lost two killed and fourteen wounded from his assault party and he was short of a whole twenty-eight-strong platoon and his 2iC. (It transpired later that their glider had come down eight miles away alongside the wrong river.) The Germans, growing ever more organised, were tightening their grip on the defensive perimeter. Howard was looking at his watch for the umpteenth time that day – it was one o’clock – when a curious sound, cutting through the rattle and boom of the guns, made him look up. One by one his men and the Paras did the same.

‘After all the earlier din of battle it suddenly became very quiet,’ Private Denis Edwards of 25 Platoon, whose section had been sent up to reinforce the Paras around the church, recalled in his postwar account. ‘Even the Germans had stopped shouting to each other, when suddenly, in the uncanny stillness of that spring day, I heard a sound that will live with me for the rest of my days . . . One of the lads shouted “It’s them – it’s the Commando!” and we all let out a cheer as the noise grew louder and we recognised it as the high-pitched and uneven wailing of bagpipes! Shouting and cheering . . . and abandoning all caution, we were up on our feet and leapt over the wall into the churchyard again, yelling things like “Now you Jerry bastards, you’ve got a real fight on your hands.”’

A long line of green berets, stretching as far as the eye could see, ran along the canal towpath back towards the coast. The relief, in the impressive form of the 1st Special Service Brigade, had indeed arrived – and they were bringing with them some desperately needed heavy weapons, including a tank. Accompanied by his piper Bill Millin hammering out ‘Blue Bonnets over the Border’, the lanky figure of Lord Lovat was at the head of his men, cutting a somewhat eccentric figure in his heavy Aran wool white jersey. If the British were delighted by the arrival of the powerful Commando force, the Germans were less pleased. As Lovat’s men turned onto the bridge, every sniper in the area lined up one of the hundreds of new targets. The men of D Coy, dug into trenches and foxholes at either end, watched appalled as every few seconds a heavily laden Commando, exhausted from his fighting march from Sword Beach, slumped to the ground, felled by a high-velocity bullet. But still Lovat and his men kept marching. No one flinched, no one dived for cover. Onward they strode, cheered by Howard’s men and the Paras. Lovat wrote later that he had run across the bridge but Howard remembered him walking calmly, unfazed by the bullets whistling and ricocheting around him.

Howard and his men would stay in position until midnight, but for them the hard fighting that day was over. Almost exactly twenty-four hours after the first glider slammed into the turf and battle commenced, D Coy Ox and Bucks handed over to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, packed up their equipment and prepared to rejoin the remainder of their battalion in the town of Ranville. With the snipers now silenced, Howard’s men marched away into the darkness in silence. Most of the men couldn’t resist turning round for one last look at the crossing, which from that day onwards has been known as ‘Pegasus Bridge’, after the winged-horse emblem of the British airborne forces: named in their honour, and in that of the other brave young men who came from the sky to liberate it.

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