As many of my readers will no doubt know, this year, 2014, is the 70th Anniversary of the greatest battle fought during World War Two: the Invasion of Europe through Normandy, widely known as D-Day.
I have a great interest in this history, and especially in one particular action fought on D-Day that proved to be, in the words of Air-Vice Marshal Leigh-Mallory: "[O]ne of the most outstanding flying achievements of the war." That "flying achievement" was the British 6th Airborne's attack on Pegasus Bridge. This is the story.
In the dark cloudy sky above the lush pastureland of Normandy, at fifteen minutes past midnight on June 6, 1944, the first of the glider pilots cast off from their tugs, and drifted down in silence towards their objectives. Before dawn the British 6th Airborne Division had to win and hold at all costs an area of twenty-five square miles until reinforcements could arrive. This task called for speed and good timing, and for new and daring techniques. The 6th Airborne was to seize seven bridges: five over the River Dives and two over the Caen Canal and River Orne respectively. This is the story of the airborne assault on Pegasus Bridge – the bridge over the Caen Canal.
The name of the operation was Deadstick; the objective: a lift bridge over the Caen Canal; the men: three platoons or 160 men of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and their leader, Major John Howard; the result: Operation Deadstick completely successful.
On the evening of June 5th, Howard and his men ate their last meal, for a while, in the mess of their quarters at their airbase in England. Everyone then finished their personal duties and checked their kit one last time – in less than five hours they would hopefully be in possession of the canal bridge. At 22:30hrs Howard ordered his men to their gliders, following himself. Within 20 minutes they were airborne, the three large Horsa gliders being towed by three Halifax bombers.
On the way over to Normandy the men had plenty of time to think. Howard thought about his family – he had a pretty wife named Joy, and two children all of whom were, at that moment, unaware of what he was doing. At the controls of the glider was Howard’s friend, Staff Sergeant Wallwork of the Glider Pilot Regiment. The glider pilots were trained to fight as well as fly, and when they landed the gliders would form up into their own platoon and fight along with the regular troops. During the last few weeks before the operation, Wallwork had done the most to allay any reservations Howard had about the operation. For example, on one of the latest reconnaissance photos strange dots had appeared on the landing zones which Howard had been told were for anti-glider posts to impede glider landings. “That’s just what we needed,” Wallwork had said. “We’ll land between the posts. The posts will break the wings off and slow us down, and we shan’t hit the bridge so hard.” It was impossible not to trust a pilot who could say that.
Yet Howard felt he may have asked for the impossible from his experienced pilots. He had told them he wanted the first glider, which he was in, to stop with its nose breaching the wire defences, and the others to halt five yards to the right and ten yards behind. He had no idea how that could be achieved, but Wallwork made light of the request and the troops had caught the mood of confidence.
All these thoughts raced through Howard’s mind, and similar ones probably did the same in those traveling in the glider with him. But the one thought that stayed uppermost was this: did the Germans know that they were coming, and would they make it through their jobs in one piece?
At 12:16, in the wee hours of the morning of June 6, 1944, Wallwork turned halfway ‘round in his seat, and, yelling above the roar of wind, shouted, “Casting off!” Howard called for silence; the glider checked its speed, the sound of the wind died to a whining hiss; and each man ran over what he was to do when they landed. Howard and his second in command, Lt. Brotheridge opened the forward door, and peering out, Howard could see the gleaming stripe of the Caen Canal slowly wending its way across the countryside. “Hold tight,” Wallwork shouted.
The men in the glider lifted up their feet and locked arms with each other. Then it came. At ninety miles an hour the glider tore into the earth and careened across the tiny field with a noise like thunder as timber cracked and split and smashed itself to pieces. The stunning noises and shocks went on for a count of seconds – and then suddenly for a split second everything was perfectly silent and still. The time was 12:21. Even in the stunned silence the men’s training came into action. Howard was out the broken wreck of a door, shaking himself for broken bones before he knew what he was doing. He looked up. There, standing out against the night sky, right where it should be was the bridge.
As Howard and his men ran for the bridge, he heard a crash behind him, and then another. It was the two other gliders coming in. Soon, above the noise of battle, he heard his other two platoons running up. The action had already begun around the bridge – which they had rehearsed numerous times on bridges all over England. A smoke-bomb was thrown at the pillbox by the bridge. A machine gun opened fire, but one man ran forward and dropped a grenade through the gun port, and the platoon scrambled across the wire which the glider had demolished, up an embankment and onto the road. They ran across the bridge, firing their weapons from the hip, overcoming the pillbox on the other side, and neutralizing all opposition.
Within ten minutes it was all over. The garrison of Germans came out from their barracks and surrendered; the engineers searched for and disconnected the demolition wiring, while the rest of the men systematically cleared the houses on both sides of the bridge. It was the first British landing, and victory, on D-Day.
That is the story of Operation Deadstick, the story of Major John Howard and his company of ‘Ox and Bucks’ – the story of one of the greatest airborne landings and victories in all of British history.
Written and Posted by William A Moore
Written and Posted by William A Moore