On the night of the 5th of June 1944 six gliders containing D company (reinforced by two platoons of B company and an engineer detachment) 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry lead by Major John Howard set off from England for France as part of Operation Deadstick.
Their mission was to capture two bridges to over the Caen canal and the Orne river outside the town of Bénouville in the direction of Ranville in a coup de main. At 00:16hrs on the 6th of June Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork pilot of no 1 glider containing Major John Howard landed 47 yards from the canal bridge the impact throwing both him his co-pilot Staff Sergeant John Ainsworth out of the cockpit window they are probably the first Allied troops to touch French soil on D-Day.
This was an amazing feat of flying by Wallwork and although the impact of the landing knocked out most of the soldiers in the Glider including Major Howard they recovered quickly to storm the bridge lead by Lieutenant Den Brotheridge who was wounded and later died from his wounds on the operation. He is widely known as the first Allied soldier to be killed on D-Day, his body lies in the graveyard of Ranville church next to the military cemetery.
Minutes later two of the three gliders assigned to land at the Orne river bridge (known now as the Horsa bridge) landed and secured it against little opposition. The third glider had made a navigation error and landed 7 miles away on a bridge over the Dives river her occupants eventually made it through German lines to rejoin the Ox and Bucks the next day.
By 00:26 Major Howard knew he had secured both bridges and his wireless operating was sending out the prearranged code words Ham and Jam which meant both the canal and river bridges had been captured constantly. Major Howard’s orders where to hold both bridges until his relief in the form of the 7th Parachute Battalion lead by Colonel Pine-Coffin arrived, elements of which started to arrive around 01:30 with Colonel Pine Coffin arriving around 03:00 which allowed Major Howard to withdraw his platoons to the bridges as a reserve force.
The men of the Ox and Bucks pulled back to the bridges coming under sniper fire Private Wally Parr and some comrades decided to try to get an artillery piece situated next to the canal bridge going and after much trial and error they figured out how to fire it with Wally shooting at a Chateau situated near to the canal upstream from the bridge thinking snipers where on it’s roof until Major Howard informed him it was a maternity hospital.
The canal bridge in the above photo’s is not the original Pegasus bridge. The original is housed nearby in the Pegasus museum after being rescued after it was replaced by the more modern bridge after the war.
Below are photo’s of the original bridge.
Memorial to the heroes of the coup de main at Pegasus bridge.
Horsa glider built for the film The Longest Day.
The story of Pegasus bridge has been in inspiration to me since I was a child, I am not a writer or a historian so I apologise for my lack of skill in telling their story and I urge you to look up the story yourselves as there are many books written about this mission. In particular Pegasus Bridge by Stephen Ambrose which contains first hand accounts from many who participated in the coup de main from both sides of the conflict.
The coup de main lead by Major Howard on the 6th of June was the only completely successful operation on D-Day it completed all of its objectives which no other mission that fateful day would do and for that alone we should remember. It’s hard to speculate what impact it would of had on the invasion if the mission had failed but it would of allowed the German armour to cross and attack the invading forces on the flank potentially breaking the beachheads and stopping the entire invasion.