Skip to comments.The FReeper Foxhole Remembers Major John Howard & Pegasus Bridge (6/6/1944) - Jan. 28th, 2004
Posted on 01/28/2004 12:00:23 AM PST by SAMWolf
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From 1942 onwards the Allied Forces realised that an attack would have to be made on mainland Europe in order to stop the Nazi advance. Over the course of the next two years, victories were achieved in North Africa and Southern Italy but France; with its expansive coastline and locality to Britain was always going to be the main battleground that would establish the outcome of the Second World War. In Spring 1943, General Frederick Morgan, the man entrusted to plan the Allied invasion, made his choice as to where the invasion would take place. This would have been an extremely difficult decision as the factors affecting the location were almost infinite. It needed to be easily accessible from the sea but difficult for the Germans to access by land.
Morgan realised that transporting thousands of men, arms and supplies across the channel would be a major logistical problem and that the shorter the water crossing the better. As the geography of the English Channel shows, this would lead him to believe that the nearer he could get to Calais, the greater the chance of success. However, he also was aware that the further east he planned the invasion the stronger would be the German opposition. He would need to find a stretch of northern French coastline, which was not more than a hundred miles from Britain and was poorly defended. General Morgan was not overwhelmed with options.
The Orne River Bridge
The deciding factor in choosing the exact location of the invasion was the formation, two years earlier, of the British Airborne Forces. If troops could be glider-landed or parachuted inland, then they could prevent German reinforcements from arriving at the invasion beaches where the main body of troops would disembark. With this extra string to the Allied Forces' bow, a site was chosen with Airborne soldiers in mind. The invasion beaches were to be on the Normandy coastline, just west of the mouth of the Orne river. By landing here, the invasion army would have the protection of the Orne and the adjacent Caen Canal on their west flank. General Morgan knew that, once the Germans realised that this was the real invasion, it would not take them long to launch a counteroffensive. Using Intelligence reports Morgan would know the size of the German forces in the Caen area and could thus start formulating the number of troops needed for the invasion.
At this time, there were two airborne divisions, 1st and 6th (they were numbered this way to confuse German intelligence). 1st Airborne were fighting in Southern Italy and so 6th Airborne Division, commanded by General Richard "Windy" Gale were the force chosen to lead the airborne assault. The chief role of 6th Airborne would be to capture and hold the bridges over the Orne and Caen Canal. These two bridges were a kilometre apart between the towns of Bénouville and Ranville. They were the only crossing points between Caen and the coast. If these bridges could be taken and held, then the Germans would find it hard to counterattack in large enough numbers to push the invasion army back into the sea.
Early 6th Airborne Patch
By January 1944 a plan had been formulated at COSSAC, (Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Commander) for a full scale invasion of France via the Normandy beaches for June that year. This plan was still highly top secret (the word Bigot was used, meaning top top secret). However, at this stage General Gale was let in on the plan, his briefing was to capture intact the bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne, to blow the bridges over the River Dives and to destroy the Merville Battery. The latter two operations would pose few logistical problems for Gale. Paratroopers would be used to destroy the Merville Battery and bridges at Dives, however the problem of taking the other two bridges intact would prove the cause of many sleepless nights for Gale.
Paratroopers could not be expected to land at night, near the coast, in high winds and then regroup in order to fight such a vital battle. Gale remembered the German attacks at Fort Eben Emael in Belgium (1940) and in particular the Corinth Canal in Greece (1941) where the German airborne had been used not as paratroopers but glider troopers. A plan was constructed where six gliders, three per bridge, would be landed on the farm land adjacent to the bridges and the bridges would be taken in a "coup de main" attack.
Reconnaisance photo showing the two bridges
With the plan now consolidated, Gale's attentions now turned to discovering which company in his division was the strongest. In April 1944, 6th Airborne carried out several exercises, designed by Gale to determine which unit would be the most suited to the operation. The central feature of this series of operations was a three-day exercise named Operation Deadstick. Although the soldiers did not know it at the time they were carrying out an almost exact replica of what they would be doing in Normandy two months later. The operation was an unequivocal success and one company in particular impressed General Gale. D Company, 2nd Battalion The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, under the leadership of Major John Howard achieved the aim of capturing two bridges intact after a glider landing. Gale nicknamed D Company "the Bridge Prangers" and so a group of men had been found who would lead the invasion.
After the success of Deadstick, Howard was let in on the plan. He recalls the feelings of pride and honour at leading the invasion force, "I was so excited, but the problem was that I couldn't tell anyone not even Brian Priday my second-in-command." However Priday and the others soon began to catch on as the exercises took on a rather similar nature from this point on and D Company were given special privileges. Howard had only to ask for transport and trucks would be laid on to take them anywhere in Britain. Moreover, after Howard had put his company through a gruelling exercise (sometimes up to five days long), D Company would be allowed the next day off to recover, a practice unheard of in the British Army. Howard said, "that a soldier likes nothing better than to lie in bed when others are on duty."
Major John Howard
This sympathy towards the soldiers in his company goes some of the way to explaining why Howard's D Company were chosen ahead of the others. Howard had been a regular soldier and had risen through the ranks, he understood the mentality of the soldier. By giving them days off after very tough exercises he maintained the level of morale that would be needed in the coming months. His soldiers had sat in Britain for two years while the war went on over the sea. Boredom was a big problem among soldiers in Britain and keeping morale high was essential.
Howard's masterstroke in keeping his troops active, happy and fit was his own passion for sport. D Company would engage in a great amount of sport, every morning would see the company undertake a five-mile cross-country run before breakfast.The day would be spent on exercise, a route march would follow, then after dinner all the troops would have to either do another cross-country run or play football until bed time. The men had no free time to sit around and get bored. Howard also insisted that every single man do all this sport, even his platoon officers and he, himself took part. This invoked a feeling of unity in the company. Everybody felt tired and everybody got blisters, thus the team spirit and morale within D Company was superb as well as the all round fitness. It was these qualities which convinced Gale to pick them as the Coup de Main force on D Day.
At the end of April, D Company was enlarged from four platoons to six (one for each glider) and in addition were assigned a troop of thirty Royal Engineers ( five per glider). They were now ready for their final training before the real thing. All the exercises held over the next month bore a resemblance, capturing two bridges intact was always the scenario and so the men began to realise the importance of what they were doing. The final exercise in mid-May was held just outside Exeter on two bridges with roughly a kilometre in between. Howard had arranged this personally and had scoured Britain for a place as similar to Normandy as possible. D Company practised taking these bridges by day and by night for four straight days until they had mastered the art.
In late May, Howard moved D Company to RAF Station Tarrant Rushton where he would brief his men about what they were to do. The invasion was scheduled for just two weeks away and so Howard let his men in on the fact that they would be the elite force at the spearhead of the Allied Invasion of Europe. The men were elated, having sat back in Britain for so long they were finally going to get their chance and not only that, they were going to lead the force. Lieutenant Tod Sweeney said, "We were really proud and excited to be chosen to make the first foothold in Europe. It was like being selected for the national rugger team, or walking out to open the innings for England at Lords." This new information doubled the already strong sense of camaraderie in the company. They had done as much training as they possibly could and were arguably one of the fittest companies in the British Army, however they would not even get their chance to start the invasion if the glider pilots could not land in the right place.
It was therefore necessary for the glider pilots to know every second of their descent in to Normandy baring in mind that this operation would be taking place in the early hours of the morning under the cover of darkness. The problem was, though, for obvious reasons the pilots could not fly practice missions in France. A brilliant scheme was devised to allow the pilots to experience what it would be like to fly the mission; a scale model was made and using a cine camera, a film was made of a pilots' eye view. A model of a glider cockpit was then made and so the pilots could feel what it would be like to fly the mission. In addition to this virtual training, the pilots selected to fly on D Day flew forty three training fights together in the months leading up to the big day. These flights took place by day or by night and in every weather condition that nature threw at them, sometimes the pilots even flew blindfolded. They needed to know exactly when to turn and at what height, they could not rely on geographical signs. Their only instruments were a compass, altimeter and a stopwatch. Their aim was to land within thirty metres of the bridge and try and pierce the barbed wire with the glider's nose. Everybody knew that it was going to be hard and that is why the training was relentless.
This was the night scheduled for the launch of the invasion. Throughout Southern England 156,000 men of many nationalities were getting ready, the following day, to embark in the invasion fleet. At Tarrent Rushton, D Company were getting ready to set off at midnight and set the invasion ball rolling. The order came through though that due to bad weather the invasion had been postponed. Disappointment set in immediately as the feeling of anticlimax was felt by everybody involved. The people at COSSAC prayed that this bad weather would not stay long as South England was on the verge of sinking under the channel at the sheer weight of men, weapons and supplies there. Fortunately it cleared.
The wind and rain having cleared the mission was given the green light for midnight and everyone who knew about the invasion took a large, deep breath and held it in. At 22:00, All the soldiers were ready to go. The six wooden Horsa gliders were ready along with the six Halifax tug aircraft that would see them safely across the channel. The twelve aircraft and nearly two hundred men took off at 22:54 from Tarrent Rushton. Private Dennis Edwards, who was nineteen years old at the time and was in the first glider with Major Howard, explains how he felt;
Yet at the moment that the glider parted company with the ground I experienced an inexplicable change. The feeling of terror vanished and was replaced by exhilaration. I felt literally on top of the world. I remember thinking, 'you've had it chum, its no good worrying anymore - the die has been cast and what is to be, will be, and there is nothing you can do about it.' I sat back and enjoyed my first trip to Europe."
At 00:07 the first glider reached the French coast and cast off from its tug aircraft, the other five followed at one minute intervals and so they made their descent towards the bridges. However, one of the Halifax bombers had lost their course and so glider number five, scheduled to land at the bridge over the River Orne, cast off in the wrong place. This had the potential to be a very grave mistake on behalf of the Halifax crew, but in all the months of training Howard had practised taking bridges not only with the full complement of men, but with two thirds and one third as well. So the men in the other gliders were prepared for this kind of problem.
Midnight on the night the 5th-6th June 1944 is commonly seen as the time when the Allied Invasion of France started. Twenty six minutes later the Allies had struck their first blow; the capture of the bridges over the Caen Canal and the River Orne. An operation, which could potentially have been such a disaster, was carried out with amazing precision and stealth.
If the operation was to be a success then D Company would need to communicate with someone in England to tell them. However, with German Intelligence listening to every Radio broadcast in Europe, the signal would have to be in code. A double-barrelled code would be needed to deal with every eventuality (capture both bridges/ capture Orne bridge/ capture Caen Canal bridge). The code signal decided was Ham and Jam; Ham meant the Orne bridge had been captured, Jam meant the canal bridge had been captured. (Jack and Lard meant that the respective bridges had been captured but destroyed.)
The invasion, of course, did not end there and neither did D Company's involvement in the fighting. A German counteroffensive to try and retake the bridges took place in the early hours of the morning but was warded off. D Company had been relieved of complete responsibility by 02:00, at which time the rest of 6th Airborne had parachuted in to maintain control of the bridges. D Company remained in France for almost three months after D Day, and were merged back in as part of 6th Airborne. The soldiers in glider number five, including Howard's Second-in-Command Captain Brian Priday, who had been sent off course by their tug aircraft were presumed to be dead. However, at 04:00 on D Day they met up with Howard and D Company again, having marched many miles from their wrong Landing Zone (LZ). They had lost only five men and had been involved in being captured by the Germans and several fire fights as well. The fact that they had managed to locate the Bridges in pitch black and carrying extremely heavy rucsacs owes a great deal to Major Howard's tactics of keeping morale high and keeping his men extremely fit.
Major John Howard, DSO, wartime airborne soldier, died on May 5 aged 86. He was born on December 8, 1912.
In the very first battle to be fought between British and German troops on D-Day John Howard led men of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in an airborne assault on a vital bridge over the Caen Canal, in the first few minutes of June 6, 1944. One of the most spectacular assaults in the annals of airborne operations, this astonishing coup de main had results which were decisive on the development of the first day's fighting.
Major John Howard at Pegasus Bridge in 1987: he returned every June 6 to lay a commemorative wreath
The Caen Canal Bridge - since immortalised as Pegasus Bridge - and the neighbouring bridge over the River Orne carried a lateral road which had to be captured and held, in order to ensure supplies from Sword Beach to the 6th Airborne Division, which had been dropped to the east of Caen. Without supplies of ammunition, fuel and rations from the beachhead, 6th Airborne would have been unable to carry out its task, which was to protect the left flank of the entire Allied invasion force.
In the event, Howard's assault prevented the Germans from launching a counterstroke for several hours. It was not until 0210 hours that the German divisional headquarters, which organised the local mobile reserve, realised that it had been deprived of this vital artery and could not move against the beach head without overcoming stiff opposition en route. By the time the Germans realised what had happened, Howard and his glider troops had been reinforced, and though they faced some fierce assaults from a panzergrenadier battalion, strongly supported by artillery, Pegasus Bridge was held.
For Howard and his men the mission to seize the bridges had begun the previous evening in Dorset, when six Horsa gliders, each carrying 28 heavily armed troops, moved out over the airfield at Tarrant Rushton, behind the Halifax bombers which were their towing aircraft. Their objective was a small patch of rough field, between a pond and the Caen Canal, close to the Pegasus Bridge.
Pencil sketching of Glider Trooper at Pegasus Bridge - June 6 1944
It required flying of pinpoint accuracy and an approach which had to be accurate to a few feet. Too much height and the three gliders of Howard's section would smash into the roadway embankment at the far end of the field. If they landed substantially short, the screeching and tearing noise of the gliders as they came down would alert the bridge defences and the dazed glider troops could undoubtedly expect a warm reception.
The flying and navigation of the glider pilots was exemplary, in weather conditions which were far from ideal. Released at 8,000 feet over the Normandy coast, the three gliders clipped through the tops of a belt of poplars which skirted the field and crashed and bounced to a halt only a few yards from each other, at 0016 hours precisely.
Although shaken by the impact, the glider troops poured out of the wreckage of their aircraft and, with Howard at their head, rushed the bridge. They were spotted by a young conscript of the German 716th Infantry Regiment who screamed "Fallschirmjäger!" as a warning to his comrades before firing a Verey flare into the air. It was his last act on earth; he was instantly cut down by a burst of Stengun fire from one of the Ox and Bucks men.
A furious firefight now ensued, with the chattering of the German Spandaus interspersed with the crackle of Bren- and Stengun fire. But the assault of the Ox and Bucks was irresistible, the surprise complete. The occupants of the dugouts on the periphery of the bridge were disposed of with high explosive and phosphorus grenades, while the bridge itself was raked with a hail of 9mm and .303 fire. By 0026 the action was over and the bridge was in British hands. To the east the Orne bridge had been secured in just as short a time, even though one of the gliders of that assault had gone astray.
The firefight had lasted just ten minutes. The first vital objective of D-Day's airborne operations had been achieved, six hours before the troops of the seaborne armada hit the beaches.
The importance of what Howard and his men had achieved became apparent to one of the local German commanders, Feldwebel Heinrich Hickman of Fallschirmjäger Regiment 6, when what should have been a ten-minute journey to warn his company HQ at nearby Bréville turned into a six-hour detour through the bombed out streets of Caen. It was a tactical surprise out of all proportion to the small numbers of troops deployed. And though the Ox and Bucks men holding the bridge were strongly attacked later in the day by elements of the 21st Panzer Division, fresh airborne parachute landings in the vicinity swelled their numbers. Later in the day the Ox and Bucks men were taken under the aegis of 7 Para.
Howard, whose exploits on the day were re-enacted by Richard Todd in the D-Day film The Longest Day, was awarded the DSO and the Croix de Guerre avec Palme for his leadership. He was invalided out of the Army in 1946 and later worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, finally retiring in the 1970s.
He returned to Normandy every June 6 to lay a wreath on the spot where the gliders landed and to enjoy the hospitality of the Pegasus Bridge café, owned by Georges Gondrée and his wife. An airborne forces museum was set up close by on land leased by the café, but after Georges' death, Howard found himself inexplicably in dispute with his daughter, who took over the café and obtained an order to close the museum, a situation which caused him much sadness. After that he was active in the creation of a new memorial museum near the spot, a project dear to his heart. This is due to open on June 6, 2000.
Pegasus Bridge, whose steel girders have become, over the years, part of the iconography of the D-Day story, was rebuilt in 1994, because of the wear and tear of modern juggernaut traffic.
Howard's wife Joy died in 1986. He leaves a daughter, Penny
From The Times Newspaper, 7th May 1999
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