The Assault and Capture of Pegasus Bridge. 6th June 1944
Operation Overlord, the D-Day Invasion of Normandy was the most complex and meticulously planned combined military operation in history of warfare. What is the most remarkable factor of the whole, enormous enterprise, was the fact that so many were involved in the planning and nothing was leaked. No briefcases were left on trains. No one misspoke to reporters from the Daily Wail and there were no embarrassing pillow talk or Turkish bath incidents. Of course the whole enterprise was protected by a bodyguard of lies and misinformation, but those are other stories. I am writing this from a reverse Stephen Spielberg perspective as I am only concerned with the British and Canadian sectors of the landings. The forces of the British Empire were by far the most numerous. They had the hardest tasks to complete and a failure of any part of the British plan would have resulted in overall failure of the enterprise. The British and Canadian troops faced by far the stiffest opposition and would draw in the bulk of the German counter attacks.
The British and Canadian forces would land on three broad, shallow beaches of the Normandy coast, codenamed Gold, Juno and Sword, which were on the Eastern flank of the landing grounds. They would come ashore on the neat but well-defended Normandy holiday resorts. Beyond these towns was open fields with dense hedgerows and the town of Bayeux on the British right flank and the city of Caen on the left flank. Further inland the countryside became a tangle of narrow country lanes, topped with high, dense hedges known as the Bocage. Running down the British left flank were the parallel waterways of the Caen Canal and the Orne River.
During the planning of Overlord the significance of the waterways on the eastern flank became obvious, particularly the two bridges over the Orne and Caen Canal at Ranville. The night before the amphibious assault, airborne forces would be dropped on the eastern flank to prevent a German counter attack across the waterways and also to destroy the huge German gun battery at Merville, which could have bombarded Sword beach. Crucial to the plan were the two bridges as the Allies could use them to break out, or the German to counter attack in with their armour. If these bridges were not captured, the airborne troops could be pinned down with their backs to the Orne River, cut off from the main British forces. The British parachute and glider assault would be conducted by the British 6th Airborne Division and was given the codename Operation Tonga.
Clearly then, key to the success or otherwise of Operation Tonga, was the capture and holding of the two bridges at Ranville. Major General Gale, commander of the 6th Airborne Division decided that the only way to capture the bridges intact was by a glider coup de main assault. The operation to capture and hold the bridges was given to the men of D’ Company, 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, part of the 6th Airlanding Brigade of the 6th Airborne Division. They were led by Major John Howard and the assault group comprised a reinforced company of six infantry platoons and an attached platoon of Royal Engineers. Although he didn’t then know what the target was, Howard trained his men hard, always at night, in bomb-damaged ruins and using live ammunition. When more information was provided, the company went through two exercises to capture bridges over the Exeter Ship Canal. When Major Howard was eventually told of the target, he refined his plans. Each bridge would have to be taken simultaneously, necessitating two landing zones, X-Ray for the Caen Canal Bridge and LZ York for the Orne Bridge. Any explosive charges found on the structures were to be disarmed by the engineers.
The bridges were guarded by 50 men of the 736th Grenadier Regiment based at Ranville. They were a static formation that had been based in Normandy since 1942. The Division’s eight infantry battalions had to defend 21 miles of the Atlantic Wall and it was poorly equipped with foreign, captured weapons and conscripts from Poland, Russia and France. Their orders were to blow the bridges if it looked as though they would be captured. However, the 21st Panzer Division moved into the area in May 1944 and the 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment was based at Vimont just east of Caen. The Regimental Commander, Colonel Hans von Luck trained the regiment in anti-invasion operations. Although the Division was equipped with older PzKw MkIV tanks, the men were veterans of the North African campaigns. Additionally there were two SS Panzer Divisions based less than a day’s march from the area. The bridges themselves were well-defended. On the west bank of the canal bridge there were three machine gun emplacements, with a further machine gun and anti-tank gun on the east bank. To the north were three further machine guns and a concrete bunker. An anti-aircraft tower dominated the southern flank and there were sandbagged trench systems along the banks.
Major Howard was finally told the exact details of his mission on 2nd May 1944, which was to seize intact and hold until relieved, the swing bridge over the Caen Canal and the Steel Bridge over the Orne River. He and his men were to hold the bridges until relieved by the main part of the 7th Parachute Battalion. Meanwhile, the crack pilots of the Glider Pilot Regiment had been training to land their Horsa Gliders, wearing dark goggles to simulate landing at night. They made practice landings on a small strip of land and practiced instrument flying using stopwatches for course changes. By May 1944 they had carried out fifty-four training sorties in all weathers by day and later by night. The gliders would be six Airspeed Horsas piloted by twelve NCOs from C Squadron of the Regiment. The Horsa had a wingspan of eighty-eight feet and could normally carry twenty-eight troops or a mixture of jeeps, artillery guns or trailers.
D’ Company left the Battalion camp at Bulford for RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset and the base was secured. Howard briefed his men using photographs and a model of the area. The pilots told Howard that they thought the gliders would be dangerously overloaded with men, engineer’s stores and assault boats. Howard decided to drop two men from each platoon and take only one assault boat per glider. On 5th June 1944 each man was issued with personal weapon and ammunition including nine hand grenades and four Bren gun magazines per man. Each platoon was equipped with a 2” mortar and code words were issued. “Ham” indicated that the canal bridge was captured and “Jam” for the river bridge. “Jack” and “Lard” denoted that the bridges had been blown.
During the rest of the day the men of the assault force tried to get what rest they could, but this was a lonely time with each man locked away with his own thoughts and fears. The glider pilots checked their Horsas and the RAF aircrew their Halifax tug aircraft, all of them anxiously watching the skies.