The Assault and Capture of Pegasus Bridge. June 6th 1944
The six Horsa gliders and their Halifax tow aircraft comprising Operation “Deadstick,” were the first elements of the overall British airborne operation with the overarching codename “Tonga.” The converted bomber aircraft and their glider charges took off from Tarrant Rushton at 2256 on 5th June 1944. They headed south-south-west across the Channel and below them in the darkness was the largest naval and amphibious fleet ever mustered, drawing closer to the French coast. The “Tonga” Pathfinders took off a few minutes later in their Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle transport aircraft. It would be their job to mark the drop zones and landing areas for the main force of the British 6th Airborne Division.
Horsa One carried Major Howard and Lieutenant Brotheridge’s platoon, number Two had Lieutenant Wood’s platoon and Three carried Lieutenant Smith’s platoon. The first three gliders’ objective was the canal bridge. In Horsa Four was Lieutenant Hooper’s platoon with Captain Priday, Howard’s 2IC, Five had Lieutenant Fox’s platoon and Six Lieutenant Sweeny and his platoon. Their objective was the Orne River Bridge. Each glider also carried five Royal Engineers.
The glider pilots had to concentrate in the darkness to follow their tow aircraft. Firstly they had to fly slightly above the wake and turbulence of the converted bombers, but not too high as to pull the tow aircraft’s tail up. The glider pilots also had to avoid sag and drag on the tow line, which could make for an extremely uncomfortable ride for their passengers. To help them with positioning, each Halifax had had a dim red light just below the rear turret. The tow line incorporated a telephone line so that the tow aircraft and the gliders could communicate with each other. Later this would be radio, but on the D-Day mission they were operating under radio silence. Once they had landed, the glider pilots didn’t have the luxury of patting themselves on the back and wandering off for a well-deserved fag. They were expected to pick up their rifles and fight with the rest of the platoon.
The aircraft crossed the French coast just east of the Orne estuary at an altitude of 7,000 feet. Below and to their right the aircrews could see the moonlight glistening on the twin waterways. It was eerily quiet in the gliders, the engines from the tow aircraft a distant grumble, while the wood and plywood airframes of the Horsas seem to creak and groan alarmingly. The plan was to land at 0020, but the tows were ahead of schedule. At 0012, four minutes ahead of schedule, the Halifax crews told the glider pilots they had reached the release points. The glider co-pilots frantically scanned the darkened countryside below for the landmarks that would denote their final turning point, while the glider pilots released the tow lines and pushed their aircrafts noses down to gain speed. In the rear of the gliders, the airborne troops linked arms and braced legs outstretched. It was important not to tuck legs under the seats, because a hard impact would push the floor up, break lower leg bones and trap the victim.
The pilots spotted the two bridges and passed them, just like the training model they had committed to memory. Now the gliders made their sharp 180 degree turns and began their final approaches. Considering its size, the Horsa was an extremely manoeuvrable aircraft and with compressed air powered barn door flaps and airbrakes, the angle of glide seemed similar to that of a falling brick. At 0016 Horsa One thudded down, rumbled across the uneven ground and made a hard impact against the barbed wire and bank close to the canal bridge. The impact stunned the passengers and threw the two pilots through the Perspex windscreen, injured and unconscious. The second glider landed 60 seconds later, swerving to avoid the first and breaking in two. The third landed at 0018, skidding into a pond and causing several injuries. One man unfortunately drowned. Shaking themselves into action, Brotherbridge and Smith’s platoons headed for the bridge, while Wood’s platoon moved towards the trenches on its north east side.
The Germans on the bridges commanded by Major Schmitt had been told that theirs was one of the most crucial objectives in Normandy. However, there were only two sentries on the bridges when the first gliders landed. As soon as Brotherbridge’s platoon attacked he ran away shouting “paratroops” while his oppo fired a flare gun to warn the defenders. Brotherbridge gunned him down and his platoon swept the trenches and pillbox with grenades. Finally the Germans woke up and machine guns fired on the men on the bridge, critically wounding The Lieutenant. Grenades silenced one and accurate Bren gun fire the other. While No1 platoon crossed the bridge to set up defensive positions, the Royal Engineers checked the bridge and deactivated demolition charges. Smith’s platoon exchanged fire with the Germans, having to clear the positions with grenades, when Smith was badly wounded. By 0021, German resistance on the canal bridge was over and Brotherbridge lay dying. He was the first person killed by enemy fire on D-Day.
At landing zone York, Fox’s glider 5 was the first to land at 0020 as Hooper’s glider was reported as missing. The Germans defending the Orne Bridge opened fire with MG 34 and the British platoon responded with a 2” mortar, knocking out the machine gun with a direct hit, then crossed the bridge. Glider 6 landed at 0021nearly 800 yards short of the bridge. Sweeny left one section on the bridge and crossed after Fox to dig in on the east bank of the Orne. Major Howard had set up his command post in the trenches of the canal’s eastern bank, where Captain Neilson RE reported that the bridges were clear of demolition charges. Howard sent the signal “Ham” and “Jam”.
The aircraft of the rest of the 6th Airborne Division appeared at 0050, the paratroopers dropping onto the DZs marked by the pathfinders. Howard blew his whistle to guide the paratroopers in to the bridges. Unfortunately, the paratroopers were scattered with many elements missing or lost in the orchards and hedgerows. Brigadier Poett and a single soldier he had managed to pick up were the first to arrive at the bridge, the next at 0110, elements of the 7th Parachute Battalion, minus their signals platoon and support weapons. It was into this night time cake and arse party that Major Schmidt deciding that he needed to see what was going on at his bridges, appeared in a SdKfz 250 half-track with motorcycle escort. The British opened fire, forcing the half-track off the road. Schmidt and his driver were captured.
The commander of the 716th Infantry Division Generalleutnant Wilhelm Richter was informed at 01:20 of the parachute landings and that the bridges had been captured intact. One of his first actions was to contact Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger of 21st Panzer Division. Richter ordered the division to attack the landing areas. While Feuchtinger’s tanks were delegated to support the 716th, it was also part of the German armoured reserve, which could not move without orders from the German High Command. Effectively the go-ahead had to come from Hitler and his staff refused to wake him. General Feuchtinger ordered the 2nd Battalion 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment to recapture the bridges as this formation was the closest. As the first Panzer IVs reached the road junction leading to the bridges, the lead vehicle was hit by a PIAT anti-tank weapon. The tank started to burn and its ammunition went up in a superb night time pyrotechnic display. Extremely unhappy at being fired on at close range by infantry in the darkness, the other tanks withdrew.
At 0300 A and C Companies of the 7th Parachute Battalion were attacked by a heavy Battalion of the 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment with 75mm self-propelled and light anti-aircraft guns. The British were forced back from their positions in Bénouville, west of the canal bridge, but the line held. The Germans deployed and waited for armoured support. Throughout the night, the paratroopers and Germans exchanged mortar and machine gun fire.
The airborne forces were in a grim predicament, surrounded and outnumbered. Major Howard held a meeting with his platoon commanders, One, Two, and Three Platoons now commanded by corporals as their officers were either dead or wounded and Four platoon was missing. At 0700 the British Airborne forces heard the preliminary naval bombardment, signalling that the landings were going ahead. But the daylight also brought incessant sniper fire from the Germans, making it difficult to move in the open. The men of number One Platoon used a captured 75mm gun to fire on suspected sniper positions in Bénouville. There were further distractions that morning. At 0900 two German gunboats approached the canal bridge from the north and the lead boat opened fire with its 20mm gun. Two Platoon opened up with a PIAT which hit the boat in the wheelhouse, causing it to crash into the bank. The second boat retreated. At 1000 a single German aircraft bombed the canal bridge but the bomb didn’t explode.
By mid-morning the fighting in Bénouville was becoming really intense, really hotting up as the 2nd Battalion, 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment continued to attack the town with tanks, mortars and infantry. The attack was causing the understrength 7th Parachute Battalion severe problems, until they managed to destroy the German lead tank with a Gammon bomb, which blocked the road. Thirteen of the seventeen tanks were destroyed in the village by Allied aircraft and the parachute battalion was reinforced with a platoon from D Company, which moved into the town, clearing the town in house-to-house fighting. By noon, most of the missing units from 7th Parachute Battalion had found their way to the bridges.
At 1330 the men on and around the bridges heard the sound of bagpipes of the 1st Command Brigade, which was supported by tanks. Some of the tanks and commandos moved into Bénouville to reinforce the defenders while the others crossed the bridges to support the eastern positions. An attempt to land German troops by boat from Caen was repulsed by number One Platoon’s captured 75mm and the boat retreated south. At 2150 the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire arrived from Sword beach and relieved the defenders. They had located Captain Priday and Lieutenant Hooper’s missing platoon. The glider had landed at Varaville, eight miles from the bridges when the towing aircraft had been shot down. They had spent the entire day trying to fight their way to the bridges.
Today the area around the bridges is remarkably similar to what it was in 1944. The canal bridge has been replaced and renamed Pegasus Bridge and the Orne Bridge is now Horsa Bridge. The road across them is now the “Esplanade Major John Howard.” The photographs and the training model are contained in The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces section, located at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, as is the cockpit of a Horsa glider.