Pegasus Bridge, Many Legends Were Made

The capture of ‘Pegasus Bridge’, as the latter was later known, marked the first British objective secured on D-Day.

Shortly after midnight on 6th June 1944, 181 airborne troops disembarked from six gliders over the Orne Estuary. Demonstrating exceptional skill in navigation and night flying, five of these gliders landed close to or adjacent to the bridges over the Orne River and Canal.

The mission order, issued by General Gale, who commanded the 6th Airborne Division, directed the division to, “capture intact the two bridges of the Orne and the canal of Caen, Bénouville and Ranville … The capture of these two bridges, which will be known as operation Deadstick, is based essentially on the surprise effect, the mission execution speed and the determination to overcome. Counter-attack will be expected and we will have to hold our positions until the arrival of the changing troops“.

In January 1944, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Bernard Montgomery, commanding the land forces, dramatically revised the Allied plan for invading Normandy, codenamed Operation Overlord.

Blitzkrieg in Belgium and France

They expanded the amphibious landing area, resulting in the inclusion of Omaha and Utah beaches. Additionally, they planned for airborne troops to protect the invasion area’s flanks. The U.S. 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions took responsibility for guarding the western flank near Utah Beach, while the British 6th Airborne Division covered the eastern flank near Sword Beach.

Major General R N Gale, GOC 6th Airborne Division.
Major General R N Gale, GOC 6th Airborne Division.

In 1940, Adolf Hitler first used glider-borne troops to aid his ‘Blitzkrieg’ in Belgium and France, capturing vital points ahead of his tanks. Britain and the USA quickly developed similar troops, but their first major use in Sicily was plagued by navigational errors, friendly fire, and high casualties.

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Gliders allowed for a surprise, concentrated troop attack on specific targets. However, they were slow, easy targets during approach. Many RAF senior officers doubted the precision navigation needed for successful glider deployment, especially at night. Critics also believed these forces were too lightly armed for counter-attacks once landed.

Pegasus Bridge

The British Army’s Glider Pilots Regiment, distinct from the RAF, relied on RAF planes for towing their gliders close to the target.

Protecting the western flank of the Normandy invasion required rapid reinforcement of airborne troops with armor from the sea. Securing critical bridges early in the operation was essential to ensure a safe path from the sea to the landing grounds.

The Caen canal and Orne river bridges, defended by German strongpoints and likely mined, needed sudden capture early in Operation Tonga, the British plan for airborne landings, to prevent alerting the German defenders.

During the Normandy invasion’s planning, planners decided to land the 6th Airborne Division (Major-General Richard Gale) on the left flank of the invasion beaches, between the River Orne and the River Dives.

Pegasus Bridge, originally called the Bénouville Bridge after the neighbouring village, is a road crossing over the Caen Canal, between Caen and Ouistreham in Normandy.
Pegasus Bridge, originally called the Bénouville Bridge after the neighbouring village, is a road crossing over the Caen Canal, between Caen and Ouistreham in Normandy.

Their main goal was to seize the two road bridges over the River Orne and the Caen Canal, preventing a German flank attack on the landing area. If they failed to secure the bridges, the 6th Airborne Division risked being trapped in enemy territory, so the 5th Parachute Brigade prepared to defend the bridges from counter-attacks.

Major John Howard

Gale concluded that a glider coup de main assault was the only way to take the bridges intact. He then tasked Brigadier Hugh Kindersley of the 6th Airlanding Brigade with selecting the best company for the operation.

‘D’ Company, 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, led by Major John Howard and his second-in-command Captain Brian Priday, was chosen for the mission. Howard, initially an enlisted man, swiftly climbed through the NCO and officer ranks after the war started, thanks to his ability and professionalism.

Major Reginald John Howard 

He had finished an enlistment in the 1930s and worked as a policeman until the war’s outbreak called him back to duty. His skill impressed his superiors, and his readiness to share in his subordinates’ challenges won their respect.

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As the fittest in the battalion, the company rigorously trained, often using bomb-damaged city areas for live ammunition street-fighting practice. Anticipating night-fighting during the invasion, Howard adjusted their routine to prepare his men. They trained at night, starting at 20:00 and finishing at 13:00, covering exercises, drills, and paperwork.

To test Howard and his men’s capabilities, they underwent a focused three-day exercise where they had to capture and hold three bridges until relief arrived.

Their success secured their position at the forefront of the invasion force. After the exercise, Howard learned his mission and that D Company would be “the first British fighting force to land on the continent.”

Interior of a Horsa glider, looking to the rear from the cockpit

However, they wouldn’t go in alone. Gale, wanting to strengthen the coup de main effort, allowed Howard to pick any two platoons from his regiment to join his company.

Additionally, a Royal Engineers detachment from the division’s 249th Field Company would assist in disabling any German demolitions on the bridges. Howard selected two platoons from the Ox & Bucks B Company to reinforce his unit.

The operation plan then expanded to include six platoons, with three each assigned to simultaneously attack a bridge. The infantry would engage guard troops while engineers neutralized any demolition charges.

First Hand Intelligence at ‘Pegasus Bridge’

As the troops trained rigorously for their task, the detailed plan for the attack took shape over the ensuing months, even though they remained unaware of their exact mission due to secrecy. They were to board six Horsa gliders, each carrying a platoon and a small group of engineers.

Howard, aiming for a flexible strategy, equipped his platoons to independently attack a bridge if needed. He anticipated various potential setbacks during training and adapted accordingly. Furthermore, each platoon cross-trained to perform other roles as necessary.

Intel gathering, 24th March 1944.

This strenuous training forged strong bonds among the men. Howard’s officers, both capable and aggressive, shared in the hardships and bolstered morale.

The glider troops also benefited from up-to-date intelligence estimates. Photo reconnaissance flights regularly updated them with images of the bridges and their defenses, including new installations like an antitank gun and bunkers.

Another critical information source was the local French Resistance network, including Madame Vion from Benouville’s maternity hospital. She gathered intelligence from resistance operatives and relayed it to her contacts in Caen during her medical supply trips.

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Madame Vion gathered crucial information from the Café Gondree, situated on the canal’s west bank near the bridge. The café’s owners, Georges and Therese Gondree, discreetly listened to the conversations of German soldiers who visited their establishment. Therese, from Alsace, spoke German, and Georges knew some English.

The Café Gondrée is a small coffeehouse in the French community of Bénouville. The cafe is located on the west bank of the Caen Canal,
The Café Gondrée is a small coffeehouse in the French community of Bénouville. The cafe is located on the west bank of the Caen Canal

This intelligence-gathering effort provided a fairly accurate understanding of the bridge’s defenses. Around 50 troops from the 736th Grenadier Regiment of the 716th Infantry Division guarded the spans.

This unit mainly comprised conscripts from German-occupied nations, including Poles and Russians, with a few older Germans. German NCOs and officers led them, with Major Hans Schmidt in command of the bridge defenses.

The defense layout indicated that the Germans anticipated any significant attack on the bridges from the east. Most machine guns at each bridge faced east, and the sole antitank gun at the canal bridge was also on the east side. The Germans built several bunkers and trench systems for riflemen and machine gunners around the bridges. Although they placed barbed wire entanglements, these were set up to be easily movable.

German Numbers

The Germans prepared to destroy the bridges if necessary, but they hadn’t yet installed the explosives. They feared French Resistance raids might attempt to blow up the bridges.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who found the coastal defenses lacking during his tour, ordered the construction of some defenses like the antitank emplacement and bunkers only a month prior. He mandated numerous improvements across the area, including enhancements to the bridge defense network.

Pegasus Bridge a month after D-Day
Pegasus Bridge a month after D-Day

Fifty men from the German 736th Grenadier Regiment, part of the 716th Infantry Division, guarded the bridges. Major Hans Schmidt commanded this unit, stationed at Ranville, 1.2 miles (1.9 km) east of the River Orne.

Since June 1942, the static 716th Division had been assigned to Normandy, with its eight infantry battalions defending 21 miles (34 km) of the Atlantic Wall.

The unit, equipped with a mix of foreign weapons, consisted of conscripts from Poland, the Soviet Union, and France, led by German officers and senior NCOs. Schmidt’s soldiers had orders to destroy the two bridges if they faced capture.

Panzergrenadiers on a Panzer IV during training 1943.
Panzergrenadiers on a Panzer IV during training 1943.

In May 1944, the 21st Panzer Division, a new unit based on the former Afrika Korps, moved into the area. The 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment, under Colonel Hans von Luck, was stationed at Vimont, just east of Caen.

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Additionally, a battalion of the 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment was based at Cairon, west of the bridges. Colonel von Luck trained his regiment for anti-invasion operations, identifying likely incursion points and setting up forward routes, rest areas, refueling spots, and anti-aircraft gun positions.

Despite being equipped with older tanks and vehicles, the division’s officers were veterans, and 2,000 men from the old division filled its ranks. Further away, the 12th SS Panzer Division at Lisieux and the Panzer Lehr Division at Chartres were both less than a day’s march from the area.

General Sir Richard Nelson "Windy" Gale, GCB, KBE, DSO, MC. commander of the British 6th Airborne Division, briefing his men On June 5th, 1944
General Sir Richard Nelson “Windy” Gale, GCB, KBE, DSO, MC. commander of the British 6th Airborne Division, briefing his men On June 5th, 1944

Both bridges had robust defenses. The west bank of the Caen Canal bridge featured three machine-gun emplacements, while the east bank had a machine-gun and an anti-tank gun. North of these were three more machine-guns and a concrete pillbox.

An anti-aircraft tower with machine-guns stood to the south. At the River Orne bridge, the eastern bank south of the bridge had a pillbox with anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, and two machine-guns were to the north. Both bridges had sandbagged trench systems along the banks.

However, the presence of German machine guns near the canal bridge was explicitly denied by Helmut Roemer and Erwin Sauer in HK.von Keusgen’s “Pegasus-Bruecke und Batterie Mrville”.

Take Off From a Dorset Airfield

At 22:56 on 5 June 1944, six gliders, towed by Halifax bombers, took off from RAF Tarrant Rushton, here in Dorset, on the south coast of England. Horsa number one, targeting the Caen Canal, transported Howard and Lieutenant Den Brotheridge’s platoon.

Lieutenant David Wood’s platoon boarded number two, and Lieutenant Smith’s platoon was on number three. Priday and Lieutenant Hooper’s platoon headed for the river bridge in number four. Horsa number five, with Lieutenant Fox’s platoon, followed by number six carrying Tod Sweeney’s platoon, also joined the mission. Each glider additionally carried five Royal Engineers.

RAF Tarrant Rushton, looking Northeast to Southwest
RAF Tarrant Rushton, looking Northeast to Southwest

The sappers in each platoon were tasked with disabling any explosives on the bridges, while the glider pilots would handle unloading and distributing extra ammunition and equipment. Upon successful capture, they would transmit the code words “Ham and Jam” to confirm control of the bridges.

Once both bridges were in British hands, the glider infantry would hold their positions until the 7th Battalion, 5th Parachute Brigade arrived, whose commander would then assume control.

As the platoons waited in their gliders, the soldiers passed time by singing. Private Wally Parr, a long-time member of the company who had nearly been returned to unit (RTU’d) for disciplinary reasons, led the singing.

Howard had vouched for Parr, seeing his potential as a valuable asset in action, which led to Parr staying in the company, though he lost his corporal’s stripes. Now, with his loud, cockney voice, Parr lifted spirits by singing one song after another, including “Abby, Abby, My Boy.”

Casting Off

Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork focused on piloting the aircraft once released from the bomber. He had to execute a series of precisely timed turns during the descent to avoid veering miles off course. Beside him, co-pilot Staff Sergeant John Ainsworth held a stopwatch, timing each turn and phase of the landing. Similarly, the other glider pilots readied themselves for their landings.

Flying over the English Channel, the bombers reached the Normandy coast precisely at 00:07 on June 6, 1944, and then released their towed gliders.

Airspeed Horsa under tow
Airspeed Horsa under tow

Three minutes and 42 seconds into the descent, Ainsworth’s voice broke the tension with a simple command, “Now!” In response, Jim Wallwork skillfully maneuvered the glider to starboard. The glider’s altitude rapidly decreased, and within moments, Ainsworth signaled for a second right turn, aligning the glider with the landing field adjacent to the canal bridge.

Then, mirroring their countless training exercises, the familiar sight came into view. The bridge, with its distinctive silhouette, the bunker, the antitank gun, and the surrounding fields, all stood clearly before them.


The barbed wire barriers were positioned on the northern edge of the landing strip. During their training, Howard had conveyed his desire to have the glider’s nose right up against the wire. Wallwork, initially skeptical about the feasibility, had promised to give it his best shot.

At precisely 0016 hours, he executed Howard’s request flawlessly. The glider made contact with the ground and skidded across the landing field, coming to a sudden halt right against the wire.

An incredible picture of gliders next to Pegasus Bridge.
An incredible picture of gliders next to Pegasus Bridge

The abrupt stop was so forceful that both pilots were thrust forward, crashing through the windscreen and landing in front of the glider. Inside the glider, the members of 25 Platoon sat momentarily stunned.

Major Howard, unconscious for just a brief moment, had experienced the impact when his seatbelt snapped, propelling him forward and causing him to hit his head on the ceiling. This jolt forced his helmet down over his eyes, momentarily giving him the sensation of blindness when he regained consciousness.

In Following behind, the other two gliders were released at one-minute intervals. Glider number two suffered a severe break, coming to rest at the edge of a large pond.

Tragically, during the crash landing, Lance-Corporal Fred Greenhalgh was rendered unconscious, ejected from his glider, and ultimately drowned, marking the operation’s first casualty.

Gun Out! Get Out!

Lieutenant Brotheridge swung open the glider’s door and signaled to a nearby Bren gunner, “Gun Out!” The platoon swiftly responded by disembarking from the glider. The bridge was a mere 30 yards away.

Private Gray, also armed with a Bren gun, charged towards the bridge with the mission of clearing a barn on the west side. As he approached the span, he spotted a German soldier and unleashed a burst of gunfire.

The enemy soldier fell, and Gray continued his advance across the bridge, maintaining suppressive fire. Upon reaching the barn, he hurled a grenade inside before emptying the remainder of his magazine into the structure. Upon inspection, the barn was found to be empty.

In the meantime, Wally Parr’s mission was to incapacitate the machine-gun bunker by employing grenades. His throat had become incredibly dry, causing his tongue to adhere to the roof of his mouth. He managed to free his tongue by shouting, “Come out and fight, you square-headed bastards!” By the time he reached the bridge, his voice had recovered.

“Where’s Denny?”

Now, with a resounding shout of “Ham and Jam!” he advanced towards the bunker, opened its door, and hurled a grenade inside. Upon detecting signs of life within, Parr forcefully pulled the door open once more and unleashed a barrage of gunfire from his Sten gun into the interior.

Wally Parr would later remember that as he approached the café, someone asked, “Where’s Denny?” He scanned the area and noticed a figure lying in the road. Hurrying back to the fallen officer, Parr recognized him as Brotheridge.

Lieutenant Herbert Denham Brotheridge was a British Army officer who served with the 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (the 52nd) during the Second World War. He is often considered to be the first Allied soldier to be killed in action on D-Day, 6 June 1944.
Lieutenant Herbert Denham Brotheridge was a British Army officer who served with the 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (the 52nd) during the Second World War. He is often considered to be the first Allied soldier to be killed in action on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

The private was deeply affected by the poignant realization that his lieutenant, who had dedicated considerable effort to prepare for this night, had tragically met his fate within the initial moments of the operation. “My God!” he reflected, “What a terrible loss!” Some historians suggest that he was in fact killed by friendly fire.

Capture of the Bridges

The Germans were aware of the impending invasion, though not the precise location. Major Schmidt, in charge of defending the bridges, had been informed of their critical importance in Normandy. However, the defenders were not on high alert, with only two sentries on duty when the gliders landed.

The antitank gun sat abandoned, and the soldiers stationed in the bunker and trenches had grown lethargic at their posts. The sounds of antiaircraft fire and distant bombings had become routine background noise. They paid little heed to the noise produced by the glider’s landing, assuming it was merely debris falling from a bomber, a frequent occurrence.

The anti-tank gun can be seen bottom right

However, there was no mistaking the sudden turn of events. Emerging from the darkness were ominous figures, their faces obscured and voices raised in screams, while they discharged automatic weapons. Young Romer had no other recourse but to flee in the opposite direction, urgently crying out “Paratroopers!” as he dashed past his fellow sentry.

It appeared that the second sentry fired the flare before potentially being struck down, possibly by Brotheridge. In a matter of moments, the soldiers in the bunker and trenches found themselves swiftly overwhelmed by the unexpected assault.

The two sentries on guard, fled, shouting “paratroops,” while the second fired a flare gun to signal nearby defenders. Brotheridge shot the second sentry, and other members of his platoon cleared the trenches and pillbox using grenades. In response to the flare, German machine gunners on the bridge opened fire, injuring Brotheridge as he threw a grenade. The explosion silenced one of the machine gun positions, and another was eliminated by Bren gun fire.

Fierce Exchanges

The Royal Engineers from the first glider meticulously scoured the area for explosive charges and expertly severed the fuse wires wherever they were discovered. Following them, Smith’s platoon advanced across the bridge, engaging in a fierce exchange of fire with the German defenders.

During this intense firefight, Smith himself sustained injuries from a grenade blast. Using grenades and sub-machine gun volleys, the platoons methodically cleared the trenches and bunkers. By 00:21, the resolute German resistance on the west bank of the canal bridge had been decisively overcome.

While conducting a thorough check of the area, Brotheridge’s platoon members soon realized that their valiant leader had been wounded. Tragically, Brotheridge succumbed to his injuries, marking him as the first Allied soldier to fall to enemy action during the invasion.

Simultaneously, on the east bank, Wood’s platoon encountered minimal opposition as they systematically cleared the trenches and bunkers. However, Wood himself was struck in the leg by machine-gun fire as he issued orders for the platoon to storm the German defenses. Remarkably, at this point, all three platoon commanders at the canal bridge were either deceased or injured.

Around this juncture, pathfinders from the 22nd Independent Parachute Company executed landings in the vicinity between the River Orne and the River Dives. Brigadier Nigel Poett, commanding the 5th Parachute Brigade, found himself disoriented after his landing.

He discerned the distinctive sound of Brotheridge’s Sten gun and set off toward the bridges, accompanied by the sole man he was able to locate. Unteroffizier Weber, the lone German to escape ‘D’ Company’s assault, withdrew to Bénouville and reported the capture of the bridge.

Delivering a Direct Hit

Fox’s glider, designated as number five, executed a precise landing approximately 330 yards (300 m) away from the river bridge at 00:20, while glider number four was unfortunately reported as missing. Upon encountering intense German gunfire from an MG 34 machine gun, the resourceful platoon swiftly responded by employing a 2-inch (51 mm) mortar, delivering a direct hit that effectively neutralized the enemy gun. With this threat eliminated, they confidently proceeded to cross the bridge without encountering any further opposition.

At 00:21, glider number six touched down approximately 770 yards (700 m) short of the bridge’s location. Sweeney, displaying quick thinking, decided to leave one of his sections on the west bank. Meanwhile, he led the remaining portion of his platoon across the bridge, directing them to assume defensive positions on the east bank.

Ham and Jam

Established at his newly designated command post within the trenches on the eastern bank of the canal, adjacent to the bridge, Howard received the gratifying news that the river bridge had also been successfully captured.

Pegasus Bridge, 9 June 1944; Horsa gliders can be seen where they landed.
Pegasus Bridge, 9 June 1944; Horsa gliders can be seen where they landed.

Captain Neilson of the engineering team reported that, although the bridges had been prepared for demolition, the actual explosives had not yet been attached. In response, Howard promptly instructed his signalman to transmit the crucial code words ‘Ham’ and ‘Jam’.

Following this, he expertly maneuvered Fox’s platoon across the canal bridge, strategically positioning them at the vital Bénouville to Le Port crossroads, effectively serving as the company’s forward platoon.

At 00:50, additional aircraft transporting the remainder of the 6th Airborne Division appeared overhead, and the paratroopers descended onto designated drop zones marked by the pathfinders. In a concerted effort to assist the 7th Parachute Battalion in locating the bridges, Howard initiated a series of morse code signals with his whistle, sounding the letter ‘V.’

The first paratroopers to arrive, arriving at 00:52, included Brigadier Poett and the soldier he had picked up along the way. After a briefing from Howard about the situation, they detected the sounds of tanks and trucks in the vicinity of Bénouville and Le Port.

However, on the drop zone, only approximately 100 men from the 7th Parachute Battalion had successfully reached the rallying point, and they found themselves without crucial signal equipment, machine guns, and mortars, which were missing.

Recognizing that his battalion was the sole unit designated to secure defensive positions west of the bridges, Pine-Coffin concluded that waiting was not an option. Therefore, at 01:10, they departed for the bridges.

Sd.Kfz. 250 Halftrack

Around the same time, Major Schmidt, sensing the need to personally assess the situation at the bridges, embarked on the journey in his Sd.Kfz. 250 halftrack, accompanied by a motorcycle escort.

Traveling at high speed, they inadvertently bypassed ‘D’ Company’s forward defense line and proceeded onto the bridge, where they came under heavy British fire. Tragically, the soldier on the motorcycle lost his life, and the halftrack was forced off the road. Schmidt and his driver were subsequently captured by the British.

At 01:20, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Richter, the commander of the 716th Infantry Division, received the report about the parachute landings and the capture of the bridges in an intact condition. In response, one of his initial actions was to establish communication with Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger of the 21st Panzer Division.

Richter issued orders for the division to launch an attack on the landing areas. While Feuchtinger’s tanks were assigned to support the 716th Infantry Division, it’s important to note that the 21st Panzer Division also formed a part of the German armored reserve, requiring explicit orders from the German High Command to mobilize.

However, it was a challenge at this moment since all German panzer units could only be set in motion upon the direct orders of Adolf Hitler himself, who was asleep at the time, and his staff hesitated to disturb him.

At 01:30, when the 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment received information about the airborne landings, Colonel Hans von Luck, the regiment’s commander, instructed the regiment to move to their designated assembly areas north and east of Caen, where they awaited further orders.

192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment

The nearest significant German military unit in proximity to the canal bridge was the 2nd Battalion of the 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment stationed at Cairon. Under General Feuchtinger’s orders, they were tasked with retaking the bridges and subsequently launching an assault on the parachute landing zones situated farther to the west.

At 02:00, the 2nd Battalion commenced its approach towards the bridges from the western direction, bolstered by the support of the 1st Panzerjager Company and elements of the 989th Heavy Artillery Battalion arriving from the north.

As the leading Panzer IV tank from the north reached the junction leading to the bridge, it fell victim to a well-placed shot from ‘D’ Company’s sole operational PIAT anti-tank weapon. The tank exploded, igniting its stored ammunition, which prompted the withdrawal of the other tanks.

Simultaneously, the first company of the 7th Parachute Battalion, led by Major Nigel Taylor, reached the bridges under Howard’s guidance. Howard directed them to establish defensive positions on the western side of the canal in Bénouville and Le Port.

Pine-Coffin, upon his arrival at the bridges, received a briefing from Howard before crossing into Bénouville and establishing his headquarters near the church. Pine-Coffin commanded approximately 200 men across his three companies. ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies were positioned in Bénouville, facing south towards Caen, while ‘B’ Company was deployed in Le Port, facing Ouistreham.

‘D’ Company was held in reserve in the area between the two bridges. Further sweeps of the trenches and bunkers were conducted, resulting in the capture of several German soldiers.

Self-Propelled Guns

At 03:00, the 8th Heavy Company of the 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment, equipped with 75 mm self-propelled guns, 20 mm anti-aircraft guns, and mortars, launched an assault on ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies of the 7th Parachute Battalion from the southern direction.

The paratroopers were initially pushed back, allowing the Germans to establish their own positions in Bénouville. However, they were unable to breach the British defensive line. The Germans decided to dig in and await tank support before making further advances. Throughout the night, they continuously fired mortar shells and machine guns at the paratroopers and launched small-scale assaults on their positions.

Shortly before dawn, Howard called a meeting with his platoon commanders. With their senior officers either dead or wounded, Corporals now assumed command of 1, 2, and 3 Platoons. Captain Priday and 4 Platoon were unaccounted for. Only Lieutenants Fox and Sweeney of 5 and 6 Platoons respectively had a full complement of officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs).

The daylight hours brought the commencement of the landings at Sword Beach at 07:00, preceded by a heavy naval bombardment. In the vicinity of the bridges, the increased visibility allowed German snipers to identify potential targets, and anyone moving in the open was at risk of being shot.

Suspected Sniper Positions

To counter this threat, the men of 1 Platoon, who had taken control of the 75 mm anti-tank gun on the east bank of the canal, used it to engage suspected sniper positions in Bénouville, the Château de Bénouville, and the surrounding area.

At 09:00, two German gunboats approached the canal bridge from Ouistreham. The lead boat fired its 20 mm gun, prompting a response from 2 Platoon, which fired a PIAT, hitting the wheelhouse of the leading boat. This caused it to crash into the canal bank, while the second boat retreated to Ouistreham.

The crew quickly surrendered, but persuading the Captain to do the same required some effort. Howard conveyed to him that it was in his best interest to surrender.an eighteen – or nineteen-year old Nazi, very tall, spoke good English. He was ranting on in English about what a stupid thing it was for us to think of invading the Continent, and when his Führer got to hear about it that we would be driven back into the sea, and making the most insulting remarks, and I had the greatest difficulty stopping my chaps from getting hold and lynching that bastard on the spot.” Howard had him escorted to the POW cage in Ranville for interrogation, “and he had to be gagged and frog-marched because he was so truculent and shouting away all through the time.

At 10:00, a lone German aircraft dropped a single bomb on the canal bridge. Fortunately, the bomb struck the bridge, bounced of and failed to detonate. Major Howard was overheard saying What a bit of luck that was, and a wonderful shot it was by that German pilot.

“The Mad Piper”

As midday passed, D Company steadfastly held onto the bridge despite the continuous incoming fire. However, no coordinated counterattack materialized from the German forces. The events of June 6, including the airborne landings and beach assaults, placed such a strain on the German forces that attempting to retake the bridges seemed impossible that day.

Bill led the men down the street of Benouville whilst playing ‘Blue Bonnets over the Border’ and refused to run when a 6 Commando Commander told him to. Pipers walked as they played, they didn’t run!
Bill led the men down the street of Benouville whilst playing ‘Blue Bonnets over the Border’ and refused to run when a 6 Commando Commander told him to. Pipers walked as they played, they didn’t run!

At 13:30 hours, a remarkable sound reached the ears of a few glidermen—bagpipes. When they mentioned it, some of their comrades initially dismissed the notion. However, the sound gradually grew louder and closer. It was the 1st Special Service Brigade under the command of Lord Lovat.

Recognizing the challenges of radio communication, Lord Lovat had positioned piper Bill Millin “The Mad Piper”, at his side, knowing that the distinctive bagpipe sound would serve as an effective recognition signal. Lieutenant Sweeney recalled a member of D Company standing up and playing a bugle in response.

Within minutes, Lord Lovat was shaking hands with Howard, who apologized for the mortar fire that had been incoming and said John, today history is being made. Howard believed it was originating from the vicinity of the maternity hospital but had received orders not to fire upon it.

The commandos bravely crossed the canal bridge, despite the persistent threat from snipers. It was a challenging passage for the commandos, but the arrival of Lovat’s troops marked the successful linkup between the landing forces and the glider troops. While Howard’s force would continue to hold the bridge, the pressure had somewhat eased with the arrival of Lovat’s troops.

Pegasus Bridge 21:00

As evening approached, German snipers and sporadic indirect fire continued, but their intensity had diminished, posing little threat to D Company’s position. Just before nightfall, a significant British glider drop took place, with hundreds of gliders landing nearby.

The bombers towing them also released supply canisters from their bomb bays. Shortly thereafter, friendly soldiers in jeeps streamed down the road, crossing the bridge on their way east. It was a heartening sight for the defenders.

1946 photo of Pegasus Bridge with, from left, Georges Gondree the Proprietor of Cafe Gondree - now the Pegasus Bridge Cafe, Major John Howard DSO and Capt. David Wood.
1946 photo of Pegasus Bridge with, from left, Georges Gondree the Proprietor of Cafe Gondree – now the Pegasus Bridge Cafe, Major John Howard DSO and Capt. David Wood.

Even more uplifting was the arrival of relief, which came a few hours before midnight. The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment marched up to the bridge, and Howard handed over the defense to them. Company D had successfully completed its mission.

They were among the first Allied soldiers to touch down in France on D-Day and the first to engage in combat with the Germans. It was an impressive feat for a company experiencing combat for the first time

. In their honor, the canal bridge was renamed Pegasus Bridge, acknowledging the unit’s distinctive shoulder patch, while the river bridge became known as Horsa Bridge. Major Howard was recognized for his actions and leadership with the award of the Distinguished Service Order.

Field Marshal Montgomery personally awarded Major John Howard the Distinguished Service Order on July 16, 1944, in honor of his exceptional achievements during the coup de main raid. The citation for this recognition reads as follows:

Major Howard was in comd of the airborne force which landed by glider and secured the bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal near Benouville by Coup de main on 6-6-44. Throughout the planning and execution of the operation Major Howard displayed the greatest leadership, judgment, courage and coolness. His personal example and the enthusiasm which he put behind his task carried all his subordinates with him, and the operation proved a complete success.

German Attack Failed

Bénouville marked the furthest point of the British advance on June 6, 1944. On June 9, the German Air Force launched an attack on the bridges using 13 aircraft.

The British had strategically positioned light and medium-sized anti-aircraft guns around the bridges. Despite facing intense anti-aircraft fire, the German attack failed, although they claimed that one of the bridges was destroyed by a direct hit.

The bridgehead, initially captured by the 6th Airborne Division, served as a launching point for several subsequent operations. I Corps carried out the eastern part of Operation Perch from this bridgehead but encountered resistance from the 21st Panzer Division, which halted their advance.

Another planned operation, Dreadnought, was ultimately canceled. It was intended for VIII Corps to use the bridgehead as a starting point for an outflanking attack on Caen. Finally, Operations Atlantic and Goodwood were launched from the bridgehead, leading to the liberation of the remaining sectors of Caen and marking the end of the Battle for Caen.

Operation Comet

After the Deadstick operation, the engineers, glider pilots, and members of ‘B’ Company were returned to their respective parent formations. ‘D’ Company continued to play a vital role in the 6th Airborne Division’s defense of the Orne bridgehead and the advance to the River Seine.

However, by September 5, when the division was withdrawn to England, only 40 men remained in the company under the command of the sole surviving officer, Howard. Many of the other officers, sergeants, and junior NCOs had become casualties during their operations.

The glider pilots were the first to be reassigned from ‘D’ Company, as their specialized skills were needed for other planned operations.

This included Operation Comet, which originally involved another coup-de-main operation aimed at capturing three bridges in the Netherlands using eighteen gliders. Scheduled for September 8, 1944, Comet was later delayed and ultimately canceled. The plans were adapted and evolved into Operation Market Garden, which would involve three airborne divisions, although the coup-de-main assault plans were not executed as originally intended.

Losses at Pegasus Bridge

It’s remarkable to observe that the casualties were remarkably low, especially when compared to other airborne operations such as the German operation in Crete or the British Airborne’s experience during Operation Market Garden.

To those who never came back

Out of the 181 men involved in Operation Deadstick, only two lost their lives: Lieutenant Brotheridge, who succumbed to his wounds, and Lance Corporal Fred Greenhalgh, who tragically drowned after being thrown from Number 2 Glider.

In honor of this heroic action, the Caen Canal Bridge was later renamed ‘Pegasus Bridge,’ a reference to the Pegasus emblem worn by the 6th Airborne Division. Similarly, the River Orne Bridge was renamed ‘Horsa Bridge’ after the gliders that carried the brave men who landed there.

The exact extent of German losses in the area on June 6 remains uncertain. Fourteen tanks were lost during the conflict, with the initial loss occurring during the night and the remaining 13 throughout the day. Additional losses included one gunboat on the Caen canal.