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The Start of the Invasion

Discussion in 'Pegasus Bridge' started by Jim, Dec 21, 2007.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    As darkness was falling at 22:56 hrs on 5th June 1944, six Horsa gliders were pulled airborne from the runway at Tarrant Rushton airfield in England by six Halifax bombers. Inside the wood and canvas gliders were troops from D Company of 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, part of 6th Airlanding Brigade of British 6th Airborne Division. The troops were commanded by Major John Howard and were the coup de main party ordered to attack the bridges over the Orne river and Caen canal at Benouville in Normandy. Seven minutes later, 70 miles away to the north-east, more planes from No. 38 Group RAF lifted into the sky from Harwell airfield in Berkshire. This time, Albemarle aircraft carried the men of 22nd Independent Parachute Company, whose task was to drop onto and mark out landing zones ready for the main parachute force that were set to arrive 30 minutes after them. The airborne invasion of Hitler's Fortress Europe was at last under way.

    Private Frank Gardner, Captain Brian Priday and Lance-Corporal B. Lambley of D Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. These men were part of the coup de main party designated to capture the river bridge over the Orne at Benouville, but their glider landed ten miles away from their objective close to the River Dives. It took several days for them to find their way through enemy territory to join up with their battalion.

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    THE CAPTURE OF THE ORNE BRIDGES

    At 0007hrs (British Double Summer Time) on 6th June, Sergeant Jim Wallwork cast off his glider from the tug aircraft, and began the descent to his designated landing zone (LZ 'X') close by the Orne bridges. Behind him, following at one minute intervals, came the other five Horsa’s carrying the remainder of Maj Howard's small Force. At 0016hrs Wallwork brought his aircraft to a grinding halt just 60 yards from the bridge over the Orne Canal. Howard and his men quickly crashed their way out of the aircraft's flimsy structure and dashed for the bridge. In the lead was Lieutenant Den Brotheridge. He led his men through the barbed wire surrounding the bridge and onto the roadway. Behind them, almost silently, the next two gliders swept in and landed just a few yards from Wallwork's plane. The skill of three glider pilots, Sergeants Wallwork, Boland and Hobbs, had delivered almost 90 men across the Channel to within 100yds of their objective. Howard's men now set about the tasks for which they had spent so many months training. The operation worked like clockwork. Lieutenant Brotheridge and No.1 Platoon were swiftly onto the road and they began running across the bridge to get among the enemy weapons pits on the far side of the structure.

    In the days after the landings, Woken Horsa gliders litter the fields of Landing Zone 'N' to the North of Ranville.

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    On the bridge, striding aimlessly back and forth, were two German sentries. They had not heard the arrival of the gliders above the noise of aircraft and anti-aircraft fire and were suddenly startled to see the blackened faces of British troops rushing towards them. One sentry turned and ran whilst the other managed to get off a flare to raise the alarm. Almost immediately he was killed by a burst of Sten gunfire from Brotheridge. Next, the lieutenant rushed towards the machine gun, which was positioned in a sandbagged pit at the end of the bridge, throwing a grenade as he went. The now awakened MG42 crew saw him coming and opened fire on the young officer, killing him instantly. However, the gun was quickly silenced by the troops following behind Brotheridge.

    The wrecked gliders that brought Maj John Howard and his men to within a few yards of the Caen Canal bridge at Benouville. The Cafe Gondree alongside the canal can be seen in the left background.

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    By now the German defenders were fully roused and fighting back. No. 1 Platoon began clearing the enemy from the western side of the canal around the bridge, throwing grenades and firing as they went. On the eastern side of the lifting-bridge, Lieutenant Wood and his No. 2 Platoon broke free from the second glider and cleared the German trenches, machine gun positions and a 50mm anti-tank gun on that side of the canal. The third glider contained No. 3 Platoon commanded by Lt Smith, and had a bumpy landing. Six of the platoon remained trapped in the glider when the lieutenant and the others leapt from the aircraft to join up with Howard. The major directed Smith to take his men over the bridge and help No. I Platoon to clear the western canal bank and form a defensive perimeter. As this was happening, sappers began checking the underside of the bridge for demolition charges, cutting any wires that they came across, but they found no explosives in position. (It later transpired that the charges allocated for the bridge were stored in a hut nearby and were only to be put in place when directed by higher authority). The enemy had been caught entirely unprepared for the assault. Meanwhile, a few hundred yards to the east, Howard's other three platoons were dropping in their gliders towards the bridge over the River Orne. Unfortunately, the leading glider carrying Howard's second in command, Captain Priday, had been cast adrift in the wrong place and landed near the River Dives five miles away. The other two, however, made a successful landing within a few hundred yards of their objective and the river bridge was captured with little opposition. The initial operation had been a complete success. Within just 15 minutes both bridges had been captured and made secure with a minimum of casualties. When Howard received news of the capture of the river bridge, he ordered the success signal "Ham and jam" to be transmitted to signify that he had the intact bridges under his control. It now only remained for him and his company to hold them until they were relieved by the paratroopers of Lieutenant-Colonel Pine Coffin's 7th Parachute Battalion, who were to land on DZ 'N' 30 minutes later.

    The Cafe Gondree today along with the 50mm Anti-Tank Gun.

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    The pathfinders of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company, who had leapt into Normandy just a few minutes after Maj Howard's company had descended on the bridges, did not have such a successful landing. Their drops were scattered and it took a long time for the men to rally. Two aircraft had been allocated to deliver men to each of the three drop zones. They were then to set up their Eureka beacons to guide in the main force of paratroopers onto their allocated landing points. This main force was arranged to drop 30 minutes after the pathfinders. The 5th Parachute Brigade's Commander, Brigadier Nigel Poett, arrived with his advance HQ precisely on target on DZ 'N', close by Ranville with the pathfinders. He was immediately cheered by the sound of the whistle being blown by Maj Howard, signalling the successful capture of the bridges. With so little time to complete their tasks and the failure of the majority of them to land on target, the pathfinders were unable to mark the drop zones sufficiently well to ensure that the following paratroopers landed in the correct place. When the aircraft bringing the main force arrived over their various drop zones at around 0045hrs, the beacons guiding them onto their targets were giving misleading signals. German anti-aircraft fire was also causing many planes to lose formation and direction, so when the order came for the parachutists to drop, they were often released in the wrong places.

    Today a monument stands on the exact spot to where each glider landed.

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    On DZ `N', 5th Parachute Brigade was dispersed over a wide area. The 7th, 12th and 13th Parachute Battalions became intermingled and confused. Some order was restored as the individual groups quickly assembled at their appropriate collecting points, but many paratroopers became completely lost and only joined up with their units after many hours or even days trying to get their bearings. Lieutenant-Colonel Pine Coffin's 7th Parachute Battalion dropped on the Ranville DZ `N' in some disarray. After waiting at the rendezvous point for a short while for his battalion to rally, the colonel decided to take those men who had arrived and lead them towards Howard's isolated company of the Ox and Bucks at the Orne bridges. He left his second in command, Major Baume, to collect any stragglers who might turn up later. The battalion's arrival at the bridges was most opportune, as the enemy was beginning to launch determined counter-attacks against Howard's exposed company. Pine Coffin now took over command of the bridges and organised a strong perimeter around the river and canal crossings. Howard's company was withdrawn to the eastern river bridge to act as reserve, whilst the 7th Battalion's own companies crossed over the Caen Canal and established defensive positions on the western side of the lodgement. A and C Companies blocked the road from Caen, holding the southern part of the village of Benouville, whilst B Company moved into place in the tiny hamlet of Le Port and in the small wood alongside it, blocking the approaches from Ouistreham. The battalion was only 200 strong, although other paratroopers filtered in during the night as isolated individuals picked their way through the darkness to join their unit.

    The inscription on the monument that marks the spot of Maj Howard's Glider

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    Written by Ken Ford
     
  2. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    A month after the invasion, the Caen Canal bridge had been officially labelled ‘Pegasus Bridge’. Howard’s glider still overlooks the site, but Cafe Gondree, on the right, looks to be closed for business.

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  3. Reid1986

    Reid1986 New Member

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    Very nice thread and a good read. I've only read a little bit about Pegasus Bridge and seeing those pictures was especially great. I'd love to be able to tour around Europe looking at WWII sites like these especially after knowing the history behind them.
     

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