Operation Overlord was the plan to establish an Allied presence in France, which would allow the liberation of Western Europe.  The D Day landings in Normandy were the start of this plan.  However, in order for this landing to be successful, it was essential to secure a number of key positions before the beach landings took place.   During the night before the landings, three airborne divisions were to land by parachute and glider in order to secure the flanks of the landing beaches and protect the troops landing from German counter attacks.  The British part of the plan, which was to secure the eastern flank of the invasion, was code-named Operation Tonga and this was assigned to the 6th Airborne Division.  The aim was to secure the high ground in between the River Orne and the River Dives, by capturing the Orne bridges and destroying the bridges over the Dives. It was known that the major German armoured forces were to the East and controlling this ground would prevent them moving to the landing beaches. A subsidiary action to this was code-named Operation Deadstick.  The objective of Operation Deadstick was to capture intact two road bridges, one across the Orne Canal, known as Bénouville Bridge, and one across the River Orne, known as Ranville Bridge. The control of these bridges was crucial to the success of the invasion. The role of the airborne troops was to ensure that the bridges were captured and to hold them against any counter-attack until relieved by troops from Sword beach.  Lord Lovat’s Special Commandos were given the task of leading this relief.

Members of D Company of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were chosen to capture the two bridge, landing in six gliders, towed by Halifax bombers. Three gliders would land at the River Orne Bridge and three would land at the Canal Bridge.  The latter became known as Pegasus Bridge, taking the name of the emblem of the British airborne troops.


The Capture of Pegasus Bridge

On the evening of 5 June 1944, Major John Howard and his company of Ox and Bucks climbed into the trucks which would take them to the gliders.  It was only now that they were told of the code ‘Ham and Jam’.  When they radioed this code, it would mean that both of the bridges had been taken intact.  Once their equipment was loaded on board the gliders, the men climbed aboard, followed by their officers.  At 22.56, Glider No 1 took off with Major Howard, followed by the other gliders at one minute intervals.  One can only imagine how they felt as they crossed the Channel and then the French coast knowing that if their tug planes were shot down they would be helpless as their glider would crash either into the sea or on land.

At 00.07 the gliders arrived at the coast, where the tug planes released the gliders.  They were now in enemy territory.  The first sight of Caen was dramatic: it had been bombed and the flames lit the area. Searchlights were desperately looking for targets for their anti-aircraft guns.  The men must have breathed a sigh of relief when the gliders turned away from Caen to head towards the bridges from the landward side.  Very soon, their landing sites came into view.  At Pegasus Bridge Major Howard’s glider landed at 00.11 followed quickly by gliders 2 and 3. Glider No 3 broke in two on impact and Lance-corporal Fred Greenhalgh was knocked unconscious and thrown into a pond.  His body was later recovered and he became the first Allied casualty on D Day.

All the men had been training for this mission for many months.  They were at the peak of physical fitness.  They had attacked replicas of the bridges.  Each man knew his task and had practised its completion many times.  However, they had not crash landed in a glider.  Most of them were concussed for a few seconds on the force of the landing.  Nonetheless, their training ensured that they were on their feet and in action within seconds.

The three gliders at the Canal bridge at Bénouville. Glider No 3 can be seen broken in half.
The three gliders at the Canal bridge at Bénouville. Glider No 3 can be seen broken in half.

There were only two soldiers on sentry duty on the bridge as the Ox and Bucks silently rushed them.  A young 18 year old German sentry was walking towards the eastern end of the bridge when he saw a large group of men with blackened faces in camouflaged battle jackets running towards him with guns carried at their hips and ready to fire.  Realising the danger, he turned and ran as fast as his legs would carry him shouting, ‘Paratroopers’.  The other sentry immediately fired a Very flare and he became the first German soldier to die in battle on that day.  Grenades were thrown into the machine-gun pillbox, whilst the sappers were inspecting the bridge for explosives, cutting fuses and wires, although no charges were in place.  The gunfire and the flare alerted the German soldiers in machine-gun pits and they opened fire.  Lieutenant Brotheridge threw a grenade into a machine-gun pit but was hit by a bullet in his neck.  The ferocious fighting continued but by 00.21 German resistance was overcome and the bridge was secured.  Some of Brotheridge’s platoon returned to their wounded leader who was now losing consciousness.  One of his men described finding him:

I looked at him …. His eyes were open and his lips moving.  I put my hand under his head to lift him up.  He just looked, choked and he laid back…. I just knelt there and looked and I thought, ‘My God, what a waste.’[1]

Brotheridge was the first Allied soldier to die in action on D Day. Howard quickly established his command post and word came that the Orne Bridge had also been taken.  Although only two gliders reached the Orne River Bridge, it was also captured quickly without any enemy intervention.

The code Ham and Jam, confirming a successful operation, was sent repeatedly until it was finally acknowledged.  Now, Howard organised his men to defend their position while waiting for reinforcements.  It was not long before the 7th Battalion Parachute Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Pine-Coffin (one wonders what the men thought of this name!), arrived to assist with defence of the bridge and the approach roads.

[1] Stephen Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge (Pocket Books 2003) p109

pegasus bridge map

The café next to the bridge was owned by Madame and Monsieur Gondrée.  Madame Gondrée had been born in Alsace and spoke fluent German.  Monsieur Gondrée had worked in Lloyd’s Bank in Paris and could speak English.  As Madame Thérèsa Gondrée overheard the conversations of the German soldiers, she memorised important details.  The most important item of information was that there was a button in the machine-gun pillbox across the road from the antitank gun which, when pressed, would detonate the explosives to blow the bridge if in danger of capture.  This information, together with information on the garrison and the deployment of defences, had been passed to Madame Vion who was the director of the maternity hospital in the nearby Chateau de Bénouville.  She frequently had to travel to Caen for medical supplies and had contacts with the Resistance group there.  In turn, they passed this information to England.

In the early hours of 6 June, the Gondrée family were awoken by explosions.  Monsieur Georges Gondrée peered through the window in an attempt to see what was happening.  One of the Ox and Bucks saw him and fired above his head.  Georges immediately took his family to the safety of the cellar and there they stayed until dawn when he made his way upstairs.  He could hear some English words spoken and so he was happy to open the door when there was some banging.  They welcomed the soldiers with warmth and Madame Gondrée kissed them all despite the blackened faces!  To celebrate, Georges dug up 98 bottles of champagne that he had buried when the German Army took over the area so now, there was free champagne for their liberators.

Early that morning, the British troops were pinned down by sniper fire.  They had captured an anti-tank gun and returned fire on a water tower used by the German snipers.  Nearby, Corporal Parr also spotted a chateau from which he believed snipers were also operating.  He turned the gun to the roof he hit with a number of shells.  Major Howard was horrified as he knew that the chateau was used as the maternity hospital. Corporal Parr ceased shelling immediately!  Indeed, it was indeed the very same hospital in which Madame Vion worked.  At about 08.00, Spitfires flew over the area.  Howard put out a large signal over the ground to inform the pilots that the area had been taken.  Three Spitfires dived closer to the ground, circled the bridges and performed victory roll after victory roll.  They then dropped a container containing the early editions from Fleet Street[1] which raised the spirits of all the men there.

The British troops spent the morning fighting off German counter attacks.  As noon approached they were feeling anxious; they were awaiting the arrival of Lord Lovat and his Commandos.  When would they arrive?  A German tank approached and began firing; it was finally disabled but Howard knew it would not be too long before more were used against them.  Tension was mounting. Howard looked at his watch.  The commandos were expected at noon; it was now 13.00.  Where were they?  Around them, men were muttering.  Was that really bagpipes that they could hear?  Indeed, it was.  Morevoer, it signalled the approach of the Commandos.  Lord Lovat had brought Bill Millin, his own piper, to pipe his troops across the bridge. The relief of the exhausted men at the bridge was summed up in the wwords of Sergeant Thornton.  Everybody threw their rifles down and kissed and hugged each other, and I saw men with tears rolling down their cheeks.  I did honestly.  Probably I was the same.[2]

[1] Ibid p151
[2] Ibid p 166  (words of Sergeant Thornton)

Lord Lovat leading his troop ashore at Sword Beach.
  Bill Millin is in the foreground waiting to follow.
Lord Lovat leading his troop ashore at Sword Beach. Bill Millin is in the foreground waiting to follow.

Pegasus Bridge

The bridge is on the Canal de Caen, in between Caen and Ouisterham. Take the D515 from Caen towards Ouistreham and turn off at the D514, signposted for Bénouville. The bridge is just over half a mile along the D514. There is parking at the Pegasus Memorial Museum and along the road down the side. The site is very busy during the Summer.

This Museum is an ideal start to visiting the area of Pegasus Bridge.  It is dedicated to the men of the 6th Airborne Division.  There is a specific focus on the glider borne troops led by Major John Howard.

As you enter, there is an enclosed circular area which explains the allied landings with a film and has a table diorama showing events.  You will see a wide range of exhibits including the Bren gun found in the pond where Fred Greenhalgh died.  Lance-Corporal Greenhalgh was the Number 1 on a Bren gun team and was carrying a Bren gun whilst on the glider.  When you have completed your tour of the museum, walk into the grounds.  The original bridge, which has now been replaced by a modern bridge, has been moved to the museum.  You can walk across this bridge and see the battle scars caused by bullets and mortar fragments.  There is also a full sized replica of a Horsa Glider, the glider used in Operation Deadstick for the assaults on the Bénouville Bridge and the Orne Bridge, together with a good collection of weapons, equipment and memorabilia.

Pegasus Bridge 9 June 1944
Pegasus Bridge 9 June 1944

There are also a number of features of interest to see outside the museum. Across the road from the museum, in between the canal and a pond, three markers show the spot where each glider came to rest. It is remarkable how gliders managed to land in the dark, in this confined space and so close to the bridge. Glider Number 1 landed within 50 yards of the bridge; Major Howard told the pilot, Staff-Sergeant Wallwork, that he wanted him to plough through the barbed wire surrounding the bridge, which he did. There is also a bust of Major John Howard by the marker for his glider.

Before crossing the bridge, there is an anti tank gun position on the left hand side of the road. The gun has been moved during the widening of the canal, but this is the gun used by Corporal Parr to fire on the chateau housing the maternity hospital. You can see the chateau, which is the large building across the canal, about half a mile away towards the left.

The original Pegasus Bridge in the Museum
The original Pegasus Bridge in the Museum

The scene by the canal is different in many respects from that in 1944. The original bridge was replaced by a more modern bridge in 1994 and the canal has also been widened. However, the new bridge is the same style as the original, now in the museum, and it does help to maintain the character of the area. Across the bridge on the left hand side is the Gondrée café, still in the ownership of a member of the family. A sign on the café proclaims that it was the first house liberated on D Day. On any Normandy tour you will find a number of claims to be the first house, or first mairie or first town or village to have been liberated; we leave making a judgement on these claims to you. Across the road, to the right of Les Trois Planeurs Café is the roadway along which Lord Lovat arrived with reinforcements from Gold Beach.

The replica of a Horsa Glider in the museum
The replica of a Horsa Glider in the museum