Here's What You Need to Remember: Company D had completed its mission. They were among the first Allied soldiers to land in France on D-Day and the first to enter combat with the Germans. It was a very impressive job for the company’s first time in combat. In their honor, the canal bridge was renamed Pegasus Bridge in recognition of the unit’s shoulder patch, while the river bridge became known as Horsa Bridge.
On a darkened airfield at 2230 hours on June 5, 1944, a reinforced company of British gliderborne infantry, D Company of the Second Battalion, Oxford & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Ox & Bucks), boarded gliders, prepared to start the invasion of France. Their commanding officer, Major John Howard, watched them in the night’s dim, shuffling forward under the heavy load of their weapons and equipment, bound for what would become known as “Pegasus Bridge” across the Caen canal. He recorded, “It was an amazing sight. The smaller chaps were visibly sagging at the knees under the amount of kit they had to carry.” Operation Deadstick was underway.
There was more to their burden, however, than just Sten guns and spare ammunition. On their shoulders rested responsibility for securing the left flank of the entire Allied D-Day invasion force. A pair of small bridges was situated south-southeast of Sword Beach, the easternmost of the five landing points. If they remained in Axis hands, they provided fast access for German armored units to counterattack the beaches. If taken by the British, they could be used for the advancing British ground units. The mission of these glider troops was to seize the bridges in question. Major Howard’s orders weighed heavily on his mind as they set out on their monumental mission: “Your task is to seize the [bridges] over R. Orne and canal … and to hold them until relief….”
The Plan to Take Pegasus Bridge
The preparation for this attack had been in the works long before Howard and his men boarded their gliders. Once the Allied command decided on the Normandy coastline for the invasion of France, planning began on how to secure the beaches and pave the way for the advance inland. On the invasion’s left flank, attention quickly focused on a pair of bridges just a few miles northeast of the French city of Caen. The bridge over the river Orne allowed fast access for the invasion force to move east after landing. Conversely, it could allow German units to quickly move toward Sword Beach and attack the British 3rd Infantry Division as it struggled to get ashore. Just 470 meters west of the Orne Bridge sat Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal, a manmade waterway that flowed directly to Sword Beach. Together these crossing points were vital avenues to whichever army held them.
The east-west road that crossed the bridges led east to the village of Ranville, roughly 1,000 meters away, and then out to the countryside. To the west, the road crossed the canal bridge and came to a crossroads around 260 meters distant. This crossroad led north to Sword Beach or south toward Caen. On the west bank of the canal sat the village of Benouville.
Over time a plan formed to seize of the bridges using gliderborne infantry. There were certain advantages to using gliders for such an assault. They were quiet and would be towed by transport aircraft; the German occupation force was by now used to hearing Allied planes overhead and hopefully would not pay much attention to them. This would provide a cover for the incoming gliders and help achieve surprise. Also, using gliders kept the attacking force concentrated. Paratroopers could be scattered by wind or varying speed, altitude, and direction of their aircraft. Even a good airborne drop would require time for the parachutists to concentrate and move on their objective. A glider force could touch down already concentrated with one planeload of soldiers ready to move upon landing. If the gliders could land close together a large force could be quickly brought to bear.
“The First British Fighting Force to Land on the Continent”
The British 6th Airborne Division was charged with landing to the east of Sword Beach on D-Day and capturing the vital bridges. Like any airborne unit, it was not heavy enough to resist the sort of determined counterattacks the Germans could be expected to make and would need the more heavily equipped regular infantry and armored formations coming from the beaches to arrive as quickly as possible. The division contained two parachute brigades and one air landing (glider) brigade.
The force for the bridge assaults was drawn for the 6th Air Landing Brigade commanded by Brigadier H.K.M. Kindersley. The division commander, Maj. Gen. Richard Gale, went to his brigade commanders with the plan for the bridges, explaining to one of them, “The seizing of the bridges intact is of the utmost importance for the conduct of future operations … the speedy overpowering of the bridge defenses will be your first objective and it is therefore to be seized by the coup de main party. You must accept risks to achieve this.”
Gale asked Kindersley which of his company commanders might be up to the challenge. Kindersley chose Major John Howard, the commander of D Company.
Howard, a former enlisted man, had risen quickly through the NCO and officer ranks after the war began because of his ability and professionalism. He had completed one enlistment during the 1930s and was a policeman until recalled to duty after the war started. He impressed superiors with his skill and subordinates with his willingness to share their difficulties.
To see if Howard and his men had what it took, a three-day exercise was conducted, with the troops required to seize three bridges intact and hold them until relief arrived. They succeeded and ensured their place in the vanguard of the entire invasion force. After the exercise Howard was told what his mission would be and that D Company would certainly be “the first British fighting force to land on the continent.”
They would not be alone, however. Gale wanted the coup de main effort to be reinforced, so Howard was told he could choose any two platoons from his regiment to be attached to his company. Also, a detachment of Royal Engineers from the division’s 249th Field Company would provide the expertise needed to disable any demolitions placed on the bridges by the Germans. Howard chose two platoons from the Ox & Bucks B Company to join his unit.
Six Horsa Gliders
The detailed plan for the attack came together over the coming months as the troops trained hard for their task, even though due to secrecy needs they did not know their exact mission. They would embark aboard six Horsa gliders that would each hold a platoon plus a small group of engineers. Howard wanted flexibility in his plan and equipped his platoons so each could attack a bridge by itself if necessary. During training he envisioned the different ways things could go wrong and tried to compensate. Also, each platoon cross-trained so it could perform in another’s role as needed. The training was arduous, but it bonded the men together. Howard also had good officers who shared hardships with their men and were aggressive and capable.
Along with their training, the glider troops benefited from access to constantly updated intelligence estimates. Photo reconnaissance flights provided timely images of the bridges and their defenses; over time the British noted improvements being made, such as the installation of an antitank gun and the construction of bunkers. Another invaluable source of information was the local French Resistance network. This included Madame Vion, who ran a maternity hospital on the south end of Benouville. She collected information from resistance operatives and passed it on to her contacts in Caen during her periodic trips there for medical supplies.
One of her primary sources of information was the conversation at the Café Gondree, located on the west bank of the canal near the bridge. The owners, Georges and Therese Gondree, simply kept their ears open and listened to the conversations of the various German soldiers who frequented the establishment. Therese was from Alsace and spoke German, while Georges spoke some English.
The intelligence effort gave them a fairly accurate picture of the bridge’s defenses. About 50 troops guarded the two spans, drawn from the 736th Grenadier Regiment of the 716th Infantry Division. This unit was composed largely of conscripted men from German-occupied nations, such as Poles and Russians with some, mostly older, Germans mixed in. German NCOs and officers led the formation. The bridge defenses were commanded by Major Hans Schmidt.
From the layout of the defenses, the Germans expected any concerted attack on the bridges to come from the east. Most of the machine guns at each bridge were oriented to the east while the single antitank gun installed at the canal bridge was located on the east side as well. Several bunkers were also constructed, and trench systems radiated around the bridges for riflemen and machine gunners. Barbed wire entanglements were also emplaced, but these were mounted in such a way as to be easily movable.