History

Bagpipes, Gunboats And Champagne: 11 Things You Did Not Know About Pegasus Bridge

Operation Deadstick was the spearhead action of the D-Day invasion of Europe

The events of D-Day are well known, and not least among them is the textbook capture of the bridge at Bénouville by the men of D Company, 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, an action commonly referred to as Pegasus Bridge.

The complexities of the operation and minute-by-minute accounts of what happened when Major John Howard, and the 180 soldiers under his command, landed in the their Horsa gliders has been well covered by historians.

It is a story military audiences know well.

Here, instead of treading over the well-told ground of Pegasus Bridge, we have chosen to focus on the details that are often overlooked … 

Here are 11 little-known but crucial factors about Operation Deadstick, the capturing of Pegasus Bridge.

1. Actually, There Were Two Bridges

The Caen Canal and River Orne make up part of the Caen Waterways, which lay to the south and southeast and of the beaches which were landed upon by British and Canadian forces at 7am on June 6, 1944. The American beaches were further West along the Normandy coastline.

Crossing the canal and river, features that sit adjacent to each other as they head north to the coast, are two bridges carrying a single road.

In the early hours of June 6, 1944, both those bridges needed to be captured by the allies.

The road over the bridges to and from the area of Sword Beach was a vital supply route for the German defences, and therefore the bridges on it were significant structures that needed to be captured so that control of the route lay in Allied hands.

It was feared that once the landings at Sword got under way the Germans would send reinforcements into the area, probably including armoured tanks, which would have resulted in a longer battle, and additional British and Canadian casualties.

The bridges had to be captured to secure the Eastern flank of Sword Beach.

By securing the crossings over the Caen Waterways seven hours prior the amphibious landings, the Germans would be denied the opportunity of resupply and would be unable to reinforce their Normandy coastal defences from the East.

The reason the second bridge over the waterways is not discussed to the same extent as the first is likely because, to their detriment, the German soldiers tasked to defend the bridges focused most of their effort on fortifying the west bridge, that over the Caen Canal, placing fewer men and machine guns on the westward bridge over the River Orne.

This resulted in the bulk of the Operation Deadstick action being focused on the canal bridge instead of the river crossing.

The British planners of the operation had excellent intelligence (the reason why we will look at shortly), so the operation was in fact planned with this in mind.

2. The Mission Was A Special Forces Operation

The men chosen to carry out the crucial operation – D Company, 2nd Ox and Bucks - were special forces in all but name.

The Company was part of the 6th (UK) Airborne Division.

The word Airborne signified that these men were troops that were generally dropped into enemy territory (in this case via gliders).

In the months preceding D-Day, the commander of 6th Airborne Division, General Richard Gale, knew he needed to identify a company-sized group of men to capture the bridges over the Caen waterways, so that the Eastern flank of the British and Canadian beaches would be secure.

General Gale estimated that using paratroopers would make the mission more drawn out and possibly even result in failure. When jumping out of planes, soldiers are scattered further on the ground.

With gliders, forces could be landed together at once in a specified location.

After learning about the talents of Major John Howard, the Company Commander of D Company who renowned himself as running the best company in the 2nd Ox and Bucks, Gale decided upon auditioning Howard and his men on a three-day exercise during which they were required to capture a series of bridges heavily defended by paratroopers.

The men of D Company impressed the General at this test, and accordingly he decided that they would be the men to carryout the midnight task of capturing the bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne.

At the request of Howard, General Gale pumped up D Company with two additional platoons, providing him with a total of six. Other assets were added, including 20 Royal Engineers, the glider pilots whose responsibility it would be to get the Company down in one piece and eventually a medical officer. All in all, Howard commanded 181 men.

Under the watchful eyes of the Major Howard, D Company’s training intensified, almost exclusively focusing on the tactics of capturing bridges. So seriously did Howard take his role of preparing D Company for the operation, he gave up alcohol for the duration of the planning and training phase.

The men of D Company even undertook a gruelling 131-mile march from Ilfracombe in North Devon back to their home base at Bulford on Salisbury Plain. 

Throughout the Deadstick-specific training, none of the men under Major Howard knew the reason why they were having to constantly capture bridges at locations across the Southeast of England.

Some of the men even complained that the endless bridge-training had become boring.

But, as the day approached, the men were enlightened as to the reason why they had become bridge-capturing experts and informed of their pending special forces operation.

The gliders were released by their carrying aircraft over the Normandy coastline and descended from there (Credit: Airfix is a registered trademark of Hornby Hobbies Ltd, and use of the illustrations has been kindly permitted by Hornby Hobbies Ltd © 2018)

3. Not All The Bad Guys Were German Soldiers

The bridges were defended by a small garrison of about 50 soldiers from the 736th Grenadier Regiment, part of the German 716th Infantry Division.

On the ground, the Officer Commanding and the man responsible for the security of the bridges was Major Hans Schmidt. But strictly speaking, not all the soldiers under his command were men of German origin.

Many of the men were in fact conscripted soldiers from German occupied countries, men who had been forced to take up weapons and fight on behalf of the Nazis, frequently against their will.

In the years following Pegasus Bridge, rumours have swirled around the credibility of Hans Schmidt and his integrity as Officer on the night of the attack.

On the night of the mission, Major Howard and his men would find a number of factors to the benefit of their attack.

This included the second bridge being significantly under-defended, explosive charges not laid on the structures themselves, and Major Schmidt, the officer in charge, missing from his place of Command when the fighting began.

Hans Schmidt was thought to be in the nearby town of Ranville visiting his French girlfriend.

In the hour after the bridges had been captured, Hans Schmidt drove to the site with his driver.

His car was shot at by Howard’s men holding the river bridge, causing his vehicle to crash off the road and into a ditch. Schmidt was hit in the leg by this contact.

At the Company HQ position, which Howard had established in a trench next to Pegasus Bridge, Hans Schmidt would later cause a headache for the British medical officer, Captain Vaughan.

In the book Pegasus Bridge, Bénouville D-Day 1944, by Will Fowler, the manner and exchanges of the two Officers was explained by the Royal Army Medical Corps doctor on scene, Captain Vaughan, himself:

“Schmidt had suffered a leg wound and was taken to the Company Clearing Post set up by Capt Vaughan between the two bridges. The RAMC doctor recalled:

‘He was an absolute fanatic. He spoke to me in very good English and said, “Your troops are going to be thrown back. My Führer will see to that: you’re going to be thrown back into the sea!” – so on and so forth.

Capt Vaughan continued:

“He wanted me to shoot him."

"He thought he had done a poor job and his Führer will be very upset with him. He cried “Shoot me doctor!” So I got out some more morphia and shot him in the bottom with that, and within twenty minutes he was much more polite and he thanked me for what I had done.’”

4. The Germans Were Meant To Blow The Bridges Up

Major Hans Schmidt’s orders were to blow the bridges up if he assessed that invading forces were likely to overpower his strength and capture the bridges.

To do this, he had enough explosives to place on the crossings, however he had had legitimate fears in doing so in advance of any possible attack.

In fact, the Major had been faced with a conundrum regarding the laying of explosives in readiness for any potential attack ...

Normandy, like most areas in occupied France had an active cell of resistance fighters operating in secrecy.

Hans Schmidt knew this and realised that by leaving explosives on the bridges to use should the worst happen, he would run the risk of giving the resistance an easy win should they ever find out… which for reasons that will become clear soon, was a very probably possible outcome.

But, in weighing this up, he did not account for the British method of delivery in getting the soldiers to the bridges. If the British had gone for paratroopers, instead of glider-borne soldiers, Schmidt must have fancied his men’s chances in laying the explosives with enough time to blow the bridges up.

The glider element to Howard’s operation meant that he and his men literally landed on top of their objective. And because of this, there was no way Hans Schmidt could blow the bridges.

5. The Horsa Gliders Crash Landed

But that was the plan anyway.

It was by no means a steady descent and organised landing for the company of men spread across the six Horsa gliders.

However, that takes nothing away from the flying crews, work that was later described by Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory as “probably the finest feat of flying in World War Two” - exceptionally high praise for the Non-Commissioned Officers at the controls of the wooden and fabric aircraft. 

The challenge of landing the gliders was another matter discussed by Will Fowler discussed in the book, Pegasus Bridge, Bénouville D-Day 1944:

“Along with the constant concern about his location, and the intense effort to penetrate the darkness and clouds, Wallwork (the pilot of the leading glider) had other worries. He would be doing between 90mph and 100mph when he hit the ground. If he hit a tree or an antiglider pole, he would be dead and the men aboard either injured or stunned and incapable of seizing the bridge. The parachute brake in the back of the glider was an extra worry. He feared that if it was operated it would pitch the nose forward and send the glider into a vertical dive.”

Prior to setting off, Howard had instructed SSgt Wallwork that he wanted the nose of the aircraft to break the barbed wire defence in place in front of the bridge.

It is understood that privately, Wallwork thought this quite unlikely given the lack of controls available to him in the Horsa glider.

But quite incredibly, the first glider came to halt with the nose just a few meters away from the desired landing point of Howard.

The halting point of the landing had turned out to be almost perfect.

The shock of the landing caused many of the men to endure some sort of momentary unconsciousness.

The gliders had no landing gear or motors to abort should the descent be too steep.

In the case of the third glider to land, so violent was the impact that a man was thrown out of the structure and into a deep pond.

LCpl Greenhalgh would unfortunately drown in the pond, which had been absent from the planning models and aerial images provided to Howard for the operation, laden with equipment and probably unconscious from the crash itself.

6. The Owners Of Café Gondrée Were Not All That They Seemed

Situated immediately to the western side of the Bénouville Bridge over the canal (Pegasus Bridge) is the Café Gondrée.

During the war, the café remained open but was often frequented by occupying soldiers, including those on duty protecting the bridge outside.

The Gondrée family were typical of those living under occupation in Normandy. Polite, private and most of all, focused on getting through the way in one piece.

But they had a secret ...

So relaxed were the German soldiers when using the café that they frequently spoke about matters relating to the war. Madame Gondrée would look on uninterested while pouring coffee, but secretly she was listening to each detail and memorising everything.

That’s because the Gondrée family were secretly members of the French resistance.

The messages overhead by the Gondrée family were filtered back through the intelligence channels set up by the Resistance, and in the case of the Operation Deadstick, intelligence that came directly from soldiers in the café in the days before D-Day found its way back to the planners of the operation.

This included information about the precise location of the explosive charges held by the Germans at the site, which they were to use should the bridges become under attack.

Thanks to intelligence like this, Howard’s men planned to gain hold of the explosives early on in the operation, taking away any possibility of the Germans attempting to blow the bridges up.

An element of surprise was established by landing the engine-less glider aircraft on to the landing sites at the bridges (image from 'Pegasus Bridge', by Will Fowler © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

7. Major John Howard Was A Policeman At The Start Of WWII

In the early 1930s, John Howard joined the army as a Private.

Early on in his career he had been recognised for his natural talents as a leader and was selected to attend an officers' selection week.

Incredibly, the men responsible for selecting potential officers overlooked Howard and he was sent back to his unit, but given the rank of Corporal as a consolation prize.

Unhappy at this, John Howard left the army and became a police officer in Oxford.

At the outbreak ok WWII, PC Howard realised his talents were most needed in the army, and so he reenlisted and was given back his old rank of Corporal.

Within five months of re-joining he had reached the senior NCO rank of WO1.

By 1942, Howard was given a commission and made-up to the rank of Captain. Ahead of D-Day, he was promoted again and as a Major, handed command of D Company, 2 Ox and Bucks.

8. The First Man To Die On D-Day

The poignant record of being the first Allied soldier killed on D-Day fell to one of Major Howard’s officers, 29-year-old Lieutenant Den Brotheridge.

Lt Brotheridge was the platoon commander of the men in the first landing glider, Chalk No 91.

The circumstances around his death were detailed by Will Fowler. While writing the book, Fowler spoke to one of Lt Brotheridge’s men, Private Parr.  

“A flare was hanging in the sky as Lt Herbert Denham ‘Den’ Brotheridge dashed across the bridge, leading the men of 25 Platoon. It was on the far side that he crashed to the ground, caught in a fatal burst of machine-gun fire.

Fowler added:

“Many men would die on D-Day but he was the first. Parr remembered that as he reached the café someone shouted, ‘Where’s Denny?’, and as he looked around he saw someone lying in the middle of the road.

“‘I looked at him and went to run on but stopped dead, came back and knelt down. It was Lt Brotheridge. I just knelt down beside him. His eyes were open and his lips were moving.

“‘I just looked at him. I couldn’t hear what it was. I put my hand behind his head to lift him up; his eyes rolled back – he just choked and lay back. I took my hand away; he had got one right in the back of the neck. My hand was covered in blood. “My God!” I thought, “What a waste.” I don’t know if it was the bloke himself or all the years of training he had put into the job. It had only lasted twenty or thirty seconds and he was dead.’”

In the hours after the action at Pegasus Bridge, and in significance of him being the first of thousands to die that day on all sides, Lt Brotherton’s body was buried in the local cemetery at Ranville, where it remains to this day separate from the main Commonwealth War Graves site elsewhere in the region.

9. Major Howard’s Men Drank Champagne After Capturing The Bridges

The Café Gondrée family had taken the decision to stow away the good stuff at the start of occupation, fearing that German soldiers would likely drink it all.

But in the hours following the capture of the two bridges, Monsieur Gondrée realised that for him and his family, the occupation was over ... and he was right.

To celebrate this, he thought it appropriate to dust off the hidden-away Champagne from the cellar and share it with Howard’s men.

To this day, the daughter of Monsieur and Madame Gondrée, Arlette, who was five on the night of the Pegasus Bridge operation, still serves visiting D-Day veterans glasses of Champagne at annual memorial at the bridge.

Another interesting fact about Café Gondrée is that in the days following Operation Deadstick, it was used as a Company clearing post.

Mme Gondrée, who had trained as a nurse in her younger years, even worked alongside the RAMC surgeon, Captain Vaughan, as he operated on injured soldiers, some of whom died on top of the café tables while being treated. 

10. There Is A Link Between Operation Deadstick And The Falklands War

In the hours following the capture of both bridges by the men of D Company, the Germans mounted a number of counter attack operations, all of which were unsuccessful.

The counter attacks even involved a diving German bomber trying to take out one of the bridges.

The bomb failed to detonate and bounced off the road and into the canal. A moment of luck for the Allies.

Another counter-action came at 9am when a party of German soldiers approached the Bénouville Bridge via gunboat.

Observing the boat and its 20mm gun, the men holding the bridge decided upon bringing to bear the only anti-tank weapon the company had left, a PIAT.

The event was witnessed by Pte Clarke, which he described over half a century later to Will Fowler for Pegasus Bridge:

“'Much to my amazement,’ recalled Clark, ‘he hit the boat just behind the wheelhouse. It turned and headed for the bank. Knowing the boat would cover us from snipers, I moved forward and took two prisoners.’”

This action marked the final time British soldiers would use an anti-tank weapon while engaging an enemy ship until 1982, when Royal Marines fired on an Argentine vessel at South Georgia using 66mm LAW rockets.

D-Day Battle of Normandy
Men of 2 Ox and Bucks Light Infantry storm the Caen Canal Bridge, later renamed 'Pegasus Bridge' (image from 'D-Day 1944 (3)' by Ken Ford © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

11. A Bagpiper Appeared Through A Nearby Treeline

At 1.30pm, a little over 12 hours after Major John Howard’s men captured the bridges over the Caen Waterways, the relief force of the Commandos reached the men of D Company.

The approaching Commandos had earlier that morning landed at Sword beach and fought their way to the bridges.

Leading those men was Lord Lovat, the commander of the 1st Special Service Brigade, and with him was a bagpiper. The piper was called Bill Millin, and he played ‘Blue Bonnets Over The Boarder.’

Lovat decided this would be a suitable way to signify to Howard that they were friendly forces, arriving to relieve him and his men, having found it difficult to reach local commanders on the ground over the radios that were heavily filled with on-air traffic.

Over the course of the morning, Howard’s men had captured the objective, held on to it, taken a number of prisoners, destroyed a tank, fought off several counter attacks, dodged a falling German bomb and had endured deadly sniper fire which as the handover to the Commandos commenced, was still bearing down heavily on the men.

The Germans never came close to recapturing the bridge, and in the days and weeks after the operation, they were driven further and further back through France.

But the start of all that fighting, and steady recapturing of the occupied continent, began with the superb capturing of the bridges at Bénouville and Ranville by the elite men of D Company, 2nd Ox and Bucks.

For more on Operation Deadstick, read 'Pegasus Bridge, Bénouville D-Day 1944' by Will Fowler, and read 'D-Day 1944 (3): Sword Beach and the British Airborne Landings' by Ken Ford for more on how the operation fit into the D-Day actions around Sword Beach. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Glider illustration courtesy of Airfix.

Airfix is a registered trademark of Hornby Hobbies Ltd and use of the illustration in this article has been kindly permitted by Hornby Hobbies Ltd © 2018.