At exactly 1214 BST (British Standard Time, 7:15 pm EDT) on Tuesday 6 June 1944, six Halifax bombers cut tow lines for six gliders full of British paratroopers as part of Operation Deadstick to seize bridges over the Orne River and the Caen Canal outside the town of Bénouville in Normandy. The capture and successful defense of the two bridges would prevent any German counterattacks into the eastern flank of the vulnerable beachheads and force any German reinforcements to cross upstream at Caen and travel six miles out of their way.
The night was dark and glider pilots were flying blind, strictly by altimeter, airspeed and stopwatch. They had to put Major Jon Howard’s 181 man assault force as close as possible to the bridges without killing them. This was a tough task in a plywood Horsa glider with a penchant for breaking up on impact and known to the men as “Hearses”. This was particularly true of Horsas that carried equipment: a direct impact more than likely caused the equipment to become unstrapped and fly forward. If that happened, the lucky pilots were just tossed through the windshield, most were crushed.
Howard’s needed his pilots to put his men as close as possible no matter the danger because surprise was paramount. He needed to seize the bridges intact. A destroyed bridge would also prevent the Germans from crossing, but it would also prevent the Allies from crossing in the inevitable drive further into France. In addition to his reinforced company of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire (“Ox and Bucks”) Light Infantry, he had 20 Royal Engineer sappers to clear demolitions from the two bridges. Howard’s mission was so critical that it was the first of the invasion after the pathfinders, and a full hour earlier than the rest of the 6th Airborne Division, whose patch was a winged Pegasus.
At 1216, the Horsa gliders crash landed at 90 miles per hour and stopped near their objectives, five of the six next to the bridges. Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, Howard’s pilot expertly penetrated the wire surrounding the bridge but the landing was so hard, it knocked everyone out, and sent him and his copilot through the windshield still in their seats. The second glider also broke apart, and knocked out most of men. However, the pilot SSgt Oliver Bland was awake and coherent. He started kicking the paratroopers awake and when one complained he was wounded said, “Piss off. We’re here. Now do what you’re paid to do.”
Surprise was complete. The third and fourth gliders landed without issue. However the fifth landed in a pond and one soldier L-Cpl Fred Greenhalgh was thrown out of the glider, knocked unconscious and drowned before he was found. Greenhalgh was the first casualty of Operation Overlord. The rest of the men poured out and stormed the bridge after destroying a German machinegun with a direct mortar hit.
The operation went quickly once the men were out of the gliders. The fifty defenders were mostly Polish, Russian, and French prisoners who were given a choice to either join the Wehrmacht or get sent to a concentration camp. Some of the conscripts even attempted to surrender to still unconscious paratroopers in gliders that landed on top of them. Only the German officer and NCOs fought back. By 1219, the Orne River Bridge was secured without firing a shot and the Caen Canal Bridge was being overwhelmed. Howard’s only other casualty in the initial operation was Lt Den Brotheridge who was shot leading the final assault across the Caen Canal Bridge. At 1226, the sapper reported the bridges were secure, and Howard ordered the success code words “Ham” and “Jam” broadcast until they were received, which only happened an hour later.
Howard’s task wasn’t complete. He had to hold the bridges until he was relived, and he had no idea when that would happen. The first German counterattack came an hour later in the form of two Mark IV tanks attached to a platoon of infantry from a panzergrenadier battalion of the 21st Panzer Division, the only panzer division engaged on D-Day. The Ox and Bucks did not have any anti-tank weapons except one cumbersome PIAT launcher and three rounds. Fortunately, the first round struck the ammunition rack of the lead tank and it exploded for several hours, blocking the intersection. The Germans assumed there were 6lb anti-tank guns and a battalion of infantry guarding the bridges, not 179 men with few heavy weapons. The delay for more men and tanks probably saved the bridgehead.
Reinforcement for Howard came at about 0200 with 200 men of the 7th Parachute Battalion (including Richard Todd, who would play Howard in the movie The Longest Day), the rest were scattered over Normandy along with Howard’s missing glider. German Panzergrenadier counterattacks started in earnest at 0300. They captured Bénouville but failed to cross the bridges. Nonetheless, Howard’s positions were exposed to mortar and machinegun fire and limited only by the amount of ammunition the Germans had with them. Dawn brought a new threat, snipers, which made movement impossible in the small perimeter. The Germans attacked with two gunboats coming up the canal form Ouisterham. One was destroyed with the PIAT and the other withdrew. The Luftwaffe even made a rare appearance, dropping a bomb on the canal bridge which failed to explode.
By the afternoon, three of Howard’s platoons were led by corporals and there seemed no end to the Germans. In a desperate attempt to gain some breathing room he led a counterattack to clear the Germans from Bénouville which was largely successful. A newly found crate of Gammond bombs no doubt the trigger for the assault. Just after midday, the Germans launched a coordinated attack of almost entire panzer grenadier regiments, but they were spotted enroute and broken up by Allied air attacks and artillery from Juno and Sword Beaches.
At 1330, Howard’s men heard the distinct sound of bagpipes. They were from Billi Millin, Lord Loat’s personal piper who arrived with the lead elements of the 1st Commando Brigade, with a few tanks gathered along the way. The Orne River bridgehead was the furthest British penetration on 6 June.
The Caen Canal Bridge, renamed Pegasus Bridge, and the Orne River Bridge also renamed but to Horsa Bridge, remained in Allied hands for the rest of the Normandy campaign.