Horsa Bridge – D-Day – June 6th, 1944
The bridge of Ranville (renamed Horsa Bridge) on the Orne river, before 1944.
Location: Ranville, Orne river
Schedule: 00:25 – D-Day
Composition of British gliders
Allied unit: D Co 2nd Ox & Bucks German unit : 716. Infanterie Division
Flights and transport plan
The order of mission, signed by General Gale commanding the 6th Airborne Division, was to “take intact the two bridges of the Orne and the Caen Canal, Bénouville and Ranville … The taking of these two bridges , which will be the “Deadstick” operation, is essentially based on the effect of surprise, the speed of execution and the determination to overcome.We will expect a counterattack and hold until the next generation “.
The purpose of this mission is that by seizing these bridges, the eastern flank of the invasion is protected because there is only one crossing point to cross the Orne and the Canal de Caen and that- it is located between the localities of Ranville and Bénouville: these two communes naturally become the main objectives of the 6th British Airborne Division.
Never, probably, has a commando operation been more elaborately prepared: two nearly identical bridges in England are used to train a hundred or so all-volunteer soldiers under the command of Major (Commander) John Howard. This training, repeated many times, is according to Major Howard one of the most difficult of the British army. Jim Wallwork, one of the three Horsa glider pilots taking part in the assault, carrying about 29 soldiers with their equipment, says: “We had done many landing exercises, some in normal daytime, daytime conditions. always but with the tinted windows, and finally during the night “.
The catch of the two bridges is coded “Euston I” for the bridge of Bénouville and “Euston II” for that of Ranville. The latter, located 400 meters east of Bénouville, is a swing bridge allowing it to cross ships on the Orne River.
Conduct of the Euston II attack
Operation Deadstick, part of Operation Tonga, began on June 5, 1944 with the launch of the Halifax bombers towing the six Horsa gliders from 10:56 pm. The gliders, under the command of Major John Howard, were heading into the night. and break their trailer over Cabourg at a height of 6,000 feet. The arrival on zone of the objective is carried out in the first hours of June 6, 1944, around 00 hours 16.
The descent of the gliders is fast and the absence of pressurization causes a great embarrassment for the airborne soldiers who are forced to blow through the nose while plugging their nostrils with the hand to fight against this phenomenon.
Three Horsa are responsible for the Bénouville bridge (coded Euston I and nicknamed “Pegasus Bridge”, the “Pegasus Bridge”) and land less than 50 meters from the bridge, with Howard on board.
Three other gliders take the direction of the bridge of Ranville, coded Euston II. They must land on the coded landing zone “Y”, located along the arm of land between the Orne and the Orne canal. Only one Horsa glider, number 6 (Chalk No 96), is in the immediate vicinity of Euston II, the one in which Lieutenant Dennis Fox’s No 17 Platoon is. Once disembarked, airlifted soldiers storm the bridge while fighting is already taking place on that of Bénouville: the German sentries, alerted by the sound of automatic weapons, are ready to defend their position which is equipped only with a machine gun.
Lieutenant Fox’s platoon prepares to assault while light mortars sit down. When airlifted soldiers rushed to the Ranville Bridge, the Germans fired several salvos at the British, but without success. The mortars are immediately put in action and flee the defenders: the British seize the machine gun and use against the last Germans who flee in their turn. The fighting stops immediately.
The Horsa glider number 5 (Chalk No 95) carrying No. 23 Platoon of Lieutenant “Tod” Sweeney landed 1.5 kilometers north of the Ranville Bridge. The section is quickly moving towards its goal and the men of Sweeney are also preparing to go on the attack, not knowing if the bridge has already fallen into the hands of the airlifted company. The assault is launched but stops as quickly as it began when the soldiers recognize Lieutenant Fox standing in front of them.
A message is sent to Bénouville to report to Major Howard that the Ranville Bridge is under control, taken in less than ten minutes. The message of victory “Ham and Jam” (in French “ham and jam”: “ham” indicating that the British have been masters of the place and “Jam” that the two bridges are intact) is immediately sent to allied boats by through a traveling pigeon. John Howard blows for long seconds in his whistle, to inform all Allied soldiers in the area of success of his men: on the coded jump area “N” north of Ranville, General Nigel Poett commanding the 5th Para Brigade hears the sound of the whistle shortly after landing, which gives him a smile. In contrast, a bad sentence Howard: the third glider Horsa is meanwhile simply missing.
The destiny of the glider No.4
Glider No. 4 (Chalk No 94) crashed ten kilometers north-east of the planned landing area near Varaville. The pilot and his deputy (respectively Staff Sergeant Lawrence and Staff Sergeant Shroter) have confused in the dark the canal of Caen and the Orne with the rivers also parallel of the Divette and the Dives: they land close to a bridge over La Divette that Lieutenant Hooper and his No. 22 Platoon storm, imagining it to be their goal. Realizing their mistake, they progress towards Ranville where they meet several German patrols on the way. They try as much as possible to avoid them so as not to be delayed, but the airlifted soldiers are stopped several times.
It was during one of these encounters that Lieutenant Hooper was taken prisoner for a time until his release by the armed intervention of Captain Priday, also boarded glider number 4. They continued their journey in at night, looking for their company…
The long night of the 6th Airborne
In the hours that followed, German patrols were more and more pressing in the Bénouville sector, as Major Howard foresaw. He decided to reinforce this area by placing Lieutenant Fox’s No 17 Platoon, leaving Lieutenant Sweeney’s No 23 Platoon alone in charge of the Ranville Bridge for the entire night following the attack.
Many British paratroopers, lost in the vicinity of Ranville, are guided by the sound of small arms infantry towards the bridges over the Orne and the Orne Canal. Dozens of them reinforce the position of company D of the 2nd Ox & Bucks until the morning of D-Day, before being able to find their unit.
Shortly after 1:30 pm, British and French commandos landed on Sword Beach a few hours earlier, joining the airlifted soldiers stationed on the two bridges. For Major Howard’s men, the mission is entirely successful. The next day, June 7, 1944, Lieutenant Hooper and survivors of glider No. 4 managed to find their unit in the area of Ranville, after being isolated for 24 hours in hostile territory.
On the morning of June 7th, company D of 2nd Ox & Bucks carries out a reconnaissance of the locality of Escoville under the fire of several German self-propelled guns belonging to Kampfgruppe von Luck. It was during this engagement that Lieutenant Hooper was wounded by the firing of an MG-42 enemy machine gun. The English fall back to Hérouvillette where they will remain for several weeks.
The posterity of Horsa Bridge
While the English baptize the bridge of Bénouville “Pegasus Bridge” and that the Hollywood cinema makes it pass to the posterity by immortalizing it in the film “the longest day”, that of Ranville does not benefit from the same honors and its history gradually falls into oblivion. After the war, it was finally named “Horsa Bridge” in honor of gliders made in Britain and used during Operation Deadstick.
The original bridge is removed and changed in 1971, although elements of the structure are still reused. In 1984, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the liberation, the Mayor of Ranville had a commemorative plaque erected at the west end of the bridge, in memory of glider pilots and sections of Lieutenants Fox and Sweeney so that they would not are never forgotten.