Pegasus Bridge – D-Day – June 6th 1944
The bridge of Benouville, known as Pegasus Bridge – Euston I
Location: Bénouville, Wn 13
Schedule: 00:25 – D-Day
British gliders serials
The order of mission, signed by General Gale commanding the 6th Airborne Division, was to “capture intact the two bridges of the Orne and the canal of Caen, Bénouville and Ranville … The capture of these two bridges, which will be known as operation Deadstick, is based essentially on the surprise effect, the mission execution speed and the determination to overcome. Counter-attack will be expected and we will have to hold our positions until the arrival of the changing troops“.
The aim of this mission is to secure the left flank of the invasion since there is only one crossing point over the Orne river and the Caen canal, located between the localities of Ranville and Bénouville: these two towns naturally became the main objectives of the 6th British Airborne Division.
Probably no commando operation has been more thoroughly prepared: two virtually identical bridges in England were used to train a hundred or so soldiers, all volunteers under the command of Major John Howard. This training, repeated many times, was according to Major Howard one of the most difficult of the British army. Jim Wallwork, one of the pilots of the three Horsa gliders who were take part in the assault (each transporting about 29 soldiers with their equipment), said: “We carried out many landing exercises, some in normal day conditions, others also in daytime but with tinted windows, and finally night workouts.
The bridge of Bénouville was coded “Euston I”. In the night of 4 to 5 June 1944, 24 hours before the general assault, nine paratroopers were dropped near the landing zones coded X” and “Y”. They were responsible for contacting the local resistance of which one of the members was holding a coffee in Bénouville, Louis Picot.
Conduct of the assault
Operation Deadstick, part of the operation Tonga, began on June 5, 1944 with the Halifax bombers taking off towing the six Horsa gliders starting at 22:56. Glider troops, led by Major John Howard, set off in the night and broke their trailer over Cabourg at a height of 6,000 feet. They arrived in the area of the objective in the early hours of June 6, 1944, shortly after midnight.
The descent of the gliders was rapid and the absence of pressurization caused an important discomfort for the airborne soldiers who were forced to blow through the nose while closing their nostrils with the hand to fight against this phenomenon.
The three gliders charged with the bridge of Bénouville – codenamed “Pegasus Bridge” because of the nickname of the 6th division: Pegasus – landed less than 50 meters from the bridge. Surprise was total. The bombers which towed the gliders, evidently making noise, were spotted by German sentinels long before the gliders landed, but the Wehrmacht infantrymen did not know that the allied aircraft towed gliders. To disguise the operation, engine-powered planes bombarded a cement factory some kilometers south of the objectives of the 6th British Airborne Division. Thus, the Germans thought that the planes were flying over the sector only to bombard the cement factory. The young sentinel of Slavic origin, barely 17 years old, heard a strange and dull sound a few dozen meters to the east of the bridge. This soldier said to himself: “It must be one of the bombers that crashed near the bridge, shot down by the anti-aircraft artillery“.
The soldier thus remaind a few minutes to look in the dark night towards what he believed to be the wreckage of a bomber, thinking that perhaps one of the pilots would have survived. But nothing moved. British soldiers then emerged from the gliders and after a slight wait, infiltrated the blockhouses, protecting the accesses to the bridge, without making a noise and killedthe few German soldiers asleep.
In one of the subterranean bunkers where the few German infantrymen slept, some awaken because of strange noises. And when one of them left his dormitory to join the access corridor illuminated by the dim light of the blisters, he discoverd enemy soldiers, crouching, slowly advancing in his direction. The British commandos had no choice but to use their submachine guns Sten.
Flares were thrown, panic among the Germans was complete. They started shooting in all directions while the British crosed the bridge, covered with smoke grenades. They fired phosphorous grenades into machine gun nests which exploded almost immediately. The British picked up the bridge’s firing machine from one of the underground bunkers and put it under cover – the Germans never wanted to use it to destroy the bridge. Their duty was to protect it. The bridge did not risk anything!
Bénouville bridge – Euston I – was stormed in 10 minutes but Lieutenant Brotheridge, section leader of the 1st section, was killed. Ranville bridge – Euston II – was taken as quickly by the crews of two gliders, landing 150 meters from their objective. The third landed at twelve kilometers from the LZ in the Bois de Bavent.
The message of victory “Ham and Jam” (“ham” indicating that the British glidermen seized both bridges and “Jam” that both bridges were intact) was immediately sent to the allied ships after the assault via a traveling pigeon.
Major John Howard blew for long seconds in his whistle to inform all Allied soldiers in the area of his men’s success: on drop zone “N”, north of Ranville, General Nigel Poett commanding the 5th Para Brigade heared the sound of the whistle shortly after reaching French soil.
For Major Howard and his men, a long night began.
First liberated house from mainland France?
Several German motorized units were stationed in the surrounding villages. Having heard explosions and shots (and alerted by the presence of allied paratroopers announced in the different headquarters in Normandy), the Germans came to inspect the surroundings but never approached the bridge: indeed, they knew that a training with blank cartridges was organized the same night for the men in charge of the defense of the bridge. They confused the shooting with a training. Only a light armored vehicle took the road to Bénouville and presented itself before the British paratroopers, who destroyed it with the only PIAT (Projectil Infantry Anti Tank) in their possession. But, strangely, no other armored vehicle came to disturb them during the rest of the night.
The civilians, too, had mostly been informed that an exercise was organized by the Germans around the bridge. The theme was: defense of the bridge against an enemy parachutist commando. But this exercise had been canceled a few hours earlier.
Maurice Chauvet, veteran of the 1st Free France Navy Commando (1er Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commando) remembered: “Louis Picot, local resistant, owned one of the cafes closest to the bridge and called “La Chaumine” (today “Les 3 planeurs” restaurant). He went out to know the reasons for these shots a few meters from his house. The Norman collapses, dead, shot down by a German “. British airborne soldiers rushed into La Chaumine cafe and quickly checked the premises before continuing their mission.
Thus, contrary to what is often thought, the first mainland French liberated house was La Chaumine cafe, whereas the opposite Gondrée house had only opened its shutters and its door only several hours later (a factconfirmed in the book “Commandos du Pont Pegase” written by historian Norbert Hugedé).
At daybreak, the 6th Airborne heard the aerial and naval bombardment of the landing beaches and awaited with impatience the arrival of the commandos. All night and during the morning, the Germans tested the British defense positions around the bridges of Bénouville and Ranville, attacking the points of resistance with mortars. The men of Major Howard had little heavy equipment and the casualties were more and more numerous. Shortly after 10 am, when several British parachutists who had lost their way in the area rallied to Howard’s position, three German VP Boot gunboats fleeing the landing at Ouistreham to join Caen came face to face with the bridge: almost without hesitation, Major Howard and his men opened fire with all available ammunition: the first gunboat exploded and sank immediately. The second, hit by a P.I.A.T., ran aground on the shore a few hundred meters away (right bank) and his crew was taken prisoner, while the third managed to turn back to Ouistreham.
Then the Germans decided to destroy the bridge of Bénouville by an air attack. A Junker 88 managed to drop his bomb with precision on the bridge without exploding: it felt into the river.
Junction with amphibious troops
The French commandos arrived from Sword Beach in the morning, accompanied by British soldiers of the 1st Special Service Brigade commanded by Lord Lovat – the latter accompanied by the famous bagpiper Bill Millin. The junction was carried out at 13 hours 32 minutes with Howard’s men by having 2 minutes 30 seconds behind the scheduled schedule, which Lovat took the trouble to apologize.
As he crossed the bridge where smoke grenades were sent, radio Mullen, a member of Commando Kieffer who landed at Sword in the morning, heard a ricochet just behind him on the structure of the bridge. When he turnd around, he saw a wounded friend within the smoke (this soldier died a few moments later as a result of this wound), shot down by a German sniper. While trying to help him, he was shot down as well. His brothers-in-arms, notably Maurice Chauvet, wished to place a commemorative plaque on the Pegase Bridge, which can currently been seen in the Pegasus Bridge Memorial Museum in Ranville.
Assessment of the assault
Operation Deadstick, with the objectives Euston I (Bénouville) and Euston II (Ranville), was a total success.
Two airborne soldiers, including one officer, died during the assault on the two bridges. 14 others were injured. The mission was filled for Howard who had joined the amphibious troops and entrusted the protection of his objectives to the Warwickshire regiment. They then left the position to reach the town of Escoville.
It is an attack that seems “perfect” but which benefited from a miraculous chance. Indeed, if the operation is a total success, it is thanks to a series of unpredictable circumstances (the famous fog of war by von Clausewitz) that all played in favor of the British. The successful assault of this bridge offered the Allies a key control point to protect the left flank of their bridgehead against possible German attacks.