As you stand there looking at it, as I did in June 2010, it is difficult to grasp the fact that for a brief period in time, it was the most important man-made structure in the world. A tiny drawbridge that spanned a narrow body of water in France. One that was subject to a quick and furious battle that began the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944.
Benouville (later Pegasus) bridge over the Caen Canal, and Ranville (later Horsa) bridge, some 400 yards away over the river Orne, received keen interest from Allied planners early on in the planning for Operation Overlord. An attention less because of location and more for their ability to transfer the one thing that might ensure disaster on that momentous day. The German Panzer force.
If enough tanks rumbled across these bridges, they held the ability to decimate the entire eastern flank of the three British and Canadian landing beaches and sweep the infantry, who in the critical first hours would lack armor, back into the sea. If such a disaster occurred, the American beaches could be isolated and rolled up as well.
Therefore, the bridges had to be taken, and held, for several hours until relief came, first from more paratroopers, then from the beaches. The task appeared daunting, but there was no other choice. Operation Tonga, as it was designated, would involve the first action of the massive Allied armies waiting to be released against the continent.
Assigned to the task of taking both bridges were Major John Howard, along with his second in command, Captain Brian Priday and a reinforced company of the 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire (Ox and Bucks) paratroopers of the 5th Para Brigade. These 150 men (6 Platoons), were tasked to seize both bridges and fight off German counterattacks with what they could carry on their backs, and nothing more.
Training commenced months before the operation, with regular reconnaissance flights over the area to keep the Paras alert to any changes in activity. Howard and his men attacked mockups time and again until they knew each intricate detail of the bridges, trench layouts beside them, and gun emplacements. Plus, they studied the obvious placement points of explosives on the bridges , which the Germans were certain to have done, to prevent such an attack. They knew this made the first moments of action the most critical, as men needed to dangle under the structure exposed to enemy fire to remove them.
As for German forces, intelligence revealed a garrison of 50 men, a couple of pillboxes and an anti-tank gun stationed at Benouville bridge, while two open machine gun nests and a pillbox guarded the Ranville bridge, with concertina wire curling around the perimeters of both bridges.
Since surprise remained paramount, Howard’s men would not undertake this mission as paratroopers, but as glider infantry, with their mounts, the plywood Horsa chosen to deliver them to the objectives swift and silent, disgorging them en masse yards from the objectives. A tall order considering it would be at night, and the only navigation available was moonlight reflecting off terrain features such as the canal and river.
Before midnight on the 5th, Howard and his men donned their camouflage smocks and blackened their faces, made final checks of weapons and equipment, boarded their six gliders and listened as the tow planes started engines, pulled the tow cables taught and began taxiing to launch.
Once airborne, the men made little conversation, instead thinking through their assignments as the gliders winged over the channel toward Normandy, now being subjected to aerial bombardment. Searchlights fingered the sky off in the distance amid flak bursts and bomb bursts around the city of Caen, which was the largest city in the region, and more worrying, the residence for the 21st Panzer division, just a few minutes drive from the bridges.
Tow cables released and the drone of aircraft faded quickly, silence enveloping the gliders’ interior. Eyes scanned for moonbeams shimmering upon water. They found them, the release point was dead on and the pilots began a shallow diving turn through 180 degrees. three gliders headed for Benouville, and two for Ranville, their silhouettes resembling giant hawks homing for their prey.
They passed below 100mph, the ground rising fast. In the lead glider were Howard and an assault element under Lieutenant Den Brotheridge. Their pilot Jimmy Wallwork performed what was later called ‘one of the most outstanding flying achievements of the entire war’ when he brought his glider down at 80 mph beside the canal, heard its landing gear shearing off, sparks flying and a slam to sudden stop which knocked most onboard unconscious. The 2 other gliders came in and landed perfectly behind them as if placed there by hand.
In seconds, onboard the three, men roused from their confusion. As Howard later recorded: “The dazed silence did not seem to last long because we all came to our senses together on realizing there was no firing. No firing! It seemed quite unbelievable…”
Men began pouring from the craft, spilling into and around the trenchline, racing for the bridge an incredible 47 yards away.
Paras dumped grenades into the pillboxes as Brotheridge led them across the bridge, shouting their platoon signal “Able! Able! and firing all the way as the pillboxes exploded. They shot down startled sentries while others fled into the night. Other Germans got off a few shots and dropped a para before falling themselves under a hail of bullets.
Someone stooped to see who it was. His stunned look revealed the casualty…Brotheridge. He was later dragged away from the charge which continued unabated down the road. After setting him down the orderlies struggled to revive him. It was too late. Brotheridge became the first Allied death of D-Day.
Paras tasked with clearing the bridge of planted explosives hung on the under sides feeling for the charges. They returned to Howard with startling news. There were none. Further search revealed the demolitions stored in a steel container nearby.
Firing subsided after a few minutes and Howard took stock of the situation. They suffered two dead but secured the bridge intact. At that moment, his men began setting up positions to prepare for the expected counterattack. He deemed the situation satisfactory enough, though, to order broadcast of the codeword for success. ‘Ham.’
Simultaneously, as Howard’s Paras battled at the canal bridge, two gliders under Captain Brian Priday descended to land a few hundred yards away from the Ranville bridge. Men poured from their aircraft, except Priday was not among them. His glider had landed miles away at another bridge due to a tow plane’s navigation error.
Now, it was up to lieutenant Dennis Fox to assault the bridge. He moved in with his element and charged like Brotheridge, yelling the platoon name ‘Fox! Fox!’ only to see sentries scurry away without firing a shot. A machine gun emplacement opened up, breaking up the rush. Paras dove for cover as one of their own fired his light mortar and planted a round square on the threat, disintegrating it in a flash.
They found all other enemy positions empty as they scoured the bridge for the explosives. None were found until later, stored in a nearby house used as a billet. Ranville fell. The codeword ‘Jam’ was sent, and soon, ‘Ham and Jam’ sounded over the airwaves back to Britain.
Both objectives now belonged to the British. All of it had been done in less than 10 minutes.
In the next phase of Operation Tonga, a couple of miles away hundreds of 5th Brigade reinforcements blanketed the sky in their parachutes, guided by pathfinder lights emplaced on the ground. They formed up and moved for the two bridges, arriving 90 minutes later with only 700 of the 2,200 reinforcements due to transport pilots navigation errors and high winds, which Howard realized had scattered them over a wide area.
700 men would have to do.
As hours crept toward dawn, a series of individual actions played out. One, the German commander of the garrison responsible for the bridges was ambushed as he raced back in a staff car from his girlfriend’s house. His driver was killed and he was wounded, becoming a nuisance to the Brits as he raved about how they would be defeated by the ‘Master race, soon’. A shot of morphine shut him up.
Another more pressing issue appeared in the form of a lone Panzer coming up the road near Benouville bridge. Several PIAT guns had been brought along by Howard. PIAT guns (Projector Infantry Anti Tank) were a spring loaded spigot launcher that lobbed small mortar like bombs out to 60 meters. Unfortunately, all except one PIAT gun remained unusable due to damage sustained during the landings.
With a paratrooper’s greatest fear coming toward them, it fell to Sergeant ‘Wagger’ Thornton to deliver the killing blow.
He set up of the side of the rode hearing the squeak of the treads approaching in the darkness. He had but two bombs to fire. In reality, he knew it would be one, because of the time the PIAT needed to set up a second shot. It was now or nothing, and as he saw the vehicle’s silhouette begin to outline and grow he waited until the last possible second and fired.
The bomb launched and struck home in a mighty flash of sparks and flame. The vehicle stopped and continued burning brighter, ever fiercer, illuminating the area for several minutes, and staying motionless in the middle of the road blocking further traffic.
More attempts, though not with armor, came as night gave birth to day. Yet every action by the Germans to dislodge the British fell short. Reinforcements from lost units kept trickling in, and soon the naval armada began arriving offshore.
In a few hours, Howard and his men became part of history as a column of infantry from the beaches marched toward them. They had done it. In those critical hours on which the fate of the free world hinged, the Ox and Bucks held until relieved.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Wikipedia)