D-Day minus one year to D-Day minus one month
By the spring of 1943, the British airborne force had become large enough to be divided into two divisions. The 1st Airborne went off to North Africa while the 6th (the number was chosen to confuse German intelligence) was formed around the units that stayed behind, including the Ox and Bucks and D Company.
General Richard Gale, known to everyone as 'Windy' because of his last name, commanded 6th Airborne Division. A large, confident, experienced officer who had commanded the 1st Para Brigade, Gale had a bit of the buccaneer about him, and more than a bit of imagination to complement his professionalism.
Nigel Poett commanded the 5th Para Brigade. He was a regular officer from the Durham Light Infantry. A big, powerful man, Poett was meticulous on detail and an officer who led from the front. The 3rd Para Brigade was commanded by James Hill, a regular from the Royal Fusiliers who had won a DSO in North Africa. D Company was a part of the Airland-ing Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Hugh Kindersley. ---  After the war Kindersley became chairman of Rolls-Royce and was made a peer.
Training intensified under Gale's prodding, but there were few complaints because the word was that the division was being prepared for the invasion of France. Gale, through his training exercises, was trying to figure out what the division was capable of performing, while simultaneously trying to figure out exactly how he would use it to achieve his D-Day objectives.
At COSSAC (Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Command), planning for Gale's role, and for the invasion as a whole, had been going on for a year, under the direction of General Frederick Morgan. By the spring of 1943, Morgan and his planners had settled on Normandy, west of the mouth of the Orne River, as the invasion site. A variety of factors influenced the choice; the one that affected D Company and the 6th Airborne Division was the need to protect the left flank of the seaborne invasion, where the British 3rd Division would be landing on Sword Beach. That left flank was the single most vulnerable point in the whole invasion, because to the east, beyond Le Havre and the mouth of the Seine River, the Germans had the bulk of their armour in the West. If Rommel brought that armour across the Seine, crossed the River Dives and the Orne River, then launched an all-out counter-attack against the exposed flank of 3rd Division, he might well roll up the entire invading force, division by division. It would take days for the Allies to unload enough tanks and artillery of their own to withstand such a blow.
Morgan and his people decided to meet the threat by placing the 6th Airborne between the Orne waterways and the River Dives. There were many changes in the COSSAC plan after January, 1944, when Eisenhower took over SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force) and Montgomery took over at 21st: Army Group, which commanded all the ground forces; the most important change was the widening of the assault area from three to five divisions. But one COSSAC decision that remained unchanged was the one that placed 6th Airborne on its own, east of the Orne River, with the task of holding off armoured counter attacks. How to do it was left to General Gale.
D Company had begun its flight training in little Waco gliders. To begin with Howard concentrated on exit drill. The door was open before the glider touched down and it was 'move, move, move' when the glider hit the ground. Again and again Howard reminded the men that they were 'rats-in-a-trap' so long as they were inside.
The chief novelty of flying in a glider was one Howard could not get over. As General Sir Napier Crookenden wrote in Dropzone Normandy: 'Since the glider on the end of its tug-rope moved in a series of surges as the tug-rope tightened and slackened, and was subject to the normal pitching, rolling and yawing of any aircraft, few men survived more than half an hour without being sick. The floor was soon awash with vomit, and this in itself was enough to defeat the strongest stomach.' Howard could not get away from being sick; he threw up on all twelve of his training flights. Fortunately for him, this was not like being seasick, with its long recovery time. After being sick on a glider flight, Howard was fit and ready as soon as his feet hit the ground.
Howard's sickness gave the men a great laugh, something the company badly needed as it was in danger of going stale. Wally Parr described morale in late 1943, when the Yanks began appearing:
'Then in came the big spending Americans at Tidworth and the fights that used to take place in Salisbury was nobody's business, 'cause from Tidworth you had to go through Bulford by transport to get to Salisbury, and they were stationed, thousands of them, mountains of planes at Tidworth there and there was sheer frustration all the time, you know, and it was nothing unusual to go in Saturday night, you've got a couple of bob in your pocket, a couple of beers and then, of course, the fights usually started. In the majority of cases the birds went with the Yanks, 'cause the Yanks' had more money and could show them a good time.'
In barracks, there were worse fights, as Parr relates:
'We would be sleeping, midnight, and all of a sudden the door burst open and in would come a load of screaming maniacs from Sweeney's platoon, throw the beds up in the air, the whole lot. I'm talking about "thunder-flashes" that we used to use for exercises and that, just throwing them about the place, left, right, smoke stuff, a lot of it. It was sheer vitality coupled with total frustration.'
Parr, by this time a corporal in charge of the snipers, could not stand the boredom any longer.
'Me and Billy Gray and another fellow was bored one night so we decided, just for the fun of it, we'd go and rob the NAAFI so we waited until it was pretty dark and then we drifted off to sleep and forgot it, then we woke up about five o'clock and thought, ah, Hell, we might as well, so we went over and we broke into the NAAFI and we emptied it of soap, soap powder and everything and came back with it in sackfuls which we spread all over the cobblestones and pavement. A nice rain stirred it up. You've never seen so much soap in all your life. It was bonjour soap, personnel, oxydyl, everything was foam.'
Howard busted Wally back to private and sentenced him to a fortnight in jail; he put Billy Gray and the other man in the jail for twenty-eight days. Howard's colonel, Mike Roberts, wanted to RTU Private Parr, but Howard protested that the punishment was excessive, and in any case told Roberts, 'Parr might only be a private but he is the man that when I get to the other side he will be promoted straightaway, he is a born leader.' Roberts let Howard keep Parr. There were a number of similar cases; Howard called them 'my scallywags' and says, 'when we got to the other side, they were the best. In battle they were in their natural environment. Unfortunately, most of them were killed because of their nature and their way of going about things.' He did re-promote Parr on D-Day plus two.
Howard's solution for boredom was to keep the men physically exhausted, and he drove himself hardest of all. He would go for long periods with only two or three hours of sleep per day, preparing himself for what he anticipated would be a major problem in combat - making quick decisions with an exhausted mind.
Howard also set out, on his own, to make D Company into a first-class night fighting unit. It was not that he had any inkling that he might be landing at night, but rather that he reckoned that once in combat, his troops would be spending a good deal of their time fighting at night. He was also thinking of an expression he had heard was used in the German army: 'The night is the friend of no man.' In the British army, the saying was that 'the German does not like to fight at night'.
The trouble was, neither did the British. (Nor did the Canadians, Americans, or French for that matter.) The Russians and Chinese seemed to be best in this night-fighting business, possibly because while Western men were afraid of the dark, having lived all iheir lives with electricity, Eastern men were accustomed to it. Howard decided to deal with the problem of fighting in unaccustomed darkness by turning night into day. He would rouse the company at 2000 hours, take the men for their run, get them fed, and then begin twelve hours of field exercises, drill, the regular paperwork - everything that a company in training does in the course of a day. After a meal at 1000 hours, he would get them going on the athletic fields. At 1300 hours he sent them to barracks. At 2000 hours, they were up again, running. This would go on for a week at a time at first; by early 1944, said Parr, 'we went several weeks, continuous weeks of night into day and every now and then he would have a change-around week'. And they gradually became accustomed to operating in the dark of night.
None of the ether companies in the division were doing night into day anything like so consistently, and this added to D Company's feeling of independence and separateness. All the sports fanaticism had produced, as Howard hoped that it would, ,\n extreme competitiveness. The men wanted D Company to be first, in everything, and they had indeed won the regimental prizes in boxing, swimming, cross-country, football, and other sports. When Brigadier Kindersley asked to observe a race among the best runners in the brigade, D Company had entered twenty runners and took fifteen of the first twenty places. According to Howard, Kindersley 'was just cock-a-hoop about it'.
That was exactly the response for which Howard and his company had been working so hard. The ultimate competitive-*' ness would come against the Germans, of course, but next best was competing against the other companies. D Company wanted to be first among all the glider-borne companies, not just for the thrill of victory, but because victory in this contest meant a unique opportunity to be a part of history. No one could guess what it might be, but even the lowest private could figure out that the War Office was not going to spend all that money building an elite force and then not use it in the invasion. It was equally obvious that airborne troops would be among the first to engage in combat, almost certainly behind enemy lines -thus an heroic adventure of unimaginable dimensions. And, finally, it was obvious that the best company would play a leading role in the fighting. That was the thought that sustained Howard and his company through the long dreary months, now stretching into two years, of training. The thought sustained them because, whether consciously or subconsciously, to a man they were aware that D-Day would be the greatest day of their lives. Neither what had happened before, nor what would come after, could possibly compare. D Company continued to work at a pace that bordered on fanaticism in order to earn the right to be the first to go.
By spring, 1943, Jim Wallwork had completed his glider pilot training, most of it using Hotspurs; in the process he survived a gruelling course that less than one-third of the volunteers passed. After passing out, Wallwork and his twenty nine fellow pilots went to Brize Norton, an old peacetime aerodrome, 'and that is where we saw our first wheel glider which was the Horsa, and we immediately fell in love with it'.
The Horsa was a product of Britain's total war effort. In 1940, the Air Ministry, responding to the need to conserve critical metals and the need to draw the wood-working industries into war-time production, ordered an all-wooden glider. The prototypes were built at what is now Heathrow Airport; five more were built at Airspeed's Portsmouth works, which went on to build 700 production models. The Horsa must have been the most wooden aircraft ever built; even the controls in the cockpit were masterpieces of the woodworker's artistry. A high wing monoplane with a large plexiglass nose and a tricycle landing gear, it had a wing span of eighty-eight • feet and a fuselage length of sixty-seven feet. It could carry a pilot and a co-pilot, plus 28 fully-armed men, or two jeeps, or a 75mm howitzer, or a quarter-ton truck.
The pilots were immensely impressed by the Horsa, especially by its size. 'It was like a big, black crow', said Wallwork. 'But when we first got in before we ever flew and felt the controls, saw the size of the flaps, we were very impressed, particularly so since we were going to have to fly it.' The seats in the cockpit were side-by-side and very big; visibility through the front and side was excellent. Each pilot had proper dual controls, and the instruments included an air-speed indicator, a turn and bank indicator, air pressure gauge, compass, and altimeter.
'Flying a glider', according to Wallwork, 'is just like flying an aircraft. The instruments and controls are the same; the only thing that is short in the glider is the rev counter and the temperature gauge. Really, flying a glider on tow is just the same as flying an aircraft except that the engine is 100 yards ahead and someone else is in control of the engine.'
The glider was tugged on a rope with a Y arrangement; there was a line on each wing that came together in front of the nose and ran on as a single line to the bomber doing the tugging. A telephone line ran along the rope, making it possible for the pilot of the bomber and the glider pilot to communicate.
By mid-spring, Wallwork had qualified on Horsas, one of the first to do so. He was then shipped down to North Africa.
In March, 1943, Rommel called von Luck to come see him at his headquarters near Benghazi. Von Luck drove up and together they dealt with some of the supply problems. Then Rommel asked von Luck to go for a walk. Rommel regarded von Luck almost as a second son, and he wanted to talk. 'Listen', Rommel said. 'One day you will remember what I am telling you. The war is lost.'
Von Luck protested. 'We are very deep in Russia', he exclaimed. 'We are in Scandinavia, in France, in the Balkans, in North Africa. How can the war be lost?'
'I will tell you', Rommel answered. 'We lost Stalingrad, we will lose Africa, with the body of our best trained armoured people. We can't fight without them. The only thing we can do is to ask for an armistice. We have to give up all this business about the Jews, we have to change our minds about the religions, and so on, and we must get an armistice now at this stage while we still have something to offer.'
Rommel asked von Luck to fly to Hitler's headquarters and plead with the Fuhrer to execute a Dunkirk in reverse. It was all up in North Africa for the Axis, Rommel said, and he wanted to save his Afrika Korps. Von Luck went, but did not get past Field Marshal Jodi, who told von Luck that the Fiihrer was in political discussions with the Rumanians and nobody wanted to butt in with military decisions, 'and anyway', Jodi concluded, 'there's no idea at all to withdraw from North Africa'. Von Luck never returned to Tunisia. Rommel flew out. The Afrika Korps was destroyed or captured.
Von Luck went on to teach at the military academy for six months. Late in the autumn of 1943 he got orders to join the 21st Panzer Division in Brittany as one of the two regimental commanders. He had been specially requested by the division commander, Brigadier-General Edgar Feuchtinger, who was close to Hitler and thus got the officers he wanted. Feuchtinger was reviving 21st Panzer from the dead, but his contact with Hitler made it a feasible task. His officers were exclusively veterans and the troops - almost 16,000 of them, as this was a full strength division - were volunteers, young, eager, fit. The equipment was excellent, especially the tanks. In addition, the new 21st Panzer had an abundance of SPVs (self-propelled vehicles), put together by a Major Becker, a genius with transport who could transform any type of chassis into a SPV. On his SPVs he would mount all sorts of guns, but his favourite was the so-called Stalin organ, or rocket launcher with forty-eight barrels.
Von Luck set to with his regiment, giving the men extended night-training drills among other exercises. When Rommel took command of the German 7th Army in Normandy and Brittany, he injected badly needed enthusiasm and professional skill into the building of the Atlantic Wall.
Even Major Schmidt, guarding the bridges over the Orne waterways, caught some of the enthusiasm. He had come to Normandy some months earlier and quickly adjusted from frantic Nazi to a garrison soldier ready to enjoy the slow pace of the Norman countryside. He had put his men to work digging bunkers and slit trenches, and even an open machine-gun pit; with Rommel's arrival, the pace of construction speeded up, and the scope of the defensive emplacements was greatly increased.
In March, 1944, two reinforcements arrived at the bridge. One was Vern Bonck, who had got caught by the Gestapo in Warsaw, sent to a six-week training camp, where he could hardly understand the German NCOs, and then posted to the 716th Infantry Division on the coast north of Caen. Helmut Romer had finished his Berlin schooling, been drafted, sent to training camp, and then also posted to the 716th.
Heinrich Hickman spent most of 1943 fighting. He got out of North Africa just in time, participated in the campaign in Sicily, then fought at Salerno and Cassino. At Cassino his regiment took such heavy losses that it had to be pulled back to Bologna for rebuilding and training recruits. Through the winter of 1943-4, Hickman and his parachute regiment, like Howard and D Company, like von Luck and 21st Panzer, were training, training, training.
In June, 1943, Jim Wallwork went to Algeria, where he learned to fly the Waco glider, an American-built craft that landed on skids. These carried only thirteen men, were difficult to handle, and were altogether despised by the British Glider Pilots Regiment. The pilots were delighted when they heard that Oliver Boland and some others were going to fly a few Horsas down to North Africa, all the way from England. Wallwork told his American instructors, 'You, you be here tomorrow, you've got to be here to see a proper bloody glider. You'll really see something'. Then, 'by golly, here came the first Halifax and Horsa combination'. Turning to his instructor, Wallwork bellowed, 'Look at that, you bloody Yank, there's a proper aeroplane, a proper glider, that's a proper thing. Oh, the truth of it!'
The Horsa cast off, did a circuit, came down, 'and broke its bloody nose off. Imagine this. It was the first one in. Well, our American friends were delighted about that.'
On the day of the invasion of Sicily, Jim flew a Waco with a lieutenant, ten riflemen, and a hand-trailer full of ammunition. The tug pilots were Americans, flying Dakotas, which had no self-sealing tanks and no armoured plate. Their orders were to avoid flak at all costs. When they approached the coast line and flak began to appear, most of the American pilots cast off their gliders and turned back to sea. As a consequence of being let go too far out, twenty of the twenty-four gliders never made it to shore. Many of the men were drowned, and upon hearing this news, John Howard stepped up his swimming requirements.
In Jim's case, he kept telling the Dakota pilot, 'Get in, get in'. But instead the pilot turned away to sea, made a second run, and told Jim to drop off. Jim refused, seeing that the coast was too far away, and he again yelled, 'Get in, get in'. A third try, a third refusal by Jim to be let go. On the fourth pass, the Dakota pilot said calmly but firmly, 'James, I'm going now. You've got to let go.' Jim let go thinking he could just make it. He did, skidding in just over the beach, on a little rough field, fairly close to an Italian machine-gun nest. The Italians opened fire, 'and we all jumped out; we knew by then to get out of the glider quickly'. Jim turned his Sten gun on the Italians, thinking to himself, 'Right, this will do you buggers'. He pulled the trigger and nothing happened. The Sten had misfired. But the Bren gun knocked out the opposition. As the section then began to unload the glider, the lieutenant asked Wallwork, 'Well, where in the Hell are we? Do you know where we are?'
'As a matter of fact, sir', Jim replied, 'I think you should be congratulated. I think you are the first Allied officer to attack the soft underbelly of Europe through the toe of Italy.' Wallwork claims today that he was so confused by all the passes he had made at the beach that he really did think he had come down on the Continent proper. Later that autumn, he was shipped back to England, to participate in operation Deadstick.
Deadstick was the result of decisions General Gale had made. Studying his tactical problem, he had decided that the best way to provide protection for the left flank of Sword Beach would be to blow up the bridges over the River Dives, through paratrooper assaults, then gather his paras some five miles or so west of Dives, in a semi-circle around the waterway bridges at Ranville and Benouville. Without those bridges, the Germans could not get at the left flank of the invasion. Gale could not afford to simply blow up the Orne bridges, however, because without them he would have an entire airborne division in the middle of enemy territory, its back to a major water barrier, without proper anti-tank weapons or other crucial supplies, and with no means of getting them.
The bridges had to be taken intact. Gale knew that they had a garrison guarding them, and that they had been prepared for demolition. Paras might be able to take the bridges, and could certainly destroy them, but would probably not be able to capture them intact. The relative slowness with which a para attack could be launched would give the Germans adequate time to blow the bridges themselves. Gale concluded that his only option was to seize the bridges by a coup de main, using Horsas, which could each set down twenty-eight fighting men in an instant. Best of all, in gliders they could arrive like thieves in the night, without noise or light, unseen and unheard. Gale says in his memoirs that he got the idea of a coup de main by studying German glider landings at the Fort of Eben Emael in Belgium in 1940, and the Corinth Canal in Greece in 1941. He was sure that if his glider pilots and his company commander were good enough, it could be done. He thought the real problem would be holding the bridges against counter-attack until the paratroopers arrived.
Gale briefed Brigadier Poett, explaining his conclusions and his reasoning. He told Poett he was putting ihe glider company under his, Poett's, command for the operation, because Poett's would be the para brigade that got to the gliders first. He told Poett, 'the seizing of the bridges intact is of the utmost importance to the conduct of future operations. As the bridges will have been prepared for demolition, the speedy overpowering of the bridge defences will be your first objective and it is therefore to be seized by the coup de main party. You must accept risks to achieve this.'
Next Gale went to Kindersley, explained his coup de main idea, and asked Kindersley who was the best company commander in his brigade to carry out the mission. Kindersley replied, 'I think that all my men are jolly good leaders, but I think Johnny Howard might do this one rather well.' They decided to find out if he could.
Gale laid on a major three-day exercise. D Company was assigned to capture intact three small bridges and defend them until relieved. It was a night assault, with much of the division landing all over the area. The glider troops rode in four trucks and were told by umpires riding with them when they had landed. They pranged at 2300 hours and after a brief struggle with the paras guarding the bridges, D Company managed to capture the structures before they were blown. 'We had a really first-class fight', Howard recalls, despite the blank ammunition. Windy Gale and Hugh Kindersley and Nigel Poett were all there, watching.
At the debriefing, on April 18, Gale praised the 'bridge prangers' as he called D Company, singling out for special citation the company's 'dash and verve'. That was highly pleasing for Howard and his men, of course, but what came next was even better. Colonel Mike Roberts called Howard into his office and began to bring him into the larger picture. Roberts said D Company would have a 'very important task to carry out when the invasion started. You are to capture two bridges, intact. The bridges are about a quarter of a mile apart and each is over fifty yards long.' Looking up, Roberts stared at Howard, then said, 'You will be the spearhead of the invasion, certainly the first British fighting force to land on the Continent.' Usually a non-demonstrative man who spent most of his time worrying, Roberts was deeply moved. He told Howard it was a great honour for the Ox and Bucks to provide the company for such a task.
Roberts warned Howard that all the information was Top Secret, and said he had been brought in only because Gale was laying on another, even larger exercise. This had the code name MUSH, and it would in fact be a rehearsal for D-Day for the whole of the 6th Airborne Division. Howard should approach the exercise with that in mind. Further, Gale had decided on the basis of the previous exercise to strengthen D Company from four to six platoons. Roberts told Howard to select any two platoons he wanted from the regiment.
Howard selected two platoons from B Company, one commanded by Sandy Smith, the other by Dennis Fox. Both lieutenants were keen athletes, perfectly fit, and popular with their men. Howard told Brian Friday, who knew Smith and Fox rather better, to extend the invitation; Friday pulled Smith and Fox out of their quarters one evening 'and said to us in great secrecy, "would you like to join our little party which we're going to do and we can't tell you much more than that but are you prepared to join D Company?" '
Smith and Fox looked at each other. They both thought the army a bit of a gas, and they especially disliked regular soldiers, and most of all they hated the fanatics. John Howard was the leading fanatic in the regiment. Furthermore, Fox and Smith enjoyed 'chasing women and having a good time. We were very high spirited and that bunch of D Company officers, they used to bore the living daylights out of us. Sweeney, Brotheridge, Hooper, Friday, Wood - we didn't want to get near them. And come to that, they thought us very peculiar.' But to pass up a Top Secret special mission was unthinkable, and Smith and Fox joined up. To their surprise, they merged in with D Company immediately and without difficulty.
D Company was further reinforced by the addition of thirty sappers under Capidin Jock Neilson. The sappers were Royal Engineers, but also paratroopers. Howard recalled that when they reported to him, 'those paraboys were quite definite about not landing in gliders'. Howard explains, 'There is a good healthy respect between the paraboys and the gliderboys, but I can't resist saying that whereas a high percentage of us would willingly jump out of a plane on a chute into battle, you would have to go a long way to get a glider-load of paraboys to prang into battle in a Horsa'.
Before MUSH was held, D Company got a two-week leave. Joy had by then bought a small house in Oxford, where John went to see his new-born daughter for the first time. It was on this occasion that John left his service dress uniform behind, and took Terry's baby shoe with him. On an earlier occasion, in 1940, when fear of an invasion was high, John had given her a .45 revolver and instructed her in its use. When he left after this leave, she noticed that he had taken the bullets with him. She assumed he was afraid that he might not come back and she would kill herself out of love for him. Joy couldn't even lift the pistol much less use it.
Den Brotheridge, Wally Parr and most of the other chaps managed to visit their families too.
At the end of April, everyone reported back to Bulford. All leaves were cancelled until further notice, and operation MUSH was held. D Company was to attack, capture, and hold a bridge until relieved by the paras. It was a night time operation, and all six platoons and the sappers participated. They were driven to the site of the manoeuvre, marched a couple of miles to their supposed LZ, then told by the umpire with them to lay down and wait for his signal telling them they had pranged. They were only a few hundred yards from the bridge, which was being guarded by Polish paratroopers.
With the signal from the umpire, D Company began to move forward, silently, only to encounter barbed wire. After all the obstacle practice the company had had, cutting a way through the wire was only a moment's work. Tony Hooper was first through, and with his platoon rushed the bridge. Howard recalls, 'The Poles were firing and swearing in Polish at Tony and his chaps as they tore across the bridge, as our chaps swore back in English. Then there was a colossal bang.' The umpires declared the bridge had been blown. 'I saw Tony on the bridge arguing heatedly with an irate umpire who had put him out of action together with most of his platoon. The umpire won and the men sat disconsolate on the bridge with their helmets off.'
By then, paratroopers were rushing onto the bridge. The Poles, hopelessly outnumbered, refused to accept the umpire's decision that the bridge had been destroyed. When told in no uncertain terms that they must lay down their arms they merely said, 'No speak English' and went on scrapping. There were several little fist-fights which everyone but the harassed umpires seemed to enjoy. Several of the combatants finished in the drink.
The umpires declared that Sweeney's platoon had been put out of action by fire from Brotheridge's platoon. Sweeney had not recognised Brotheridge's men as they crept silently towards the bridge. Howard learned a lesson from the experience.
MUSH was a well-conceived and well-conducted rehearsal. The exercise revealed problems, such as mutual recognition in the dark, but it also convinced Howard, and his many superiors who watched, that if the Horsas pranged on the right spot, the coup de main would work.
The sine qua non, of course, was getting the Horsas down in the right place. To that end, Jim Wallwork and the Glider Pilots Regiment were working day and night, literally, on operation Deadstick. In April, 1944, Wallwork and his fellow pilots had done a demonstration for Gale, operation Skylark, landing their Horsas on a small triangle from 6,000 feet. When all the gliders were safely down, the GPR commanding officer, Colonel George Chatteron, stepped out of the bushes. He had General Gale with him. Chatteron was boasting, 'Well, Windy, there you see it, I told you my GPR boys can do this kind of thing any day.' Wallwork overheard the remark and thought, 'I wish we could, but that is a bit of asking.'
To make sure they could. Gale put them on operation Deadstick. Sixteen pilots of the GPR, two for each of the six gliders going in on D-Day plus four reserves, were posted to Tarrant Rushton in Dorset, an RAF airfield where there were two Halifax squadrons and a squadron of Horsas. The men of the GPR were treated as very special people indeed. They had their own Nissen hut, excellent food, and a captain delegated to them - they were all staff sergeants - to see to it that their every want was catered for. As Oliver Boland recalled it, 'we were the most pampered group of people in the British army at the time'.
The pilots were introduced to their tug crews, which was an innovation: previously the glider pilots had not known their tug pilots. The tug crews lived near the GPR boys at Tarrant Rushton, and they got to know each other. The glider pilots had the same crew on each training flight, and this would be the crew that tugged them on D-Day.
The training flights for operation Deadstick were hellishly difficult. Colonel Chatteron had the pilots landing beside a small L-shaped wood, a quarter of a mile long down the long end, and a few yards along the angle. The pilots landed with three gliders (carrying cement blocks for a load) going up the L and three on the blind side. In daylight, on a straight-in run, it was a snap. But then Chatteron started having them release at 7,000 feet and fly by times and courses, using a stopwatch, making two or three full turns before coming in over the wood. That was not too bad, either, because - as Wallwork explains -'in broad daylight you can always cheat a little'. Next Chatteron put coloured glass in their flying goggles to turn day into night, and warned his pilots, 'It is silly of you to cheat on this because you've got to do it right when the time comes'. Wallwork would nevertheless whip the goggles off if he thought he was overshooting, 'but we began to play it fairly square, realising that whatever we were going to do it was going to be something important'.
By early May they were flying by moonlight, casting on at 6 000 feet, 7 miles from the wood. They flew regardless of weather. They twisted and turned around the sky, all by stopwatch. They did forty-three training flights in Deadstick altogether, more than half of them at night. They got ready.