D-Day minus one month to D-Day
On May 2, Howard was summoned to 'Broadmoor', code name for Gale's planning headquarters, an old country place full of rickety stairs and low beams, near Milston on Salisbury Plain. It was surrounded by barbed wire and military police and had elaborate security precautions. Once inside, Howard was taken to Brigadier Poett's office. Explaining that D Company was being detached from the Ox and Bucks and given a special assignment, Poett handed Howard his orders. They were marked Bigot and Top Secret, and they instructed Howard 'to seize intact the bridges over the River Orne and canal at Benouville and Ranville, and to hold them until relief.
The orders provided ample information on enemy dispositions that Howard could expect to encounter, a garrison of about fifty men armed with four to six light machine-guns, one or two anti-tank guns, and a heavy machine-gun. 'A concrete shelter is under construction, and the bridges will have been prepared for demolition.' There was a battalion of the 736th Grenadier Regiment in the area, with eight to twelve tanks under command, and with motor transport. At least one platoon would be prepared as a fighting patrol, ready to move out at once to seek information. Howard should expect the enemy to be 'in a high state of alertness. The bridge garrison may be standing to, and charges will have been laid in the demolition chambers.'
At this point in his reading Howard may have wondered how on earth General Gale expected him to seize intact bridges that were prepared for demolition. All the enemy had to do was press a button or move a switch and up would go the bridges. Gale himself, in his 1948 book, The 6th Airborne Division in Normandy, explains his thinking about this problem:
There is always or nearly always a slip between the cup and the lip: orders are vague: there is uncertainty: has the moment arrived or should one wait? Who is the individual actually responsible both for working the switch and for ordering the bridges to be blown? These questions are age-old and on the doubts that might exist in some German mind or minds at the critical moment I based the plan. But a moment or two was all that I knew we would get. The assault on the bridges must, therefore, come like a bolt from the blue.
Howard's orders of May 2 informed him that his initial relief would come from the 5th Para Brigade, which would drop northeast of Ranville at 0050 hours and then 'move forthwith to take up a defensive position round the two bridges'. Simultaneously, 3rd Para Brigade would drop on the high wooded ground south of Le Mesnil forest. At 0600, the British 3rd Infantry Division would begin its landings west of Ouistreham 'with objective Caen'. Attached to the 3rd Division were Lord Lovat's Commandos, who would move forward as rapidly as possible to establish a land link between the beaches and the paratroopers and glider-borne troops in and around the bridges. The brigade of Commandos could be expected any time after 1100 hours.
To carry out his assignment, Howard was given his own D Company, plus two platoons from B Company, a detachment of thirty sappers, one wing of the Glider Pilots Regiment, and six Horsa gliders. Poett's May 2 orders also gave Howard the general outline of how he should proceed: 'The capture of the bridges will be a coup de main operation depending largely on surprise, speed and dash for success. Provided the bulk of your force lands safely, you should have little difficulty in overcoming the known opposition on the bridges. Your difficulties will arise in holding off an enemy counter-attack on the bridges, until you are relieved.' The counter-attack should be expected any time after 0100 hours, or within an hour of landing, and the most likely line of approach for the counter -attacking force would be from the west.
Howard was ordered to organise his defensive position immediately after taking the bridges, because 'it is vital that the crossing places be held, and to do this you will secure a close bridgehead on the west bank, in addition to guarding the bridges. The immediate defence of the bridges and of the west bank of the canal must be held at all costs.' Poett's orders envisaged more than a passive defence, however. 'You will harass and delay the deployment of the enemy counter-attack forces ... by offensive patrols', the orders read. 'Patrols will remain mobile and offensive. Up to one third of your effective force may be used in this role. The remaining two thirds will be used for static defence and immediate counter-attack.'
Poett was also explicit in the orders as to the role of the sappers. Their sole tasks, in order of priority, were to neutralise the demolition mechanisms, remove charges from demolition chambers, and establish ferries. He also promised that one company of the 7th Para Battalion of the 5th Para Brigade would be despatched 'with the utmost possible speed', and would reach Howard's position by 0230 hours. Once there, they would come under Howard's command until arrival of the officer commanding the 7th Para Battalion.
Poett concluded his orders, 'The training of your force will be regarded as a first priority matter.' He encouraged Howard to demand special stores and training facilities, and promised every possible help.
When Howard finished reading the orders, Poett told him that he did not intend to interfere with D Company's preparation for the coup de main. Howard would have the twin responsibilities of designing an effective training programme, and of making the detailed plan for the seizure of the bridges.
Howard could scarcely keep his feelings to himself. He was concerned about the various challenges he faced, of course, and could imagine any number of things going wrong. But he was also exhilarated, as he had never been before in his life; and he was tremendously proud that D Company had been chosen to lead the way on D-Day.
Poett next briefed Howard on operation Overlord. Howard was amazed by the size and scope of the invading force, and impressed by the critical nature of his bridges to success on the left flank. He noted that the American paratroopers, two divisions strong, were landing on the far right flank of the invasion in the Cherbourg peninsula. By the end of the briefing, Howard says, 'I knew absolutely everything about the invasion of Europe. Where it was to be, who was taking part, how it was to be done, everything except the date.'
Poett gave Howard a green pass, which allowed him to enter Broadmoor at will. But Poett would not allow him to take away his orders, the reconnaissance photographs, maps, or even notes. Nor was he allowed to tell his second-in -command, Friday, about D Company's mission, much less any of the rest of the officers. The need to keep his secret was a great strain for him.
Back at Bulford, Howard concentrated the training. Out on Salisbury Plain, he used tape to lay out a river and a canal, with two bridges over them, all at the exact distances of his real targets. Day and night, his platoons practised capturing them: sometimes one platoon, sometimes three, sometimes all six. All the exercising was controlled by radio. Howard felt that above all his plan had to be flexible. The gliders were to take off at one-minute intervals line astern, but there was absolutely no guarantee which order they would land in, or even where they would land. If only one glider hit the target, that platoon had to be prepared to do the job of all six platoons. Simultaneously, Howard worked on the men not to use their voices before the fighting began. Then, reminding them of the cost of silence in operation MUSH, Howard told them that as soon as the first shot went off, they should all start shouting their radio call signs as loudly as they could. No. 1 glider was Able, no. 2 was Baker, no. 3 was Charlie, and so on. Howard wanted the men to shout out their identifications over and over, both to identify each other and to give the Germans the feeling that the enemy was there in great numbers.
From these exercises over the taped-up bridges and roads, Howard decided that General Gale's plan for landing inside (between) the bridges rather than outside them, was correct. The LZs on the inside were awfully small, to be sure, and so situated that one group of gliders, at the canal bridge, would have to land facing north, towards the coast, the other group facing south, towards Caen, which required splitting the glider formations at take-off. These disadvantages were outweighed by two major advantages. First, the inside landing sites were smack against the bridges, instead of some distance away. Second, by having all his platoons inside, Howard could call on them to support one another.
Broadmoor, meanwhile, was collecting and putting together intelligence on the bridges and surrounding villages, and making it available to Howard. Thanks to Georges Gondree, Madame Vion, the Resistance in Caen, and the photo reconnaissance of the RAF, there was a rather fabulous amount available. Divisional intelligence was able to tell Howard who were the collaborators in Benouville, who were Resistance. He knew, as the Germans did not, that Georges Gondree spoke English and his wife German. He was given a complete topographical report on the area. He knew that Benouville contained 589 residents, that M. Thomas was the mayor, that the voltage was 110/200 3 phase AC - even that Madame Vion was considered something of an autocrat. He was warned that from the roof of the Chateau de Benouville, a three-storey maternity hospital, the Germans would have a commanding field of fire over the valley of the Orne for a considerable distance. And many in the village, Howard found out, looked sideways when Therese Gondree walked past. They were suspicious of her German accent, and did not approve of the fact that she lived right next to the garrison and sold beer to the Germans.
Howard also learned from his intelligence summary that the fighting value of the garrison at the bridge had been assessed at '40 per cent static and 15 per cent in a counter-attack role. Equipment consists of an unknown proportion of French, British and Polish weapons.' The last sentence read, 'This intelligence summary will be destroyed by fire immediately after reading.'
Even though Howard could not take the air reconnaissance photographs out ofBroadmoor, he could go there to study them any time he wished. The RAF people had set up a stereograph system for him to provide a three-dimensional view. He could even see down into the enemy trenches along the eastern side of the canal. Poett went over the photographs with Howard. He kept telling him that he had to capture those bridges in a few minutes, before they could be blown. The role, even the survival, of the 6th Airborne Division depended on keeping those bridges intact.
How good, and how up to date, was Howard's intelligence? As good as it could possibly be. Of all the attributes the British forces demonstrated during the Second World War, none equalled their ability to gather, evaluate, and disseminate intelligence. At this vital task, they were unquestionably the best in the world. The British government invested heavily in intelligence in all its various forms, and received a handsome return. John Howard was one of the beneficiaries. Here are three examples of what he got:
In early May, Rommel visited the bridges. He ordered an anti-tank gun emplacement built, and a pillbox ringed by barbed wire to protect it. He also ordered more slit trenches dug. Work began immediately, and within two days Howard was told by the RAF that Jerry was installing some suspicious emplacements. Within a week, word came via Gondree through Madame Vion to Caen to SOE to Broadmoor to Howard that the gun emplacement had a 50mm anti-tank gun in it, with some camouflaging over it, and that the pillbox was finished.
In mid-May, 21st Panzer Division moved from Brittany to Normandy, and on May 23 to the Caen area, with von Luck's regiment taking up positions just east of Caen. On May 24, Howard knew about the movement of the division. On May 25, Hickman's Independent Parachute Regiment moved into the area. Howard knew about it the next day.
The intelligence people had produced a model of the area, twelve foot square. Howard describes it as 'a work of art - every building, tree, bush and ditch, trench, fence etc. was there'. The model was changed daily, in accordance with the results of the morning reconnaissance flight. Thus on May 15 Schmidt knocked down two buildings along the canal, to give him a better field of fire. Howard saw the change on the model the next day.
Howard's visits to Broadmoor were characterised by the place's nickname. The Madhouse'. After clearing numerous check points with his green pass, Howard recalls going in and being struck by 'the harassed look on the faces of many people walking about the building, obviously up to their eyes in last-minute changes in major plans'.
At the end of his early May briefing, Poett had told Howard that he could have anything he needed for his training programme. Taking Poett at his word, Howard ordered up German opposition: soldiers who would defend the bridge wearing German uniforms, using German weapons and tactics, and insofar as possible shouting their orders in German. He obtained captured German weapons, so that all his men were thoroughly familiar with what they could do, and how to operate them. He had but to snap his fingers, and trucks would appear, to carry his platoons to wherever he wanted to go.
D Company got the best of everything, except in food, in which area it got no special favours. There was very strict rationing throughout the country, and the food was bad; worse, there was not enough of it. Parr recalls:
Much of your money, spare money, went on grub. I was always hungry. You worked so hard, you trained so hard that the grub they gave you wasn't enough to keep you going and you didn't ask what it was, you just grabbed it and you just shovelled it down, as simple as that. So the first thing you got paid you used to do is make out for the NAAFI and get chow. Yeah, you supplemented your diet with your pay, there's no doubt about that.
Howard was carrying some heavy burdens, of which the chief was being the only man in the company who was 'bigoted'. Howard longed to put Brian Friday at least into the picture, partly to share the burden of knowledge, partly so that he could discuss his planning with him. He did, in fact, get permission to brief Friday around May 21.
He was pushing the men hard now, harder than ever, but no matter how he varied the order of landing or direction of attack or other aspects of the exercise, it was always the same make-believe bridges, at the same distances. Everyone was getting bored stiff. After about ten days of this, Howard called the men together on the parade ground and told them, 'Look, we are training for a special purpose'. He did not mention the invasion - he hardly had to - but he went on: 'You'll find that a lot of the training we are doing, this capturing of things like bridges, is connected with that special purpose. If any of you mention the word "bridges" outside our training hours and I get to know about it, you'll be for the high jump and your feet won't touch before you land in the Glasshouse and get RTU.' (Wally Parr told Irene the next evening, over the telephone, that he would be doing bridges on D-Day.)
Von Luck, as noted, had moved to the east ofCaen, between the River Dives and the Orne River. So had Hickman. Von Luck planned, and practised, his defences. He marked out the routes forward to alternative assembly areas behind likely invasion points. He laid down rest and refuelling areas, detailed traffic control units, marked bypasses and allotted anti-aircraft guns for road protection. Hickman meanwhile was engaging in anti-paratrooper exercises. Even Major Schmidt, at the bridges, was finally getting some sense of urgency. He was completing his bunkers, and was almost ready to get around to putting in the anti-glider poles. The Gondrees watched all this, and said nothing, except to Madame Vion.
Howard asked the topographical people to search the map of Britain and find him some place where a river and a canal ran closely together and were crossed by bridges on the same road. They found such a spot outside Exeter. Howard moved the company down there, and for six days, by day and by night, attacked those Exeter bridges. Townspeople came to gape as the lads dashed about, throwing grenades, setting off explosives, getting into hand-to-hand combat, cursing, yelling, 'Able, Able', or 'Easy, Easy' at the top of their lungs. Howard had them practise every possible development he could imagine - only one glider getting down, or the gliders landing out of proper sequence, or the dozens of other possibilities. He taught every man the basic rudiments of the sappers' jobs; he instructed the sappers in the functions of the platoons; he made certain that each of his officers was prepared to take command of the whole operation, and sergeants and corporals to take command of each platoon, if need be.
Howard insisted that they all become proficient in putting together and using the canvas boats that they were bringing along in the event the bridges were blown. Assault boat training was 'always good for morale,' according to Howard, because 'somebody inevitably went overboard and that poor individual never failed to make sure he wasn't the only one who got wet'.
The hurling about of grenades and thunder-flashes caused some problems and brought some fun. Thunder-flashes were tossed into the river, to provide fish for supper. The local Council protested at this illegal fishing. The Council also protested that all this running back and forth over its bridges, and all these explosives going off, were seriously weakening the structures. (They stand, solid, today.) A homeowner in the area had some tiles blown off his roof by a mortar smoke bomb. Irate, he confronted Howard, who passed him along to Friday, who gave him the proper forms to fill in so that he could get the tiles replaced. One month later, sitting in a foxhole in Normandy, Friday let out a whoop of laughter. The mail had been delivered, and in it was a letter from the homeowner, demanding to know when his roof would be fixed.
Out of all this practice and after consulting with his officers, Howard made his final plan. The key to it was to put the pillbox out of action while simultaneously getting a platoon onto the other side of the bridge. It had to be accomplished before shots were fired, if possible, and certainly before the Germans were fully aroused. The pillbox was a key not only because of its firing power, but because - according to information received from Georges Gondree - that was the location of the button that could blow the bridge. Howard detailed three men from no. 1 glider (Brotheridge's platoon) to dash to the pillbox and throw grenades through the gun-slits. To take physical possession of the opposite bank, Howard detailed Brotheridge to lead the remainder of his platoon on a dash across the bridge. Ideally, Howard wanted Brotheridge to hear the thuds of the grenades in the pillbox as he was mid-way across the bridge.
No. 2 glider, David Wood's platoon, would clear up the inner defences, the trenches, machine-gun nests and anti-tank gun pit along the east bank. No. 3 glider, Sandy Smith's platoon, would cross the bridge to reinforce Brotheridge. On the river bridge, the procedure would be the same, with Friday in no. 4 glider (Hooper's platoon), Sweeney in no. 5, and Fox in no. 6. All six platoons were trained to do all six of the platoon tasks.
Each glider would carry five sappers, the thirty men under the command of Captain R. K. Jock Neilson. The sappers' main job was to move immediately to the bridges, then hand-over-hand themselves along the bottom beams, cutting fuses and disposing of explosives.
If all went well at both bridges, Howard intended to call two platoons from the river bridge over to the canal bridge, sending one towards Benouville as a fighting patrol, and holding the other in reserve. This was because the threat he faced lay to the west. That was German-occupied territory, with a garrison of some sort in every village. The first counter-attack was likely to come from the west, possibly led by tanks. To the east, the 6th Airborne Division would be dropping thirty minutes later and setting up in Ranville to provide protection in that direction.
The landing operation was John Howard's plan. His superiors let him work it out himself, then approved his final presentation. He ran through it again and again, until the men were exhausted and almost too tense and too bored to care any longer.
But each time he ran through it, Howard saw something he had overlooked. One day, for example, he stopped an exercise and said he had been thinking, that if so and so happened, and such and such, I'd need volunteers to swim the canal with a Bren gun to set up flanking fire, or to create a diversion with explosives. As Howard remembers the occasion, 'competition for this hazardous mission was high'. As Parr remembers it, he raised his hand before Howard could call for volunteers. Howard impatiently told him to put it down. Parr waved it some more. 'Oh, all right Parr, what is it?' Parr replied that since Billy Gray and Charlie Gardner were the two strongest swimmers, perhaps they should get this detail. 'Good idea, Parr', Howard pronounced, and it was done. Parr spent the remainder of the week staying far away from Gray and Gardner.
The last night in Exeter was a classic eve-of-battle event. Howard gave the men the evening off, and they poured into and out of Exeter's pubs. There were fights, windows were broken. The Chief of Police got Howard on the phone, and he and Friday jumped into a jeep and tore into Exeter, about three miles away. 'As we crossed the bridge we were picked up by the police for speeding', recalls Howard, 'and we arrived at the station with police escort'. Howard went straight to the Chief's office and said, 'If you find Lieutenant Brotheridge he will soon tell you how to get the troops back'. Then Howard noticed the Chief's World War I medals, 'and I knew the type of chap I was talking to, and I explained to him in confidence that this was likely to be our last night out; his attitude was absolutely wonderful'. The Chief called out the entire force on duty at the time and put it to rounding up D Company and escorting it, gently, back to its transport and encampment.
Brotheridge, in fact, turned out to be no help, although Howard had sent him along with the men specifically to exert a good influence. But he was too much the footballer, too much like the men, to stay sober on a night like this. Besides, he had a lot on his mind, and he needed some mental relief. His baby was due in less than a month, but he could not expect to see his wife before then, and who could tell about afterwards? He was proud that John had chosen him to lead the first platoon across the canal bridge, but he had to be realistic - everyone knew that the first man over that bridge was the man most likely to get shot. Not killed, necessarily, but almost certainly shot. That first man was equally likely to have the bridge blow up in his face.
To escape such thoughts, Brotheridge had gone drinking with his sergeants, and when Howard arrived was drunk. Howard and Friday drove him back to camp, while the trucks took the men home. The people of Exeter, and their Police Chief, never made a complaint.
In late May, D Company moved to Tarrant Rushton. In a wired-in encampment on this huge base, completely secured, the company met Jim Wallwork, John Ainsworth, Oliver Boland, and the other glider-pilots. Howard immediately found them impressive and was pleased to note that they were absorbed into the company as family members as quickly as the sappers had been.
How dependent D Company was on the pilots became quickly apparent after arrival in Tarrant Rushton. Now that the company was properly sealed in, Howard was free to give his briefing. First to the officers, then to the men, he explained the operation.
Howard covered the walls of the Nissen briefing hut with photographs of the bridges, and had the model in the middle of the room. As he talked, the eyes of the officers and men opened wider and wider - at the amount of intelligence available to them, at the crucial nature of their task, and at the idea of being the first men to touch the soil of France. But what they also noted was the extreme smallness of the LZs, especially on the canal bridge. Having examined the German trench system, and discussed the Germans' weapons and emplacements, the officers - and later the men - were completely confident that they could take the bridges intact. They could, that is,if- and only if- the pilots put them down on the right spots.
The pilots were now into the last days of Deadstick. Calling on the British movie industry for help, the Air Ministry had put together a film. By flipping through thousands of photographs, each ever so slightly different, the producers made a 'moving picture' that depicted the actual flight the pilots would make on D-Day. There was a running commentary.
'The viewer felt as if he were in the cockpit and flying the thing', Wallwork recalls. The commentary told altitude, air speed, bearing, location. When the glider cast off, 'you got the whole sensation of diving a thousand feet and seeing the fields of France coming up towards you'. Level off, check your bearing, turn, check your bearing, turn again, then the bridges were in view. 'You come into this fly-in,' as Wallwork describes the film, 'and you are still on this bearing and the next thing you saw was the tower of the bridge getting nearer and nearer and then the film cuts out as you crash'. The pilots could see the film whenever they wanted, and they watched it often. In his orders Howard had been given very strict instructions about not using the glider pilots in any combatant role. He therefore gave them the task of unloading the gliders after the platoons had landed and attacked in light fighting order. The pilots were then to carry the ammunition, heavy equipment, etc. up to their respective platoons. Howard was well aware that it was a job they would not like at all; he knew only too well that they were the type who would want to join in the initial assault and take part in any ensuing battle. But the pilots had to be got back to England unscathed so as to be able to fly the 1st Airborne Division into action.
Howard briefed the men over and over, by sections and by platoons. He encouraged them to go into the hut whenever they wished, examine the maps and the photographs and the model, and talk among themselves about their particular tasks.
On May 29, he called the reinforced company together and issued escape aids, 'very Boy Scoutish things', Howard says. They included a metal file to be sewn into the battle smock, a brass pants button that had been magnetised, so that when balanced on a pin-head it became a tiny compass, a silk scarf with the map of France on it, water-purifying tablets, and French francs. 'This sort of thing absolutely thrilled the troops to bits', Howard recalls: 'I have never seen such enthusiasm about such simple things like that'. Billy Gray remembers that all the French money was gambled away in two hours.
All the officers were issued with more sophisticated escape wallets. They included large wads of French francs, which were all conveniently 'lost in battle'. Howard says he lost his francs playing poker with a popular Army Padre.
That night, in Normandy, von Luck was conducting exercises, designed to counter any landing, even commando, by an immediate counter-attack. That day. Major Schmidt received a shipment of slave labourers from the Todt Organization and put them to work digging holes for anti-glider poles, in what he figured were the most likely LZs for gliders. He began with the areas around his bridges. The poles themselves had not yet arrived, but were expected daily.
On May 30, when Howard and all of D Company saw the photographic evidence of the holes, their first reaction was that somehow the great secret had got out, that the Germans knew where they were coming. Kindersley came down to visit Howard, guessing correctly that Howard would be in a blue mood. 'I know about those photographs', he began, 'but there is nothing to worry about'. Howard voiced his fear: all those photographs taken by the RAF for the movie for the pilots, all those photographs each morning, surely the Germans must have figured out that the bridges were to be attacked because of all the reconnaissance activity. Kindersley laughed encouragingly. 'John', he said, 'we're taking similar photographs of every bridge or target between the Bay of Biscay and Dunkirk'.
That relieved one worry. Howard went to Wallwork with the other worry. 'Supposing the poles are put into the holes before we land? What will our chances be?'
'That's just what we want, sir', Wallwork answered.
'What do you mean? What can you mean?' Howard asked.
Wallwork explained that the gliders would be overloaded, flying into a narrow field with an embankment at one end. They would be landing in the direction of the embankment, and Wallwork was worried about hitting that. He continued, 'Now, those poles will take something off one wing, and something off the other wing - it's just damned cheap plywood, you know -and will pull us up absolutely beautifully'.
Howard's face brightened. 'Right', he said, 'well, let's get the company on parade'. He called the men together, let them mumble and rumble awhile as they studied the aerial photographs, mostly about those holes, then explained to them what the Brigadier had told him about photographing everywhere, not just their bridges, and then asked Wallwork to tell ..he company what he had just said about the poles being exactly what was needed. Wallwork did so, and the men were satisfied.
'Put it down to ignorance', Wally Parr explains, 'call it what you like, we could see the situation. But Johnny Howard said it could be done and Wallwork said we could do it and that was the end of the subject. If Johnny Howard said we could do it, we could do it.'
Besides the poles, Wallwork had to worry about Howard's request that he break through the barbed wire with the nose of his Horsa, a difficult enough task with an unloaded glider in daylight on a runway. And his glider - all the gliders - was badly overloaded, with thirty or thirty-one men in each, plus ammunition. There were also two canvas assault boats per glider. The sappers had heavy equipment. The men were carrying up to twenty pounds more ammunition each than had been allotted, and still were trying to add more to their load.
Wallwork told Howard that the extra weight would increase air speed, and thus landing speed. They would need a longer landing area than was available. Howard told Captain Neilson of the Royal Engineers to get rid of some weight by dropping off one sapper per glider, but Neilson convinced Howard that he absolutely had to have all his sappers. Howard removed one boat from each glider. Not enough, Wallwork told him. Six hundred more pounds per glider had to go.
Howard reluctantly made his decision. Two privates from each platoon would have to drop out. It was a 'terrible decision', he recalls. He gave it to his platoon commanders and told them to select the men to be left behind. In Brotheridge's platoon, Billy Gray says, 'We all started shouting, "Parr's married, let Parr drop out. Let's get rid of Parr!" And Wally immediately did his nut, and he was allowed to stay.'
The lieutenants made the choices. The next day, Howard says, 'I had men asking to see me at company office and crying their eyes out; a big, tough, bloody airborne soldier crying his eyes out asking not to be left behind. It was an awful moment for them.'
At one of his briefings, Howard had as usual asked for questions. 'Sir', someone piped up, 'can't we have a doctor. We are going in on our own and all.' Howard thought that an excellent idea, asked Poett if he could get a volunteer from the divisional medical staff, and John Vaughan, an PAMC captain, came to join D Company. That meant another private had to be bumped, but fortunately, a soldier in Smith's platoon had sprained his ankle playing football.
Vaughan has a nice anecdote to illustrate Howard's exuberance in the last days before the invasion. On May 31 Vaughan and Howard drove to Broadmoor, Howard driving much too fast as he always did. When they arrived, who should be standing there as Howard screeched the brakes, but Brigadier Poett. Howard leaped out of the jeep, did a full somersault, and came down directly in front of Poett. He snapped into attention, gave a full and quite grand salute, and shouted, 'Sir!'
That same night. Smith and Fox sneaked out of Tarrant Rushton (neither of them can recall how they managed it) to have dinner in a local hotel with their girlfriends (both remember the meal and the girls vividly).
That evening, Wallwork and the other pilots were given a special set of orders. These said that the bearer was not responsible to anyone, that he was to be returned to the UK by the most expeditious means, and that this order overruled all other orders. It was signed by General Montgomery himself. Poett also told Howard privately, 'Whatever you do, John, don't let those pilots get into combat. They are much too valuable to be wasted. Get them back here.'
On June 3, Howard got his last intelligence report. Major Schmidt had completed his defences; his trenches along the canal bank were done, as was the pillbox, and the anti-tank gun was in place. The garrison consisted of about fifty men, armed with four to six light machine-guns, one anti-aircraft machine-gun, an anti-tank gun, and a heavy machine-gun in its own pillbox. A maze of tunnels connected the underground bunkers and the fighting posts. More buildings had been torn down to open fields of fire. The anti-glider poles appeared to have arrived, but were not in place yet.
That same day, Monty himself came through Tarrant Rushton. He asked to see the gliders and John Howard. He wanted to know if Major Howard thought he could pull off the coup de main, and he was obviously acquainted with details of the operation. Howard assured him that the job would be done. Monty's parting remark was, 'Get as many of the chaps back as you can'.
General Gale paid a visit. He gathered his airborne troops around him and gave them his version of an inspirational talk. Jack Bailey can only recall one line: Gale said that 'the German today is like the June bride. He knows he is going to get it, but he doesn't know how big it is going to be.'
June 4 was to be the day, or rather the evening, to go. D Company was primed for it, aching to get going. Everyone got into battle dress in the afternoon, checked weapons and equipment and prepared to go to the gliders, but soon after midday word came down that the mission was off. Cancellation had been half -expected, what with the high winds and heavy rains sweeping the countryside, but it was still a major disappointment. John Howard wrote in his diary, 'The weather's broken - what cruel luck. I'm more downhearted than I dare show. Wind and rain, how long will it last? The longer it goes on, the more prepared the Huns will be, the greater the chance of obstacles on the LZ. Please God it'll clear up tomorrow.'
Parr and his gang went to the movies and saw Stormy Weather with Lena Home and Fats Waller. The officers gathered in David Wood's room and polished off two bottles of whisky. Twice Den Brotheridge fell into a depressed mood, and Wood could hear him reciting a poem that began, 'If I should die .. .' But his spirits soon recovered.
The following morning, June 5, the officers and men checked and rechecked their weapons. At noon, Howard told them that it was on, that they should rest, eat, and then dress for battle. The meal was fatless, to cut down on air sickness. Not much of it was eaten. Wally Parr says 'I think everybody had gone off of grub for the first time possibly in years'.
Towards evening the men got into trucks to drive to their gliders. They were a fearsome sight. They each had a rifle, a Sten gun, or a Bren gun, six to nine grenades, four Bren gun magazines. Some had mortars, one in each platoon had a wireless set strapped to his chest. They had all used black cork or burnt coke to blacken their faces. (One of the two black men in the company looked at Parr when Parr handed him some cork and said, 'I don't think I'll bother'.) All of them, officers and men, were so fully loaded that if they had fallen over it might have been impossible to get up without help. (Each infantryman weighed 250 pounds, instead of the allotted 210.) Parr called out that the sight of them alone would be enough to scare the Germans out of their wits.
As the trucks drove towards the gliders. Billy Gray can remember 'the WAAFs and the NAAFI girls along the runway, crying their eyes out'. On the trucks, the men were given their code words. The recognition signal was V, to be answered by 'for Victory'. Code word for the successful capture of the canal bridge was Ham, for the river bridge Jam. Jack meant the canal bridge had been captured but destroyed, Lard the same for the river bridge. Ham and Jam. D Company liked the sound of it, and as the men got out of their trucks they began shaking hands and saying, 'Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam'.
Howard called them together. 'It was an amazing sight', he remembers. 'The smaller chaps were visibly sagging at the knees under the amount of kit they had to carry.' He tried to give an inspiring talk, but as he confesses, 'I am a sentimental man at heart, for which reason I don't think I am a good soldier. I found offering my thanks to these chaps - a devil of a job. My voice just wasn't my own.'
Howard gave up the attempt at inspiration and told the men to load up. The officers shepherded them aboard, although not before every man, except Billy Gray, took a last-minute pee. Wally Parr chalked 'Lady Irene' on the side of Wallwork's glider. As the officers fussed over the men outside, those inside their gliders began settling in. One private bolted out of his glider and ran off into the night. Later, at his court-martial, the private explained that he had had an unshakeable premonition of his own death in a glider crash.
The officers got in last. Before climbing aboard, Brotheridge went back to Smith's glider, shook Smith's hand, and said, 'See you on the bridge, Sandy'.
Howard went round to each glider, shook hands with the platoon leader, then called out some words of cheer. He had just spoken to the Wing Commander of the Halifax squadron, he said, who had told him, 'John, don't worry about flak; we are going through a flak gap over Cabourg, one that we have been using to fly supplies into the Resistance and to bring information and agents out'.
Finally Howard, wearing a pistol and carrying a Sten gun, climbed into his own glider, closed the door and sat down next to Brotheridge. He nodded to Wallwork. Wallwork told the Halifax pilot that everything was go. At 22.56 hours, June 5, they took off, the other gliders following at one-minute intervals.
At Vimont, east of Caen, Colonel von Luck had just come in from an exercise, and after a bite to eat sat down to do paperwork. In Ranville, Major Schmidt enjoyed his wine and his companion. At the canal bridge, Private Bonck thought with relief that there was only an hour to go and he was finished for the night. In the bunker. Private Romer groaned in his sleep, aware that he would have to get up soon to go on duty.
Sergeant Hickman drove eastwards over the bridge, identifying himself to Bonck. He was setting off for the coast to pick up the four young soldiers. As he passed the Gondree cafe, he regretted that the curfew was in force. He had stopped in at the place the other day and rather liked it.
At the cafe, the Gondrees went to bed. In Oxford, Joy Howard did the same. In London's East End, Irene Parr stayed up. She could hear planes gathering, and it sounded bigger than anything she had ever heard before.