D-Day: 0016 to 0026 hours
Wallwork struggled with his great wooden bird, swooping silently alongside the canal, below the horizon, unseen and unheard. He was trying to control the exact instant at which the Horsa lost her contest with gravity. Wally Parr glanced out the open door and, 'God Almighty, the trees were doing ninety miles an hour. I just closed my eyes and went up in my guts.' Wallwork could see the bridge looming ahead of him, the ground rushing up, trees to his left, a soft, marshy pond to his right. He could see the barbed wire straight ahead. He was going too fast, and was in danger of ploughing up against the road embankment. He was going to have to use the chute, a prospect he dreaded: 'We didn't fancy those things at all. We knew they were highly dangerous, nothing but gadgets really, never tested.' But if he were to stop in time, he would have to use it.
At the same time he was worried about the chute stopping him too quickly and leaving him short of his objective. He wanted to get as far up the LZ as possible, into the barbed wire if he could, 'not because Howard wanted me to, not because I was particularly brave or awfully skilled, but because I didn't want to be rear-rammed by no. 2 or no. 3 coming in behind me.'
As the wheels touched ground, Wallwork yelled at Ains-worth, 'Stream!' Ainsworth pushed the button, the chute billowed out, 'and by golly it lifted the tail and shoved the nose wheel down'. The whole glider then bounced back up into the air, all three wheels now torn off. 'But the chute drew us back, knocked the speed down tremendously, so in two seconds or less I told Ainsworth, "Jettison", so Ainsworth pressed the tit and away went the parachutes and we were only going along possibly at 60 mph.'
The Horsa hit ground again, this time on its skids, which threw up hundreds of friction sparks from the rocks; Howard and the other passengers thought these were tracer bullets,, that they had been seen and were being fired upon. Suddenly, Howard recalls, 'there was the most hellish din imaginable, the most God Almighty crash'. The nose had buried itself in the barbed wire and crumbled.
The crash sent Wallwork and Ainsworth flying forward. They were still strapped in but their seats had broken loose and they went right out the cockpit and onto the ground. They were thus the first Allied troops to touch French soil on D -Day. Both, however, were unconscious.
Inside the glider the troops, the sappers, and the company commander were also unconscious. Howard had broken through his seat belt and was thrown against the roof beams, which jammed his helmet down over his ears and knocked him out. Private Denis Edwards thought he was dead.
Save for an occasional low moan, there was complete silence. Private Romer, pacing on the bridge, heard the crash, but assumed it was a piece of wing or tail from a crippled British bomber, a not-unusual occurrence. He went on pacing.
D Company had achieved complete surprise. Wallwork and Ainsworth had taken no. 1 platoon and set it down where it was supposed to be. Their magnificent performance was praised by Air Vice Marshal Leigh-Mallory, commanding the Allied air forces on D-Day, as the greatest feat of flying of World War II.
But with all the men knocked out, no. 1 platoon was in danger. Romer was turning at the west end of the bridge, beginning to pace towards the east. If he noticed the glider sitting there, not fifty yards from the east end of the bridge, and if he gave the alarm, and if the men in the machine-gun pillbox woke quickly enough, Howard and his men would be wiped out inside the Horsa.
To the men in the glider, it seemed afterwards that they must have been out for minutes. Each man was struggling to regain consciousness, dimly aware that he had a job to do and that his life was threatened. It seemed to each of them a desperate, time-consuming process to clear the mind and get moving. Minutes, at least, they all recall - three minutes some say, even five minutes according to others.
In fact, they came to within eight or ten seconds. This was the critical moment, the pay-off for all those hours, weeks, months, years of training. Their physical fitness paid off first - they shook their collective heads, got rid of the cobwebs, and were alert, eager to go. Few heavyweight boxers could have recovered from such a blow so quickly.
Then their endless training paid off, as they automatically unbuckled, cut their way through the smashed door, or hopped out the back. Once again it seemed to Parr, Bailey, Gray and the others that chaos reigned, that everyone was getting in everyone else's way as they tried to get out. In fact, the exit was smooth and swift.
Howard thought he was injured or blind until he pushed his helmet up; then he realised that he could see and that he was all right. Feeling a wave of relief, he watched with pride as No. 1 platoon went through its exit drill. Howard scrambled out of the debris and saw the bridge looming over him, the barbed wire crushed at his feet. He was exhilarated. God bless those pilots.
Not a word was spoken. Brotheridge got Bailey and told him, whispering in his ear, 'Get your chaps moving'. Bailey and two others had the task of destroying the machine-gun pillbox. They moved off. Then Brotheridge gathered the remainder of his platoon and began running for the bridge.
At that moment, glider no. 2 came down, exactly one minute behind no. 1. Pilot Oliver Boland could see Wallwork's Horsa ahead of him, 'and I didn't want to run up his arse', so Boland used his chute and hit his spoilers hard, forcing his Horsa onto the ground. He had to swerve, to avoid hitting Wallwork and as he did so he broke the back of the glider. He stopped right on the edge of the pond, a bit shaken but conscious. He called over his shoulder to his passengers, 'We're here, piss off and do what you're paid to do'.
The platoon commander, David Wood, was thrown out of the glider by the impact along with his bucket of grenades and his Sten, bayonet fixed. (The bayonets had been sharpened back at Tarrant Rushton, an overly dramatic gesture on John Howard's part, many of the men thought.) His platoon gathered around him, exactly as it was supposed to do, and he went forward to where Howard was waiting, just by the perimeter wire.
Howard and his wireless operator were lying on the ground, having just been shot at by a rifleman in the trenches on the other side of the road. Howard whispered to Wood, 'no. 2 task'. That meant to clear the trenches on the eastern or near side of the road. According to Howard, 'Like a pack of unleashed hounds Wood's platoon followed him across the road and into the fray.' As they did so, no. 3 glider crash-landed.
Like no. 1, no. 3 bounced, streamed its chute, and came back down on its skids with a resounding crash. Doc Vaughan, riding just behind the pilots, was thrown straight through the cockpit; his last thought was what a bloody fool he had been to volunteer for these damned gliders. He ended up some feet in front of the glider, really knocked out - it was well over fifteen minutes before he came to.
Lieutenant Sandy Smith was beside him. 'I went shooting straight past those two pilots, through the whole bloody lot, shot out like a bullet, and landed in front of the glider.' He was stunned, covered with mud, had lost his Sten gun, and 'didn't really know what the bloody hell I was doing'. Pulling himself up on his knees. Smith looked up and into the face of one of his section leaders. 'Well', the corporal said quietly, 'what are we waiting for, sir?'
'And this', as Smith analyses the event forty years later, 'is where the training comes in'. He staggered to his feet, grabbed a Sten gun, and started moving towards the bridge. Half a dozen of his men were still trapped inside the crashed glider; one of them drowned in the pond, the only casualty of the landing. It was 0018.
On the bridge. Private Romer had just passed his fellow sentry at the mid-point and was approaching the eastern end as Brotheridge and his platoon came rushing up the embankment. Just then a shot aimed at Howard broke the silence, and Romer saw twenty-two British airborne troops, apparently coming from out of nowhere. With their camouflaged battle smocks, their faces grotesquely blacked, they gave the most eerie sensation of blending savagery and civilisation. The civilisation was represented by the Stens and Brens and Enfields they carried at their hips, ready to fire.
They were coming at Romer at a steady trot, as determined a group as Romer thought he would ever encounter. Romer could see in a flash, by the way the men carried their weapons, by the look in their eyes and by the way their eyes darted around, all white behind the black masks, that they were highly-trained killers who were determined to have their way that night. Who was he to argue with them, a sixteen-year-old schoolboy who scarcely knew how to fire his rifle.
Romer turned and ran back towards the west end, shouting 'Paratroopers!' at the other sentry as he passed him. That sentry pulled out his Verey pistol and fired a flare; Brotheridge gave him a full clip from his Sten and cut him down. The first German had just died in defence of Hitler's Fortress Europe.
Simultaneously, Bailey and his comrades tossed grenades into the apertures of the machine-gun pillbox. There was an explosion, then great clouds of dust. When it settled. Bailey found no one living inside. He ran across the bridge, to take up his position near the cafe.
The sappers, by this time, were beginning to inspect the bridge for explosives, and were already cutting fuses and wires.
Sergeant Hickman was driving into Le Port. He had almost arrived at the T junction, where he would make a left turn to go over the bridge, when he heard Brotheridge's Sten. Hickman told his driver to stop. He knew immediately that the gun was a Sten by its distinctive, easily recognisable rate of fire. Grabbing his Schmeisser, Hickman motioned to two of his privates to get on one side of the road leading to the bridge, while he and the other two privates moved down the left side.
Romer's shout, the Verey pistol, and Brotheridge's Sten gun combined to pull the German troops manning the machine-gun pits and slit trenches into full alert. The privates, all conscripted foreigners, began edging away, but the NCOs, all Germans, opened fire with their MG 34 and their Schmeissers.
Brotheridge, almost across the bridge, pulled a grenade out of his pouch and threw it at the machine-gun to his right. As he did so, he was knocked over by the impact of a bullet in his neck. Running just behind him came Billy Gray, his Bren gun at his hip. Billy also fired at the sentry with the Verey pistol, then began firing towards the machine-guns. Brotheridge's grenade went off, wiping out one of the gun pits; Gray's Bren, and shots from others crossing the bridge, knocked out the other.
Gray was standing on the end of the bridge, on the northwest corner. Brotheridge was lying in the middle of the road, at the western end of the bridge. Other men in the section were running over the bridge. Wally Parr was with them, Charlie Gardner beside him. In the middle of the bridge, Parr suddenly stopped. He was trying to yell 'Able, Able', as the men around him had started doing as soon as the shooting broke out. But to his horror, 'my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth and I couldn't spit sixpence. My mouth had dried up and my tongue was stuck.'
Attempts to yell only made the sticking worse, and his frustration was a terrible thing to behold. His face was a fiery red, even through the burnt cork, from the choking and from his anger. With a great effort of will, Parr finally broke his tongue loose and shouted, 'COME OUT AND FIGHT YOU SQUARE-HEADED BASTARDS'. Pleased with himself, Parr started yelling 'Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam', as he ran the rest of the way, then turned left to go after the bunkers that were his task.
The moon emerged from behind the clouds. As it did, Sergeant Hickman crept to within fifty metres of the bridge. He saw no. 1 platoon coming over:
... and they even frightened me, the way they charged, the way they fired, the way they ran across the bridge. I'm not a coward, but at that moment I got frightened. If you see a para platoon in full cry, they frighten the daylights out of you.
And at night-time when you see a para running with a Bren gun, and the next with a Sten, and no cover round my back, just me and four youngsters who had never been in action, so I could not rely on them - in those circumstances, you get scared. It's my own poor little life there. So I pull my trigger, I fire.
He fired at Billy Gray, reloading his Bren by the corner of the bridge. Billy finished reloading and fired a clip back. Both men were shooting from the hip, and both were pointing their guns just a bit too high, so each sent a full clip over the other man's head. While Hickman put another clip into his Schmeisser and started spraying the bridge. Billy popped into the barn on his right. As soon as he got inside. Billy rested his Bren gun on the wall and did his Jimmy Riddle.
Hickman, meanwhile, had run out of ammunition, and besides he was furious with the bridge garrison, which was hardly putting up a fight at all. He was scornful of such troops -'they had a cushy life, all the war years in France. Never been in danger, only did guard duty.' The British, Hickman concluded, had caught them napping, and he decided to get out of there. Motioning to his four privates, he got back to the staff car and sped towards Caen, going the long way around to get to his headquarters, which were only a few kilometres straight east. Thus Hickman was the first German to pay the price for the capture of the bridge: what should have been a ten- or fifteen-minute ride took him six hours (because he had to work his way around bombed-out Caen), and by the time he arrived at his headquarters to report the landing, his major had long since been informed.
As Hickman turned to leave. Smith came running across the catwalk on the south side of the bridge, huffing more than he was running because he had wrenched his knee in the crash. Brotheridge's men were throwing grenades and firing their weapons, there was some German return fire. When Smith got to the other side, he saw a German throwing a stick grenade at him. As the German turned to leap over the low courtyard wall in the front of the cafe. Smith gave him a burst with his Sten gun. The German slumped over the wall, dead. Simultaneously the grenade went off. Smith did not feel anything, but his corporal came up to inquire, 'Are you all right, sir?' Smith noticed holes in his battle smock and his trousers. Then he looked at his wrist. All the flesh had been torn away, there was nothing but bone. Smith's first thought was, 'Christ, no more cricket.' Curiously, his trigger finger still worked.
Georges Gondree had wakened at the noise. Crawling on his hands and knees, he got to the window ledge and peered over. Smith looked up from his wrist at the movement, saw Gondree's head, swung the Sten towards him and let go a burst. He pointed the Sten too high and merely shattered the window; bullets tore into the wooden beams, but they did not hit Gondree, who beat a hasty retreat and took his family down into the basement.
When Private Bonck heard the first shots, he pulled on his clothes, grabbed his rifle, and dashed out of the brothel and onto the street. His comrade was already there, and together they ran down to the T junction. After one look at the fire-fight going on, they turned and ran back through Benouville on the road to Caen. When they ran out of breath they stopped, talked over the situation, and fired off all their ammunition. Then they ran back to Benouville, there to report breathlessly that British troops were on the bridge and that they had expended all their ammunition before hurrying back to report.
At 0019 Brigadier Poett hit the ground, the first of the paratroopers to arrive. He had not been able to orientate himself during his short drop, and after a soft landing he undid his harness, gathered himself together, looked around, and realised he did not know where he was. The church tower at Ranville was supposed to be his recognition point, but he was in a little depression in a corn field and could not see it. Nor could he see any of his men. He had set out to find them, especially his wireless operator, when he heard Brotheridge's Sten go off. That fixed his rendezvo"' point exactly in his mind and he began walking towards it, as fast as a man could move at night through a corn field. On the way he picked up one private.
Over England, at 0020, Captain Richard Todd's Stirling bomber began to straighten out for its run over the Channel. Todd, twenty-four years old, had set aside a promising acting career to join the paratroopers. Commissioned early in 1941, he was in the 7th Battalion of the 5th Brigade of the 6th Airborne Division. The colonel of the battalion, Geoffrey Pine Coffin, was in the same group of Stirlings as Todd - they were on their way to reinforce the coup de main party at the bridge.
Todd was supposed to fly in Stirling no. 36, but as his stick jumped out of its truck and started to climb aboard the aircraft, a senior RAF officer stepped forward and said he was going along, and that this plane would be no. 1. Todd protested at this decision, 'because we had our plan worked out, our jumping plan, but you can't argue with somebody senior to you. I was lucky, in fact, because the first twenty or so aircraft got in with the help of surprise, and when I was down there looking up at the others streaming in, the numbers in the thirties were all getting knocked down. The one that replaced me was knocked down and all the chaps on it were lost, so I had a bit of luck that night.'
At 0020 hours. Fox and his platoon had an easy landing some 300 metres from the river bridge. According to Fox, the real leader in the platoon was Sergeant Thornton. 'In barracks he was a quiet, unobtrusive man who would as soon sweep the barrack room himself as order a soldier to do it. But in action he was absolutely first-class, and he virtually commanded the platoon. I was the figurehead and did more or less what he told me to do.'
When they landed, Thornton reminded Fox that he had forgotten to open the door; when Fox could not get it open, Thornton showed him how to do it. When they got out and formed up, a corporal was supposed to move off with the lead section. Fox following at the head of the other two sections. But the corporal just stood there. Fox approached him to ask what was the matter; the corporal replied that he could see someone with a machine-gun up ahead. 'To hell with it', responded Fox, 'let's get cracking'. But the corporal still would not move.
Fox started off himself and almost immediately there was a burst of fire from an enemy MG 34. Everyone hit the ground.
'Then', according to Fox, 'dear old Thornton had got from way back in his position a mortar going, and he put a mortar slap down, a fabulous shot, right on the machine-gun, so we just rushed the bridge, all the chaps yelling, "Fox, Fox, Fox Fox, Fox".'
They reached the east bank. Lieutenant Fox in the lead. There was no opposition - the sentries had run off when the mortar was fired. As Fox stood there, panting and drinking in his victory, Thornton came up to him. Thornton said he had set up the Bren gun on the inside of the bridge, so that he could cover the advance party. Then he suggested to Fox that it might be a good idea to spread out a bit, instead of standing all bunched together on the end of the bridge. Fox agreed and spread the men out.
At 0021, Sweeney's glider was almost on the ground. Sweeney called out, 'Good luck, lads. Don't forget that as soon as we land, we're out and no hesitating'. Then he heard the glider pilot say, 'Oh, damn it'. The Horsa had hit a slight air pocket and dropped to the ground sooner than the pilot wanted it to. The landing itself was smooth, but the pilot apologised. 'I'm sorry, I've landed about 400 yards short.' Actually, he was closer to 700 metres short.
After his platoon had left the glider, Sweeney gathered the men and set off at a trot. They could hear the battle going on for the canal bridge. Almost immediately he fell into a drainage ditch and was soaked, but got out again and started doubling forward. When the platoon reached the river bridge they charged across, shouting 'Easy, Easy, Easy', at the top of their lungs. Because there was no opposition, Sweeney half-suspected that either Friday's or Fox's platoon had got there before him, 'but I still had that awful feeling as I went over the bridge that the thing might blow up in our face'. He left one section at the west bank, crossing with the other two sections.
There, on the other side of the bridge, were Fox and his men, all shouting back 'Fox, Fox, Fox'. The calm of the scene came as something of a disappointment: 'we were all worked up to kill the enemy, bayonet the enemy, be blown up or something and then we see nothing more than the unmistakable figure of Dennis Fox'.
Sweeney had often seen Fox standing, just like that, during the practice runs back at Exeter. Fox's great concern on the runs, like that of all the platoon leaders, had always been the umpires and how they would rate his performance.
Sweeney raced up to Fox. 'Dennis, Dennis, how are you? Is everything all right?'
Fox looked him up and down. 'Yes, I think so. Tod', he replied. 'But I can't find the bloody umpires.'
By 0021, the three platoons at the canal bridge had subdued most resistance from the machine-gun pits and the slit trenches - the enemy had either been killed or run off. Men previously detailed for the job began moving into the bunkers. This was not the most pleasant of tasks, according to Sandy Smith: 'we were not taking any prisoners or messing around, we just threw phosphorus grenades down and high-explosive grenades into the dugouts there, and anything that moved we shot.'
Wally Parr and Charlie Gardner led the way into the bunkers on the left. When they were underground, Parr pulled open the door to the first bunker and threw in a grenade. Immediately after the explosion, Gardner stepped into the open door and sprayed the room with his Sten gun. Parr and Gardner repeated the process twice; then, having cleaned out that bunker, and with their ear-drums apparently shattered for ever by the concussion and the sound, they went back up to the ground.
Their next task was to meet with Brotheridge, whose command post was scheduled to be the cafe, and take up firing positions. As they rounded the corner of the cafe, Gardner threw a phosphorus grenade towards the sound of sporadic German small-arms fire. Parr shouted at him, 'Don't throw another one of those bloody things, we'll never see what's happening.'
Parr asked another member of his platoon, 'Where's Danny?' (To his face, the men all called him 'Mr Brotheridge' but they thought of him and referred to him as 'Danny'.)
'Where's Danny?' Parr repeated. The soldier did not know, and said that he had not seen Brotheridge since crossing the bridge. 'Well', Parr thought, 'he's here, Danny must be here somewhere'. Parr started to run around the cafe when he ran past a man lying opposite the cafe in the road. Parr glanced at him as he ran on. 'Hang on', he said to himself, and went back and knelt down. 'I looked at him, and it was Danny Brotheridge. His eyes were open and his lips moving. I put me hand under his head to lift him up. He just looked. His eyes sort of rolled back. He just choked and lay back. My hand was covered in blood.
'I just looked at him and thought, "My God, what a waste!" All the years of training we put in to do this job-it lasted only seconds." '
Jack Bailey came running up. 'What the hell's going on?' he asked Parr. 'It's Danny', Parr replied. 'He's had it'. 'Christ Almighty', Bailey muttered,
Sandy Smith, who had thought that everyone was going to be incredibly brave, was learning about war. He was astonished to see one of his best men, someone he had come to depend on heavily during exercises and who he thought would prove to be a real leader on the other side, cowering and praying in a slit trench. Another reported a sprained ankle from the crash and limped off to seek protection. He had not been limping earlier. Lieutenant Smith lost a lot of illusions very fast.
On the other side of the bridge, David Wood's platoon was clearing out the slit trenches and the bunkers on each side of the road. Shouting 'Baker, Baker, Baker' as they moved along, they shot at any sign of movement in the trenches. The task went quickly enough, most of the enemy having run away, and soon the trenches were pronounced clear. Wood discovered an intact MG 34 with a complete belt of ammunition on it, and detailed two of his men to take over the gun. The remainder filled in the trenches, and Wood went back to report to Howard that he had accomplished his mission. As he moved back, congratulating his platoon along the way, there was a burst from a Schmeisser. Three bullets hit virtually simultaneously in his left leg, and Wood went down, frightened, unable to move, bleeding profusely.
Wallwork, meanwhile, had come to, lying on his stomach under the glider. 'I was stuck. Ainsworth was stuck and I could hear him. I came round. Ainsworth seemed to be in bad shape and yet he would shout. All he could say was, "Jim, are you all right, Jim? Are you all right, Jimmy?" and he was a sight worse than I was, he was pinned under.'
Wallwork asked if Ainsworth could crawl out. No. Well, could he get out if the glider were picked up? Yes. 'And I lifted the thing. I felt like I was lifting the whole bloody glider, I felt like Hercules when I picked this thing up. Ainsworth managed to crawl out.' As a medic looked after Ainsworth, Wallwork began to unload ammunition from the glider and carry it forward to the fighting platoons. He did not yet realise that his head and forehead had been badly cut, and that blood was streaking down his face.
Over at the river bridge, Sweeney's section on the far bank heard a patrol coming up the towpath from the direction of Caen. The section leader challenged the patrol with the password, 'V. But the answer from the patrol was certainly not 'for Victory', and it sounded like German. The entire section opened fire and killed all four men. Later investigation showed that among them was a gagged British para, one of the pathfinders who had been caught by the German patrol, and who was evidently being taken back to headquarters for interrogation.
By 0022, Howard had set up his command post in the trench on the northeast corner of the bridge. Corporal Tappenden, the wireless operator, was at his side. Howard tried to make out how the fire-fight was going at his bridge as he waited for reports from the river bridge. The first information to come to him was nearly devastating: Brotheridge was down.
'It really shook me', Howard says, 'because it was Den and how much of a friend he was, and because my leading platoon was now without an officer.' The next bit of news was just as bad: Wood, and his wireless operator and his sergeant, were all wounded and out of action. Another runner reported that Lieutenant Smith had about lost his wrist, and had a badly wrenched knee to boot.
All three platoon leaders gone, and in less than ten minutes! Fortunately, the sergeants were thoroughly familiar with the various tasks and could take over; in Wood's platoon, a corporal took charge. In addition. Smith was still on his feet, although hardly mobile and in great pain. Howard had no effective officers at the canal bridge, and did not know what was happening at the river bridge. Gloom might have given way to despair had he known that his second-in-command, Captain Friday, and one-sixth of his fighting strength, had landed twenty kilometres away on the River Dives.
Howard kept asking Tappenden if he had heard anything from nos. 4, 5, and 6. 'No', Tappenden kept replying, 'no, no'.
Over the next two minutes, there was a dramatic change in the nature of the reports coming in, and consequently in Howard's mood. First Jock Neilson of the sappers came up to him: 'There were no explosives under the bridge, John.' Neilson explained that the bridge had been prepared for demolition, but the explosives themselves had not been put into their chambers. The sappers removed all the firing mechanisms, then went into the line as infantry. The next day they found the explosives in a nearby shed.
Knowing that the bridge would not be blown was a great relief to Howard. Just as good, the firing was dying down, and from what Howard could see through all the smoke and in the on-again-off-again moonlight, his people had control of both ends of the canal bridge. Just as he realised that he had pulled off Ham, Tappenden tugged at his battle smock. Message coming in from Sweeney's platoon: 'We captured the bridge without firing a shot'.
Ham and Jam! D Company had done it. Howard felt a tremendous exultation, and a surge of pride in his company. 'Send it out', he told Tappenden. 'Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam, keep it up until you get an acknowledgement.' Tappenden began incessantly calling out, 'Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam'.
Tappenden was beaming the message towards the east, hoping that it would be picked up by Brigadier Poett. What he and Howard did not know was that Poett had never found his wireless operator, and was trudging towards them with only one soldier to accompany him.
Hold until relieved. Those were Howard's orders, but one. Brigadier and one rifleman did not constitute much of a relief.