D-Day: 0026 to 0600 hours
With the bridges captured, Howard's concern shifted from the offence to the defence. He could expect a German counterattack at any time. He was not concerned about the safety of the river bridge, because British paratroopers were scheduled to begin landing around Ranville within thirty minutes, and they could take care of protecting that bridge. But to the front of the canal bridge, towards the west, he had no help at all - and a countryside jammed with German troops, German tanks, German lorries. Howard sent a runner over to the river bridge, with orders for Fox to bring his platoon over to the canal bridge. When Fox arrived, Howard intended to push his platoon forward to the T junction, as the lead platoon. Howard wanted them to take a fighting patrol role, breaking up any enemy preparations for attack.
Howard knew that it would take Fox some time to call his men in from their firing positions, for Sweeney to take over, and for Fox to march the quarter -mile from one bridge to the other. But he could already hear tanks starting up in Le Port. They headed south along the road to Benouville. To Howard's immense relief, the tanks did not turn at the T junction and come down towards the bridge, but instead continued on into Benouville. He surmised that the commanders of the garrisons in the two villages were conferring. Howard knew that the tanks would be back.
Tanks coming down from the T junction were by far his greatest worry. With their machine-gun and cannon, German tanks could easily drive D Company away from the bridges. To stop them he had only the Fiat guns, one per platoon, and the Gammon bombs. Parr came back to the CP from the west end of the bridge to report that he had heard tanks, and to announce that he was going back to the glider for the Fiat. 'Get cracking', Howard said.
Parr went down the embankment, climbed into the glider, and 'I couldn't see a bloody thing, could I? There was no torch, I started scrambling around and at last I found the Piat.' Parr picked it up, tripped over some ammunition, sprawled, got up again, and discovered the barrel of the Piat had bent. The gun was useless. Parr threw it down with disgust, grabbed some ammunition, and returned to the CP to tell Howard that the Piat was kaput.
Howard yelled across at one of Sandy Smith's men to make sure they had their Piat. Jim Wallwork trudged by, loaded like a pack horse, carrying ammunition up to the forward platoons. Howard looked at Wallwork's blood-covered face and thought, 'That's a strange colour of camouflage to be wearing at night'. He told Wallwork 'he looked like a bloody Red Indian'. Wallwork explained about his cuts - by this time, Wallwork thought he had lost his eye - and went about his business.
At about 0045, Dr Vaughan returned to consciousness. He pulled himself out of the mud and staggered back to the glider, where he could hear one of the pilots moaning. Unable to get the man out of the wreckage, he gave him a shot of morphine. Then Vaughan walked towards the bridge, where he could hear Tappenden calling out, 'Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam'.
Vaughan stumbled his way to the CP and found Howard 'sitting in this trench looking perfectly happy, issuing orders right and left'.
'Hello, Doc, how are you? Where the hell have you been?' Howard asked. Vaughan explained, and Howard told him to look after Brotheridge and Wood, who had been brought by stretcher to a little lane about 150 yards east of the bridge. (When Howard saw Brotheridge being carried past on the stretcher some minutes earlier, he could see that it was a fatal wound. 'At the top of my mind', Howard says, 'was the fact that I knew that Margaret, his wife, was expecting a baby almost any time'.
Vaughan set off for the west end of the bridge. There were shrieks of 'Come back. Doc, come back, that's the wrong way!' Howard pointed him towards his destination, the first-aid post in the lane. Before letting the still badly confused Doc wander off again, Howard gave him a shot of whisky from his emergency flask.
Vaughan finally made it to the aid post, where he found Wood lying on his stretcher. He examined the splint the medical orderly had put on, found it good enough, and gave Wood a shot of morphine. Then he started staggering down the road, again in the wrong direction, again raising cries of 'Come back, wrong way, unfriendly!'
Returning to the aid post, Vaughan found Den Brotheridge. 'He was lying on his back looking up at the stars and looking terribly surprised, just surprised. And I found a bullet hole right in the middle of his neck.' Vaughan, recovering quickly from his daze, gave Brotheridge a shot of morphine and dressed his wound. Soon after that Brotheridge died, the first Allied soldier to be killed in action on D-Day.
All this time, Tappenden was calling out, 'Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam'. And as the Doc looked after Den and the several other casualties. Fox and his platoon came marching in, in good order. Howard told him, 'Number 5 task', and Fox began moving across the bridge. As he passed Smith he got a quick briefing - the tiny bridgehead was secure for the moment, but hostile fire was coming from houses in both Le Port and Benouville, and tanks had been heard.
Fox remarked that his Piat had been smashed in the landing. 'Take mine, old boy'. Smith said, and handed his Piat to Fox. Fox in turn handed it to Sergeant Thornton. Poor Wagger Thornton, a man slightly smaller than average, was practically buried under equipment by now: he had on his pack, his grenade pouch, his Sten gun, magazines for the Bren gun and extra ammunition for himself. And now he was getting a Piat gun and two Piat bombs. Overloaded or not, he took the gun and followed Fox forward, towards the T junction.
At 0040, Richard Todd and his stick were over the Channel. Todd was standing over a hole in the bottom of the Stirling bomber, a leg on each side. On each leg he had a kit bag, one containing a rubber dinghy, the other entrenching tools. His Sten was strapped to his chest, and he carried a pack and a pouch full of grenades and plenty of extra ammunition. Todd's batman stood behind him, holding and trying to steady him as the Stirling took evasive action from the flak. 'Quite a lot of people did fall out over the sea from evasive action', according to Todd. His batman held tight to him, as the Channel slipped past below.
At precisely 0050, exactly on schedule, Howard heard low-flying bombers overhead, at about 400 feet. To the east and north ofRanville, flares - set by the pathfinders-began to light the sky. Simultaneously, German searchlights from every village in the area went on. Howard recalls the sight: 'We had a first -class view of the division coming in. Searchlights were lighting up the chutes and there was a bit of firing going on and you could see tracer bullets going up into the air as the paras floated down to the ground. It really was the most awe-inspiring sight... . Above all, it meant that we were no longer alone.'
Howard began blowing for all he was worth on his metal whistle. Dot, Dot, Dot (pause). Dash. It was his pre-arranged signal, V for Victory. Over and over he blew it, and the shrill sound carried for miles in the night air. This meant a great deal to the landing troops, says Howard. 'Paras who landed alone, in a tree or a bog, in a farmyard, alone, and away from their own friends, could hear that whistle. It not only meant that the bridges had been captured, but it also gave them an orientation.'
But it would take the paras at least an hour to get to the bridges in any significant numbers; meanwhile, the tanks were rumbling in Benouville. Wallwork, returning to his glider for another load, went by the CP 'and there was Howard, tooting on his bloody whistle and making all sorts of silly noises'. Howard stopped blowing long enough to tell Wallwork to get some Gammon bombs up to Fox and his men.
So, Wallwork says, it was 'Gammon bombs! Gammon bombs! Bloody Gammon bombs! I bowled my flip line. I had already been to look for the damned things once and told Howard that there weren't any in the glider. But he said, "I saw those Gammon bombs on the glider. Get them!" so back I went panning through this rather badly broken glider looking for the flaming things'.
As Wallwork switched on his torch he heard a rat-tat-tat through the glider. A German in a trench down the canal had seen the light and turned his Schmeisser on the glider. 'So off went the light, and I thought, "Howard, you've had your bloody Gammon bombs".' Wallwork grabbed a load of ammunition and returned to the bridge, reporting to Howard on his way past that there were no Gammon bombs. (No one ever figured out what happened to them. Wallwork claims that Howard pitched them before take-off to lighten the load;
Howard claims that they were pinched by the men from nos 2 and 3 platoons.)
Tappenden kept calling 'Ham and Jam'. Twice at least he really shouted it out, 'Ham and Jam, Ham and BLOODY Jam'.
At 0052 the target for Tappenden's message, Brigadier Poett, worked his way through the final few metres of corn and arrived at the river bridge. After checking with Sweeney on the situation there, he walked across to the canal bridge.
Howard's first thought, when he saw his brigadier coming towards him, was 'Sweeney's going to get a bloody rocket from me for not letting me know, either by runner or radio, that the brigadier was in the company area'. Meanwhile he gave his report, and Poett looked around. 'Well, everything seems all right, John', Poett said. They crossed the bridge and conferred with Smith. All three officers could hear the tanks and lorries in Benouville and Le Port; all three knew that if help did not arrive soon, they could lose their precarious hold on the bridge.
At 0052, Richard Todd landed, with other paras dropping all around him. Like Poett earlier, Todd could not get orientated because he could not see the steeple of the Ranville church. Tracer bullets were flying across the DZ, so he unbuckled and made for a nearby wood, where he hoped to meet other paras and get his bearings. He got them from Howard's whistle.
Major Nigel Taylor, commanding a company of the 7 Para Battalion, was also confused. The first man he ran into was an officer who had a bugler with him. The two had dropped earlier, with Poett and the pathfinders. Their job was to find the rendezvous in Ranville, then start blowing on the bugle the regimental call of the Somerset Light Infantry. But the officer told Taylor, 'I've been looking for this damned rendezvous for three-quarters of an hour, and I can't find it'. They ducked into a wood, where they found Colonel Pine Coffin, the battalion commander. He too was lost. They got out their maps, put a torch on them, but still could not make out their location. Then they, too, heard Howard's whistle.
Knowing where Howard was did not solve all Pine Coffin's problems. Fewer than 100 men of his more than 500-man force had gathered around him. He knew that Howard had the bridges, but as Nigel Taylor explains, he also knew that 'the Germans had a propensity for immediate counter-attack. Our job was to get down across that bridge, to the other side. We were the only battalion scheduled to go on that side, west of the canal. So Pine Coffin's dilemma was, should he move off with insufficient men to do the job, or wait for the battalion to form up. He knew he had to get off as quickly as possible to relieve John Howard.' At about 0110, Pine Coffin decided to set off at double-time for the bridges, leaving one man to direct the rest of his battalion when it came up.
In Ranville, meanwhile, Major Schmidt had decided he should investigate all the shooting going on at his bridges. He grabbed one last plateful of food, a bottle of wine, his girlfriend, and his driver, summoned his motorcycle escort, and roared off for the river bridge. He was in a big, open Mercedes. As they sped past his girlfriend's house, she screamed that she wanted to be let out. Schmidt ordered the driver to halt, opened the door for her, and sped on.
The Mercedes came on so fast that Sweeney's men did not have a chance to fire at it until it was already on the bridge. They did open up on the motorcycle that was trailing the car, hit it broadside, and sent it and its driver skidding off into the river. Sweeney, on the west bank, fired his Sten at the speeding Mercedes, riddling it and causing it to run straight off the road. Sweeney's men picked up the driver and Major Schmidt, both badly wounded. In the car they found wine, plates of food, lipstick, stockings and lingerie. Sweeney had the wounded Schmidt and his driver put on stretchers and carried over to the first -aid post.
By the time he arrived at the post, Schmidt had recovered from his initial shock. He began screaming, in perfect English, that he was the commander of the garrison at the bridge, that he had let his Flihrer down, that he was humiliated and had lost his honour, and that he demanded to be shot. Alternatively he was yelling that 'You British are going to be thrown back, my Flihrer will see to that, you're going to be thrown back into the sea'.
Vaughan got out a syringe of morphine and jabbed Schmidt with it, then set about dressing his wounds. The effect of the morphine, Vaughan reports, 'was to induce him to take a more reasonable view of things and after ten minutes more of haranguing me about the futility of the Allied attempt to defeat the master race, he relaxed. Soon he was profusely thanking me for my medical attentions.' Howard confiscated Schmidt's binoculars.
Schmidt's driver, a sixteen-year-old German, had had one leg blown off. The other leg was just hanging - Vaughan removed it with his scissors. Within half an hour, the boy was dead.
By 0115, Howard had completed his defensive arrangements at the canal bridge. He had Wood's platoon with him at the east end along with the sappers, whom he had organised into a reserve platoon patrolling between the two bridges. On the west side, Brotheridge's platoon held the cafe and the ground around it, while Smith's platoon held the bunkers to the right. Smith was in command of both platoons, but he was growing increasingly groggy from loss of blood and the intense pain in his knee, which had started to stiffen. Fox was up ahead, towards the T junction, with Thornton carrying the only working Piat that side of the bridge. The paras of the 7th Battalion were on their way, but their arrival time - and their strength - was uncertain.
Howard could hear tanks. He was desperate to establish radio communication with Fox, but could not. Then he saw a tank swing slowly, ever so slowly, down towards the bridge, its great cannon sniffing the air like the trunk of some prehistoric monster. 'And it wasn't long before we could see a couple of them about twenty-five yards apart moving very, very slowly. They obviously did not know what to expect when they got down to the bridges.'
Everything now hung in the balance. If the Germans retook the canal bridge, they would then drive on to overwhelm Sweeney's platoon at the river bridge. There they could have set up a defensive perimeter, bolstered by tanks, so strong that the 6th Airborne Division would have found it difficult, perhaps impossible, to break through. If that happened, the division would be isolated, without anti -tank weapons to fight off von Luck's armour.
In other words a great deal was at stake up there near the T junction. Fittingly, as so much was at stake, the battle at the bridge at 0130 on D-Day provided a fair test of the British and German armies of World War II. Each side had advantages and disadvantages. Howard's opponents were the company commanders in Benouville and Le Port. Like Howard, they had been training for over a year for this moment. They had been caught by surprise, but the troops at the bridge had been their worst troops, not much of a loss. In Benouville, the 1st Panzer Engineering Company of the 716 Infantry Division, and in Le Port the 2nd Engineers, were slightly better quality troops. The whole German military tradition, reinforced by their orders, compelled them to launch an immediate counter-attack. They had the platoons to do it with, and the armoured vehicles. What they did not have was a sure sense of the situation, because they kept getting conflicting reports.
Those conflicting reports were one of the weaknesses of the German army in France. They came about partly because of the language difficulties. The officers could not understand Polish or Russian, the men could not understand much German. The larger problem was the presence of so many conscripted foreigners in their companies, which in turn reflected Germany's most basic problem in World War II. Germany had badly overreached herself. Her population could not provide all the troops required on the various fronts. Filling the trenches along the Atlantic Wall with what amounted to slaves from East Europe looked good on paper, but in practice such soldiers were nearly worthless.
On the other hand, German industry did get steady production out of slave labour. Germany had been able to provide her troops with the best weapons in the world, and in abundance. By comparison, British industrial output was woefully inferior, both in quantity and quality (the British, of course, were far ahead of the Germans in aircraft and ship construction).
But although his arms were inferior, Howard was commanding British troops, and every man among them a volunteer who was superbly trained. They were vastly superior to their opponents. Except for Fox and the crippled Smith, Howard was without officers on the canal bridge, but he personally enjoyed one great advantage over the German commanders. He was in his element, in the middle of the night, fresh, alert, capable of making snap decisions, getting accurate reports from his equally fresh and alert men. The German commanders were confused, getting conflicting reports, tired and sleepy. Howard had placed his platoons exactly where he had planned to put them, with three on the west side to meet the first attacks, two in reserve on the east side (including the sappers) and one at the river bridge. Howard had seen to it that his anti-tank capability was exactly where he had planned to put it, up near the T junction. The German commanders, by way of contrast, were groping, hardly sure of where their own platoons were, unable to decide what to do.
The problem was, how could Howard's men deal with those tanks? They could not find their Gammon bombs, and hand-thrown grenades were of little or no use because they usually bounced off the tank and exploded harmlessly in the air. Bren and Sten guns were absolutely useless. The only weapon Howard had to stop those tanks with was Sergeant Thornton's Piat gun.
That gun, and the fact that he had trained D Company for precisely this moment, the first contact with tanks. Howard felt confident that Thornton was at the top of his form, totally alert, not the least bothered by the darkness or the hour. And Thornton was fully proficient in the use of a Piat: he knew precisely where he should hit the lead tank to knock it out.
Others were not quite so confident. Sandy Smith recalls 'hearing this bloody thing, feeling a sense of absolute terror, saying my God, what the hell am I going to do with these tanks coming down the road?' Billy Gray, who had taken up a position in an unoccupied German gun pit, saw the tank coming down the road and thought, 'that was it, we would never stop a tank. It was about twenty yards away from us, because we were up on this little hillock but it did give a sort of field of fire straight up the road. We fired up the road at anything we could see moving.'
Gray was tempted to fire at the tank, as most men in their first hour of combat would have done. But they had been trained not to fire; and they did what their training dictated. They did not, in short, reveal their positions, thus luring the tank into the killing area.
Howard had expected the tanks to be preceded by an infantry reconnaissance patrol - that was the way he would have done it - but the Germans had neglected to do so. Their infantry platoons were following the two tanks. So the tanks rolled forward, ever so slowly, the tank crews unaware that they had already crossed the front line.
The first Allied company in the invasion was about to meet the first German counter-attack. It all came down to Thornton, and the German tank crews. Their visibility was such that they could not see Thornton, half-buried as he was under that pile of equipment. Thornton was about thirty yards from the T junction, and he willingly admits that 'I was shaking like a bloody leaf!' With the sound of the tank coming towards him, he fingered his Piat.
Thornton's confidence in the gun was low, given its effective range of about fifty yards.
You're a dead loss if you try to go further. Even fifty yards is stretching it, especially at night. Another thing is that you must never, never miss. If you do you've had it because by the time you reload the thing and cock it, which is a bloody chore on its own, everything's gone, you're done. It's drilled into your brain that you mustn't miss.
Thornton wanted to shoot at the shortest possible distance.
And sure enough, in about three minutes, this bloody great thing appears. I was more hearing it than seeing it, in the dark, it was rattling away there, and it turned out to be a Mark IV tank coming along pretty slowly, and they hung around for a few seconds to figure out where they were and what was happening ahead. Only had two of the bombs with me. Told myself you mustn't miss. Anyhow, although I was shaking, I took an aim and bang, off it went.
The tank had just turned at the T junction.
I hit him round about right bang in the middle. I made sure I had him right in the middle. I was so excited and so shaking I had to move back a bit.
Then all hell broke loose. The explosion from the Piat bomb penetrated the tank, setting off the machine-gun clips, which started setting off grenades, which started setting off shells. Everyone who saw the tank hit testifies to the absolute brilliance, the magnificence, of the fireworks that followed. As Glen Gray points out in his book The Warriors, a battlefield can be an extraordinary visual display, with red, green, or orange tracers skimming about, explosions going off here and there, flares lighting up portions of the sky. But few warriors have ever seen such a display as that near Benouville bridge before dawn on D-Day.
The din, the light show, could be heard and seen by paratroopers many kilometres from the bridge. Indeed, it provided an orientation and thus got them moving in the right direction.
When the tank went off, Fox took protection behind a wall. He explains:
You couldn't go very far because, whiz-bang, a bullet or shell went straight past you. But finally it died down and incredibly we heard this man crying out. Old Tommy Clare couldn't stand it any longer and he went straight out up to the tank and it was blazing away and he found the driver had got out of the tank and was lying beside it still conscious. Both legs were gone, he had been hit in the knees getting out .Clare was always kind, and an immensely strong fellow (back in barracks he once broke a man's jaws by just one blow). He hunched this poor old German on his back and took him to the first-aid post. I thought it was useless of course, but, in fact, I believe the man lived.
He did, but only for a few more hours. He turned out to be the commander of the 1st Panzer Engineering Company.
The fireworks show went on and on - altogether it lasted for more than an hour - and it helped convince the German company commanders that the British were present in great strength. Indeed, the lieutenant in the second tank withdrew to Benouville, where he reported that the British had six-pounder anti-tank guns at the bridge. The German officers decided that they would have to wait until dawn and a clarification of the situation before launching another counter-attack. Meanwhile, the lead tank smouldered, blocking the enemy's movements towards the bridge. John Howard's men had won the battle of the night.
By the time the tank went up, at about 0130 hours, Poett's men of the 5th Para Brigade, led by Pine Coffin's 7th Battalion, with Nigel Taylor's company leading the way, were double-timing towards the bridge - at less than one-third of their full strength. The paras knew they were late, and they thought from the fireworks that Howard was undergoing intensive attacks. But, as Taylor explains, 'it's very difficult to double in the dark carrying a heavy weight on uneven ground'.
When they got on the road leading to the bridges, they ran into Brigadier Poett, who was headed back towards his CP in Ranville. 'Come on Nigel', Poett called out to Taylor in his high-pitched voice. 'Double, double, double.' Taylor thought the order rather superfluous, but in fact his men did break into 'a rather shambling run'.
Richard Todd was in the group. He recalls the paratrooper medical officer catching up with him, grabbing him by the arm, and saying, 'Can I come with you? You see I'm not used to this sort of thing.' The doctor 'was rather horrified because we passed a German who had had his head shot off, but his arms and legs were still waving about and strange noises were coming out of him, and I thought even the doctor was a bit turned over by that'.
Todd remembers thinking, as he was running between the river and the canal bridges, 'Now we're really going into it, because there was a hell of an explosion and a terrific amount of firing, and tracers going in all directions. It looked like there was a real fight going on.' Major Taylor thought, 'Oh, Lord, I'm going to have to commit my company straight into battle on the trot'.
When 7th Battalion arrived at the bridge, Howard gave the leaders a quick briefing. The paras then went across, Nigel Taylor's company moving out to the left, into Benouville, while the other companies moved right, into Le Port. Richard Todd took up his position on a knoll just below the little church in Le Port, while Taylor led his company to prearranged platoon positions in Benouville, cutting the main road from Caen to the coast at Ouistreham. Taylor recalls that, except for the tank exploding in the background, within the hour 'everything was absolutely dead quiet'. The Germans had settled down to await the outcome of the 'battle' at the T junction.
A German motorcycle started up and the driver came around the corner, headed for the T junction. Taylor's men were on both sides of the road, 'and they've been training for God knows how many years to kill Germans, and this is the first one they've seen'. They all opened up. As the driver went into shock from the impact of a half-dozen or more bullets, his big twin-engined BMW bike flipped over and came down on him. The throttle was stuck on full, and the bike was in gear. 'It was absolutely roaring its head off, and every time it hit the ground the thing was bucking, shying about.' The bike struck one of Taylor's men, causing injuries that later resulted in death, before someone finally got the engine shut off. It was about 0230 hours.
At 0300 hours, Howard got a radio message from Sweeney, saying that Pine Coffin and his battalion headquarters were crossing the river bridge, headed towards the canal. Howard immediately started walking east, and met Pine Coffin half-way between the bridges. They walked back to the canal together, Howard telling Pine Coffin what had happened and what the situation was, so that by the time they arrived at the canal bridge Pine Coffin was already in the picture.
As he crossed the bridge. Pine Coffin queried Sergeant Thornton. Nodding towards the burning tank, the colonel asked, 'What the bloody hell's going on up there?'
'It's only a bloody old tank going off, Thornton replied, 'but it is making an awful racket'.
Pine Coffin grinned. 'I should say so.' Then he turned right, to make his headquarters on an embankment facing the canal, right on the edge of Le Port near the church. Howard followed soon afterwards to attend an '0' group meeting called by Pine Coffin. Returning to the bridge, Howard reconnoitred lines of approach and likely counter-attack areas. While he did so he became mixed up in fighting going on between 7 Para and the enemy, and only vigorous swearing prevented him being shot by a para corporal.
After unloading the Horsa he had flown in as no. 2 glider pilot, Sergeant Boland went off exploring. He headed south, walking beside and below the tow path, and got to the outskirts of Caen. His may have been the deepest penetration ofD-Day, although as Boland points out, there were scattered British paras dropping all around him, and some of the paras possibly came down even closer to Caen. At any event, it would be some weeks later before British and Canadian forces got that far again.
Boland says 'I decided I had better go back because it was bloody dangerous, not from the Germans but from bloody paras who were a bit trigger-happy. They'd landed all over the place, up trees. God knows where, and were very susceptible to firing at anybody coming from that direction.' After establishing his identity by using the password, Boland led a group of paras back to the bridge.
When he arrived, he saw Wallwork sitting on the bank. 'How are you, Jim?' he asked. Wallwork looked past Boland, saw the paras, and went into a rocket. 'Where have you been till now?' he demanded. 'We'd all thought you were on a forty-eight-hour pass. The bloody war is over.'
'The paras thought they were rescuing us', Boland says. 'We felt we were rescuing them.'
The arrival of the 7th Battalion freed D Company from its patrolling responsibilities on the west bank and allowed Howard to pull his men back to the ground between the two bridges, where they were held as a reserve company.
When Wally Parr arrived, he set to examining the anti-tank gun emplacement, which had been unmanned when the British arrived and practically unnoticed since. Parr discovered a labyrinth of tunnels under the emplacement, and began exploring with the aid of another private. He discovered sleeping quarters. There was nothing in the first two compartments he checked, but in the third he found a man in bed, shaking violently. Parr slowly pulled back the blanket. 'There was this young soldier lying there in full uniform and he was shaking from top to toe.' Parr got him up with his bayonet, then took him up onto the ground and put him in the temporary POW cage. Then he returned to the gun pit, where he was joined by Billy Gray, Charlie Gardner, and Jack Bailey.
On his side of the bridge, across the road. Sergeant Thornton had persuaded Lieutenant Fox that there were indeed Germans still sleeping deep down in the dugouts. They set off together, with a torch, to find them. Thornton took Fox to a rear bunkroom, opened the door, and shone his light on three Germans, all snoring, with their rifles neatly stacked in the corner. Thornton removed the rifles, then covered Fox with his Sten while Fox shook the German in the top bunk. He snored on. Fox ripped off the blanket, shone his torch in the man's face, and told him to get up.
The German took a long look at Fox. He saw a wild-eyed young man, dressed in a ridiculous camouflage smock, his face blackened, pointing a little toy gun at him. He concluded that one of his buddies was playing a small joke. He told Fox, in German, but in a tone of voice and with a gesture that required no translation, to bugger off. Then he turned over and went back to sleep.
'It took the wind right out of my sails', Fox admits. 'Here I was a young officer, first bit of action, first German I had seen close up and giving him an order and receiving such a devastating response, well it was a bit deflating.' Thornton, meanwhile, laughed so hard he was crying. He collapsed on the floor, roaring with laughter.
Fox looked at him. 'To Hell with this', the lieutenant said to the sergeant. 'You take over.'
Fox went back up to ground level. Shortly thereafter, Thornton brought him a prisoner who spoke a bit of English. Thornton suggested that Fox might like to interrogate him. Fox began asking him about his unit, where other soldiers were located, and so on. But the German ignored his questions. Instead, he demanded to know, 'Who are you? What are you doing here? What is going on?'
Fox tried to explain that he was a British officer and that the German was a prisoner. The German could not believe it. 'Oh, come on, you don't mean it, you can't, well how did you land, we didn't hear you land, I mean where did you come from?' Poor Fox suddenly realised that he was the one being interrogated, and turned the proceedings back over to Thornton, but not before admiring photographs of the prisoner's family.
Von Luck was furious. At 0130 hours he received the first reports of British paratroopers in his area and immediately put his regiment on full alert. Locally he counted on his company commanders to launch their own counter-attacks wherever the British had captured a position, but the bulk of the regiment he ordered to assemble northeast of Caen. The assembly went smoothly enough, and by 0300 von Luck had gathered his men and their tanks and their SPVs, altogether an impressive force. The officers and men were standing beside their tanks and vehicles, engines running, ready to go.
But although von Luck had prepared for exactly this moment - knew where he wanted to go, in what strength, over what routes, with what alternatives - he could not give the order to go. Because of the jealousies and complexities of the German high command, because Rommel disagreed with Rundstedt, because Hitler was contemptuous of his generals and did not trust them to boot, the German command structure was a hopeless muddle. Without going into the details of such chaos, it is sufficient to note here that Hitler had retained personal control of the armoured divisions. They could not be used in a counter-attack until he had personally satisfied himself that the action was the real invasion. But Hitler was sleeping, and no one ever liked to wake him, and besides the reports coming into the German headquarters were confused and contradictory, and in any case hardly alarming enough to suggest that this was the main invasion. A night -time paratrooper drop might just be a diversion. So no order came to von Luck to move out.
'My idea, after I got more information about the parachute landings, and the gliders, was that a night attack would be the right way to counter-attack, starting at 3 or 4 in the morning, before the British could organise their defences, before their air force people could come, before the British navy could hit us. We were quite familiar with the ground and I think that we could have been able to get through to the bridge. The ultimate goal would be to cut off Howard's men from the main body of the landings. Then the whole situation on the east side of the bridge would have been different. The paratroopers would have been isolated and I would have communications with the other half of the 21st Panzer Division.'
But von Luck could not act on his own initiative, so there he sat. He was a senior officer in an army that prided itself on its ability to counter-attack, and leading one of the divisions Rommel most counted upon to lead the D-Day counter-attack. Personally quite certain of what he could accomplish, he had his attack routes all laid out. Yet he was rendered immobile by the intricacies of the leadership principle in the Third Reich.
Towards dawn, as von Luck waited impatiently, his men brought him two prisoners and a motorcycle. The prisoners were glider-borne troops who had come in with the first wave of 6th Airborne, east ofRanville. A German patrol had captured these two, and taken the motorcycle from the wrecked glider. Von Luck looked at the motorcycle. To his amazement, it was his. He had used it in North Africa in 1942 and lost it to the British in Tunisia in 1943; the British had brought the bike back to England, then brought it over to the Continent for the invasion. So von Luck got his bike back, and he used it till the end of the war. But he still could not move out.
The Gondrees, too, were immobilised in the cellar of their cafe. Therese, shivering in her nightdress, urged Georges to return to the ground floor and investigate. 'I am not a brave man', he later admitted, 'and I did not want to be shot, so I went upstairs on all fours and crawled to the first-floor window. There I heard talk outside but could not distinguish the words, so I pushed open the window and peeped out cautiously. I saw in front of the cafe two soldiers sitting near my petrol pump with a corpse between them.'
Georges was seen by one of the paras. 'Vous civile?' the soldier kept asking. Georges tried to assure him that he was indeed a civilian, but the man did not speak French and Georges, not knowing what was going on, did not want to reveal that he spoke English. He tried some halting German, that got nowhere, and he returned to the cellar, to await daylight and developments. Meanwhile Howard's men dug trenches in his garden.
By about 0500, Sandy Smith's knee had stiffened to the point of near -helplessness, his arm had swollen to more than twice normal size, his wrist was throbbing with pain. He approached Howard and said he thought he ought to go over to the first-aid post and have his wounds and injuries looked after. 'Must you go?' asked Howard, plaintively. Smith promised that he would be back in a minute. When he got to the post, Vaughan wanted to give him morphine. Smith refused. Vaughan said he could not go back to duty anyway, because he would be more of a nuisance than a help. Smith took the morphine.
Thus when Howard, returned from his hectic reconnaissance expedition, called for a meeting of platoon leaders at his CP, just before dawn, the full weight of the officer loss he had suffered struck him directly. Brotheridge's platoon (no. 1) was being commanded by Corporal Caine, the sergeant out of action and the lieutenant dead. Both Wood's and Smith's platoons (nos. 2 and 3) were also commanded by corporals. The second-in-command, Brian Friday, and the no. 4 platoon leader. Tony Hooper, had not been heard from. Only nos. 5 and 6 (led by Sweeney and Fox) had their full complement of officers and NCOs. There had been a dozen casualties, plus two dead.
Howard had not called his platoon leaders together to congratulate them on their accomplishment, but rather to prepare for the future. He went through various counter-attack routes and possibilities with them, in case the Germans broke through the lines of the 7 Para. Then he told them to have everyone stand-to until first light. At dawn, half the men could stand down and try to catch some sleep.
As the sky began to brighten, the light revealed D Company in occupation of the ground between the two bridges. It had carried out its mission.
The Germans wanted the bridge back, but their muddled command structure was hurting them badly. At 0300, von Luck had ordered the 8th Heavy Grenadier Battalion, which was one of his forward units located north of Caen and on the west side of the Orne waterways, to march on Benouville and retake the bridge. But, as Lieutenant Werner Kortenhaus reports, despite its name the 8th Heavy Grenadier Battalion had with it only its automatic weapons, some light anti -aircraft guns, and some grenade launches. No armour. Nevertheless, the Grenadiers attacked, inflicting casualties on Major Taylor's company and driving it back into the middle of Benouville. The Grenadiers then dug in around the Chateau and waited for the arrival of panzers from 21st Panzer Division.
Lieutenant Kortenhaus, who stood beside his tank, engine running, recalls his overwhelming thought over the last two hours of darkness: Why didn't the order to move come? If we had immediately marched we would have advanced under cover of darkness. But Hitler was still sleeping, and the order did not come.