Defense Media Network

Newest Defense Media Network Promotion

Pegasus Bridge

The first engagement of D-Day

The French phrase coup de main literally means “a strike of the hand.” In military jargon, it means “an offensive operation that capitalizes on surprise … to achieve success in one swift stroke.” In May 1940, nine assault gliders carrying German airborne troops crash-landed on the roof of the massive Belgian fortress of Eben Emael and quickly forced its surrender, clearing the way for a follow-on Panzer thrust. It was a brilliantly executed coup de main, and the Allies studied it carefully as they developed their own airborne forces and began planning the invasion of northern France and the liberation of Europe.

Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, was the biggest, most carefully planned combined operation of the war. It was also an enormous risk because of deteriorating weather, unpredictable German reaction, and countless other factors. To secure the right (eastern) flank of the beachhead, planners decided to drop the British 6th Airborne Division on the far side of the Orne River near the village of Ranville. If the Germans held the Orne bridges, or demolished them, the paratroops would be cut off from the landing force. They would be at risk of destruction by arriving Panzers. On the other hand, securing the bridges could enable an Allied breakout and advance toward Paris – a critical political and symbolic objective.

Overlord planners decided that a coup de main – a surprise glider assault – was the best option for capturing the bridges intact. A volunteer unit was chosen for the mission: 180 men of D Company, 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment (The “Ox and Bucks”). The regiment proudly traced its lineage back to 1755, with battle honors for Lexington, Bunker Hill, Waterloo, the Indian Mutiny, and Ypres.

Arising in the hills of Normandy, the Orne River runs down through the medieval town of Caen to reach the English Channel at the little port of Ouistreham. For the last part of its journey to the sea, a ship canal runs parallel to the Orne, a few hundred yards to the east. In June 1944, two little bridges spanning this river and canal were, briefly, the most strategic objectives in the world.

Overlord planners decided that a coup de main – a surprise glider assault – was the best option for capturing the bridges intact. A volunteer unit was chosen for the mission: 180 men of D Company, 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment (The “Ox and Bucks”). The regiment proudly traced its lineage back to 1755, with battle honors for Lexington, Bunker Hill, Waterloo, the Indian Mutiny, and Ypres.

Horsa Glider

Crew: pilot; co-pilot
Capacity: 20-25 troops (28 maximum)
Length: 67 feet (20.4 meters)
Wingspan: 88 feet (26.8 meters)
Loaded weight: 15,500 pounds (7,045 kg)
Max speed: 150 mph on two (242 kph); 100 mph gliding
Number built: more than 3,800
Built mostly of plywood, the Horsa was fabricated at British furniture factories and workshops to avoid interference with urgent production of fighters and bombers. Too heavy for the twin-engined Douglas C-47 the Horsa was normally towed by a four-engined RAF bomber such as the Stirling or Halifax. Assault gliders were intended for a one-way trip – even under ideal conditions landing was a barely controlled crash, leaving passengers stunned and bruised, if not worse. Flight crews were from the British Army’s elite Glider Pilot Regiment, organized in December 1941.

Leading the assault was Maj. John Howard (1912-1999). The eldest of nine children of a working-class family, Howard was a gifted athlete with a strong work ethic. After losing his job as a clerk during the Great Depression, he enlisted in the army in 1932. Promoted to corporal, he was rejected as an officer candidate and discharged in 1938. He became a policeman in Oxford and married. When war broke out in 1939, he re-enlisted, quickly rising to the rank of regimental sergeant major. Accepted as an officer candidate, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1940 and soon promoted to captain. When the Ox and Bucks became an airborne unit, he volunteered, taking a demotion to lieutenant in order to command a platoon. By May 1942, he was a major commanding D Company.

Howard’s men were armed with a mix of weapons: .303 bolt-action Lee Enfield rifles, 9 mm Sten submachine guns, and a few Bren light machine guns (the .303 British copy of a Czech design). He trained his company relentlessly with daily 5-mile (8 km) runs and frequent swimming, boxing, rugby, cliff climbing, and cross-country forced marches in full kit. Because of the importance of the mission, Howard was given unlimited priority on the strained resources of the Empire – whatever training ranges, live ammunition, or specialized equipment he requested were provided without question, except food. Strict wartime rationing meant that the men were always hungry, often augmenting their meager meals with food parcels from home and other self-bought items.

As an airborne unit, D Company flew into battle aboard six Horsa gliders. The advantage of gliders over individual parachutes is that a glider can deliver an entire squad or platoon of troops with their equipment precisely onto a target, while parachutists are often scattered over a wide area. Planners in World War II assumed a parachute unit would suffer about 2 percent casualties from jump injuries before it could even engage in combat. In the presence of enemy flak, or adverse winds, jump losses could be far worse.

Prev Page 1 2 3 Next Page