On the morning of June 6, 1944, a handful of gliders carrying a handpicked strike force landed behind enemy lines in France and set out to destroy bridges along the Orne River and the Caen Canal. For most of the glider-borne force, the mission proceeded pretty much according to plan. In fact, the assault would go down in the history books as one of Britain’s most notable D-Day successes. But for the troops who came across the English Channel in Glider No. 4, June 6 would turn into a confusing, if ultimately rewarding, episode in their own Normandy experiences. Today the story of those men who rode to battle in Glider No. 4 is largely forgotten.
The idea for the daring British glider attacks began in the mind of Maj. Gen. Richard Gale, widely known as ‘Windy.’ Gale commanded the British 6th Airborne Division in 1944 as General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff were fleshing out the plans for the invasion of Normandy. Eisenhower’s plan was for an amphibious assault, shrouded in secrecy and deception, which would storm five invasion beaches along the Norman coast, gain a foothold and then break out to advance through France. Failure was a very real possibility if the Germans got wind of the operation and were able to meet the Allied invasion at the beaches with superior forces.
Those superior forces, including the entire German Fifteenth Army, were stationed to the east of Normandy around Pas de Calais, awaiting an anticipated invasion. It was an obvious location, since Calais was the shortest distance across the Channel — only 25 miles from Dover. But Eisenhower instead chose to send his troops across the longest distance: almost 100 miles from England to Normandy. That move would afford him some advantage in the form of surprise, but any initial success gained through that measure could be negated if the Fifteenth Army reacted quickly and moved its forces to the west. The Germans could strike Eisenhower’s vulnerable left flank at Sword Beach and then systematically roll up his entire force with continuing flanking attacks, smashing west along the Norman coast.
Eisenhower tasked General Gale with preventing that dreaded flank attack. Gale’s lightly armed paratroopers — seemingly the least likely unit to stop an armored thrust — were the only force capable of getting in quickly. Speed was vital. Once in Normandy, they would have to hold until relieved. And if things did not go well for the rest of the invasion force, that could be a tall order.
Gale planned to drop his division east of Sword Beach and destroy the bridges along the Dives River, 10 miles farther to the east. He would then have his troopers form a semicircular defense behind the Dives, where they would await their fate. But there was one problem. The Caen Canal and the Orne River ran adjacent to Sword Beach and would be directly behind his defenses facing the Dives. Gale’s men would be vulnerably sandwiched between the Dives and those two bodies of water.
If the attacking German forces could destroy the bridges over the Orne River and the Caen Canal, they would have succeeded in isolating Gale’s men from the very beaches they were trying to protect. The British 6th Airborne Division would then be left on its own, fighting with its back to the water, facing possible annihilation. To overcome this unpleasant possibility, General Gale conceived of a strike force that would land in gliders prior to the main parachute drop. Six gliders carrying a total of 180 men would land and attempt to seize the two bridges intact, before the Germans could destroy them.
The bold plan, even on paper, did not look easy. It would fail if not executed perfectly, but Gale thought it had a reasonable chance of success. The 6th Airborne’s commander reasoned that the forces defending the bridges might be somewhat lethargic. After all, the Germans had occupied northern France for four long years, during which time they had been guarding many such crossings against little or no opposition.
If Gale was right, a lightning strike might succeed in seizing the bridges before the defenders realized what was happening. Intelligence reports indicated that the bridges were wired for demolition, but it seemed unlikely that detonation wires were actually hooked to a ‘hellbox’ that could trigger a detonation. A commander would probably not want to risk an accidental explosion.
Even in the event of a surprise attack, Gale concluded, the German guards would not simply blow the bridge on hearing the first shot. It would take several minutes for the defenders to determine what was really happening.
Adding up all his suppositions, Gale estimated that he had five minutes to get to the bridges and disarm them before the defenders would put two and two together. If the attack took longer than that, Gale feared that the crossings could not be seized intact and his division would be in grave peril.
To lead a force that would have to mount the attack, Gale and his planners chose Major John Howard and Company D, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Howard was allowed to reinforce his company’s four platoons by adding two additional platoons from Company B, along with 30 sappers from the Royal Engineers.
Howard’s force was regarded by many as one of the most elite in the British army. One veteran trainer — who had participated in the exercises to prepare Howard’s men before the mission — watched as the troops hurled themselves onto barbed-wire barricades so that following men could use their bodies as stepping-stones over the wire. Shaking his head, he said, ‘I pity the bloody Germans; these buggers are mad!’
Howard’s second-in-command was a good-looking captain named Brian Priday. The plan was for three gliders under Howard to land and seize the bridge on the Caen Canal, while the remaining three gliders under Captain Priday seized the bridge over the Orne River. Four hundred yards separated the two bridges over the waterways.
Throughout May, Howard and his men practiced their attack. They conducted a dozen mock assaults on sites replicating the two-bridge objective, while the glider pilots flew 43 training flights. At the conclusion of the training period, the ‘Ox and Bucks’ men were so conditioned that some felt they could probably do the job in their sleep.
Finally, at the end of May, the whole force was sealed in at the RAF base at Tarrant Rushton, while the rest of the Normandy assault force went into quarantined areas all across southern England. They could now only await the order to attack. Each morning his men spent at Tarrant Rushton, Howard awaited a dispatch rider carrying a single-word order that would mean that the attack was on. The word that Howard was looking for was ‘Cromwell.’ All other words were meaningless and meant the attack had yet to begin. On Sunday, June 4, the rider stopped and whispered the magic word to Howard. But Eisenhower was forced to postpone operations because of a fierce storm over the Channel.
On June 5 the weather was still foul, and Howard was somewhat surprised when the dispatch rider delivered his Cromwell message once again. By 10 p.m., the Ox and Bucks men were ready to board their gliders.
Howard went around to all his men as they were standing next to their aircraft. ‘I gave my `Ham and Jam’ farewell,’ Howard later said. ‘Those words were very important to us.’ ‘Ham’ was the success code word for capturing the Caen Canal Bridge intact, and ‘Jam’ was the success code for the Orne River Bridge. Howard then took his seat in Glider No. 1, while Brian Priday boarded Glider No. 4, along with platoon commander Lieutenant Tony Hooper and his unit, including Lance Sgt. Tich Raynor and Lance Cpl. Felix Clive.
Takeoff time was scheduled for 10:56, and right on the dot Howard’s Airspeed Horsa glider was airborne, towed by a Handley Page Halifax bomber. The other five gliders were right in line behind Howard. Glider No. 2 had David Wood’s platoon, No. 3 had Sandy Smith’s unit, No. 4 was occupied by Tony Hooper’s men, No. 5 carried Dennis Fox’s platoon and No. 6 was filled with Todd McSweeney’s unit. The crossing over the Channel would take just over an hour. Through the portholes of the gliders, the troops could see other planes headed toward targets that were to be bombed prior to the invasion.
In Glider No. 1, Howard’s men started to loosen up a bit, some of them even singing Cockney tunes as a way to pass the time during their journey. But the singing only masked their nervousness about what they might face on landing. The men had been shown the most recent aerial photos, and they had seen newly dug holes in the Normandy countryside for anti-glider stakes, nicknamed ‘Rommel asparagus’ by Allied troopers. Many of those holes appeared near the bridge landing sites. Each man had plenty to think about as the gliders neared the French coast.
The tow planes and gliders crossed over the town of Cabourg, at which point the glider pilots cut themselves loose from the bombers. Once free of the tow planes, the gliders were in free flight at 6,000 feet, and each plane went into a steep dive to get through the flak belt being thrown up by the German anti-aircraft guns targeting the bombers that droned onward.
The steep dive brought painful pressure to the ears, and to relieve it each man blew hard while holding his nose. Many of the paratroopers fought queasiness as the powerless aircraft swooped downward in the darkness. In the cockpits, co-pilots began monitoring stopwatches as pilots checked their compasses to make the exacting runs on the downwind and upwind legs of the flight. They would have to work to stretch the glide out far enough to reach the bridges 10 miles away.
In Glider No. 1, pilot Jim Wallwork held the aircraft steady while John Ainsworth called out, ‘5-4-3-2-1-bingo, right turn.’ The glider turned to starboard and onto the course of the crosswind leg. Wallwork strained to see what lay ahead of them in the light from a half-moon.
‘Halfway down the crosswind leg, I could see it,’ Wallwork later recalled. ‘I could see the river and the canal like strips of silver and I could see the bridges. So then, to hell with the course, I didn’t complete the crosswind leg. I bowled down and landed rather quickly.’
Wallwork glided in at 95 mph. He was a little fast, having hoped to come in at 85. He deployed his arrester parachute for a few seconds, then released it and crashed into the corner of a small triangular field next to the Caen Canal Bridge. The nose wheel came off, the cockpit collapsed and Wallwork and Ainsworth were thrown through the cockpit. The rest of the men were tossed about as well, with Howard smashing his head on a beam, which jammed his helmet down over his eyes. For a brief moment Howard thought he had suddenly been blinded, but he quickly recovered his wits and found his platoon commander, Lieutenant Den Brotheridge.
Kneeling next to Brotheridge, Howard heard him give his section leader a simple, four-word order: ‘Get your chaps moving.’ Nothing more was necessary. Each man knew just what to do. In minutes, men of No. 1 platoon were racing across the bridge, firing as they ran and tossing grenades into bunkers. A flare went off, fired by a German sentry.
One minute after Glider No. 1 landed, Glider No. 2 was down. ‘I dropped to the ground with an almighty crash,’ said pilot Oliver Boland, ‘and we crashed along and managed to stop.’
Directly behind No. 2 came No. 3, which initially touched down behind Glider No. 2 but then shot into the air and sailed over No. 2, crash-landing between it and Glider No. 1. Number 3 broke in half upon the second impact and hurled Private Fred Diggs into a pond, pinning him there until he drowned. Had the glider not become airborne after its first impact, it would have crashed into the rear of glider No. 2, and two-thirds of Howard’s force might have been wiped out upon landing.
Now the attackers’ intense training paid off. The men from the second and third gliders moved quickly to accomplish their assigned tasks, and within five minutes the bridge over the Caen Canal was in British hands. Engineers checked the span for explosives and found that not only were the wires not hooked to the hellbox but the explosives themselves were not fixed in the holders attached to the bridge supports. Instead, they had been stored in a shed situated just off the far side of the bridge. Gale’s assessment of a bored and lethargic bridge defense force had been more than accurate.
For the first 15 minutes there was no word from the other bridge over the Orne River. Howard asked his radioman, Corporal Tappendan, over and over, ‘Any from four, five, or six?’ The answer was, ‘No, no, no.’ Finally, Dennis Fox from Glider No. 5 called in that the Orne Bridge had been captured. Within minutes of that report, Glider No. 6 landed and Todd McSweeney’s troops came racing to the bridge. The attackers had achieved total surprise, and the British now controlled both bridges. Ecstatic, Howard ordered Tappendan to send out the success signal. Tappendan lay down on the road by the canal bridge and transmitted, ‘Hello Four Dog, Hello Four Dog, Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam!’ He paused for an answer, but there was only silence on the airwaves. Then he tried again, ‘Hello Four Dog, Hello Four Dog, Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam.’ But try as he might, no one answered him. At that very moment, the rest of 6th Airborne was descending onto the Ranville Plain. A radio in that force had been set to their frequency, but no one answered.
‘For a solid hour I lay on that road,’ Tappendan recalled. ‘I finally got so frustrated that I said, `Hello Four Dog, Hello Four Dog, Ham and Jam, Ham and Bloody Jam, why don’t you answer me?”
Tappendan had no way of knowing that the radio tuned to his frequency had been lost in the jump, so no one knew that Howard’s force had captured the bridges intact. The major began consolidating his positions, preparing for the anticipated German counterattack.
The successful taking of the bridges had not been without cost. Two men had been killed — Diggs, who had drowned in the pond, and Howard’s platoon commander, Brotheridge, who had been shot through the neck on the far side of the bridge.
But those losses seemed relatively minor when Howard learned that Glider No. 4 was apparently missing. That meant 30 men might have been lost, including two of his officers, Lieutenant Hooper and his second-in-command, Captain Priday. Lieutenant Fox reported that he had seen the glider while he was in the air. ‘I saw Brian Priday’s tug and glider going off at an angle,’ he told Howard, ‘and I thought the pilot was going to circle and come in.’ But the glider never arrived.
At that point, Glider No. 4 was still very much in action. Coming in over Cabourg, the crew had cast off from their tug and dived toward the ground. Somehow, however, the pilot then became disoriented and flew in a great circle, finally spotting a silver stream of water reflected in the moonlight. Deciding that he had spotted his target, the glider pilot made his approach and set the plane down smooth as velvet on the left bank of the river. ‘We had a very comfortable, soft landing in the water on the riverbank,’ said Lance Cpl. Clive. ‘We got out and were only fifty yards from the bridge, and Captain Priday led the way.’
We rushed the bridge,’ recalled Sergeant Raynor, ‘and we took the bridge. There was a German sentry there and he ran away. He left his helmet on the parapet of the bridge and ran.’
Priday’s men would eventually realize that they had seized the wrong bridge, a Dives River crossing near Robehomme that was about 10 miles from their real objective. But it would take a while for them to understand what had happened.
Lieutenant Hooper immediately went off toward the right, down the road in the direction of the invasion area. Captain Priday split his force, so that half of the men occupied each end of the bridge over the Dives.
Just then German fire came from Hooper’s direction, with one shot hitting the wireless operator in the head and killing him instantly. Then, from the same direction, Raynor and Priday could see dark figures approaching. The 13 troopers on that end of the bridge flattened themselves into the grass along the bridge embankment. In the moonlight, they could make out the familiar figure of Lieutenant Hooper. But he was not walking confidently. He had his boots tied around his neck, with his hands over his head, marching in front of a German soldier who had a submachine gun pointed at his back.
Raynor was on one side of the road and Priday on the other. When Hooper and the German were only 10 yards from them they shouted out together, ‘Jump, Tony!’ Hooper jumped into the ditch to get away from the German, and as he did so Raynor and Priday each emptied a full magazine in the direction of the enemy soldier. Several of the other paratroopers also fired, and the German went down. But as he fell he pulled the trigger. A spray of bullets cut Priday’s map case in half, and one bullet tore into Sergeant Raynor’s arm.
The men of Glider No. 4 set up a defensive position for the rest of the night. As the gray light of dawn approached, Corporal Clive saw a Frenchman with a young boy approach the bridge from the east, where the surrounding fields were swampy and flooded. By this time Priday had figured out that his group was probably some distance away from its actual target. He confirmed their location with the Frenchman and boy, who told the paratroopers how to get to their objective.
Priday then briefed everyone that they were at the wrong bridge and sent his men off to join Howard. One by one, the men descended from the roadway and began moving through the flooded fields toward the town of Robehomme.
After almost three hours of exhausting wading, the paratroopers came to a farmhouse. Although the British troops stopped short of entering the dwelling itself, since they knew the Germans were likely to execute anyone who had helped Allied forces, they explained who they were to the inhabitants and then moved inside a thatched outbuilding.
Suddenly a group of Germans arrived on the scene, parking their motorcycles with sidecars in the yard not 20 yards away from the hidden British troopers. Raynor later estimated that 30 motorcycles showed up. As the British force had a specific job — to get to the bridge and take it — they did not engage the enemy troops, remaining out of sight.
After two hours, the motorcycles left one by one. Only then could Priday’s force move on. They finally arrived in Robehomme, where they met up with some Canadian engineers and other paratroopers who had become separated from their units. Raynor at last had his arm attended to, and the force was able to follow some dry roads toward Ranville, evading German units along the way.
At 3 a.m. on June 7, Priday’s force made it to the objective and linked up with the rest of Howard’s glider force. He had led his own men and all those who joined him at Robehomme safely to Ranville. A surprised and delighted Howard, who had given them up as lost, greeted them joyfully.
Company D, Ox and Bucks, had succeeded in its daring mission and had actually captured three bridges on D-Day — one more river crossing than the paratroopers had originally had in their sights. In doing so they had achieved one of the most important victories of D-Day and added new luster to the mystique of Britain’s airborne forces, the ‘Red Devils.’
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