The first battle of D-Day started 16 minutes after midnight on June 6, 1944. The glider-borne assault on two bridges—over the Caen Canal and adjacent Orne River—was among the most spectacular of the special operations carried out during the Allied invasion of Normandy. The capture of what later became known as the Pegasus and Horsa bridges, respectively, was the British equivalent of the U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion’s assault on Pointe du Hoc, some 25 miles down the coast. Commanded by Major John Howard, the force of 181 men from two companies of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry landed in six gliders, three on each bridge.
The purpose of the operation was to secure the drop and landing zones of the British 6th Airborne Division on the east side of the canal and river, which ran roughly parallel, only a couple hundred yards apart, from the city of Caen north to the coast. The British had to control both bridges to prevent tanks of the German 21st Panzer Division from moving against the lightly armed British airborne troops. The bridges would also be key links on the main supply route between the British drop zones and landing zones at Sword Beach, which lay immediately west of the Orne River estuary.
The glider landings presented among the most amazing examples of precision flying of World War II. All three of the huge Horsa gliders carrying the Caen Canal (Pegasus Bridge) element landed within 40 yards of their pinpoint targets on the east bank of the canal. The lead glider, however, made a rough landing that propelled the two pilots and some passengers, including Howard, through the windshield. Knocked senseless but otherwise not seriously hurt, they quickly regained consciousness, formed up and stormed out onto the bridge to confront the German strongpoint opposite. Other elements of the force attacked and neutralized a German pillbox and antitank gun on the near side. Their months of rehearsal were paying off.
As Howard’s coup de main force fought its way across the bridge, Lieutenant Herbert Denham “Den” Brotheridge, the leader of 1st Platoon, was shot in the neck. Private Leslie Chamberlain, the platoon’s backup medic, dragged Brotheridge to a makeshift aid station in a lowlying ditch on the west side of the canal. Captain John Vaughan, the company doctor, worked to keep the platoon leader alive, but to no avail. Brotheridge was the first Allied soldier killed by enemy fire on D-Day.
Georges and Thérèse Gondrée owned and lived on the top floor of a café that sat across the road from the German strongpoint. The Gondrées were active members of the French Resistance and had provided much of the key intelligence reporting on the bridge and its defenses. As the battle raged for control of the bridge and the strongpoints, they huddled in the basement with their three young daughters.
A couple hundred yards to the east, only two of the three gliders of the Orne River (Horsa Bridge) element landed on target. The third was mistakenly released over the Dives River, some seven miles away. Fortunately, Horsa Bridge was less heavily defended than Pegasus, and the British commandos secured it with little difficulty.
Forty minutes after Howard’s force landed, the 6th Airborne Division started coming in. The 2nd Ox & Bucks held the bridges another two hours against sporadic German counterattacks until reinforced by light infantry paratroopers from the 7th Battalion. Among the first paratroop officers to reach Howard was Lieutenant Richard Todd, who had been an actor before joining the army. Todd returned to acting after the war and actually played Howard in The Longest Day, the classic 1962 film about the Normandy landings.
After the war, the bridges were officially named Pegasus and Horsa—Pegasus for the shoulder patch of British airborne forces, and Horsa after the standard British glider. Engineers replaced Pegasus Bridge with an identical span in 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day. The original bridge was moved to a nearby field, where it sat for several years. It now serves as the centerpiece of the Memorial Pegasus [www .normandy1944.com], established in June 2000 by the Gondrée’s youngest daughter, Françoise. Her sister Arlette continues to run the Pegasus Bridge Café Gondrée. Brotheridge is buried in the churchyard at Ranville, close to Horsa Bridge. Both the café and Brotheridge’s grave are homage sites for British veterans every June 6.
John Howard earned the British Distinguished Service Order and the French Croix de guerre. He was invalided out of the British army in 1946 due to disabling injuries he received in a car accident following D-Day. He died in May 1999 at age 86. A bronze bust of Howard marks the exact spot where the nose of his lead glider stopped, about 30 feet short of the road and even closer to the east bank of the canal.
Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.