IWM (B 5067 Archive photo of soldiers marching on D-Day (Credit: IWM (B 5067))IWM (B 5067

(Credit: IWM (B 5067))

Eighty years ago on 6 June, D-Day, the largest land, air and naval operation in history was unleashed to fight the Nazis – led by a group of British troops who crash-landed in Normandy in six flimsy gliders. In 1984, the man who led this mission gave an extraordinary account to the BBC.

D-Day was a marvel of planning; it involved the simultaneous landing of tens of thousands of Allied troops on five separate beaches in Nazi-occupied northern France. The British and Canadians would land on three beaches in Normandy, codenamed Sword, Juno and Gold. The Americans were to capture Omaha and Utah beaches. 

Major John Howard and his company’s part in this elaborate plan required perfect navigation, great daring and complete surprise. Their mission was to capture two bridges intact – Bénouville Bridge, later known as Pegasus Bridge, over the Caen canal, and Ranville Bridge, later renamed Horsa Bridge, over the adjacent River Orne. Because these road bridges were the only way across the parallel water obstacles, capturing them would mean they could stop German reinforcements from reaching the beaches where the Allied armies would land later that day.  

Then there was another thundering crash, and this time I saw sparks, or what looked like bullets, going past the door of the window, and I thought, ‘my God, they’re ready for us’ – Major John Howard

Preparation for this audacious glider mission was intense. Thousands of aerial photographs were taken of the bridges and their defences mapped in detail. The British even created a model of the area which was modified to match each day’s aerial photograph. When the Germans cut down trees, the model-makers did the same. The idea of using gliders was that troops and heavier weapons could be landed in the same place behind enemy lines, without the need for parachutes. Because of the need to conserve metal supplies during wartime, the gliders were made mostly of spruce and plywood. They were tricky to operate, and liable to break apart upon landing.  

WATCH: ‘You do a butcher’s grip, you lift your legs, and pray to God’

Major Howard’s 180-strong company of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, from the 6th Airborne Division, had been training for this moment for two years. For many, this would be their first experience of combat. After abandoning their crashed aircraft, they would have to have to fight on foot.  

While the name “glider” may imply a calm journey, Major Howard admitted to BBC current affairs programme 60 Minutes in 1984 that travelling in these aircraft was anything but smooth. “Most of us were sick in gliders, but the funny thing is that the only time I was never sick in a glider, and I must have done 12 or 13 flights altogether with training, was on the night of D-Day,” he said. Towed by heavy bomber planes, the six gliders took off from Tarrant Rushton, a Royal Air Force base in southern England, at 22:56 on 5 June 1944. After about an hour in the air, the gliders were released from their restraints to begin their final descent into enemy territory.  

Prepare for landing

Major Howard said when the order was given to prepare for landing, all they could do was interlock arms and fingers with their comrades and hope for the best. “You’re sitting facing one another, you link arms, you do a butcher’s grip like that, you lift your legs and you just pray to God,” he said. “Before we almost had time to do that, there was the first thump of a landing, and it was a hell of a crash. And before we knew it, we were airborne again – we’d obviously bounced. On that first bounce, the wheels had come off.  

“We expected that because it was a very bumpy old field, it wasn’t like an airfield, and we were going to land on skids. Then there was another thundering crash, and this time I saw sparks, or what looked like Tracer (bullets) going past the door of the window, and I thought, ‘my God, they’re ready for us. They know we’ve arrived.'” The glider bounced again and then came to a juddering halt. They had survived the crash landing. Would they now be met with a hail of German bullets? For Major Howard, everything went dark. “It occurred to me that there was no firing, and I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “The first fear was that I’d been blinded in the crash. I felt my body, that felt alright, and then I realised that all that happened was my battle bowler had come down over my eyes. I’d hit the top of the glider.” With only moonlight to guide them, the gliders had landed in silence just 30 metres (98 ft) from their target.  

WATCH: The Germans guarding the bridge still did not realise the invasion had begun.

The German garrison was taken by surprise, as Colonel Hans von Luck acknowledged 40 years later. Major Howard and Colonel von Luck would later become good friends in the 1960s through their involvement in giving military lectures, and both men were back in Normandy for the 40th anniversary. Colonel Von Luck said they had not treated these bridges as being important as they believed there were too many complicating factors that prevented the Allies to attack there. “I think it was a fantastic operation, and I think personally that was the beginning of the end,” he said.  

The more this bloody tank kept coming, the more shaken I was getting – anyhow I waited and I thought to myself, ‘Well this is it’ – Charles “Wagger” Thornton

While Major Howard and his men had won the first battle of D-Day, the disadvantage of going in first was they were left to defend the bridges on their own for hours until reinforcements arrived via sea. When Nazi tanks rumbled in to attack, Charles “Wagger” Thornton was lying in wait in a nearby hedgerow, armed with his PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank) weapon, and trying desperately to hold his nerve. “These PIATs, they’re not very effective past 50 yards, so you’ve got to wait for 30 to 40 yards to get the best out of them,” he told 60 Minutes. “The more this bloody tank kept coming, the more shaken I was getting. Anyhow I waited and I thought to myself, ‘Well this is it’, because it was dark as well, and I let go. Lucky for me, it hit the thing smack in the middle.”

Liberated from the Nazis

At that same time, local café owners Georges and Thérèse Gondrée were sheltering with their children in the cellars. Soon afterwards, Georges was in the garden digging up 98 bottles of champagne which had remained buried throughout the war, waiting for this day. They were the first people in France to be liberated from the Nazis. Major Howard carried with him an unforgettable mental image of that moment. “Dear Madame, of course, went round kissing all my men and all the paras and all our black camouflage paint was transferred to her face,” he said. “That dear old soul, she wandered around that café with that black paint on for three days. She wouldn’t wash it off.” 

Forty years on, Major Howard reunited with Madame Gondrée to lay a wreath at the grave of Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, the first Allied soldier to be killed on D-Day. Shortly after his glider landed, Lt Brotheridge was shot as he led the charge across Pegasus Bridge. His only daughter Margaret would be born 19 days later, but it wasn’t until that same 40th anniversary that she discovered just what happened to him. All she knew while growing up was her father had died in the war, her mother remarried when she was aged four and didn’t like to talk about it.  

Speaking to the BBC in 2014, she said: “I found out just before I was 40. I opened up the paper, and there was this big picture of my father’s group and it had Brotheridge on it and I said, ‘Oh my, just look at this.'” 

On D-Day alone, as many as 4,400 Allied troops died, with some 9,000 wounded or missing. Total German casualties are estimated as being between 4,000 and 9,000 men. Thousands of French civilians also died, mainly as a result of bombing raids carried out by Allied forces. 

The story of the airborne assault on Pegasus Bridge in the early hours of 6 June 1944 was immortalised in the 1962 film The Longest Day. Major Howard was played by the actor Richard Todd, who himself parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. Interviewed shortly before his death in 1999 aged 86, Major Howard laughed at how he was portrayed, describing it as sentimental rubbish.  

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