D-Day plus three months to D-Day plus forty years
After one night at Bulford, the company went on leave. Howard drove up to Oxford for a reunion with his family and a glorious rest. On the morning of September 17, he relates, T got up and saw all these planes milling around with gliders on them, and of course I knew that something was on'. The planes were headed for Arnhem. Howard knew that Jim Wallwork and the other pilots were up there, and he silently wished him good luck.
Howard did not know it, but Sergeant Thornton was also up there, with a stick of paratroopers. When Thornton was evacuated from Normandy, he had a quick recovery from his wound. Then, rather than wait for the Ox and Bucks to return, he had transferred to the 1st Airborne Division, gone through his jump training, and was going in with Colonel John Frost's 2nd Battalion. Thornton fought beside Frost at Arnhem bridge for four days, and was captured with him.
Howard could hardly imagine such a thing, but none of those gliders overhead carried coup de main parties, not for the bridge at Arnhem, nor the one at Nijmegen. It seems possible that had D Company been available, someone would have thought to lay on coup de main parties for the bridges. If they had been there to take the bridge at Nijmegen, the American paratroopers would not have had to fight a desperate battle for it. Rather, they could have set up a defensive perimeter, with the strength to spare to send men over to Arnhem to help out. At Arnhem, with glider help, Frost could have held both ends of his bridge, greatly simplifying his problems.
But it was not to be. D Company had not been pulled out of Normandy until it was an exhausted, battered, remnant of its old self, and evidently no other company could take its place. Certainly there were no coup de main parties in the gliders over Howard's head. He watched them straighten out and then head east, and he again wished them good luck.
In late September, 1944, ten days after Arnhem, Howard reported back to Bulford and set out to rebuild D Company, brought up to full strength by reinforcements. Howard's job was to make the recruits into genuine airborne soldiers. He started with basics - physical and weapon training. By mid-November, he was ready to take the recruits on street-fighting exercises, to get his men accustomed to live ammunition. He selected an area of Birmingham, arranged for bunks for the men, and returned to Bulford.
On Friday, November 13, Howard decided to spend the night with Joy, as Oxford was on the route to Birmingham. He brought with him two Oxford residents. Corporal Stock and his new second-in-command. Captain Osborne, together with his batman. Although Stock was his driver, Howard insisted on taking the wheel, because, although a good driver, Stock did not drive fast enough.
At about 5:30, just as dusk was falling, they met a Yank convoy of six-ton trucks on a narrow, twisting road. They were on a right hand bend. Suddenly, with no warning, Howard 'saw this six-ton truck in front of me. He'd lost his place in the convoy and he was obviously leap-frogging up, and it was all over so quickly.'
They had a head-on crash. Howard was jammed behind the steering-wheel, and both legs, his right hip, and his left knee were smashed up. Osborne suffered similar injuries, but the other two escaped with cuts and bruises.
Howard was taken to hospital in Tidworth, where he was on the critical list for nearly six weeks. Joy made many long journeys to visit him. In December, using his connections with the Oxford police, Howard got himself moved to the Wingfield hospital in Oxford. He remained there until March, 1945.
D Company went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, then led the way on the Rhine crossing and participated in the drive to the Baltic. Most of the glider pilots were at Arnhem, then flew again in the Rhine crossing.
When Howard came out of hospital, he was using crutches. By the time his convalescent leave was nearly over, so was the war in Europe. But when he reported for duty, he learned that the Ox and Bucks were going to the Far East for another glider operation. The battalion commander asked Howard if he could get fit in time. It seemed the authorities wanted to promote him and make him second-in-command of the battalion.
Howard immediately started a training programme on a track near his home. On the second day of trying to run laps, his right hip seized up and the leg went dead. He had not allowed his injuries to heal properly, and the strain on the hip from the running caused it to jam, which stopped the nerves running down the leg. Howard went back into hospital for further operations. When he got out this time, the war in Asia was over.
He wanted to stay in the army, make a career of it, 'but before I knew where I was I was kicked out of the army, invalided out. My feet just didn't touch'.
Howard went into the Civil Service, first with the National Savings Committee, then with the Ministry of Food, and finally with the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1946 he had an audience with the King at Buckingham Palace. On June 6, 1954, the tenth anniversary of D-Day, he received a Croix de Guerre avec Paime from the French government, which had already renamed the bridge. From that day onward, its name has been 'Pegasus Bridge'. Later the road between the bridge and the LZ was named 'Esplanade Major John Howard'.
Howard served as a consultant for Darryl Zanuck in the making of the film, The Longest Day. Played by Richard Todd, he had a prominent role in the film, which of course delighted him. He was less happy about Zanuck's penchant for putting drama ahead of accuracy: Zanuck insisted that there had to be explosives in place under the bridge, and it was he, not Howard, who prevailed at the bridge on this occasion. In the film, the sappers are seen pulling out explosives from under the bridge and throwing them into the canal. Zanuck also romanticised the arrival of Lovat and his Commandos, quite falsely depicting their bagpipes playing as they crossed Pegasus Bridge.
Howard retired in 1974, and he and Joy live in a small but comfortable home in the tiny village of Burcot, about eight miles from Oxford. Terry and Penny live close enough for the grandchildren to pay regular visits. The Howards do not travel much, but John manages to return to Pegasus Bridge almost every year on June 6. His hip and legs are so mangled that he needs a walking-stick to get around, and then only moves with great pain, but all his enormous energy flows out again when he sees his bridge, and greets Madame Gondree, and starts talking to those of his men who have made it over for this particular anniversary. Sweeney and Bailey are usually there, and sometimes Wood and Parr and Gray and always some of the others.
Von Luck spent the remainder of the autumn of 1944 fighting General Le Clerc's French armoured division. In mid-December he was involved in the fighting at the southern end of the Battle of the Bulge, and was surprised at how much the Americans had improved since February, 1943, when he had fought them at Kasserine Pass. In the spring of 1945, 21st Panzer went to the Eastern front, to join in the defence of Berlin. In late April, by then encircled, von Luck was ordered to break through the Russian lines, then hold it open so that Ninth Army could get out and surrender to the Americans. Before attacking the Russians, von Luck called what was left of his regiment together, and gave a small talk.
'We are here now', he began, 'and I think that it is more or less the end of the world. Please forget about the Thousand Year Reich. Please forget all about that. You will ask. Why then are we going to fight again? I tell you, there's only one reason you are fighting, it is for your families, your grounds, your homeland. Always think about what will happen when the Russians overcome your wives, your little daughters, your village, your homeland.'
The men fought until they were out of ammunition, and von Luck told them, 'Now it's finished, you are free to go wherever you want'. Von Luck himself went to report to the commander of the Ninth Army, and was captured by the Russians. They sent him to a POW camp in the Caucasus, where he spent five years as a coal miner. In 1951 he moved to Hamburg, where he became a highly successful coffee importer.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, the Swedish royal military academy has brought von Luck and Howard together to give talks on Normandy battles and leadership. They hit it off from the first, and have grown to like each other more with each annual appearance. Today they could only be described as very good friends. 'So much for war', Howard comments.
Sergeant Hickman spent the remainder of the war in England as a POW. He liked the country so much that when he was shipped home, he applied for a visa. It was granted, and he emigrated to England, changing his name to Henry, and got a job, married a British woman, and settled down. One day in the early 1960s one of his friends at work told him that there was a British parachute reunion going on that night, and as an old paratrooper himself he might want to attend. Hickman did. There he saw Billy Gray, the same man he had faced at 0020 hours on June 6, 1944, in front of the cafe, with his machine-gun blazing away.
Hickman did not recognise Gray, but during the evening Gray pulled out some photographs of Pegasus Bridge and started to explain the coup de main. Hickman looked at the photos. 'I know that bridge', he said. He and Gray got talking. Later they exchanged visits, and a friendship developed. Over the years it grew closer and deeper, and today they are intimates. They kid each other about what lousy marksmen they were in their youth. 'So much for war.'
General Sir Nigel Poett, KCB, DSO, had a distinguished military career. Now retired, he lives near Salisbury. Major Nigel Taylor, MC, is a solicitor living near Malvern. Richard Todd continues to pursue his highly successful acting career. Major Dennis Fox, MBE, soldiered on for ten years after the war, then became an executive with ITV. Colonel H. J. Sweeney, MC, also stayed in the army until he was fifty-five; today he is the Director-General of the Battersea Dogs' Home near Old Windsor, and the head of the Ox and Bucks regimental veterans' association.
Major R. A. A. Smith, MC, became a director of both Shell and BP in India; he is now retired but runs tours to India. Colonel David Wood, MBE, soldiered on until retirement. He organised staff college visits to Pegasus, where Howard and Taylor would give lectures on what happened. Today David lives in retirement in Devon.
Staff Sergeant Oliver Boland, Croix de Guerre, lives in retirement near Stratford-upon-Avon. Jack Bailey stayed in the army, where he became a regimental sergeant major. Today he is head clerk in a London firm and lives in Catford, near Wally Parr. Dr John Vaughan has a medical practice in Devon.
Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, DFM, worked as a salesman for the first ten years after the war. In 1956 he emigrated to British Columbia, where today he runs a small livestock farm on the edge of the mountains east of Vancouver. From his porch, and from his picture window, Jim has a grand view of a valley dropping away before him. The kind of view a glider pilot gets on his last approach to the LZ.
Corporal Wally Parr wanted to stay in the army, but with a wife and children decided he had to get out. He returned to Catford, where one of his sons is in his window-cleaning business with him. Another son is a promising musician.
To my knowledge, there are no intact Horsa gliders flying today. Zanuck got the blueprints and built one for The Longest Day, but was told by the Air Ministry that the design was inherently bad and the craft not air-worthy. Therefore Zanuck could not fly it across the Channel, as he had hoped to do, but had to dismantle the thing, bring it over by ship, and put it together again in France.
The model of the bridge and surrounding area, the one that Howard and his men studied so intently in Tarrant Rushton, is today in the Airborne Forces Museum at Aldershot.
Benouville has a few new houses, some development, but basically it is as it was on June 6, 1944. So is Ranville, where Den Brotheridge is buried, under a tree in the churchyard.
The Gondree cafe remains, changed only by the portraits on the wall of John Howard, Jim Wallwork, Nigel Taylor, and the others who came to liberate France and the Gondrees.
Madame Gondree presides over her tiny cafe in a grand fashion. To see her on a June 6, surrounded by her many friends from D Company and from the 7th Battalion, chatting away gaily, remembering the great day however many years ago, is to see a happy woman. Before he died in the late 1960s, her husband Georges made many close British friends, Howard especially. Jack Bailey went duck hunting with Gondree each year.
When asked to describe life during the occupation, Madame Gondree lets loose a torrent of words, paragraphs or incidents separated by heartfelt cries of'Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!' She still hates the Germans and will not allow them into her cafe today. When Zanuck was shooting The Longest Day, he wanted to have half -dressed German soldiers come leaping out of the windows of the cafe as D Company charged across the bridge. Madame screamed, insisting to Zanuck that she had never, never had Germans sleeping in her house, and that he absolutely must take that scene out of the script. Unlike Howard, Madame got her way. The scene was dropped.
When Howard goes to the cafe today, he sometimes brings Hans von Luck with him. Howard has told Madame that von Luck might look suspiciously like a German, but that he is in fact a Swede.
The canal has been widened by some four or five feet. The chateau stands intact. The machine-gun pillbox that Jack Bailey knocked out and John Howard used as a CP is still there, forming the foundation of the house lived in by the man who operates the swing-bridge. The bunkers are all filled in. But the anti-tank gun and its emplacement, where Wally Parr had so much fun, remains. Three stone markers are placed on the sites where the three gliders crashed.
The river bridge is a new one, built since the war. The canal bridge, Pegasus Bridge, is still there.