D-Day:0000 to 0015 hours
It was a steel girder bridge, painted grey, with a large water tower and superstructure. At 0000 hours, June 5/6, 1944, the scudding clouds parted sufficiently to allow the nearly-full moon to shine and reveal the bridge, standing starkly visible above the shimmering water of the Caen Canal.
On the bridge. Private Vern Bonck, a twenty-two-year-old Pole conscripted into the German army, clicked his heels sharply as he saluted Private Helmut Romer, a sixteen-year-old Berliner who had reported to relieve him. As Bonck went off duty, he met with his fellow sentry, another Pole. They decided they were not sleepy and agreed to go to the local brothel, in the village ofBenouville, for a bit of fun. They strolled west along the bridge road, then turned south at the T junction, on the road into Benouville. By 0005 they were at the brothel, and within minutes they were knocking back cheap red wine with two French prostitutes.
Beside the bridge, on the west bank, south of the road, Georges and Therese Gondree and their two daughters slept in their small cafe. Georges and Therese were in separate rooms, not by choice but as a way to use every room and thus to keep the Germans from billeting soldiers with them. It was the 1,450th night of the German occupation ofBenouville.
So far as the Germans knew, the Gondrees were simple Norman peasants, people of no consequence who gave them no trouble. Indeed, Georges sold beer, coffee, food, and a concoction made by Madame of rotting melons and half-fermented sugar, to the grateful German troops stationed at the bridge. There were about fifty of them, the NCOs and officers all German, the enlisted men mostly conscripts from East Europe.
But the Gondrees were not as simple as they pretended to be. Madame came from Alsace and spoke German, a fact she successfully hid from the garrison. Georges, before acquiring the cafe, had spent twelve years as a clerk in Lloyd's Bank in Paris and spoke English. Both hated the Germans for what they had done to France, hated the life they led under the occupation, feared for the future of their eight-year-old daughter, and were consequently active in trying to bring German rule to an end. In their case, the most valuable thing they could do for the Allies was to provide information on conditions at the bridge. Therese got information by listening to the chit-chat of the NCOs in the cafe; she passed what she heard along to Georges, who passed it to Madame Vion, director of the maternity hospital, who passed it along to the Resistance in Caen on her trips to obtain medical supplies. From Caen, the information was passed onto England via Lysander aeroplanes, small craft that could land in fields and get out in a hurry.
Only a few days before, on June 2, Georges had sent through this process a titbit Therese had overheard - that the button that would set off the explosives to blow the bridge was located in the machine-gun pillbox across the road from the anti-tank gun. He hoped that information had got through, if only because he would hate to see his bridge destroyed.
The man who would give that order, the commander of the garrison at the bridge, was Major Hans Schmidt. Schmidt had an understrength company of the 736th Grenadier Regiment of the 716th Infantry Division. At 0000 hours, June 5/6, he was in Ranville, a village two kilometres east of the Orne River. The river ran parallel to the canal, about 400 metres to the east, and was also crossed by a bridge (fixed, and guarded by sentries but without emplacements or a garrison). The Germans knew that the long-anticipated invasion could come at any time, and Schmidt had been told that the two bridges were the most critical points in Normandy because they provided the only crossings of the Orne waterways along the Norman coast road.
Nonetheless, Schmidt did not have his garrison at full alert; nor was he in Ranville on business. Except for the two sentries on each bridge, his troops were either sleeping in their bunkers, or dozing in their slit trenches or in the machine-gun pillbox, or enjoying themselves at the Benouville brothel.
Schmidt himself was with his girlfriend in Ranville, enjoying the magnificent food and drink of Normandy. He thought of himself as a fanatical Nazi, someone who was determined to do his duty for his Flihrer, but he seldom let duty interfere with pleasure, and he had no worries that evening. His routine concern was the possibility that French partisans might blow the bridges, but that hardly seemed likely except in conjunction with an airborne operation, and the high winds and stormy weather of the past two days precluded a parachute drop. Having received orders to blow the bridges himself if capture seemed imminent, he had prepared the bridges for demolition. But he had not put the explosives into their chambers, for fear of accident or the partisans. As his bridges were almost five miles inland, Schmidt reckoned he would have plenty of warning before any Allied units reached him, even paratroopers, because the paras were notorious for taking a long time to form up and get organised after their drops scattered them all over the DZ. Thus, tonight Schmidt could relax. He treated himself to more wine, and another pinch.
At Vimont, east of Caen, Colonel Hans A. von Luck, commanding the 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 21st Panzer Division, was working on personnel reports at his headquarters. The contrast between Schmidt and von Luck extended far beyond their activities at midnight. Schmidt had gone soft from years of cushy occupation duty; von Luck was an officer hardened by combat. He had been in Poland in 1939 and commanded the leading reconnaissance battalion for Rommel at Dunkirk in 1940. At Moscow in the winter of 1941, he actually led his battalion into the outskirts of the city, the deepest penetration of the campaign. And he had been with Rommel throughout the North African campaign of 1942-43.
There was an equally sharp contrast between the units von Luck and Schmidt commanded. The 716th Infantry was a second-rate, poorly equipped, immobile division made up of a hotchpotch of Poles, Russian, French and other conscripted troops, while the 21st Panzer was Rommel's favourite division. Von Luck's regiment, the 125th, was one of the best equipped in the German army. The 21st Panzer Division had been destroyed in Tunisia in April and May, 1943, but Rommel had got most of the officer corps out of the trap, and around that nucleus rebuilt the division. It had all new equipment, including Tiger tanks, self -propelled vehicles (SPV) of all types, and an outstanding wireless communications network. The men were volunteers, young Germans deliberately raised by the Nazis for the challenge they were about to face, tough, well -trained, eager to come to grips with the enemy.
There was a tremendous amount of air activity that night, with British and American bombers crossing the Channel to bomb Caen. As usual, Schmidt paid no attention to it. Neither did von Luck, consciously, but he was so accustomed to the sights and sounds of combat that at about 0010 hours he noticed something none of his clerks did. There were about six planes flying unusually low, at 500 feet or less. That could only mean they were dropping something by parachute. Probably supplies for the Resistance, von Luck thought; he ordered a search of the area, hoping to capture some local resistance people while they were gathering in the supplies.
Heinrich (now Henry) Heinz Hickman, a sergeant in the German 6th (Independent) Parachute Regiment, was at that moment riding in an open staff car, coming from Ouistreham on the coast towards Benouville. Hickman, twenty-four years old, was a combat veteran of Sicily and Italy. His regiment had come to Normandy a fortnight before; at 2300 hours on June 5 his company commander had ordered Hickman to pick up four young privates at observation posts outside Ouistreham and bring them back to headquarters, near Breville on the east side of the river.
Hickman, himself a paratrooper, also had heard low-flying planes. He came to the same conclusion as von Luck, that they were dropping supplies to the Resistance, and for the same reason - he could not imagine that the Allies would make a paratrooper drop with only half-dozen sticks. He drove on towards the bridge over the Caen Canal.
Over the Channel, at 0000 hours, two groups of three Halifax bombers flew at 7,000 feet towards Caen. With all the other air activity going on, neither German searchlights nor AA gunners noticed that each Halifax was tugging a Horsa glider.
Inside the lead glider. Private Wally Parr of D Company, the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Ox and Bucks), a part of the Air Landing Brigade of the 6th Airborne Division of the British army, was leading the twenty-eight men in singing. With his powerful voice and strong Cockney accent, Parr was booming out 'Abey, Abey, My Boy'. Billy Gray, sitting down the row from Parr, was barely singing, because all that he could think about was the 'Jimmy Riddle' he had to do. At the back of the glider. Corporal Jack Bailey sang even as he worried about the parachute he was responsible for securing.
The pilot, twenty-four-year-old Staff Sergeant Jim Wall-work, of the Glider Pilot Regiment, anticipated casting off any second now that he had seen the surf breaking over the Norman coast. Beside him his co-pilot, Staff Sergeant John Ainsworth, was concentrating intensely on his stop watch. Sitting behind Ainsworth, the commander of D Company, Major John Howard, a thirty-one-year-old former sergeant major and an ex-cop, laughed with everyone else when the song ended and Parr called out, 'Has the Major laid his kit yet?' Howard suffered from air sickness and had vomited on every training flight. This flight, however, was an exception. Like his men, he had not been in combat before, but the prospect seemed to calm him more than it shook him.
As Parr started up 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary', Howard touched the tiny red shoe in his battlejacket pocket, one of his two-year-old son Terry's infant shoes that he had brought along for good luck. He thought of Joy, his wife, and of Terry and their baby daughter. Penny. They were back in Oxford, living near a factory, and he hoped there were no bombing raids that night. Beside Howard sat Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, whose wife was pregnant and due to deliver any day (five other men in the company had pregnant wives back in England). Howard had talked Brotheridge into joining the Ox and Bucks, and had selected his platoon for the no. 1 glider because he thought Brotheridge and his platoon about the best in his company. Another reason was that they were mostly Londoners like himself. Howard loved the Cockney quick wit and cheerfulness.
One minute behind Wallwork's glider was no. 2, carrying Lieutenant David Wood's platoon. Another minute behind that Horsa was no. 3 glider, with Lieutenant R. A. A. 'Sandy' Smith's platoon. The three gliders in this group were going to cross the coast near Cabourg, well east of the mouth of the Orne River.
Parallel to that group, to the west and a few minutes behind, Captain Brian Friday sat with Lieutenant Tony Hooper's platoon, followed by the gliders carrying the platoons of Lieutenants H. J. Tod' Sweeney and Dennis Fox. This second group was headed towards the mouth of the Orne River. In Fox's platoon. Sergeant M. C. 'Wagger' Thornton was singing 'Cow Cow Boogie' and - like almost everyone else on all the gliders-chain-smoking Player's cigarettes.
In no. 2 glider, with the first group, the pilot. Staff Sergeant Oliver Boland, who had just turned twenty-three a fortnight before, found crossing the Channel an 'enormously emotional' experience, setting off as he was 'as the spearhead of the most colossal army ever assembled. I found it difficult to believe because I felt so insignificant.'
At 0007, Wallwork cast off his lead glider as he crossed the coast. At that instant, the invasion had begun. There were 156,000 men prepared to go into France that day, by air and by sea, British, Canadian, and American, organised into some 12,000 companies. D Company led the way. It was not only the spearhead of the mighty host, it was also the only company attacking as a completely independent unit. Howard would have no one to report to, or take orders from, until he had completed his principal task. When Wallwork cast off, D Company was on its own.
With castoff there was a sudden jerk, then dead silence.
Parr and his singers shut up, the engine noise of the bomber faded away, and there was a silence broken only by the swoosh of air over the Horsa's wings. Clouds covered the moon; Ainsworth had to use a torch to see his stop watch, which he had started instantaneously with castoff.
After casting off the Halifax bombers continued on towards Caen, where they were to drop their small bomb load on the cement factory, more as a diversion than a serious attack. During the course of the campaign, Caen was almost completely obliterated, with hardly a brick left mortared to a brick. The only untouched building in the whole city was the cement factory. 'They were great tug pilots', says Wallwork, 'but terrible bombers.'
Howard's thoughts shifted from Joy, Terry and Penny to his other 'family', D Company. He thought of how deeply involved he was with his platoon commanders, his sergeants and corporals, and many of his privates. They had been preparing for this moment, together, for over two years. The officers and men had done all that he asked of them, and more. By God, they were the best damn company in the whole British army! They had earned this extraordinary role, they deserved it. John was proud of every one of them, and of himself, and he felt a wave of comradeship come over him, and he loved them all.
Then his mind flashed through the dangers ahead. The anti-glider poles, first of all - air reconnaissance photographs taken in the past few days revealed that the Germans were digging holes for the poles (called 'Rommel's asparagus' by the Allies). Were the poles in place, or not? Everything depended on the pilots until the instant the glider had landed, and until that instant Howard was but a passenger. If the pilots could bring D Company down, safely, within 400 metres of the objective, he was confident he could carry out his first task successfully. But if the pilots were even one kilometre off course, he doubted that he could do his job. Anything over a kilometre and there was no chance. If the Germans somehow spotted the gliders coming in, and got a machine-gun on them, the men would never touch the soil of France alive. If the pilots crashed - into a tree, an embankment, or one of Rommel's asparagus - they might all well die even if their feet did touch ground.
Howard was always a bad passenger; he always wanted to drive himself. On this occasion, as he willed Wallwork onto the target, he at least had something physical to do for diversion. Held by Howard on one side and the platoon sergeant on the other. Lieutenant Brotheridge released his safety belt and leaned forward to open the door in front of them. The door slid up into the roof of the glider and Brotheridge accomplished this in one hefty swoop. It was a dicey business because Howard and Sergeant Oilis were hanging on to Brotheridge's equipment, and when the job was done, Brotheridge slumped back into his seat with a sigh of relief.
Looking down, once the door was open, the men could see nothing but cloud. Still they grinned at each other, recalling the fifty-franc bet they had made as to who would be the first out of the glider.
As Brotheridge took his seat again, Howard's orders flashed through his mind. Dated May 2, they were signed by Brigadier Nigel Poett and classified 'Bigot', a super-classification above 'Top Secret'. (The few who did have clearance for 'Bigot' material were said to be 'bigoted'.)
'Your task is to seize intact the bridges over the River Orne and canal at Benouville and Ranville, and to hold them until relief.... The capture of the bridges will be a coup de main operation depending largely on surprise, speed and dash for success. Provided the bulk of your force lands safely, you should have little difficulty in overcoming the known opposition on the bridges. Your difficulties will arise in holding off an enemy counter-attack on the bridges, until you are relieved.'
The relief would come from the men of the 6th Airborne Division, specifically from the 5th Para Brigade and especially its 7th Battalion. They would land in DZs between the Orne River and the River Dives at 0050 hours, roughly half an hour after Howard's party. Brigadier Poett, commanding 5th Para Brigade, told Howard that he could expect organised reinforcements within two hours of touchdown. The paras would come through Ranville, where Poett intended to set up his Brigade headquarters for the defence of the bridges.
Poett himself was only two or three minutes behind Howard, flying with the pathfinders who would mark the DZ for the main body of the 5th Para Brigade. There were six planes in Poett's group - the low-flying planes von Luck and Hickman had heard. Poett wanted to be the first to jump, but at 0008 hours he was struggling desperately to get the floor hatch open. He and his ten men were jammed into an old Albemarle bomber, which none of them had ever seen before. They were carrying so much equipment that they had to 'push and push and push to get in'. They had then had a terrible time squeezing together sufficiently to close the hatch door. Now, over the Channel with the coast coming up, they could not get the damn thing open. Poett began to fear he would never get out at all, that he would end up landing ignominiously back in England.
In no. 3 glider. Lieutenant Sandy Smith felt his stomach clinch as it did before a big sports event. He was only twenty-two years old, and he rather liked the feeling of tension, because he was full of the confidence he used to feel before a match when he was a Cambridge rugger blue. 'We were eager', he remembers, 'we were fit. And we were totally innocent. I mean my idea was that everyone was going to be incredibly brave with drums beating and bands playing and I was going to be the bravest among the brave. There was absolutely no doubt at all in my mind that that was going to be the case.'
Across the aisle from Smith, Captain John Vaughan of the Royal Army Medical Corps sat fidgeting. He was distinctly unhappy when Smith opened the door. Vaughan was a doctor with the paratroopers, had many jumps behind him, had confidence in a parachute. But he had volunteered for this special mission, not knowing what it was, and ended up in a plywood glider, an open door in front of him, and no parachute. He kept thinking, 'My God, why haven't I got a parachute?'
Back in Oxford, Joy Howard slept. She had had a routine day, taking care of Terry and Penny, getting them into bed at 7 p.m., doing her housework, then spending a couple of hours by the radio, smocking Penny's little dresses.
On his last furlough, John had hidden his service dress uniform in a spare room closet. He had then taken Terry's shoe, kissed the children, started to leave, and returned to kiss them once more. As he left, he told Joy that when she heard that the invasion had started, she could stop worrying, because his job would be finished. Joy had discovered the missing shoe and found the uniform. She knew that the invasion must be imminent, because leaving the uniform behind meant that John did not expect to be dining in the officers' mess for the foreseeable future.
But that had been weeks ago, and nothing had happened since. For two years there had been talk of an invasion, but nothing happened. On June 5,1944, Joy had no special feelings - she just went to bed. She did hear air traffic, but because most of the bombers based in the Midlands were headed south, rather than east, she was on the fringes of the great air armada and paid little attention to the accustomed noise. She slept.
Down in the southeastern end of London, almost in Kent, Irene Parr did hear and see the huge air fleet headed towards Normandy and she immediately surmised that the invasion had begun, partly because of the numbers, partly because Wally -in a gross breach of security - had told her that D Company was going to lead the way, and he guessed it would be in the first week of June, when the moon was right. She did not know, of course, exactly where he was, but she was sure he was in great danger, and prayed for him. She would have been pleased, had she known, that Wally's last thoughts, before leaving England, were of her. Just before boarding Wallwork's Horsa, Wally had taken a piece of chalk and christened the glider the 'Lady Irene'.
Wallwork had crossed the coast well to the east of the mouth of the Orne River. Although he was the pilot of the no. 1 glider, and nos. 2 and 3 were directly behind him, he was not leading the group to the LZ - the Landing Zone. Rather, each pilot was on his own, as the pilots could not see the other gliders in any case. Boland remembers the feeling 'of being on your own up there, dead quiet, floating over the coast of France, and knowing that there's no turning back'.
Wallwork could not see the bridges, not even the river and canal. He was flying by Ainsworth's stop-watch, watching his compass, his airspeed indicator, his altimeter. Three minutes and forty-two seconds into the run, Ainsworth said, 'Now!', and Wallwork threw the descending glider into a full right turn.
He looked out the window for a landmark. He could see nothing. 'I can't see the Bois de Bavent', he whispered to Ainsworth, not wanting to upset his passengers. Ainsworth snapped back, 'For God's sake, Jim, it's the biggest place in Normandy. Pay attention.'
'It's not there', Jim whispered fiercely. 'Well, we are on course anyway', Ainsworth replied. Then he started counting: '5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Bingo. Right one turn to starboard onto course'. Wallwork heaved over the wooden steering wheel and executed another turn. He was now headed north, along the east bank of the canal, descending rapidly. Using the extra large 'barn door' wing flaps, he had brought the glider from 7,000 to about 500 feet, and reduced her airspeed from 160 mph to about 110 mph.
Below and behind him, Caen was ablaze with tracers, searchlights, and fires started by the bombers. Ahead of him, he could see nothing. He hoped that Ainsworth was right and they were on target.
That target was a small, triangular field, about 500 metres long, with the base on the south, the tip near the south-east end of the canal bridge. Wallwork could not see it, but he had studied photographs and a detailed model of the area so long and so hard that he had a vivid mental picture of what he was headed towards.
There was the bridge itself, with its superstructure and water tower at the east end the dominant feature of the flat landscape. There was a machine-gun pillbox just north of the bridge, on the east side, and an anti-tank gun emplacement across the road from it. These fortifications were surrounded by barbed wire. At Wallwork's last briefing with Howard, Howard had told him that he wanted the nose of the Horsa to break through the barbed wire, which otherwise would need to be destroyed with bangalore torpedoes. Wallwork thought to himself that there was not a chance in hell that he could land that heavy, cumbersome, badly overloaded, powerless Horsa with such precision over a bumpy and untested landing strip he could barely see. But out loud he assured Howard he would do his best. What he and Ainsworth thought, however, was that such a sudden stop would result in 'a broken leg or so, maybe two each'. And they agreed amongst themselves that if they got out of this caper with only broken legs, they would be lucky.
Along with the constant concern about his location, and with the intense effort to penetrate the darkness and clouds, Wallwork had other worries. He would be doing between 90 and 100 mph when he hit the ground. If he ran into a tree, or an anti-glider pole, he would be dead, his passengers too injured or stunned to carry out their task. And the parachute worried him, too. It was in the back of the glider, held in place by Corporal Bailey. Wallwork had agreed to add the parachute at the last minute, because his Horsa was so overloaded and Howard refused to remove one more round of ammunition. The idea was that the arrester parachute would provide a safer, quicker stop. Wallwork feared that it would throw him into a nose-dive.
The control mechanism for the chute was over Ainsworth's head. At the proper moment, he would press an electric switch and the trapdoor would fall open, the chute billow out. When Ainsworth pressed another switch, the chute would fall away from the glider. Wallwork understood the theory; he just hoped he would not have to use the chute in fact.
At 0014 Wallwork called over his shoulder to Howard to get ready. Howard and the men linked arms and brought their knees up, following normal landing drill. Everyone knew the floor of the glider would disintegrate on landing. Most everyone thought the obvious thoughts - 'No turning back now', or 'Here we go', or 'This is it'. Howard recalled, 'I could see ole Jim holding that bloody great machine and driving it in at the last minute, the look on his face was one that one could never forget. I could see those damn great footballs of sweat across his forehead and all over his face.'
Gliders 2 and 3 were directly behind Wallwork, at their one-minute intervals. The other group of Horsas was, however, now split up. Friday's no. 4 glider had gone up the River Dives rather than the Orne River. Seeing a bridge over the Dives at about the right distance inland, the pilot of no. 4 glider was preparing to land. The other two Horsas, on the correct course, headed up the Orne River. They had a straight-in run. They would 'prang', a gliderman's term for touch-down, pointed south, along the west bank of the river, in a rectangular field nearly 1,000 metres long.
Brigadier Poett finally got his hatch open (in another of those Albemarles one of Poett's officers fell out while opening his hatch and was lost in the Channel). Standing over the hole in the floor of the bomber, a foot on each side, Poett could not see anything. He flew right over the Merville Battery, another critical target for the paras that night. Another minute and it was 0016 hours. The pilot flipped on the green light, and Poett brought his feet together and fell through the hatch into the night.
On the canal bridge. Private Romer and the other sentry were putting in another night of routine pacing back and forth across the bridge. The bombing activity up at Caen was old stuff to them, not their responsibility and not worth a glance. The men in the machine-gun pillbox dozed, as usual; so did the troops standing-to in the slit trenches. The anti-tank gun was unmanned.
In Ranville, Major Schmidt opened another bottle of wine. In Benouville, Private Bonck had finished his wine and had gone into the bedroom with his prostitute. He unbuckled his belt and began to unbutton his trousers as the woman slipped out of her dress. On the road from Ouistreham, Sergeant Hickman and his group in the staff car sped south, towards Benouville and the bridge. At the cafe, the Gondrees slept.
Wallwork was down to 200 feet, his airspeed slightly below 100 mph. At 0015 he was halfway down the final run. About two kilometres from his target, the clouds cleared the moon. Wallwork could see the river and the canal - they looked like strips of silver to him. Then the bridge loomed before him, exactly where he expected it. 'Well', he thought to himself, 'Igotchanow.'