D-Day: 1200 to 2400 hours
At noon. Sergeant Thornton was sitting in a trench, not feeling so good. He was terribly tired, of course, but what really bothered him was the situation. 'We were stuck there from twenty past twelve the night before, and the longer we were there, the more stuff there was coming over from Jerry, and we were in a small sort of circle and things were getting bloody hot, and the longer you sit anywhere, the more you start thinking. Some of them blokes were saying oh, I don't suppose I'll ever see the skies over England again, or the skies over Scotland or the skies over Wales or the skies over Ireland.' Wally Parr recalls, 'the day went on very, very, very wearing. All the time you could feel movement out there and closer contact coming.'
In Benouville and Le Port, 7th Battalion was holding its ground, but just barely. Major Taylor had survived the fire-fights of the night. He had also survived, shortly after dawn, the sight of a half-dozen prostitutes, shouting and waving and blowing kisses at his troops from the window of the room Private Bonck had vacated six hours earlier. By mid-day, the action had hotted up considerably, and Taylor not only had infantry and SPVs to deal with, but tanks.
'As the first tank crept round the corner', Taylor remembers, 'I said to my Piat man, "Wait, wait." Then, when it was about forty yards away, "Fire!" And he pulled the trigger, there was just a click, and he turned round and looked at me and said, "It's bent, sir".'
A corporal, seeing the situation, leapt out of his slit trench and charged the tank, firing from the hip with his Sten. When he got to the tank, he slapped a Gammon bomb on it and ran off. The tank blew up and slithered across the road, blocking it.
Taylor, by this point, had a slashing splinter wound in his thigh. He managed to get up to a first-floor window, from which spot he continued to direct the battle. Richard Todd was half a mile away, but he heard Taylor shouting encouragement to his troops even at that distance. Nobody had any communications, the radios and field telephones having been lost on the drop. Taylor sent a runner over to Pine Coffin, to report that he had only thirty men left, most of them wounded, and could anything be done to help? That was when Pine Coffin told Howard to send a D Company platoon into Benouville.
There had as yet been no determined German armoured attacks - von Luck was still waiting for orders in his assembly area - which was fortunate for the paratroopers, as they had only Piats and Gammon bombs with which to fight tanks. But panzers could be expected at any time, coming down from Caen into Benouville, or perhaps up from the coast into Le Port.
The panzers had their own problems. Shortly after noon, von Luck was unleashed. Exactly as he had feared, his columns were immediately spotted and shelled. Over the course of the next couple of hours, his regiment was badly battered. On the west side of the Orne waterways, the other regiment of 21st Panzer Division also rolled into action, one part of it almost reaching Sword Beach, while one battalion moved off to attack Benouville.
None of these tanks was operating at anything like full efficiency because of the Allied air power and naval shelling. Lieutenant Werner Kortenhaus, who was in one of the tanks, reports that because of strafing activity by the RAF, the tanks had to advance with their hatches down. 'With only a narrow gap to look out through', he says, 'the panzer driver was almost always disorientated. We tended to go around in circles'. Thus the attacks lacked the coordinated punch they should have had.
In Le Port, Todd was trying to dislodge a sniper from the church tower. There was open ground around the church, 'so there was no way of rushing it, and anyway we had very few chaps on the ground at this time. So Corporal Killean, a young Irishman, volunteered to have a go and see if he could get there with his Piat. And he mouseholed through some cottages, going inside them and knocking holes through from one to the other so he was able to get to the end cottage. He ran out and got his Piat under a hedge and he let fly a bomb, and he hit a hole right where he wanted to in the church tower. He let off two more. And after a while he reckoned that he had indeed killed the sniper.'
Killean dashed to the church. But before entering, he took off his helmet and he said, 'I'm sorry to see what I have done to a wee house of God'.
Major Taylor kept glancing at his watch. Relief was supposed to arrive from the beaches, in the form of 3 Division or the Commandos, by noon. It was 1300 already, and neither 3 Division nor the Commandos had arrived. 'That was a very long wait', Taylor recalls. 'I know the longest day and all that stuff, but this really was a hell of a long day.' At his CP, which he had moved into the machine-gun pillbox after getting Bailey to clean up the mess he had made, Howard too kept checking the time, and wondering where the Commandos were.
In Oxford, Joy Howard was up shortly after dawn. She was so busy feeding and bathing and pottying the little ones that she did not turn on the radio. About 10 a.m. her neighbours, the Johnson's, knocked and told her that the invasion had started. 'We know Major Howard will be in it somewhere', they said, and insisted that Joy and the children join them for a celebration lunch. They lifted the baby chairs over the fence, and treated Joy to a brace of pheasants, a gift from friends in the country, and a bottle of vintage wine they had been saving for just this occasion.
Joy kept thinking of John's last words, that when she heard the invasion had started she would know that his job was done. They hardly gave her any comfort now, because she realised that for all she knew she was already a widow. As best she could, she put such thoughts out of her mind, and enjoyed the lunch. She spent the afternoon at her chores, but with her attention concentrated on the radio. She never heard John's name mentioned, but she did hear of the parachute drops on the eastern flank, and assumed John must be part of that.
Von Luck's panzers were rolling now, or rather moving forward as best they could through the exploding naval shells and the RAF strafing. Major Becker, the genius with vehicles who had built the outstanding SPV capability in von Luck's 125th Regiment, led the battle group descending on Benouville. His Moaning Minnies were firing as fast as he could reload them.
By 1300 the men at the bridge, and those in Benouville and Le Port, were beginning to feel disconcertingly like the settlers in the circled-up wagon train, Indians whooping all around them as they prayed for the cavalry to show up. They had enough ammunition to throw back probing attacks, but could not withstand an all-out assault - not alone anyway.
Tod Sweeney was gloomily considering the situation, sitting next to Fox. Suddenly he nudged Fox. 'Listen', he said. 'I can hear bagpipes.' Fox scoffed at this: 'Oh, don't be stupid, Tod, we're in the middle of France, you can't hear bagpipes.'
Sergeant Thornton, in his trench, told his men to listen, that he heard bagpipes. 'Go on', they replied, 'what are you talking about, you must be bloody nuts.' Thornton insisted that they listen.
Howard, at his CP, was listening intently. Back at Tarrant Rushton, he. Pine Coffin, and the commander of the Commandos, the legendary Lord Lovat, had arranged for recognition signals when they met in Normandy. Lovat, arriving by sea, would blow his bagpipes when he approached the bridge, to indicate that he was coming. Pine Coffin's bugler would blow back, with one call meaning the road in was clear, another that it was contested, and so on.
The sound of the bagpipe became unmistakable; Pine Coffin's bugler answered with a call that meant there was a fight going on around the bridges.
Lovat's piper. Bill Millin, came into view, then Lovat. It was a sight never to be forgotten. Millin was beside Lovat, carrying his great huge bagpipe and wearing his beret. Lovat had on his green beret, and a white sweater, and carried a walking stick, 'and he strode along', Howard remembers, 'as if he was on a flaming exercise back in Scotland'.
The Commandos came on, a Churchill tank with them. Contact had been made with the beachhead, and the men of D Company were ecstatic. 'Everybody threw their rifles down', Sergeant Thornton remembers, 'and kissing and hugging each other, and I've seen men with tears rolling down their cheeks. I did honestly. Probably I was the same. Oh, dear, celebrations I shall never forget.'
When Georges Gondree saw Lovat coming, he got a tray, a couple of glasses, and a bottle of champagne then went dashing out of his cafe, shouting and crying. He caught up to Lovat, who was nearly across the bridge, and with a grand gesture offered him champagne. Lovat gave a simple gesture of 'No, thanks', in return, and marched on.
The sight was too much for Wally Parr. He ran out to Gondree, nodding his head vigorously and saying, 'out, oui, oui'. Gondree, delighted, poured. 'Oh dear'. Parr says, 'that was good champagne. Did it go down easy'.
Lovat met Howard at the east end of the bridge, piper Millin just behind him. 'John', Lovat said as they shook hands, 'today history is being made'. Howard briefed Lovat, telling him that once he got his troops over the canal bridge it was clear sailing. But, Howard warned, be careful going over the bridge. Lovat nevertheless marched his men across, and as a consequence had nearly a dozen casualties. Vaughan, who treated them, noted that most were shot through their berets and killed instantly. Commandos coming later put on their steel helmets to cross the bridge.
The last of the Commandos to pass through handed over to Howard a couple of bewildered-looking German soldiers, wearing only their underwear. They had run for it when D Company stormed the bridge, then hidden in a hedge along the canal towpath. When they saw the Commandos coming from the coast they decided it was time to give themselves up. A Commando Sergeant handed them over to Howard with a wide grin and said, 'Here you are, sir, a couple of the Panzoff Division!'
A few of the tanks coming up from the beaches went on into Benouville, where they set up a solid defensive line. Some crossed the bridges to go to Ranville and the east, to bolster the 6th Airborne Division in its fight against 21st Panzer Division.
The Germans tried a counter-attack coming straight up the canal. At about 1500 hours, a gun-boat came from Caen, loaded with troops. Bailey saw it first and alerted Parr, Gray and Gardner, manning the anti-tank gun. They had a heated discussion about range, but when they fired they were thirty yards short. The boat started to turn, they fired again, and hit the stern. The boat chugged off, back towards Caen, trailing smoke.
From about mid-afternoon onwards, the situation around the bridge stabilised. The 8th Heavy Grenadiers, and Major Becker's battle-group, had fought bitterly. But, as Kortenhaus admits, 'we failed because of heavy resistance. We lost thirteen tanks out of seventeen!' The Germans continued sniping and firing the Moaning Minnies, but they were no longer attacking in any strength.
'It was a beautiful evening', Nigel Taylor remembers. At about 1800 hours, when he was sure his position in Benouville was secure, he had himself carried down to the Gondree cafe, so that he could be tended to at the aid post. When his leg wounds were bandaged he hobbled outside and sat at a table just beyond the front door. 'And Georges Gondree brought me a glass of champagne, which was very welcome indeed after that sort of day, I can tell you. And then that evening, just before it got dark, there was a tremendous flight of aircraft, hundreds of British aircraft. They came in and they did a glider drop and a supply drop between the bridges and the coast on our side of the canal. It was a marvellous sight, it really was. They were also dropping supplies on chutes out of their bomb doors, and then it seemed only a very few minutes afterwards that all these chaps in jeeps, towing anti-tank guns and God knows what, were coming down the road through Le Port, and over this bridge.'
Taylor sipped his champagne, and felt good. 'At that moment I can remember thinking to myself, "My God, we've done it!" '
Among the gliders were the men of Brigadier Kindersley's Airlanding Brigade, D Company's parent outfit. The companies, with their heavy equipment, began moving across the bridge, towards Ranville and beyond to Escoville, which they were scheduled to attack that night or the following morning. As the Ox and Bucks marched past. Parr, Gray and the others called out, 'Where the hell you been?' and 'War's over', and 'A bit late for parade, chaps', and other such nonsense.
Howard's orders were to hand over to a seaborne battalion when it came up, then join the Ox and Bucks in Ranville. About midnight, the Warwickshire Regiment of 3 Division arrived. Howard briefed the commander. Parr handed over his antitank gun to a sergeant, showing him how to work it. 'I was a real expert on German artillery by this time'. Parr says.
Howard told his men to load up. Someone found a horse cart - but no horse. The cart was a big, cumbersome thing, but the men had a lot to carry. All their own equipment, plus the German gear they had picked up (every soldier who could had changed his Enfield for a Schmeisser, or his Bren for an MG 34), filled the cart.
D Company started off, headed east, towards the river bridge and over it to Ranville. Howard was no longer under the command of Pine Coffin and Poett; he reverted to his regular chain of command and hereafter reported to his battalion colonel, Mike Roberts. He had carried out his orders, and almost exactly twenty -four hours after his men stormed the bridge, he handed over his objectives intact and secure.
Jack Bailey found it hard to leave. 'You see', he explains, 'we had been there a full day and night. We rather felt that this was our bit of territory'.