Operation Deadstick was the codename for an operation by airborne forces of the British Army that took place on 6 June 1944 as part of the Normandy landings of World War II. The objective was to capture intact two road bridges in Normandy across the River Orne and the Caen Canal, providing the only exit eastwards for British forces from their landing on Sword Beach. Intelligence reports said both bridges were heavily defended by the Germans and wired for demolition. Once captured, the bridges had to be held against any counter-attack until the assault force was relieved by commandos and infantry advancing from the British landing zone.
The mission was vital to the success of the Operation Tonga, the British airborne landings in Normandy. Failure to capture the bridges intact, or to prevent their demolition by the Germans, would leave the British 6th Airborne Division cut off from the rest of the Allied armies with their backs to the two waterways. If the Germans retained control over the bridges, they could be used by their armoured divisions to attack the landing beaches of Normandy.
Responsibility for the operation fell to the men of 'D' Company, 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, part of the 6th Airlanding Brigade of the 6th Airborne Division. The assault group comprised a reinforced company of six infantry platoons and an attached platoon of Royal Engineers. They flew from the south of England to Normandy in six Airspeed Horsa gliders. Through what was later described as the "most outstanding flying achievements of the war", the gliders delivered the company to their objective. After a brief exchange of fire, both bridges were captured and then defended against tank, gunboat and infantry counter-attacks, until the company relief arrived.
During the planning stage of the Normandy invasion, the decision was made to land the 6th Airborne Division (Major-General Richard Gale) on the left flank of the invasion beaches between the River Orne and the River Dives. Their primary objective was to capture the two road bridges over the River Orne and the Caen Canal and prevent a German flanking attack on the landing area. Failure to capture the bridges would leave the 6th Airborne Division cut off in enemy territory, so the 5th Parachute Brigade were earmarked to defend the bridges against counter-attacks. Gale decided that the only way to capture the bridges intact was by a glider coup de main assault. He then asked Brigadier Hugh Kindersley of the 6th Airlanding Brigade to nominate his best company for the operation.
'D' Company, 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Major John Howard) and second in command Captain Brian Priday, was selected for the mission. The company had trained hard and became the fittest in the battalion, often utilizing bomb-damaged inner-city areas to practice street fighting with live ammunition. Howard expected the invasion to involve night-fighting and changed the daily routine to ensure that his men were up to the task. For weeks at a time, they rose at 20:00 and completed exercises, drills and normal paperwork throughout the night before retiring at 13:00. General Gale tested the company through two exercises where the objective was to capture bridges, when it became apparent that the company would not be able to carry out the mission on its own. Asked to select two more platoons from the battalion to join them, Howard chose two from 'B' Company commanded by Lieutenants Fox and Smith. Any explosive charges found attached to the bridges were the responsibility of 30 Royal Engineers from the 249th (Airborne) Field Company, commanded by Captain Jock Neilson. Changes were then made to the operational plan to accommodate six platoons. Three were assigned to attack each bridge simultaneously with infantry overcoming the troops on guard duty while the engineers located and dismantled any demolition charges. For six days and nights the company carried out exercises just outside Exeter, in the south-west of England, where two bridges similar to their objectives were found over the Exeter Ship Canal.
Transport to Normandy was arranged in six Airspeed Horsa gliders, piloted by 12 NCOs from 'C' Squadron, Glider Pilot Regiment.[nb 2] The Horsa had a wingspan of 88 feet (27 m) and a length of 67 feet (20 m), with a maximum load of 15,750 pounds (7,140 kg) or space for two pilots, twenty-eight troops or a mixture of two jeeps, artillery guns and trailers. Pilot training involved practice landings on a small strip of land, instrument flying using stopwatches for accurate course changes and fitting flight crew goggles with dark glass to get them used to night flying. By May 1944 they had carried out 54 training sorties, flying in all weathers both day and night.
Howard was not told the exact details of the operation until 2 May, 1944. His orders were to seize the bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal at Bénouville and Ranville intact and hold them until relieved. The relief force would initially be a company from the 7th Parachute Battalion under Howard's command. When the remainder of the parachute battalion arrived, he would hand over to their commander Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Pine-Coffin. The 3rd Infantry Division and the commandos of the 1st Commando Brigade were scheduled to land at Sword Beach at 06:00 on the day then advance to the bridges where they were expected to arrive at 11:00.
At the end of May 1944, 'D' Company left the battalion camp at Bulford in Wiltshire for RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset. The base was then secured and Howard briefed everyone on the mission, distributing photographs of the bridges and unveiling a model of the area. Glider pilot commander Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork told Howard that with a full load of men, ammunition, assault boats and engineers' stores his gliders would be dangerously overloaded. Howard decided to only take one assault boat per glider and leave behind two men from each platoon. At the last minute Doctor John Vaughan replaced an injured man in one of the platoons.
On 5 June 1944, the company made final preparations for the mission. Each man was issued their personal weapons and ammunition as well as up to nine hand grenades and four Bren gun magazines. Each platoon also had a 2-inch mortar and a radio. Just before the men boarded the gliders, codewords were issued. 'Ham' indicated the canal bridge was captured and 'Jam' the river bridge. Capture and destruction of the canal bridge would be signalled using the codeword 'Jack'; 'Lard' would be used if a similar fate befell the river bridge.
The Ranville bridge spans the River Orne and the Bénouville bridge crosses the Caen Canal to the west. They are 5 miles (8.0 km) from the coast and provided the only access to the city of Caen. The main road between the two communes crosses the bridges and then continues east to the River Dives. At 190 feet (58 m) long and 12 feet (3.7 m) wide, the Caen Canal bridge opens to allow canal traffic to pass underneath. The controls were housed in a nearby cabin. The canal is 27 feet (8.2 m) deep by 150 feet (46 m) wide, with earth and stone banks 6 feet (1.8 m) high. Small tarmac tracks run on both banks along the canal's entire length. Between the two bridges there is a strip of mostly marshy ground about 550 yards (500 m) wide, broken up by ditches and small streams. The Ranville bridge over the River Orne is 350 feet (110 m) long, 20 feet (6.1 m) wide and can be opened to allow river traffic to pass. The river is 160–240 feet (49–73 m) wide and with an average depth of 9 feet (2.7 m). It has mud banks averaging about 3.6 feet (1.1 m) high and a tidal rise and fall of 16–6.5 feet (4.9–2.0 m). A number of small houses lie to the west of the river, connected by a track 8–10 feet (2.4–3.0 m) wide, that runs along both banks.
The bridge was guarded by 50 men belonging to the German 736th Grenadier Regiment, 716th Infantry Division. The unit was commanded by Major Hans Schmidt and based at Ranville, 1.2 miles (1.9 km) east of the River Orne. The 716th was a static formation and had been assigned to Normandy since June 1942. The division's eight infantry battalions were deployed to defend 21 miles (34 km) of the Atlantic wall. The unit was poorly equipped with a mixture of foreign weapons and manned by conscripts from Poland, Russia and France under a German officer and senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Schmidt's soldiers had orders to blow up the two bridges if they were in danger of capture.
A second division, the 21st Panzer, moved into the area in May 1944. One of its regiments, the 125th Panzergrenadier, commanded by Colonel Hans von Luck, was billeted at Vimont just east of Caen. There was also a battalion of the 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment based at Cairon to the west of the bridges. Colonel von Luck trained his regiment in anti-invasion operations. He also identified likely incursion points and marked out forward routes, rest and refuelling areas and anti-aircraft gun positions. The 21st Panzer Division was a new formation based on the former Afrika Korps unit, which had been destroyed in North Africa. Although equipped with an assortment of older tanks and other armoured vehicles, the division's officers were veterans and 2,000 men from the old division filled its ranks. Further afield were the 12th SS Panzer Division at Lisieux and the Panzer Lehr Division at Chartres, both less than a day's march from the area.
Defences were in place at both bridges. On the west bank of the Caen Canal bridge there were three machine-gun emplacements and on the east bank a machine-gun and an anti-tank gun. To their north were another three machine-guns and a concrete pillbox. An anti-aircraft tower equipped with machine-guns stood to the south. At the River Orne bridge, the eastern bank south of the bridge had a pillbox with anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. To the north of the bridge were two machine-guns. Both bridges had sandbagged trench systems along the banks.
At 22:56 on 5 June, 1944, the six gliders towed by Halifax bombers took off from RAF Tarrant Rushton. Horsa number one, the first of the three headed for the Caen Canal, carried Howard with Lieutenant Den Brotheridge's platoon, number two bore Lieutenant David Wood's platoon, and number three carried Lieutenant Smith's platoon. Priday with Lieutenant Hooper's platoon made for the river bridge aboard number four. Horsa number five carrying Lieutenant Fox's platoon was followed by number six bearing Tod Sweeney's platoon. Each glider also carried five Royal Engineers. Flying over the English Channel at 7,000 feet (2,100 m), the bombers crossed the Normandy coast at 00:07 on 6 June, 1944 and released their towed gliders. With Wallwork at the controls, the number one glider crashed into the barbed wire surrounding the canal bridge defences at 00:16. The other two gliders followed at one-minute intervals. The number two glider broke in half and came to halt at the edge of a large pond. One of the men fell into the water and drowned, becoming the first casualty of the operation. Brotheridge and Smith's platoons headed for the bridge, while Wood's platoon moved towards the trenches on its north east side.
The Germans knew the invasion was imminent if not the exact location; Major Schmidt, in command of the bridges, had been told that they were one of the most critical points in Normandy. The defenders however were not on full alert and only two sentries were on duty when the gliders landed. The sound of a gunshot alerted the two sentries on the bridge. As Brotheridge's platoon attacked, one ran off shouting "paratroops" while the second fired a flare gun to alert nearby defenders. Brotheridge shot him while other members of his platoon cleared the trenches and pillbox with grenades. Alerted by the flare, the German machine gunners opened fire at the men on the bridge, wounding Brotheridge as he threw a grenade. The grenade silenced one of the machine gun positions and another was taken out by Bren gun fire. Number One Platoon crossed the bridge to take up a defensive position on the west bank. The Royal Engineers from number one glider searched for explosive charges and cut the fuse wires when they found any. Smith's platoon crossed the bridge next, exchanging fire with the German defenders, whereupon Smith was wounded by a grenade. Using grenades and sub-machine gun fire, the platoons cleared the trenches and bunkers. By 00:21 German resistance on the west bank of the canal bridge was over. Checking the area, the men of Brotheridge's platoon now realised that their leader was wounded. He failed to recover and soon died of his wounds, becoming the first Allied soldier killed by enemy action during the invasion. On the east bank Wood's platoon cleared the trenches and bunkers with little opposition. Woods was hit in the leg by machine-gun fire as he ordered the platoon to storm the German defences. All three platoon commanders at the canal bridge were now either dead or wounded.
At 00:19 pathfinders from the 22nd Independent Parachute Company landed in the area between the River Orne and the River Dives.[nb 3] Brigadier Nigel Poett commanding 5th Parachute Brigade and a small team accompanied them. Disoriented after landing, Poett heard Brotheridge's Sten gun and set off for the bridges with the only man he could locate . Only one of the Germans at the bridge, Unteroffizier Weber escaped 'D' Company's attack, he reached Bénouville and reported the bridge had been captured.
Fox's glider number five was the first to land 330 yards (300 m) from the river bridge at 00:20 while glider number four was reported missing. When the Germans opened fire with an MG 34, the platoon responded with a 2-inch (51 mm) mortar and destroyed the gun with a direct hit. They then crossed the bridge without further opposition. At 00:21 glider number six landed, 770 yards (700 m) short of the bridge. Sweeney left one of his sections on the west bank then moved the rest of the platoon across the bridge to take up defensive positions on the east bank.
From his newly established command post in the trenches on the eastern bank of the canal near the bridge, Howard learned that the river bridge had also been taken. Captain Neilson of the engineers reported that although the bridges had been prepared for demolition, the explosives had not been attached.[nb 4] Howard ordered his signalman to transmit the code words 'Ham' and 'Jam' then brought Fox's platoon across the canal bridge, positioning them at the Bénouville to Le Port crossroads as the company's forward platoon.
7th Parachute Battalion
At 00:50 aircraft carrying the rest of the 6th Airborne Division appeared overhead and the paratroopers descended into drop zones marked out by the pathfinders. Howard began blowing the morse code letter 'V' on his whistle, to help guide the 7th Parachute Battalion to the bridges. The first paratroops to arrive at 00:52 were Brigadier Poett and the soldier he had picked up en route. Briefed by Howard on the situation, they heard tanks and lorries moving around in Bénouville and Le Port. On the drop zone, only about 100 men of the 7th Parachute Battalion had made it to the rallying point but all their signal equipment, machine guns and mortars were missing. Pine-Coffin, aware that his battalion was the only unit allocated defensive positions west of the bridges, decided they could not wait any longer and at 01:10 left for the bridges.
At about the same time Major Schmidt, the German commander of the bridge guard force, decided he needed to see for himself what was happening. He headed for the bridge in his SdKfz 250 with a motorcycle escort. Travelling at high speed they unknowingly passed the forward line of 'D' Company's defence and drove onto the bridge whereupon the company opened fire. The soldier aboard the motorcycle was killed and the SdKfz 250 was forced off the road. Schmidt and his driver were taken prisoner.
The commander of the 716th Infantry Division Generalleutnant Wilhelm Richter was informed at 01:20 of the parachute landings and that the bridges had been captured intact. One of his first actions was to contact Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger of 21st Panzer Division. Richter ordered the division to attack the landing areas. While Feuchtinger's tanks were delegated to support the 716th, it was also part of the German armoured reserve, which could not move without orders from the German High Command. All German panzer formations could only be moved on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler, who was sleeping at the time and his staff refused to wake him. When Colonel Von Luck of the 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment received the news of the airborne landings at 01:30 he ordered the regiment to their assembly areas north and east of Caen and waited for further orders.
The closest large German unit to the canal bridge were the 2nd Battalion, 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment based at Cairon. General Feuchtinger ordered them to recapture the bridges and then attack the parachute landing zones further west. At 02:00 the 2nd Battalion headed for the bridges from the west, supported by the 1st Panzerjager Company and part of the 989th Heavy Artillery Battalion coming from the north. As the first Panzer IVs from the north reached the junction leading to the bridge, the leading vehicle was hit by a round from 'D' Company's only serviceable PIAT anti-tank weapon. The vehicle exploded, setting off its stowed ammunition, and the other tanks withdrew.[nb 5]
The first company of the 7th Parachute Battalion, commanded by Major Nigel Taylor, arrived at the bridges. Howard directed them to defensive positions west of the canal in Bénouville and Le Port. When Lieutenant-Colonel Pine-Coffin arrived at the bridges, he was briefed by Howard, and crossed into Bénouville and set up his headquarters beside the church. Pine-Coffin had about 200 men in his three companies. He positioned 'A' and 'C' Companies in Bénouville facing south towards Caen and 'B' Company in Le Port facing Ouistreham. 'D' Company was now pulled back into the area between the two bridges and held in reserve. A further check of the trenches and bunkers captured a number of Germans.
At 03:00 the 8th Heavy Company, 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment with 75 mm SP guns, 20 mm AA guns and mortars attacked 'A' and 'C' Companies, 7th Parachute Battalion, from the south. The paratroops were forced back and the Germans established their own positions in Bénouville, but were unable to break the British line. They dug in and waited for tank support before moving forward again. The Germans fired mortar rounds and machine guns at the paratroopers and attempted small assaults on their positions throughout the night.
Just before dawn Howard summoned his platoon commanders to a meeting. With their senior officers dead or wounded, numbers One, Two and Three Platoons were now commanded by corporals. Howard's second in command, Captain Priday and number Four Platoon were missing. Only Lieutenants Fox and Sweeney in Five and Six Platoons had a full complement of officers and NCOs. The landings at Sword Beach began at 07:00, preceded by a heavy naval bombardment. At the bridges, daylight allowed German snipers to identify targets and anyone moving in the open was in danger of being shot. The men of number One Platoon who had taken over the 75 mm anti-tank gun on the east bank of the canal used it to engage possible sniper positions in Bénouville, the Château de Bénouville and the surrounding area. At 09:00, two German gunboats approached the canal bridge from Ouistreham. The lead boat fired its 20 mm gun and number Two Platoon returned fire with a PIAT, hitting the wheelhouse of the leading boat, which crashed into the canal bank. The second boat retreated to Ouistreham. A lone German aircraft bombed the canal bridge at 10:00, dropping one bomb. The bomb struck the bridge but failed to detonate.
1st Commando Brigade
The German 2nd Battalion, 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment continued to attack Bénouville and Le Port, assisted by their tanks, mortars and infantry. The attack caused serious problems for the understrength 7th Parachute Battalion, until the leading tank was blown up with a Gammon bomb, blocking the road. During the attack 13 of the 17 tanks trying to get through to the bridge were destroyed. The paratroopers were then reinforced by number One Platoon from 'D' Company. The platoon moved forward into Bénouville and cleared the Germans in house to house fighting. Numbers Five and Six Platoons also moved into positions opposite the Gondrée Cafe on the west bank of the canal. By midday most of the missing men from the 7th Parachute Battalion had arrived at the bridges and the three platoons were moved back to their original positions.
Just after midday, the 21st Panzer Division received permission to attack the landings. Colonel von Luck east of the River Orne, moved the 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment towards the bridges. The column was quickly spotted and engaged for the next two hours by Allied artillery and aircraft causing heavy losses. The 1st Battalion, 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment and the 100th Panzer Regiment, attacking from west of the canal, had more success reaching the beaches between the British Sword Beach and the Canadian Juno Beach. At 13:30 the men at the bridges heard the sound of bagpipes, played by Bill Millin of the 1st Commando Brigade. As the commandos arrived they crossed the bridges and joined the rest of 6th Airborne Division defending the eastern side of the bridges. Some of the tanks accompanying the commandos moved into Bénouville to reinforce its defences while others crossed the bridges with the commandos. At 15:00 a boat loaded with German infantry approached from Caen. It was engaged with the anti-tank gun manned by number One Platoon. It was hit in the stern by the second round fired and retreated back toward Caen.
At 21:15 the 2nd Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment of the 185th Infantry Brigade arrived from Sword Beach and began taking over the bridges' defences. At around midnight Howard handed over command of the bridges to the Warwickshire Regiment and his company left to join the rest of their battalion at Ranville. At 03:30 they finally located the battalion's positions. They found Captain Priday and number Four Platoon had already joined the battalion. The platoon had landed beside the River Dives at Varaville about 8 miles (13 km) away and had spent the previous day fighting their way towards the bridges, trying to rejoin the company.
Bénouville was the farthest forward point of the British advance on 6 June 1944. Of the 181 men (139 infantry, 30 engineers and 12 pilots) of 'D' Company involved in the capture of the bridges, two had been killed and fourteen wounded. On 9 June, the German Air Force attacked the bridges with 13 aircraft. The British had positioned light and medium-sized anti-aircraft guns around the bridges and in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire the attack failed, although they did claim one of the bridges was destroyed by a direct hit.
The 6th Airborne retained control of the area between the Rivers Orne and Dives until 14 June, when the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division took over the southern part of the Orne bridgehead. In the days that followed the division was reinforced by the Dutch Princess Irene Brigade and the 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade. A period of static warfare ended on 22 August when the division crossed the River Dives. Within nine days it had advanced 45 miles (72 km) to the mouth of the River Seine. Between 6 June and 26 August when they were pulled out of the front line the division's casualties were; 821 killed, 2,709 wounded, and 927 missing. After Operation Deadstick the engineers, glider pilots and 'B' Company men were returned to their parent formations. 'D' Company played their part in the division's defence of the Orne bridgehead and advance to the River Seine. On 5 September when the division was withdrawn to England, all that remained of the company were 40 men under the only remaining officer, Howard, the other officers, sergeants and most of the junior NCOs having been among the casualties.
The glider pilots were the first group to leave 'D' Company, their expertise being required for other planned operations. In particular Operation Comet, which included another coup-de-main operation where eighteen gliders would be used to capture three bridges in the Netherlands. The mission would be carried out by the 1st Airborne Division with a brigade allocated to defend each bridge. Comet was scheduled for the 8 September 1944, but was delayed and then cancelled. The plans were adapted and became Operation Market Garden, involving three airborne divisions, however the coup-de-main assault plans were not carried out.
Prior to being withdrawn on 16 July, Howard was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, presented in the field by General Bernard Montgomery. Other awards were the Military Cross to Smith and Sweeney, the Military Medal to Sergeant Thornton and Lance-Corporal Stacey, Lieutenant Brotheridge was posthumously mentioned in dispatches. Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory of the Royal Air Force praised the pilots involved, saying the operation included the "most outstanding flying achievements of the war". The feat was recognised by the award of the Distinguished Flying Medal to eight of the glider pilots involved.
The Caen Canal bridge was renamed Pegasus Bridge after the emblem of the British airborne forces, while the River Orne bridge became Horsa Bridge. The road across them is now the "Esplanade Major John Howard". Since the end of the war, Pegasus Bridge and the adjacent Café Gondrée have become a place where British veterans of the conflict visiting Normandy congregate. In 1994, Pegasus Bridge was replaced by a new structure and the old bridge was added to the displays at the Pegasus Museum in Benouville.
The original model of the area around the bridge, that was used to brief troops taking part in the assault, is preserved in Airborne Assault: The Museum of The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces, located at the Imperial War Museum Duxford.
In popular culture
- In 1962, Operation Deadstick featured in Darryl Zanuck's film The Longest Day which was based on the book of the same title by Cornelius Ryan. Major John Howard was played by Richard Todd, who had been an officer in the 7th Parachute Battalion during the battle.
- Stephen E. Ambrose wrote Pegasus Bridge (2003) about the operation.
- In 2003, the attack on the Bénouville (Pegasus) Bridge was recreated in the video game, Call of Duty, in which the player joins the assault of the 6th Airborne Division in both capturing and holding the bridge.
- The film Pegasus Bridge, written and directed by Lance Nielsen, began filming in August 2016 and is due for release in June 2017.
- 21st Panzer Division losses in the battle are not known but when the division crossed the River Seine at the end of August 1944, it had no armour and only 300 men in its ranks.
- All Glider Pilot Regiment pilots were at least of the rank of sergeant and trained soldiers.
- Ambrose writes it was 00:19, but in Ford and Zaloga the pathfinders landed at 00:15 before 'D' Company, while the Ministry of Defence documents that the bridges had been seized when the pathfinders were dropped at 00:20.
- The bridges had been prepared for demolition with the explosive charges stored nearby, and were to be fitted only when ordered by the High Command.
- Ambrose writes the vehicle was a Panzer IV, in Fowler some troops thought it was a French Char B1. Hall writes it was a Panzer IV belonging to the 716th Infantry Division and Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat the commander of the 1st Commando Brigade said it was a half-track.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Operation Deadstick.|
- List of 'D' Company men involved in the operation
- History of the 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry