Obituary: Roy Howard

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ROY HOWARD was one of the first Allied troops to enter France on D-Day, 6 June 1944. As part of the largest and most spectacular airborne invasion of the Second World War, Staff Sergeant Howard piloted a Horsa glider which landed with two others in Normandy a little after midnight to spearhead the capture of Ranville Bridge over the River Orne some six hours before the seaborne invasion. Three other gliders were to land 200 yards away at Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal.

It was vital for the invasion force that the two bridges be simultaneously captured intact as the road they carried would be the only supply line from Sword Beach to the 6th Airborne Division that was due to land by parachute or glider east of Caen, in order to protect the left flank of the entire Allied invasion force. Landing a glider with pinpoint accuracy on the precise spot - knowing how vital it would be to the rest of the operation - is a nerve-racking experience. But Howard and other pilots who had volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment had spent the 18 months prior to the invasion training and perfecting their skills.

A model of what was on the ground in Normandy, perfect down to the last tree and ditch, had been constructed. Wires were erected above the model and a cine camera slid down it, filming all the way and thus simulating what a pilot would see in his approach. Howard recalled: "It was incredibly clever and impressed us. So we felt very confident."

Each of the six Horsa gliders, with their 88ft wingspan, carried 28 troops of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry commanded by Major John Howard (no relation), plus two or three engineers. Roy Howard met the men he was to carry several days before and thought them a "very good bunch". However on the night they arrived for the operation with their faces blacked-up, laden with arms and ammunition, he thought they looked like a bunch of "cut-throats". After a cup of tea at 10.40pm they took off. Howard knew his task. He had to clear a belt of 50ft-high trees and come to a halt in a small but very rough pasture without crashing into the road embankment with his vital cargo.

Thick cloud made for difficulties between the Halifax which was towing them some 275 yards ahead and the glider, so Howard was glad to hear from the plane's navigator that it was "three minutes from cast off". To deceive the enemy into thinking this was a bomber raid on Caen the planes had flown at 6,000ft. This meant that when they were released the heavy Horsas had to descend at a very steep angle. Howard was disturbed to find that the glider was grossly overloaded and the trim wasn't right. He recalled:

I was nose-heavy with a control column right back against my chest, and we were going down at 90mph like a streamlined brick! I turned round and shouted to two men crouched in the front to get to the back as soon as they could; this sorted out the trim. Thank God the nose came up and I was able to put the control column forward and arrest the drive.

When he was about 1,200ft he looked up from his instruments for the first time and saw that the ground looked exactly like the model - which made him feel he had been there before. He also realised that he had been too successful in losing height. He quickly ripped the flaps off, stretched the glide and flattened out the glide path; as he skimmed over the trees he deployed the parachute brakes and with consummate skill brought the glider down six yards from his allocated spot and just 100 yards from the bridge.

However, what the model had not shown was a herd of sleeping cows who panicked and stampeded as the glider skidded, sparks flying and crashed to a halt. Safe on the ground the greatly relieved men of the Ox and Bucks quickly disembarked to attack the bridge. Howard's glider was the only one to land close to the bridge. One had landed 400 yards further away, whereas the other had been towed to a bridge over nine miles to the east. They captured the bridge, then realised their error and fought their way back through enemy-held territory and arrived 24 hours later.

The impact of this operation can never be underestimated. From the moment the two bridges were held after some tough fighting all enemy movement between the east and west banks had to be via Caen, a six-hour detour. For his part in the raid Howard was awarded a DFM.

Roy Howard was born in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex in 1922, the son of a police sergeant. As a boy he suffered badly from asthma. On leaving Westcliff High School he worked locally and joined the Home Guard. He was called up at 19 and joined the Royal Corps of Signals. He had a sharp mind, and was posted to the Army's Y Services where he intercepted German signals for analysis at Bletchley Park.

However he was keen to see action so volunteered for the newly formed Glider Pilot Regiment. After undergoing training in a Tiger Moth he moved to gliding. As soon as he landed at Ranville, as a trained soldier, he supported the assault by carrying ammunition, but once the bridge had been secured knew his one objective was to get back to England in case he was needed for further operations.

On 17 September 1944 he was part of the ill-fated operation to capture the Arnhem Bridge but his towing aircraft developed a fault and he returned to base. In the last airborne operation of the war in March 1945 he carried infantry over the Rhine crossing. He made a successful landing in spite of much gun smoke left from the Allied artillery and aircraft.

On demobilisation in 1946 Howard worked for a radio manufacturer and then as a salesman for the computer stationers Waddington's and later, during the mid-Sixties, as sales manager for the British Printing Corporation. From 1979 to 1983 he was at HM Stationery Office.

Roy Howard was a happily married, quiet, self-effacing man. He enjoyed rallying and was an active member of the Benfleet Yacht Club. He retained his interest in the Glider Pilot Regimental Association, acting as their Quartermaster, and was delighted when his son became a general secretary of the association.

Max Arthur

Roy Allen Howard, army glider pilot: born Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex 22 August 1922; DFM 1944; married 1958 Pamela Brown (two sons); died Southend, Essex 22 March 1999.