Jim Wallwork: Decorated glider pilot who took part in D-Day and Operation Market Garden

 

Jim Wallwork was often described as the first allied serviceman to set foot on French soil on D-Day. It was a description that caused him some mirth since, after crash-landing his Horsa glider next to the Caen bridge 20 minutes into 6 June 1944, he was thrown head-first through the Perspex windscreen and hit French soil on his belly. Staff-Sergeant Wallwork, of the army's Glider Pilot Regiment, was flying the first of six Horsas carrying soldiers of D Company 2nd Battalion Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in Operation Deadstick to capture two key bridges.

Control of the Caen and Orne bridges was vital, to prevent Panzers from reaching the beaches where allied forces would land a few hours later but also to create a supply route for the 6th Airborne Division. Wallwork received the Distinguished Flying Medal for the daring operation, in which six gliders, each carrying around 30 soldiers, were towed by "tugs" – Halifax bombers – before breaking free and gliding to their targets under cover of darkness. "It was one of the most outstanding flying achievements of the war," said Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory.

Despite injuries to his head and knee, Wallwork dragged his co-pilot Sgt Johnnie Ainsworth from the wrecked cockpit and carried ammunition for the men of the Ox & Bucks, led by Major John Howard and with their faces blackened, as they stormed the Caen bridge and captured it within minutes. The bridge was later renamed Pegasus in honour of the Glider Pilot Regiment, whose emblem was the mythological winged horse and whose motto was Nihil est impossibilis (nothing is impossible). The Ranville bridge over the River Orne was renamed the Horsa bridge in memory of the gliders, built by Airspeed in Hampshire. The operation was immortalised in the 1962 film The Longest Day.

Wallwork, who emigrated to Canada after the war and spent the rest of his life there, always played down his role as first man on the ground on D-Day. "France was a very busy place that night," he said. "Our only claim to fame is not that we were the first to arrive, but that we were the first to fire a shot." Two of the men in the coup de main operation were killed and Wallwork's own injuries got worse as the adrenalin receded. "By daylight my legs had seized. I ended up at Ronkswood Hospital in Worcester."

But soon he was taking part in Operation Market Garden and flying another Horsa glider at Arnhem in September before wielding a rifle himself as an infantryman west of the Arnhem bridge. "We held one end of the bridge and the Germans held the other – and they wouldn't give up," he recalled. "Not too sporting of them."

The following March he took part in Operation Varsity, flying a bigger glider, a Hamilcar, to transport a 17-pounder anti-tank gun to troops crossing the Rhine in the final push to Berlin. Again, he found himself fighting on the ground before being ordered back home as the Germans retreated. "It was short, sharp and a good clean way to go to war," he recalled.

James Wallwork was born in Salford in 1919, the only child of Harold Wallwork, an artillery sergeant in the Great War, and Alice. He attended Salford Grammar School, where he was a useful rugby player and had the nickname "Handsome Jim". He joined the army as war clouds gathered: "You could smell it coming ... I joined the war to cover myself with glory, and medals and free beer for the duration, surrounded by adoring females."

By May 1942 he was training with the newly formed Glider Pilot Regiment, part of the army but trained by the RAF, not always an amicable arrangement. After training in North Africa he flew a commando-carrying glider behind enemy lines during Operation Husky, the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, where bad weather and mistimed release by "tug pilots" led to the loss of almost a third of more than 130 British gliders, most of them into the sea. Wallwork narrowly reached his target, where he met heavy resistance: "Luckily, the Italians were rotten shots."

Back in England he began training at RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset for a secret mission. A few days before D-Day they were told their objectives, the two Normandy bridges. A Halifax bomber towed Horsa No 1 (nicknamed Lady Irene) from Tarrant Rushton at 22.45 hours on 5 June 1944, flown by Wallwork and Ainsworth. Behind them were 30 fighting men with blackened faces, including Major Howard. "Howard encouraged the men to sing so that none got airsick," Wallwork recalled. "It was a midnight crossing in a rugby dressing-room atmosphere with songs and jokes. At 6,000 feet, when we heard 'cast off' [from the tug], the singing stopped and that was when six Horsas tiptoed quietly into two little fields in Normandy and released 180 fighting men ... to give the German garrison the surprise of their lives. I could see it all, the river and the canal like strips of silver in the moonlight."

Wallwork hit the ground at 95mph and ploughed through barbed wire defences before the cockpit collapsed and the glider ended up on an embankment closer to the Caen bridge than he or the troops could have dreamed of. After the bridge was secured, Howard and his men held it until the arrival of Lord Lovat and his commandos, led across the bridge by his personal piper, Bill Millin. Wallwork helped, he said, to "liberate the first building in France" the local café whose owner Georges Gondrée appeared with glasses of champagne.

Wallwork attended several reunions at the Pegasus bridge, including 2004, when Prince Charles unveiled a replica Horsa at the site. Wallwork also donated his DFM to the D-Day museum there. "I thought it would be better in the museum than in the top drawer of my dresser under my socks."

Wallwork emigrated to Canada in 1957, where he became a salesman and later a livestock farmer. He died in hospital after falling ill last month.

James Harley Wallwork, glider pilot, salesman and livestock farmer: born Salford 21 October 1919: married 1945 Dorothy Colgate (two daughters, and one son deceased), 1977 Genevieve O'Donnell; died White Rock, British Columbia, Canada 24 January 2013.

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