Pegasus bridge to be rebuilt as D-Day memorial

WORK WILL begin in the next few weeks on a new memorial at Pegasus Bridge - the site of the first Allied action of D-Day and one of the most celebrated British actions of the Second World War.

The original bridge, uprooted in 1993 and lying derelict ever since, is to be reconstructed as the piece de resistance of a pounds 650,000 memorial and museum. The roof will be shaped to look like one of the three British gliders that skidded to a halt nearby, carrying the first Allied soldiers to land on French soil.

The project extends - but is unlikely to end - a tangled saga of local rivalries and misunderstandings, accusations and counter-accusations, which led to the repossession and closure of a smaller museum near the new, replica bridge 14 months ago. It will also fulfil a promise made to British airborne veterans that the original Pegasus Bridge, dumped when the canal was widened six years ago, would be given an honourable and fitting new home.

For the past year a number of groups - local councils in Normandy, British airborne veterans, the British embassy in Paris and a committee of Norman officials and dignitaries, dedicated to honouring the memory of D-Day - have been working quietly to create a new museum, with the old bridge rebuilt in its grounds.

Although no formal announcement has been made, all administrative and most funding problems have now been overcome. Work on the museum - a few yards from the eastern end of the original site of the bridge, in the commune of Ranville, the first French village to be liberated - is expected to start as soon as planning formalities are completed next month.

Lieutenant-Colonel Neville Jackson, of Airborne Assault Normandy, the airborne veterans' trust that has been pushing the project, said: "It has been a long haul and we didn't want to say much until we knew that we were more or less sure of succeeding. Now it's 99 per cent sure."

The old bridge lies rusting and weed-infested at the end of a lorry park, 300 hundred yards from its original location, on the Caen canal, a few miles inland from the "Sword" invasion beach. Bullet and cannon- shell scars still mark the battleship- grey girders, beneath which Lieutenant Danny Brotheridge of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, became the first Allied casualty of the invasion at 20 minutes past midnight on 6 June, 1944.

The capture of the bridge, and another span a half mile away, across the River Orne, was the first act in a two-month struggle by British and Canadian forces in the 6th Airborne Division to protect the critical eastern flank of the D-Day beaches from German counter-attack. Failure could have led to the entire invasion being thrown back into the sea.

Recently, the bridge has become the object of a second, less fateful, but widely publicised battle. Arlette Gondree-Pritchett, 57, proprietor of a celebrated cafe beside the bridge site, and part of the first family in France to be liberated, owned the land on which the original museum was built. She took eviction action, which closed the memorial, in October 1997 after a series of ill- tempered squabbles, including one shoving match in which she was pushed over a fence by the curator.

Mrs Gondree-Pritchett then announced plans to expand a private museum in her own cafe and virulently opposed the idea of a new memorial, on the other side of the canal, claiming it would turn the area into a "theme park". She was supported by some British veterans of Normandy, including the former prime minister Sir Edward Heath.

She was, however, equally virulently opposed by other airborne veterans, including Major John Howard, 84, the man who led the attack on Pegasus Bridge.

Patient diplomacy by British government officials and the airborne veterans' leaders in recent months has attempted to persuade Mrs Gondree-Pritchett to adopt a more neutral attitude to the new museum. British officials believe that the new visitors attracted by the memorial will help, rather than hinder, Mrs Gondree- Pritchett's plans to expand the family museum at her cafe.

Mrs Gondree-Pritchett remains deeply suspicious of the new project, although she has no plans to take formal moves to oppose it. In England, where she lives in winter, she said: "I still have grave doubts about this idea. I fear that this is going to develop into a kind of Disneyland of D-Day. The old bridge is now just a corpse. Restoring it on a new site has no significance whatsoever. The only truly historic, unchanged site left is my cafe."

Many British veterans - they claim to be the majority of survivors of the battles on the eastern flank of D-Day - share Mrs Gondree-Pritchett's concerns. Peter Parnwell, 73, who fought with the Highland Division and crossed the bridge "30 or so times in 1944" supports a rival plan to bring the old bridge to a D-Day memorial site in Britain. "On the surface, it sounds as if this project has got further than we believed it would," he said. "But we've heard it all before. I'm still very concerned that the old bridge would not be properly displayed or maintained on this site."

The British embassy in Paris has no such concerns. Brigadier Andrew Gadsby, the military attache, has been heavily involved, with the Ambassador, Sir Michael Jay, in smoothing the path for the new museum. He said: "The ambassador believes that this project will provide a fitting memorial for those who sacrificed their lives in perhaps the most crucial battle in the whole Normandy campaign. It is no exaggeration to say that, if the eastern flank had given way, the Germans could have rolled up the entire invasion, extending the war for another two to three years, even, conceivably changing its outcome.

"At the same time, we believe that the new museum is not a threat to Mrs Gondree-Pritchett, whom we wish well. We believe that the two projects will eventually work in complete harmony."

Local government funding of around pounds 400,000 for the museum is expected to be announced soon by the Calvados and Basse-Normandie councils. A contribution of pounds 250,000 will be made by the locally run Comite du Debarquement, which operated the original museum on the site. The Comite will run the new, glider-shaped memorial, with help from the airborne veterans' trust.

A British company has offered to level the site free. Royal Engineers are expected to undertake most of the work of restoring Pegasus Bridge and moving it a couple of hundred yards to its permanent resting place. Airborne Assault Normandy, which is dedicated to preserving the memory of the eastern flank campaign, hopes to raise up to another pounds 400,000 from British sources, to help to equip the museum.

"There is now little doubt that the museum will happen, even without British money" said Lt-Col Jackson, a retired territorial airborne officer living in Normandy, who has been the trust's main ambassador and negotiator in France.

"But it is important, psychologically and morally, that it should be seen to be supported by British as well as French cash. And the more money we have, the better equipped and the more advanced the museum will be."

Pegasus Bridge, some 40 metres long, will be re-erected in its entirety in front of the picture windows of the main museum hall, which will house 8,000 artefacts and mementoes from June 1944. The exhibits and videos will tell the story of the capture of the bridge but also the less well- known saga of the two-month battle by the 6th Airborne Division to seize and hold the ridge to the east and defend the D-Day landings from vigorous German counter-attacks. More than 1,000 men of the 6th Airborne - whose average age was 20 - died in these battles.

The hope is to open the museum with a drop by British paratroopers, and maybe a royal visit, on or just before 6 June next year.

Anyone wishing to contribute to the project should send inquiries or any donations to: The Pegasus Memorial c/o Airborne Assault Normandy Trust, Parachute Regiment Headquarters, Browning Barracks, Aldershot, Hants GU11 2BU.