First D-Day liberator in France says: We knew the King would be cross if we failed

Click to follow

Shortly after midnight on a summer's day, not long after the Second World War, two young men crossed Pegasus Bridge and quietly raised a glass in their "little field" in France.

Shortly after midnight on a summer's day, not long after the Second World War, two young men crossed Pegasus Bridge and quietly raised a glass in their "little field" in France.

It was the early hours of 6 June 1948 when Major John Howard turned to Sergeant James (Jim) Wallwork and reminded him that it was "about this time" that they had become the first D-Day liberators on French soil four years earlier.

"Howard and I crossed the bridge to the little field where we had arrived. We had a drink - Calvados I think. I don't think we said anything profound, just that it was good to be back and it was not as dangerous now," said Jim Wallwork yesterday.

The 84-year-old will repeat that toast at 00.16am on Sunday, 60 years to the minute men of the Glider Pilot Regiment and the 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry landed. It will be a very different scene. The drink will be champagne and the former pilot will be surrounded by a crowd of veterans, onlookers and press.

Most poignantly, Major Howard will not be there. As Mr Wallwork explained with Mancunian candour he had, like so many of his other companions on that mission, now "fallen off his perch". The former pilot was the very first of the allies to set foot in Normandy that day. At the age of 24, he was flying Lady Irene, the lead glider of six carrying 180 men from the infantry battalion under the command of Major Howard.

As part of Operation Deadstick, which was to secure the eastern flank of the Normandy bridgehead six hours before the seaborne armada hit the beaches, he landed the Horsa glider in a field just yards from Pegasus Bridge so the men could capture the crucial link over the Caen Canal. Mr Wallwork said: "The men from the Ox and Bucks had been singing rather rude cockney songs but as soon as we reached the French coast everything went quiet. I cast off and there was silence for the last few minutes. It was a lovely night. In full moon we could see every twig, every cow. The waterways were like streaks of silver. It was perfect, beautiful."

Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory later described it as "the greatest feat of airmanship of the whole of the Second World War", but the veteran, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal, simply said: "It really wasn't very difficult."

As they hit the ground, bulldozing through barbed wire defences, Mr Wallwork and John Ainsworth, his co-pilot, went headfirst through the cockpit into the field as the other gliders crash landed behind them. Within minutes the infantry company had captured Pegasus and Horsa bridges over the river Orne, securing vital exit routes for the forces scheduled to land at Sword beach. But they lost two men in the process. "You didn't really think about it a great deal. You only had time to think 'thank God I didn't get shot'," Mr Wallwork said. The situation could have been so much worse, he recalled.

Right across the Normandy coastline, the Germans had placed lethal posts to spear incoming gliders. In the training runs over the area, the pilots noticed the ominous sight of preparations being made. "A couple of days before we took off, we noticed holes were being dug for posts. Howard was quite concerned and some of the pilots were terrified," he said.

The worst moment, however, came when weather conditions held up the D-Day landings for 24 hours. "We were almost in our gliders on the night of the 4th to 5th when it was postponed. It was an awful bloody day waiting nervously to go." But he remembers little fear that night. In a no-nonsense Salford accent, preserved despite almost 50 years as a Canadian citizen, he explained: "It was pretty straightforward. It was just the same as we had done three weeks earlier on Salisbury Plain. We knew it was rather important but we were very young. We were just doing what we had been told to do. We knew the King would have been very cross if we cocked it up."

This weekend Mr Wallwork will meet the King's grandson - the Prince of Wales - when he visits a French-made replica of the Horsa glider at a commemorative ceremony in the Pegasus Museum at Ranville before the French Army Air Corps' helicopters retrace the gliders flightpath. It will be one of the main British events over a weekend attended by as many as 10,000 veterans. It has been predicted to be the last major D-Day commemoration.

Mr Wallwork will be travelling from British Columbia, where he emigrated to in 1957. Now married to Genevieve, his second wife, he has two children and two step-children.

The honour of joining Prince Charles in the glider and taking him through the controls will fall to Mr Wallwork. He is quite undaunted. "I have met him before. It is very easy to talk to him. He wears a Parachute Regiment smock. He doesn't wear a crown so he just looks like one of the boys," he explained.

Later, he will gather with other veterans at 00.16am to make the annual toast - a tradition kept since that night in 1948. This time it will be without Major Howard, who died five years ago at the age of 86. "He was a good friend but at my age you realise that is what happens - they are all falling off their perches. I guess we will continue with the [toast] tradition until we all fall off our perches but ... I plan to go back for the 70th anniversary as well," he said, before adding mischievously: "I must remember to mention that to Charles."