Heroes of Pegasus Bridge (who also liberated a bar)

For D-Day to succeed, two bridges had to be taken. As the 65th anniversary approaches, the men who stole into France in six gliders recall the fight that morning. Jonathan Owen reports

"It was one of the "most outstanding flying achievements of the war", said Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory after the smoke had cleared and the casualties had been tallied. Codenamed Operation Deadstick, six gliders carrying 139 men from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry formed the sharp point of a spearhead that was to be hurled on to France's Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944: D-Day.

The plan, audacious and, of course, top secret, was to land a team of British soldiers on a tiny field behind enemy lines deep within German occupied France under cover of darkness.

The men, under the command of Major John Howard, were tasked with taking and holding two bridges, 500 yards apart, over the River Orne and the Caen Canal. The bridges, which had been wired for demolition by the Germans, were vital to the fate of tens of thousands of Allied soldiers who would be involved in the D-Day landings hours later.

The piloting skills later celebrated by Leigh-Mallory involved them landing the troops on a narrow strip of land between the two bridges. To add to their difficulties, they had to avoid a large pond as well as barbed wire entanglements.

While the first bridge over the River Orne was taken with hardly any resistance, the Caen Canal Bridge – later renamed Pegasus in honour of those who fought there – became the scene of a brief but fierce battle.

Despite the memory of the carnage that followed, what Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, pilot of the first glider to land, remembers most clearly from that night, just days before the 65th anniversary, was the near-total silence.

"The men had been singing, but as soon as we reached the French coast everything went quiet. 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," said Mr Wallwork, from Salford, Manchester, an airborne veteran who had already fought in Sicily.

Suddenly the silence and beauty were shattered, as the glider hit the ground, crashing through barbed wire defences. Staff Sgt Wallwork and John Ainsworth, his co-pilot, were thrown headfirst through the cockpit. They came to a standstill just a few yards from Pegasus Bridge at the exact point where they had planned to land – an area about 300 yards wide and so small the Germans had not bothered to defend it with anti-glider poles.

"It was a rather spectacular arrival into France to put the Germans back in their place. France was a very busy place that night," said Mr Wallwork. "People were dropping out of aircraft with supplies for the Resistance, things like that, but we were the first to start the fight. The outstanding thing was how bloody good we were at night. With a slight bit of moon we could put a glider anywhere you wanted, simply because of practice. In my youthful enthusiasm I went as far in as I could but hit the embankment rather hard and the nose of the glider collapsed. The others were a bit shaken up but the only people injured in the arrival were me and my co-pilot, Johnny Ainsworth. He couldn't walk, so I dragged him from the wreckage and shoved him in a ditch out of danger and out of sight. Then, knowing my duty was to make sure the chaps doing the shooting had plenty to shoot with, I started carting ammunition about. I had taken a blow on the head, which was bleeding so much that it filled my right eye with blood and I had the awful thought for a while that I might have lost an eye. But I wasn't too bothered, I was so glad to have done the job and delivered the boys."

The men clambered out of the wrecked glider and dashed towards the bridge, firing as they ran. Coming under enemy fire from dozens of German soldiers dug in around the bridge was something they just accepted, said Mr Wallwork. "We were of that daft age where you believe that you are invincible and are going to live forever – that if a bloke's going to be shot it's going to be the one next to you," he said. "We had not the slightest doubt we were going to pull it off. If the Germans had been better prepared they'd have wiped us out very quickly but luck was on our side, we took them by surprise and it worked out rather well; let's put it that way."

The enormity of what they had done hit home later, he said. "Of course, once it starts you're so much part of it that you've no time to think. There's so much going on and there's the fear of what's coming next. There's so much excitement which you repress. It is only afterwards that you think how lucky we were to survive."

The assault lasted barely 10 minutes, but cost the lives of two British soldiers, with 14 others injured. Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, who led the charge to clear enemy trenches and machine-gun posts defending the bridge, became the first allied soldier to die by enemy fire on D-Day when he was shot in the neck. One of his men, Private Wally Parr, remembered the shock at finding the popular officer on the ground. "His eyes were open and his lips were moving; I just looked at him. I put my hand behind his head to lift him up; his eyes rolled back – he just choked and lay back. I took my hand away; he had got one right in the back of the neck. My hand was covered in blood. 'My God,' I thought, 'what a waste.'"

A small bar, Café Gondree, beside the bridge, became the first building in Normandy to be liberated.

The small band of men saw off a Panzer tank, as well as German infantry, and even a gunboat, in the hours that followed. "We knew that it would be harder to hold the bridge than to take it," Mr Wallwork said.

Private Frank Dougan, with the 12th Battalion, the Devonshire Regiment, was one of those who came later to help hold the captured bridge. "I was 19 when I first entered World War Two," he recalled. "I was never scared to be part of the war at such a young age because, to be honest, you didn't really have time to think about it. You just had to get on with it and hope for the best." Now in his 80s, Mr Dougan remembers how close he came to death that day: "A sniper shot at me while I was digging a trench. But, luckily for me, the bullet hit my shovel and not my head. The sniper was so close to hitting me he probably thought from a distance that he had shot me."

In Mr Dougan's account, which is published in Britain at War magazine tomorrow, the Normandy veteran described one particular incident where a German soldier was shot. "On first glance, the figure seemed British in appearance because he was sporting a Glider Pilot uniform," he said. "My friend, however, was suspicious of the individual and so called out to him numerous times and when the figure failed to respond my friend raised his gun and shot the man in the back of the head. It turned out that the man was a German soldier walking around with a Glider Pilot Regiment maroon beret on. Like I said, you didn't have time to think about what was happening around you."

For Mr Wallwork, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his actions that day, it doesn't seem as though 65 years has passed since the battle for Pegasus Bridge. "It doesn't feel like a long time ago, not really. I'm still in touch with several of the people, the few that are left," he said. The 89-year-old, who now lives in Canada, will not be among the dwindling band of veterans who will return to mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day this Saturday. But it is important to remember that time, he said. "The lessons of the Second World War haven't been learnt and the wars go on and on. Thank God I'm a little past being called up. It is important that people realise that this sort of thing has been going on for so long – every generation thinks they won't be so daft again, but it's human nature."

And the former glider pilot, who flew in every major British airborne operation in the Second World War, added: "The war shaped me for the rest of my life, and I'm so very proud to have been part of it."

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