Taking Pegasus Bridge

The most famous glider operation of World War II

A Bren carrier crossing Pegasus Bridge
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The British capture of the Caen canal and Orne river bridges on the night before D-Day has to be the best-known glider operation of World War II. The assault is a perfect example of the speed, courage, precision and aggression we commonly associate with airborne, and more specifically gliderborne, troops. Today’s article is about the operation often incorrectly referred to as Operation Deadstick, which set a new standard for glider assaults.

The patch of the 6th British Airborne Division
(Photo: unknown photographer)

The amphibious landings of D-Day were prepared by airborne operations the night before (Read our earlier article – Jumping into chaos), which destroyed or captured strategically important towns, bridges, causeways and artillery batteries to help incoming troops link up with each other and prevent the Germans from launching a counterattack against the vulnerable beachheads. While the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions landed on the Cotentin Peninsula to the west of the landing zones, the British 6th Airborne Division carried out similar operations on the eastern flank of the British and Canadian beaches under the collective name of Operation Tonga.

The ”stick commanders” of British pathfinder units synchronizing their watches late at night on June 5, before departing for another mission as part of Operation Tonga
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

One of these operations targeted a pair of bridges crossing the Orne river and the Caen canal. These two waterways run southwest to northeast, parallel to each other from downtown Caen (a major target during the landings but only liberated much later) to the seashore at the very eastern end of the landing beaches. Any German forces, most notable tank units, that wanted to attack the British and Canadian beachheads from the east would need to cross the two waterways to do so. The best location to do so was near the town of Bénouville. Here, the strip of land between the two waterways was roughly 550 yards (500 m) wide, with a road crossing both waters on a pair of bridges. The eastern bridge, over the Orne, was fixed, while the western one, over the canal, was a drawbridge that could be raised to allow ship traffic through. Capturing these two bridges and holding them against German forces would keep the landing zones safe from attacks from the east.

Aerial photo taken after D-Day showing the three gliders which landed at the Bénouville/Pegasus Bridge.
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
The bridges were guarded by 50 men from the 716th Infantry Division under the command of Major Hans Schmidt, whose headquarters were 1.2 miles (1.9 km) east of the Orne. The 21st Panzer Division was also located nearby and could be expected to try to retake the bridges. This unit was equipped with older tanks, but some 2,000 of the men serving in it were veterans of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. (Read our earlier article – The accomplishments and legacy of the Desert Fox) The fixed defenses around the bridges included machine guns, anti-tank guns, pillboxes and an anti-aircraft tower with more machine guns.
Pegasus bridge (formerly the Bénouville Bridge) raised, sometime after World War II
(Photo: Paul Reed)

The best way to capture both bridges was decided to be a coup-de-main, the French phrase meaning an attack that relies on speed and surprise. In fact, the official name of the operation was Operation Coup de Main. It’s usually referred to as Operation Deadstick, which is technically incorrect; that operation, named after “deadstick landing,” landing without propulsive power, was actually the name of a glider landing training operation performed before the attack.

Map of the two bridges, their vicinity and the landing spots of the gliders
(Photo: Warfare History Network)

Major Reginald John Howard was selected as the commander of the operation, which was to be carried out by ‘D’ Company, 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment, 6th Airlanding Brigade of the 6th Airborne Division. Howard trained his company hard, using bomb-damaged urban areas in Britain for exercise using live ammunition. He expected the attack to involve night-fighting, so he had his men adapt to nocturnal activity: for several weeks, the company had to get up at 8 p.m. and train and work until 1 p.m. Glider pilots practiced landing both day and night, sometimes using darkened goggles to simulate limited visibility. The training exercises revealed that ‘D’ Company alone was not going to be enough, so its four platoons were expanded by another 2 from ‘B’ Company. Additionally, 30 Royal Engineers were added to the force; their task was to quickly defuse any explosives the Germans might have rigged the bridges with.

Major John Howard
(Photo: unknown photographer)
The force was flown in in six Horsa gliders (Read our earlier article – Jumping into Normandy), three for each bridge. The first glider landed on the east side of the canal at 00:16 a.m. with an accuracy that was previously believed impossible: its nose crashed through the barb wire surrounding the Caen canal bridge, and the vehicle came to a rest within 50 yards of the target. The ground was marshy and soft, but the force of the landing still wounded the pilot and the copilot and threw them out of the cockpit. The gliderborne troops poured out of the vehicle and immediately engaged the surprised defenders, some of whom were asleep. The next two gliders landed at 1-minute intervals and joined the battle. The second glider broke in half on landing and came to a step at the edge of a large pond. One man, Lance-Corporal Fred Greenhalgh, was knocked unconscious, thrown into the pond by the impact and drowned, becoming the first Allied soldier to die during the liberation of Europe.
The three gliders that landed at the Caen canal bridge. The bridge itself is behind the trees.
(Photo: Imperial War Museum)
The defenders were quickly overrun, but not before one German soldier managed to fire a flare pistol. Lieutenant Herbert Denham Brotheridge shot the man the next moment, but other Germans located at the far, western end of the canal were alerted and opened fire with machine guns. Brotheridge was hit in the neck; he died soon after without regaining consciousness, becoming the first Allied soldier of the invasion to be killed by enemy action (though some accounts claim he was hit by friendly fire).
Lieutenant “Den” Brotheridge
(Photo: from a book published by Caxton Editions)
Even as all this was happening, two of the other three gliders came down at the other bridge, the one over the Orne to the east. The last glider never arrived. It broke formation earlier, and ended up landing at a different bridge several miles away, from where the troops eventually made their way back to friendly lines. One soldier accidentally discharged his Sten gun while disembarking, making a noise that might have alerted the bridge’s defenders. After quickly forming up, Lieutenant Dennis Fox simply said “To hell with it, let’s get cracking,” and led his troops in overrunning the Orne river bridge just as quickly as the other troops have done with the canal bridge.
The bridge over the Orne river, photographed a few days after D-Day
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Major Howard established his command post in the trenches at the east end of the canal bridge, and the men started to dig in. The engineers reported that while both bridges had been prepared for demolition, the explosives had not been actually installed. It later turned out that the explosives were stored nearby, and the guards were only supposed to place them on a direct order from German High Command.  
By around 1:10 a.m., Major Schmitt, the German officer in charge, already learned that something was happening at the two bridges and decided to have a look in person. He got onboard his Sd. Kfz. 250 recon halftrack and moved out, escorted by a single motorbike. Schmitt, his driver, and their motorbike escort passed the first line of British defenses in the dark without spotting them and drove onto the Orne bridge. There he came under fire and had to surrender.
An Sd. Kfz. 250 halftrack, similar to the one Major Schmitt took on his one-way-only recon trip
(Photo: worldwarphotos.info)
The bridges’ defenders faced sporadic but fierce attacks from German forces, including units from the 21st Panzer Division. The bulk of the German armor could not be mobilized, as doing so required direct authorization from Hitler. The Führer, however, was asleep in Berlin, and his staff refused to wake him up. Some tanks were nevertheless sent to the bridges in an attempt to retake them. The first German tank to approach was a Panzer IV (Read our earlier article – The German workhorse – Panzer IV), which was promptly taken out by ‘D’ Company’s only working PIAT anti-tank weapon (Read our earlier article – The “anti-tank crossbow”), causing other tanks to withdraw for the time being.  
Aerial photo of the general area, taken a few days later. The Caen canal is at the extreme left, the Orne river left of center. Bénouville is off the photo to the left. The gliders on the right are reinforcements that arrived later.
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
A Panzergrenadier Heavy Company arrived from the west at around 3 a.m. equipped with self-propelled guns, anti-aircraft guns and mortar, and attacked the town of Bénouville, located just to the west of the canal bridge. As day broke, German snipers started taking shots at anyone who exposed himself on the bridge, while the British responded by firing their 75 mm anti-tank gun at possible sniper nests in the town. At around 9 a.m., two German gunboats sailed down the canal. The first was hit by the PIAT and had to run aground, while the other retreated.
At 8 a.m., a pair of Spitfire flew past
(Read our earlier article – Supermarine Spitfire) and one dropped a package of the early morning editions of British newspaper. Of course, these editions did not have anything on the Normandy landings yet, but the soldiers could at least read the comics.
The Caen canal bridge, also known as Pegasus Bridge, with the gliders in the background on June 9, 1944
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
 At 10 a.m., a single German plane flew overhead and dropped a bomb on the canal bridge. The bomb hit but failed to explode. Over the course of the morning, the Germans tested the defenders’ strength multiple times, but the glidermen destroyed 13 of the 17 tanks trying to cross the bridge. During the day, ‘D’ Company managed to send a single platoon across the canal bridge and into Bénouville, which they cleared from Germans in house-to-house fighting.
Relief finally arrived at 1:30 p.m., when No. 4 Commando arrived from the beaches, accompanied by the sound of bagpipes. (The unit’s leader, Lord Lovat, was Scottish and insisted on bringing his piper Bill Millin along.) The commando unit crossed the bridges and helped secure the eastern perimeter of the area, with some of their tank left behind in Bénouville for addition protection against German attacks from the west. Other units arrived to take over the defense of the bridges in the evening, and Major Howard and ‘D’ Company were finally relieved at around midnight.
A Scottish piper and his son reenacting Bill Millin's march through the original Pegasus Bridge
(Photo: Author’s own)
The drawbridge across the Caen canal, originally called Bénouville Bridge, was renamed Pegasus Bridge in honor of the 6th Airborne, whose unit patch features the mythological winged horse. The canal was widened in the 1960s, and the bridge was lengthened by about 5 yards to accommodate the changes. It was eventually replaced by a similar but larger bridge in 1994. The old bridge was simply moved to dry land by the canal’s side and left there as junk. It was eventually bought by the nearby Pegasus Bridge Memorial for the symbolic price of 1 French franc, and is on display a short walk away from its original location. Small monuments were erected also on the actual landing sites of the three gliders. The other bridge, the one across the Orne, was renamed Horsa Bridge in honor of the glider planes used in the operation. Following D-Day, several additional military bridges, so-called Bailey bridges (Read our earlier article – The Bailey bridge), were quickly erected on the two rivers accelerating the flow of materiel. They were mostly named after British sites (London, Tower) and personalities (Churchill, Monty). One of them is still on display next to the Pegasus Bridge.
The new bridge over the Caen canal with flags and memorials in the foreground at the actual landing site of the gliders
(Photo: Author’s own)
The capture of the bridges was depicted in the film The Longest Day. The actor playing Major Howard, one Captain Richard Todd, was actually in the reinforcements sent to the bridge during the original battle. Interestingly, Todd also played Wing Commander Guy Gibson in the 1955 film The Dam Busters, based on the famous bombing mission. (Read our earlier article – The Dambusters Raid)
The actors and the soldiers on the set of the Longest Day at the original Pegasus Bridge: Peter Lawford, Lord Lovat, Richard Todd and John Howard
(Photo: Topham Picturepoint)
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