‘Thieves in the night’ provided the perfect crash-bang-wallop

It is April so my mind turns to thoughts of the Second World War, or more precisely to a visit I made in 1994 to Normandy. It also flashes back to the same time last year, when I was pondering how to begin the book I was writing with a suitable crash-bang-wallop.

I was making good progress with the rest of what would become ‘Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron’  but felt it needed a more dynamic start in order to really grab readers. I wanted to hurl them into battle from the off and then maintain the pace.

The churchyard at Ranville, Normandy, where a German soldier killed in combat
is buried alongside British soldiers. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

It may seem a trifle obvious, especially when tackling a history book, but the answer lay in the past. It occurred to me that the way to provide an action-packed beginning for the story of the epic September 1944 misadventure by the British 1st Airborne Division, to capture bridges over the Rhine, was a rewind to the D-Day invasion.

The war cemetery at Ranville, Normandy where lie both Allied and German servicemen who lost their lives during fighting in the summer of 1944. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

I have, so far, visited the landing sites and battlefields of Normandy four times – thrice in 1994 (April, June and July) plus in June 2004. My first visit was blessed with typical April showers weather – brilliant blue rain-scrubbed skies with fluffy wide clouds drifting overhead. On one such afternoon, together with my future wife (who has ever since lovingly tolerated such research expeditions) I took a bus from Caen, our HQ for the week, to Ranville. It was the scene of much fighting between troops of the British 6th Airborne Division and the Germans back in the summer of 1944 and I heard there was a war cemetery there well worth a visit.

For the Normandy landings the 6th Airborne Division – sister formation of the 1st Airborne that would tackle Arnhem a few months later – was charged with securing the extreme eastern flank of the invasion beaches, dropping in via gliders and descending under parachutes to seize various key objectives.

Six platoons of D Company in the 2nd Battalion, The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were tasked with taking two bridges a quarter of a mile apart in an audacious coup de main attack in the early hours of D-Day. They were accompanied in each of six Horsa gliders taking them to war by half a dozen Royal Engineers, whose job it was to defuse and remove demolition charges attached to the bridges. One of them spanned the River Orne, near Ranville, and the other the Caen Canal, close to the village of Bénouville.

A Horsa glider of the British Airborne Forces comes in to land during a Second World War training sortie. Photo: Via Australian War Memorial (AWM).

Three gliders and 90 troops were committed to capture each bridge. The plan was that they would soon be reinforced by paratroopers and other glider-borne troops from the 6th Airborne Division to tighten the Allied grip. It was the kind of mission Airborne forces had been invented for – taking a gamble by coming down right on top of an objective to achieve total surprise and pave the way for greater success. While it might cost some casualties it would, with luck, work out well.

Months of meticulous planning and training preceded what was known as Operation Deadstick and to the Ox and Bucks fell the honour of being the first Allied unit to land in Normandy on D-Day. Their aim was, in the words of an official British Army history of the event, to ‘arrive at the bridges alone and unheralded, like thieves in the night.’

This they successfully managed to do and – despite some enemy opposition – seized the bridges, holding them with help from paratroopers until the arrival of commandos and tanks, which landed on Sword Beach several miles away and then fought their way inland.

Without doubt the most spectacular episode of the British side of the D-Day assault from the air was the thunderclap in the night seizure of the bridge over the Caen Canal. It was immortalised by the movie ‘The Longest Day’, itself based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.

Recounting such an episode, including drawing on the raw testimony of veterans lodged in museum archives, could not be anything other than exciting. With gliders skidding to a halt one-by-one right next to the bridge, Airborne troops tumbling out of them and screaming like demons as they charged across gunning down sleepy German defenders, it was the epitome of crash-bang-wallop.

Crowds outside the Pegasus Bridge Café, watching as the British warship HMS Campbeltown passes up the Caen Canal, to act as Royal Navy flagship for D-Day 60th anniversary events. Photo: Tony Carney.

The Caen Canal crossing is to this day known as Pegasus Bridge, in honour of the British Airborne troops whose badge features the winged horse of Ancient legend. The establishment right next to it is known as the Pegasus Bridge Café. Its owners played their part in obtaining crucial intelligence before the attack, helping to make it a success, and were good hosts to soldiers who came from the skies to liberate France.

I have never actually visited the café – owned to this day by the Gondrée family. However, in 2004, when I voyaged along the Channel in the British frigate HMS Campbeltown to report on D-Day 60th anniversary events, I sailed past it up the canal. The bridge can be elevated to let vessels, including fairly large warships, pass through. Visible in a field beyond the current, modern bridge is the old one the Airborne troops captured in 1944. It has been preserved as a visitor attraction, adjacent to the Pegasus Memorial Museum.

During the 2004 visit to Normandy, I went back to Ranville, but this time with the men and women of HMS Campbeltown. They wanted to pay their respects to military forebears who lost their lives there six decades earlier. Visiting a war cemetery is always a deeply moving experience and at Ranville more than 2,000 stark white headstones gleam brightly in the sun against immaculate green grass lovingly tended by staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In the neighbouring churchyard you will find arrayed along its ancient walls headstones for other British war dead and also a German soldier – former foes lying side-by-side. More than 300 other Germans are buried at Ranville too.

Sadly, the glider assault on Pegasus Bridge was merely the beginning of the end of the Second World War in North West Europe. There would be many more battles, not least the struggle for the bridges over the Rhine at Arnhem, in which many thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians would lose their lives. How that came to happen is recounted from the perspective of those caught up in the thick of the fighting in ‘Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron’.



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