Arnhem becomes a desperate battle for survival

RAF aerial reconnaissance photo of the Arnhem road bridge on 19 September, showing signs of the British defence on the northern ramp and the wrecked German vehicles from the previous day's fighting.
RAF aerial reconnaissance photo of the Arnhem road bridge on 19 September, showing signs of the British defence on the northern ramp and the wrecked German vehicles from the previous day’s fighting.
The tanks were on their way - but not making the progress expected. Cheering Dutch civilians gather around a Sherman OP tank of 'C' Troop, 55th Field Regiment RA, Guards Armoured Division, as Eindhoven is liberated, 19 September 1944. Sitting on the front of the tank is Sgt Herbert Frederick Jones.
The tanks were on their way – but not making the progress expected. Cheering Dutch civilians gather around a Sherman OP tank of ‘C’ Troop, 55th Field Regiment RA, Guards Armoured Division, as Eindhoven is liberated, 19 September 1944. Sitting on the front of the tank is Sgt Herbert Frederick Jones.

The paratroopers who had dropped into Arnhem were now surrounded and fighting a desperate battle for survival against a force of Panzers and armoured vehicles that significantly outgunned them.

Private James Sims was with the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. They were dug in on a lightly wooded traffic island on the road leading to Arnhem Bridge. For nineteen year old Sims it had been a baptism of fire, his first time in battle. He had seen the ambush of Major General Friedrich Kussin – it was the first time he had seen a German soldier and the first time he seen a dead body.

Early on the 19th the Germans attempted to ‘rush’ their positions with a rapid advance of armoured cars. It had been beaten of with direct fire from one the 6 pounder guns. It was just the beginning of the German assaults that day:

After the failure of the ‘Grand Prix’ attack the Germans withdrew a short distance and began to mortar and shell our positions systematically for the first time. The very air seemed to wail and sigh with the number of projectiles passing through it.

The enemy had also brought up some self-propelled artillery, heavy stuff, and against this we were virtually helpless. One by one the houses held by the paratroopers were set alight. There was nothing to fight the fires with, even if we had been able to.

The airborne soldiers kept on firing from the blazing buildings even with the roof fallen in; then they moved to the second floor, then to the first, and finally to the basement. Only when this was alight did they evacuate the building and take over another. As each hour passed we were driven into a smaller and smaller area.

Casualties began to mount rapidly. Our food and water were practically gone, but worst of all the ammunition was running short.

Soon we heard tank engines and thought at first they were ours; but they were German panzers cautiously probing their way into the bloody arena to add the sharp crack of their 75 and 88mm guns to the already overwhelming bombardment.

It seemed impossible that the shelling and mortaring could get any worse, but they did. The separate explosions now merged into one almost-continuous rolling detonation and the earth shook as if it was alive. My head sang and I was numb to any feeling beyond, the basic instinct to survive. I began to realise the full significance of the phrase ‘bomb-happy’.

Yet even in this terrific concentration of fire not one bomb or shell splinter landed in a slit-trench or mortar pit: it was unbelievable, little short of miraculous. It is only when one has been through this sort of experience that one can understand how soldiers in the past stood in lines facing each other and fired by numbers.

With each successive salvo of mortar bombs I screwed my steel helmet further into the comforting earth and clawed at the silty soil at the bottom of the trench. I kept repeating to myself over and over again, ‘Hold on . . . hold on . . . you must hold on.’

To be alone at the bottom of that trench was like lying in a newly dug grave waiting to be buried alive. Each fresh explosion sent rivulets of earth crumbling around my helmet and into the sides of my mouth. After another avalanche of explosions I started praying, and really meaning it, for the first time in my life.

Overhead a lone Messerschmitt fighter plane circled lazily. If the pilot was spotting for the enemy artillery he had an almost impossible task as the Germans and ourselves were so close together, even sharing the same houses in some cases. Perhaps he was just curious — it was certainly the only aircraft I saw throughout the battle. What had happened to the mighty Allied air forces God only knew.

Something whistled down into the slit-trench and hit my boot. In one split second I suffered agonies visualising extinction, but as nothing happened I gingerly reached towards my ankle and retrieved the tail fin of a German mortar bomb, still warm from flight. It must have been blown into my trench from an exploding missile nearby.

The bombardment suddenly ceased and there was an uncanny quiet, which was abruptly shattered by the eruption of an enemy infantry attack from underneath the bridge directly in front of our positions. This desperate assault came to nothing and those not cut down fled in disorder.

See James Sims: Arnhem Spearhead: A Private Soldier’s Story

There was no shortage of heroism this day and two men were particularly recognised by the award of the Victoria Cross, both citations illustrate the intensity of different aspects of the fighting:

Captain Lionel Queripel VC
Captain Lionel Queripel VC

At Arnhem on 19th September 1944 Captain Queripel was acting as company commander of a composite company composed of men of three parachute battalions. At 14.00 hours on that day his company were advancing along a main road which runs on an embankment towards Arnhem. The advance was conducted under continuous machine-gun fire, which at one period became so heavy that the company became split up on either side of the road and suffered considerable loss.

Captain Queripel at once proceeded to reorganise his forces, crossing and recrossing the road whilst doing so under extremely heavy and accurate fire. During this period he carried a wounded sergeant to the Regimental Aid Post under fire and was himself wounded in the face. Having reorganised his force, Captain Queripel personally led a party of men against a strong point holding up the advance. This strong point consisted of a captured British anti-tank gun and two machine guns. Despite the extremely heavy fire directed at him, Captain Queripel succeeded in killing the crews of the machine guns and recapturing the anti-tank gun. As a result of this the advance was able to continue.

Later in the same day Captain Queripel found himself cut off with a small party of men and took up a position in a ditch. By this time he had received further wounds in both arms. Regardless of his wounds and the very heavy mortar and Spandau fire, he continued to inspire his men to resist with hand grenades, pistols and the few remaining rifles.

On at least one occasion he picked up and threw back at the enemy a stick grenade which had landed in the ditch. As, however, the enemy pressure increased, Captain Queripel decided that it was impossible to hold the position longer and ordered his men to withdraw.

Despite their protests, he insisted on remaining behind to cover their withdrawal with his automatic pistol and a few remaining hand grenades. This is the last occasion on which he was seen.

During the whole of a period of nine hours of confused and bitter fighting Captain Queripel displayed the highest standard of gallantry under most difficult and trying circumstances. His courage, leadership and devotion to duty were an inspiration to all. He was 24 years old.

David Lord VC
David Lord VC

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery:—

Flight Lieutenant David Samuel Anthony LORD, D.F.C. (49149), R.A.F., 271 Sqn. (deceased).

Flight Lieutenant Lord was pilot and captain of a Dakota aircraft detailed to drop supplies at Arnhem on the afternoon of the 19th September, 1944. Our airborne troops had been surrounded and were being pressed into a small area defended by a large number of anti-aircraft guns. Air crews were warned that intense opposition would be met over the dropping zone. To ensure accuracy they were ordered to fly at 900 feet when dropping their containers.

While flying at 1,500 feet near Arnhem the starboard wing of Flight Lieutenant Lord’s aircraft was twice hit by anti-aircraft fire. The starboard engine was set on fire. He would have been justified in leaving the main stream of supply aircraft and continuing at the same height or even abandoning his aircraft. But on learning that his crew were uninjured and that the dropping zone would be reached in three minutes he said he would complete his mission, as the troops were in dire need of supplies.

By now the starboard engine was burning furiously. Flight Lieutenant Lord came down to 900 feet, where he was singled out for the concentrated fire of all the anti-aircraft guns. On reaching the dropping zone he kept the aircraft on a straight, and level course while supplies were dropped. At the end of the run, he was told that two containers remained.

Although he must have known that the collapse of the starboard wing could not be long delayed, Flight Lieutenant Lord circled, rejoined the stream of aircraft and made a second run to drop the remaining supplies. These manoeuvres took eight minutes in all, the aircraft being continuously under heavy anti-aircraft fire.

His task completed, Flight Lieutenant Lord ordered his crew to abandon the Dakota, making no attempt himself to leave the aircraft, which was down to 500 feet. A few seconds later, the starboard wing collapsed and the aircraft fell in flames. There was only one survivor, who was flung out while assisting other members of the crew to put on their parachutes.

By continuing his mission in a damaged and burning aircraft, descending to drop the supplies accurately, returning to the dropping zone a second time and, finally, remaining at the controls to give his crew a chance of escape, Flight Lieutenant Lord displayed supreme valour and self-sacrifice.

German Self-propelled anti-aircraft guns of the 9th SS Panzer Division during the battle. The presence of the II SS Panzer Corps would have a significant effect on the battle
German Self-propelled anti-aircraft guns of the 9th SS Panzer Division during the battle. The presence of the II SS Panzer Corps would have a significant effect on the battle
Operation MARKET III: air re-supply of British airborne forces in the Arnhem area,
Operation MARKET III: air re-supply of British airborne forces in the Arnhem area, 19 September 1944. Burnt-out Douglas Dakota Mark III, KG401, of No. 48 Squadron RAF based at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, which crash-landed in a field near Kessel, Holland, after parachuting supplies over Arnhem. The aircraft had just dropped its supplies from 700 feet when it was met with intense anti-aircraft fire. The tail unit, rudder, port aileron and engine, the starboard auxiliary fuel tank and all the gyro instruments were either damaged or put out of action, and one of the Army despatchers was mortally wounded. The captain, Flying Officer L R Pattee RCAF and his co-pilot, Flying Officer A C Kent RAF, flew the crippled aircraft back to the British lines, through three more areas of enemy flak, where they sustained further serious damage, including a five foot hole in the starboard wing which caught fire, and complete electrical and communications failure. Once over the British lines, Pattee gave the crew and despatchers the opportunity to bale out, but they refused and the pilots then made a successful belly-landing in the field. No sooner had they all quit the Dakota, than it was engulfed by flames. The unfortunate despatcher died soon after the landing, while the others were taken to Brussels and the crew returned to Down Ampney. Sixteen aircraft of 48 Squadron participated in MARKET III, flying through intense flak with no fighter escort. Many aircraft were hit and two, (KG401 and KG428), failed to return. Over the following four days the Squadron lost another six Dakotas on re-supply missions to Arnhem.

Second wave drop into Arnhem meets deadly reception

Paratroops drop from Dakota aircraft over the outskirts of Arnhem during Operation 'Market Garden',
Paratroops drop from Dakota aircraft over the outskirts of Arnhem during Operation ‘Market Garden’,
A German infantry battalion on alert as they search the suburbs of Arnhem for Allied troops.
A German infantry battalion on alert as they search the suburbs of Arnhem for Allied troops.

Operation Market Garden was already a much worse battle than expected. Although the men of the Parachute Regiment had captured the centre of Arnhem they faced much stronger German resistance than anticipated. Two German Panzer Divisions had been regrouping nearby and they were formidable opposition for the relatively lightly armoured paratroopers.

Twenty year old Len Moss of the 11th Parachute Batallion, 4th Parachute Brigade was part of the second wave of reinforcements to arrive by parachute on the second day. They were expected … by the Germans, who had already captured maps with the drop zones marked out. His experiences were later recorded by his son, who wrote a detailed account of the whole battle from his father’s perspective:

Somehow, he managed to untangle the lines and get the parachute canopy deployed, just in time, but…

…he landed very awkwardly, stiff legged on the ground.

That really, really hurt!

Paratroopers were landing all around. It was chaos as heavy machine gun fire raked the area from concealed German positions in the woods. Men were being hit, wounded, killed.

Gunfire exploded nearby, ripping into the ground, throwing up puffs of dirt. The air was alive with flying lead.

The wind caught Moss’ parachute and took it while he was trying to struggle up and release himself. He was thrown off balance.

His leg was weighed down by the heavy pack — he was suddenly being pulled in two directions at once as bullets tore through the canopy material.

Bill Kent landed nearby…in an awkward heap.

Moss called for help but Kent had his own problems. Kent was trying to get up. Engulfed in his parachute like a ghost, he flapped around as the material had holes ripped in it by stray bullets.

In desperation, Moss hit the upper body release buckle on his parachute harness. This was the wrong way to do it, but who cares?

From a nearby copse, a German Spandau MG41 machine gun unloaded. Belt fed.1600 rounds per minute. It sounds like tearing paper and cuts neat lines through the heather.

Moss wriggled out of the top chute harness and sat up as the heather is cut away in a line behind him. Just inches away. With added incentive he rolled forwards, escaped the rest of the chute and disengaged the heavy pack from his leg.
Moss and Kent ran away as best they could, hauling the heavy equipment bags. Moss was clearly troubled by his leg and back injury.

Smoke and flames billowed up all around them from the landing zone. Mortar shells whooshed overhead and exploded nearby, plus there was heavy enemy machine gun and rifle fire.

The two young Paratroopers scurried past the crashed fuselage of a British Horsa glider which had dug a deep furrow, nose down in the earth. Several dead soldiers lay face down in the heather, killed when they tried to disembark.
Pausing the gather their breath both men doubled up in the foetal position when a huge chunk was cut out of the fuselage by a concentrated burst of machine gun fire.

Hauling the PIAT and ammunition bags, the two men ran in a low semi-crouch, forced to zig-zag because of the numerous mortar and shell holes in the ground. Other men were running with them, veering off on their own paths, disappearing in and out of the smoke.

Under an intense barrage of mortar fire, Moss and Kent took cover in a large shell crater which was still smoking. They looked around. This was no man’s land. Wreckage lay strewn all over the place and men continue to run in all directions. Yellow smoke rises on one side of the heath Drop Zone, near some woods.

Yellow marker smoke from some nearby woods marked their intended destination.

WOODS – GINKEL HEATH DROP ZONE

In the woods soldiers gathered, reforming into ordered groups. Yellow smoke drifted through the woods from the DZ. Distantly they could hear the cough of mortars, chattering machine guns and the occasional explosion of a German 88mm shell.

Already the medics were overworked tending to the wounded whose cries were mournful and desperate. Lieutenant Vickers walked through the woods followed by several paratroopers. He was holding a walkie-talkie tightly to his face and trying unsuccessfully to contact someone but none of the radio sets seemed to work.

Through the trees comes PFC RA Smith, looking as if he’s hot off the Drop Zone. His face is covered in blood — someone elses. During the drop a Para was shredded by shellfire covering Smith with various body parts.

At a briefing the soldiers are told that the 4th Parachute Brigade, has been dropped farthest away from Arnhem. They’re some seven or eight miles away from the in Arnhem. The 11th Battalion been ordered up to re-inforce Col Frost – his 2nd Battalion already in possession of the North end of the Arnhem bridge.
The 11th Paras are ordered along a country road.

Distantly a few farmhouses burn, smoke rising from the ruins. The men can hear explosions and artillery, sporadic mortar fire and the occasional crack of a rifle.

Along the length of the road, Paratroopers from the 4th Parachute Battalion are strung out in a forced marching column. Every so often a Jeep or a truck roars along the road, parting the column of soldiers like a boat’s bow wave.

Moss is lagging behind, clearly having problems keeping up with the pace. He’s still hauling the 33 pound PIAT and bombs and is in agony from his back injury.
After a while the column ahead stops dead, causing a knock on effect that slows the traffic up all the way to the tail. Breathing hard, Moss gratefully accepts the rest, slumping down on the roadside bank.

Some sporadic machine gun fire goes off up ahead and then there’s a distant whistling. Getting louder. It becomes a whoosh.

Everyone takes cover, diving this way and that behind trees, into bushes, down banks.

Louder.

For a split second the wooshing stops and then KERBOOM!

The mortar shell explodes nearby, followed by several more incoming shells. Dirt and smoke are thrown up into the air but, as suddenly as it started, the firing ceases.

Through the falling dirt and choking smoke, A lone soldier can be heard screaming for help. Moss looks up from his hiding place and sees the soldier covered in blood, screaming in agony. A couple of Medics run to his aid.
Slowly, the rest of the soldiers emerge and resume their places in the static column. It’s as if nothing happened.

A Jeep then parts the way, heading back down the road from the head of the column. Sitting in the passenger seat is Lt Vickers. He orders that all the PIATs and bombs to be loaded into the jeep and sent up to the front line as they’re encountering German armour. This suits Moss fine. Moss and Kent load the PIAT and bombs into the back of the vehicle.

(It’s later learned that the jeep full of PIATs and bombs was commandered by a Padre who wanted to attend a funeral. Neither he nor the jeep were heard of again. It’s assumed he was killed and the jeep destroyed, thus depriving the Para’s of greatly needed anti-tank weapons)

Moss and a group of soldiers were ordered to investigate a farmhouse nearby in a field where a German mortar crew have been spotted. They approach the farmhouse which seems deserted. Some chickens cluck and strut near the main farmhouse building. It’s a surreal scene. Eerily quiet.

The troop start to make their way towards the buildings, using whatever cover comes to hand and making ready to offer covering fire should it be needed.
Moss and Kent reach the main farmhouse. He peers around a low wall into the yard.

A German mortar has been set up nearby, sandbagged and camouflaged. It’s quiet. Discarded empty boxes of mortar shells lie nearby.

Moving to the farmhouse doorway. Wooden, old. Moss pushes it open and peers inside. Checking those corners.

The inside of the farmhouse has been wrecked.

Moss and Kent move inside, cautiously.

Glass crunches underfoot. Furniture, broken, smashed. There’s not a whole plate or bowl anywhere.

Sat, in the corner, on a wooden stool is a Dutchman. Middle-aged, he’s balding, dirty and small. He looks up, face stained with tears, eyes red.

He shakes his head as if to ask ‘why?’ and then puts his head into his hands in desperation. His whole life, all he’s worked for, has been destroyed.

Outside they hear some machinegun fire. They run outside and see a Paratrooper emptying the whole magazine from his Sten gun into a leafy tree — branches, twigs and leaves are flying in all directions. The soldier runs out of bullets.
Silence.

Then, a German voice calls out timidly from within the tree.

The branches rustle as a pair of booted German legs swing down. The heel of one of them has been shot off.
A young bespectacled GERMAN SOLDIER, maybe in his late teens, drops down to the ground, face white with fear and his hands up in the air in a gesture of surrender.

Some of the Paratroopers start giggling and joking that Kent couldn’t hit a barn door. Kent just looks at his Sten gun in amazement. The German Soldier starts laughing too and points to his boot, raising it to show that the heel is barely hanging on by a thread.

The Paratroopers lead their German prisoner across the field towards the now moving column of men as they march up the road.

Read the whole of Eight Days In Arnhem at BBC Peoples War

German SS Polizei in position in the woods outside Arnhem ready to repulse Allied Airborne troops. The SS IX and X Panzer Divisions of the II SS Panzer Korps were as Dutch Intelligence had reported, refitting and regrouping to the north and east of Arnhem and proved a formidable opponent despite the surprise of the airborne landings
German SS Polizei in position in the woods outside Arnhem ready to repulse Allied Airborne troops. The SS IX and X Panzer Divisions of the II SS Panzer Korps were as Dutch Intelligence had reported, refitting and regrouping to the north and east of Arnhem and proved a formidable opponent despite the surprise of the airborne landings
German prisoners captured in the suburbs of Arnhem.
German prisoners captured in the suburbs of Arnhem.

Market Garden: Allied airborne attack into Holland

17 September 1944: Six American paratroopers of the First Allied Airborne Army receive a final briefing from their commanding officer before emplaning.
17 September 1944: Six American paratroopers of the First Allied Airborne Army receive a final briefing from their commanding officer before emplaning.
British paratroops inside a C-47 transport plane to land with the First Allied Airborne Army on enemy-held Holland.
British paratroops inside a C-47 transport plane to land with the First Allied Airborne Army on enemy-held Holland.

As the Allied advance through north west Europe began to slow, partly as a consequence of extended supply lines and partly as a consequence of stiffening German resistance, an audacious attack deep into German occupied territory was launched. Operation Market Garden sought to penetrate right up to the gateway to Germany, the bridge over the Rhine in the Dutch town of Arnhem. Airborne troops would go ahead, seizing a series of critical bridges and then hold them until the armoured spearhead could burst through to relieve them.

James Magellis had already been wounded twice whilst serving with the 504th Regiment of the US 82nd Airborne Division in Italy. The Regiment had not jumped with the rest of the 82nd on D-Day in Normandy. Now he wanted to get back into action:

I personally was happy and anxious to return to action. I know this may sound rather horrible today, but I believe my feeling typified the general spirit of the paratroopers in my company, battalion, and regiment. We recognized that a job had to be done. We accepted the fact that this was a fight to the finish and we were eager to get on with the job.

It would be interesting to note at this point that as the war progressed and my experience accumulated I found the business of killing and destruction an agreeable accomplishment. I suppose this comes with the transformation that is necessary to make killers out of soldiers.

Also I was anxious to return to combat since I had been out of action since I was wounded at Anzio. I missed the rest of the Anzio campaign in which my regiment participated as a combat team apart from the rest of the Division.

Beginning at 1025 on Sunday, 17 September, the first planes, twelve British and six American, took off with the Pathfinders, who were scheduled to jump forty minutes ahead of the main force. Shortly thereafter, 2,023 troop transport planes and 478 gliders took off from twenty-four separate airfields in England.

My plane taxied down the tarmac to the airstrip, got the green light to go, and with minimal delay was airborne. We headed for an established rendezvous point, joined with other C-47s, and headed east in a vee of vees formation.

In addition to the C-47s, the invasion fleet was joined by 1,131 Allied fighter planes flying escort for the vulnerable troop carriers. British and American spotter planes, which would find detached planes and gliders, also joined us. During the course of Operation Market Garden, the code name for the Allied invasion, 205 men would be picked up from the sea.

As we looked out the windows of our C-47, we saw a sky darkened with aircraft, all heading in one direction toward Holland. Approximately two and a half hours after takeoff, forty-five minutes of which was over enemy-held territory, we would be over our drop zone and jumping out the single door of our C-47s. It was good-bye, England. Holland, here we come.

See James Megellas: All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe.

American C-47 aircraft flying over Gheel in Belgium on their way to Holland for Operation 'Market-Garden' , 17 September 1944.
American C-47 aircraft flying over Gheel in Belgium on their way to Holland for Operation ‘Market-Garden’ , 17 September 1944.
 Men and supplies drop from transport 'planes above Nijmegen.
Men and supplies drop from transport ‘planes above Nijmegen.
Nijmegen and Grave 17 - 20 September 1944: Dutch children greet paratroopers of the 82nd (US) Airborne Division shortly after they landed near Nijmegen.
Nijmegen and Grave 17 – 20 September 1944: Dutch children greet paratroopers of the 82nd (US) Airborne Division shortly after they landed near Nijmegen.

Landing at Arnhem, the objective deepest into German occupied territory, were the British First Airborne Division. John Frost, commanding 2nd Parachute Battalion who were to spearhead the attack, was pleased to find that the landings had gone nearly as well as could be expected. He and the Parachute Regiment had come a long way since the Bruneval Raid in 1942.

It was a warm Sunday afternoon and he reflected how the countryside and the neat Dutch houses were not so very different from the outskirts of Aldershot, home town of the British Army. He describes the early stages in the operation as the paratroopers collected together at their rendezvous point in a wood:

It was by now about half-past two in the afternoon and quite hot. The sweat was pouring off the cheerful faces of the men as they filed past me into the wood. Wireless sets seemed to be the only casualties from the drop, among them the brigade set, but fortunately a spare was available.

Just as I was beginning to feel that on the whole things could not be going better, the sound of firing broke out in the woods not more than three hundred yards from where I was standing and I moved to a track junction in the middle of the wood, which was where we had plan- ned to set up Battalion Headquarters.

A battle at our rendezvous in the woods was one of the things to be feared most of all. It was vital that we should be able to move off without delay and equally vital that our ammunition should not be expended unduly early when we had so much to do.

At first it was hard to tell what the trouble was, but we didn’t let it interfere with the process of forming up and getting ready to move.

The troops and anti-tank guns allot- ted to us arrived punctually, also most of our airborne transport, consisting of five jeeps and a bren carrier.

I passed some anxious moments while they were being sorted out. All army drivers have a predilection for driving into the middle of a headquarters, thereby causing the utmost confusion, and our drivers were no exception to the rule. To the tune of vigorous cursing, order was restored.

The companies reported in over ninety-five per cent, and the firing turned out to be caused by a small party of Germans who had driven up in a lorry with one armoured car as escort. By the time I thought of moving off, the armoured car had fled, leaving the lorry and several prisoners.

Soon after three o’clock a message came from Brigade Headquarters telling us to move on with all possible speed, without waiting for stragglers, and just as the message went to ‘A’ Company, who were the vanguard, firing broke out afresh from their area.

However, there was no delay, and as we passed their old positions we found two lorries and three motor-cars in various stages of destruction, also an untidy little bunch of dead and wounded Germans. It seemed a pity that the vehicles were now unusable, but there had been no time to arrange a road-block.

It was however a very encouraging start. Approximately thirty Germans, including officers among them, and valuable transport, accounted for without loss to ourselves.

We marched towards Arnhem. A man and a woman on bicycles made as if to ride on past the column and seemed quite surprised at being ordered to turn back.

See Major General J. Frost: A Drop Too Many

Contemporary British newsreel showing the parachute and glider landings:

Paratroopers of 1st Airborne Division Signals gather on the drop zone west of Arnhem, 17 September 1944.
Paratroopers of 1st Airborne Division Signals gather on the drop zone west of Arnhem, 17 September 1944.
HQ of 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery, unload a jeep and trailer from their Horsa glider at the landing zone near Wolfheze in Holland, 17 September 1944.
HQ of 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery, unload a jeep and trailer from their Horsa glider at the landing zone near Wolfheze in Holland, 17 September 1944.
Major General Friedrich Kussin, in charge of German units in the Arnhem area, lies dead in his car after being ambushed by No. 5 Platoon, 'B' Company, 3rd Parachute Battalion, 1st Airborne Division, on 17 September 1944.
Major General Friedrich Kussin, in charge of German units in the Arnhem area, lies dead in his car after being ambushed by No. 5 Platoon, ‘B’ Company, 3rd Parachute Battalion, 1st Airborne Division, on 17 September 1944.

US infantry v Fallschirmjäger in the ‘bocage’

Three US soldiers advance beside a typical thickly grown hedge in the bocage.
Three US soldiers advance beside a typical thickly grown hedge in the bocage.

In Normandy the US First army had pushed across the base of the Cotentin peninsula and were moving on Cherbourg where it was hoped the Allies would gain the advantage of a major sea port.

The terrain was dominated by the French ‘bocage’ or box country. Here the small fields and narrow country lanes were surrounded by dense hedges built on earthen banks. This was ideal defensive territory, especially in the thick summer foliage, and the Germans exploited it fully.

Sergeant Bob Slaughter had survived the carnage of Omaha but he and the men of the 116th Infantry had plenty more horrors to face up to. They were still in the thick of the action. On 14th June they captured Couvain and this was just one episode amongst many that Slaughter describes:

The sight of another terrible death that occurred at this time haunts my dreams to this day. My squad and I were digging a machine gun emplacement behind a scrubby hedgerow. We had just finished fixing the camouflage when I happened to see a junior officer with field glasses scanning the front. I could tell he was a newly arrived replacement. His uniform and equipment were relatively new and unworn.

The sharp report of an 88mm fired from nearby sent me diving. At the same time, the high explosive missile hit the lieutenant’s upper torso. The 2nd Squad and I were splattered with gore as the spotter was blown backward, minus his head. Number two gunner Private First Class Sal Augeri vomited, and I nearly did, too.

The dreaded German sniper was almost as highly respected as the 88. Sharpshooters gave no warning, taking careful aim with sniper-scoped Mausers. The receiving end would hear the sharp crack and instantaneous whine of the bullet. If you heard the report of the bullet leaving the muzzle, it wasn’t for you.

German snipers nearly always aimed for the head if it was visible and in range. Most infantrymen never removed their helmets except when they shaved. I confess that I slept in mine. The 8mm bullet could easily pass through the helmet, through the head, and out the other side with enough energy left to do more damage.

I saw men get hit between the eyes or just above the ears, which killed them instantly. If the bullet missed the helmet, the entry hole was usually neat and showed only a small trickle of blood. But after the steel-jacket bullet hit the helmet or skull, the bullet flattened, causing the exit wound to shatter the other side of the head away.

The 1st Battalion advanced toward Couvains from the west, double file, marching cautiously down a sunken dirt road just wide enough for a horse cart. We were flanked by hedgerows four to five eet high, and covered with a canopy of overhanging foliage.

Intermittent mortar and artillery rounds were coming in ahead, which kept us on our toes. German communication trenches two feet wide and three feet deep were dug along on both sides of the road. These shallow ditches protected enemy communication wire from being cut by artillery.

As we moved closer to town, the foliage overhead thinned enough to reveal the steeple of the Catholic church, the first edifice we saw as we approached. The closer we got to the steeple, the more accurate the 88mm and mortar fire. Suddenly, the banshee scream of an 88mm shell sounded as if it had my number written all over it. Sh-boom!

I dove headfirst into the left ditch, losing my helmet and almost my neck. Somehow the exploding shell missed hitting anyone; we were keeping a space between men.

Picking myself up to brush off my uniform, I saw a strange and shocking sight. On the edge of the ditch lay a German forearm. Part of the uniform sleeve was there, with the elbow, arm, hand, and all fingers intact. I wondered what had happened to the rest of that poor bastard. I never did find out.

I climbed back on the path, shaken but unscathed. Within minutes, I had another surprise. As I approached an opening on the right side of the hedgerow, I heard someone moaning.

Crawling carefully through the opening, I came face-to-face with a young German paratrooper, who had been hit by a large chunk of shrapnel. He had a very serious upper thigh wound, and his left trouser leg was bloody and torn.

This was my first encounter with the enemy up close. The German paratrooper is a fierce and fanatical warrior, easily distinguishable by his round helmet and baggy smock. My first reaction was to put him out of his misery and keep going.

In fact Slaughter responded to the pleas of the young German , who he realised was about the same age of him, and applied a tourniquet and first aid.

See Omaha Beach and Beyond: The Long March of Sergeant Bob Slaughter

 German Fallschirmjäger or paratrooper with MG 42 machine gun in Normandy 1944.
German Fallschirmjäger or paratrooper with MG 42 machine gun in Normandy 1944.
A US army patrol in one of the narrow country lanes in Normandy.
A US army patrol in one of the narrow country lanes in Normandy.

2100: 21st Panzer abandon counter-attack

A screen of 6-pdr anti-tank guns in position by the side of the Rue de la Croix Rose in Hermanville-sur-Mer, 6 June 1944. The Route de Caen can be seen going off to the right.
A screen of 6-pdr anti-tank guns in position by the side of the Rue de la Croix Rose in Hermanville-sur-Mer, 6 June 1944. The Route de Caen can be seen going off to the right.
A battery of M7 Priest 105mm self-propelled guns from one of 3rd Division's Royal Artillery Field Regiments near Hermanville-sur-Mer, 6 June 1944.
A battery of M7 Priest 105mm self-propelled guns from one of 3rd Division’s Royal Artillery Field Regiments near Hermanville-sur-Mer, 6 June 1944.

For the 21st Panzer Division it had been a deeply frustrating day. As the only significant German armoured formation close to the invasion area they had expected to be thrown into the battle at the earliest opportunity. Instead they spent the entire night constrained by orders from Hitler’s High Command.

When they eventually got going after 10am they had to run the gauntlet of Allied aircraft bombing the bridges in Caen.

Lieutenant General Edgar Feuchtinger commanded the 21st Panzer Division:

Once over the Orne River, I drove north toward the coast. By this time the enemy, consisting of three British and three Canadian infantry divisions, had made astonishing progress and had already occupied a strip of high ground about ten kilometers from the sea.

From here the excellent anti-tank gunfire of the Allies knocked out eleven of my tanks before I had barely started. However, one battle group did manage to bypass these guns and actually reached the coast at Lion-sur-Mer, at about seven o’clock in the evening.

I now expected that some reinforcements would be forthcoming to help me hold my position, but nothing came. Another Allied parachute landing on both sides of the Orne, together with a sharp attack by English tanks, forced me to give up my hold on the coast.

I retired to take up my line just north of Caen. By the end of that first day my division had lost almost 25 percent of its tanks.

Commandos of No. 4 Commando, 1st Special Service Brigade, and troops of 6th Airborne Division in Bénouville after the link-up between the two forces, 6 June 1944.
Commandos of No. 4 Commando, 1st Special Service Brigade, and troops of 6th Airborne Division in Bénouville after the link-up between the two forces, 6 June 1944.
Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade in action with a Bren gun during the advance to link up with 6th Airborne Division at Benouville, 6 June 1944.
Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade in action with a Bren gun during the advance to link up with 6th Airborne Division at Benouville, 6 June 1944.

Although 21st Panzer were isolated and under counter-attack themselves the final decision to abandon the position on the coast was prompted by the arrival of Operation Mallard. The parachute and glider borne troops that had been seen over the English coast an hour before had arrived. This was the second major drop of the day by the 6th Airborne.

BBC radio correspondent Alan Melville watched them come in:

Hello everyone, this is Alan Melville speaking from the beach just west of the little village of Ouistreham. The paratroops are landing, they are landing all round me as I speak.

They have come in from the sea and they are fluttering down, red, white, and blue parachutes, fluttering down, and they are just about the best thing we have seen for a good many hours.

They are showering in, there is no other word for it, pouring in, in threes and fours. They are fluttering down in perfect formation, just the way we’ve seen it on the newsreels, the way we’ve seen it done in exercises, and here they are doing it, the real thing, and believe me, they haven’t come any too late.

They’ll be a very unpleasant surprise to the enemy, whose fighting I can still see, the signs of a typical panzer battle. You can hear the aircraft roaring over me, I expect, as I speak.

I can still see the signs of a typical panzer battle being raged on the slightly high ground just about three or four miles ahead of me. And these paratroops are coming down between where I am speaking, which is just above the sand dunes.

Down they come . . . they’re being attacked pretty harshly, as you can hear, but they are landing in great force, between the sand dunes, between the beach area and the battle, and they may have a very decisive effect on that battle.

Jerry is putting up to try and stave this surprise eventuality off, but he isn’t able to cope.

The aircraft are sweeping inland, letting go their valuable cargo, sweeping round as if nothing mattered, and turning again out to sea. They are still coming in. I am just turning round to look out to sea and I can see, way out to the very horizon, they are coming in in flood after flood.

BBC Sound Archives SR 1626/E/B

Halifaxes towing Hamilcar gliders carrying 6th Airborne Division reinforcements to Normandy pass over the battleships HMS WARSPITE and HMS RAMILLIES, part of Bombarding Force 'D' off Le Havre, on the evening of 6 June 1944. The photo was taken from the frigate HMS HOLMES which formed part of the escort group.
Halifaxes towing Hamilcar gliders carrying 6th Airborne Division reinforcements to Normandy pass over the battleships HMS WARSPITE and HMS RAMILLIES, part of Bombarding Force ‘D’ off Le Havre, on the evening of 6 June 1944. The photo was taken from the frigate HMS HOLMES which formed part of the escort group.
Hamilcar gliders of 6th Airlanding Brigade arrive on DZ 'N' near Ranville, bringing with them the Tetrarch tanks of 6th Airborne Division's armoured reconnaissance regiment, evening of 6 June 1944.
Hamilcar gliders of 6th Airlanding Brigade arrive on DZ ‘N’ near Ranville, bringing with them the Tetrarch tanks of 6th Airborne Division’s armoured reconnaissance regiment, evening of 6 June 1944.
Horsa gliders of 6th Airlanding Brigade, 6th Airborne Division, on DZ 'N' near Ranville, on the evening of 6 June 1944.
Horsa gliders of 6th Airlanding Brigade, 6th Airborne Division, on DZ ‘N’ near Ranville, on the evening of 6 June 1944.
Troops of 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles, 6th Airlanding Brigade, 6th Airborne Division, aboard a jeep and trailer, driving off DZ 'N' past a crashed Airspeed Horsa glider on the evening of 6 June 1944.
Troops of 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles, 6th Airlanding Brigade, 6th Airborne Division, aboard a jeep and trailer, driving off DZ ‘N’ past a crashed Airspeed Horsa glider on the evening of 6 June 1944.
Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade digging in near Horsa gliders on 6th Airborne Division's landing zone east of the River Orne, near Ranville, on the evening of 6 June 1944.
Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade digging in near Horsa gliders on 6th Airborne Division’s landing zone east of the River Orne, near Ranville, on the evening of 6 June 1944.
Airborne troops of 6th Airlanding Brigade, 6th Airborne Division, hitching a trailer to a jeep which has just been off-loaded from a Horsa glider (LH344 'Charlie's Aunt') on DZ 'N' near Ranville, on the evening of 6 June 1944.
Airborne troops of 6th Airlanding Brigade, 6th Airborne Division, hitching a trailer to a jeep which has just been off-loaded from a Horsa glider (LH344 ‘Charlie’s Aunt’) on DZ ‘N’ near Ranville, on the evening of 6 June 1944.

2000: Second wave of glider troops depart

Part of 6th Airlanding Brigade, 6th Airborne Division, waiting to leave RAF Tarrant Rushton on the evening of 6 June 1944. On the runway are Hamilcar heavy gliders, preceded by two Horsa troop-carrying gliders, while parked on each side of them are Handley Page Halifax glider-tugs of Nos. 298 and 644 Squadrons RAF.
Part of 6th Airlanding Brigade, 6th Airborne Division, waiting to leave RAF Tarrant Rushton on the evening of 6 June 1944. On the runway are Hamilcar heavy gliders, preceded by two Horsa troop-carrying gliders, while parked on each side of them are Handley Page Halifax glider-tugs of Nos. 298 and 644 Squadrons RAF.
Troops of 6th Airlanding Brigade smile from the door of their Horsa glider on an RAF airfield as they prepare to fly out as part of 6th Airborne Division's second lift on the evening of 6 June 1944.
Troops of 6th Airlanding Brigade smile from the door of their Horsa glider on an RAF airfield as they prepare to fly out as part of 6th Airborne Division’s second lift on the evening of 6 June 1944.

One of the major limiting factors of Operation Neptune was the number of aircraft, gliders and landing craft to transport the troops across the Channel. After the disaster off Slapton Sands there were no spare Landing Craft available. It was only just possible to add the 82nd Airborne to the drop in the American sector by using every last aircraft available.

The British 6th Airborne Division had to wait all day to come up to full strength on the eastern end of the beachhead.

Patricia Roach was a 14 year old schoolgirl living in the south coast town of Bognor Regis:

We were sent home from school early that day and the wireless was never turned off just in case there would be more news. My brother, Michael Long, was in the Glider Pilot Regiment, and at the time we had had no word from him.

Aroound 8.0 p.m. that evening, we heard the sound of aircraft approaching so we all made our way onto our balcony overlooking the sea.

Within minutes, the sky was filled with gliders and the tugs (aircraft that towed the gliders were known as tugs). Apparently there were 250 gliders, plus the 250 tugs – so the sky was full of 500 aircraft as far as the eye could see. I think Armada is the only word that can describe this scene.

There were aircraft to the right of you, aircraft to the left and aircraft as far as you could see. It was an amazing experience and one I shall never forget. We put up the Union Jack (always kept at hand!) and waved our hankies madly. The aircraft were flying fairly low so they could easily see us.

There was a strange silence after they disappeared over the horizon. We were still anxious for my brother as the phone had remained silent.

Later that evening, about 9.30 to 9.45 p.m. (I remember we had a marvellous sunset), I went up on the balcony by myself and listened to the lapping of the waves. Suddenly the drone of aircraft could be heard – the tugs were on their way home. It was a very poignant moment.

I remember tears pouring down my face as I thought of all those young men who were now in France – wondering what was happening to them – was my brother amongst them. It was a very sad moment and one I will never forget.

Around 10.00 p.m., the phone rang. It was my brother, Michael, telling us he was still in England. We were very relieved. He went to Arnhem three months later, was shot through the leg, and taken prisoner. But that is another story.

Read the whole of this account on BBC People’s War.

For a full illustrated story of D-Day and the Normandy campaign explore hundreds of contemporary images in the iPad App Overlord. The free iBook US Forces on D-Day provides a sample.

Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade with captured Germans in a jeep, with gliders of 6th Airlanding Brigade in the background, near Ranville, on the evening of 6 June 1944.
Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade with captured Germans in a jeep, with gliders of 6th Airlanding Brigade in the background, near Ranville, on the evening of 6 June 1944.

0230: 82nd Airborne fly into the cloud bank

US paratroopers about to embark on their D-Day mission. the censor has obscured the unit insignia. Note the hastily applied d-day stripes.
US paratroopers about to embark on their D-Day mission. the censor has obscured the unit insignia. Note the hastily applied d-day stripes.

An hour after the 101st Airborne began their drops the 82nd Airborne followed up with theirs. They too encountered the thick bank of cloud over the Cotentin peninsula that was to see so many of paratroopers miss their Drop Zones.

Leading them was Matthew B Ridgeway:

We flew in a V of Vs, like a gigantic spearhead without a shaft. England was on double daylight-saving time, and it was still full light, but eastward, over the Channel, the skies were darkening. Two hours later night had fallen, and below us we could see glints of yellow ame from the German anti-aircraft guns on the Channel Islands. We watched them curiously and without fear, as a high-flying duck may watch a hunter, knowing that we were too high and far away for their fire to reach us. In the plane the men sat quietly, deep in their own thoughts. They joked a little and broke, now and then, into ribald laughter.

Nervousness and tension, and the cold that blasted through the open door, had its effect upon us all. Now and then a paratrooper would rise, lumber heavily to the little bathroom in the tail of the plane, find he could not push through the narrow doorway in his bulky gear, and come back, mumbling his profane opinion of the designers of the C.47 airplane. Soon the crew chief passed a bucket around, but this did not entirely solve our problem.

A man strapped and buckled into full combat gear finds it extremely difcult to reach certain essential portions of his anatomy, and his efforts are not made easier by the fact that his comrades are watching him, jeering derisively and offering gratuitous advice.

Wing to wing, the big planes snuggled close in their tight formation, we crossed to the coast of France. I was sitting straight across the aisle from the doorless exit. Even at fteen hundred feet I could tell the Channel was rough, for we passed over a small patrol craft – one of the check points for our navigators – and the light it displayed for us was bobbing like a cork in a millrace.

No lights showed on the land, but in the pale glow of a rising moon that was a little more than a quarter full, I could clearly see each farm and field below. And I remember thinking how peaceful the land looked, each house and hedgerow, path and little stream bathed in the silver of the moonlight. And I felt that if it were not for the noise of the engines we could hear the farm dogs baying, and the sound of the barnyard roosters crowing for midnight.

A few minutes inland we suddenly went into cloud, thick and turbulent. I had been looking out the doorway, watching with a profound sense of satisfaction the close-ordered flight of that great sky caravan that stretched as far as the eye could see. All at once they were blotted out. Not a wing light showed. The plane began to yaw and plunge, and in my mind’s eye I could see the other pilots, fighting to hold course, knowing how great was the danger of a collision in the air.

You could read concern on the grim, set faces of the men in my plane as they turned to peer out the windows, looking for the wink of the little lavender lights on the wing tips of the adjoining planes. Not even our own wing lights showed in that thick murk. It was all up to the pilots now.

See Soldier: The Memoirs of Matthew B. Ridgeway

For a full illustrated story of D-Day and the Normandy campaign explore hundreds of contemporary images in the iPad App Overlord. The free iBook US Forces on D-Day provides a sample.

US paratroopers on board their C-47 about to depart.
US paratroopers on board their C-47 about to depart.

0215: German 7th Army still undecided

France, Normandy .- Two German paratroopers with handcarts loaded with equipment running through bushes.
France, Normandy .- Two German paratroopers with handcarts loaded with equipment running through bushes.

0215

Chief of Staff informs Chiefs of Staff of Army Group B:

Larger landings mainly airborne and mostly in the vicinity of the 716th Infantry Division, southern part of the east coast Cotentin and diagonally through Cotentin at the narrows of Carentan.

Small parts already annihilated.

Motor noises can be heard from the sea on the east coast of Cotentin. Admiral of the Channel Coast reports ships spotted in the sea around Cherbourg. Chief of Staff suggests attaching the 91st Airborne Division.

Chief of Staff of Army Group B judges that at present it is still a local affair. Chief of Staff is of the opinion that it is a major action.

From the German 7th Army War Diary

For a full illustrated story of D-Day and the Normandy campaign explore hundreds of contemporary images in the iPad App Overlord. The free iBook US Forces on D-Day provides a sample.

US parachute troops now found themselves confronting their German counterparts - the Fallschirmjäger fighting as infantry.
US parachute troops now found themselves confronting their German counterparts – the Fallschirmjäger fighting as infantry.

0130: Operation Tonga – 6th Airborne parachute in

Operation TONGA. Short Stirling Mark IVs of Nos. 196 and 299 Squadrons RAF, lining the runway at Keevil, Wiltshire, on the evening of 5 June, before emplaning paratroops of the 5th Parachute Brigade Group for the invasion of Normandy.
Operation TONGA. Short Stirling Mark IVs of Nos. 196 and 299 Squadrons RAF, lining the runway at Keevil, Wiltshire, on the evening of 5 June, before emplaning paratroops of the 5th Parachute Brigade Group for the invasion of Normandy.

Operation Tonga, the British 6th Airborne Division’s parachute drop to secure the eastern flank of the invasion area, began between 1am and 1.30am. At the same time the US 101st Airborne Division began their parachute drop on the western flank, under Mission Albany.

Campbell Gray was with the Parachute Regiment, which was headed for the Ranville area:

We arrived at the airfield near Keevil around 10pm on 5 June and made our way to the enplaning area after drawing chutes. My battalion was being transported by Stirling bombers with Canadian crews. Exit from the bomber was through a rectangular floor aperture at the tail end of the aircraft. Very few of the men had experienced action before, and we were all in good spirits — the great adventure was about to begin.

The signal corporal who was in the next plane to mine came over and shook my hand saying, ‘I’ll see you over there, Jock.’ I never saw him again. He disappeared after being dropped in the wrong area with a number of others, all of whom, except him and the signals officer, managed to rejoin us.

‘Hook-up’ and ‘Stand To’

It would be around 11pm when we got on our way and taxied to the runway for take-off. I must say that no one felt like talking after take-off, and the noise of the engines made it almost impossible anyway. We were scheduled to be dropped around 1am, our drop zone being a few miles inland.

There was some light anti-aircraft fire as we crossed the French coast. At last we got the order to ‘Hook-up’ and ‘Stand To’. I was no. 2 to go. We had to rely on the guy behind us handing us the end of our static line, making sure it was free of entanglement prior to hook-up. All eyes were then glued to the lights above the aperture.

Parachuted into France

When the dispatcher (RAF) bawled ‘Red On’ followed by ‘Green On’, then ‘Go, go, go,’ we went through the aperture as fast as possible. We were going in about 500ft, and it was essential to have a fast dispatch to ensure that we would be closer together on the ground.
It was a moonlit night with some light cloud. I had quite a good descent, landing a bit heavily but safely in a corn field with stalks up to my waist. There was a real danger for us at this point of being shot at by one of our mates, so a simple code system had been devised, the first day being ‘Ham’ to be answered by ‘Egg’, the next day ‘Bread’ and ‘Butter’.

‘Ham’ and ‘Egg’

After releasing my harness and dumping the jump jacket — put on over our outer equipment so that our lines on dispatch couldn’t snag on anything — I gathered myself together. I had to get myself to the rendezvous point, a quarry just on the approaches to Ranville.
As I proceeded, I heard movement just ahead of me. I went to ground immediately and gave the code sign ‘Ham’ and got the ‘Egg’. It happened to be a signaller of my own platoon, who had injured his back in the drop. We got to a hedgerow at the side of the field, but he couldn’t go any further so I had to leave him there and carry on.

We had been told at the briefing not to stop to help wounded or injured men under any circumstances. The objective was top priority and required the maximum number of men to achieve it.

The CO’s signaller

I eventually reached the quarry, guided by the flashing red light of my battalion. Other battalions were guided by a hunting horn or a whistle to their different rendezvous points. The drop zone was coming under fire by this time, but most of us were clear of it by then.
I was the commanding officer’s, the CO’s, signaller and reported to him on arrival. By around 3am we were still at about only half-strength. It turned out that many of my battalion had been dropped in the wrong area, and in some cases it took a few days before they got to us.

In any case, the CO decided to move on to secure Le Bas de Ranville. Resistance was fairly light, the Germans having withdrawn to a wood to the south. By 4am we were well dug in. Things were remarkably quiet for a short time, and then we heard the naval barrage starting and knew that the seaborne landings were about to take place.

Read the whole of his account on BBC People’s War, including an account of the later battle for Breville.

Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Pine-Coffin Commanding Officer, 7th Battalion, Parachute Regiment:

All one could see were other parachutists blundering about as lost as oneself. The Germans were there, too, firing tracer ammunition. Officers and others collected parties and began to search systematically but it was a question of the blind leading the blind.

It was an hour and a half before I found the rendezvous for my party and we were the first there even then. My rallying signal was a bugle and luckily my bugler was with me, and Private Lambert sounded off continuously and we waited and hoped.

They came in as fast as they could but it seemed desperately slow and there was practically none of the heavy gear with them. No sound came from the bridges. I decided to move off when I reached half—strength but this took so long that I gave the order earlier.

No mortars, machine guns or wireless had arrived so we would just have to do without them. The coup de main party’s success signal went up just as we moved off and put new life into us. Half the job had been done: the bridges had been captured.

For a full illustrated story of D-Day and the Normandy campaign explore hundreds of contemporary images in the iPad App Overlord. The free iBook US Forces on D-Day provides a sample.

0016: Operation Deadstick – Pegasus Bridge

Vertical aerial photograph of Horsa gliders of 6th Airborne Division’s ‘coup de main’ force (D Company, 2nd Ox & Bucks Light Infantry plus sappers) near the bridge over the Caen Canal at Benouville, subsequently known as ‘Pegasus Bridge’, June 1944. Visible are Glider No. 91 with Lt Den Brotheridge and Major John Howard (top); Glider No. 93 with Lt Smith (centre) and Glider No. 92 with Lt Henry ‘Tod’ Sweeney (bottom).

The first airborne assault group to land in France had a very specific job, to seize the bridges over the Caen canal and the River Orne so that the British could use them to reinforce their airborne forces later in the day.

The job fell to the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who had three gliders assigned to the operation. Lieutenant David Woods was in the second glider to land:

Quite suddenly and unexpectedly the pilots said, ‘Christ, there’s the bridge,’ and they put the nose of the glider down very steeply. The next thing I knew was that there were sparks coming from the skids underneath, they didn’t have wheels, and I thought these sparks were actually enemy fire but they were in fact the skids striking the ground.

And then there was an almighty crash and I was thrown out through the side of the glider, landed on the ground, still clutching my canvas bucket of grenades. I had my Sten gun with its bayonet still fixed but wasn’t in any way hurt.

The rest of the platoon got out of the glider. Some were like me thrown out and some got out through the doors. I collected them together, we knew exactly what we were supposed to do, although we didn’t know at that moment whether we were the first glider to land or the second or the third, because three were destined to land at our particular bridge.

I took the platoon forward to where I knew the bridge was and the road running up to it and there, crouching in the ditch, was my company commander, who said, quite simply, ‘David, No 2.’ And I knew that No 2’s job was to cross the road and sort out the enemy on the other side in the inner defences of the bridge.

Private Harry Clarke takes up the story of the attack by 24 Platoon:

David Wood said, ‘Forward,’ and with all his boyish enthusiasm, he was a great leader, he went gallantly into action and we all tore in like a pack of hounds after him.

Suddenly I was brought to an abrupt halt, I was snagged on a load of barbed wire, and to this day I bear the scar on me right knee where a huge barb took a lump of flesh out. Actually I cursed rather loudly and I can still recall David Wood saying to me, ‘Shut up, Clarke’ — and this was in the middle of an attack.

Anyway, we ran forward and there were at least two machine guns firing from the position we were about to attack. Charles Godbold and I were together and as we neared the trenches we could see from the flash there was a gun firing and Charlie said, ‘We’d better sling a grenade.’ I said, ‘We’d better not sling a 36, let’s sling a couple of these stun grenades, otherwise we’ll kill our own blokes.’

So we flung two stun grenades and we saw two people rise out of the trench and run towards the bank of the canal. Charlie let loose a long burst from his Sten gun but I think they got away: we found no bodies there the next day.

And within probably about five minutes, a few skirmishes, there was a bit of firing, it all went quiet. We’d captured our objective. We moved up to the riverbank, my section, and we passed a pillbox, there was smoke coming out of it, and all was quiet on our side.

There was a machine gun firing on the other side and a few bangs so they were obviously still engaged on the west bank of the canal.

In this short sharp firefight they successfully seized the bridges and had reported their success within half an hour. They then had to wait, lightly armed, for the rest of the night, in anticipation of a German counter attack.

For a full illustrated history of D-Day and the Normandy campaign explore hundreds of contemporary images in the iPad App Overlord. The free iBook US Forces on D-Day provides a sample.

A picture of the bridge over the canal , later named Pegasus bridge. The three glider pilots had demonstrated extraordinary skill in bringing the assault platoons to within yards of their objective.
A picture of the bridge over the canal, later named Pegasus Bridge, taken a few days after the attack. The three glider pilots had demonstrated extraordinary skill in bringing the assault platoons to within yards of their objective.