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The first British soldier to die on June 6th, 1944, was Freddie Greenhalgh at 18 minutes after midnight. He drowned in a swamp, very close to a bridge code named Pegasus (a divine winged stallion in Greek mythology mounted by Bellerophn, the first winged warrior) the 6th British Airborne Division symbol. Glider number 91 landed at 0015 hours, glider 92 at 0018 and glider 93 a few seconds later. The three large Horsa gliders carried 181 men into the initial skirmish for the Pegasus towed by four engine Halifax bombers at 180 miles per hour they had cut loose and slide across the hard ground at 80 mph tearing off the landing wheels and the belly skid causing the seated soldiers to pull their legs up for fear of having their legs torn off. The rapid deceleration had plummeted the pilots and numerous soldiers through the windshield into the swamp. Freddie died ingloriously in a heroic action.
Normandy clocks displayed 11:45 PM, Summer Time, June 5th. To the allies it was 00:15 AM, British Double Summer time, June 6th. It is only reluctantly the French concede the invasion started June 6th.
At both ends of the 50 mile invasion front lay vulnerability to the beach assaults planned for dawn of D-Day. Since Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had taken over the defenses of the potential invasion areas, in Januray, the northern coast of France had been greatly strengthened. The Field Marshal had seven armored divisions around the Calais, 200 miles distant, in anticipation of the allies attacking across the 20 mile wide English Channel. In Normandy at the eastern end of the intended invasion front was the German 21st Panzer Division ready to counterattack any intrusions.
Connecting the large Normandy city of Caen to the English Channel, ten miles north, was the Orne canal and its parallel Orne river a few hundred yards to the east. As a defensive means the Germans by closing locks on the nearby small Dives river back water had created a morass of low lying swamps crossed by small utilitarian farm type bridges. Seizing the key bridges across the Orne canal and river plus destroying the smaller bridges to thwart German counterattacks was the objectives of the 6th Airborne Division. “Seize, Destroy and Hold”. The British infantry landing across Sword Beach, at dawn, would move quickly to reinforce the airborne troopers by noon in anticipation of strong German counter attacks by the 21st Panzer Division standing by for orders.
The important bridge was near the village of Benouville hence the bridge’s name to the local citizens. Later, in honor of the actions, it was renamed Pegasus.
Seizing the bridge early, quickly and defending it in a coup de main operation was the task assigned to Major John Howard’s re enforced company (181 men) of the 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire (Ox & Bucks) of the 5th Brigade / 6th Airborne Division. Although the gliders were wrecked upon landing, the troopers tossed about, some knocked unconscious and wounded they dispatched the Germans at the east end of the bridge completely surprising the defenders. Leading his team across the bridge Lt. Denny Brotheridge was shot in the neck falling in the middle of the roadway. He was the first British soldier killed by enemy fire in the invasion. His wife gave birth to a daughter a few months later who frequently attendees airborne memorial services, on June 6th, at the bridge Howard’s men spread out forming a defensive bridgehead and waited for the noon hour arrival of Lord Lovat’s commandos, who had landed on Sword beach, meet their objectives clearing the Germans out of Ouisterham and moved south to link up with the Pegasus bridge force. Lovat’s bag piper, Bill Mullins, played as the commandos marched over the canal.
A German sniper in the nearby le Port church belfry created harassing fire on the bridge activities. Major Howard, in his distinctive British accent, told a team “go get that buggar”. Armed with a spring loaded rocket (PIAT rocket launcher) the soldier stood across from the church, backed by the bakery window, fired through the arched slatted belfry tower killing the sniper. A soldier then ascended the belfry internal ladder and threw the sniper’s body 40 feet below into the church yard. The following day while the church was being used as a British medical aid post a German roving platoon entered the building and murdered the wounded, the medical personnel and the chaplain. All eighteen are buried in the last row, near the wall, of the church cemetery . The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) encourages relatives to have their loved one’s headstone inscribed with a personal commemorative phrase of reflection. One particularly poignant memorial phrase stands out, “To the World he was one of many, to us he was the World”.
At the west end of the bridge stands a cafe that is the meeting place of heroes, returning veterans and multi national visitors. It was the bridge keeper’s lodge in 1944.The attractive lady hostess, Madame Arlette Gondree Pritchard was10 years old on that significant date. She, her sister and father and mother served hidden champagne to Major Howard’s troops D-Day morning. Surrounded by her British 6th Airborne veteran friends of many years she is the spirit and personality of Pegasus Bridge history. Superb coffee, tea and “a cold one” plus pastries under an awning.
A mile away to the east is the Ranville church and the 6th Airborne Division cemetery containing 2287 Allied graves and 322 Germans. 47 of the British are along the wall of the civilian cemetery including that of Lt. Den Brotheridge.