Maps

The Normandy Landings

Operation Tonga, the objectives of the 6th Airborne Division on the 6th June

The glider assault on the Bénouville and Ranville bridges

 

Pictures

Bénouville Bridge as seen in a pre-war photograph

An aerial photograph of Bénouville Bridge

Aerial photo of Bénouville Bridge, showing the three Horsas

The three gliders which assaulted Bénouville Bridge

Two of the three gliders which assaulted Bénouville Bridge

The eastern end of Bénouville Bridge

The western end of Bénouville Bridge

An aerial photograph showing Ranville bridge and the glider which carried the platoon who seized it

A pre-war photograph of Ranville Bridge

A pre-war photograph of Ranville Bridge

 

At 00:16 on the 6th June 1944, Glider No.92, containing Major Howard and No.1 Platoon of the coup de main force, silently approached LZ-X. Their objective, Bénouville bridge, stood before them in silhouette, its barbed wire defences visible on the edge of the landing zone. The pilots, Staff-Sergeants Jim Wallwork and John Ainsworth, realised that they were coming in too fast and so prepared to deploy the parachute that would bring them to a rapid halt. As soon as they touched the ground the parachute was used but the shock of its sudden drag tore off the Horsa's wheels and sent the craft back into the air. Having suitably slowed down the glider, Wallwork ordered that the chute be jettisoned and he made a second attempt to put down. As the glider's skids made contact with rocks on the ground, sparks flashed around the craft, giving the passengers the impression that they were being fired on with tracer rounds. The glider ploughed on until its nose had broken through the first belt of barbed wire around the bridge, whereupon it came to a halt with such force that both pilots were catapulted through the cockpit screen, rendering them, and all of their passengers, unconscious.

 

Within a few seconds, however, the men had fully regained their senses and became aware that all around them was quiet. The noise of the crash had not alerted the Germans at the bridge, a mere 50 yards from where the glider had come to rest. If it had then the fate of the coup de main might have been decided in seconds. Fortunately, the guards had disregarded the noise that they heard as that of debris falling from a damaged Allied bomber.

 

No.1 Platoon were quickly out of the glider and instinctively went about the tasks for which they had been training for months. Several men knocked out a machine-gun position whilst the majority of the platoon, led by Lieutenant Brotheridge, rushed over the bridge to capture the other side, firing from the hip and lobbing grenades as they charged. A startled sentry cried "Fallschirmjäger!" (paratroopers) and fled to his dug-out, whilst another managed to fire a warning flare into the sky a split-second before he was shot. Once across to the western side of the bridge, Brotheridge dropped a grenade into another machine-gun position but was shot through the neck in the next instant. Mortally wounded, Lieutenant Den Brotheridge was the first British soldier to die as a result of enemy action on D-Day.

 

As No.1 Platoon had begun their attack, No.2 Platoon landed safely in the second glider and immediately moved up to help clear the enemy away from the eastern end of the bridge. No.3 Platoon were not so lucky as the abrupt halt to their landing had torn the fuselage from the glider and left a dozen men trapped in the wreckage. Their commander, Lieutenant Smith, was injured as a result and was hurt further by the grenade-wielding German whom he encountered and killed several minutes later, however he continued to lead his men and helped to secure the western side of the bridge. Throughout all of these actions, the sappers had been ignoring the enemy fire directed at them as they climbed all over the bridge, looking for wires to cut and detonation devices to remove. The Germans had clearly prepared the bridge for demolition but, fearing an accidental explosion or sabotage by the French Resistance, the charges had not been placed.

 

After overcoming the initial shock of this sudden and violent assault, the German garrison fought back, but defeat was inevitable and so many took to their heels. As the firing died down, Major Howard knew that, for now at least, Bénouville bridge was safely in British hands. Still a little apprehensive, however, he awaited news of how the remainder of his force was faring at Ranville bridge.

 

 

The three gliders landing near the River Orne had very different experiences. The tug aircraft that towed No.4 Platoon's Horsa had difficulty in locating the drop zone and cast off its charge eight miles to the east of its objective. The glider came to rest alongside the bridge at Varaville, which was to be destroyed by the 3rd Parachute Squadron in the coming hours. No.4 Platoon proceeded to capture the bridge and in so doing realised that they were in the wrong place, and so they headed towards Ranville. After a series of escapades, including their capture and subsequent escape, the Platoon rejoined "D" Company on the 7th June.

 

The other two gliders, however, found LZ-Y. No.6 Platoon landed dead on target and proceeded to attack the bridge, but by this time the sound of fighting in the direction of Bénouville had alerted the German garrison. Fortunately, their defensive capability amounted to a single machine-gun position, the crew of which fired a few ineffective rounds at the British as they came into view, and then fled in the face of No.6 Platoon's accurate mortar fire. The abandoned machine-gun was quickly seized and brought to bear on the fleeing defenders. A few minutes later, No.5 Platoon, who had landed 700 yards short of the landing zone, arrived at the bridge, unaware that it had already been taken. They ran across it, expecting to be fired upon at any moment, but in the gloom before them there appeared the unmistakeable shape of Lieutenant Fox, the commander of No.6 Platoon. So ended the brief struggle for Ranville bridge.

 

The coup de main raid had been a complete success. With comparatively few casualties, both bridges had been taken in just ten minutes. The landing of the gliders on to these very small landing zones in the dark was later hailed by Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory, the commander of Allied air forces during the invasion, as "one of the most outstanding flying achievements of the war."

 

Confirmation of the successful capture of Ranville bridge was sent to Major Howard, who immediately ordered his radio operator to transmit the success signal to the 5th Parachute Brigade HQ at Ranville. "Ham and Jam" was repeated over and over until an acknowledgement was received. With their initial tasks complete, the coup de main force dug in around the bridges to defend them until the paratroopers arrived. Expecting the toughest resistance to come from Bénouville, No.6 Platoon was ordered to reinforce Howard's men at the bridge, leaving No.5 Platoon in sole command of Ranville bridge.