Major John Howard

John Howard with "D" Company snipers

John Howard beside the glider in which he landed

Major Howard in 1946

"D" Company reunion, 1952

John Howard with Richard Todd on the set of "The Longest Day"

Major John Howard


Unit : "D" Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

Service No. : 155710

Awards : Distinguished Service Order, Croix de Guerre with Bronze Palm.


John Howard was a rarity amongst officers, in that he was not born amongst the higher classes but instead rose from humble beginnings. He was born in the West End of London on the 8th December 1912, the eldest of nine children of Ethel and Jack Howard, who had served on the Western Front during the Great War. At school, John Howard excelled both as an academic and as a sportsman. He joined the Scouts and, in spite of the derision he received from his friends who poked fun at his shorts, he greatly enjoyed the world that the experience exposed him to, such as sports and summer camping expeditions outside of London. At the age of fourteen, such was Howard's skill with mathematics that he was awarded a scholarship to attend secondary school, however the family finances were very limited and so he left school in favour of seeking employment. Still maintaining contact with the Scouts, he began by working as a clerk to a stockbroker, but every evening, with a view to enhancing his situation, he turned his attentions back towards his education, taking classes in Maths, English, economics, accountancy, typing and shorthand. His situation took a turn for the worse, however, when his firm fell victim to the Great Depression and he was left unemployed. By this time the Howard family had expanded to such a degree that their home was becoming most cramped. Howard proposed to leave home and establish himself elsewhere, however his mother would not hear of it. Nevertheless, he did leave and enlisted as a common soldier in the Army.


He was posted to the King's Shropshire Light Infantry and received his basic training at Shrewsbury. His first few days here were not happy ones as he found his new companions to be "very rough and tough... I freely admit I cried my eyes out for the first couple of nights when I was in the barracks room with these toughs and wondered if I'd survive." In spite of the intimidating atmosphere, Howard excelled, most notably at his old passion for sports. An important feature of the peacetime Army was excellence in athletics, and as the Scouts had introduced him to cross-country runs, swimming, and boxing, Howard was given the freedom to hone his talents. Following the completion of his military training he was sent to one of the Regiment's battalions, and soon after arrival he so impressed his company commander that he was made the company clerk. The abundance of free time that this position allowed Howard enabled him to pursue his sporting interests further and before long he had passed a course to become a qualified Physical Education instructor. His ambition did not stop here, however, and later he applied for a commission. Despite the fact that he was sufficiently qualified his application was rejected; it was almost impossible for a ranker to become an officer during peacetime. He did, however, receive a promotion to Corporal.


One day in 1936, Howard was invited out for the evening by a friend of his who had found himself with two ladies to entertain. One of these was Joy Bromley, a sixteen year old from a respectable middle class family, to whom common soldiers were off limits. She and Howard had got on so favourably that by the end of the evening the foundations of their courtship had been laid. Joy was very much afraid that her mother would not approve of her associating with someone from beneath her position, and so it was that their relationship continued in secret. It was not in John Howard's manner to be covert and so, much to the horror of Joy, he decided to visit her mother and introduce himself. This he did, and much to everyone's surprise he was very much approved of. So much so that in April 1938 the couple were engaged, and they married on the 28th October 1939.


At about this time, Howard's period of Army service expired, and so in June he became a policeman, patrolling the streets of Oxford by night. The war intervened with any plans that he may have had for his future, and so it was that on the 2nd December 1939, he was called back, as a Corporal, to the King's Shropshire Light Infantry. With full mobilisation, evidently the same bars to promotion no longer existed because Howard progressed through the ranks at a dramatic pace. Within a fortnight he had been promoted to Sergeant, and a month later was upped to Company Sergeant Major. In April 1940, Howard became Regimental Sergeant Major, and in May, the Brigade commander offered him a chance to earn a commission. Howard was reluctant, however, because he enjoyed the position of RSM as it was an extraordinarily powerful one, in some ways more so than that of officer. Furthermore he did not have a high opinion of the flood of young second lieutenants that were being drafted into the Army and he had very little desire to become one of them. He discussed the matter with Joy, and she convinced him that he must try. This time he was successful, but he decided to leave the Regiment in favour of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, partially because of his association with the city whilst a policeman, but also because of their first class regimental history.


Howard was posted to the 2nd Battalion, who had recently returned from India with a compliment of peacetime officers. Many of these were not happy to have a former ranker in their midst and they made very little secret of the fact. Howard did not take kindly to the constant snubbing he receive and so, fearing that he would not be able to stand it otherwise, he asked Joy to move to Oxford so that he could have her support. As it happened, his commanding officer had noted Howard's mood and made the same suggestion the very next morning. Within a few weeks, however, having had time to prove his worth, his fellow officers came to accept him as one of them.


In 1941, Howard was promoted to Captain and given command of Company. At the end of the year, news filtered through to him that the Battalion was to be converted into a gliderborne unit and become a part of the newly formed 1st Airlanding Brigade. Howard was very enthusiastic at the prospect of this exciting new role, even though the transition required him to be demoted to Lieutenant. This was only a short-term inconvenience though, and within a few weeks he was given command of "D" Company and restored to Captain, promotion to Major followed in May 1942. He was most satisfied with the shape of the Company, both in terms of its officers and men, and he also felt at home with them as many were fellow Londoners. In training, Howard was ruthless and demanded nothing less than first class standards of fitness. He also took his responsibility as a commander very seriously indeed, so much so that, for the most part, he abstained from drinking in order to keep a clear mind. On the 12th July 1942, however, this matter was rather taken out of his hands when, to celebrate the birth of his son, Terry, a party was held and Howard was paralytic.


During the planning phases for the D-Day landings, Major-General Gale had decided on a gliderborne coup de main raid to capture the Bénouville and Ranville bridges, and so he approached Brigadier Hugh Kindersley to ask for his opinion on the best company to carry this out. He recommended Major Howard's "D" Company. To test the choice the Division put on a three-day exercise, "D" Company's role in which was the seizing of three bridges from a small group of paratroopers who were defending them. Major-General Gale observed proceedings, accompanied by Brigadiers Kindersley and Poett, and they were all much impressed with the speed and style with which "D" Company went about their task. Shortly afterwards, in April 1944, Lieutenant-Colonel Roberts invited Howard into his office and told him that "D" Company were to spearhead the British invasion effort and they would be charged with capturing two bridges intact. On Gale's orders, "D" Company was increased in size from four to six platoons. Howard was allowed to select the additional two platoons from any in the Battalion, and he turned to "B" Company and to those commanded by Lieutenants Fox and Smith.


In May, the Division mounted a pre-invasion exercise named Operation Mush. Howard's coup de main force were ordered to capture a bridge that was being held by men of the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade. Gliders were not used to land the Company next to the bridge, instead the men were driven to the general area in trucks and marched to a point within yards of the bridge, on the spot where their gliders would have landed, and here they were to lay low until a signal was given to indicate that they had "landed". The signal was given and Howard's men moved silently forward and on to the bridge. An umpire was present on the ground and, although the Company had captured their objective, he ruled that they had not and that the bridge had been blown. Lieutenant Hooper of No.4 Platoon argued furiously with the umpire over this point but to no avail. Further problems were highlighted too, the most serious one being that, in the dark No.1 Platoon had mistaken No.5 Platoon for the enemy and "wiped them out" with their blank ammunition. The role of the coup de main force in Operation Mush had ended in failure, however to Major Howard it had been a blessing because he and his men had learned so much about the techniques that were needed to capture a bridge successfully.


Invasion planning continued apace, and the Intelligence information that was made available to Howard was excellent in every degree. Not only had the work of the French Resistance provided very thorough details on the structure of the bridges and the behaviour of the River Orne and the Caen Canal, but in a sealed room in RAF Broadmore, Howard also had a full range of the latest reconnaissance photographs available to refer to. In early May, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel visited the two bridges and instructed that an anti-tank gun emplacement should be built and protected by barbed wire and a pillbox position. Forty-eight hours later, RAF reconnaissance sorties had detected this work, and a week later the French Resistance passed on an accurate description. A scale model, measuring 12 x 12 feet, was made to show the bridge in perfect detail, including every building, tree and ditch. The Germans made alterations to their defences almost daily, and thanks to the reconnaissance sorties that took place each morning, the model was updated accordingly.


In early May, Brigadier Poett assured Howard that he could have anything that he wanted, all he had to do was ask. One notable thing he requested was "German" opposition for their exercises, in the sense that his opponents should be dressed as Germans, carrying German weapons and should even speak German. All of this was arranged, and the men of the coup de main force made a thorough study of German weapons and became familiar with their use. Besides Major Howard, no one in the Company had any idea why they were constantly working on the art of capturing bridges and, frankly, everyone was getting painfully bored by it. Howard took his men to one side and assured them in as little language as possible, "We are training for some special purpose. You'll find a lot of the training that we are doing, this capturing of things like bridges, is connected with that special purpose. If any of you mention the word 'bridges' outside our training hours and I get to know about it, you'll be for the high jump and your feet won't touch before you are RTU {Returned To Unit}."


To further the realism of their training, Howard asked that an area be found somewhere in Britain where conditions similar to those in Normandy existed, i.e. two bridges running across a river and a canal with a very short distance in between. Such a spot was found near to Exeter, over the River Exe and the Exeter Canal, and so Howard moved his men there to practice day and night for almost a week. During this time, Howard prepared them for every conceivable eventuality that they could face on the ground, such as only one of the gliders reaching the bridges or others falling short. In the event that all of the sappers accomanying the coup de main force became casualties, Howard made his men fully familiar with their role so that they might perform the task themselves. They were even trained in the use of assault boats, to be used if either of the bridges were blown. All of this was carried out against the background of many curious onlookers from the surrounding area, some of whom interfered with proceedings. One man was angry that several tiles had been blown off his roof by an exploding grenade, and the town council felt that the exercises were weakening the bridges, and they also did not like the soldier's habit of fishing for their supper by dropping grenades into the river.


Based on all the intelligence he had received and the findings of these exercises, Howard formed his plan. He felt that the most crucial aspect to securing Bénouville Bridge was to take out the pillbox position, near the anti-tank gun, before a shot was fired and the Germans became aware of their presence. Not only was this position an obvious threat to anyone moving across the bridge, it was also where the bridge would be detonated from if the enemy had the chance. To destroy this position, three men from No.1 Platoon, the first unit to land, were detailed to take it out by throwing grenades into its slits. The remainder of No.1 Platoon were to rush across the bridge and seize the western end. Close behind them, No.2 Platoon would then land and proceed to take care of the positions remaining on the eastern bank, whilst the last glider to land, containing No.3 Platoon, would proceed to the western side to reinforce No.1 Platoon. Exactly the same procedure was to be adopted for Ranville Bridge, with No.4 Platoon rushing the defences and taking the eastern end, No.5 Platoon clearing the western end, and then No.6 Platoon helping No.4. While all this was going on, the thirty sappers who were to accompany "D" Company were to crawl all over the structure of the bridges and remove any charges and cut any wires that they found. The exercises in Exeter continued along these lines, with Howard occasionally stopping proceedings in full flow to introduce a further possibility into the equation that could hamper their attack.


The final evening in Exeter was something of a shambles. Major Howard gave his men the night off and they all went into the town for some serious drinking, ending in numerous fights and broken windows. Howard was telephoned by the chief of Police and he set off for Exeter in his Jeep to investigate, but on the way he was arrested for speeding. When he finally got to see the Chief, he happened to notice that the man was a veteran of the First World War, and instantly knowing how to approach the situation he explained to him that it was his men's last night out. The Policeman entirely understood and instructed his men to go into Exeter, round up the coup de main force, and gently shepherd them back into their encampment.


Towards the end of May, Howard and his men, together with the rest of the 6th Airborne Division, were locked into their base at Tarrant Rushton. Once here, Howard, with the assistance of a model and a plethora of photographs, proceeded to explain the true nature of their objectives of D-Day, first to his officers and then to the men. Several briefings were held and Howard addressed individual platoons and even sections. He encouraged his men to make use of hut in which all of the maps and photographs were on display, and asked that they study all before them in detail and then talk amongst themselves about any ideas that they had. Whilst in the camp, on the 30th May, Howard was horrified to discover that the Germans were in the process of putting anti-glider poles on the landing zones that his force were to use. He talked it over with the pilot of his glider, Staff-Sergeant Jimmy Wallwork, who rather than being concerned instead sounded relieved about the prospect. He reasoned that the gliders were so heavily loaded and a few glancing blows from these stakes would help them slow them up and thus prevent them from hitting the embankment by the road, which would be a disaster for all concerned.


Wallwork was, however, concerned about the weight of the gliders, which were carrying more men with heavier equipment than they ought to. He still felt that this added momentum would still carry them too far along the landing zone. In order to decrease the weight, one of the two assault boats which were to be carried in the gliders were left out, and each of Howard's platoon commanders then had to make the painful decision of telling two of their men that they couldn't go. Those men who were forced to drop out protested strongly, some in tears that they could not stay, but it had to be done. A few days later it was suggested that the Company ought to have a Medical Officer onboard, because they were going into action completely alone, and so it was that Captain John Vaughan was invited along. Of course this meant that another man had to be left behind, but the decision was more clear cut this time because one man sprained his ankle whilst playing football.


D-Day was to take place on the 5th June, but poor weather led to a twenty-four hour postponement. John Howard wrote in his diary, "The weather's broken - what cruel luck. I'm more downhearted than I dare show. Wind and rain, how long will it last? The longer it goes on, the more prepared the Huns will be, the greater the chance of obstacles on the LZ. Please God it'll clear up tomorrow." On the 5th June, the weather had indeed improved and "D" Company prepared to board their gliders. Major Howard watched them, "It was an amazing sight. The smaller chaps were visibly sagging at the knees under the amount of kit they had to carry." Before they boarded, Howard attempted to give them a pep talk, "I am a sentimental man at heart, for which reason I don't think I am a good soldier. I found offering my thanks to these chaps a devil of a job. My voice just wasn't my own." At 22:56, Howard's glider took off, followed at one-minute intervals by the remainder of the coup de main force. Howard was prone to airsickness and had vomited on every training flight that he had participated in. He was not sick on this flight, however, the prospect of going into battle for the first time being enough to steady his nerves in this regard. For good luck, he had brought with him a red shoe belonging to his two year old son.


Although the landing of the three coup de main gliders on LZ-X was hailed as "one of the most outstanding flying achievements of the war", the landing was extremely rough. The severity with which No.1 Platoon's glider came to a halt catapulted both pilots through the cockpit screen and left all of the passengers unconscious for a few seconds. Howard's seatbelt had broken and the impact threw him about the glider. He had hit his head on the roof and this forced his helmet down over his eyes. When he regained his senses, Howard's first impression that he was either dead or at least blind, but he quickly discovered the problem and was relieved to discover that he could see again.


As No.1 Platoon went into action, Howard, with his wireless operator, Corporal Tappenden, set up a command post inside a trench near the perimeter wire. Howard watched No.1 Platoon as they went into action, and as the following gliders landed and reported to him, he directed them to their planned objectives, an alteration only being needed if something had gone wrong with the assault. Whilst he was standing here, Howard and Tappenden were fired on by a German rifleman, but all of his shots went astray. The first news that came to Howard was that Lieutenant Brotheridge had been hit. Howard remarked, "It really shook me, because it was Den and how much of a friend he was, and because my leading platoon was now without an officer. At the top of my mind was the fact that I knew Margaret, his wife, was expecting a baby almost any time." The bad news continued because all three of the platoon commanders at Bénouville Bridge had been hurt, and Brotheridge would die of his injuries. Howard concerned about this fact, but also because Corporal Tappenden had heard nothing from Ranville Bridge. However, just as he received visual confirmation that Bénouville Bridge had been successfully taken, Tappenden tugged Howard's smock and passed on the news that Ranville Bridge had also fallen.


Believing that very little resistance would develop at Ranville Bridge, Howard decided to concentrate the bulk of his force at Bénouville. No.4 Platoon was missing, having landed alongside the bridge at Varaville, eight miles away, but he left No.5 Platoon at Ranville and sent a runner to the Bridge to ask Lieutenant Fox to bring his No.6 Platoon over. As he issued these orders, the sounds of two armoured vehicles was heard approaching from Le Port, but fortunately neither of them turned towards the bridges and instead carried along the road in the direction Bénouville. This development prompted a search for the PIAT's which were still in the gliders, most of which had been damaged beyond use during the landing. The only available PIAT was given to No.6 Platoon, who established themselves in a forward position at the T-Junction, leading from Bénouville to Le Port, and put the weapon to good use when the two half-tracks returned some time later. Behind them, on the western side of the Canal was Nos. 1 and 3 Platoons, both under the command of the wounded Lieutenant Smith, while No.2 Platoon were east of the Canal, along with Company HQ.


At 00:50, the coup de main force heard and indeed saw the First Lift arriving at Ranville. "We had a first-class view of the Division coming in. Searchlights were lighting up the chutes and there was a bit of firing going on and you could see tracer bullets going up into the air as they floated down to the ground. It really was the most awe-inspiring sight. Above all, it meant that we were not alone." With the 5th Parachute Brigade now on the ground, Major Howard blew a signal on his whistle to indicate that the bridge had been taken. The sound was transmitted for miles around, to the irritation of some of his men, however it greatly reassured the paratroopers that the objectives had been taken, and better still it helped lost men to get their bearings.


At approximately 02:40, the 7th Battalion arrived at Ranville bridge. Major Howard was immediately informed and, setting off towards the River bridge, he met Lieutenant-Colonel Pine-Coffin half way in between to two and gave him a full report on the situation to the west of the Caen Canal. The arrival of the 7th Battalion allowed Howard to pull his force back tighter around the bridges and end their incessant patrolling activities, and thereafter they were used more or less as the 7th Battalion's reserve company. Howard called for all his platoon commanders to attend a meeting, and he was a little concerned to find how few officers he had left. Both Nos. 5 and 6 Platoons were still commanded by Lieutenants Sweeney and Fox, and both had their full compliment of NCOs. No.4 Platoon had still not been heard from and so their Lieutenant and Howard's Second-in-Command were absent, and Nos. 1, 2, and 3 Platoons were now all under the command of Corporals. Wishing to cover every angle to a possible German counterattack, Howard directed his men to fresh positions and gave them orders to remain in place until dawn, after which the possibility of a German force slipping through the 7th Battalion's positions would be greatly less, and so some men were to be withdrawn from the line for a short period of rest.


At dawn, the naval bombardment began. Howard wrote: "The barrage coming in was quite terrific. It was as though you could feel the whole ground shaking toward the coast, and this was going on like hell. Soon afterward it seemed to get nearer. Well they were obviously lifting the barrage farther inland as our boats and craft came in, and it was very easy, standing there and hearing all this going on and seeing all the smoke over in that direction, to realise what exactly what happening and keeping our fingers crossed for those poor buggers coming by sea. I was very pleased to be where I was, not with the seaborne chaps."


As the first troops were landing on Sword Beach, men from No.3 Platoon brought in two Italian prisoners, "miserable little men, in civilian clothes, scantily dressed, very hungry", Howard thought. They had been ordered by the Germans to put anti-glider poles on to the landing zones next to the bridges and have them finished by dusk on the 6th June, they were sure that their German masters would be back to check on them. Howard, regarding them as being completely harmless, ordered that they be set free and given a forty-eight hour ration pack. They "immediately went off toward the LZ, where they proceeded in putting up the poles. You can imagine the laughter that was caused all the way around to see these silly buggers putting up the poles."


At about 08:00, two Spitfires flew over the bridges to check on their condition, and Howard arranged for a ground signal to be made to tell them that all was well. The Spitfires flew over several times and did a number of victory rolls, but before they disappeared one of the pilots was seen to drop something from the cockpit. Howard sent some men off to investigate and they found that he had dropped a selection of the early editions of that day's newspapers. These provided a most welcome distraction as they were passed around, but of course they were printed far too early for any mention of the invasion to be included.


About an hour later, Major-General Gale, accompanied by Brigadiers Poett and Kindersley, approached the bridges from the direction of Ranville and, in spite of the sniping all around the area, casually strolled over, offering words of congratulation. Shortly after, two gunboats approached Bénouville Bridge from the direction of Ouistreham, and the leading boat proceeded to fire on the bridge, to no effect, with its 20mm gun. Once within range, men of the 7th Battalion opened up with small arms and one of Howard's men scored a direct hit in the wheelhouse with a PIAT bomb, causing the craft to turn sharply and collide with the bank. The crew hastily surrendered but the Captain was in need of some persuasion to do likewise. Howard said that he was "an eighteen - or nineteen-year old Nazi, very tall, spoke good English. He was ranting on in English about what a stupid thing it was for us to think of invading the Continent, and when his Führer got to hear about it that we would be driven back into the sea, and making the most insulting remarks, and I had the greatest difficulty stopping my chaps from getting hold and lynching that bastard on the spot." Howard had him escorted to the POW cage in Ranville for interrogation, "and he had to be gagged and frog-marched because he was so truculent and shouting away all through the time."


At 10:00, the Germans made an attempt to destroy the bridges, first with a fighter-bomber, the appearance of which prompted men to take cover, Howard sheltered in his pillbox. The bomb scored a direct hit, however it failed to explode. "What a bit of luck that was, and a wonderful shot it was by that German pilot." Another German tactic was to fire Nebelwerfer, "Moaning Minnie" rockets at the bridge positions. "The thing we remember most about them, apart from the frightful noise, which automatically made you dive for cover, but the thing we most noticed was the tremendous accuracy." Corporal Parr, of No.1 Platoon, had been delighted to be given the task of manning the German anti-tank gun next to the bridge and he was very eager to use it. After a few earlier shots, Howard had to restrain him from doing so as he felt that some of the shots were a little reckless. Parr told Howard that he believed an artillery spotter was on the Water Tower, near Bénouville, and he asked for permission to fire at the tower. He scored two direct hits, but only with armour-piercing ammunition which only had the effect of spurting out water.


Major-General Gale, still with Brigadiers Poett and Kindersley, left Lieutenant-Colonel Pine-Coffin's headquarters and moved back across the bridge, whereupon he told Howard to send one of his platoons into Bénouville to help the 7th Battalion's "A" Company, who were under severe pressure. Howard sent in No.1 Platoon and brought forward Nos. 5 and 6 Platoons west of the River to guard against any counterattacks towards the bridges. No.1 Platoon became heavily engaged in Bénouville and remained so until midday, when enough paratroopers of the 7th Battalion had rejoined their unit to enable them to withdraw east of the bridges once more.


At about 01:00, No.6 Commando arrived at the bridges with Brigadier The Lord Lovat and Piper Bill Millin at their head. Millin's pipes were to be used as a signal to alert the bridge defenders that the 1st Special Service Brigade was approaching, and this was to be answered by one of two bugle calls, which were to indicate either that all was safe or that fighting was still going on around the bridges. A call to indicate the latter was sounded. As he crossed the bridge, Lovat shook Howard by the hand and declared, "John, today history is being made." Howard briefed Lovat on the situation, informing him that German snipers had the bridges pinned down, but that once he was across them the terrain beyond was in the clear.


In the final hours of the 6th June, the 2nd Royal Warwickshires reached the bridges. Howard briefed their commander and then handed over command of Bénouville Bridge to them, allowing him to lead his coup de main party off to Ranville to rejoin the remainder of the 2nd Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry. In the dark, however, this was not so easily accomplished and "D" Company could not find the Battalion. Howard, now deprived of Nos.3 and 6 Platoons, who had returned to "B" Company, sent Lieutenant Sweeney forward with a few men to try to find the Battalion. Sweeney wandered towards Herouvillette and Escoville for an hour before he met German resistance and fell back to "D" Company. By 03:00, Battalion HQ was located and, to the great delight of Howard, he found his Second-in-Command, Captain Brian Priday, and most of No.4 Platoon with Lieutenant Tony Hooper waiting for him. They had all been in the glider that had landed at Varaville Bridge on D-Day.


On the following morning, the 2nd Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry advanced on Herouvillette, captured it without a struggle, and then pressed on to Escoville. On the way, Howard recalls "Suddenly we came under very heavy fire, mainly from a hull down 88." Casualties were suffered, but the Company was able to proceed to Escoville where it occupied the centre of the Battalion's position, at the southern end of the village. As soon as they were in position, the Germans retaliated, mostly with shellfire and snipers. Howard set up his Headquarters in a farm building, and at about 11:00 he was in the process of observing the enemy positions with his binoculars and "then there was a zip and I was knocked out". Howard had been shot through his red beret and blood came down over his face. The immediate reaction of his Company was one of outrage and a determination to kill whoever had hit their commander. His wireless operator, Corporal Tappenden, remarked: "Every man in the Company admired Major Howard more than almost anyone else alive, because he was a man that if he couldn't do it, you couldn't do it, and you weren't asked to do it. We worshipped him and we wanted revenge." Fortunately the wound was not so severe as it first appeared, his head had only been grazed and within half an hour Howard was conscious and in command once more. The Battalion remained in Escoville until the afternoon, when infantry attacks penetrated deep into their lines and tanks had free reign, the Battalion's own anti-tank guns having been kept away from the village by persistent shelling. The Battalion fell back on Herouvillette.


Over the coming days the 6th Airborne Division's position appeared to be in jeopardy and Howard suffered a moment of panic. "I felt terribly depressed and pessimistic, feeling quite sure that the Allied bridgehead was going to collapse on our vulnerable left flank. However, once the CO and the MO persuaded me what was wrong, with quiet threats of evacuation, I luckily shook myself out of it. It was an awful experience."


Despite a few attacks on the Battalion's position, generally speaking the Germans did not so seriously contest the southern flank of the 6th Airborne Division and instead focused on the 3rd Parachute Brigade along the ridge. Following the successful defence of this most pivotal position, the Division settled down into a routine of patrolling that was to last for two months. "The biggest problem I had was keeping up the morale of the troops, because we had always got the impression that we would be withdrawn from Normandy to come back and refit in the U.K. for another airborne operation." With the constant shelling that took place, Howard remarked: "Chaps began to go bomb happy. At first many of us tended to regard it as a form of cowardice and we were highly critical. I remember that I tended to take a very tough and almost unfeeling line about it. But after time, when we began to see some of our most courageous comrades going under, we soon changed our minds. We could see that it was a real sickness. Men would hide away and go berserk during bombardments, and they became petrified during attacks. They could not be used for patrols, or even sentry duty, and the only answer was to hand them over to the medical officer, who, once he was satisfied it was a genuine case, had the man evacuated as a casualty. It was pathetic to see good men go down."


On the 17th June, Howard was wounded for a second time during a mortar bombardment. A piece of shrapnel hit a pile of grenades and caused them to explode, leaving Howard with shrapnel wounds in his back. His driver took him to an aid post where a surgeon operated on him and removed the shrapnel. He was not badly injured, however the surgeon advised him to rest at the aid post for a while before returning to the front line. This he did, but after a time the aid post came in for a period of mortar fire and everyone ran out of the operating room leaving Howard by himself. Not at all liking the hospitality, he got up, put on his Dennison smock and told his driver to take him back to "D" Company, explaining: "It's quieter there than it is here." Unfortunately his injury had been misinterpreted in the administrative chain and his wife, Joy, received a letter soon after stating "Your husband has suffered a mortal wound and is in hospital." It was supposed to have said "mortar wound". To further increase anxiety for both parties, all of Joy's letters were redirected to the hospital, and of course John Howard did not receive them. He had heard of the V-1 attacks on London and feared the worst, but after two agonising weeks sense was made of the issue and communication was restored.


Howard noted that maintaining discipline within the Company was complicated by the static nature of their fighting and the constant shelling that they were subjected to. "Shots through the leg or foot, usually said to have occurred when cleaning weapons. They were difficult to prove. Keeping up morale when casualties are heavy is always a big test of leadership. Good discipline and esprit de corps go a long way toward overcoming it, but I found keeping the men well occupied was as good a cure as any. Active aggressive patrolling, sniping parties, marches behind the line, and, above all, keep everyone in the picture. Glean all you can from HQ by way of information about how the battle is going and have regular meetings with the men to pass it on."


"One thing I could never get used to was the smells of battle. Worst of these was dead and putrefying bodies. The men were buried, but there was dead livestock everywhere just rotting away. In the middle of summer it was hell. At the Chateau Saint Côme there was a stable full of wonderful racehorses caught in a burning building. The appalling smell from that place spread over a very wide area; it was so sickening. We eventually dealt with it by loads of lime. You can imagine the swarms and swarms of flies that pyre caused. Then there was the acrid smell of cordite and explosives following every bombardment. It hung about for days. It was impossible to get away from all these ghastly smells, and on top of the inevitable discomforts arising from the lack of facilities for washing, one simply longed to be away from it all, where the air was fresh, lovely clean hot water available, endless changes of light clothing, and beds with cool, clean white sheets."


On the 16th July 1944, Field Marshal Montgomery personally presented Major John Howard with the Distinguished Service Order, in recognition of his efforts on the coup de main raid. His citation reads:


Major Howard was in comd of the airborne force which landed by glider and secured the bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal near Benouville by Coup de main on 6-6-44. Throughout the planning and execution of the operation Major Howard displayed the greatest leadership, judgment, courage and coolness. His personal example and the enthusiasm which he put behind his task carried all his subordinates with him, and the operation proved a complete success.


Major Howard continued to lead "D" Company throughout the defence of the Orne Bridgehead, and later during the Pursuit to the Seine. In early September, the 2nd Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry reached Foulbec. It was probably here that the following incident occurred. Howard had set up his Company HQ in a school, and its master wanted to show his appreciation to the British for their liberation. He explained to Howard that the Germans had taken anything that he had of value, so he offered his eighteen year old daughter to Howard for his use. He declined the offer, though Howard believes that this might not have dissuaded the man, who proceeded down the ranks until he found a taker.


On the 5th September, "D" Company boarded a ship at the British Mulberry Harbour, set up at Arromanches, and set sail for England. Howard was the only officer of the Company to still be fit for active service. All of his original Sergeants were also gone, and almost all of the Corporals. Of the one hundred and eighty one men of the Company who had taken part in the coup de main raid, including Nos.3 and 6 Platoons which were returned to "B" Company and so put out of Howard's control, only forty men remained. After a period of greatly earned leave, Howard set about building the Company back up to full strength and training the newcomers.


On the 13th November, Howard decided to return to Oxford for the night to see his wife. With him went Captain Osborne, his Second-in-Command, and Corporal Stock, his driver, both of whom lived in Oxford. Stock should have been driving but Howard insisted on doing the honours on this occasion because he felt that Stock did not drive fast enough for his liking. At about 17:30, at dusk, they were proceeding along a narrow road, passing an American truck convoy heading in the other direction, when without any warning there suddenly appeared a truck in their lane from around a bend and the two vehicles collided head-on. Osborne and Stock were not so badly hurt, but Howard, thrown clear, had broken both legs, his left knee and right hip. He was admitted to Hospital at Tidworth and spent three weeks in a critical condition. Fortunately he recovered and, making use of his connections in the Oxford Constabulary, arranged to be moved to a hospital in Oxford so that he could be nearer to Joy.


He remained in this hospital until March 1945, and so played no part in "D" Company's actions in the Ardennes or the Rhine Crossing and advance into Germany. When the war in Europe came to an end, the 6th Airborne Division were preparing to be shipped out to the Far East to take part in a landing on the Japanese mainland. As it happened the operation never took place, but as Howard was walking again, albeit on crutches, the commander of the 2nd Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry asked Howard if he could be fit in time to resume command before they left. Howard was very keen and immediately began to train himself up on a running track near his home. Unfortunately he had not allowed his injuries enough time to heal and on the second day of training his hip jammed under the strain and all the nerves in his right leg were deadened. He returned to hospital for a further operation, but by the time he came out the war was over.


John Howard wanted to stay in the Army and become a career soldier, but his injuries were such that he was invalided out without much ceremony. He entered the Civil Service instead and worked for the National Savings Committee and the Ministry of Food. In 1946, he was invited to Buckingham Palace for an audience with King George VI. On the 10th anniversary of D-Day, Howard received the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. Pegasus Bridge, as Bénouville Bridge came to be known, was later blessed with the renaming of the road that ran across it, "Esplanade Major John Howard".


In 1966, the film The Longest Day was made, and the story of the coup de main raid played a prominent part. Howard was invited to be a consultant during the filming, and the role of himself in the film was taken by Richard Todd, who was a Lieutenant with the 7th Parachute Battalion on D-Day. Howard retired in 1974 and settled down in the village of Burcot, near Oxford. His leg injuries did not fully recover and he often had to support himself with a walking stick, however this did not prevent him from returning to Pegasus Bridge on almost every anniversary. Here he laid a wreath on the spot where the gliders landed, and also accepted the kind hospitality of the Gondrée family at the Cafe Gondrée, next to Bénouville Bridge, the first civilians in France to be liberated. Major John Howard died on the 5th May 1999, aged 86.


The majority of this story has been based upon the book "Pegasus Bridge" by Stephen Ambrose.


See also: Lieutenant-Colonel Pine-Coffin, Private Edwards.


Back to 2nd Oxford and Bucks

Back to Biographies Menu