Walter Russell Wright
Unit : 298 Squadron, 38 Group, RAF.
It was well towards midnight on 5th June 1944. We were flying over the English Channel towards France at about 7,000ft. Although we could not see them we knew we were accompanied by five other Halifax Bombers, each towing a Horsa Glider. Every so often we felt the drag of the glider as it bumped around in our slip streams, each time pulling us a little way off course.
Although we had completed about a dozen operations previously - dropping supplies, weapons and ammunition, and sometimes agents, to the Resistance Movement, mainly in France - we knew this flight to be something special and the price of failure would be very high. Our task was to deliver six gliders to the vicinity of the bridges spanning the River Orne and the canal running parallel to it.
Waiting in the gliders were about 170 officers and men of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry commanded by Major John Howard. Their task was to capture and hold those bridges - to keep them open for the invading British land forces and to deny the Germans their use in any subsequent counter attack. It is said that at a minimum, failure at what was to become known as Pegasus Bridge, could have D-Day much more costly to the allies, and the Airborne Division whose emblem was Pegasus. At a maximum, failure at the bridge might have meant failure for the invasion as a whole. About one hundred and sixty men, together with their jeeps and trailing guns made up the assault party and about forty aircrew manned the Halifaxes. Of those forty aircrew I was the navigator of the fourth Halifax - a very small cog!
The ability of the navigator to take the tug aircraft to the cast-off zone but more the skill of the glider pilots to steer their craft so close to their objective was all part of the success of the operation. We flew over the city of Caen as a diversionary tactic to drop a few bombs on a cement factory - which, incidentally were the only bombs we dropped in thirty operational flights.
As we headed for home our thoughts were with those heroes we had left behind but especially with the glider pilots with whom we had trained and got to know. Almost fifty practice tours and cast-offs had paid off. The operation was a quick, resounding success we learnt later.
At 7.30 p.m. we took off again and headed for Pegasus Bridge. This time we towed a Hamilcar glider - much larger than the Horsa and capable of carrying a small tank with its crew. Again we made a successful drop, this time on the high ground of the bridge. As we turned our nose seaward and homeward the aircraft shuddered violently and there was, almost immediately, a small of cordite and burning. Our wireless operator broke the news that the fuselage was well alight. We had been hit by an anti-aircraft shell. Our pilot made a very smooth landing on the water and we climbed out of the floating aircraft to the find that the dinghy which should have self-inflated on impact had done so but then quickly deflated as it had been punctured by the anti-aircraft fire. We had to rely in our Mae West life jackets and to give us buoyancy we joined arms and played 'ring-a-ring-a-roses' in the water. After almost two hours we were picked up by a passing mine-sweeper. We were transferred to a tank landing craft which was returning to London Docks. Whilst on board I met a German airman who had been shot down and wounded. He spoke good English and we exchanged details about ourselves and our families without a belligerent word being spoken. Nice chap, I could have been his friend!
There are many bitter-sweet memories of that day, besides being involved in the first operation of D-Day. Sadly one of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire officers, Lieutenant D.Brotheridge was the first solider to be killed and the house by Pegasus Bridge was the first house in France to be liberated. For me - D-Day was quite a day!
© BBC. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/.
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