Staff-Sergeant Jim Wallwork

Jim Wallwork with Prince Charles, 2004

Staff-Sergeant James Harley Wallwork


Unit : "B" Squadron, No.2 Wing, The Glider Pilot Regiment

Army No. : 903986

Awards : Distinguished Flying Medal.


Jim Wallwork was one of eight glider pilot crews, including two reserves, who were personally selected to carry out the coup-de-main raid on the Bénouville and Ranville Bridges. In early March 1944, although they remained unaware as to its purpose, the pilots were briefed at Netheravon Airfield by Colonel George Chatterton, the Commander of the Glider Pilot Regiment, for a daylight exercise which mimicked the conditions with which they would be faced during the invasion. Their task was to land three gliders in each of two small triangular-shaped areas which had been marked with white tape. A number of RAF observers expressed their doubts, amongst them Air Chief Marshall Leigh-Mallory, Commander of the Allied Air Forces, who did not believe that mere Army NCOs could land bomber-sized aircraft within so small a space, as it would pose a considerable challenge to even a skilled bomber pilot who had the advantage of engines. The gliders nevertheless took-off, completed a brief circuit, and, much to the surprise of everyone, all landed safely within their personally assigned landing areas. The RAF officials were inclined to put this down to luck, so the exercise was repeated on the following day and again all the craft landed perfectly within the tape.


As planning for the operation progressed, it was recognised that the appearance of a formation of aircraft flying at only 2,000 feet, the standard height for towing gliders, may attract some suspicion on German radar. The solution was to tow the gliders at the abnormally high altitude of 6,000 feet, however it was found that the two-engined Albemarle tugs being used did not have sufficient power to carry a glider to that height. The pilots were therefore relocated to Tarrant Rushton, which was home to the much more powerful four-engined Halifax bombers of 298 and 644 Squadrons. Here, the glider pilots were teamed up with specific aircrews, which Wallwork felt to be of great importance as it helped to establish considerable understanding and confidence between both parties.


At the end of May, when the 6th Airborne Division was moved into its transit camps ahead of the invasion, the pilots were finally informed of their target and Wallwork was greatly impressed by the quality of the models and photographs of the area which had been made available, and he recalled someone remarking, "Someone's taking an awful lot of trouble over this operation, so we'd better not cock it up or the King will be rather cross!"


Wallwork and his co-pilot, Staff-Sergeant John Ainsworth, were to fly the first glider to land on LZ-X alongside Bénouville Bridge, carrying Major John Howard and No.1 Platoon. On the 30th May, Howard received the worrying news that the Germans were erecting anti-glider poles on the zone. He talked the matter over with Wallwork, who seemed more relieved than concerned by this revelation, saying that he could fly in between the poles and the odd glancing blow would help to slow the glider down and prevent it from hitting the embankment alongside the road, which would have been disastrous for all concerned. In truth, Wallwork and the other glider pilots were quite "petrified" by this development, but he decided to brush it off because it seemed certain that they would be going come what may, and it would do no good at this late stage to create a fuss about it. Wallwork was surprised that Howard seemed to accept his dubious assessment, perhaps, he reasoned, because he wanted to believe it. To his horror, however, Howard asked him to address the Company to reassure them on the point, which he did but it is to be wondered how many believed him.


Another matter of concern to the glider pilots was the weight of the Horsas, as their maximum permitted load was 240 lbs per man, but it was found that the current load was as much as 300 lbs. Wallwork insisted that 600 lbs be lost from somewhere, as the rate of descent would prevent the glider from reaching the landing zone from its cast-off point, and, even if it did make it, would be unable to come to a halt inside so small an area. This was even assuming that the Horsas would be able to generate sufficient lift on take-off to become airborne and would not run over the cliff edge at the end of Tarrant Rushton's runway. Howard would not compromise on the large quantity of ammunition which his men carried, and so in the end it was decided to take the painful step of removing some of the infantrymen from the operation at the last minute.


At 22:30 on the 5th June, the gliders took-off from Tarrant Rushton and headed for France. Private Denis Edwards provides the following description of the landing on LZ-X:


As we drew level with the thickest of the flak and were beginning to make out the coastline, there came the familiar "twang", and jerk of the tow-rope, followed by almost total silence which, from past experience, told us that we had parted company from the towing bomber. While in tow there had been a continuous high-pitched scream of wind forcing its way through the cracks and crevices in the thin fabric covering of the wooden fuselage. The noise was increased by the fact that the door had been opened to facilitate rapid exit once we landed. As we approached the coast the order was given to keep quiet. Hardly a sound could be heard as the bombers flew onwards on a diversionary inland bombing mission.


Immediately after cast-off we had gone into a steep dive, a manoeuvre that had more than one purposes. Firstly of course the pilots knew exactly where we were and exactly the point we had to reach. Having no alternative to descent, they had to lose height at a rate which would allow us to arrive at the landing zone alongside the bridges with no further height to lose. To arrive at the landing zone while still too high, and then circling around to lose height is not a good idea when you are being shot at. Secondly, the German flak was ranged at the bomber formation, and rapid descent took us away from the immediate danger of flak damage. Thirdly, it was hoped that observers on the ground would assume that the rapidly descending glider was a crippled bomber on its way down. From around 6000 feet we plummeted earthwards at what felt to us like breakneck speed until we were within 1000 feet of the ground, where we levelled out to glide more slowly down and take two sweeping right-hand turns to position ourselves for the run-in to the landing zone.


With our bodies tensed and weapons tightly gripped, the Senior Pilot, Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, yelled, "Link Arms", and we knew that at any moment we would touch down. The time was 0015 hours as we all held tight and braced ourselves for touchdown. There was the usual slight bump, a small jerk and a much heavier thump, as the glider made contact with the ground, but only for a moment. It jerked again, shuddered, left the ground for a second or two, bumped over the rough surface and lurched forward like a bucking bronco. We sped forward, bouncing up and down on our hard wooden seats as the vehicle lost contact with the ground, then came down again with another heavy thump, a tug and a jerk. For a few moments it appeared that we were in for a comparatively smooth landing, but just as that thought flashed through my mind the darkness was suddenly filled with a stream of brilliant sparks as the glider lost its wheels and the skid hit some stony ground. There followed a sound like a giant canvas sheet being viciously ripped apart, then a mighty crash like a clap of thunder and my body seemed to be moving in several directions at once. Moments later the crippled glider skidded and bounced over the uneven ground to slide finally to a juddering halt, whereupon I found myself perched in a very strange position at an uneven angle.


I peered into a misty blue and greyish haze. From somewhere out in endless space there zoomed towards me a long tracer-like stream of multi-coloured lights, like a host of shooting stars that moved towards me at high speed. I realized after a moment that I was not being shot at. I was simply concussed and seeing stars! The noise from the landing had ceased very suddenly and was replaced by an ominous silence. No one stirred, nothing moved. My immediate thought was "God help me - we must all be dead". The peace, after all the din and commotion, was unexpected and eerie. Then some of the others began to stir and the realization that we were not all dead came quickly as bodies began unstrapping themselves and moving around in the darkness of the glider's shattered interior.


The whole interior of the glider erupted into a hive of furious activity as everyone sought their various weapons and equipment. The exit door had been right beside my feet. Now there was only a mass of twisted wood and fabric across the doorway and we had to use the butts of our rifles to smash our way out. When it was my turn, I clambered out and dropped to the ground. I glanced around from beneath the glider's tilted wing and saw the canal bridge's massive steel superstructure towering above me. The pilots had done a fantastic job in bringing the slithering, bouncing and crippled glider to a halt with its nose buried into the canal bank and within seventy-five yards of the bridge. As I moved forward I glanced back towards the glider and saw that the entire front had been smashed inwards - almost back to the wing... I had been very lucky, but I thought that those who were forward of me must have been badly smashed up or killed.


So abrupt had been the halt that all aboard were rendered momentarily unconscious. As they regained their senses, Major Howard and No.1 Platoon quickly disembarked and began the rapid and violent clearing of the bridge defences as the other two gliders began to arrive behind them. Despite the severity of the crash, no one had been killed as Denis Edwards had feared, though both Wallwork and Ainsworth were catapulted through the perspex cockpit screen. Ainsworth had twisted his knee in the process and Wallwork received a severe blow and cut to the head which left him dazed but conscious. Ainsworth was trapped beneath the wreckage of the glider, and with some help Wallwork was able to lift it sufficiently to drag him out.


Later, when the sound of vehicles was heard in the vicinity, Howard sent Wallwork back to the glider to find some Gammon bombs. Despite his best efforts in the darkness, he failed to locate any and so for want of anything better brought back a case of .303 ammunition, which made Howard somewhat cross and he ordered Wallwork back to the glider. So that he could be sure whether there were any bombs in the glider or not, Wallwork used his flashlight, and shortly after began to hear the sound of what he thought was a woodpecker tapping on the fuselage, but he quickly realised that it was a German Schmeisser, naturally shooting at the fool with the torch. He made a hasty exit and, somewhat despondent, returned to Howard and told him in no uncertain terms that he had had quite enough. As it happened, the Gammon bombs were not required as the approaching vehicles ignored the bridge and headed towards Le Port.


Staff-Sergeants Pearson and Hobbs, whose gliders had participated in the assault on both bridges, subsequently took Wallwork, Ainsworth and the wounded Staff-Sergeant Barkway to the Regimental Aid Post at Divisional Headquarters, from where they were later evacuated to England via the invasion beaches. Both he and Ainsworth were still in hospital by the 20th June.


Wallwork was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his superb landing. As the glider had approached the small landing zone, Wallwork and Ainsworth realised that they were moving too fast and so made ready to deploy the arrester parachute which would bring them to a rapid halt. As the glider touched down, the parachute was released, the shock of which tore the wheels off the glider and pushed the craft back into the air. Having sufficiently reduced speed, Wallwork ordered that the chute be release and he made a second attempt to put the glider down. As its metal skids hit rocks on the ground, sparks flashed around the glider, giving the passengers the impression that they were under fire from 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 the abrupt halt which threw Wallwork and Ainsworth through the cockpit screen. In later years, Wallwork joked that this exit allowed them to claim that they were the first Allied soldiers to arrive in France.


The landing, at night and on a small landing zone littered with anti-glider obstacles, had been inch perfect. Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory, who had earlier expressed such doubt over the ability of glider pilots to carry out the operation, was generous in his assessment that it was "one of the most outstanding flying achievements of the war."


Jim Wallwork died on the 24th January 2013. The following obituary appeared in the Vancouver Sun on the 26th January:


James Harley (Jim) Wallwork October 21,1919 January 24, 2013 Last Cast-off.


Jim glided peacefully on the last cast-off of his 93 years, January 24th 2013, White Rock, B.C.


Predeceased by his young son Howard, Jim is survived by his soul mate Genevieve, daughters Sylvia (David) and Helen (Lynn), step-daughter Lisa (Jacques) and step-son Kirk, five grandchildren, and six great grandchildren. He was loved by all of us. We were all secretly his "favorite".


Jim was known to most of the world as the first allied soldier to touch down on French soil in advance of the invasion on D-Day. As Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM), Jim was a member of the British Airborne Forces Glider Pilot Regiment, achieving fame as pilot of the first Horsa glider to land at Pegasus Bridge in the early hours of D-Day, June 6, 1944. That mission, called Operation Deadstick, was described as "the greatest feat of flying of the second world war", by Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. Celebrated and commemorated in many films, books, articles and even on a British stamp, Jim remained forever humble about his feats.


After the war, he moved to Canada with his young family, and lived in Port Moody, B.C. He had a successful career at Wheels and Equipment where he was the VP of Sales. He retired at 55 and bought a hobby farm with his wife Genevieve. For seven years he was known affectionately as Farmer Jim to the many children who would visit him for school field trips. He retired from the farm to live in White Rock and Ladner.


He was a wonderful father and friend, a true gentleman and a model of a man. Ever curious about life, nature, music and the English language he also had a strong sense of doing the right thing. Everywhere he went, he left a trail of people smiling. He was sometimes cheeky, mostly charming and always respectful, keeping his sense of humour and dignity right to the end.


In Operation Deadstick, the code words to be reported back to HQ for a successful mission were "Ham and Jam." By God, Jim, we say to you, Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam.


He would like us all to "crack on" now and do right by each other. His daughter Helen would often say to him "Thanks for winning the war, Dad." It would leave him smiling. And it is thus we will always remember him.


The family would like to thank the staff at Peace Arch Hospital and in particular Dr. Charles King


Donations would be appreciated and can be made to the Canadian cancer society in Howard's name.


A private memorial will be held at a later date.


The following obituary appeared in the Independent on the 30th January 2013:


Jim Wallwork was often described as the first allied serviceman to set foot on French soil on D-Day. It was a description that caused him some mirth since, after crash-landing his Horsa glider next to the Caen bridge 20 minutes into 6 June 1944, he was thrown head-first through the Perspex windscreen and hit French soil on his belly. Staff-Sergeant Wallwork, of the army's Glider Pilot Regiment, was flying the first of six Horsas carrying soldiers of D Company 2nd Battalion Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in Operation Deadstick to capture two key bridges.


Control of the Caen and Orne bridges was vital, to prevent Panzers from reaching the beaches where allied forces would land a few hours later but also to create a supply route for the 6th Airborne Division. Wallwork received the Distinguished Flying Medal for the daring operation, in which six gliders, each carrying around 30 soldiers, were towed by "tugs" - Halifax bombers - before breaking free and gliding to their targets under cover of darkness. "It was one of the most outstanding flying achievements of the war," said Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory.


Despite injuries to his head and knee, Wallwork dragged his co-pilot Sgt Johnnie Ainsworth from the wrecked cockpit and carried ammunition for the men of the Ox & Bucks, led by Major John Howard and with their faces blackened, as they stormed the Caen bridge and captured it within minutes. The bridge was later renamed Pegasus in honour of the Glider Pilot Regiment, whose emblem was the mythological winged horse and whose motto was Nihil est impossibilis (nothing is impossible). The Ranville bridge over the River Orne was renamed the Horsa bridge in memory of the gliders, built by Airspeed in Hampshire. The operation was immortalised in the 1962 film The Longest Day.


Wallwork, who emigrated to Canada after the war and spent the rest of his life there, always played down his role as first man on the ground on D-Day. "France was a very busy place that night," he said. "Our only claim to fame is not that we were the first to arrive, but that we were the first to fire a shot." Two of the men in the coup de main operation were killed and Wallwork's own injuries got worse as the adrenalin receded. "By daylight my legs had seized. I ended up at Ronkswood Hospital in Worcester."


But soon he was taking part in Operation Market Garden and flying another Horsa glider at Arnhem in September before wielding a rifle himself as an infantryman west of the Arnhem bridge. "We held one end of the bridge and the Germans held the other - and they wouldn't give up," he recalled. "Not too sporting of them."


The following March he took part in Operation Varsity, flying a bigger glider, a Hamilcar, to transport a 17-pounder anti-tank gun to troops crossing the Rhine in the final push to Berlin. Again, he found himself fighting on the ground before being ordered back home as the Germans retreated. "It was short, sharp and a good clean way to go to war," he recalled.


James Wallwork was born in Salford in 1919, the only child of Harold Wallwork, an artillery sergeant in the Great War, and Alice. He attended Salford Grammar School, where he was a useful rugby player and had the nickname "Handsome Jim". He joined the army as war clouds gathered: "You could smell it coming... I joined the war to cover myself with glory, and medals and free beer for the duration, surrounded by adoring females."


By May 1942 he was training with the newly formed Glider Pilot Regiment, part of the army but trained by the RAF, not always an amicable arrangement. After training in North Africa he flew a commando-carrying glider behind enemy lines during Operation Husky, the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, where bad weather and mistimed release by "tug pilots" led to the loss of almost a third of more than 130 British gliders, most of them into the sea. Wallwork narrowly reached his target, where he met heavy resistance: "Luckily, the Italians were rotten shots."


Back in England he began training at RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset for a secret mission. A few days before D-Day they were told their objectives, the two Normandy bridges. A Halifax bomber towed Horsa No 1 (nicknamed Lady Irene) from Tarrant Rushton at 22.45 hours on 5 June 1944, flown by Wallwork and Ainsworth. Behind them were 30 fighting men with blackened faces, including Major Howard. "Howard encouraged the men to sing so that none got airsick," Wallwork recalled. "It was a midnight crossing in a rugby dressing-room atmosphere with songs and jokes. At 6,000 feet, when we heard 'cast off' [from the tug], the singing stopped and that was when six Horsas tiptoed quietly into two little fields in Normandy and released 180 fighting men... to give the German garrison the surprise of their lives. I could see it all, the river and the canal like strips of silver in the moonlight."


Wallwork hit the ground at 95mph and ploughed through barbed wire defences before the cockpit collapsed and the glider ended up on an embankment closer to the Caen bridge than he or the troops could have dreamed of. After the bridge was secured, Howard and his men held it until the arrival of Lord Lovat and his commandos, led across the bridge by his personal piper, Bill Millin. Wallwork helped, he said, to "liberate the first building in France" the local café whose owner Georges Gondrée appeared with glasses of champagne.


Wallwork attended several reunions at the Pegasus bridge, including 2004, when Prince Charles unveiled a replica Horsa at the site. Wallwork also donated his DFM to the D-Day museum there. "I thought it would be better in the museum than in the top drawer of my dresser under my socks."


Wallwork emigrated to Canada in 1957, where he became a salesman and later a livestock farmer. He died in hospital after falling ill last month.


James Harley Wallwork, glider pilot, salesman and livestock farmer: born Salford 21 October 1919: married 1945 Dorothy Colgate (two daughters, and one son deceased), 1977 Genevieve O'Donnell; died White Rock, British Columbia, Canada 24 January 2013.



Offsite Links: "June 6th, 1944, They Were The First": a film by Jean Michel Vecchiet.


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