vpresize VICTORY Principles: Leadership Lessons from D-Day by Colonel Leonard Kloeber, Jr.

LEARN FROM HISTORY

Pegasus Bridge –Part Two – Mission Success

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At seven minutes after midnight on June 6th 1944, the gliders cut loose from their Halifax bomber tow-planes and began their silent descent into Normandy. The first three gliders made controlled crash landings at sixtteen minutes after midnight in the narrow strip of land between the two bridges and came to rest within meters of the bridge over the Caen Canal. They had achieved complete surprise, but with the hard landings, the occupants of the gliders were temporarily stunned. They quickly recovered, and as they had practiced on numerous occasions, they regrouped and jumped into action to overwhelm the few sentries on the bridge. Major Howard established his command post and pushed his men forward into the nearby villages of Benouville and Le Port to set up road blocks on key junctions to defend against an expected counter-attack. Within less than 20 minutes they had achieved one of their primary objectives in seizing the Canal Bridge, but at a high cost: all three platoon leaders and several of the non-commissioned officers were casualties. Now it was up to junior leaders to complete the rest of the mission – “hold until relieved.”

On the other side of the narrow strip between the canal and the Orne River, two of the gliders landed near their bridge, but the other mistakenly landed over two kilometers away. Despite the loss of one third of their strength, the remaining two platoons succeeded in seizing the river bridge. With the bridges secure, the engineers were disarming the explosives that were set by the Germans, Dr. Vaughn was setting up his aide station, an d Major Howard’s radio operator was sending the success signal: “Ham and Jam” onto higher headquarters. Then, just before 0100 hours, the paratroops of the British 6th Airborne began to drop from the sky. One of their battalions had the mission to join Major Howard’s D Company at the bridges. Like all the paratroopers that night, they were scattered and mis-dropped away from their intended drop zones. Nevertheless, the battalion commander, decided to proceed to the bridges even though he had only gathered about one third of his force. Isolated groups of paratroopers would infiltrate into the British lines throughout the night.

Meanwhile the Germans were preparing to counter-attack as they were trained to do. Their experienced commanders knew that it was best to launch an immediate attack before the British could set up a defense. One of the regimental commanders from the 21st Panzer Division, Colonel Von Luck,  put his men on alert in the vicinity of Caen, but could not proceed without orders. The German high command had maintained tight control on all their armored formations and most even required approval from Hitler himself before they could be employed.  Approval would be slow to come; however, small advance panzer elements were near the vicinity of the canal bridge, and they started a probing attack. Although they were not exactly sure of the situation a few tanks and infantry in self-propelled vehicles slowly clanked toward the bridges. As they proceeded, one of the British sergeants positioned himself with a PAIT gun, a crude anti-tank weapon. Sergeant Thorton courageously waited until he had a good shot and was able to knock the lead tank out of action. Fearing that the British had additional anti-tank capabilities, the Germans decided to hold off until they could get a better picture of the situation in daylight; nevertheless, they kept up infantry probes and their snipers engaged targets in and around the bridge. Realizing the importance of the bridges, the Germans mounted other attacks throughout the night including using a river gunboat and frogmen. Again using only the light weapons they had brought with them and some of the German weapons that they had captured, the British held off these advances throughout the night and into the morning.

At around 0730, the British 3rd Infantry Division accompanied by Commandos began landing on Sword Beach. As they proceed inland, they met more determined resistance at prepared strong-points. The 21st Panzer had finally been ordered into the battle and was proceeding in the direction of the beach. Further counterattacks on the bridgehead took their toll, but the glider men and the paratroops held on. Then at about 1300 hours, they heard the sound of bagpipes. It was bagpiper, Bill Millin, leading the way for Lord Lovat’s British Commandos who were bringing with them British armor and heavy weapons. With their arrival, Major Howard could now say that he had fully accomplished his mission; however the price in causalities was heavy. History now remembers this action as the Battle of Pegasus Bridge and the bridge was so named in honor of the Pegasus insignia of the British Airborne.

Here is a link to a Google map of the bridge today:  Google Map Pegasus

Original Pegasus Bridge

Original Pegasus Bridge

Written by editor

October 25th, 2009 at 9:29 am

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