"Operation Overlord. The Invasion of Normandy. D-Day. All of these words describe one of the epic battles in human history and the largest seaborne invasion ever launched. This event is of such a scope that it can scarcely be captured by the human imagination, yet it has been the subject of countless books, movies and speculation that has consumed entire careers. The objective of this massive undertaking was simple - invade Europe over the English Channel and open up another front so that all three allied powers may descend on Germany collectively. In order to overcome the formidable defenses that had been erected on the beaches of France, the Allies had to strike where they were weakest, at Normandy, and assemble a multifaceted force that could engage the defenders in all places at once.
As ships and bombers smashed installations, commandoes captured strong-points, airborne soldiers touched-down behind enemy lines and partisans ambushed lorries. On five stretches of Normandy Beach, the bulk of the forces assembled by Great Britain, Canada and the United States of America hurled themselves at the tenacious defense of the German Whermacht. As Field Marshal Erwin Rommel noted, if the invaders were not thrown off the beach and into the sea on the very first day, they would never be removed from their beachhead. The actions of everybody participating in this operation over the next twenty-four hours would prove crucial in determining the course of the later stages of the war.
The first soldiers to touch down and engage in combat during D-Day were the members of the 6th Airborne Division of the United Kingdom. Their objective was to seize the Benouville Bridge (Codenamed Pegasus) and hold it against any German counter attacks until relieved. The bridge spanned the Caen canal that ran parallel with the Orne River. The bridge was of particular strategic importance as it was a major artery into the Normandy interior and opened the way for Caen itself, the objective of the soldiers that would soon be landing on Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. If the bridge remained in German hands or was destroyed, then mustering significant forces to push from the beachheads further inland would have been logistically difficult.
The men trained for this mission were the best of their kind and were ready to operate outnumbered and behind enemy lines. Leading the strike would be D Company of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry led by Major John Howard. Upon landing in their Horsa gliders between the canal and the river, D Company quickly seized the bridge and eliminated the guards. However, the German garrisons in the neighboring towns soon became aware of the attack and saw the necessity to stop the assault before the airborne soldiers became established at the bridge.
The defending German forces would not allow them to simply take and hold this important causeway, and despite logistical complications, the lack of any real leadership and the early hour the defenders would rally to make a localized counterstrike. At 0130 hours, scarcely an hour after the bridge had been initially taken, two companies of soldiers supported by whatever vehicles that lay close at hand set themselves upon Major Howard and his men. This would be the only major confrontation between D Company and the German forces defending Normandy during D-Day, but it would prove crucial in deciding the fate of the bridge.
Above all else, D Company must hold the bridge and prevent the German forces from taking it or even worse, destroying it. All the same, the Allies must establish a strong perimeter in the outlying villages adjacent to the bridge and the crossroads. If the German garrisons retain control of these towns it will be a significant barrier for the forces that will be arriving to relieve Howard’s men during the day and leave D company on exposed ground by the canal.
Taking back the bridge is paramount. Doing this will put up a significant roadblock for future allied operations and it could be used to move German troops closer to the beaches. Still, continued control of the bridge is by no means guaranteed and in a desperate situation such as this a hasty rearmament and demolition of the bridge by pioneers may be even more beneficial.
A fortuitous shot from a PIAT would obliterate the leading Panzer IV and ignite an intense fire fight that lasted several hours. The remaining Panzers slowly withdrew and the SP-Guns only made desultory attacks from long range, not wanting to engage the Paratroopers close-up. As D Company rebuffed the German infantry, its sphere expanded to control Le-Port and part of Benouville once the fighting died down. Only a few probing attacks would come from the nearby 8th Panzer Grenadier Regiment in the morning. The 6th would hold the bridge and only at the cost of two fallen comrades. This great victory during the first hours of D-Day would become legendary, being popularized in movies such as The Longest Day and books to this day."
On June 26th 1944, the Caen Canal bridge was baptised Pegasus Bridge as a tribute to the British troops. Pegasus, the winged horse, was the emblem worn on the sleeves of the men of the airborne division. The insignia was chosen by the author Daphne du Maurier, wife of the wartime commander of British airborne forces General Sir Frederick Browning.
In 1961 the bridge acquired celebrity status due to the D-Day film, produced by Darryl Zanuck, The Longest Day.
Replaced in 1994 by a new bridge the original Pegasus Bridge is now on display in the park of the museum."
(from the museum website)
Major John Howard was told to "Hold until relieve" and that's what he did!! What an amazing story of devotion to duty and bravery - like countless others during the landings and all throughout the war. It was really neat to stand here in person. Though there are a few things we fast-forward, the movie "The Longest Day" gives a neat re-cap of the D-Day landings, including the taking of Pegasus Bridge. While at the museum, we were able to hear the differences between what the movie portrays and what really happened in real life and although the movie is not 100% accurate, it still does a fairly good job.
"Millin is best remembered for playing the pipes whilst under fire during the D-Day landing in Normandy. Pipers had traditionally been used in battle by Scottish and Irish soldiers. However, the use of bagpipes was restricted to rear areas by the time of the Second World War by the British Army. Lovat, nevertheless, ignored these orders and ordered Millin, then aged 21, to play. When Private Millin demurred, citing the regulations, he recalled later, Lord Lovat replied: “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.” He played "Hielan' Laddie" and "The Road to the Isles" as his comrades fell around him on Sword Beach. Millin states that he later talked to captured German snipers who claimed they did not shoot at him because they thought he was crazy.
Millin, whom Lovat had appointed his personal piper during commando training at Achnacarry, near Fort William in Scotland, was the only man during the landing who wore a kilt – it was the same Cameron tartan kilt his father had worn in Flanders during World War I – and he was armed only with his pipes and the sgian-dubh, or "black knife", sheathed inside his kilt-hose on the right side.
Lovat and Millin advanced from Sword Beach to Pegasus Bridge, which had been defiantly defended by men of the 2nd Bn the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry (6th Airborne Division) who had landed in the early hours by glider. Lovat's commandos arrived at a little past one p.m. at Pegasus Bridge although the rendezvous time in the plan was noon. To the sound of Millin's bagpipes, the commandos marched across Pegasus Bridge as a result of which twelve men died, shot through their berets. Later detachments of the commandos rushed across in small groups with helmets on. Millin's D-Day bagpipes were later donated to the now Pegasus Bridge Museum."