british 6th airborne division

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On this day - 6 June - in 1944, part of the British 6th Airborne Division hit French soil at 00:16; the first Allied soldiers had arrived for the D-Day invasion of occupied France. The objective was Pegasus Bridge, over which the German’s could move armoured vehicles and tanks to reinforce defenders on the beaches as the invasion hit proper later in the day.

Through some damn good flying, three Horsa gliders were landed in extremely close proximity to the target, as can be seen in images 3-5; appearing bottom right (in the photograph) in the latter. If you wish to view that rather large image in detail, right click and select ‘open image in new tab’ - at the top of the image sits the bulk of the force. As it happened, men from those aircraft secured the bridge within 10 minutes, suffering two fatalities in doing so; Lieutenant Den Brotheridge and Lance corporal Fred Greenhalgh. These men were the 2nd and 3rd Allied casualties of what would be a bloody day. The 1st occurred after the second glider to land at 00:17 broke in half on impact and came to rest on the edge of a pond. One soldier fell in and drowned.

Café Gondrée, seen as was to the left of the bridge in image 1 and more recently in image 2, was supposedly the first French ‘home’ to be liberated from German occupation.

‘Pegasus Bridge’
Vehicles including a Royal Signals jeep and trailer and RASC Leyland lorry on the Pont de Bénouville over the Caen Canal at Bénouville, Calvados, 9 June 1944.
The signallers are fixing telephone lines across the bridge.

At 00:16 hrs on the 6th June, the British 6th Airborne Division consisting of ’D’ Company of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry landed by parachutes and gliders east of the River Orne and the Caen Canal.
The small force of 181 men was commanded by Major John Howard and joined with a detachment of Royal Engineers who landed at Ranville-Benouville in six 28-men Horsa gliders. Having taken off from Dorset, the gliders were towed across the Channel by Halifax Bombers. With perfect navigation and piloting skill, the gliders landed on time and on target within few yards of each other. Major Howard’s glider landed within a few feet of the canal bridge. The bridge was captured after a fierce ten minute fire fight, the action all over by 0026, a full six hours before the beach landings.
So, just 90 minutes after taking off from RAF Tarrant Rushton in England, Major Howard was able to send the code words “Ham and Jam”, indicating that both bridges had been captured. In this early action of D-Day, the first house on French soil was liberated.

(Photo source - © IWM B 5288)
(Sgt Christie - No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit)

(Colourised by Paul Reynolds)

Trooper of 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, 6th British Airborne Division wearing a MkI Airborne Helmet with leather chin strap and heavily scrimmed net, England, June 1944.

On the evening on 5 June 1944 the battalion was transported to France in fifty aircraft. Each man carried a knife, toggle rope, escape kit with French currency, and two 24-hour ration packs in addition to their normal equipment, in all totalling 70 pounds. The battalion landed one hour in advance of the rest of the brigade in order to secure the Drop zone (DZ). Thereafter they were ordered to destroy road bridges over the river Dives and its tributaries at Varaville, then neutralize strongpoints at the crossroads.

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War Scooter — The Excelsior Welbike

Looking more like a mini motorcycle for a child than a piece of military equipment, the Excelsior Welbike was a scooter designed to give British paratroopers extra mobility during World War II.  Originally the Welbike was intended for use by Special Operations Executive, the secret British agency founded to help resistance groups under German occupation.  However the SOE found little use for the scooters, so the were issued to the British 1st and 6th airborne divisions as well a the Royal Marines and other commando units.

With its small size, the Welbike was perfect for airborne operations.  In fact it was so small that one could fit in a standard British parachute airdrop container. It featured a 98 cc (6 cu inch) two stroke engine with a one gallon gas tank, which gave it a range of 90 miles. Fully fueled, it only weighed 71 pounds.  3,641 were produced from 1942 until 1945.  After the war most were  sold to civilians or exported to the United States.

The development and use of the Welbike inspired the Americans and Germans to create their own airborne scooters as well.  In 1947, the inventor of the Welbike, Lt. Colonel John Dolphin, retired from the military and founded Corgi Motorcycle Co LTD and continued production for the civilian market.  Another 27,050 were produced by Corgi Motorcycle Co. between 1947 and 1954.

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On the Eastern flank of Normandy, eight Horsa gliders carrying members of the 6th British Airborne Division land at the Caen Canal (Benouville) and at the Orne river bridges. Both bridges are secured within 15 minutes due to brilliant nighttime piloting; at Benouville, the lead glider incredibly lands 40 meters from the bridge.

Private Wally Parr, a member of Major John Howard’s company, said later “God Almighty, the trees were doing 90 miles per hour. I just closed my eyes and went up in my guts.” Major Howard’s men capture the bridge over the Orne River and prepare for a German counterattack; they must hold until the arrival of troops from the beach.

The beret Wally Parr wore at Pegasus Bridge is now part of the collection at The National WWII Museum.

In about an hour, 72 years ago, Halifax bombers took off from RAF Tarrant Rushton with Horsa gliders in tow. They were carrying elements of the British 6th Airborne Division which would land in Normandy just gone midnight, crossing the coast at 00:07. The Allied invasion of occupied France had begun.