It had been raining for much of the day and the air was still damp when Wally Parr clambered into the glider that would take him to Normandy. It was 10.35pm on 5th June 1944 and Parr’s nerves were on edge – with good reason. He had been selected for an audacious airborne operation that was to take place some six hours before the D-Day beach landings in Normandy.
Parr and his 181 comrades had to seize two strategically vital bridges at the villages of Ranville and Bénouville. If they failed, D-Day itself would be at risk of failure. Hitler’s SS panzer divisions would be able to sweep across the two bridges and drive the newly landed troops back into the sea.
‘Link arms!’ shouted the pilot as the Horsa glider swooped through the clouds towards Normandy. Parr felt a hideous crash as the plane hit the ground: the landing was so rough that he was knocked unconscious, along with all his comrades. It was several minutes before they came to and glimpsed the bridge through the glider’s portholes. The German defenders were still in their beds, unaware of the newly landed gliders.
‘Charlie, get out!’ shouted Parr to his buddy, Charles Gardner.
‘Charge!’ roared John Howard, their leader.
Parr and Gardner were the first to reach the bridge and they did so in a welter of machinegun fire. ‘Come out and fight you square-headed bastards!’ shouted Parr. He and Gardner worked as a highly dangerous double act, pitching grenades into the German dug-outs. Both knew it was kill-or-be-killed.
There was one British fatality during that nocturnal operation: young Den Brotheridge was gunned down on the bridge. But there was good news to accompany the bad. As Parr and company reached the far side of the bridge, the German defenders ran for their lives. Bénouville bridge – later renamed Pegasus – was in Allied hands.
There was soon further good news. Ranville bridge had also been captured. Now, John Howard’s men had to hold onto these bridges until noon, when the British commandos were due to come to their relief.
Those commandos were amongst the 156,000 soldiers crossing the English Channel that night, all destined for one of the five designated landing beaches: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The channel crossing was not for the faint-hearted. The sea was so choppy that men were vomiting up the thick meat stew they’d eaten before leaving England.
The commandos were led by the flamboyant Scottish aristocrat Lord Lovat, who had the chutzpah to go into battle with his personal bagpiper at his side.
‘Stand by the ramps! Lower away there!’ As the landing craft crunched into the gravel at Sword Beach, Lovat led the commandos ashore under withering machine-gun fire from the German defenders.
Lovat’s piper blasted out Road to the Isles as his men advanced through shellfire and shrapnel. ‘They moved like a knife through enemy butter,’ said Lovat with relish.
Among those in the vanguard were Stan ‘Scotty’ Scott, a chippy London bruiser, and his No.3 Troop; they were determined to be first to reach John Howard’s beleaguered men at the bridges. They advanced inland on bicycles, passing a wounded British paratrooper en route. ‘Where the f–k have you been?’ he asked. He knew that the men at the bridges had been engaged in a desperate six-hour struggle against the Germans.
As Scott and his men approached Bénouville, the fire-fight intensified. ‘Rounds hitting from all sides,’ said Scott. ‘Campbell was the unlucky one. He got hit through the neck and fell down in one big lump, him, the bike, and all that.’
It was just after midday when Lord Lovat arrived with the main body of commandos. He was so cool under pressure that the scene would later be immortalised in the Hollywood movie, The Longest Day. Lovat shook John Howard warmly by the hand and apologized for being two-and-a-half minutes late.
All along the Normandy coast, men had been charging ashore since dawn. On Utah beach, American troops had moved swiftly inland and linked up with airborne troops dropped into Sainte Mère Église. On Gold and Juno, British and Canadian forces were also thrusting inland. Omaha alone hung in the balance. The German defenders were both tenacious and well organised and had turned the six-mile stretch of beach into a bloodbath. Hundreds of young men were gunned down before they even reached the shoreline.
Gold Beach was witness to a particularly remarkable feat of arms that morning. Stanley Hollis was a six-foot-two-inch bruiser built of sinew and muscle. His men were charged with capturing Mont Fleury battery, a near-impregnable stack of concrete casements. Hollis had always liked to lead from the front: now, he sprinted towards the pillbox and poked his Sten gun through the gun slit. As he pressed the trigger, he could hear screaming and yelling from inside. Mont Fleury was soon in Allied hands and Stanley Hollis had just won the first of his two nominations that day for the Victoria Cross.
By late afternoon, troops were advancing inland from all five beaches. Even bloody Omaha was eventually captured and the weary survivors began pushing their way through the cliff-top villages.
The military objectives for D-Day were incredibly ambitious. If all had gone to plan, the liberated zone would have covered 50 miles of Normandy coast and included four of the landing beaches (Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword). The cities of Bayeux and Caen were also meant to have been captured. A further liberated zone was to have stretched inland from Utah Beach, encompassing Sainte-Mère-Église and nearby villages.
The reality was somewhat different: the Allies clung to four separate beachheads that were both isolated and vulnerable. They were surrounded by enemy positions, and had failed to dislodge the Germans from either Bayeux or Caen. On the plus side, Allied casualties were lighter than expected: they numbered some 11,000. The German toll of dead and injured remains unknown.
Although the beachhead was small, it enabled the Allies to pour in huge quantities of men and machines over the following days. By the end of June, 850,000 men, 148,000 vehicles and 570,000 tons of supplies had been landed in Normandy. Five days after that, the number of troops would top one million. The liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe could begin in earnest.
This article first appeared in The Oldie in 2019.