From Honfleur, we were finally able to launch our much anticipated landings at Normandy. As a military history nut, this has been a dream of mine for many years. We started with two of the airborne landings on June 5th and then proceeded to Omaha beach.
Our first objective was Pegasus Bridge, the name given to the Bénouville Bridge over Caen Canal, between Caen and Ouistreham. It was given the name after the symbol on the shoulder patches of the British 6th Airborne Division. The night landing was one of the few operations to go perfectly well on the night before D-Day. The gliderborne unit of the British 6th Airborne Division, commanded by Major John Howard, landed so close in their six Horsa gliders to the target that they actually hit the barbed wire around the perimeter of the bridge. (Trivia: in the movie The Longest Day, Howard was played by an actor who just happened to have been a soldier with 7th Battalion reinforcements that fought on the Bénouville Bridge the night — Richard Todd).
At 16 minutes past midnight, the British attacked and took the bridges in 10 minutes with only two fatalities, including the first man killed in the Normandy invasion — Lieutenant Den Brotheridge who was shot in the throat charging across the bridge. Ultimately, Howard’s small force was relieved Lord Lovat’s Commandos around 1 pm. Lord Lovat reportedly apologized for being a tad late (by an hour) to one of the officers — the strikingly named Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Pine-Coffin.
I was happy to find that the bridge memorial honored Lovat’s bagpiper, William “Bill” Millin who died only a year ago. Millin landed with Lovat and 1 Special Service Brigade under fire on D-Day. When Lord Lovat asked him to play as they jumped off the landing craft, Millin noted that the British had banned such combat playing. Lovat replied: “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.” Millin played “Hielan’ Laddie” and “The Road to the Isles” as they charged up Sword Beach. later, Germans would say that they were astonished to see Millin walking up and down the beach under fire but did not shoot him because they thought he was crazy. Millin also played as the commandos charged onto Pegasus bridge as reinforcements. He later became a psychiatric nurse and died at 88.
We arrived at Pegasus and found the small house which purports to be the first home liberated in France. It is now a coffee shop. The original bridge is outside the museum next to the operating bridge. While we sat at the coffee shop, a Scottish family heard me explaining the operation to the kids and asked if we were Americans. They were surprised that we came to a British site and I explained that many Americans are still in awe of the British commandos at Pegasus. They were wonderfully friendly — though correcting us that they were Scottish commandos. The father then said that he was the son of the man who designed the artificial harbors at Arromanches-les-Bains. These miraculous harbors contributed greatly to the success of the invasion since, without them, we would have lack of the equipment and support to maintain the operation. The “Mulberry Harbours” surprised the Germans who found themselves facing a much larger and well-supported force than anticipated in Operation Overlord. I had literally just told the kids about the harbors in the car as we drove toward the bridge — only to have the son of its designed walk up and say hello. It was a great added pleasure.
We stopped at a little roadside produce stand and bought wonderful plums, apricots, and apples for a snack. I read passages to the kids from my current book on the D-Day landings — though I fear that they are already reaching overload on Overlord. I was able to tell them to use the facilities at Pegasus because we were pushing on to the American paratrooper sites from June 5th and they would have to “hold until relieved.”
Now we will go to Sainte-Mère-Église — the landing area for the 82nd (and lost parts of the 101st airborne) division. It is the stop that I most looked forward to in planning the entire trip to France.