Operation Deadstick

This was the British gliderborne landing to take two important bridges over the Orne river and the Canal de Caen within ‘Overlord’ (6/7 June 1944).

The unit involved, generally known as the Coup-de-Main Special Force, was created from elements of Brigadier the Hon. H. K. M. Kindersley’s 6th Airlanding Brigade and organic troops of Major General R. N. Gale’s 6th Airborne Division for a very special task whose failure could signal disaster for the 6th Airborne Division. The task was made necessary by the geography of the area allocated to Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s I Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army in ‘Overlord’: this was to involve the seaborne landing of Major General R. F. L. Keller’s Canadian 3rd Division and Major General G. T. Rennie’s British 3rd Division along the stretch of coast between La Rivière and Ouistreham with the primary objective of taking Caen, and the airborne landing of the 6th Airborne Division to the east of Ouistreham both to protect the left flank of the seaborne assault and provide room for the lodgement to be extended east and south of Caen.

However, the seaborne and airborne elements of the I Corps’ assault were divided by the Canal de Caen and the Orne river, waterways running roughly parallel with each other between Caen and the English Channel at Ouistreham.

It was appreciated that the airborne units, smaller and considerably more lightly equipped than their conventional counterparts, could not long survive the type of counterattack the Germans would inevitably launch against their air-head to the east of the Orne. So speedy relief was essential before German reinforcement, especially of armour, arrived. This relief would have to cross the Canal de Caen and the Orne, so it was vital that the road link across these waterways between Ranville and Bénouville should be taken and held, together with its two bridges.

The objective of ‘Deadstick’ was therefore to capture intact the two road bridges, which provided the only exit to the east for Rennie’s 3rd Division after its landing on Sword Beach in ‘Overlord’. Intelligence reports indicated that each of the bridges was strongly defended and wired for demolition. Once captured, the bridges had to be held against any counterattack until the assault force was relieved by commando and infantry units advancing from the British landing zone. The mission was vital to the success of the British airborne landings as the failure to capture the bridges intact, or to prevent their demolition by the Germans, would leave the 6th Airborne Division cut off from the rest of the Allied armies with their backs to the two waterways and would also continue to provide the Germans with the ability to move forward their armour to attack the landing beaches.

During the planning of ‘Overlord’, it had been decided to land the 6th Airborne Division on the eastern flank of the invasion beaches between the Orne and Dives rivers with the primary objective of taking and holding the two road bridges over the Orne river and the Caen Canal, and thereby make it very difficult for Generaloberst Friedrich Dollmann’s 7th Army (with Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s 15th Army also within striking distance) of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ to deliver a flanking attack on the British and Canadian landing breaches. Failure to capture the bridges would also leave the 6th Airborne Division isolated behind the German front line, so Brigadier N. M. Poett’s 5th Parachute Brigade was instructed to take and hold the bridges against counterattacks. Gale, the divisional commander, then decided that the only way to capture the bridges intact was by a gliderborne coup de main assault, and he then asked Brigadier the Hon. H. K. M. Kindersley to nominate the best company of his 6th Airlanding Brigade for the operation.

Kindersley selected D Company, 2 (Airborne)/Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, commanded by Howard with Captain Brian Priday as his second in command. The company had trained hard and become the fittest in the battalion, and had often made use of bomb-damaged urban areas to practise street fighting with live ammunition. Howard expected the invasion to involve night fighting, and changed the daily routine of his company to ensure that his men were ready for this type of fighting. As a result, over a period of weeks, the company’s day began at 20.00 and involved exercises and other drills throughout the night before its ended its day at 13.00.

Gale tested the company through two exercises in which the task was the capture of bridges, and in the course of these exercises it became clear that the company would not be able to carry out the mission on its own. Asked to select two more platoons from the battalion to join them, Howard chose two from B Company. Any demolition charges found attached to the target bridges were the responsibility of 30 Royal Engineers of the 249th (Airborne) Field Company, commanded by Captain Jock Neilson. Changes were then made to the ‘Deadstick’ plan for its implementation by six rather than four platoons. Three were assigned to attack each bridge simultaneously, with the infantry overcoming the defenders while the engineers located and dismantled any demolition charges. For six days and nights the company carried out exercises just outside Exeter, in south-western England, where there were two bridges, similar to their objectives, over the Exe river.

The Coup-de-Main Special Force was to be delivered to Normandy in six Airspeed Horsa assault gliders flown by pair of NCO pilots from C Squadron, Glider Pilot Regiment. In addition to its two pilots, seated side-by-side, the Horsa could carry 15,750 lb (7144 kg) of freight, or 28 men or a mix of two Jeeps, artillery and trailers. The pilots’ mission training involved practice landings on a small strip of land, instrument flying using stopwatches for accurate course changes, and the use of goggles with dark glass to accustom the men to night flying. By May 1944 the crews well trained after making many training flights, flying in all weathers by day and night.

Howard was not told the exact details of ‘Deadstick’ until 2 May, when he learned that he was to seize intact the bridges over the Orne river and Caen Canal at Bénouville and Ranville and hold them until relieved. The first element of this relief force was to be a company of the 7/Parachute, which would then come under Howard’s command, but when the rest of this battalion arrived, Howard was to hand over to the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel R. G. Pine-Coffin. The British 3rd Division and Brigadier the Lord Lovat’s 1st Commando Brigade were scheduled to land at Sword Beach at 06.00 on D-Day and then advance to the bridges, which they were to reach by 11.00.

At the end of May 1944, D Company left the battalion camp at Bulford in Wiltshire for RAF airfield at Tarrant Rushton in Dorset. With the airfield under tight security, Howard then briefed his men about the mission, distributing photographs of the bridges and unveiling a model of the area.The senior glider pilot, Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, told Howard that with a full load of men, ammunition, assault boats and engineer stores his gliders would be dangerously overloaded, so Howard decided to only take one assault boat per glider and leave behind two men of each platoon.A last-minute change was the replacement of an injured man by Dr John Vaughan.

On 5 June the Coup-de-Main Special Party made its final preparations for ‘Deadstick’. Each man was issued with his personal weapon and ammunition, as well as nine hand grenades and four Bren light machine gun magazines. Each platoon also had a 2-in (50.8-mm) light mortar and a radio. Just before the men boarded their gliders, codewords were issued: ‘Ham’ and ‘Jam’ indicated that the canal and river bridges respectively had been taken intact, while ‘Jack’ and ‘Lard’ indicated the capture but destruction of the canal bridge and river bridge respectively.

The Ranville bridge spans the Orne river and the Bénouville bridge crosses the Caen Canal to the river’s west. The bridges are 5 miles (8 km) from the coast and in June 1944 provided the only access to the city of Caen from the north-east. The main road crossed the bridges and then continued eastward to the Dives river. With a length of 190 ft (58 m) long and a width of 12 ft (3.7 m), the Caen Canal bridge was designed to open so that canal traffic could pass below it. The controls were housed in a nearby cabin. The canal itself is 150 ft (46 m) wide and 27 ft (8.2 m) deep, and has an earth and stone bank 6 ft (1.8 m) high on each bank, each bank having a small tarmac tracks along the canal’s entire length from Caen to Ouistreham on the English Channel.

Between the two bridges there is a strip of mostly marshy ground some 550 yards (500 m) wide, broken by ditches and small streams.

The Ranville bridge over the Orne river is 360 ft (110 m) long and 20 ft (6.1 m) wide, and can also be opened to allow the passage of riverine traffic. The river is between 160 and 240 ft (49 and 73 m) wide and with an average depth of 9 ft (2.7 m), with mud banks averaging about 3.6 ft (1.1 m) in height and a tidal rise and fall of between 6.5 and 16 ft (2 and 4.9 m). A number of small houses lay to the west of the river, and there was a track between 8 and 10 ft (2.4 and 3m) wide along both banks.

The bridge was guarded by 50 men of the 736th Grenadierregiment of Generalmajor Ludwig Krug’s 716th Division, within SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s I SS Corps ‘Leibstandarte’, under the local command of Major Hans Schmidt and based at Ranville, 1.2 miles (1.9 km) to the east of the Orne river. The 716th Division was a static formation and had been assigned to Normandy since June 1942, and its eight infantry battalions were deployed to defend 21 miles (34 km) of the ‘Atlantic Wall’. The formation was poorly equipped with German smalls arms and an eclectic miscellany of artillery and anti-tank weapons from stocks captured in earlier campaigns, and was manned by conscripts from France, Poland and the USSR under German officers and senior non-commissioned officers. Schmidt’s detachment had been ordered to blow up the two bridges if they were in danger of capture.

A second formation, Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision, had moved into the area during May 1944. One of its components, Oberst Hans von Luck’s 125th Panzergrenadierregiment, was billeted at Vimont just to the east of Caen. Other German forces in the area included one battalion of the 192nd Panzergrenadierregiment based at Cairon to the west of the bridges. von Luck had trained his regiment specifically for anti-invasion operations, and had also identified likely incursion points and marked out forward routes, rest and refuelling areas, and anti-aircraft gun positions. The 21st Panzerdivision was essentially a new formation based on the former division of the same designation, which had been destroyed in North Africa in 1943. Although equipped with an assortment of older tanks and other armoured vehicles, the division’s officers were veterans, and there were 2,000 veterans of the previous division in its ranks.

Farther afield were SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Fritz Witt’s 12th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’ at Lisieux and Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein’s Panzer-Lehr-Division at Chartres, both less than one day’s march from the area.

The Germans had placed defences at both bridges. On the western of the Caen Canal bridge there were three machine gun emplacements and on the eastern end one machine gun emplacement and one anti-tank gun. To their north were another three machine gun emplacements and one concrete pillbox. An anti-aircraft tower equipped with machine-guns stood to the south. At the Orne river bridge, the eastern bank had, to the south of the bridge, a pillbox with anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns and, to the north of it, two machine gun emplacements. Each of the bridge had sandbagged trench systems along its banks.

At 22.56 on 5 June, the six gliders were towed into the air at Tarrant Rushton by adapted Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers. The no. 1 glider, the first of the three headed for the Caen Canal, carried Howard with Lieutenant Den Brotheridge’s platoon, no. 2 bore Lieutenant David Wood’s platoon, and no. three carried Lieutenant Smith’s platoon. Priday, with Lieutenant Hooper’s platoon, made for the river bridge aboard no. 4. No. 5 carried Lieutenant Fox’s platoon and was followed by no. six carrying Lieutenant Sweeney’s platoon. Each of the gliders also carried five Royal Engineers. Flying over the English Channel at an altitude of 7,000 ft (2135 m), the Halifaxes crossed the Normandy coast at 00.07 on 6 June and the gliders released themselves. With Wallwork at the controls, the no.1 glider crashed into the barbed wire surrounding the canal bridge defences at 00.16, and the other two gliders followed at one-minute intervals. The no. 2 glider broke in half and came to halt at the edge of a large pond, one of the men falling into the water and drowning to become the first casualty of the operation. The platoon os Brotheridge and Smith made straight for the bridge, while Wood’s platoon moved towards the trenches on its north-eastern side.

By the start of June the Germans knew that the ‘Overlord’ invasion was imminent, but not its exact location and timing. Schmidt, in command of the bridges, had been told that these constituted one of the most critical points in Normandy, but despite this fact the defenders were not on full alert and only two sentries were on duty when the gliders landed. The sound of a gunshot alerted the two sentries on the bridge. As Brotheridge’s platoon attacked, one of the men ran off shouting a warning that paratroopers had landed, while the second fired a flare gun to alert nearby defenders. Brotheridge shot him while other members of his platoon cleared the trenches and pillbox with grenades. Alerted by the flare, the German machine gunners opened fire at the men on the bridge, wounding Brotheridge as he threw a grenade. The grenade silenced one of the machine gun positions and another was taken out by Bren gun fire. No. 1 Platoon then crossed the bridge to assume a defensive position on the western bank. The Royal Engineers from the no. 1 glider searched for explosive charges and cut the fuse wires when they found any. Smith’s platoon crossed the bridge next, exchanging fire with the German defenders, and Smith was wounded by a grenade. With grenades and sub-machine gun fire, the platoons cleared the trenches and bunkers. By 00.21 German resistance on the western bank of the canal bridge had ended. Checking the area, the men of Brotheridge’s platoon now realised that their commander had been wounded, and Brotheridge soon died of his wounds, becoming the first Allied soldier to be killed by the Germans during ‘Overlord’. On the eastern bank Wood’s platoon cleared the trenches and bunkers with little opposition, Woods being hit in the leg by machine gun fire as he ordered the platoon to storm the German defences. All three platoon commanders at the canal bridge were now either dead or wounded.

At about 00.19 pathfinders of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company landed in the area between the Orne and Dives rivers: Poett and a small team of his 5th Parachute Brigade accompanied them. Disoriented after landing, Poett heard Brotheridge’s Sten sub-machine gun and set off for the bridges with the only man he could locate. Only one of the Germans at the bridge escaped D Company’s attack, and reached Bénouville to report that the bridge had been captured.

Fox’s no. 5 glider was the first to land 330 yards (300 m) from the river bridge at 00.20, while the no.4 glider was reported missing. When the Germans opened fire with a machine gun, the platoon responded with its 2-in (50.8-mm) mortar and destroyed the gun with a direct hit. The platoon then crossed the bridge without further opposition. At 00.21 the no. 6 glider landed 770 yards (700 m) short of the bridge: Sweeney left one of his sections on the western bank and moved the rest of the platoon across the bridge to take up defensive positions on the eastern bank.

From his newly established command post in the trenches on the eastern bank of the canal near the bridge, Howard learned that the river bridge had also been taken. Neilson of the Royal Engineers reported that although the bridges had been prepared for demolition, the explosives positioned close to hand had not been attached. Howard ordered his signaller to transmit the code words ‘Ham’ and ‘Jam’, then brought Fox’s platoon across the canal bridge, positioning it at the Bénouville to Le Port crossroads as the company’s forward platoon.

At 00.50 the aircraft carrying the rest of the 6th Airborne Division appeared overhead and the paratroopers descended onto the drop zones marked by the pathfinders. Howard began to blow the Morse code letter ‘V’ on his whistle to help guide the 7/Parachute to the bridges. The first men of his battalion to arrive at 00.52 were Poett and the soldier he had collected. Briefed by Howard on the situation, Poett heard tanks and lorries moving around in Bénouville and Le Port. On the DZ, only about 100 of the 7/Parachute’s men had reached the rallying point, but all of their signalling equipment, machine guns and mortars were missing. Aware that his battalion was the only unit allocated to defensive positions to the west of the bridges, Pine-Coffin decided not to await the arrival of more men, and at 01.10 left for the bridges.

At about the same time Schmidt, commander of the German bridge guard force, decided he needed to see for himself what was happening. He headed for the bridge in his SdKfz 250 light armoured half-track vehicle with a motorcycle escort. Travelling at high speed the Germans unwittingly passed the forward line of D Company’s defence and drove onto the bridge, whereupon the men of the company opened fire. The soldier on the motorcycle was killed, and the SdKfz 250 was forced off the road, Schmidt and his driver being taken prisoner.

It was at 01.20 that Krug, commander of the 716th Division, was informed that there had been parachute landings and that the bridges had been captured intact. One of Krug’s first actions was to contact Feuchtinger of the 21st Panzerdivision, and he also ordered his division to attack the landing areas. While Feuchtinger’s armour was tasked with the support of the 716th Division, however, it was also part of the German local armoured reserve and could not move without direct orders from Adolf Hitler, who was sleeping at the time and on the initiative of his staff was not woken.

When he received the news of the airborne landings at 01.30, von Luck ordered his 125th Panzergrenadierregiment to its assembly areas to the north and east of Caen, and awaited orders.

The closest German unit to the canal bridge was the 2/192nd Panzergrenadierregiment based at Cairon, and Feuchtinger ordered this to retake the bridges and then attack the parachute DZs farther to the west. At 02.00 the battalion headed for the bridges from the west, supported by the 1st Panzerjägerkompanie of the 200th Panzerjägerabteilung and part of the 989th schwere Artillerieabteilung arriving from the north. As the first PzKpfw IV battle tanks from the north reached the junction leading to the bridge, the leading vehicle was hit by a round from D Company’s only serviceable PIAT anti-tank weapon, exploded as its stowed ammunition ignited, and the other tanks withdrew.

The first company of the 7/Parachute, under the command of Major Nigel Taylor, then reached the bridges and Howard ordered its to defensive positions to the west of the canal in Bénouville and Le Port. When he arrived, Pine-Coffin was briefed by Howard, and crossed into Bénouville to establish his headquarters beside the church. Pine-Coffin had about 200 men in his three companies, and positioned A and C Companies in Bénouville facing to the south in the direction of Caen, and B Company in Le Port facing Ouistreham. D Company was now pulled back into the area between the two bridges and held in reserve. A further check of the trenches and bunkers captured a number of Germans.

At 03.00 the 8th schwere Kompanie of the 192nd Panzergrenadierregiment, equipped with 75-mm (2.95-in) self-propelled guns, 20-mm AA guns and mortars, attacked A and C Companies of the 7/Parachute from the south. The paratroopers were forced back and the Germans established their own positions in Bénouville but, unable to break the British line, dug in and waited for tank support before trying to move forward once again. The Germans fired mortar bombs and machine guns at the paratroopers and attempted small assaults on their positions throughout the night.

Just before the break of day, Howard summoned his platoon commanders to a meeting. With their senior officers dead or wounded, Nos 1, 2and 3 Platoons were now commanded by corporals. Howard’s second in command, Priday, and No. 4 Platoon were missing. Only Lieutenants Fox and Sweeney in Nos 5 and 6 Platoons had a full complement of officers and NCOs.

The landings on Sword Beach began at 07.00 after a heavy naval bombardment. At the bridges, daylight allowed German snipers to identify targets and anyone moving in the open was in danger of being shot. The men of No.1 Platoon had taken over the 75-mm (2.95-in) German anti-tank gun on the eastern bank of the canal, and used this to engage possible sniper positions in Bénouville, the Château de Bénouville and the surrounding area. At 09.00 two German gunboats approached the canal bridge from Ouistreham. The lead boat fired its 20-mm cannon and No. 2 Platoon responded with a PIAT, hitting the wheelhouse of the leading boat, which crashed into the canal bank, and the second boat thereupon retreated to Ouistreham. A lone German aeroplane attacked the canal bridge at 10.00, but while the single bomb which was dropped hit the bridge it failed to detonate.

The 2/192nd Panzergrenadierregiment continued to attack Bénouville and Le Port with infantry, mortars and armour. The attack caused serious problems for the understrength 7/Parachute until the leading tank was blown up with a Gammon bomb, blocking the road. During the attack 13 of the 17 tanks trying to get through to the bridge were destroyed. The paratroopers were then reinforced by No. 1 Platoon of D Company. The platoon moved forward into Bénouville and cleared the Germans in house-to-house fighting. Nos 5 and 6 Platoons also moved into positions opposite the Gondrée Café on the canal’s western bank. By 12.00 most of the 7/Parachute’s missing men had arrived at the bridges, and the three platoons were moved back to their original positions.

Just after 12.00, the 21st Panzerdivision finally received authorisation to attack the landings. To the east of the Orne river, von Luck moved the 125th Panzergrenadierregiment toward the bridges. The column was quickly spotted and engaged for the next two hours by Allied artillery and warplanes, and suffering heavy losses. The 1/192nd Panzergrenadierregiment and 100th Panzerregiment attacked from west of the canal and had more success, reaching the beaches between the British Sword Beach and the Canadian Juno Beach.

At 13.30 the men at the bridges heard the sound of bagpipes, played by Private William Millin, the personal piper of Lord Lovat. As the commandos arrived they crossed the bridges and joined the rest of 6th Airborne Division defending the eastern side of the bridges. Some of the tanks accompanying the commandos moved into Bénouville to reinforce its defences, while others crossed the bridges with the men of the 1st Commando Brigade. At 15.00 a boat loaded with German infantry approached from Caen. Engaged with the anti-tank gun manned by No. 1 Platoon, the boat was hit in the stern by the second round and retreated back toward Caen.

At 21.15 the 2/Royal Warwickshire Regiment of Brigadier K. P. Smith’s 185th Brigade of the 3rd Division arrived from Sword Beach and began take over the defence of the bridges. At around 24.00 Howard handed over command to the Warwickshire Regiment, and his company left to join the rest of its battalion at Ranville. It was at 03.30 that Howard and his men located the battalion’s positions, where they Priday and No. 4 Platoon. This had landed beside the Dives river at Varaville, about 8 miles (13 km) away, and had spent the previous day fighting its way towards the bridges.

Bénouville was the farthest forward point of the British advance on 6 June 1944. Of the 181 men (139 infantry, 30 engineers and 12 pilots) of D Company involved in ‘Deadstick’, two had been killed and 14 wounded. On 9 June some 13 German aircraft attacked the bridges, but the British had positioned light and medium anti-aircraft guns around the bridges, and in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire the attack failed, although the Germans wrongly claimed the destruction of one of the bridges with a direct hit.