Major John Howard at Pegasus Bridge in 1987: he returned every June 6 to lay a commemorative wreath
Major John Howard, DSO, wartime airborne soldier, died on May 5 aged 86. He was born on December 8, 1912.
In the very first battle to be fought between British and German troops on D-Day John Howard led men of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in an airborne assault on a vital bridge over the Caen Canal, in the first few minutes of June 6, 1944. One of the most spectacular assaults in the annals of airborne operations, this astonishing coup de main had results which were decisive on the development of the first day's fighting.
The Caen Canal Bridge - since immortalised as Pegasus Bridge - and the neighbouring bridge over the River Orne carried a lateral road which had to be captured and held, in order to ensure supplies from Sword Beach to the 6th Airborne Division, which had been dropped to the east of Caen. Without supplies of ammunition, fuel and rations from the beachhead, 6th Airborne would have been unable to carry out its task, which was to protect the left flank of the entire Allied invasion force.
In the event, Howard's assault prevented the Germans from launching a counterstroke for several hours. It was not until 0210 hours that the German divisional headquarters, which organised the local mobile reserve, realised that it had been deprived of this vital artery and could not move against the beach head without overcoming stiff opposition en route. By the time the Germans realised what had happened, Howard and his glider troops had been reinforced, and though they faced some fierce assaults from a panzergrenadier battalion, strongly supported by artillery, Pegasus Bridge was held.
For Howard and his men the mission to seize the bridges had begun the previous evening in Dorset, when six Horsa gliders, each carrying 28 heavily armed troops, moved out over the airfield at Tarrant Rushton, behind the Halifax bombers which were their towing aircraft. Their objective was a small patch of rough field, between a pond and the Caen Canal, close to the Pegasus Bridge.
It required flying of pinpoint accuracy and an approach which had to be accurate to a few feet. Too much height and the three gliders of Howard's section would smash into the roadway embankment at the far end of the field. If they landed substantially short, the screeching and tearing noise of the gliders as they came down would alert the bridge defences and the dazed glider troops could undoubtedly expect a warm reception.
The flying and navigation of the glider pilots was exemplary, in weather conditions which were far from ideal. Released at 8,000 feet over the Normandy coast, the three gliders clipped through the tops of a belt of poplars which skirted the field and crashed and bounced to a halt only a few yards from each other, at 0016 hours precisely.
Although shaken by the impact, the glider troops poured out of the wreckage of their aircraft and, with Howard at their head, rushed the bridge. They were spotted by a young conscript of the German 716th Infantry Regiment who screamed "Fallschirmjäger!" as a warning to his comrades before firing a Verey flare into the air. It was his last act on earth; he was instantly cut down by a burst of Stengun fire from one of the Ox and Bucks men.
A furious firefight now ensued, with the chattering of the German Spandaus interspersed with the crackle of Bren- and Stengun fire. But the assault of the Ox and Bucks was irresistible, the surprise complete. The occupants of the dugouts on the periphery of the bridge were disposed of with high explosive and phosphorus grenades, while the bridge itself was raked with a hail of 9mm and .303 fire. By 0026 the action was over and the bridge was in British hands. To the east the Orne bridge had been secured in just as short a time, even though one of the gliders of that assault had gone astray.
The firefight had lasted just ten minutes. The first vital objective of D-Day's airborne operations had been achieved, six hours before the troops of the seaborne armada hit the beaches.
The importance of what Howard and his men had achieved became apparent to one of the local German commanders, Feldwebel Heinrich Hickman of Fallschirmjäger Regiment 6, when what should have been a ten-minute journey to warn his company HQ at nearby Bréville turned into a six-hour detour through the bombed out streets of Caen. It was a tactical surprise out of all proportion to the small numbers of troops deployed. And though the Ox and Bucks men holding the bridge were strongly attacked later in the day by elements of the 21st Panzer Division, fresh airborne parachute landings in the vicinity swelled their numbers. Later in the day the Ox and Bucks men were taken under the aegis of 7 Para.
Howard, whose exploits on the day were re-enacted by Richard Todd in the D-Day film The Longest Day, was awarded the DSO and the Croix de Guerre avec Palme for his leadership. He was invalided out of the Army in 1946 and later worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, finally retiring in the 1970s.
He returned to Normandy every June 6 to lay a wreath on the spot where the gliders landed and to enjoy the hospitality of the Pegasus Bridge café, owned by Georges Gondrée and his wife. An airborne forces museum was set up close by on land leased by the café, but after Georges' death, Howard found himself inexplicably in dispute with his daughter, who took over the café and obtained an order to close the museum, a situation which caused him much sadness. After that he was active in the creation of a new memorial museum near the spot, a project dear to his heart. This is due to open on June 6, 2000.
Pegasus Bridge, whose steel girders have become, over the years, part of the iconography of the D-Day story, was rebuilt in 1994, because of the wear and tear of modern juggernaut traffic.
Howard's wife Joy died in 1986. He leaves a daughter, Penny
The Times Newspaper, 7 May 1999