The Normandy adventure continues as we disembark onto French soil and advance inland! One of our first stops was the small village of Bénouville, which sits only a few miles from the coast. Only minutes into June 6, 1944, glider troops of the British 6th Airborne Division landed here, engaged in a firefight with German occupiers, and liberated the first town in France. Much like the rest of our journeys across the coast, roads were logged with a foot of gray slush that was once snow. As you can surmise from the photo above, the days following the freak snowstorm that plagued our travels did not become any warmer.
The water crossings over the Canal de Caen à la Mer (or canal by the sea) and the Orne River were among the first objectives in the Allied landings. This particular bridge was renamed Pegasus Bridge as an homage to the British paratroopers who ran across it in the early and desperate moments of the invasion. This German 55mm gun still stands as a silent vigil along the shore banks. Across the bridge is the town of Bénouville itself, where a frightened civilian population huddled in as a fierce shootout erupted. Located right between Caen and Ouistreham, the fight at Bénouville was only six kilometers from the Channel from which the amphibious landings of only six hours later took place.
The man who was to hold this left anchor of the Allies' flank was the colorful and capable British Major John Howard (whose statue is above). His mission was part of a larger strategy to seize access of Normandy bridges to secure communications between land and sea while simultaneously delaying German reinforcements. The process was dramatically difficult, thanks in large part to the flooding of surrounding pastures by the Nazis. Howard's three Horsa gliders landed in the soggy plain pictured above, only a few feet from the German garrison guarding the bridge. From there, the fight commenced.
This cafe across the river is an establishment that was owned by a local named Georges Gondree. The French restauranteur had assumed that the crash and firing around his house was the result of an Allied plane crashing nearby. Little did he know then, that the invasion of France was literally beginning in his front yard. Gondree recalled a German soldier he saw: "His features were working, his eyes wide with fear. For a moment he did not speak, and I then saw that he was literally struck dumb by terror. At last he stammered out one word, 'Parachutists!'" (Fowler, Pegasus Bridge, 39). The cafe afterward became a British command post and the Gondrees broke out ninety bottles of Champagne hidden since 1940. In subsequent years, however, there was a fallout between Georges's daughter and Major Howard--over the preservation and commercialization of the historic site. I found this fact intriguing since I see similar historical debates argued here in the States with much frequency. History, and what it should be, will always to be contested.
On the grounds of the site is a reconstructed Horsa glider such as used by Howard's troops. Such engine-less aircraft were hauled by Halifax planes by chord and "cut loose" as they neared their destination. Trees near the landing zone forced crash landings for the gliders only a stone's throw away from the bridge about a quarter after midnight on June 6. In only minutes, Howard's troops had overwhelmed the German defenses and cut away the explosive charges at the bridge. Howard transmitted the success code words "Ham and Jam" over the radio. In the coming hours, reinforcements under Major General Gale and Lord Lovat arrived to relieve Howard's men.
The original war-era bridge was dismantled in 1994 and placed only a few yards away. Today, the structure is part of Memorial Pegasus, a museum that was unfortunately closed due to the snow during our visit. This original bridge was also used in the much celebrated 1962 war film The Longest Day.
Today, a statue of British Brigadier James Hill also overlooks the battlefield. I snapped this shot just as another light snow was beginning to fall. Of the fight at Pegasus Bridge, Glider Pilot James Wallwork recalled afterward, "Long afterwards we all confessed to feeling rather pleased with ourselves at having pulled it off." Many a combatant on June 6 would have said much the same thing--although this overall success came at a great cost.