June 6, 1944 is a date that is instantly recognizable to almost anyone who studies (or reads about or just watches movies about) World War II. It’s the day that the Orne River Bridge was captured by Allied soldiers. Wait. You thought it was the day that Operation Overlord began. D-Day. The Invasion of France by the Allies. Five thousand ships. Three million men. Right?
Yeah, and you’re right…all of those things are true. But it’s also the day that the Orne River Bridge (better known as the Pegasus Bridge) was captured. And since maybe it’s a little less known, let’s honor D-Day by spending a little time there.
First, to the geography room we go. The location of the bridge can be most easily determined by finding the city of Caen, which is 6 or 7 miles from the northwest coast of France. Now, halfway between Caen and the town of Ouistreham (where the Orne River meets the English Channel) is the location of the Bridge. One other thing…the Orne River had two canals running parallel to the Channel. The bridge we’re discussing spanned the westernmost canal. Look on a detailed map or, better yet go to Yahoo! and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The bridge on the eastern canal (the Ranville Bridge) was the secondary objective.
The Pegasus Bridge had strategic importance to D-Day. The Orne River marked the boundary of Sword Beach and any Germans coming to oppose the landings would have to cross the Pegasus Bridge. If that happened, German tanks could basically roll right to the beach, start at one end, and mow the Allied forces down. Those bridges had to be taken…and held.
To achieve surprise, the assault used gliders, which were towed into the air, released, and glided to their targets. At just past midnight on June 6th, the gliders touched down, less than 200 feet from the Bridge. Amazingly, though German soldiers heard the noise of the landings, they disregarded it. Ten minutes later, they regretted that decision as the British platoons, led by Major John Howard, swept through the small garrison and captured the Bridge intact. The Ranville Bridge was captured shortly thereafter.
And they were held against numerous small German probes and counterattacks until fully relieved the following evening by troops moving inland from the main invasion areas.
The Normandy Invasion gets most of the ink, and deservedly so. But it was numerous small operations, like the one that captured the Pegasus and Ranville bridges, that protected the invasion and helped hold the Germans at bay during those first critical hours.
Recommended Reading: Pegasus Bridge: June 6, 1944 – Considering the small size of this operation, there are a surprising number of resources dedicated to it. Ambrose’s work is the one I own and it’s very good.