World War II: Operation Deadstick

Operation Deadstick gliders in France
Horsa gliders near Caen Canal. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Operation Deadstick - Conflict & Date:

Operation Deadstick took place on June 6, 1944, during World War II (1939-1941).

Forces & Commanders:

British

  • Major John Howard
  • Lieutenant Colonel Richard Pine-Coffin
  • growing to 380 men

German

  • Major Hans Schmidt
  • Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger
  • 50 at the bridge, 21st Panzer Division in area

Operation Deadstick - Background:

In early 1944 planning was well underway for the Allied return to northwestern Europe.

  Commanded by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the invasion of Normandy was slated for late spring and ultimately called for Allied forces to land on five beaches.  To implement the plan, ground forces would be overseen by General Sir Bernard Montgomery while naval forces were led by Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay.  To support these efforts, three airborne divisions would drop behind the beaches to secure key objectives and facilitate the landings.  While Major Generals Matthew Ridgway and Maxwell Taylor's US 82nd and 101st Airborne would land in the west, Major General Richard N. Gale's British 6th Airborne was tasked with dropping in the east.  From this position, it would protect the landing's eastern flank from German counterattacks.      

Central to accomplishing this mission was the capture of the bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne.  Situated near Bénouville and flowing parallel to each other, the canal and river provided a major natural obstacle.

  As such, securing the bridges was deemed critical in order to prevent a German counterstrike against troops coming ashore on Sword Beach as well as maintaining contact with the bulk of 6th Airborne which would be dropping further east.  Assessing options for attacking the bridges, Gale decided that a glider coup de main assault would be most effective.

  To accomplish this, he requested Brigadier Hugh Kindersley of the 6th Airlanding Brigade select his best company for the mission.

Operation Deadstick - Preparations: 

Responding, Kindersley chose Major John Howard's D Company, 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.  A spirited leader, Howard had already spent several weeks training his men in night fighting.  As planning progressed, Gale determined that D Company lacked sufficient strength for the mission.  This resulted in the platoons of Lieutenants Dennis Fox and Richard "Sandy" Smith being transferred to Howard's command from B Company.  In addition, thirty Royal Engineers, led by Captain Jock Neilson, were attached to deal with any demolition charges found on the bridges.  Transportation to Normandy would be provided by six Airspeed Horsa gliders from the Glider Pilot Regiment's C Squadron.  

Dubbed Operation Deadstick, the strike plan for the bridges called for each to be attacked by three gliders.  Once secured, Howard's men were to hold the bridges until relieved by Lieutenant Colonel Richard Pine-Coffin's 7th Parachute Battalion.  The combined airborne troops were to defend their positions until elements of the British 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Special Service Brigade arrived after landing on Sword.

  Planners expected this rendezvous to occur around 11:00 AM.  Moving to RAF Tarrant Rushton in late May, Howard briefed his men on the details of the mission.  At 10:56 PM on June 5, his command took off for France with their gliders being towed by Handley Page Halifax bombers.

Operation Deadstick - German Defenses:

Defending the bridges were approximately fifty men drawn from the 736th Grenadier Regiment, 716th Infantry Division.  Led by Major Hans Schmidt, whose headquarters was in nearby Ranville, this unit was a largely static formation consisting of men drawn from across occupied Europe and armed with a mix of captured weapons.  Supporting Schmidt to the southeast was Colonel Hans von Luck's 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment in Vimont.  Though possessing a potent force, Luck was part of the 21st Panzer Division which in turn was part of the German armored reserve.

  As such, this force could only be committed to battle with the consent of Adolf Hitler.  

Operation Deadstick - Taking the Bridges:

Approaching the French coast at 7,000 feet, Howard's men reached France shortly after midnight on June 6.  Releasing from their tow planes, the first three gliders, containing Howard and the platoons of Lieutenants Den Brotheridge, David Wood, and Sandy Smith maneuvered to land near the canal bridge while the other three, with Captain Brian Priday (Howard's executive officer) and the platoons of Lieutenants Fox, Tony Hooper, and Henry Sweeney, turned toward the river bridge.  The three gliders with Howard landed near the canal bridge around 12:16 AM and suffered one fatality in the process.  Quickly advancing to the bridge, Howard's men were spotted by a sentry who attempted to raise the alarm.  Storming the trenches and pillboxes around the bridge, his troops were able to quickly secure the span though Brotheridge fell mortally wounded.

To the east, Fox's glider was the first to land as Priday and Hooper's went missing.  Quickly attacking, his platoon used a mix of mortar and rifle fire to overwhelm the defenders.  Fox's men were soon joined by Sweeney's platoon which had landed approximately 770 yards short of the bridge.  Learning that the river bridge had been taken, Howard directed his command to assume defensive positions.  A short time later, he was joined by Brigadier Nigel Poett who had jumped with pathfinders from the 22nd Independent Parachute Company.

  Around 12:50 AM, the lead elements of the 6th Airborne began dropping in the area.  At their designated drop zone, Pine-Coffin worked to rally his battalion.  Locating around 100 of his men, he set off to join Howard shortly after 1:00 AM.

Operation Deadstick - Mounting a Defense:        

Around this time, Schmidt decided to personally assess the situation at the bridges.  Riding in a Sd.Kfz.250 halftrack with a motorcycle escort, he inadvertently drove through D Company's perimeter and onto the river bridge before coming under heavy fire and being compelled to surrender.  Alerted to the loss of the bridges, Lieutenant General Wilhelm Richter, commander of the 716th Infantry, requested aid from the 21st Panzer's Major General Edgar Feuchtinger.  Limited in his scope of action due to Hitler's restrictions, Feuchtinger dispatched the 2nd Battalion, 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment towards Bénouville.  As the lead Panzer IV from this formation approached the junction leading to the bridge, it was hit by a round from D Company's only functional PIAT anti-tank weapon.  Exploding, it led the other tanks to pull back.

Reinforced by a company from the 7th Parachute Battalion, Howard ordered these troops across the canal bridge and into Bénouville and Le Port.  When Pine-Coffin arrived a short time later, he assumed command and established his headquarters near the church in Bénouville.  As his men grew in number, he directed Howard's company back towards the bridges as a reserve.  At 3:00 AM, the Germans attacked Bénouville in force from the south and pushed the British back.

  Consolidating his position, Pine-Coffin was able to hold a line in the town.  At dawn, Howard's men came under fire from German snipers.  Using a 75 mm anti-tank gun found by the bridges, they shelled suspected sniper nests.  Around 9:00 AM, Howard's command employed PIAT fire to force two German gunboats to withdraw downstream towards Ouistreham.  

Operation Deadstick - Relief:

Troops from the 192nd Panzergrenadier continued to attack Bénouville through the morning pressuring Pine-Coffin's understrength command.  Slowly reinforced, he was able to counterattack in the town and gained ground in house-to-house fighting.  Around midday, 21st Panzer received permission to attack the Allied landings.  This saw von Luck's regiment begin moving towards the bridges.  His advance was quickly hampered by Allied aircraft and artillery.  After 1:00 PM, the tired defenders in Bénouville heard the skirl of Bill Millin's bagpipes which signaled the approach of Lord Lovat's 1st Special Service Brigade as well as some armor.  While Lovat's men crossed to aid in defending the eastern approaches, the armor reinforced the position in Bénouville.  Late that evening, troops from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 185th Infantry Brigade arrived from Sword Beach and formally relieved Howard.  Turning over the bridges, his company departed to join their battalion at Ranville.

Operation Deadstick - Aftermath:             

Of the 181 men that landed with Howard in Operation Deadstick, two were killed and fourteen wounded.  Elements of 6th Airborne retained control of the area around the bridges until June 14 when the 51st (Highland) Division assumed responsibility for the southern part of the Orne bridgehead.  Subsequent weeks saw British forces fight a protracted battle for Caen and Allied strength in Normandy grow.  In recognition of his performance during Operation Deadstick, Howard personally received the Distinguished Service Order from Montgomery.  Smith and Sweeney each were awarded the Military Cross.  Air Chief Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory termed the performance of the glider pilots as one of the "most outstanding flying achievements of the war" and awarded eight of them the Distinguished Flying Medal.  In 1944, the canal bridge was renamed Pegasus Bridge in honor of the British Airborne's emblem.      

Selected Sources