I’m reliving yet another long-ago trip to France when I arrived on a school trip to the Normandy Beaches. I don’t remember much of that visit except for the long and boring Bayeux Tapestry, the strange meals (where the meat and vegetables were served as two separate courses) and Pegasus Bridge. The bridge that I visited over 30 years ago no longer straddles the Caen Canal, having been replaced in 1994 by an almost identical, but slightly larger version which I am lucky enough to see in action. The original is not far away though, relocated to the grounds of the Pegasus Memorial Museum.
Not only do I find the original bridge, but next to it is a full size replica of a Horsa glider. Once I’m inside the museum I soon realise why it is there. Prior to the main D-Day beach landings, 352 gliders were towed across the English Channel, transporting soldiers of the 6th Airborne Division who were tasked to carry out a daring night time raid on several key bridges across the Orne and Dives rivers. Three of those gliders landed within metres of the Benouville Bridge and it was swiftly taken by the allies. They renamed it Pegasus Bridge after the flying horse insignia of the Airborne Forces.
Operation Deadstick is immortalised in the film ”The Longest Day” (1961). Major John Howard, who led the mission, is played by Richard Todd, and amazingly, Todd was actually one of the members of the 7th Parachute Battalion reinforcements that arrived shortly after the landings to reinforce the position. General Richard Gale, who planned the mission and trained the men that piloted those gliders and made such precision landings, is also honoured at the museum.
The Museum contains so much detailed information that it takes me two hours to absorb it all. There are display cases of uniforms, equipment and medals and original silk parachutes hanging from the ceiling. Many information boards provide details of the men who took part in the raid explaining their experiences and feelings at the time and informing me about their life after the war. I think that by highlighting this human involvement it makes the war seem so much more real than just a list of events in a history book.
In the centre of the museum is a screening room where I watch a short video about the Pegasus Bridge mission, introduced by Prince Charles. There is also a model showing the region and the key points of attack. Even the tiny little model gliders have been inserted and I can appreciate better the skill it would have required for the pilots to land so many in such a small space. Being a glider pilot had its advantages, as they were issued travel papers enabling them to immediately return to the UK in order to be available for future missions. In that way, many avoided the intense hand to hand combat that took place on D-Day.
Not all were so lucky though. After leaving the museum, I drive into the nearby village of Ranville to visit the British War Cemetery located there. Over 2500 lost lives are represented by clean, white gravestones marked with their names and the insignia of their regiments: Paratroopers, pilots, navigators, infantry, engineers, explosive experts and even the catering corps. One large corner is given over to the German soldiers who also died during the battles in the area. 95 soldiers remain unidentified and their graves are simply marked as “Soldier of the War” or “Unknown Soldier” or “A German Soldier”. Close by, in the church graveyard, I locate a few graves of the glider pilots and one of their passengers, Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, who was the first soldier to die in action on D-Day as he crossed Benouville Bridge.
A few kilometres to the north, I stop by the Merville Battery which was one of the main German defences to be targeted by the D-Day raids. It’s not officially open but the caretaker sees my disappointment and lets me in anyway. Not all the soldiers made it to their destination and only 150 out of the intended 600 soldiers landed close to the Merville Battery. Despite their low numbers, they decided to attack anyway and succeeded in eliminating the threat.
I can’t get into the concrete bunkers but I am able to view the Douglas Dakota. It is an original from D-Day, though it took a roundabout route to get to its final resting place, having served as a civilian plane in Czechoslovakia and later in the Yugoslav Air Force. It was finally grounded in Sarajevo after being damaged by machine gun fire. Luckily, the plane was rescued in 2007 by UN troops and once back in France it was fully restored and now has pride of place at the Merville Battery. Some Dakota aircraft were used as tugs for the Horsa gliders on D-Day.
The next morning, as I’m walking through the dunes of Merville Plage, I find even more WWII concrete bunkers. The sand and the brambles are slowly covering them over and the exposed walls that remain have been used as canvases by the local graffiti artists. However, it does remind me that WWII only ended 70 years ago and so much remains of the military architecture, whether it has been converted into museums to teach us about the horrors of war, or whether it lays scattered along the coastline, gradually being reclaimed by the land where so much blood was spilt.