When people are asked about meeting a person from history or being at a historical moment they will say things like they want to meet Jesus, or be at his resurrection, or at Kennedy's inaugural address or at the launch of Apollo 11.
For us it has always been Normandy, France, June 6, 1944.
To be a member of the 101st or 82nd Airborne, or the British 6th Airborne division. and see Ike walking the line of young men, their faces black, about to get into airplanes and jump into the night sky over occupied France.
To come ashore at bloody Omaha Beach or scale the cliffs at Point Du Hoc with the 1st Rangers Battalion.
To see the greatest armada ever assembled, and watch 100,000 men on the greatest day in the history of the modern world. The invasion of occupied France marked the beginning of the end of the Third Reich.
But success was far from assured. If the invasion had failed, and it almost did in a hundred different ways, Hitler might have been able to sue for peace on the Western Front, allowing him to concentrate his forces in the east and battle Russia into a standoff somewhere in eastern Europe. The US would have turned its attention to the Pacific and who knows what appetite England and America would have had for another cross channel invasion in 1945 after several years of war? The world might look like a startlingly different place if brave men hadn't fought and died for freedom in places like Ste Mere Eglise, and what is now called the Pegasus Bridge over the Caen canal outside of Benouville, France.
In his book "The Pegasus Bridge", author Stephen Ambrose argues that fate of the entire invasion hung on the British 6th Airborne's ability to hold the two bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River. Major John Howard commanded D company of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Ox and Bucks) Brigade.
|Pegasus Bridge and D Company. An elderly Major Howard in the upper right corner.
D company had the distinction of being the first allied forces to land in Normandy, a few minutes after Midnight on June 6, 1944. They came by glider, and their mission was to capture and hold the two bridges until relieved by additional airborne forces at D-day + 3 hours. If the Germans re-took both bridges, then they could have set up a defensive perimeter with Panzers that would have made it impossible for the 6th Airborne to re-take the bridges. Colonel Hans Von Luck, commander of the 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 21st Panzer division later contended that if he had re-taken those bridges, he could have thrown his regiment of tanks into a late D-Day afternoon counterattack that would have made it to Juno and Sword Beaches.
A Panzer regiment behind the lines on the beaches would have rolled up the entire invasion, destroying all the equipment being unloaded.
At about D-day +1:30, or 1:30 in the morning of June 6, 1944, a squad of six Panzers slowly approached the bridge over the river Caen that D company had taken an hour before in a daring raid. D company was no match for German tanks. Sgt. M. C. Thornton had a small, hand-held Piat rifle which shot, when it worked -which was not often, a small anti-tank missile.
Major Howard placed Sgt. Thornton at a t-junction just before the bridge. The first of six mighty Panzers cautiously approached the bridge. Sgt. Thornton sat quietly, his hands shaking, his heart beating out of his chest, as he watched the tank approach. He would have one shot. He and his entire company had trained for this night-this moment- with a singular purpose for the last two years. If he missed or the gun mis-fired, the Panzer's guns would surely take him out and then the tanks would roll unobstructed across the bridge. The Piat had a range of 50 yards, but really wasn't effective outside of 20.
Ambrose speculates, although Thornton couldn't have known it at the time, that the fate of the entire invasion hung in the balance. Failure to destroy the tank would have led to the Germans retaking the bridges. This mission had been given top priority over all other D-day missions. Allied command knew the value of those two bridges. Thornton fired, the tank went up in flames, the other Panzer's retreated, fearing they were facing a superior force. The bridges remained in British hands and Von Luck's Panzers never had the opportunity to drive to the beach and stop the invasion.
When Ambrose interviewed Sgt. Thornton many years later, Thornton told him not to make him look like a hero, to which Ambrose replied: "I don't make heroes, Sgt., I only write about them."
There are a thousand such stories on June 6, 1944. The day of days. The most important day in the history of western civilization.
We would have given anything to be there. We were born a few decades too late.
|Bust and Plaque of Major John Howard in France commemorating his being awarded the Croix de guerre-the War Cross which France awarded tho those who fought for the liberation of France.