This epic British glider attack is getting the movie treatment it deserves

Operation Deadstick was the first engagement of D-Day but many people don’t know the awesome story of how a small group of British glider soldiers captured two bridges intact and held them against German counterattacks. Now, the epic fight is becoming a movie.

The idea was that holding these two vital bridges over the Caen Canal and a nearby river would give the Allies a route inland and would prevent a German counterattack on the Normandy beaches.

So, on Jun. 6, 1944, the men of D Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry crash-landed in gliders at only 16 minutes past midnight. A brilliant performance by pilots put the closest group of paratroopers only 47 yards from the first objective while avoiding anti-glider poles that were still being emplaced around the bridges.

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When we say the gliders crash-landed, we mean it. Photos: British Army Sgt. Johnson

The British commander had a fright when thought he had gone blind, but he realized the crash had dislodged his helmet and slid it over his eyes. He put it on right and led his men up the nearby embankment and onto the first bridge.

There, Lt. Den Brotheridge led First platoon across the Caen Canal Bridge, firing from the hip. Brotheridge gunned down a German soldier on the bridges who fired a flare, achieving the first ground kill of D-Day. Tragically, he himself was shot just moments later and became the first Allied casualty of the day.

Still, the company was able to complete the assault only 10 minutes after landing, grabbing both bridges before the Germans could detonate the explosives on them. Sappers immediately got to work cutting wires and fuses to make sure a German counterattack would not be able to easily destroy them.

It turns out, the reason the bridges weren’t destroyed was two-fold.

First, the German commander had ordered the bridge wired to explode, but that the actual charges be stored nearby so that French partisans or an accident could not destroy the bridges unnecessarily. He had reasoned that the explosives could be placed and destroyed faster than a paratrooper assault could capture the bridges. He was wrong.

Second, only he could order the charges put into place and the bridges destroyed and he was busy visiting his girlfriend in the nearby village. He was drinking wine and eating cheese with her when he heard all the gunfire coming from the direction of the bridges.

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Glider troops pose with a French girl on a captured German motorcycle in Jun. 1944. Apparently, both sides thought anytime was a good time to hit on French women.

He decided to investigate the noises but apparently thought an attack was unlikely because he packed a picnic basket and tried to bring his girlfriend. He ended up dropping her off when she begged and cried, but he continued to the bridge with little caution.

His driver approached the bridge so fast that the two Germans actually blew past the British lines and were on the bridge before they realized that the German defenders had been killed. The British quickly captured both Germans and the picnic basket while the commander started crying about having let down his fuhrer.

The British then got ready for the inevitable counterattacks. The first came quickly as a German tank made its way to a nearby intersection in an attempt on the bridges. One of the glider troops engaged it with a Piat anti-tank grenade launcher, killing it with a single hit.

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Soldiers fire a Piat in Tunisia in 1943. Photo: British Army Sgt. Loughlin

Luckily for the British, larger counterattacks wouldn’t come for some time. While Lt. Col. Hans von Luck, the Panzer commander who would lead the counter assault, had his entire formation ready to go by 3 a.m., he wasn’t allowed to move forward without Hitler’s say-so. And Hitler slept in on D-Day.

Von Luck sent his grenadiers, one of the few units he could move forward without authorization, to the bridges but the British had been reinforced with paratroopers by that point. The British were able to stop the grenadiers’ advance and the Germans dug in, sure that armored support would be coming soon.

Forward German units did come to assist and were able to begin pushing the British back. The British were picked at by snipers and German rocket fire and were slowly surrounded, but they managed to hold out until the afternoon despite dwindling ammo and a limited number of men.

In the early afternoon, reinforcements in the form of British commandos finally came and the combined force held off German armored attacks, killing 13 of 17 tanks and plenty of German soldiers. They also had to fight off a German gunboat that attacked from the river.

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British forces move across the Caen Canal Bridge, later renamed Pegasus Bridge. Photo: British Army Sgt. Christie

The successful capture and defense of the bridges is a major part of British airborne history. Both bridges were renamed in honor of the British. The Caen Canal Bridge was renamed Pegasus Bridge after the symbol of the British airborne soldiers. The nearby river bridge was renamed Horsa Bridge after the Horsa gliders the first troops rode in on.

Now, Eagles Dare Films is creating a movie that covers the efforts of the British soldiers from the assault through their eventual relief on the battlefield. Their Facebook feed is full of behind the scenes photos and a few images from their recent test shoot with re-enactors in full kit. The movie is slated for release in 2017.

(h/t to Stephen Ambrose of “Band of Brothers” fame for his book on Operation Deadstick, “Pegasus Bridge.” Check it out for much more information on the battle.)

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