The mission objective today was Pegasus Bridge only 15 mins away in Ouistreham. However, first our morning dog walk took us further on the Memorial Walk at the bottom of the field beside us to the Canadian and British Memorial Gardens to pay our respects. Little did we realise that they had such a prolific amount of rabbits in the area however! Lola our Border Terrier was bursting blood vessels on the lead to reach them as they unhurriedly hopped away. It was like Watership Down. It was not really the done thing to have her pursuing her prey through the memorial gardens though.
Next we really did have to go to the supermarket as the cupboards were bare and even breakfast was eaten, post shop, on the carpark. Sufficiently stocked we carried on to Ouistreham to a private Aire on the side of a campsite. When we got to reception we were told they did not allow arrivals until 2pm unless you paid an extra 5€. As it happened we had planned to walk to Pegasus Bridge from there anyway, so that plus the building heat made the decision and we drive there instead.
The bonus of this meant we got to drive over the famous bridge instead. This bridge was one of the initial key objectives of D-Day, of D Company, 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry a glider-borne force of 181 men under the command of Major John Howard. Amazing navigation and pilotage landed all 3 gliders on a narrow strip of land between swamp land and the river Orne tight beside the bridge. The bridge was captured after a fierce 10 min fight, reinforcements parachuted in 30mins later and the bridge was held despite fierce resistance.
Their first relief was by 6 Commando, led by the commander of the 1st Special Service Brigade, Lord Lovat, who arrived to the sound of the Scottish bagpipes, played by the 21–year-old so-called ‘Mad Piper’, Private Bill Millin. Kev had read the book the Lone Piper a few years ago and had been keen to visit. There were Pipers outside the front of the museum when we arrived playing for the tour groups.
We visited the cafe on the far side of the bridge which was the first building liberated that day on French soil. A field hospital was established and manned by the cafe owner and his wife the Gondaée’s. The cafe still stands and we went to visit for lunch. The interior is crammed with memorabilia, many donated from the survivors themselves as a tribute to the help they received there.
After lunch, Kev visited the Pegasus Memorial museum but as it was very hot now I opted to stay with the dogs. It tells the story of the parachute regiments and how they were used during the war and then the detailed story of the attack itself. There is a full scale replica of one of the gliders, none of which are still in existence. He particularly mentioned the story of the Bailey bridge, it was used to bridge one of the waterways in 1944 for the assault inland. The bridge was moved after the War in 1950 to the commune of Beaumaris where it was used to bridge the River Dives. It remained there until 2001 in use until it was moved to the museum. The bridge designer, a New Zealander, Donald Bailey’s bridges were so well regarded he received a Christmas card from Hitler in 1941, which is in the museum.
The Pegasus bridge was originally called Benouville bridge after the village it connects to. However, it was renamed to Pegasus Bridge to honour the bravery of the mission, named after the insignia of the Parachute regiment. The original bridge was in place until 1994 when it was moved into the museum complete with bullet holes.
An amazing story of gallantry it is hard to imagine now. After finally getting checked in at the campsite we decided to watch the first non-rugby tv of the trip and watch the Longest Day to escape the heat. It was pretty moving to watch it sat in the place that appeared in the film. Another piece of trivia – the actor who played Major John Howard in the film was Richard Todd, who was himself one of the troops that parachuted in after the gliders that liberated the bridge, he met Major John Howard there.