What was Operation Deadstick?

What was Operation Deadstick? And why was it necessary?

Horsa Gliders at Pegasus Bridge

Operation Deadstick was the code name given to the operation to take control of two bridges of significant importance. The two bridges crossed the River Caen and the river Orne.

On the night of the 6th June, 180 men of the 6th Airborne Division, specifically D Company, 2nd Battalion of the Oxford and Buckingham Light Infantry, were being towed across the channel, from their base in Devon, towards the Caen canal. Each plane carried 30 men, around five of whom were Royal Engineers, tasked with removing the explosives believed to be attached to the underside of the bridge.

At 00:16 on the 6th June 1944, number one Horsa glider, piloted by Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, crashed into the field next to their target, the Caen canal bridge. The other gliders landed at one minute intervals behind number one glider.

The Germans had not been on high alert, in fact only two sentries were on duty that night. Lieutenant Brotheridge’s platoon attacked first, taking out the trench systems and the machine guns that had opened up on the other side of the bridge. Unfortunately, while throwing a grenade at one such machine gun post, Den Brotheridge was hit, and later died. It is debated whether Lt Den Brotheridge was the first man to be killed in combat on D-Day, but for the men of the 6th Airborne, there was no doubt about it.

After a ten minute firefight, the battle for the bridges was over, the German resistance was no more.

But their work was not over yet. A few minutes later, the rest of the 6th Airborne division was parachuted in, guided to the bridges by Major Howard’s whistle.

With limited supplies and men, the 6th Airborne began preparing for a counter attack.

A unit of Panzers were deployed and as they approached the junction with the bridge, it was hit by a round from a PIAT gun, the only one that was working. The tank exploded, setting off the stored ammunition inside the tank, causing the others to withdraw.

With some added reinforcements, the British Paratroopers began venturing out into Benouville, setting up there headquarters in the village. The Germans counter attacked and set up their own foothold in the village, continuing small assaults and mortar fire throughout the night.

The 6th Airborne had lost a lot of their officers, with some platoons now in command from Corporals.

As daylight broke, German snipers were able to identify and pick off potential targets. The captured anti-tank gun was the n turned on potential sniper hideouts.

Two German gunboats then approached the bridge, one being destroyed and the other retreated.

Finally a single bomb landed on the bridge, which failed to detonate.

After a series of counter attacks and tank attacks, the men defending the bridge were severely under strength and in dire need of reinforcement.

At 13.30 they heard the faint sound of bagpipes and were shortly joined by men of the 1st Commando Brigade.

They resisted attack until the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment reinforced them at around 21.00.

At midnight, Major Howard handed control over to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. The 6th Airborne’s gutsy mission to take the two bridges was over.

Major John Howard CO of the Pegasus Bridge raid
Major John Howard

The raid on Pegasus Bridge was the most forwardly point of the British invasion on the 6th June 1944. It was considered imperative that it was captured as it could allow a huge counter attack from the Germans in response to the landings, including Panzers, which could have decimated the troops on Sword Beach.

Thanks to the bravery and tenacity of the men of the Glider Pilot Regiment and the 6th Airborne Division, the bridges were captured, and held.

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