Major John Howard led the attack by the 6th British Airborne Division on what was to be called Pegasus Bridge. The task given to Howard was to capture the bridge – a vital link over the Caen Canal of the River Orne. His men were the first British troops to land in the D-Day landing of June 6th 1944.
Why was the bridge important? It carried a road that would allow the Germans a better route to re-enforce their troops on the D-Day beaches. Control of the road, and the bridge, would have greatly hindered any such attempts. Also, the simple presence of Howard’s men at the bridge and surrounding areas would have caused confusion for the Germans. The road was also targeted by the Allies to be used as a supply route for the 6th Airborne Division that had landed near Caen – and needed to be supplied by equipment landed on the D-Day beaches.
Howard led men from D Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckingham Light Infantry. Transported by three Horsa gliders towed by Halifax bombers, they were released at 8,000 feet over the Normandy coast and landed just a few meters from one another at 00.16 on June 6th, 1944. Each glider carried 28 men – all from the 6th Airborne Division. Howard’s planning for the attack had been meticulous – but it had been greatly aided as a result of information given to the French Resistance by the owners of a local café – the Gondrée family. As a result of this information, Howard and his men knew where the Germans had placed their machine guns etc. The bridge was swiftly taken (by 00.26 – 10 minutes after the landings) and Howard started setting up his defences for the expected German attack.
At 02.10, men from the 21st Panzer Division attacked. By this time, Howard had been reinforced by troops who had landed by parachute in the area of the bridge. The German attack was repulsed.
On July 16th 1944, Howard was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and he was awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme in 1954 in recognition of his leadership during the attack on Pegasus Bridge. The road that crossed the old bridge (and its recent replacement) has been renamed ‘Rue Major John Howard’ in his honour.
In 1946, Howard was invalided out of the army – the result of injuries sustained in a car crash. He was later to join the Ministry of Agriculture.
In the film “The Longest Day”, the part of John Howard was played by Richard Todd – who had jumped with the 6th Airborne Division on D-Day.
Major John Howard, DSO, died in 1999 aged 86.