James Harley Wallwork & The Taking Of Pegasus BridgeSaturday, April 20, 2013
Account of the Taking of Pegasus Bridge
June 5/6, 1944
James Harley Wallwork
From handwritten manuscript dated November 17, 1999.
|Horsa glider tugged by a Halifax|
This is how, around midnight June5/6, 1944, one hundred and eighty men in six Horsa gliders slipped quietly into Normandy and gave the Wehrmacht a lesson in how to take a bridge by moonlight.
Ninety minutes into the air, ten minutes on the ground and it was done. Three months training for one rather exciting hour and a half.
How did we feel that night? We were rather busy and very confident.
You see our tug pilots knew they would deliver us to the exact release point at six thousand feet. And we glider pilots knew we could deliver the Ox and Bucks [The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry] into their little field beside what became their favourite bridge. And John Howard [Major John Howard] and his merry men knew to a man that the bridge would be theirs in minutes.
So, it became just another exercise for all three services, accepted with the cheerful bravado of youth because we didn’t know any better.
Code name for the invasion was Overlord. Code name for this operation was Coup de main, which freely translated means, “this looks rather dangerous.” Code name for the glider pilot training, Deadstick, which we thought rather unfortunate.
There were six glider crews – twelve pilots – all equally skilled and all equally trained, and I speak for all my comrades.
Tugs, gliders and D Company had trained for three months so by June we were all rather good and knew it.
Glider and tug training started in March, graduating from 4,000 feet in daylight to daylight with night-goggles, night with flares, then to 6,000 feet and moonlight only.
From Tarrant Rushton airfield Holmes Clump outside Netheravon, night after night, [we trained] through complete moon periods. With the last sliver of moon we could see enough to land. Doesn’t take much moonlight to make earth look like daylight from 6,000 feet. On the odd occasion when the tow ropes broke and Jerry very un-sportingly interfered with our tugs’ magic navigation system and we were scattered all of Salisbury Plains.
It was a great life. Seven crews, four pilots, a self-contained, completely segregated outfit, we slept during the day, trained at night and took meals where and when.
We only broke three Horsas when Mac and Mowatt wrote them off all at once in a spectacular prang, flying (glider) five – in late and too fast. Though they were no longer fit to fly Deadstick, they were patched in time to joins us in Arnhem a few months later. We were so glad to have that reserve crew who had trained the same in case of this emergency. We were told to be more careful in future as we had run out of spares.
|Jim Wallwork's Horsa PF800 on|
target at Pegasus Bridge
John and I became friends after the war, a friendship which lasted until he died this year (1999). I miss him as do the few of his comrades still here.
We (John and I) saw a lot of each other and we knew where and why, but not quite when. But pretty soon we studied photographs and the magnificent relief map of our target until it seemed like our own backyard – and after all these years, it still is. Daily photographs kept the mode up to date, intelligence was most impressive, which as one bloke said, “Someone is taking a lot of trouble over this affair, so we’d better not cock it up or the King will be rather cross.”
In early June, poles were appearing all over Normandy, but not in our little fields as the Germans knew no-one would be daft enough to try a landing there. But one day Jerry did and holes for poles began to appear in our target. Howard was concerned. We pilots were petrified, but we all knew that too much had gone into this attack for cancellation. So, I told John not to worry. Slipping glider between poles at night wasn’t really difficult and would even help slow us down. To my astonishment, he believed as did the troops, bless them. And we almost came to believe it ourselves. But thank Heaven Jerry didn’t have time to install poles.
Came June 5th. We had already cancelled the night before, but this time it was on. Briefing was just that. Courses and times pretty close to those of the Holmes Clump run a week ago. Only difference was that the tugs and glider crews were very much quieter than usual.
No questions this night. Not much of anything. No one wished anyone good luck or anything like that. And we all pottered off to our trucks and the tow path around 22:30.
And there was Howard and his merry men, faces blackened, loaded down with kit and ammo, making nervous jokes and chalking rude messages on PF800 [Jim Wallwork’s Horsa glider] which the Germans wouldn’t have time to read anyhow. For some, a sweetheart’s name. For Wally Parr, his wife Irene. For me, a very small Crystabel for Dickie Hanson, killed in Sicily the year before. He said she was his guiding spirit so I adopted her and Crystabel helped me to Arnhem that year and across the Rhine in 1945. So perhaps Dickie was right.
Fortunately we pilots were very busy checking gliders and praying particularly that tow ropes would hold and that the last minute installation of arrester chutes would behave. Finally the order to emplane. Last crack at the intercom, thumbs up to the tow-master, Halifax slowly taking up the slack and then “Go.” And we started the take-off run which was longer than usual, as our Horsa was heavily overloaded and rather reluctant. But we came unstuck at last and started a steady climb. After a while when steady on course, the boys in the back to sing which is always encouraged in order to help prevent air sickness, which once started runs through the lot regardless of rank, but no one puked. Thank Heave, as the pong always wafted into the cockpit and we pilots go more than our share.
The air was like silk. We reached 6,000 feet as we crossed the English coast, just a few clouds, nothing to worry. Perhaps the invasion fleet on our starboard and perhaps a bit of flak ahead, but too busy to look around.
Word from Duder, our tug skipper, that all’s well and “on target, on time.” Five minutes to cast off. Then five, four, three, two, one, cheers. I pulled the tit (release) and we were free. And quiet. And the singing stopped.
Right on the French coast, up with the nose, get the speed down from 120, gentle turn onto course, 185 degrees, while at the same time checking the air speed at 90 miles per hour. The (I said), “On,” to Johnny Ainsworth who starts the stopwatch. First and long leg is for three minutes and twenty seconds – it’s a long, long time but training pays off as course and speed are held perfectly.
Tempting to look around but chance only a quick glance to starboard. I’m flying from the right hand seat. And there are the river and canal like silver ribbons in the moonlight. It’s quiet, but feels quite comfortable because we both know it is perfect so far.
“Seems a helluva long time, Johnny. Sure your watch is okay?”
“Keep your head down, Jimmy. I’ll tell you when.” And he did. “Five, four, three, two, one. Go.” And I make a controlled, rate one turn to starboard onto next course which is 265 degrees.
And when I am on, I shout, “On!” And Johnny starts the watch again. This is the cross-wind leg of two minutes, five seconds. I can see my target now and though it is tempting to fly the rest by the seat of my pants, training pays and we follow the rules till Johnny gives me a last, “Five, four, three, two, one, “Go!” and I turn in. There it is, straight ahead, but it’s not Holmes Clump tonight.
It’s my guess and by God from here. Too high, half-flap and steady at 90. Still too high, so full-flap, and now we’re coming in a bit quick.
Touch down at the edge of our field removing what must have been a fence, then a hedge which didn’t slow us down either, so ‘Stream’ and the chute dropped out and streamed, giving us on helluva a jolt. So, ‘Drop’ and the chute discarded.
By now we are rolling head and nose down as the front wheel was removed when the chute opened. We are now heading at what is possibly the right speed straight for the embankment. The right speed to breach the wire and be far enough up the field to leave room for numbers two and three which are following. But by then, Johnny and I are no longer much interested [both were unconscious and Jim had been ejected by the sudden stop through the windshield and thus the first allied soldier on French soil].
|Jim Wallwork, with bandagem, at hospital after successful|
the successful mission.
We came to a few minutes later in the cockpit debris and were pleased to hear that the bridge was ours.
Helped carry ammo from the glider to the chaps, and had a minor argument with Howard regarding gammon bombs when we heard the tank, but that’s another story.
The tow was about an hour. The glide was about six minutes. The blood and snot on the bridge took about ten minutes. Three months training for tug crews, glider pilots and John Howard’s lot for a glorious 90 minutes.
Glad we didn’t miss it.
My name is Jim Wallwork
I first met James Wallwork and his wife Genevieve in Ladner in May 2004. I had been assigned by The Independent in England to take portraits of Wallwork. After years of quiet almost unknown fame Wallwork was suddenly in the news. A book had been published and a film had been made of what was eventually called the Pegasus Bridge in Normandy. I wrote about it here and here.
What would have happened? Would Hitler’s Panzers have then crossed on their way to the Normandy beach and perhaps stymied the allied invasion.
I was thoroughly charmed by both Wallwork and his gracious and classy wife Genevieve. We had them weeks later for tea at home.
From the first Wallwork reminded me of actor Adolphe Menjou who played the inflexible and almost blind to the fact that his army (the French army) were sending men into battle as cannon fodder in WWI. Paths of Glory, a brilliant anti-war film by Stanley Kubrick had always left an impression on me and specifically when Kirk Douglas (as Colonel Dax) gives Major General Georges Boulard (Menjou) a killer sermon.
My ambivalent feelings about war were somehow lightened and reinforced towards a positive justification for it knowing that with people like Wallwork having been part of WWII, that war had been fought with good and heroic hands. Chatting with Wallwork filled me with confidence that things were well with our world in spite of everything I might read.
|Jim & Genevieve, May 2004|
I quickly determined that indeed I had an obligation to honour in whatever way I could the bravery and determination of a man who had learned to fly by the seat of his pants with a smile on his face. He was a man of many a brave act who kept it all to himself.
As I heard his family recall anecdotes of Wallwork’s life who may have been one of the few glider pilots to have been present at missions in Sicily, Arnhem, Normandy and the crossing (by air) of the Rhine, I knew I had made the right decision.
I am glad I didn’t miss it. I am glad I met James Harley Wallwork. My life was enriched.
Staff Sargeant James Wallwork