David Flintham visits a large military museum in Normandy and is impressed by the quality of its displays.
The Operation Overlord beaches stretch for some 60-miles along the Normandy coastline. Today this part of France is dotted with museums of varying sizes and quality, ranging from the large and purpose-built (such as the American Airborne Museum at St. Marie-Englise) to the tiny one or two-room collections in cafes and bars. Many are excellent, including the small Dead Man’s Corner Museum at Saint-Côme-du-Mont. But whilst size is not always an indication of quality, one of the larger and best is the Pegasus Bridge Memorial Museum at Ranville, near Caen.
The Pegasus Bridge Memorial Museum was opened on 4 June 2000 by the Prince of Wales, Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment. Dedicated to the men of 6th Airborne Division, the museum tells the story of the first action of D-Day – Operation Deadstick ¬– the capture of the Caen Canal and Orne river bridges by a coup de main. Their capture would prevent their use in any German counter-attack against eastern flank of the landings at Sword Beach. So it was a critical undertaking.
Major John Howard led a force of 181 men from Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (plus sappers from the Royal Engineers and men from the Glider Pilot Regiment) in six Airspeed Horsa gliders. Landing at 00:16 on 6 June 1944, the attack was virtually a complete surprise to the Germans (one of the gliders, Chalk 91, landed just 47 yards from Bénouville Bridge over the Caen Canal). The objectives were captured within 10 minutes of landing.
They were reinforced half-an-hour later by 7th Battalion the Parachute Regiment. Later they were joined by the beach landing forces with the arrival of Lord Lovat’s Commandos. One of the members of 7th Battalion was a young actor by the name of Richard Todd, who would go on to play Major Howard in the film The Longest Day.
The action saw the first Allied deaths of D-Day – Lieutenant Den Brotheridge and Lance-Corporal Fred Greenhalgh – and the first house to be liberated, now the Café Gondrée, close to Pegasus Bridge. The coup de main as a tactic was more closely associated with Germany’s 1940 attacks on Fort Eben Emael and the Corinth Canal in 1941 than anything the British had mounted before. A number of authors have suggested that Operation Market Garden might have been more successful had the British repeated this tactic at Arnhem Bridge three and a half months later.
Saving the Pegasus Bridge
The original museum – the Airborne Forces Museum – opened in 1974 but was closed in 1997. In 1993, as part of the canal widening, the original Pegasus Bridge (renamed from Bénouville Bridge on 26 June 1944) was removed and replaced by the current bridge. The original was left on waste-ground close by. Shortly after the closure of the first museum, the D-Day Commemoration Committee launched a campaign to raise funds and find a site for a new museum. In 1999 the original Pegasus Bridge was bought by the museum committee from the French authorities for the symbolic price of one franc and now forms the focal-point for the new museum.
Located between the canal and river bridges, the museum has been designed to resemble a glider from the front. The spacious entrance houses both the museum’s shop and ticket desk. Generally speaking the shops and range of items sold in the many Overlord museums is better than in the military museums in the UK. The one here is no exception.
Upon entry into the main hall, virtually the first thing encountered is an example of Rupert, a paradummy dropped over Normandy in the deception mission Operation Titanic. There are hundreds of other exhibits on display, ranging from an airborne jeep to uniforms, equipment, photographs, and models. Everything is well laid-out and the accompanying explanation panels are appropriately and thoughtfully written. There is also a very good film, telling the story of the action and of the museum itself. The film is available in English, although you may need to ask.
One display shows the Sten gun, Lee Enfield rife, Bren gun, Gammon bomb, and other arms carried by the British troops who captured and held the bridges. Of particular note is a PIAT anti-tank weapon similar to the one used by Sergeant ‘Wagger’ Thornton to destroy a German armoured vehicle (accounts differ as to whether it was a tank or a half-track) in the early hours of D-Day. Stephen Ambrose has described this as ‘the single most important shot of D-Day’, as it halted the German counter-attack literally in its tracks. There is a display dedicated to Major John Howard which includes both his red beret and his helmet (the force of the glider landing had slammed Howard’s helmet so far forward over his eyes that he initially thought he was blind).
The bagpipes on display at the Memorial Museum are one of the sets belonging to Piper William ‘Bill’ Millin. Millin was piper to Lord Lovat, commander of the 1st Special Service Brigade, and it was the sound of Millin playing Blue Bonnets over the Border that first alerted Howard’s men to the approach of Lovat at 13:30 on D-Day. The bagpipes he played on D-Day, along with his beret, 100-year-old kilt, and dirk are on display at the museum in Dawlish, south Devon, where he lived until his death in August 2010. On 8 June this year a bronze life-size statue of Piper Bill Millin will be unveiled at Colleville-Montgomery, near Sword Beach.
Within the three-acre grounds is a replica of the first Horsa glider to land at Bénouville Bridge. This was inaugurated on 5 June 2004 by the Prince of Wales and Jim Wallwork, the pilot of the first glider to land on D-Day in what has been described as the most outstanding feat of precision flying of the war. As this piece was being written, I learned of the death of Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork DFM, on 24 January 2013. I therefore respectfully dedicate this article to his memory.
Also within the grounds is the original Pegasus Bridge (which visitors can walk across), still bearing the scars of the fighting. In a new museum building there is an original section of a Horsa Glider. Other exhibits not directly associated with Operation Deadstick include a Bailey bridge, a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun, 25-pdr guns, an American M3 half-track, and a quad .303 anti-aircraft mounting.
The area surrounding the museum is simply a must to explore. Across the road from the museum is the landing zone where three of the gliders came down on D-Day. This is commemorated by a bust of Major Howard and plinths marking the position where each Horsa landed.
Moving closer to the canal bridge is one of the monuments signaux erected by the Comité du Débarquement at significant D-Day sites. Close by the bridge is the 75mm anti-tank gun in its Tobruk housing. This was turned on its former owners by Corporal Wally Parr and his makeshift gun-crew (they fired on the water tower and the Château de Bénouville across the canal, only later discovering that the château was a maternity hospital whose director was a member of the resistance). Across the canal is the Café Gondrée, which now contains a small museum. A Centaur VI Close Support tank of the Royal Marines is just across the road from the café.
Such is the quantity and quality of the D-Day sites, museums, and memorials that visitors are advised to select which ones to view. But the Pegasus Bridge Museum is a must. Not only for the excellence of the museum but also because the battlefield itself is so accessible and, with the appropriate guide, easy to interpret.