A Day to Remember
Richard Todd OBE
1919 - 2009 - RIP
Foreword by Webmaster
Mr Richard Todd has very kindly sent me some material for this website and has given me permission to quote from an article that was printed in the Grantham Journal.
Richard's rank by the end of the war was Substantive Captain, Acting
Major (very briefly, he says).
Film star and 1950's square-jawed heart-throb Richard Todd is the archetypal Englishman - even though he was born in Ireland. Although he will always be remembered for playing RAF hero Guy Gibson in the Dam Busters, in real life he distinguished himself as a paratrooper.
At first he was turned down by the services on health grounds, but two days after the outbreak of war he was accepted as a cadet at Sandhurst and weeks later was blown through a second floor window when a bomb hit his bedroom.
He joined the Army Mountain Warfare Unit in Iceland, then transferred to the 7th Parachute Battalion, which he was in on the first airborne assault on Normandy D Day.
The 7th Para Battalion took over the defence of Pegasus Bridge and the River Orne Bridge from Major Howard's Glider Party, which had succeeded in capturing them an hour or so beforehand, by complete surprise and hardly any casualties.
7th Para Battalion with Todd acting as its Adjutant, succeeded in holding the crucial bridges until relieved at the end of the day by a sea-borne unit. The Battalion suffered very heavy casualties during the day.
He went on to star as Major Howard in the epic war movie "The Longest Day", in which he speaks to Lt. Sweeney - his own army nickname. Another memorable role was The Yangtse Incident (1957) and "Danger Within" (1958), Mr Richard Todd OBE. continues today to remember with great respect fallen comrades and has revisited Normandy on several occassions, he often speaks on his experiences.
Richard Todd at Normandy June 2004 -( Andrew Bystram)
The following has been quoted from a newspaper article that Richard Todd later wrote about his D-Day experiences:
"The atmosphere in the briefing hut in the camp on Salisbury Plain was a mixture of tension and eagerness. That day, June 1 1944, the 30 officers of 7th (Light Infantry) Parachute Battalion had assembled to hear their Commanding Officer, Lt. Col Geoffrey Pine-Coffin, the master plan for D-Day, the task of 6th Airborne Division in general, and the role of 7 Para in particular. So we now knew when, where and how the invasion of Europe would take place. Just before the briefing he had told me that I would be in the party as assistant Adjutant, but that I was to be prepared to take over the Mortar Platoon or the Signals Platoon, so I should attend the meeting with this in mind.
It was strangely reminiscent of the readthrough and cast list for a new production at the Dundee Repertory theatre where I had been a hopeful thespian fledgling on the outbreak of the war. War had been declared on Sunday Sept 3 1939 when I was 20. On the Monday morning I had taken a train to St Andrews, bluffed my way through the University reception Unit and been accepted as a Potential Officer. Now, here I was a few days short of my 25th birthday having gone through the script for D-Day and been told the minor role I was to play, plus a couple of understudy parts. In the interim I had been subjected to a four-year rehearsal for the big first night. This time there would be no prompter to get me out of trouble.
Sixth Airborne was to capture and hold a vital bridgehead that would secure the east flank of the entire invasion. From Ouestreham to Caen ran two parallel waterways, the River Orne and the Caen de Canal, forming a natural obstacle against any attack from the east. The only crossing places were two bridges, one near Bénouville over the canal and one over the Orne near Ranville. As the Orne and canal bridges were strongly defended and certainly prepared for demolition, surprise was essential. Therefore a coup de main force would swoop in silently in six gliders, three to each bridge, just after midnight and 30 minutes before the main parachute troops landed nearby. We of 7 Para were to relieve the glider party on the bridges and establish a western bridgehead, which would protect 6th Airborne's west flank and prevent counter-attacking German forces from moving out of the Caen area. At all costs, our western bridgehead in the Le Port and Bénouville area was to hold firm until relieved by forward elements of 3rd Division late on D-Day afternoon.
As the shadows lengthened on Monday June 5, the stand-to order was given. The last ceremony that day was a drumhead service in a meadow near Fairford Airfield by our popular padre, Captain Parry, known to us all as Pissy Percy the Parachuting Parson. Parry was a wiry little Welshman with a nature as fiery as his red hair, and a heart and courage to match. Drawn-up in a semi-circle, 610 men faced inwards towards the padre who stood on an ammunition box. A more unlikely or piratical congregation could not be imagined, every man abristle with weapons, his face and hands besmirched with black cream, his helmet on the ground before him, his rifle or Sten gun laid across it. Onward Christian Soldiers went well. Abide With Me was rather more ragged. It was not easy to sing that in such a setting and at such a moment.
Just after nightfall, our truck drew up beside the Stirling, silhouetted in the moonlight. We scrambled out, clutching our parachutes, kitbags and arms, and formed up in a line in our "stick" order, with me at the head, as I was jumping first. Gawd! I thought. I'm going to be the first man on the ground, apart from Major Howard's glider troops and the Pathfinders. In the cramped fuselage, we sorted ourselves and our equipment and sat on the floor facing each other. I had with me two kitbags, one filled with mattocks and shovels which I was to jettison as soon as the jumping order was given, and the other containing a rubber inflatable dinghy that I would take down with me, suspended by a rope from my belt.
Only eyes, teeth and bare metal glinted in the dim light. In the crescendo of noise, conversation was impossible. I fell asleep. It must have been about 0030 hours when I was awakened by the dispatcher: "Time to get ready, Sir." I heaved myself to my feet and began to prepare for the jump. For about ten minutes, all 20 of us, cumbersome, heavily-laden figures jostled and swayed while the aircraft yawed in search of the exact line of flight. Finally we hooked up our static lines and shuffled to our jumping positions. The dispatcher had opened up the doors of a coffin-shaped hole about six feet long in the floor at the rear of the fuselage. As I was jumping No.1, I waddled to straddle the broad end of the hole, my right leg clamped to a kit-bag, my right hand clutching it firmly to my thigh, my left hand prepared to jettison a second bag. My batman was behind me, straddling the narrower end of the hole helping me to not fall out. As the aircraft jinked it was difficult to maintain balance, especially with no hands free. For what seemed like an age we flew like this. Looking down, I could see crests of waves. The wind and engine noise was shattering.
Then the lines of rollers gave way to a blur of land features. The red warning light had already come on, and now I saw yellowy-orange dots floating up towards us. As the normal loading of tracer was one in every five bullets, I realised there must be a lot of lead spraying about. About a minute after we crossed the coastline, the green light came on. I heaved the jettison bag into the hole, brought my legs together, and was out after it almost simultaneously. There is only so much that the brain can register and the memory retain, but I remember a hell of a lot of what went on in the next few moments. My exit had been good and I knew that I had less than ten seconds before I hit the ground. The moment I felt my canopy snap open I pulled the rip-cord to release the leg-bag, holding on to its rope with my other hand. I should have let the bag down hand-over-hand, but I let it slip through my hand and felt it skin my palm and fingers. "Bugger!" I shouted. With the kit-bag dangling 20 feet below me, I reached up to my lift-webs and had a few seconds to look around. The sky seemed full of other paratroopers, their canopies silhouetted against the moonlight and the flashes of shells and anti-aircraft gunfire.
At about 0040 hours on Tuesday June 6 1944, I thumped onto a corn field in Normandy, an illegal immigrant without a passport but nevertheless welcome, I hoped, at least to the locals. I discarded my parachute harness and fumbled with the kitbag cord from my belt. I realised that my right hand was a bit messy. I crouched down and took stock. Aircraft were still coming in and I got my bearings by noting their flight path. There was no one near me and I reckoned that was probably because I had jumped No.1, and therefore was at the extreme end of the "stick". To the east I could just make out the dark line of a wood, and concluded that I was a good half-mile from the battalion rendezvous. Meanwhile, the Dropping Zone was being raked by small-arms fire, so I decided to get into that wood. I put my Sten gun together and loaded it.
Once in the wood I heard voices and froze momentarily, only to realise that they were speaking English. In a little clearing, there stood Colonel Pine-Coffin and about a dozen others. The CO said there was no way of knowing if the glider-borne attack on the bridges had been successful and we must get to the rendezvous as quickly as possible. We broke out from the woodland and set off at the double. Scurrying figures were everywhere. By about 0100 our group, numbering by then some 50, was at the rendezvous. A bugler repeatedly blew our rallying signal, and men came stumbling towards us, shadowy, bulky figures. But still no mortars, no machine guns and no wireless. At about 0130 hours the CO gave the order to move off to the bridges even though we still numbered only 150 men, a quarter of our strength.
All seemed quiet as we reached the bridge and trotted over it. I got my first sight of a D-Day casualty: a legless German lay at the roadside, a groaning sound coming weirdly from him. Internal gas, I supposed. Normally, the sight of blood turns my stomach, yet I felt only mild curiosity. We doubled along the causeway towards the canal bridge, a large iron structure that could be opened to allow the passage of sea-going craft. Later it was to be named Pegasus Bridge. Suddenly, all hell erupted on the road ahead. Heavy explosions, flashes and tracer bullets rent the night like a spectacular firework display. "Christ!" I thought. "This is it. Here we go!" We speeded up our jog-trot. Then, as quickly as it started, the tumult died down. An old tank probing the bridge had been hit by a piat bomb and this was its ammunition exploding."
We reached the little café-bar at the west end of the bridge, and the CO directed me to set up Battalion HQ 300 yards away below the hamlet of Le Port, whose church could be seen on the crest. Here, in the darkness, the remnants of our HQ party began furiously to dig in, my own efforts somewhat hampered by my skinned right hand, though we used explosive charges to blow our fox-holes. So far, so good. Phase one of our task had been accomplished. The bridges had been captured intact and the western bridgehead established. Now we had to hang on until some time later that day.
Minutes before first light, a shattering cacophony erupted, with a glare that made full daylight seem pale as the softening-up bombardment of the German coastal defences began. For about half-an-hour the din, the vibration of air and ground, the magnitude of that assault, was far beyond anything I could have imagined. Hundreds of aircraft, American and British, rained thousands of bombs along that strip of gun-positions, trenches and pill-boxes that menaced the landing of our seaborne invasion force. Artillery and batteries of rocket-launchers firing from special craft at sea poured a continuous hail of shells across the water, while naval guns, including the big ones of HMS Warspite, helped pulverise the defences. From our grandstand position at Le Port, I felt sorry for the poor sods cowering in those German bunkers. How could they possibly emerge and fight back? But they did, and with impressive vigour."
While the mighty invasion from the sea was being fought out, quite a lot, on a smaller but no less deadly scale, was going on in the 7th Para area. There was no cessation in the Germans' probing with patrols and counter-attacks, some led by tanks, and the regimental aid post was overrun in the early hours. The wounded being tended there were all killed where they lay. So too was Padre Parry, who had evidently fought like a tiger to defend them. Our position had developed into a classic airborne situation. There was no front line as such and the battalion had evolved into four pockets of resistance: the three rifle companies and the Battalion Headquarters group, largely out of touch with each other, but each in positions of their own choosing. From our site on the slope we had a good view of the open ground between us and the canal bridge, and more than once we were able to drive off enemy infiltrating groups with enthusiastic bursts of small arms fire. I had primed my plastic Gammon bomb and kept it handy just in case a tank might break through. There was sporadic enemy mortar and artillery fire we could do nothing about; one shell landed in a hedge near me, killing a couple of our men. I dearly wished we had recovered some of our own three-inch mortars, especially now that a handful of mortar men had got through to us.
A Company in Bénouville with all its officers killed or wounded was reduced to a strength of less than 20. From time to time, we could hear its Officer Commanding, Nigel Taylor, shouting encouragement. We knew that he was lying by the window of a house, one leg shattered, when his second in command, Jim Webber - himself shot through his chest - got through to us to report. Things might have been worse for "A" Company but for the action of one man, 19-year-old Private McGee. Fed up with being shot at by a tank as he ducked down in his fox-hole, he leaped up and charged down the street firing his Sten gun from the hip. The tank crew closed up the shutters and were temporarily blinded, whereupon McGee threw a plastic Gammon bomb from a few yards and crippled the vehicle, which slewed across the road blocking any further tank movement. McGee was awarded the DCM posthumously: he was killed a few hours later."
B" Company in and around Le Port repelled repeated attacks, one of the worst problems being the many snipers making movement difficult as they picked off men from cottage windows, roof-tops and the church tower. That stout little Norman tower was right in the centre of "B" Company's area, and very difficult to deal with. The church was surrounded by open ground and virtually impossible to attack. Finally, Corporal Killean of the anti-tank platoon found a solution. With his piat (a hand-held bazooka), he crept from cottage to cottage until he found a position with cover from view and within his bomb's range. His first blew a hole in the tower and succeeding ones practically shattered it. He then rushed the church, determined to finish off any snipers, but he had no need. His bombs had killed all the occupants. Later in the day, Corporal Killean recorded an interview with Chester Wilmot, the BBC War Correspondent who had joined us. I was present when he spoke to the embarrassed Killean, a good Irish Catholic lad. Chester drew from his a hesitant description of his exploit. It was the Corporal's last sentence that I shall never forget: "When I got to the church door I looked up, and, och! I was sorry to see what I had done to a wee house of God - but I did take off my tin hat when I went inside!
During the morning the CO told me to take about four or five mortar men and find out what had happened to a "B" Company platoon sent to take up an outpost position to guard our flank. Nothing had been heard of them since our arrival in Le Port. We set out along the line of the canal, moving cautiously through low scrub and reeds. We had gone only a few hundred yards when I spotted a glint of metal right ahead of us. It came from a well hidden figure crouching behind a hummock in a perfect firing position. Motioning the others to get down and give me covering fire if necessary, I crept off and slipped along below the canal bank until I reckoned I was about abreast of the enemy sniper. I peered over the bank, slithered over the top and began an elbows-and-knees crawl, my Sten cradled on my forearms. Some fifty yards short of my quarry I raised my head: it was one of our own lads lying there. I walked over to him and saw he was dead. He was a teenager whom I knew well by sight, with a little hole in his forehead - no blood or anything - his chin resting on his rifle.
From my slit trench on the slope at Le Port, I had a perfect view over the bridges and into the divisional area. In the distance, beyond the River Orne, the skyline was stippled with flashes and smoke from explosions or air-burst shells. In the foreground, just below us, was the canal bridge, so brilliantly captured a few hours before by Major Howard and his glider force from the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry. By our end of the bridge, stood the café owned by the Gondrée family, seemingly untouched. It was now being used as a first aid post. George Gondrée and his wife had already dispensed champagne to all those who had had time for a swig - exclusively John Howard's men. The sparkling cache had been buried in his garden since the Germans had occupied the area in 1940, so it had matured nicely. I was contemplating this view when I noticed emerging from a screen of trees two boats apparently deserted and drifting slowly towards Caen. There was little or no current on the canal, so I mentioned my suspicions to the CO and he ordered his HQ group to fire on them. Our fusillade was briefly answered from below decks but, after a direct hit on one boat two parties of Germans emerged and were taken prisoner. So to add to our battle honours that day, we were able to claim a naval victory.
All that day, Geoffrey Pine-Coffin, our much-loved CO, a veteran of North Africa, where he had commanded the 3rd Parachute Battalion, remained cool, calm and confident, totally sure of the resolve and skill of the men he had trained. He was a quiet man of steady courage and, apart from a DSO to add to his MC, he never received the acclaim due to him for his contribution to the success of D-Day. At one point I had accompanied him to the canal bridge where he had gone to confer with Major Howard and as we walked back to our HQ, we came under fire from a sniper. We took cover behind a building. The CO had a sniper's rifle with telescopic sights and soon marked his target. One shot and we resumed our walk.
At about midday, we finally heard the skirl of bagpipes that heralded the approach of the Commandos under Lord Lovat. More than a thousand men passed through us on their way to the main airborne bridgehead over the Orne. It was a fine sight, and there was great jubilation as red and green berets mingled on the road. There was still no sign of the seaborne infantry or armour reaching our area. We had expected them immediately behind the Commandos. The D-Day programme appeared to be running late.
Sometime during the middle of the afternoon, the CO sent me to check on "B" Company's position in and north of Le Port. Having done this, I walked up the road for a few hundred yards towards the coast to see if anything was heading in our direction. To my amazement, a convoy of three-ton lorries came trundling into view. The leading truck stopped, and a florid-faced, ginger-moustached RE major jumped out. He was in charge of a Royal Engineers bridging party and had simply collected his vehicles together off the beach and driven a couple of miles down the main road towards Caen, totally unaware that only the Commando brigade had gone before him. He asked me if the Orne bridges were intact and if the road to Caen was clear. I advised him to hang on and to have his men take up defensive positions. If a bunch of soft-skinned vehicles could have reached this far intact, where the hell were the expected forward invasion troops?
All that day our numbers continued to swell with men from the night-drop, and by the end of the day we numbered about 250, having lost more than 60 killed and wounded out of the original 150 that had established our bridgehead. When the relieving seaborne infantry finally reached us the mopping up operation in the Bénouville area took some time, but by midnight our two companies were extricated from their doggedly-held positions and the casualties were evacuated. We assembled by the canal bridge to begin our march to an area just north of Ranville, to join brigade reserve. I looked forward to the chance to get some sleep and to sample my emergency rations. Apart from my kip in the aircraft, I had not closed my eyes for 48 hours and I cannot recall having eaten or drunk that day apart from an occasional swig from my water bottle.
The Gondrée family was there, smiling and waving as the men passed by. All day they had helped to tend the wounded and many of us owed a great debt of gratitude to those brave, kindly people. Already fastened to the canal bridge was a crudely painted sign: "PEGASUS BRIDGE", a name derived from the badge worn by British Airborne Forces, the winged horse of mythology. Since our landing 24 hours earlier, approximately half the battalion had been killed, wounded or were missing. But as we headed through the darkness, the pace was that of light infantrymen - brisk and buoyant - laden and weary though the men were. It had been a day to remember."
Copyright: Mr Richard Todd OBE.
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