PEGASUS BRIDGE

D-Day was the largest amphibious assault in history. 150,000 men and 50,000 vehicles were landed along a 50 mile stretch of coast by 4,000 landing craft, supported by 3,000 warships and 12,000 warplanes. It was equivalent to transporting a medium sized city 100 miles across the sea in complete secrecy. As the future of the entire free world hung so desperately in the balance, political and military leaders feared and some even predicted a catastrophe. The man in charge of it all was General Dwight Eisenhower, later he would become America’s 34th president.

He had two press releases written for the world’s media. The one taking personal responsibility for the terrible loss of tens of thousands of young lives was never read out. The success of the operation was breathtaking, thanks to many individual stories of heroism. Many of the heroes that day carried a small Bible in their uniform pocket. I guess when the bullets are flying and the mortars are exploding, it focuses the mind on the big qestions whatever side you’re fighting for. Is there meaning to this life, what happens afterwards, does God exist and can he be known?

The task of the British 6
th Airborne Division was to seize and hold the east flank of the invasion. To do that they had to take this bridge intact and defend it until relieved. The mission was carried out by 180 men of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry 2nd Battalion under the command of Major John Howard. The story is legendary. 6 Halifax bombers, each towing a Horsa glider, nicknamed the ‘the hearse’ in a touch gallows humour, carried the men from RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset. The gliders were released as they crossed the occupied French coast before the Halifax’s continued on to bomb the city of Caen as a diversion.

The parachutes at the rear of the gliders were deployed but they still came down at close to 100mph skidding on the mud. There was no sophisticated way of bringing a Horsa down and even before the action, the men were in grave danger of serious injury or death. The 4 gliders pilots, charged with delivering the men to attack the bridge, landed within 50 yards of the target. It was a stunning example of precision flying, in the most dangerous conditions imaginable. One of those heroic contributions so often airbrushed out of the story.

The little Bible that many of the men carried in their breast pocket paints a picture of Jesus as the bridge to God. He is the access point, the route through, the divine connector and the place of crossing. He’s how way we get from where we are to where we need to be, bridging the chasm between a God who is perfect and the rest of us who are not.

After a fierce 10 minute firefight, the bridge was under Allied control. It was all over by 12:26am, 6 hours before the landings and just 90 minutes after the gliders had left Tarrant Rushton. In honour of the 6
th Airborne and their flying horse emblem, the bridge was renamed Pegasus. Den Brotheridge led the first attack onto the bridge, firing from the hip and was shot in the neck halfway across. Like all the others, he was just an ordinary lad in his 20’s. A talented footballer who’d signed for Aston Villa before the war. His daughter was born 2 weeks later on June 20th he would never see her, he died over there and became the first fatality on D-Day.

Following the British landings, the battalion were relieved by 6 Commando, part of the 1st Special Service Brigade that had left from Warsash, near Southampton the night before. They were commanded by an upper class Scotsman called Brigadier Lord Lovat. It’s impossible to tell this part of the story without mentioning another chap called Bill Millin who became known as the Mad Piper of Normandy. Historically, the bagpipes were played at the head of both Scottish and Irish regiments in battle but by WW2 they were only regarded as ceremonial.

Lovat insisted that the men were piped onto Sword
Beach by 21 year old Private Millin, pointing out that the English War Office had no jurisdiction over either of them because they were Scots. So the young unarmed piper led the entire brigade into combat playing ‘Highland Laddie’ and ‘The Road To The Isles’ A German veteran said after the war that they had resisted killing him because they thought he was possessed and they feared being haunted by his ghost. A week later Lovat was wounded and airlifted out, ahead of the whole brigade returning to Southampton to be replenished.

The gripping story of Pegasus Bridge has stood the test of time and this is a place I’ve been to many times. I understand that not everyone signs up to the Christian worldview that I hold but for me this place serves as a reminder of a bridge that was secured at tremendous cost. The bridge back to God was also secured at a great price, the life and death of Jesus his son. Through the sacrifice of that one life, the power of death itself was disarmed and now the way is cleared back to the God who created us and loves us.

On the far side of the bridge is the Gondree Café. The family, whose descendants still own it to this day, quickly converted the premises into a field hospital first for Den Brotheridge and then some of the paratroopers who were wounded. It’s now a living memorial to the British 6
th Airborne Division and a place of private pilgrimage. Every year since 1944, the veterans have gathered outside the café at midnight, in ever decreasing numbers, to remember the days when they were young men in uniform and to honour the fallen. Pegasus Bridge and the Gondree Café epitomise the massive contribution of British forces on D-Day.

Most of the men who died in the fighting around here are buried in the cemetery up the road at Ranville. The inscriptions on the headstones reveal the tragic loss of so many men who would never leave Normandy. Some of the graves carry the poignant inscription ‘Known Unto God’ It represents the absence of closure for many families whose loved ones were never identified. The expression was first used by the famous author and poet Rudyard Kipling whose son was missing in action near Ypres in 1915. His grave was identified in 1992 but his father died many years earlier still searching for his son.

‘Known Unto God’ on a headstone is desperately sad, but the words also reflect a profound truth. To be known by God means we are created not simply evolved through a process of random selection. But we are not simply known by God, we are invited through Jesus to know him in return. That is the answer to the human struggle, that is the true meaning of life.

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