Pegasus Stories: Captain Priday's Account
As anyone watching The Pegasus Bridge Story will know, five of the six gliders that made up the 'coup de main' party tasked with capturing the Orne River and Caen Canal landed remarkably close to their objective, and soon after had successfully taken them both. However one landed about 8 miles off course at another bridge near Varaville, over a different river – the Dives. The account below, from Captain Brian Priday, who led the men on board this ‘lost’ glider, has been reproduced as it appeared in an issue of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Journal for February 1945 (It also appears in Regimental Chronicle for 1944-45).
CAPT. B. C. E. PRIDAY'S ACCOUNT
My glider was No. 4 in the flight plan and we carried 22 platoon with Lieut. Hooper in command, 5 sappers, my runner and myself apart from the two pilots. I am unable to remember the names of the attached personnel. The first pair of aircraft took off at 2256 hrs and I followed at 2300 hrs. We got into the air safely and although I spent all my time until it was dark looking out of the cockpit, I saw nothing of the others. I allowed smoking, since most of us were in state of tense excitement. At 2350 hrs, 30 minutes before we were due to land I stopped smoking and had the lights put out for fear of enemy fighters. We checked on our equipment and weapons, and I wondered whether our grenades would explode if we had a heavy landing. I said nothing of this. I stressed the importance of shouting as we came in to land, since I did not want a lot of deaf men to deal with when we got on to the ground, I again went into the cockpit and kept a running commentary going of all I saw. I didn't see very much for it was a dark cloudy night. We were flying at six thousand feet but I had managed to discern the sea as we crossed the coast, and now I could make out the French coast by the flak coming up to our right. We escaped it ourselves.
At this stage, about 0005 hrs June 6th, 1944, I ordered safety belts on and gave a reminder about holding on to one another and lifting the legs clear of the floor for the landing. I gave an extra reminder to Lieut. Hooper and to Pte. Johnson who were sitting on my right and left about this, because I wanted the door open for a quick exit on landing, a job which bad to be done after cast-off, and which in tum meant that I should not have time to strap my safety belt on, and I was going to rely on these two to hold me firmly in my seat. They did their job well. We cast off and I opened the door. I looked out into the darkness and saw nothing. Then I made my way to my seat opposite the door and sat down to await the landing. Hooper and Johnson held me very tightly, but I shall always remember the odd feeling I had as we went into a steep left-hand tum, losing height rapidly, and finding myself looking straight out and down through the doorway into the darkness and the clouds below. I shouted as loudly at least as the others, for I did not want to be temporarily deaf when I got to the ground owing to the increase in atmospheric pressure as we lost height. We soon straightened out, still losing height, and rather more quickly than I expected, we hit the ground. We hit it very hard, for it was extremely dark, and the pilots could hardly see, and bounced up into the air again. We seemed to poise for a minute with our nose in the air and then we came crashing to earth once more, tearing along the ground at a terrific speed. The wheels must have come off for the floor of the glider broke up and the seats came adrift. We came to a standstill, the people to my side almost lying on their backs. With difficulty we got out of the wreckage.
Instead of recognizing my surroundings, they were completely strange to me. We were in the wrong place. We were all out by 0022 hrs, the first out probably being a little early. It is true that we landed by a waterway and by a bridge, but they were not the ones I had learnt to recognize so well over the weeks beforehand from photographs and models. I afterwards worked it out, and can only assume that owing to a navigational error on the part of the tug aircraft we were cast off in the wrong place. The glider pilots could not have glided the distance of error in the short free flying time they had after cast-off. Indeed they had made a first-class job of the landing as I well appreciated now that I could see for myself how dark it really was on the ground. The glider was right alongside a river and close up to a bridge. They had seen these as they came down to land and made for them. Not until it was too late did they realize that they were not the Orne and Caen Canal bridges we should be at.
The fuselage was resting in a ditch that ran parallel with the waterway, the right wing tilted down until it nearly touched the water. As the men had got out, they too realized that we were at the wrong place, and they took up all-round protection of the machine. I moved them away in case the enemy decided to open up on us from anywhere, when they would surely aim at the aircraft with its white stripes showing up in the darkness. I sent Lieut. Hooper off to have a look at the bridge, and after another look round the men, where I found Sjt. Barwick looking after our rear, I joined Hooper. There was a swampy bit of ground and a fairly wide ditch with high banks, then an embankment leading up to the road and the bridge. When we got to the road we could see a German steel helmet on the walls of the bridge but no enemy. I decided not to break the silence for fear of spoiling the element of surprise for the others who I hoped would be at the correct place, and withdrawing I left the road hoping the enemy would think us a crashed bomber as they had done at Syracuse, and made off to work out my position.
I remembered to collect my maps, binoculars and a signal pistol from the aircraft, for we were wearing light assault order, all else being left in the glider for collection afterwards. I wasn't able to do much salvaging for the enemy on the bridge had gathered their senses and had returned to put a few bursts into the machine. During our withdrawal across the fields an aircraft roared low overhead and a stick of parachutists floated to earth. They were contacted, Sjt. Lucas was in charge, and he and five others joined my party. The remainder of the stick must have landed the other side of the river. We later found another parachutist who was suffering from concussion and did not even know his own name. He too joined the party. We came to a deep dry ditch about five hundred yards and I decided to take up all-round defence in it.
Patrols were sent off after a brief 'O' group with instructions to go off so many hundreds of yards in certain directions, to look out for landmarks, and I settled down to question the pilots on what they had seen as we came in to land. Gradually I pieced things together and decided we were at a point SW. of Caboug by a road running east from Varraville where it crosses the River Dives and another waterway. The two bridges were close together and in the darkness from the air could easily look like the Orne and Caen Canal bridges we should be at. We were on the east bank of the most easterly waterway. The pilots were again most profuse in their apologies, and although the error meant that I should not see the fruits of my labours of the last few months (for, unbeknown to us, we had practised for this job for long) and the careful planning of the last weeks, for I had been privileged to take a full share in it, I knew it wasn’t their fault and gave them what consolation I could.
I now made two main decisions. One was to have a little battle at this bridge, for I thought a few live rounds in this area would add to the deception plan which up to now was silent, and the second was to get back to my Regiment as strong as possible. The Regiment had a task to perform and I knew we should need all the men we had to carry it out. I gave orders to this effect. After sufficient time had elapsed to allow the proper bridge party to get going. I again moved towards my bridge. I sent Lieut. Hooper on a small patrol forward to have a look round and I followed him pretty close. Two enemy sentries must have heard us and they came over to see what was happening. With a "Comment ca va" Hooper opened up and as they ran away one went down. We closed to the edge of the road and the others came up. A machine gun opened up on us from across the road and a few stick grenades were thrown. We returned with small arms fire and threw grenades, including 77s [incendiary grenades], and their fire did us no harm. I was in a slit trench at the side of the road by now with the senior glider pilot and unfortunately a 77 landed in our trench. It burned our clothes a bit and I smiled to see his luminous feet running across the bridge. A final burst from my Sten and I brought up the rear. I was told afterwards by L/Cpl. Lambley who was watching from a different angle that this last long burst of mine had fetched down a couple of enemy who were moving towards the machine gun. Presumably they were going to replace the original crew who must surely have been knocked out by the weight of our fire. It was sheer luck. I couldn't see for myself because of the smoking 77 in my pit, but I was very gratified to hear it.
We got down at the side of the road as planned to check up, and I now discovered that about ten or twelve of the party had failed to cross. I sent someone to the bank to tell them to cross under cover of our fire and the necessary guns were placed to cover them. They failed to cross. This wasted a good deal of time and I sent Lieut. Hooper and two men to have a look at a little wood I wanted to get to. I then went down to the river bank to try and contact the other party. No answer came to my shouts. They must have withdrawn from the bridge, but I had confidence in Sjt. Barwick who was with them. The next thing that happened was when the men from the wood came back to report that the wood was clear and that Lieut. Hooper was waiting for me there. Before we could get moving we heard voices coming out of the darkness and footsteps down the middle of the road. Very soon I recognised Lieut. Hooper's voice. He was talking very loud and I soon knew why. He was being marched along with his hands in the air and a Boche escorted him. I was wondering what to do when Hooper edged over towards the spot where only a few minutes before he had left me. This gave me a view of the German against the skyline. I had my sten ready and with a shout "Jump, Tony!" (Hooper's Christian name) I fired a big burst at the Hun. He went down and didn't move again. Unfortunately as he fell he pressed his trigger and L/Sjt. Raynor who was lying next to me got hit in the shoulder. Another round hit my map case. My chinagraph pencils were ruined but I got Hooper back.
Apparently a few minutes after dispatching the two men to report to me, a party had moved into the wood and he walked up to them thinking it was me. They were in fact a party from the other bridge coming along to see what the fuss was about. The issue was obviously confused to them because of the lone escort being sent to the bridge from which all the firing had come. Guns from the enemy in the wood now opened up, and very obligingly the gun from the bridge we had just crossed fired back at them. Hoping they would fight each other, I thought it a good time to get out. Lining up on the side of the road I gave the order "Go" and we dashed across the road. Unfortunately, Pte. Everett, my wireless operator, was killed at my side and we had to leave him behind. We now moved off the road into the floods, dykes, ditches and rivers of the flooded Dives valley. For about two hours we swam and waded, going South. In places we had to get the non-swimmers across on toggle ropes.
Then we came to a farm. It was isolated on a piece of high ground in the middle of the swamps. Just what I wanted. There had been some pretty heavy bombing going and we saw a plane crash to earth in flames. The next day I found the pilot and brought him back with me. Leaving the platoon a little way off, I went forward with a couple of men to have a look at the farm. On rounding a corner I almost shot at a head sticking out of a window, but it spoke quickly to me in French and I held my fire. The platoon was called up and I went inside. The Frenchman, his sister and his daughter were up and about because of the bombs. They were pleased to see us, and I had to explain bow we bad arrived. They fired many questions at me and I'm afraid my French was rather overtaxed. I pulled out my cigarettes but they were wringing wet and useless. The farmer asked them for "Pour manger". He was welcome. One of my men had kept a packet dry by carrying them in his helmet so we had a smoke. With the aid of my maps, which although soaked were serviceable, I confirmed my position, and I learned of enemy garrisons in the neighbourhood. I was told that the the bridges we had just left were guarded by fifty men. They were Russians and had German officers. Hooper came and joined forces with me. The Frenchman obviously coveted our "Fusiles automatic". He picked one up that had been put down on the table. I must confess I covered him with mine which I was still holding but he meant no harm and merely stood it up on its butt on the table. Before we could make him understand, he had put a burst through his ceiling. No one was upstairs in bed and no damage was done.
The night was cold and a wind blew. We were soaked to the skin up to our necks and some of us who had been finding the way had stepped into deep water without being ready for it and had gone right under. I decided to rest awhile. I was shown to a loft which contained hay. We moved into it and pulled the ladder up behind us. Settling into the hay we got gradually warmer and the water was soaked up out of our clothing. Lookouts were posted. In the morning the bombing on the coast whilst the seaborne force came in brought us scrambling for a look. The blast from the heavy explosions shook our rather dilapidated loft until I thought it would collapse. We were only a few miles inland and it lasted for about two hours. We saw no enemy. Water surrounded us on all sides and the trees round the farm spoilt our field of view. The Frenchman brought us some milk. It was very welcome for we had no rations or water bottles. They too were in the glider. A bit later on another sister of the Frenchman arrived from somewhere, and reported that there was a jeep and gun about three quarters of a mile away. He knew the place and offered to row me over in his boat, I accepted and L/Cpl. Hunt and myself went off leaving Hooper in charge.
We had an uneventful journey lying in the bottom of the boat for cover and found nothing at the end of it. I had laid on a signal with Hooper in case I wanted him, and I now called him up to a little barn I had found. I also had a guide for this party, the Frenchman's niece, and very soon they arrived. At this stage the 4 24hrs ration packs that the two glider pilots were carrying were shared out. We each had a biscuit, a piece of chocolate and either a couple of sweets or a piece of chewing gum. Lookouts had been posted but they saw nothing. Dry cigarettes were handed round and we made ready to move up a small track. We were going southward and climbing a gradual slope. Very soon we were on dry ground and speed increased. Where necessary I had a gun on the ground to cover us across open spaces, and farms and buildings were inspected by me before we passed them. Hooper brought up the rear. At Robbehomme we came across elements of the Canadian parachute battalion and an odd collection of others who wanted to get to Ranville, where I was going, so it was agreed that they should come with me. I also found the men I had lost at the bridge. Apparently they had not moved fast enough, had come under fire and had to withdraw from the road. They had had three men killed. However, one of their number could speak French and they had come to hear of the Canadians and had made their way to them. I was invited to join in an attack on Bavant. We could only muster about 150 including the Canadians, half of which would have to remain to hold Robbehomme. There was not much point in attacking Bavant, especially wittrout support and with so few men, and in any case I wanted to get back to my Regiment as strong as possible for the further tasks that we had, so I declined the offer, and after collecting all the information I could and making recces from the high ground I moved on. It was necessary to go further south because of the layout of the enemy dispositions around Robbehomme and Bavant, so I decided to make for the Bois de Bavant.
As we moved off the high ground we again had to traverse the floods and a good deal of wading and swimming ensued. I was now about 45 strong and I organized three sections, myself in the front with the fire section and Hooper and a captain from the Para. Brigade forming the two assault sections. It was very tiring wading and swimming with weapons and ammunition and I rested twice. During our second rest we saw the Ulsters and the Regiment flying in to land in the distance. The fighter escort flying way up above made it look very assured. It was a grand sight and a cheer went up from my party. We now turned westwards and after crossing three very long, straight, wide and deep dykes, a difficult business, we again came upon higher ground as we approached the main road across which was the Bois de Bavant. I halted here and went forward myself to have a look at the road. Coming down the middle of the road were three people. As they got nearer I could see that the centre man was an R.A.F. pilot. The other two looked as though they were escorting him under arrest. I waited with my Sten ready but as they approached me nearer I could see that they were unarmed civilians so I went out to them. The pilot was the one I have already mentioned, the others were one Pole and one Frenchman. The R.A.F man was lost and he said good-bye to the civilians and joined me.
I called up my party and we crossed the road into the wood without any trouble. Map reading was difficult in the heavily wooded and broken country, so I gave Hooper my compass and map and made him guide the party. His weapons, instruments, etc., had all been removed when he had been captured at the bridge, so, having no metal on him, he was the ideal man for the job. However, the country was very thick, it began to get dark and we had to make several detours round obstacles, and somehow an error occurred and we almost walked into Brebille before we found our mistake. Here, I saw an old Frenchman coming very unsteadily towards us down the road. I went up to him. He was drunk and in tears, I could get no sense out of him until I took him by the shoulders and gave him a shaking. He pulled himself together and I learned that his house had been burnt down and that he had got drunk to drown his sorrows. What is more to the point is that I also learnt that the village was Brebille and that it was occupied by the enemy.
We retraced our steps, going south, then turned west on another road, and after a while we ran into a road block near Le Mesnil. I could see that it was occupied by our men, but I did not know what they would think of us. So, leaving my party behind I went forward with my hands in the air and contacted them. Having explained who I was and so on I checked my party through and we made our way for the rest of the journey without further incident. On arrival at Ranville we rejoined our various units, the parachutists to their Regiment, my R.E. party to their company, the R.A.F. pilot to Brigade HQ., the glider pilots to their HQ., and we to our Regiment. We had been reported missing, but I soon dispelled that when I reported. I was unable to give much information for we had seen very little of the enemy. I got the men fixed up in a house with German bunks, the remainder of the rations were shared out, we had our first cup of tea, L/Sjt. Raynor had his arm properly dressed and was sent off to hospital, Hooper and I found a bed in the chateau, and in spite of our wringing wet clothes we slept like logs for two hours. We were then called, the men were collected, and we formed up again with our company as advance guard company in the approach and forward company in the attack on Escoville.
Our clothes were still wet, but our weapons had been cleaned and we were in good shape.