Major John Howard commanded the glider - borne British infantrymen who seized Pegasus Bridge on the first day of the Normandy invasion. 

Major John Howard, 86, British D-Day Hero


By Richard Goldstein, , May 9, 1999

Major John Howard, the commander of glider- borne British infantrymen who seized the strategically vital Pegasus Bridge in the first battle of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, died May 5 in a hospital in Surrey, England. He was 86 and had lived in Burford, near Oxford.

Under cover of night on June 6, 1944, six gliders carrying 181 officers and men of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry landed on the eastern flank of a 60-mile invasion front on the northern coast of France. The regiment had a heritage going back to the battles of Bunker Hill and New Orleans, to Waterloo and to World War I. Now its soldiers were in the vanguard of the invasion of Hitler's Europe.

Howard's D Company was ordered to seize two bridges, one over the Caen Canal and the other spanning the parallel Orne River. If the Germans held on to those bridges, panzer units could move across them in a counterattack isolating 10,000 British paratroopers jumping behind the British invasion beach known as Sword, where infantry forces would arrive at daybreak. And Howard's men sought to strike swiftly to prevent the Germans from blowing up the bridges if they were overwhelmed; the British needed those bridges to resupply their airborne units.

British Halifax bombers towed the gliders over the English Channel, then cut them loose.

Howard's lead glider landed at 12:16 a.m., only 50 yards from the Caen Canal bridge, but the glider's nose collapsed on impact, knocking everybody aboard unconscious for a few seconds. The soldiers quickly emerged, and over the next five minutes the men directly under Howard killed the surprised German defenders.

The nearby Orne River bridge was captured by other troops in Howard's unit, and soon the words "Ham and Jam," signifying mission accomplished, were radioed to the airborne.

Two British soldiers were killed and 14 wounded in the operation.

Over the next 12 hours, British paratroopers and commandos reinforced Howard's men, and British forces were able to move toward the city of Caen, their flank having been protected by the capture of the bridges.

On July 16, Howard received the Distinguished Service Order, Britain's second-highest award for valor. On the 10th anniversary of D-Day, he received the Croix de Guerre Avec Palme from the French government, which had renamed the Caen Canal span Pegasus Bridge, for the flying horse symbolizing the British airborne. The road crossing the bridge was later renamed Esplanade Major John Howard.

Howard was an adviser for Darryl Zanuck's 1962 film "The Longest Day," in which he was portrayed by Richard Todd, the British actor, who had jumped into Normandy on D-Day with the British 6th Airborne Division.

John Howard was born on Dec. 8, 1912, the first of nine children, and grew up in London's West End. At 19, he joined the army, and except for an 18-month stint as a police officer in Oxford he remained in military service through World War II.

Howard was wounded twice in the summer of 1944, then returned to England in September to reorganize his company. In mid-November, he suffered severe leg and hip injuries in a military vehicular accident and was hospitalized until March 1945. He left the military at the end of the war and later worked for the British National Savings Committee and Ministry of Food.

He is survived by a daughter, Penny. His wife, Joy, died in 1986.

Howard often returned to Normandy for anniversary ceremonies, where he was reunited with his comrades. He also visited the Gondree family, owners of a cafe near Pegasus Bridge, who had provided information on German defenses to the French Resistance for transmission to Howard when he was preparing for his mission. That cafe was the first French building to be liberated. Pegasus Bridge was rebuilt in 1994, and a museum commemorating D-Day is to be opened there on June 6, 2000.

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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov