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Sunday, 4 June, 2000, 13:02 GMT 14:02 UK
The Longest Day
Pegasus Bridge
Pegasus Bridge was the first target on D-Day
The story of the airborne assault on Pegasus Bridge in the early hours of 6 June 1944 was immortalised in the classic film The Longest Day.

Major John Howard's 180-strong company of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, from the 6th Airborne Division, were the first troops to land at the start of the D-Day offensive.

Their mission was to seize the strategically vital Pegasus Bridge across the Caen Canal on the left flank of the Normandy landings, to secure an area for British and Canadian forces to protect against any German counter-strike.

Maj Howard's company approached their target in towed gliders - which could be incredibly effective, but just as often were disastrous death-traps.

Surprise attack

They were piloted by some of the best flyers around, trained to fight on foot after abandoning their crashed aircraft.

Beach assault
Assault on bridge helped amphibious landings
His men swooped in silently before dawn, landed right on target, and took the battle-hardened Germans completely by surprise.

Allied commanders feared German armoured divisions, against which airborne troops had little hope, might break through and massacre the vulnerable amphibious landing forces.

Although the airborne troops had less real combat experience than the Germans, they were very well trained.

Maj Howard's company held the bridge - named after the winged horse symbol of the 6th Airborne Division - until relieved by British troops advancing inland later in the day.

Complex operation

Their commander, who died in May last year, was awarded the DSO and the Croix de Guerre avec Palme for his bravery.

D-Day was probably the most difficult and complex operation ever undertaken in the history of war.

But the whole offensive could have been compromised when a Czech officer wrote a book shortly beforehand, predicting exactly where an amphibious invasion would land and suggesting that airborne forces might be dropped to secure either side against German counter-attack.

Veterans' parade
Veterans lead the way

The Germans assumed it was a deception - it was in reality exactly what happened.

The original 110 foot-long Pegasus Bridge was removed to make way for the widening of the Caen Canal in 1993 and dumped in a lorry park.

But the 165-ton bullet-riddled structure was rescued and has now become part of a memorial to British airborne forces next to the original site.

"That old bridge may be just scrap iron to some, but to the people who fought here it is a proud symbol of the greatest invasion in history," said Wally Parr, 77, one of the men who fought there, in February.

'Sentimental rubbish'

"Of the 181 troops who captured the bridge, there are now only 30 of us left."

Interviewed shortly before his death aged 86, Major Howard laughed at the way he was portrayed in The Longest Day, describing it as "sentimental rubbish".

General Sir Michael Gray, Chief of the Airborne Services Normandy Trust, described him as "a brilliant trainer and a hard man".

"The job suited his character," he said. "He trained his men meticulously beforehand with dedication and left nothing at all to chance.

"The fact that the operation was so precise and successful was fundamentally down to his training. It was brilliantly done."

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