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Like a Bolt from the Blue

Relative Superiority and the Coup de Main
Assault on the Caen Canal and River Orne Bridges, 6 June 1944

by Michael J. Mooney

On 6 June 1944, a force of 181 British soldiers conducted Operation Deadstick—a daring glider-borne coup de main assault which captured two vital bridges behind the left flank of the D-Day invasion beaches in Normandy. Although the assault force was not comprised of special operations personnel per se, the success of Operation Deadstick was a result of the correct application of the six principles of special operations and the theory of relative superiority as formulated by Admiral William H. McRaven, United States Navy (Ret.) in his seminal study on special operations, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice. The results of this renowned action in the opening hours of D-Day clearly illustrate the applicability of McRaven’s principles and the theory of relative superiority for non-special operations forces. This historical case study additionally offers object lessons on how friction can be countered by the moral factors of war, as well as the outsized effect a successful special operation can play in enabling conventional forces to achieve operational level objectives on the battlefield.

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory, and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it. -Thucydides

As the six Horsa gliders carrying British army Major John Howard and the 180 men of his assault force cut through the night sky over the English Channel towards the French coast, one thing was for certain: the soldiers crowded within those wooden gliders had a clear vision of both the glory and danger that awaited them. It was a few minutes after midnight on
6 June 1944 and Howard and his men had been training two years for this moment. What they would accomplish in the following two hours—the capture of two vital bridges in a swift coup de main operation named Operation Deadstick—would be crucial to the success of the Allied invasion of Normandy. In examining this operation, another thing is for certain: that although Howard’s assault force was not comprised of special operations personnel, per se, the success of their daring assault on D-Day was a result of the correct application of the six principles of special operations and the theory of relative superiority as formulated by Admiral William H. McRaven, United States Navy (Ret.) in his seminal study on special operations, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice.[1] The results of this renowned action in the opening hours of D-Day clearly illustrate the applicability of McRaven’s principles and the theory of relative superiority for non-special operations forces. This historical case study additionally offers object lessons on how friction can be countered by the moral factors of war, as well as the outsized effect a successful special operation can play in enabling conventional forces to achieve operational level objectives on the battlefield. 

McRaven’s Theory of Special Operations

Before we examine in detail the coup de main (French, literally meaning strike or blow of the hand) assault conducted by Howard and his men on the River Orne and Caen Canal bridges, it is necessary to first gain an appreciation for the details of McRaven’s theory of special operations, as it is the framework for our analysis. The concept of “relative superiority” is the lynchpin of McRaven’s theory regarding the ability of Special Operations Forces (SOF) to defeat enemy forces in the defense, an area which is inherently the strongest form of warfare.[2] Relative superiority is achieved when “an attacking force, generally smaller, gains a decisive advantage over a larger or well-defended enemy.”[3]

Figure 1 is a graphic representation by McRaven of the concept of relative superiority using time and probability of mission completion as the X and Y axes. One can see that once relative superiority is gained, the probability of mission completion dramatically rises, and conversely, the longer it takes to do so, the greater the vulnerability to the attacking force. The intersection of the axes is labeled as the point of vulnerability (PV), defined by the author as the point in time “when the attacking force reaches the enemy’s first line of defenses.”[4]

In summary, it is crucial for the attacking force to gain relative superiority as quickly in the action as possible. The quicker one reaches relative superiority, (i.e., achieves a decisive advantage over the enemy) the smaller the area of vulnerability, the less danger to the attacking force, and the greater the probability of mission success. On paper, this is a very neat and clean proposition.

Figure 1. Relative superiority graph. Credit: William H. McRaven/The Theory of Special Operations/ Naval Postgraduate School master’s thesis/1993/used with permission

Nevertheless, as acknowledged by McRaven and numerous military historians, war is by nature a complex, bloody, and chaotic affair. It is a place where, as the renowned 19th century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz astutely observed, everything is simple, and the simple is extremely difficult.[5] Clausewitz went on to posit that the cumulative effect of myriad unforeseen difficulties and chance[6] (things such as uncertainty in the commander’s mind, unexpected enemy reinforcements, bad weather, misunderstood orders, failed communications, erroneous intelligence, broken equipment, missed timetables, unintended effects of one’s plan, etc.) amass over time to produce what he labeled “friction” which lowers performance and makes one fall short of their goal, i.e., can quickly result in mission failure or defeat.[7]

Friction is a constant in war; it “creates the gulf that so often exists between what commanders intend to happen and what actually happens in battle.”[8] In practice, friction makes “activity in war … movement in a resistant medium” which prevents one from quickly achieving relative superiority.[9] Since friction cannot be escaped, the goal according to McRaven is to reduce or mitigate its caustic effects on military operations as much as possible. In his examination of special operations, he maintains that the correct application of the six principles of special operations—namely simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed, and purpose—will reduce the frictions of war to an acceptable level, thereby allowing a smaller SOF assault force to achieve relative superiority over the enemy and gain victory.[10]

McRaven contends that these principles are inextricably linked to each other and presents them as part of a “special operations model” (fig. 2) in the shape of an inverted pyramid consisting of three distinct phases of an operation: planning, preparation, and execution. Although SOF missions are high-risk, they can succeed despite the long odds when relative superiority is gained “through the use of a simple plan, carefully concealed, repeatedly and realistically rehearsed, and executed with surprise speed, and purpose.”[11] Furthermore, it is essential that once achieved, relative superiority must be maintained in order to guarantee victory.[12]

Figure 2. McRaven’s Special Operations Model. Credit: William H. McRaven/The Theory of Special Operations/used with permission

It is important to understand that the mere achievement of relative superiority does not in itself guarantee success.[13] The dynamic, uncertain character of war and its ever-present friction continually threaten to unhinge the pyramid from its base if not for intangible moral factors such as “courage, intellect, boldness, and perseverance” which serve to neutralize friction’s negative effects on mission accomplishment.[14]If these intangible moral factors cannot overcome the detrimental effects of friction the model collapses, relative superiority is lost, and defeat ensues.[15] Thus, by correctly linking these principles together, supported by the moral fortitude required to counterbalance (or neutralize) friction, SOF can maintain their advantage and emerge victorious against a stronger, more numerous, better equipped and supported foe.

McRaven’s Principles of Special Operations

In the planning phase, the principle of simplicity is the foundation of a successful SOF mission. The three elements of simplicity are “limiting the number of objectives, good intelligence, and innovation.”[16] More often than not, a complicated or overly intricate plan creates too many opportunities for failure. Clausewitz warns that, “every complex operation takes time, and this time must be available without a counterattack on one of its parts interfering with the development of the whole … rather than try to outbid the enemy with complicated schemes, one should, on the contrary, try to outdo him in simplicity.”[17] Plans inevitably become complicated when additional objectives are added as the operational plan develops. Keeping objectives to a minimum reduces the combat power needed and time on target, as well as focuses training.[18] Good intelligence “reduces the unknown factors and the number of variables that must be considered,”[19] while innovation, exercised via new technology or tactics, helps to reduce or remove obstacles that would prevent surprise or the achievement of relative superiority.[20]

Security and repetition comprise the next layer of McRaven’s model: preparation. Security, regarding SOF missions, refers mainly to the timing, and means of insertion of the assault force rather than the actual identity of the target.[21] Repetition is a timeless element of combat preparedness. The more often a force thinks through, trains, and practices for every foreseeable scenario (within reason), the better the probability the force will be able to fight through friction to execute the mission thanks to countless full-dress rehearsals and tough, realistic training. Just as importantly, repetition produces confidence, speed, and reveals flaws in one’s plan.[22]

The final level of the SOF model links the elements of surprise, speed, and purpose, which come to fruition during the execution phase of the mission. Because the target of a SOF mission is almost always cognizant of its importance and value, surprise is manifested through deception, timing, and exploiting the enemy’s vulnerabilities; in other words, “catching the enemy off guard.”[23] For McRaven, speed is the ability to reach the objective as quickly as possible once the attacking force crosses the point of vulnerability.[24] Success in a SOF operation is time-dependent; the quicker relative superiority is reached the less danger to the attacking force and greater probability of mission accomplishment. Finally, there is the principle of purpose. This means a clear, unambiguous mission statement which is understood by all hands, from the assault force commander to the last rifleman in the last fireteam. It also means a personal commitment to mission success.[25]

Prelude to the Assault: Situation

A fundamental weakness of an amphibious assault is that it takes time to build significant combat power ashore. Although doctrinally the landing force is supported by both naval gunfire support and close air support, the first assault waves essentially touch down on their assigned landing beaches facing the enemy defenses with only the firepower that they can carry on their backs. It is during these initial phases of the landing that a seaborne assault force is vulnerable to being driven back into the sea by massed enemy fires or local counterattacks. Well before 1944, Adolf Hitler and his generals had correctly deduced that the Allies were planning to open a second front in Northwest Europe.[26] Stopping the invasion on the beaches was the only way to successfully defeat it in the view of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the German operational commander in charge of Army Group B, comprised of the Fifteenth and Seventh Armies running from the Loire River in Brittany northward to Holland. “It is on the beaches that the fate of the invasion will be decided,” said Rommel, “and, what is more, during the first 24 hours.”[27] The way he envisioned to defeat any Allied landing was through a rapid and decisive counterattack on D-Day by panzer and mechanized infantry positioned within the immediate vicinity of the landing beaches. For Rommel, any delay in unleashing his counterattack would spell disaster for Germany.

In thespring of 1943 as the Allied planners drew up their concept for the Normandy landings, they were posed with a serious problem. They too recognized the initial vulnerability of the seaborne assault force, especially on the extreme left flank of the invasion beaches (namely the British-assigned “Sword Beach”). This was due to the fact that the Germans had positioned the majority of their panzer forces assigned to defend against the invasion to the east of the proposed landing beaches, beyond Le Havre.[28] If the Germans could quickly move their armor to the west and send it crashing into the exposed Allied left flank at Sword Beach as Rommel desired, they could possibly roll up the lightly-equipped seaborne infantry like a carpet, with the invasion beaches falling like dominoes: first Sword, then Juno, Gold, and Omaha.[29] The result would be obvious: a failure of the invasion as a whole. 

The quickest and most direct route for such a German armored counterattack on the invasion beaches would be east over the River Dives, then straight across the River Orne bridge at Ranville and Caen Canal bridge at Benouville. These two final bridges at Ranville and Benouville were only 300 meters apart, separated by a thin strip of land between the two waterways. Once over these water obstacles, the highly mobile German panzers would be at Sword Beach in a matter of minutes. The British solution to this problem was to land the approximately 12,000 men of their 6th Airborne Division between the River Dives and the bridges at Ranville and Benouville to prevent this from happening (see fig. 3).

Figure 3. This map shows D-Day invasion beaches and the area of operation for the 6th Airborne Division (the circle between the Caen Canal/River Orne and the River Dives). Credit: Mark Hickman/The Pegasus Archive/The 6th Airborne Division in Normandy/used with permission

Operation Tonga: The Plan

The plan, codenamed Operation Tonga, was for the British paratroopers (or “paras”) to descend en masse into the Normandy countryside at drop zones between the Caen Canal/River Orne and the River Dives during the hours of darkness prior to the invasion. Once on the ground, the paras’ primary tasks were to destroy the main bridges across the River Dives to halt or significantly delay any German counterattack headed towards the beaches and form a defensive perimeter to protect the bridges over the Caen/Orne waterways.[30] Destroying the bridges over the Caen Canal at Benouville and River Orne at Ranville, or allowing the Germans to destroy them, was not an option, however. This would isolate and leave the lightly armed and equipped 6th Airborne Division east of the invasion beaches without any means to reinforce them with vital armor and anti-tank assets against the advancing German panzers. Outnumbered and cut off from reinforcements, the division would be decimated in detail by German forces.[31] So, having solved the problem of halting or delaying the German panzers from attacking into the British flank at Sword Beach, the Allied planners faced another quandary; it was now an imperative that those bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne (see fig. 4) be seized intact and defended until the seaborne infantry and armor could push inland from Sword Beach and reinforce the 6th Airborne paras to the east.

Figure 4: Operation Tonga. The Caen Canal and River Orne bridges designated for capture by Howard are circled just to the west of DZ-N. The DZs shown were designated for the paras of the 6th Airborne, who would land shortly after the coup de main gliders and move to reinforce Howard and secure their other objectives (Xs marking bridges and the Merville Battery to the east). Credit: Mark Hickman/used with permission

Intelligence reports from aerial reconnaissance and the French underground stated that a garrison of approximately 50 German soldiers from the 736th Grenadier Regiment of the 716th Infantry Division were guarding the Caen Canal and River Orne bridges, armed with light machineguns, one anti-aircraft machinegun, an anti-tank gun, and a pillbox mounted heavy machinegun set in fighting positions around the bridges.[32] Most critically, “both bridges were prepared for demolition by explosives in the event of an Allied invasion.”[33] Mission analysis by British planners determined that a conventional force of air-dropped paras would take too long to organize to move on the bridges once they hit the ground, virtually guaranteeing that the Germans would be able to destroy the bridges before the paras could reach them. There was no alternative: they had to be seized intact. It would be a task that, “would demand bold and unorthodox tactics.”[34] From this necessity was born Operation Deadstick, and where Major Howard and his 180-man assault force enter the picture.[35]

The Coup de Main Assault Force

It is important to recognize at the outset of our examination, that the men who executed Operation Deadstick were not officially designated within the British military as SOF. They were not commandos nor part of the British military’s Special Operations Executive. Howard’s reinforced D Company, 2d Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (“Oxs and Bucks”) were in fact glider-borne infantry, part of the 6th Airlanding Brigade of the British 6th Airborne Division. However, as McRaven observes, special operations can be executed by forces who are not SOF, per se.[36] “A special operation,” states McRaven, “is conducted by forces specifically trained, equipped, and supported for a specific target whose destruction, elimination, or rescue (in the case of hostages) is a political or military imperative.”[37] This perfectly describes Howard, his men, and his mission.

Howard had been in command of D Company (D Coy) since early 1942.[38] The company’s table of organization was four rifle platoons and the company headquarters for a total of six officers and 128 enlisted soldiers.[39] Each rifle platoon, designed to fit into a single glider, consisted of two rifle sections, a scout section, and platoon headquarters. Being a glider-borne unit, Howard and all his men were volunteers. From the minute he assumed command he set out to make the company “into a family and into a first-class combat unit.”[40] He trained them extensively in light infantry tactics, weapons, and demolitions. Howard put an emphasis on quick thinking and action. He drilled into them the notion that they were elite.[41] Described by a fellow officer from the Oxs and Bucks as a “physical-fitness fanatic,” Howard’s mania for physical training produced warriors who had the endurance and confidence to face anything the enemy threw at them.[42] Howard and all his officers did everything the troops did – there was no favoritism because of rank.[43] The company’s documented tactical excellence and physical toughness gained Howard incredible autonomy in devising his training. They conducted live fire urban training, and extensive training during periods of darkness. Month after month, the company worked and trained at a pace that “bordered on fanaticism.”[44]

Howard was informed in April 1944 that his company was selected to carry out an extremely important mission during the coming invasion of Europe. In general terms he was told that he was to capture two bridges intact, about a quarter of a mile apart, and hold them until relieved. He also was told that D Coy would spearhead the invasion and be the first British fighting force to land on the continent.[45] By this time, the company had been training together for over two years.[46] Considering the scope of the mission, Howard was reinforced with two platoons from B Coy, Oxs and Bucks, and thirty Royal Engineer sappers. Including himself and the twelve glider pilots, his coup de main assault force numbered 181 men.

Mission and Concept of Operations (CONOPS)

On 2 May 1944, Howard received his official operations order from Brigadier Nigel Poett, commanding the 5th Parachute Brigade of the 6th Airborne Division, to whom Howard’s command was attached for D-Day. They read:

Your task is to seize intact the brs [bridges] over R Orne and canal at Benouville and Ranville, and to hold them until relief by 7 Para Bn…the capture of the brs will be a coup de main op [operation] depending largely on surprise, speed, and dash for success. Provided the bulk of your force lands safely, you should have little difficulty in overcoming the known opposition on the brs. Your difficulties will arise in holding off an enemy counterattack on the brs, until you are relieved.[47]

As a glider-borne unit, the Oxs and Bucks were transported in Horsa gliders—wooden, high-wing aircraft 67 feet in length and with a wingspan of 88 feet that carried 28 combat loaded soldiers—into their landing zones, instead of using parachutes to insert into battle.[48] As such, Howard’s troops were especially suited for a coup de main operation. The Joint Publication 1-02, U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines a coup de main as an “offensive operation that capitalizes on surprise and simultaneous execution of supporting operations to achieve success in one swift stroke.”[49] This swiftness of action is purposely designed to overwhelm and defeat the enemy in one lightning-fast stroke. The strategy was to use the stealth and shock effect of the massed glider-borne force to swiftly descend on the German garrison holding the bridges, capture the bridges intact, and hold them until reinforcements could arrive from the paras of the 6th Airborne landing to their west, and ultimately, British seaborne forces pushing inland from Sword Beach.

Howard’s tactical plan was simple. The assault force would be transported in six Horsa gliders to their objectives. Two groups of three gliders, each carrying a platoon reinforced with sappers, were to land at separate landing zones (LZs) adjacent to each bridge. Once on the ground the men would quickly disembark and overwhelm the German defenses, ensuring that the Germans could not detonate the bridges. At the Caen Canal bridge, three men were specifically designated to lead the assault by dashing forward and dropping hand grenades into the machinegun pillbox that contained the trigger device to blow the bridge.[50] The sappers were to rush immediately to the undersides of the bridges to cut the wires and dismantle the explosive devices that were reported to be on each bridge.

Howard would lead the first group of three gliders assigned to capture the Caen Canal bridge at Benouville, while his second in command (2IC), Captain Brian Priday, commanded the troops in the second group of three gliders. Priday’s objective was to capture the River Orne bridge at Ranville. Landing the gliders as close as possible to the objectives was critical to the success of the mission. As it was very likely that the German defenders would hear the heavy, overloaded Horsas skidding and screeching to halt in the dead of night, landing too far away from the bridges would diminish the shock effect of the assault, providing the alerted Germans time to detonate the bridges. Howard’s orders to Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, the pilot of the lead glider (in which Howard himself would ride), were likewise simple. Howard recalled: “He [Wallwork] had cheekily asked me where I wanted the glider to finish up and, never imagining that he would take me seriously, I had told him, ‘Ideally Jim, right through the wire defenses of the bridge!’”[51]

Once the company was put into pre-mission isolation in late May 1944 at RAF Tarrant Rushton, a British airfield approximately 100 miles west/southwest from London, the entire force settled in and was briefed on the true nature and objectives of their mission at the beginning of June. With them were the glider pilots and the crews of the Halifax bombers that would tow them. “Here, for the first and only time, we were crewed with our tug and stayed together through the training and final run-in,” said Wallwork. “This was a most important move, as we developed confidence and friendships,” during the challenging and dangerous training prior to execution of the mission.[52] All members of the assault force fully understood the greater purpose of their mission – the success (and survival) of the 6th Airborne (as well as the larger requirement to protect the left flank of the invasion beaches should the German panzers get through the paras) depended on capturing those bridges intact.[53] When the Horsa gliders lifted into the air just prior to midnight on 5 June 1944, Howard and his men had as complete a picture of the location, composition, and disposition of enemy forces defending the bridges, as well as most likely courses of action and arrival times of enemy reinforcements, as could possibly be obtained thanks to accurate intelligence reports and analysis of the enemy. Most importantly, the cohesion built during two years of difficult training and shared hardships imparted a sense of confidence within the assault force that they would be able to successfully complete their mission.

Operation Deadstick: The Coup de Main

As the afternoon sun slowly set on 5 June 1944, Howard’s assault force mustered on the airfield at Tarrant Rushton, donned their combat equipment, conducted last minute checks, and boarded the six gliders that would carry them to their objectives. At 2256, 5 June 1944, the Halifax bomber towing glider # 91 (containing Howard and a reinforced platoon) took off, pulling the Horsa into the night sky. The other “tugs,” towing their assigned gliders, followed in trace at one-minute intervals behind him.[54]

Once they were all airborne, the aircraft separated into their two groups (gliders # 91, 92, 93 under Howard’s command and gliders # 94, 95, 96 under Priday’s command) and headed south towards France. Their entry point to the continent was a gap in the German anti-aircraft defenses, approximately 3 km east of the mouth of the Orne.[55] At 0007 on 6 June 1944, glider # 91 crossed the French coast and cast away from their Halifax, beginning the invasion of Normandy.[56] Gliders # 92 and 93 followed closely behind. Once their tow ropes were cast off, each glider pilot was on their own, depending solely on their training and air navigation skills to guide their individual Horsa to their objectives.

Silently they descended “like huge bats” towards their targets.[57] Howard and his three gliders were headed for LZ “X”, southeast of the Caen Canal, while Priday and his men were bound for LZ “Y”, northwest of the River Orne bridge (see fig. 5). After crossing the coast, Howard and the platoon commander, Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, opened the troop door on their glider to facilitate a quick exit once on the ground. “Suddenly,” Howard recalled, “we were all aware of the sweet, damp night air over the Normandy countryside as it filled the glider and we all breathed in, for the first time, the smell of France.”[58] At 0014, Wallwork told Howard and his men to get ready to land—he had LZ “X” and canal bridge in sight and was closing fast.[59] Behind him, gliders # 92 and 93 were also steady on course.

Yet the same could not be said for the second group of gliders. It was here that the friction of war struck first, even before the troops were on the ground. The heavy cloud cover over the Normandy coast resulted in two of the Halifax bombers (towing gliders # 94 and 95) to cross the French coast farther east than intended. The lead glider (# 94) of the group was “ordered to make a blind release a mile east of Houlgate, beyond the River Dives.”[60] Once visibility cleared, the glider pilots quickly scanned the area, searching for their objective. They saw two bridges close together, steered for them, and landed their glider only 35 yards from the one they thought was the River Orne bridge.[61] It was not until Priday and his men got out of the glider that he released that they were at the wrong bridge; they had landed on the River Dives near the Varraville bridge.[62] Subsequently, one-sixth of Howard’s combat power and his 2IC were approximately six miles too far east of their true objective, and would not play a role in the action that night. Effectively, even before the first shot was fired, Howard had suffered approximately 15 percent casualties.

Events went better for glider # 95. As the clouds cleared, the Halifax pilot towing them recognized the error and quickly consulted with the glider pilots via radio who confirmed his suspicions. The River Orne was indeed in the distance to their east. The pilot turned hard to starboard, quickly got back on course and headed straight for LZ “Y”.[63] Due to these errors, Glider # 96, who had not been victim to the same initial mistake as the others in their group, was now the lead glider and would land first LZ “Y, with glider # 95 not far behind.

Finally, at 0016, Wallwork eased glider # 91 on to French soil, breaching the German barbed wire encirclements with the nose of the Horsa just as Howard had requested. In a feat of incredible airmanship, Wallwork placed the first echelon of the assault force less than fifty yards from the canal bridge.[64] The landing was extremely rough thanks to their speed (just under 100 mph.) and sudden stop due to crashing into the bands of barbed wire, but they had achieved complete surprise. Amazingly, not a single German sentry raised the alarm. Although momentarily knocked senseless from this controlled crash landing (Howard recalls “the tremendous impact caused me to pass out”),[65] the men immediately regained their bearings and quickly disembarked from the glider. Like a well-oiled machine they sprang into action, led by Brotheridge. As three soldiers sprinted with grenades toward the pillbox containing the trigger device, the remainder of the platoon raced toward the bridge. Simultaneously, as the pillbox was destroyed, the platoon overwhelmed the sentries, rushed over the bridge, and secured the far bank. They quickly became engaged in a firefight with the remaining defenders at the western end of the bridge. Simultaneously, gliders # 92 and 93 were landing only meters behind glider # 91. To the east, gliders # 96 and 95 were on short final to LZ “Y”. Within the next few minutes, the five gliders were all safely on the ground. Glider # 96 landed 100 meters from the River Orne bridge, while glider # 95 hit an air pocket which forced the glider down much farther away from the objective than planned (700 meters).[66] Figure 5 illustrates the disposition of the assault force upon touchdown.

Figure 5: The Assault Force Upon Landing. Gliders #91, 92, 93 in LZ “X” and Glider #96 in LZ “Y”. Glider #95, which landed short, is at top right. The “T” road junction where Sergeant Thornton destroyed the lead German tank during the enemy counterattack at 0130 on June 6 is seen at left between the villages of Le Port and Benouville. Credit: Mark Hickman/The Pegasus Archive/used with permission

Considering the dangerous nature of glider operations, incredibly only one soldier had died in the landings; he drowned in the pond immediately adjacent to where his glider (# 93) had landed.[67] There was limited resistance at the canal bridge as the disorganized and surprised Germans reeled from the shock effect of D Coy’s assault. At 0021, only five minutes after glider # 91 touched down, the three platoons around the canal bridge had eliminated most of the German resistance in the trenches and firing pits surrounding the bridge.[68] Howard had his prize—the bridge over the Caen Canal—but anxiously waited for word of the successful capture of the River Orne bridge.

In the interim Howard made a quick assessment of his situation. All three platoon commanders in his group were casualties (one killed in action [Brotheridge], two others wounded in action), and unbeknownst to him, a sixth of his combat power (glider # 94) was missing in action.[69] As his men transitioned into the defense around the approaches to the bridge, the sappers accompanying the assault force informed Howard that the canal bridge, although wired for demolition, was not rigged with the explosive charges.[70] Finally, at 0026 the report from the men at the river bridge reached Howard—they had captured it intact “without firing a shot.”[71] Howard and his force had swiftly and decisively accomplished the first part of their mission. Yet the fight was not over—all would be for naught if the bridges could not be held. “What you gain by stealth and guts, you must hold with skill and determination,” warned General Richard Gale, the Commanding General of the 6th Airborne Division, to Howard during the planning stages of the operation.[72] Now was the time for Howard and his men to do just that.

Twenty-four minutes later, at 0050 6 June, the 6th Airborne Division began landing in the drop zones to the east[73] of Howard’s bridges, which meant that reinforcements were hopefully not long in coming to his position. Recognizing that the main German threat would come from the west of the canal, Howard placed all his combat power except one platoon in defense of the canal bridge. Within short striking distance of the bridges were plentiful German forces, including motorized infantry, artillery, and most consequentially to Howard, a half-dozen tanks who mobilized quickly and moved to attack Howard.[74] Although disorganized by D Coy’s coup de main, the Germans, as predicted, mounted a determined counterattack at 0130 to retake the canal bridge. Waiting in their hasty defensive positions for the coming German counterattack, they could hear the enemy tanks approaching before they could see them.[75] Then, emerging from the darkness, three panzers came into view. Howard recalled: “One of them began slowly and menacingly to grind and clank its way down the road towards us.”[76] At the “T” road junction just west of the canal bridge (see fig. 5) the lead tank in the German assault was destroyed,[77] thanks to a single well-placed shot from a distance of only 30 yards by Sergeant “Wagger” Thornton via the sole undamaged and operable 83mm PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-tank) left in the assault force.[78] With the lead tank destroyed, the other tanks in the advance “quickly retreated.”[79] The Germans continued to probe and attack the British defenses west of the canal bridge with infantry, but Howard’s men tightened their defensive lines closer to the head of the bridge, moving Bren guns up and down the line, firing from different positions to deceive the enemy.[80] D Coy’s aggressive defense convinced the Germans that the British were present in far greater strength than they actually were. In fact, one of the German tank commanders who fled from the “T” junction reported to his superiors that the British forces at the bridge possessed powerful six-pounder towed anti-tank guns.[81] This confusion paralyzed the local German leadership and bought Howard the precious time for the first airborne reinforcements to arrive at 0200 and accomplish his mission.[82]

Although the Germans continued to attempt to retake the canal bridge numerous times in the following hours, they were continually beaten back by D Coy and the paras. The final chapter in Howard’s saga came at 1300 on D-Day, as the first British troops from Sword Beach, Lord Lovat’s Commandos, made contact with the paras and D Coy at the Caen Canal bridge, thereby completing the critical link up with the seaborne infantry.[83]

Relative Superiority Analysis: Operation Deadstick

After the war in Europe was over General Gale stated that in studying the problem of capturing the Caen Canal and River Orne bridges that he “got the idea of a coup de main by studying the German glider landings at Fort Eben Emael in Belgium in 1940 and the Corinth Canal in Greece in 1941.”[84] Just as the Germans had achieved in their operations, he was counting on the speed and shock of the coup de main (provided via the gliders landing undetected next to the bridges) to allow the assault force to quickly establish relative superiority. General Gale recalled:

We knew that virtually all the enemy would have to do would be to press a button or move a switch and up would go these bridges. There is always or nearly always a slip between the cup and the lip; orders are vague; there is uncertainty; has the moment arrived or should we wait? Who is the individual actually responsible both for working the switch or for ordering the bridges to be blown? These questions are age-old, and on the doubts that might exist in some German mind or minds at the critical moment I based the plan. But a moment or two was all that I knew we would get. The assault on the bridges must therefore come like a bolt from the blue.[85]

Figure 6: Relative Superiority Graph: Operation Deadstick. Credit: Created by author/ based on William H. McRaven/The Theory of Special Operations/ Naval Postgraduate School master’s thesis/1993/used with permission

However, striking “like a bolt out of the blue” is, as the old saw points out, easier said than done. D Coy, as the attacking force, was at a distinct disadvantage and faced numerous obstacles to overcome to achieve mission success. The key was to achieve relative superiority as quickly as possible. Figure 6 illustrates how Howard’s force achieved relative superiority quickly (within 14 minutes) once they reached their PV.

An examination of the sequence of events using McRaven’s framework for relative superiority reveals that Howard and his men reached their PV at 0007 on the 6th of June, the moment they crossed the French coast and the gliders cast away from their tows.[86] From then on, they were at the mercy of the winds, German antiaircraft gunners, and the skill of the glider pilots. With each passing minute their probability of mission completion increased as they neared their LZs undetected.

As discussed earlier, friction is commonplace in war, and Howard’s force was not immune to such unforeseen difficulties. One can observe that their probability of success decreased slightly when glider # 94 went off course and headed for the River Dives instead of the River Orne. At this minute, Howard lost a sixth of his assault force and his 2IC. Regardless, their probability of mission completion again increased as glider # 91 and each subsequent glider landed. With five gliders safely on the ground undetected, Howard had achieved relative superiority over his adversaries at 0021.[87] In fact, due to the echeloned nature of the landings, by the time the final glider of five landed at 0021, Howard and his three platoons from gliders # 91, 92, and 93 had already seized the canal bridge intact. Minutes later at 0026, when the men from gliders # 95 and 96 informed Howard that they too had seized their bridge intact, the probability of mission completion again increased.

However, as we have seen, the mission was still far from accomplished. As outlined by Poett in his mission statement, “Your difficulties will arise in holding off an enemy counterattack on the brs, until you are relieved.”[88] So, while Howard had both bridges in his possession, this by no means meant mission success. As illustrated in figure 6, merely capturing the bridges did not significantly increase his probability of success given the certainty that the Germans would try to recapture the bridges; swift and decisive counterattack was a doctrinal pillar of the German Wehrmacht.[89] McRaven specifically addresses the problem with such holding actions for SOF, as the requirement to hold over an extended period of time (instead of quickly striking and withdrawing) means a greater area of vulnerability, “and owing to limited sustainability, SOF are placed in a difficult tactical situation.”[90] Despite this, Howard needed to maintain his relative superiority over an enemy that was getting stronger and more organized by the minute. The increased area of vulnerability is clearly annotated in figure 6 as being the time from when both bridges were captured at 0026 to when reinforcements from the 6th Airborne arrived at 0200. In fact, the most tenuous period of the operation occurred within the period of this increased area of vulnerability.

As recounted previously, in the distance, Howard and his men could hear the rumblings of truck and tank engines to the west in the villages of Benouville and Le Port as the Germans prepared to drive Howard’s men from the bridges.[91] The repulse of the German counterattack at 0130 created uncertainty and hesitation within the German chain of command, increasing the probability of mission success for Howard with each tick of the clock, thereby allowing paras from the 7th Battalion, 5th Parachute Brigade to reach the bridges at 0200. This reinforcement ensured the successful completion of his mission as annotated in his orders: seize the bridges intact and hold until relieved.

Application of the Principles of Special Operations

McRaven’s theory of special operations states that SOF succeed “when they are able to gain relative superiority through the use of a simple plan, carefully concealed, repeatedly rehearsed, and executed with surprise, speed, and purpose.”[92] This was indeed the case with Operation Deadstick. Although executed by non-special operations personnel, the correct and integrated application of the principles of special operations resulted in complete success for Howard and his assault force. How each of these principles specifically applies to this case is outlined below.


The three elements of simplicity are “limiting the number of objectives, good intelligence, and innovation.”[93] Operation Deadstick had two objectives: the Caen Canal bridge and the River Orne bridge, and these objectives were virtually within a stone’s throw of each other. This allowed for the two assault groups to mutually support each other, if the need should arise. Having both landing zones between the two waterways also assured that neither group would be cut off from the other. The more numerous tasks of destroying the bridges over the Dives were left to the paras.

Likewise, the scheme of maneuver (SOM) and CONOPS were simple. The SOM was for two groups of glider-borne troops to insert in LZs immediately adjacent to their objectives, attack and defeat the enemy forces defending them, and defend against counterattack until relieved by the paras. There was not a complicated lift plan or long movement to the objective once they inserted. Of note was the fact that Howard was given the latitude to craft his SOM and tweak his plan throughout the process—it was his plan.[94] Early on in training Howard realized that it would be impossible for him to command the assault on both bridges once he saw (via realistic rehearsals) the potential friction due to assaulting at night and the distance between the two spans. As such he quickly decided that the capture of the River Orne bridge would be controlled by Captain Priday—it would be his show.[95] The CONOPS was to use the speed and shock effect of a coup de main to overwhelm the German defenders controlling these vital bridges. In Gale’s words, the assault must “come like a bolt from the blue.”[96] The simplicity of the SOM and CONOPS permitted flexibility in the execution of the plan, so that the loss of glider # 94 even before the force landed had no effect on the outcome of the mission.

“War is the realm of uncertainty,” Clausewitz opines, where “three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.”[97] This is known commonly as the “fog of war, or fog of battle.” Although this is a term Clausewitz never explicitly uses in his writings, nevertheless it has entered the vernacular when describing the unreliability of information in war and how that information may mask and distort one’s vision of events on the battlefield. How is this “fog,” this uncertainty mitigated? One certain way is through intelligence that is tailored, timely, and relevant, which is what Howard and the assault force enjoyed. Thanks to the photographic reconnaissance provided by the Royal Air Force, they constantly had current imagery of the objective area. The French Resistance provided a detailed order of battle for the German forces in the vicinity of the objectives. Howard knew the location, composition, and disposition of the German defenders on the objectives, and what was their combat effectiveness. He knew who the local Resistance leaders were, and who the collaborators were. The swiftness of the intelligence getting back to England was amazing in an age prior to satellite communications. As late as 2 June 1944, the Resistance discovered that the button to trigger the destruction of the Caen Canal bridge was located in the machinegun pillbox at the west end of the bridge.[98] This information led Howard to tweak his plan and detail three men whose sole job upon landing was to sprint forward and neutralize the pillbox with grenades.[99] The assault force had detailed topographical reports of the objective area and knew almost immediately when the German defenses were changed or modified. Wallwork was amazed at the detail of the terrain model that he and his fellow glider pilots studied:

We saw and studied the most magnificent relief model of the coast up to the bridges, covering every lane, bush, and house … Intelligence was superb. Daily overflights by photographic reconnaissance Spitfires brought the target up to date, even to such details as when a house by the canal was demolished stone by stone and the pillbox across from it reinforced stone by stone. We could almost see the Germans working at it. Such attention could only generate supreme confidence in all of us.[100]

On 30 May 1944, it was observed that the defenders had begun to dig holes to emplace anti-glider poles to foul potential LZs in vicinity of the bridges.[101] Howard’s final intel report before boarding the gliders for Normandy confirmed that the holes were dug, but the poles had still not been emplaced.[102] This phenomenal level of detail mitigated the number of unknown factors on the battlefield, all of which ultimately produce friction in the mind of a commander. If knowing yourself, the enemy, the ground, and the weather ever meant total victory, then Operation Deadstick perhaps is the object lesson of Sun Tzu’s oft-quoted aphorism.[103]

The parameters of the mission necessitated that innovation play a role in simplifying the plan. As stated, the scattered nature of a traditional airborne drop would not produce the speed and shock needed to accomplish the mission. The innovative use of the Horsa gliders permitted the assault force to silently approach the objective area, then deposit D Coy virtually right on top of their objectives. Ingenious modifications were made to the gliders to ensure they delivered the assault force safely on target. Specifically, toward the end of May 1944 it was realized that there was a problem with the total weight of the loaded gliders—they were simply too heavy. Too heavy meant too fast on landing, which could be catastrophic for the wooden Horsas, especially on the short LZs around the bridges.

To alleviate this, individual soldiers’ loads were (somewhat) reduced, the total number of men per platoon was reduced, and most consequentially, all gliders were fitted with arrester parachutes, which were not standard equipment on Horsas.[104] Installed in the rear of the glider, the parachute would be deployed at the second of landing by the co-pilot via pulling toggle switches mounted in the cockpit. The parachute would act to momentarily slow the glider down, then quickly be released and jettisoned by the co-pilot. On D-Day these parachutes worked perfectly for all six gliders and were instrumental to getting the still heavily-loaded Horsas down safely.[105] Furthermore, because the group of gliders landing at the Caen Canal would be executing right hand turns as they descended toward LZ “X”, the pilot’s seat was switched from the left side of the cockpit to the right side and extra window panels were cut so the pilot could almost look down vertically at the ground, thereby keeping the LZ in sight at all times.[106]

To additionally aid the pilots, a color film was produced which simulated the path each glider group would follow from cast off to landing. The film was made by moving a camera down an angled wire over the relief model; this provided the pilots with a view of what they would be seeing as they made their descents into their respective LZs. The pilots viewed the film with tinted glass over the projector lens or through darkened pilot’s goggles for additional realism. In the end, the overall simplicity gained via limiting the number of objectives, good intelligence, and innovation paid huge dividends on the ground, permitting D Coy to achieve relative superiority within minutes of the gliders landing.


Operational security was deemed to be paramount during the planning and preparation phases of Operation Deadstick. The operation was classified top secret, and among D Coy, only Howard knew the true nature of their mission. Even then he did not know the exact location of his objective until 2 May 1944, when he received his orders from Poett.[107] Howard was briefed on the entire Allied plan for D-Day, the 6th Airborne’s part in it, and permitted full access to imagery and intelligence reports, but could not take anything from the secure spaces at Gale’s headquarters.[108] Although Howard’s men had been training for months to capture two bridges, the soldiers and sappers in the platoons did not know the precise details and locations. In late May 1944, D Coy was placed in pre-mission isolation at Tarrant Rushton, and on 1 June 1944, Howard finally briefed his men on the exact details of mission and location of their objectives.[109]

As recounted above, the Germans knew the Allies were preparing to invade Europe from England, but not when or where. “The enemy must not know where I intend to give battle,” counsels Sun Tzu. “For if he does not know where I intend to give battle he must prepare in a great many places. And when he prepares in a great many places, those I have to fight in any one place will be few.”[110] This was indeed the case of the Germans in trying to defend against what they knew was the inevitable assault into Fortress Europe. Taken on a smaller scale, had word leaked out regarding the Caen Canal and Orne River bridges being photographed or studied, or of glider-borne troops training to seize bridges, it would have definitely changed the outcome of the operation, allowing the Germans to increase their alert levels, garrison, and physical defenses of the bridges. Even so, the Germans were already in the process of digging holes for anti-glider poles in the LZs around the objectives.[111] In fact, during the early morning light of 6 June, after the bridges were seized, D Coy captured two Italian laborers who were observed in LZ “X” actually installing the anti-glider poles into the ground; they were under strict orders to have them all in place by the evening of 6 June.[112] Without a doubt, had the Germans been able to piece together the true nature and objectives of D Coy, those glider poles would have been in place long before the evening of June 6, forcing the gliders to land much farther from the bridges, complicating the plan and losing the speed and shock achieved by landing immediately adjacent to the bridges. Had the Germans known the time of the coup de main, or of the larger invasion, the defenders would have been more alert, with anti-aircraft batteries scanning the sky for the first sign of the gliders crossing the Channel into Normandy.[113] Needless to say, the results of which would have proved catastrophic to Howard and his men.


Howard was a fanatic when it came to tough, realistic training. Even before his company was selected as the coup de main force, he instituted a thorough training regimen to build his company into an outstanding glider-borne light infantry unit. Once Howard was informed of his mission, he relentlessly pursued every opportunity to conduct training as close to the actual conditions D Coy would experience on the battlefield. He drove the men relentlessly in “a constant quest to be better, faster, sharper.”[114] Each exercise revealed problems, which enabled him to adjust his plan, but also convinced Howard and his superiors that the plan was solid and would work.[115] Once Howard got his official orders in May 1944, he began to devise a more detailed plan for training his force and the seizure of the bridges. Although not permitted to tell his men the details and actual objective of their mission, he nonetheless began training in earnest:

[Howard] used tape to lay out a river and a canal, with two bridges between them, all the exact distances of his real targets. Day and night, his platoons practiced capturing them; sometimes one platoon, sometimes three, sometimes all six. Howard felt that above all his plan had to be flexible. If only one glider hit the target, that platoon had to be prepared to do the job of all six platoons.[116] Howard ordered up German opposition for his exercises—that is, the bridge defenders wore German uniforms, used German weapons and tactics, and insofar as possible shouted out their orders in German. He got captured German rifles, carbines, and machineguns, German mortars, German hand grenades, so that all his men were thoroughly familiar with what these weapons could do, and how to operate them.[117] Howard asked the topographical people to search the map of Britain and find him some place where a river and a canal ran closely together and were crossed by bridges on the same road. They found such a spot outside Exeter. Howard moved his company down there, and for six days, by day and night, attacked those Exeter bridges.[118]

Howard’s training was extensive, exhaustive, and thorough. D Coy practiced the assault over and over, and each time Howard saw something he overlooked.[119] Above all he learned that his plans must be flexible, that events on the objective would occur incredibly fast, and that there was no guarantee what order the gliders would land or who would carry out what task.[120] Every soldier learned the sappers’ jobs and were taught the basic skills to accomplish them should the sappers be casualties; the sappers learned what the platoons were to accomplish, and every officer was prepared to assume command of the entire operation.[121] To that end each platoon learned to accomplish every tactical task assigned across the assault force, “so no matter who landed where and in what order, they would all automatically know what to do. They practiced it over and over again until they could do it with their eyes shut,” recalled Howard.[122]

Mimicking the intensity of D Coy’s training syllabus, the glider pilots embarked on an equally demanding regimen. They knew that they were the critical element of the entire operation –the glider pilots had to precisely land their Horsas virtually on top of their objectives. With that guidance, the glider pilots began non-stop training flights flying the exact mission profile that they would on D-Day. They flew at night, using compasses and stopwatches to guide them, and in all kinds of weather. In all, they completed forty-three training flights.[123]

Their intensive training and countless full mission profile rehearsals enabled the assault force to fight through the friction they encountered once they landed in Normandy. Howard’s men “automatically unbuckled [from their damaged gliders], cut their way through the smashed up door” and began their assault.[124] All Brotheridge had to say to his platoon was, “Come on, lads,” to begin the assault.[125] Lieutenant Sandy Smith, commanding the platoon in glider # 93 stated that in the initial confusion and chaos of the landing, the men still knew what to do—move towards their objective. “And this,” he recalled with pride, “is where the training comes in.”[126] The value of rehearsals was stated by Private Denis Edwards who landed in Glider # 91. Even with his platoon commander mortally wounded, and enveloped in the fog and friction of battle, he and his mates still knew what to do after the initial assault. “We expected the Paras to reach us within an hour and, with the bridges now in our hands, we had to defend them against whatever counter-attack might be made,” said Edwards. “Still operating to the detailed plan rehearsed at the briefings before our departure, we took up our prearranged defensive positions. Our seven-man section moved a short distance down to the west side of the canal and took up positions astride a single-track railway that ran from Ouistreham to Caen along the top of the embankment.”[127] The confidence, initiative and speed born of the countless rehearsals proved to be decisive for the assault force on D-Day.


The essence of a coup de main assault comes down to two elements: surprise and speed. Clausewitz states that “surprise lies at the root of all operations without exception … for without it superiority at the decisive point is hardly conceivable.”[128] Because the target of a SOF mission is almost always cognizant of its importance and value, surprise is manifested through deception, timing, and exploiting the enemy’s vulnerabilities. One must, in the words of Sun Tzu, be “as unfathomable as the clouds,” and “move like a thunderbolt.”[129] As McRaven simply states, “catching the enemy off guard.”[130]Sun Tzu goes on to emphasize that the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey as a result of timing, because it waited for the right moment to strike.[131] This is exactly what the coup de main achieved. Although some effort was being made to upgrade the physical defenses around the bridges, the Germans were still physically, and more importantly, mentally unprepared for an attack that evening. The Germans, in fact, recognized the value of the bridges; the garrison commander, Major Hans Schmidt, was told that “the two bridges were the most critical points in Normandy”[132] and had begun to prepare defenses against a glider-borne assault such as Howard’s. Yet a thorough study of the enemy, possible via the detailed reports from the Resistance, revealed that the garrison manning the bridges was lackadaisical in their duties, lulled into complacency by years of easy occupation duty and Allied bombers flying daily overhead enroute to targets inland. Again, Sun Tzu extols commanders to “attack where he [the enemy] is unprepared; sally out when he does not expect you.”[133] The timing of the assault ensured that the defenders would be at their least alert and vigilant—many were dozing in their bunkers or otherwise occupied in local brothels.[134] Indeed, Schmidt believed that the recent bad weather and high winds ruled out any parachute drop that evening, and that his location five miles inland would provide him plenty of warning before any airborne force could organize and move upon his positions.[135] Unluckily for him, he was dead wrong in his estimate of the situation.

The deception plan for Operation Deadstick called for the Halifax bombers towing the gliders to fly at an altitude of 6,000 feet (instead of the typical 2,000 feet used during glider operations) and continue on inland and bomb Caen after releasing the gliders. The rationale was that German radar operators, seeing enemy bombers flying so low (for bombers) over the coast then suddenly turn around without appearing to do anything, would be aware that something was up and alert the German defenders in the area.[136] In fact, one of the two German sentries on the canal bridge, Private Helmut Romer, heard the noise of glider # 91 landing, “but assumed it was a piece of wing or tail from a crippled British bomber.”[137] The young German soldier simply was not properly trained, mentally prepared, or in a state of alert to even consider that what he had heard was the beginning of an attack on the bridge. The next thing he saw, as he walked his post, was twenty-two British airborne troops in full combat kit charging across the bridge straight at him.[138] Howard was amazed at the silence around the bridge after landing: “Above all, and this was the tremendous thing, there was no firing at all, in other words we had been a complete surprise. We had really caught old Jerry with his pants down.”[139]


“Speed is the essence of war,”[140] and is critical to achieving relative superiority. Delay means increased vulnerability and danger to the assault force. Every additional second the assault force is on the ground without achieving relative superiority gives the enemy time to react to the assault and negate the effects of surprise and shock. “It is a fact that time which is allowed to pass unused accumulates to the credit of the defender,” Clausewitz warns his readers. “He [the defender] reaps where he did not sow. Any omission of attack—whether from bad judgment, fear, or insolence—accrues to the defenders’ benefit.”[141]

Howard and his men fully understood Clausewitz’s warning and the need for speed once they hit the ground. The bridges were reported to be wired for demolition, and any delay in eliminating the Germans manning the defenses could permit them to blow them, resulting in mission failure as the bridges had to be taken intact. Both Gale and Poett repeatedly emphasized[142] that the bridges must be captured within minutes of landing, “so quickly that the Germans would be left stunned, flat-footed and unable to react in time.”[143] For Howard, the speed of his assault was largely dependent on the glider pilots. If they put the men within 400 meters of the objective, he thought they could capture the bridges intact. Any farther away significantly decreased the odds for success.[144]

As previously noted, Howard’s glider landed approximately fifty meters from the canal bridge and smashed through the barbed wire defenses surrounding the bridge perimeter, courtesy of Wallwork’s superb airmanship; this negated the need to utilize bangalore torpedoes to breach the wire further increasing the speed with which they assaulted the bridge.[145] With similar skill, gliders # 92 and # 93 skidded to a halt directly behind Wallwork, allowing for Howard to immediately reinforce the success of Brotheridge’s men with two more platoons (see fig. 7).

Figure 7: Aerial photograph taken 6 June 1944, of (left to right) gliders # 91, 93 and 92 at the Caen Canal bridge. The bridge tower is seen at lower left, with the German defensive trenches (the dark line running left to right) just off the port wing tip of glider # 91. The precise landing of these gliders so close to the objective allowed Howard and his men to utilize surprise and speed to quickly achieve relative superiority and overwhelm the German defenders. 
Credit: © IWM MH 2074/Used Under “Accepted Non-commercial use” /

With relative superiority achieved at the Caen Canal bridge, Howard’s men sprang into action. During training Howard had insisted that every platoon learn each other’s missions and had created a brevity code concerning each mission task. The idea was that all Howard had to do was simply order the platoon commander “Number One task,” or “Number Two task,” etc., thereby saving precious seconds, allowing the men to immediately move into action. This system worked perfectly on D-Day. As an example, Howard recalled: “When David Wood [2d platoon commander] came up [after landing] … I just said, ‘Number Two task’ and he automatically went to do it … He [Wood] didn’t have to issue any orders, he just said, “Number Two’ to his leading section.”[146]

The speed, shock, and violence of action of the assault is captured well by Cornelius Ryan in his classic study of D-Day, The Longest Day:

Someone [Brotheridge] yelled, “Come on, lads!” and men came scrambling out [of glider #1], some piling through the door, others tumbling down from the stove-in nose. Almost at the same time and only yards away, the other two gliders skidded to a crashing halt and out of them poured the remainder of the assault force. Now everybody stormed the bridge. There was bedlam. The Germans were shocked and disorganized. Grenades came hurtling into their dugouts and communications trenches. Some Germans who were actually asleep in the gun pits woke to the blinding crash of explosions and found themselves gazing into the business ends of Sten guns. Others, still dazed, grabbed rifles and machine guns, and began firing haphazardly at the shadowy figures who seemed to have materialized from nowhere.[147]

The second group of gliders (# 95 and 96) which landed at the River Orne bridge was not as precise in landing as the first group; glider # 96 landed first in LZ “Y”, about 100 meters from their objective.[148] Regardless, just as they had trained, the men swiftly exited the glider and were able to rapidly close on the river bridge, permitting Lieutenant Dennis Fox and his platoon and capture it intact without a shot. Glider #95 landed approximately 700 meters from the bridge, well short of LZ “Y”. Once the platoon commander, Lieutenant “Tod” Sweeney, gained his bearings, he and his men moved as quickly as they could to the objective, arriving about five minutes after Fox had taken the bridge, reinforcing the men from glider # 96 (see fig.8).[149]

Figure 8: Aerial photograph which shows the bridge over the River Orne and the landing position of glider #96 in LZ “Y”, approximately 100 meters from their objective, which carried Lieutenant Dennis Fox and the men that captured that bridge. At the top right edge of the photograph sits glider #95, which landed short of LZ “Y” after hitting an air pocket and forced them to land prematurely. Credit: © Airborne Assault Museum/ Imperial War Museum Duxford/ “Airborne Assault/ParaData”/The Museum of the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces/ accessed 9 November 2022/ Part of the Imperial War Museum Duxford, UK, this tremendously detailed website ( documents the history of British airborne forces from their inception to the present day/used with permission


The task and purpose placed before Howard left no room for ambiguity. His task was to capture the bridges intact. The purpose was twofold: first, to protect the left flank of the invasion beaches from German counterattack forces, and secondly, to keep open the ground lines of communication between the seaborne invasion forces and the paras of the 6th Airborne Division located between his objectives and the River Dives. Once sequestered at Tarrant Rushton, Howard fully briefed the entire assault force on the mission, objectives, and criticality of their success. Every man knew that if his was the only glider to successfully land in Normandy, it was expected that they must do the job of all six platoons. If priority had to be given between the two bridges due to insufficient assault forces, Howard made it clear that the canal bridge was most important as that was the bridge at which the seaborne reinforcements would first need to cross to relieve the 6th Airborne Division.[150] The men were fully aware of “the crucial nature of their task, and at the idea of being the first men to touch the soil of France.”[151]

Friction and the Moral Factors

The nature of war is timeless and enduring.[152] Chance, uncertainty, and the unforeseen difficulties that make Clausewitzian concept of friction is an ever-present element in war made their presence felt during all phases of Operation Deadstick. The detrimental or caustic effect of each of these instances of friction varied. Some certainly had a greater effect than others. However, it is most always the cumulative, multiplicative effect of seemingly minor problems and errors that bring operations to fail. As emphasized by McRaven, despite the correct application of the six principles of special operations, mission failure occurs when the frictions of war are unable to be overcome by the moral factors of courage, intellect, boldness, and perseverance of the assault force.[153] “Success in war counts more on moral than on physical qualities,” states the 1909 British Army Field Service Regulations. “Skill cannot compensate for want of courage, energy, and determination … The development of the necessary moral qualities is therefore the first of the objects to be attained,” it concludes.[154] In the contest for the bridges on D-Day, Howard and his men admirably exhibited these qualities. A few select examples of the unforeseen difficulties encountered by the assault force, and how they were mitigated by moral factors, are discussed below.

In the preparation phase friction reared its head when it was discovered during training exercises, that in the chaos of assaulting the bridges in the dark, Howard’s platoons were unable to identify friend from foe, resulting in “friendly fire” casualties being assessed on the assault force by the exercises’ umpires.[155] The lesson learned resulted in a simple method of recognition to prevent this: once the assault began, each man would continually shout a codeword as they moved to and across the bridges, ‘Able’, ‘Baker’, ‘Charlie’, ‘Dog’, ‘Fox’, and ‘Easy’ to let everyone know which platoon was rushing forward, and prevent fratricide.[156]

Yet another example was the overloading of the gliders, which came about innocently enough by individual soldiers adding things such as extra ammunition and grenades to their fighting load. The officer in charge of the attached sappers discovered this problem only on 30 May 1944, when he weighed one of his men in full combat load to find that the man weighed 300 lbs., a full 60 lbs. over the allowed weight of 240 lbs. per sapper. He reported this to Howard, who upon weighing one of the assaulters found out that this man weighed 250 lbs. instead of the allowed weight of 210 lbs. After quickly reducing the loads and cutting the number of men per glider by two,[157] the total weight of the gliders was still too heavy (by 1,400 lbs.)[158] for the short LZs in Normandy. They simply would be going too fast and would not be able stop in time, which meant crashing into the embankments and trees at the end of each LZ or into already landed assault force glider. This problem was solved by the innovative solution of fitting the Horsas with non-standard arrester parachutes. In each instance these “frictions,” which could have been catastrophic had they not been addressed, were solved via intellect and finding an imaginative and bold solution.

            A greater, potentially more catastrophic friction occurred during the execution phase, which was more consequential because unlike in training, there was limited to no time to debate or brainstorm because the solution needed to be instantaneous else the friction immediately would adversely impact the outcome of the mission. Although every participant in war experiences friction regardless of rank, it is perhaps most severely felt by those in positions of command and leadership. “Moreover, every war is rich in unique episodes,” Clausewitz instructs, “Each is an uncharted sea, full of reefs. The commander may suspect the reefs’ existence without ever having seen them; now [in combat] he has to steer past them in the dark.”[159] Once on the ground in Normandy, Howard had many reefs around which to steer in the dark. The first unforeseen difficulty Howard had to conquer was that all three of the platoon commanders in his group at the Caen Canal were wounded less than ten minutes into the fight. Brotheridge was mortally wounded leading the initial charge across the bridge, and soon after the two other platoon commanders were wounded and out of action. Compounding problems was the fact that there was no word to Howard from the group assigned to attack the river bridge, which obviously was a cause for concern to Howard, and increased the friction and uncertainty he was already experiencing.[160]

The fog and friction of battle also plagued the group assigned to capture the River Orne bridge. There, Lieutenant Fox found himself landing first in LZ “Y” in glider # 96 instead of being the final glider of three, and then having to capture the bridge with his lone platoon when he fully expected the mission to be completed by the time they reached the bridge.[161] Glider # 95 and Lieutenant Sweeney’s platoon found themselves far short of their designated LZ. One of Sweeney’s men recalled: “Out we clambered … I remember [seeing] huge hedges all over the places, loads of trees in the dark, completely lost.”[162] Likewise, the pilot of glider # 96 was just as confused, saying, “we received a shock as we climbed out through the door of the glider into the field. Where were the other gliders? We had been No. 6 and should have been the third glider to land in our field. Yet apart from a herd of cows which had panicked in front of us as we landed, we were quite alone … alone in front of the whole invasion force which was not to land on the beaches six miles away until daybreak, and ahead of the main parachute drop by a half-an-hour.”[163]

 One can only venture at the uncertainty and doubt in the minds of the men at that moment. At that moment, fog and friction of battle threatened to upend the well-conceived plan as drafted on paper.[164] When Howard did finally establish communications with the River Orne bridge group, he was told that only two platoons were on the objective; there was no sign of glider # 94 and Priday, creating even more uncertainty about the fate of his 2IC and men. A final example of friction concerns stopping the counterattack of the German tanks at the “T” junction. The only anti-tank assets the assault force carried were one PIAT per platoon.[165] With the German tanks and trucks audibly preparing for the assault to the west in the villages of Benouville and Le Port, only one (along with just two explosive projectiles) could be located that survived the landings undamaged.[166]

In each case above, the moral factors of courage, intellect, boldness, and perseverance of the assault force triumphed over the corrosive effects of friction. Their performance that evening was even more impressive in that the coup de main assault was the first time in combat for Howard and his men.[167] One of Howard’s men said that the proposition of a night landing in the wooden Horsas “filled us with gloom straight away because we knew that the chances of surviving crash landings in gliders at night was pretty hopeless.”[168] Yet, the confidence in their training and leadership steeled the assault force, enabling them to “screw their courage to the sticking post,” endure the trials and friction of combat and show courage in the face of what was a very dangerous mission. Additionally, their comprehension of the consequences of the success or failure of their mission down to the individual soldier, and devotion and loyalty to each other certainly helped them persevere after several key leaders were killed or wounded during the initial assault, as well as during the German counterattacks later that morning. Howard’s well-prepared men stayed vigilant in the early morning hours and did not fall victim to the physiological parasympathetic backlash that often cripples a fighting unit after coming down from the powerful and intense action of combat.[169]

\Howard not only possessed superior physical speed in executing his mission than his German counterparts, but he also trumped them intellect-wise in mental speed and agility. The months of training toward the singular purpose of capturing those bridges bred confidence and a degree of boldness in him and his men. In the darkness and confusion of the crucial fight at the “T” junction, Howard “was in his element, in the middle of the night, fresh, alert, capable of making snap decisions, getting accurate reports from equally fresh and alert men. The German commanders were confused, getting conflicting reports, tired, and sleepy.”[170] Using the well-known military decision-making process known as the Boyd Cycle, Howard “outcycled” his enemy—that is he went through the sequence of observing and orienting himself to the changing conditions around the bridges, making decisions, and acting on them much faster than his enemy.[171]

As a fighting unit, the core of the D Coy had been together two years preparing for this moment, and they felt they had earned this extraordinary responsibility. The long hours spent together enduring tough and demanding training had forged a sense of personal commitment to the mission for the men of D Coy, as well as their reinforcements from B Coy, the Royal Engineers, and the glider pilots. This intangible commitment is what Sun Tzu called “moral influence,” meaning, “that which causes the people to be in harmony with their leaders, so that they will accompany them in life and unto death without fear of mortal peril.”[172] Every man understood completely the urgency and necessity of the hardships and danger they were enduring and gave themselves wholeheartedly to the mission. Later in The Art of War, Sun Tzu complements the importance of the concept of moral influence with this succinct observation: “He whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious.”[173] This dedication to mission greatly increased their combat power beyond that of merely a reinforced company on that June day in 1944. It was only through mental fortitude, intellect, boldness, courage, and perseverance that Howard and his force were able to counter the detrimental effects of these frictions in each of the instances recounted above and accomplish their goal. The powerful moral factors, combined with the lightning quick strike of the coup de main enabled through the correct application of the principles of special operations, proved to be a lethal combination for his enemy.


In the storied history of the British Airborne forces, the coup de main assault on the Caen Canal and River Orne bridges conducted by the 181 men of D Coy, Oxs, and Bucks Light Infantry stands out as their crowning achievement in World War II.[174] Their contribution to the successful D-Day landings cannot be overstated. Although not designated SOF, Howard’s men were specially trained, equipped, and supported to accomplish a mission with much greater consequences both at the operational and strategic levels of war than the simple tactical task of capturing two bridges. It was a military necessity that the bridges were captured intact; failure had the potential to sentence the 6th Airborne Division to annihilation by German panzer forces. Stephen Ambrose, in his definitive work Pegasus Bridge, points out that if Howard’s men could not hold back the German counterattack right then and there at the “T” junction west of the canal bridge, the river bridge would also have easily been recaptured, and the ten thousand men of the 6th Airborne would be isolated and at the mercy of the German panzers. And the stakes went even higher when one considers that the local German panzer commander was convinced that if he could have been able to cross those bridges unfettered and join in the late-afternoon counterattack by elements of the 21st Panzer Division on the D-day beaches, they would undoubtedly have been able to reach the beaches and decimate the unloading Allied divisions.[175] The success of Operation Deadstick denied the Germans the opportunity to repel the invasion via swift armored counterattack, and enabled the conventional seaborne assault forces to establish a beachhead and begin to build combat power ashore during a very vulnerable period of the invasion (see fig. 9). Failure by Howard and his men would have, at a minimum, made D-Day more costly for the Allies, and possibly resulted in the entire invasion failing.[176]

Figure 9: The Caen Canal bridge photographed on 9 June 1944 (D+3) which shows seaborne British forces using the secured bridge to move combat power inland. In the background are visible the three Horsa gliders (#91, 92, 93) in LZ “X”, with Howard’s closest to the bridge. The picture provides another excellent perspective of how the skilled landing of these gliders significantly contributed to Howard and his men achieving relative superiority and capturing this objective within five minutes. Credit: Christie (Sgt.), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit/ Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Using the inverted pyramid of McRaven’s special operations model, one can see how the successful application of the six principles of special operations as executed during Operation Deadstick resulted in mission completion. At the foundation, the coup de main CONOPS devised by Gale was a simple, innovative, and daring solution to the problem confronting the Allies as they planned the D-Day operation. Howard’s SOM was simple in its execution, as well as flexible. The intelligence on the enemy and objective area was superb, and innovation was used to eliminate barriers to mission accomplishment.

The preparation phase, with security and repetition as its pillars, provided the next stepping stone to success for Howard. The true objectives of the mission were not disclosed to the assault force until late May 1944, which provided excellent operational security against constant German counterintelligence efforts throughout Britain as the Allies prepared for D-Day. The training regimen instituted by Howard was tough and realistic, including fully integrated rehearsals for both the assaulters, sappers, and glider pilots. Finally, as the assault force executed their simple, carefully concealed, and thoroughly rehearsed plan, they descended on their objectives with speed, surprise, and purpose and quickly achieved relative superiority over the defenders. The unforeseen frictions of war that emerged during the operation were mitigated by the intangible moral factors that every professional, well-trained fighting force possesses. In their first combat, at the point of contact, at that moment of truth when everything was on the line for the assault force, the moral factors were, “the real weapon, the finely-honed blade,” that enabled them to endure and succeed.[177] The results speak for themselves: Howard was able to achieve relative superiority in only five minutes from the time glider # 91 touched down; after a total of ten minutes, the assault force had accomplished their initial task of seizing both bridges intact. Furthermore, they were able to maintain relative superiority, fight through the friction of war and hold what they had won with “skill and determination” against an enemy that outnumbered and outgunned them. Operation Deadstick is a superb example of the value and applicability of the principles of special operations and the theory of relative superiority. If applied correctly they can be a template for success for non-special operations forces charged with executing a mission that is a political or military imperative. It also offers powerful lessons on how friction can be countered by moral factors, as well as the outsized effect that a special operation can play in enabling conventional forces to achieve operational objectives on the battlefield. In the early morning hours of D-Day, “like a bolt from the blue,” Howard and his men bravely met the danger that awaited them and emerged victorious thanks to the correct application of the principles of special operations and the ability to achieve relative superiority over their foe.


[1]William H. McRaven, “The Theory of Special Operations” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 1993),; William H. McRaven, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare Theory and Practice (New York: Presidio Press, 1996). His book is based on his thesis.

[2] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 358.

[3] William H. McRaven, Spec Ops, 4.

[4] McRaven, Spec Ops, 7.

[5] Clausewitz. On War, 119.

[6] Clausewitz, On War, 102. “War is the realm of chance … Chance makes everything more uncertain and interferes with the whole course of events. Since all information and assumptions are open to doubt, and with chance at work everywhere, the commander continually finds that things are not as he expected.”

[7] Clausewitz, On War, 119. “Countless minor incidents – the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal.”

[8] Martin Samuels, “The ‘Finely-Honed Blade’: Clausewitz and Boyd on Friction and Moral Factors,” Marine Corps University Press Expeditions, February 2020,

[9] Clausewitz, On War, 120.

[10] McRaven, Spec Ops, 1.

[11] McRaven, Spec Ops, 11.

[12] McRaven, Spec Ops, 5.

[13] McRaven, Spec Ops, 10.

[14] McRaven, Spec Ops, 11.

[15] McRaven, Spec Ops, 11.

[16] McRaven, Spec Ops, 11.

[17] Clausewitz, On War, 229.

[18] McRaven, Spec Ops, 12.

[19] McRaven, Spec Ops, 12.

[20] McRaven, Spec Ops, 13.

[21] McRaven, Spec Ops, 14.

[22] McRaven, Spec Ops, 16.

[23] McRaven, Spec Ops, 17.

[24] McRaven, Spec Ops, 19.

[25] McRaven, Spec Ops, 21-23.

[26] H.R. Trevor-Roper, Blitzkrieg to Defeat: Hitler’s War Directives 1939-1945 (London: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964), 111. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler foresaw the increased threat to his Western Front with the United States entering the war; accordingly on 14 December 1941, he directed that the entire Atlantic coastline be fortified into a “new West Wall, in order that we can be sure of repelling any landing attempt.” In his specific directions as outlined in “Fuhrer Directive No. 40”, dated 23 March 1942, Hitler begins with the statement: “The coastline of Europe will, in the coming months, be exposed to the danger of an enemy landing in force.” Fuhrer Directive No. 51, dated 3 November 1943, goes on to reemphasize that, “The danger in the East [the Soviet Union] remains, but a greater danger now appears in the West: an Anglo-Saxon landing!” H.R. Trevor-Roper, Blitzkrieg to Defeat Blitzkrieg to Defeat, 149.

[27] Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 116.

[28] Stephen E. Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge: June 6, 1944 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), 47. The consensus view of the German leadership was that the Allied invasion would occur in the vicinity of the Pas de Calais, the shortest distance between the UK and the continent.

[29] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 182.

[30] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 56.

[31] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 182. This was the fate suffered by their sister division, the 1st Airborne Division, a few months later at Arnhem, during Operation Market-Garden in September 1944.

[32] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 17, 84.

[33] John Howard and Penny Bates, The Pegasus Diaries: The Private Papers of Major John Howard, DSO (Barnsley, Great Britain: Pen & Sword Military, 2006), 94.

[34] Napier Crookenden, Dropzone Normandy: The Story of the American and British Airborne Assault on D-Day 1944 (New York; Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), 164.

[35] Neil Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges: Their Capture, Defence, and Relief on D-Day (Barnsley, Great Britain: Pen & Sword Military, 2014), 28. “Although the operation was officially called Coup de Main, Tommy Grant gave it the training title Deadstick.” Grant was a Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnsborough, who was a well-respected pilot who had gained attention for his skilled performance towing gliders during the Sicily invasion and his detailed after action of the operation, “which was highly critical of the training that the pilots had received.” He was called upon to devise the specialized training the glider pilots would need to successfully land in such small LZs at night.

[36] McRaven, Spec Ops, 3.

[37] McRaven, Spec Ops, 2.

[38] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 36. Howard, a former enlisted soldier in the pre-war British Army, had rejoined the army after war was declared and in five months had risen from corporal to regimental sergeant major. Soon after he was offered the chance at a commission. To volunteer for service in the Airborne he had to accept a demotion from Captain to Lieutenant according to Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries.

[39] “Battle Order,” British Air Landing Rifle Company (1943-1945), accessed 2 April 2020,

[40] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 38.

[41] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 42.

[42] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 42.

[43] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 43.

[44] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 51.

[45] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 58.

[46] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 18. “By the end of February 1942, I had started the training schedule for ‘D’ Company of the 52d Ox & Bucks, now part of the Airborne Force, that would take my company right up to D-Day.”

[47] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 185-186.

[48] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 52.

[49] Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 08 November 2010 (Amended as 15 November 2014). Coup de main is also addressed in the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Military Operations Historical Collection, 15 July 1997,

[50] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 77.

[51] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 119.

[52] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 28.

[53] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 73.

[54] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 87.

[55] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 299.

[56] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 21.

[57] Cornelius Ryan, The Longest Day (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), 110.

[58] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 117.

[59] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 28.

[60] Crookenden, Dropzone Normandy, 185.

[61] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 166.

[62] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 139.

[63] The co-pilot of Glider #6, SSgt Roy Howard, stated with certainty that he landed in LZ “Y” at 0009 on June 6 (Barber, The Pegasus Diaries, 74.) while Stephen Ambrose in his classic work, Pegasus Bridge, has them landing at 0020 on June 6. (Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 98.) In the many historical accounts of the actions that day there is much conflicting information regarding the timeline of events. I have primarily used the timeline put forth by Ambrose.

[64] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 90. In his private papers, Howard says that the first thing he saw upon climbing out of the glider was the large water tower of the bridge, “50 feet away from where I stood.” (Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 120.)

[65] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 120.

[66] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 98-100.

[67] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 93.

[68] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 100.

[69] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 104.

[70] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 104.

[71] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 104.

[72] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 89.

[73] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 109.

[74] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 116.

[75] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 131.

[76] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 127.

[77] The lead tank was identified by Sgt. Thornton himself as a Panzerkampfwagon IV, which mounted a 75mm main gun along with two 7.92-mm MG-34 machine guns. “The first tank, a Mark IV, had begun moving slowly down the road. I pulled the trigger on the PIAT. It was a direct hit.” Shilleto, Pegasus Bridge, 64.

[78] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 116-118.

[79] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 128.

[80] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 135-136.

[81] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 119.

[82] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 128. “I reflected later,” recalled Howard, “that the successful destruction of just this one tank certainly bought the coup de main force precious time holding up the German counterattack at the bridges.”

[83] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 145.

[84] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 57. The action at Eben Emael is arguably the marquee example of such an assault; McRaven features it prominently as the first case study analyzed in his study of special operations theory. The similarities between it and Operation Deadstick are undeniable.

[85] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 2-3.

[86] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 21. Again, I have primarily used the timeline put forth by Ambrose.

[87] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 99. 0021 June 6 was the time Ambrose states glider #5 touched down at the River Orne bridge.

[88] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 186.

[89] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 115.

[90] McRaven, Spec Ops, 385-386.

[91] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 126.

[92] McRaven, Spec Ops, 11.

[93] McRaven, Spec Ops, 11.

[94] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 78.

[95] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 18.

[96] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 2-3.

[97] Clausewitz, On War, 101.

[98] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 16.

[99] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 77.

[100] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 46.

[101] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 81.

[102] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 84.

[103] Sun Tzu, The Art of War (London: Oxford University Press, 1971) 129. “And therefore I say: ‘Know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered. Know the ground, know the weather; your victory will then be total.’”

[104] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 52.

[105] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 53. The arrester parachutes were installed on the six gliders during the evening hours of 2 June 1944, only 72 hours prior to take off; SSgt Wallwork stated that the pilots’ suggestion to have one of the gliders complete a test run at Tarrrant Rushton prior to D-Day was overruled in horror by higher headquarters because it was too dangerous, which Wallwork thought was “hardly encouraging.”

[106] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 47.

[107] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 63.

[108] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 93.

[109] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 112.

[110] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 98.

[111] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 109.

[112] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 134.

[113] Crookenden, Dropzone Normandy, 77-78. As it was the Allies were the beneficiaries of good fortune in that a BBC radio message to the French Resistance intercepted and decoded by the German Fifteenth Army headquarters on the evening of June 5 revealing that the invasion would commence within 48 hours never reached the Seventh Army in Normandy. So, whereas others in France were on heightened states of alert, “along the Normandy coast, and in the Cherbourg Peninsula, the normal night guards and sentries were posted, officers and men finished the ordinary business of winding up a day’s work, had their supper and went to bed.”

[114] Alex Kershaw, The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II (New York: Dutton Caliber, 2019), 34.

[115] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 61.

[116] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 67.

[117] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 75.

[118] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 76.

[119] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 78.

[120] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 91.

[121] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 76.

[122] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 101.

[123] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 62.

[124] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 90.

[125] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 92.

[126] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 93.

[127] “The Pegasus Archive,” accessed 30 April 2020, denis_edwards.htm.

[128] Clausewitz, On War, 198.

[129] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 106.

[130] McRaven, Spec Ops, 17.

[131] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 92. “When the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey, it is because of timing. Tu Yu: Strike the enemy as swiftly as a falcon strikes its target. It surely breaks the back of its prey for the reason that it awaits the right moment to strike. Its movement is regulated.”

[132] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 17.

[133] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 69.

[134] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 97; Crookenden, Dropzone Normandy, 78.

[135] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 17. This rationale by Major Schmidt was the precise reason that the paras of the 6th Airborne were NOT selected to conduct the coup de main.

[136] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 27.

[137] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 89-90.

[138] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 94.

[139] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 82.

[140] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 134.

[141] Clausewitz, On War, 357.

[142] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 73.

[143] Kershaw, The First Wave, 13.

[144] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 22.

[145] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 82.

[146] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 87.

[147] Ryan, The Longest Day, 111.

[148] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 74.

[149] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 97-98.

[150] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 43.

[151] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 80.

[152] This is opposed to the character of war, which is dynamic, fluid, and evolves with changes in the things such as the political, military, economic, societal, and technological arenas. The area which arguably is most often cited with changing the character of war is technology.

[153] McRaven, Spec Ops, 11.

[154] Field Service Regulations, Part I: Operations. His Majesty’s Stationary Office, London, 1909, 13.

[155] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 60-61.

[156] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 45. Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 101.

[157] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 83.

[158] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 108.

[159] Clausewitz, On War, 120.

[160] Howard and Bates, The Pegasus Diaries, 122.

[161] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 76.

[162] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 97.

[163] Carl Shilleto, Pegasus Bridge/Merville Battery (Pen and Sword Books, South Yorkshire, 1999), 54-55.

[164] Regardless, we know that the superbly trained men executed their task flawlessly. Thanks to through training, the men in that glider had thought through and rehearsed every possible scenario and knew there could be a chance that they would be the only glider to actually land safely in France; as such they were primed and ready to carry out the tasks of the entire assault force if need be. Because of this, within minutes the River Orne bridge was also captured.

[165] “Battle Order,” accessed 16 January 2023,

[166] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 113.

[167] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 20.

[168] Barber, The Pegasus and Orne Bridges, 17.

[169] David Grossman and Loren Christensen, On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace (PPCT Research Publications, 2004) 15. Grossman discusses in depth the role of the autonomic nervous system plays in warriors dealing with danger, and the parasympathetic backlash that occurs when the human body, after intense expenditure of energy during times of high stress (i.e., combat), “shuts down for maintenance” as soon as the danger passes. He provides an example from the Korean War when well rested soldiers conducted a dawn attack on the enemy and secured the objective. As they awaited the counterattack they knew was sure to come, the leadership had to walk the defensive lines struggling to keep their soldiers awake and alert. “The parasympathetic backlash after battle had been so powerful that the men had fallen into an exhausted sleep, though they knew they would soon be attacked.”

[170] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 116.

[171] “On the Making of History: John Boyd and American Security,” accessed 5 May 2020, As stated by Boyd scholar Grant T. Hammond in the cited work above, the OODA loop as normally illustrated (as a circular loop) “is a very simplistic and shallow representation of an important and richer set of ideas,” a sentiment with which I fully agree. Nevertheless, the use of the OODA loop to describe Howard’s decision making that day, even in its reduced form, is a useful analytical tool for our purposes.

[172] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 64.

[173] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 83.

[174] On 26 June 1944, the bridge over the Caen Canal captured by Howard and his men was renamed as “Pegasus Bridge” after the divisional shoulder patch of the British airborne forces which featured a winged Pegasus horse. The original bridge was replaced by a newer replica in 1994; the original sits on the grounds of the Memorial Pegasus, a museum opened in 2000 located on the land between the Caen Canal and River Orne.

[175] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 114.

[176] Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge, 183.

[177] Clausewitz, On War, 185. “The moral elements are among the most important in war. They constitute the spirit that permeates war as a whole…Unfortunately, they will not yield to academic wisdom. They cannot be classified or counted. They have to be seen or felt … Consequently, though next to nothing can be said about these things in books, they can no more be omitted from the theory of the art of war than can any of the other components of war…One might say that the physical [elements] seem little more than the wooden hilt, while the moral factors are the precious metal, the real weapon, the finely-honed blade.”

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