Review: Pegasus Bridge

Airborne Landings at Pegasus Bridge, 6 June 1944Title: Pegasus Bridge
Author: Stephen E Ambrose
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster 2002
Language: English

Ambrose book is a great read for anyone with even a passing interest in the event but it is not without its faults. It’s purpose should be thought of as an introduction to this amazing event in military history rather than a definitive or in-depth history of the action.

Growing up on war movies and historical miniatures gaming, I’ve pretty much always been aware of the efforts of Johnny Howard‘s lads to take and hold the bridges over the Orne River at Benouville the night before the Normandy beach landings in 1944. However, it was only after visiting the site in 2005 that I understood the magnitude of the task and the difficulty of the feat these young men achieved. It’s always puzzled me – even more since visiting the site – how the bridges’ defenders were not alerted by the huge gliders crashing to earth.

As with all this author’s work, he concentrates on collecting first-hand accounts of the action from soldiers on both sides of the engagement and from the civilians so often caught in the middle of the conflict. He spend as much time on the preparations made before the action as he does on the events of the assault itself. In this book he adds a third section of equal size which traces what happened to the members of the assault force after D-Day and the history of the bridge from 1944 to the present.

For those who don’t know, just after midnight on D-Day, 6 June 1944, two lots of three gliders each carrying a platoon of British airborne troppers crash-landed into farmland no more than 50 yards from two of the most strategically important bridges in Occupied Europe. These bridges, if not taken by these men, would have allowed the elite German 21 Panzer Division to attack the eastern flank of the Normandy landings and, because they were held, allowed the Allied forces to breakout of the landing zone and push towards the heart of Hitler’s war machine. Because of the difficulties of parachuting into enemy territory at night, the force which was expected to relieve them within two to three hours of taking the bridges didn’t arrive in any strength until more than twelve hours later. While they were waiting for these much needed reinforcements, these few men held off a determined German counterattack.

The problem with the book is that it’s light-weight. The reader has to work fairly hard to figure out who was where and when and the diagrams meant to explain the action are not terribly helpful. On the flip-side, however, the book is best thought of as an oral history collection rather than an analysis of the taking of the bridges or the progress of the battle.

In all, the book is a well-written page-turner which provides a good overview of the event for someone who knows little about it. It’s target audience is the average reader with an interest in World War II rather than the amateur military historian.