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Pegasus Bridgeby Stephen E Ambrose
D-Day: 0000 to 0015 Hours
It was a steel-girder bridge, painted gray, with a large water tower and superstructure. At 0000 hours, June 5/6, 1944, the scudding clouds parted sufficiently to allow the nearly full moon to shine and reveal the bridge, standing starkly visible above the shimmering water of the Caen Canal.
On the bridge, Private Vern Bonck, a twenty-two-year-old Pole conscripted into the German Army, clicked his heels sharply as he saluted Private Helmut Romer, an eighteen-year-old Berliner. Romer had reported to relieve Bonck. As Bonck went off duty, he met with his fellow sentry, another Pole. They decided they were not sleepy and agreed to go to the local brothel, in the village of B?nouville, for a bit of fun. They strolled west along the bridge road, then turned south (left) at the T-junction, and were on the road into B?nouville. By 0005 they were at the brothel. Regular customers, within two minutes they were knocking back cheap red wine with two French whores.
Beside the bridge, on the west bank, south of the road, Georges and Th?r?sa Gondr?e and their two daughters slept in their small caf?. They were in separate rooms, not by choice but as a way to use every room and thus to keep the Germans from billeting soldiers with them. It was the 1,450th night of the German occupation of B?nouville.
So far as the Germans knew, the Gondr?es were simple Norman peasants, people of no consequence who gave them no trouble. Indeed, Georges sold beer, coffee, food, and a concoction made by Madame of rotting melons and half-fermented sugar to the grateful German troops stationed at the bridge. There were about fifty of them, the NCOs and officers all German, the enlisted men mostly conscripts from Eastern Europe.
But the Gondr?es were not as simple as they pretended to be. Madame came from Alsace and spoke German, a fact she successfully hid from the garrison. Georges, before acquiring the caf?, had been for twelve years a clerk in Lloyd's Bank in Paris and understood English. The Gondr?es hated the Germans for what they had done to France, hated the life they led under the occupation, feared for the future of their daughters, and were consequently active in trying to bring German rule to an end. In their case, the most valuable thing they could do for the Allies was to provide information on conditions at the bridge. Th?r?sa got information by listening to the chitter-chatter of the NCOs in the caf?; she passed along to Georges, who passed it to Mme. Vion, director of the maternity hospital, who passed it along to the Resistance in Caen on her trips to the city for medical supplies. From Caen, it was passed on to England via Lysander airplanes, small craft that could land in fields and get out in a hurry.
Only a few days ago, on June 2, Georges had sent through this process a tidbit Th?r?sa had overheard — that the button that would set off the explosives to blow the bridge was located in the machine-gun pillbox across the road from the antitank gun. He hoped that information had got through, if only because he would hate to see his bridge destroyed.
The man who would give that order, the commander of the garrison at the bridge, was Major Hans Schmidt. Schmidt had an understrength company of the 736th Grenadier Regiment of the 716th Infantry Division. At 0000 hours, June 5/6, he was in Ranville, a village two kilometers east of the Orne River. The river ran parallel to the canal, about four hundred meters to the east, and was also crossed by a bridge (fixed, and guarded by sentries but without emplacements or a garrison). Although the Germans expected the long-anticipated invasion at any time, and although Schmidt had been told that the two bridges were the most critical points in Normandy, because they provided the only crossings of the Orne waterways along the Norman coast road, Schmidt did not have his garrison at full alert, nor was he in Ranville on business. Except for the two sentries on each bridge, his troops were either sleeping in their bunkers, or dozing in their slit trenches or in the machine-gun pillbox, or off whoring in B?nouville.
Schmidt himself was with his girl friend in Ranville, enjoying the magnificent food and drink of Normandy. He thought of himself as a fanatic Nazi, this Schmidt, who was determined to do his duty for his Fhrer. But he seldom let duty interfere with pleasure, and he had no worries that evening. His routine concern was the possibility of French partisans blowing his bridges, but that hardly seemed likely except in conjunction with an airborne operation, and the high winds and stormy weather of the past two days precluded a parachute drop. He had orders to blow the bridges himself if capture seemed imminent. He had prepared the bridges for demolition, but had not put the explosives into their chambers, for fear of accident or the partisans. Since his bridges were almost five miles inland, he figured he would have plenty of warning before any Allied units reached him, even paratroopers, because the paras were notorious for taking a long time to form up and get organized after their drops scattered them all over the DZ. Schmidt treated himself to some more wine, and another pinch.
At Vimont, east of Caen, Colonel Hans A. von Luck, commanding the 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 21st Panzer Division, was working on personnel reports at his headquarters. The contrast between Schmidt and von Luck extended far beyond their activities at midnight. Schmidt was an officer gone soft from years of cushy occupation duty; von Luck was an officer hardened by combat. Von Luck had been in Poland in 1939, had commanded the leading reconnaissance battalion for Rommel at Dunkirk in 1940, had been in the van at Moscow in 1941 (in December, he actually led his battalion into the outskirts of Moscow, the deepest penetration of the campaign) and with Rommel throughout the North African campaign of 1942-43.
There was an equally sharp contrast between the units von Luck and Schmidt commanded. The 716th Infantry was a second-rate, poorly equipped, immobile division made up of a hodgepodge of Polish, Russian, French, and other conscripted troops, while the 21st Panzer was Rommel's favorite division. Von Luck's regiment, the 125th, was one of the best equipped in the German Army. The 21st Panzer Division had been destroyed in Tunisia in April and May 1943, but Rommel had got most of the officer corps out of the trap, and around that nucleus rebuilt the division. It had all-new equipment, including Tiger tanks, self-propelled vehicles (SPVs) of all types, and an outstanding wireless communications network. The men were volunteers, young Germans deliberately raised by the Nazis for the challenge they were about to face, tough, well trained, eager to come to grips with the enemy.
There was a tremendous amount of air activity that night, with British and American bombers crossing the Channel to bomb Caen. As usual, Schmidt paid no attention to it. Neither did von Luck, consciously, but he was so accustomed to the sights and sounds of combat that at about 0010 hours he noticed something none of his clerks did. There were a half-dozen or so planes flying unusually low, at five hundred feet or less. That could only mean they were dropping something by parachute. Probably supplies for the Resistance, von Luck thought, and he ordered a search of the area, hoping to capture some local resisters while they were gathering in the supplies.
Heinrich (now Henry) Heinz Hickman, a sergeant in the German 6th (Independent) Parachute Regiment, was at that moment riding in an open staff car, coming from Ouistreham, on the coast, toward B?nouville. Hickman, twenty-four years old, was a combat veteran of Sicily and Italy. His regiment had come to Normandy a fortnight ago; at 2300 hours on June 5 his company commander had ordered Hickman to pick up four y
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