Tag Archives: Pegasus Bridge

Walking D-Day by Paul Reed

Paul Reed has carved out something of a niche with his ‘Walking’ Battlefield Guides. His ‘Walking the Somme‘ in particular set the standard for Battlefield Guides, long before the explosion in Battlefield tourism. The interesting thing I find about Battlefield Guides is that I own so many of them, yet out of all the Battlefields out there I have only ever actually been to Arnhem! The thing is, they are actually useful for getting a grip on what happened, where and when. If you forget that you’re sat in living room, and if the book is well written and well illustrated, then you can still go some way to visualising what happened at the Battlefield in question. Paul has spent an awful lot of time around Battlefields in North West Europe, and it certainly shows in the manner in which he writes.

This is unlike most other Battlefield Guides on Normandy, in that it only deals with D-Day itself. No doubt if you are interested in visiting the Battlefield area in Normandy in general you might find this a bit anaemic, but I actually think its a very good choice. To do all of the D-Day beaches and all of the Normandy sites, in detail, would take you forever. However, doing the D-Day Beaches and the airborne areas might take you a nice couple of days, and would make much more sense into the bargain. And from what I have seen such a tour would take in some lovely scenery as a nice by product. There are plenty of museums and sites to see along the landing beaches too. Perhaps a Holt’s style map might make a useful addition, but there are plenty of places from where the tourist can obtain a good map nowadays. It has enough useful practical information without being overloaded – the beauty of the modern world is that anyone can go online and search for hotels, ferries etc, so there isn’t such a need to include them in what is first and foremost a history book.

I’ve written a fair bit about what happened on D-Day, unsurprisingly, for a Portsmouth military historian and somebody who has worked at the D-Day Museum in Southsea. I found Paul’s book very illuminating – in particular, I enjoyed the section on Sword Beach near Ouistreham, where I was unable to get off my ferry a month or so ago! I also enjoyed reading about the 1st Hampshires at Hamel in the first wave on D-Day. I’ve written about them in my own book, but reading their story here certainly added to my understanding of what happened in those fateful hours on 6 June 1944. Obviously elements such as Pegasus Bridge and Merville have been raked over so much that it is difficult to write much new about them. It’s also got some cracking illustrations, including many that I haven’t seen before. In common with many battles, we are used to seeing the same old photographs of D-Day again and again, so it’s nice to see some that I suspect have never been published before.

It’s quite hard to write about such a well-known event as D-Day in a fresh way, in what is a very crowded market, and especially when it comes to the battlefield guide. But Paul Reed has done a very good job indeed here. My acid test for any battlefield guide is whether it makes me feel like I have been there, when I haven’t. This one sure does. I don’t know how Paul finds time to fit it all in!

Walking D-Day is published by Pen and Sword

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Merville Battery and the Dives Bridges and Pegasus Bridge and Horsa Bridge by Carl Shilleto

Having received these guides that both relate to the Airborne Brigdgehead in Normandy, and are both by Carl Shilleto, I thought it would make sense to review them together. I have used the Battleground series of Battlefield Guides myself when visiting Arnhem in the past. To my eternal regret, I haven’t actually managed to get to any other battlefields apart from Arnhem, so until the time that somebody gives me a break in becoming a battlefield guide I will have to make do with reading battlefield guide books from the comfort of my own home!

Mind you, in this case it’s not really a case of making do – these are very good books indeed. Exceptionally well illustrated with archive and contemporary photographs, and with a wealth of appendices covering recommended reading, order of battle, glossaries and a handy reference list of grid reference co-ordinates for Satnav use. The maps in particular are a great resource – in particular the colour maps on the back are very useful. Perhaps the only thing that is missing with this series is a larger scale, detailed Holts-style map, but I guess if you want something like that you can go out and buy one yourself, or one of the French Michelin maps. There isn’t a huge amount on tourist information – some basic information such as climate, health, getting there, the perils of battlefield relics are well covered. With the internet, and ever disappearing international borders, it shouldn’t take too much trouble to google up some ferries and hotels.

I’ve done a fair bit of studying of individual soldiers who fought in the airborne bridgehead – namely Portsmouth’s own Sergeant Sid Cornell DCM and the 16 year old Boy Para Private Bobby Johns. Reading this book has helped me understand what happened to both of them in much more context. And I guess that’s what a good battlefield guidebook should do – make you feel like you have been there, without actually being there. I wouldn’t mind betting that out of everyone who buys a battlefield guide, something like 75% might not actually got to the area. And is that such a bad thing?

Both Battleground guides are available from Pen and Sword

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The Fighting Fourth: No.4 Commando at War 1940-45 by James Dunning

One of the lingering misconceptions of the Second World War is that ‘Commando’ = ‘Royal Marines‘. True, the Royals might sport the green berets nowadays, be called Commando’s, and even serve in a Commando Brigade. Over the past 60 or so years they have very much made the name their own.

But the birth of the Commando is slightly more complicated than that. The first Commandos were in fact formed in 1940, during the invasion scare. And whats more, the first units were formed from Army personnel – volunteers who were bored and looking for action. Realising that the country was going to be on the defensive for some time, and had a paucity in regular troops, Winston Churchill ordered the raising of Commando special forces, based on the Boer Kommando he had encountered in South Africa years before.

No 4 Commando had an impressive list of battle honours during its short life. Lofoten Islands, Dieppe, D-Day and Walcheren are impressive honours for any unit. But upon reading this history by a veteran of No. 4, its impossible not to admire these fine men. They were clearly trained to a high pitch – sniper training, amphibious training, mountain training, general physical fitness, field craft – these really were some of the best men Britain had to offer.

After opening their account in the daring Lofoten raid in 1941, destroying a fish oil processing port in Northern Norway, No 4 then guarded the left flank of the ill-fated Dieppe raid. Although the raid was nothing short of a disaster, No 4 did extremely well, putting a gun position out of action, and Captain Pat Porteous won a Victoria Cross for repeatedly leading attacks while seriously wounded. I certainly dont agree that Dieppe gave valuable lessons – it shouldn’t have taken such a disaster to learn such elementary lessons. Then on D-Day No.4 Landed at Ouisterham, and hot-footed it across the Orne at Pegasus Bridge. They spent much of the Normandy campaign in the line in the Orne Bridgehead with the 6th Airborne Division, including in the Mosquito-riddled Bois de Bavent. After being withdrawn from Normandy, No.4′s final operation was the little-known but bitter fight to clear the Scheldt, where they carried out an amphibious landing at Walcheren Island. In early 1946 they were disbanded, after ending the war in Germany.

Some very famous men came from No 4 – none other than Lord Lovat, who went on to Command the Special Service Brigade that landed on D-Day and marched to reinforce the Paras at Pegasus Bridge, complete with personal Bagpiper Bill Millin. The spectacle is immortalised in the Overlord Embroidery.┬áThe unconventional nature of the Commando’s clearly attracted a lot of ‘individual’ officers and men, who were no doubt misfits to conventional military thinking. But unconventional was the norm in units such as the Commandos – in fact, they had their own organisation, with HQ commanding a number of troops (roughly equivalent to infantry platoons), with no Company level command in between. This meant that the command structure was flexible, and junior officers and NCO’s had to show initiative. In Normandy and Walcheren French Troops were also attached.

I found this a really interesting book to read. A few things really jumped out at me – it was interesting to read that No 4 Commando trained for a long time in the Purbecks region of the Dorset coast – at Worbarrow tout, Arish Mell gap and Chapmans pool. I walked over them all last summer, and its very rugged terrain to say the least. Also, I could not help but be impressed by the rigorous training that the Commando’s went through. Sadly, I have to compare it to the impression I have of the 1st Airborne Division‘s training before Arnhem, and it strikes me that they weren’t as well prepared as the Commandos. A salutory lesson – even in modern warfare, with remote-control fighting, first class training and fitness – healthy mind, healthy body and all that.

I’ve often wondered which unit, if any, could be called the ‘British Band of Brothers’. C Company of John Frost’s 2 Para have always been foremost in my mind, but the story of No.4 Commando is also a very fine one indeed.

The Fighting Fourth: No.4 Commando at War 1940-45 is published by The History Press

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Filed under Book of the Week, special forces, Uncategorized, World War Two