Thursday, December 14, 2006

Pegasus Bridge

Pegasus Bridge by Stephen Ambrose (1985) tells the story of what may have been the first action on D-Day. A company of British commandos landing by glider to take a bridge right after midnight on June 5 to the morning of June 6, 1944. Ambrose relied primarily on interviews from survivors to piece together the story since few written accounts exist.

My Rating: Very Good (****). Ambrose is a very engaging historian who can recite history as an interesting story, almost like a novel. Unfortunately, Ambrose has been criticized for failure to adequately cite references for passages used from other books. Ambrose tells a great story about the British commandos success.

Themes or strategies presented in the book were:
  • Empowering the commanding officer to design an effective training program and of making the detailed plan for the operation. (p. 67)
  • To ensure success, the plan was repeated, repeated, and repeated. Repetition of the plan was boring, but always provided something overlooked. (p. 78)
  • Cross-training was implemented. "All three platoon leaders gone, and in less than ten minutes! Fortunately, the sergeants were thoroughly familiar with the various tasks and could take over" (p. 104).
  • Major Howard insisted he put the Gammon Bombs on the glider, but they weren't there. The pilot said Howard pitched them to lighten the load before takeoff, but he claims another platoon stole them. (pp. 110-111)

    Howard obviously made this excuse after the fact. During D-Day, he sent the pilot back to the glider to find the Gammon Bombs. If he was a thorough officer, an inventory of all supplies would be made as loading occurred. It is inconceivable that a critical weapon needed to combat tanks would not be loaded, whether by error or intentionally. This was probably an example of an officer who had more responsibility than he could handle, and therefore made the crucial error of leaving the bombs without remembering doing it. Without the bombs, they were severely limited in their ability to fight a tank attack. In a self-report, such as the facts presented in this book to the author, the weight of the story told by the commanding officer certainly is treated as a primary source. Self-serving statements are hard to contradict when only a few of participants are available for interviews and there is a lack of documentation from that time.

  • Misuse of human resources. "It is indeed a mystery why the War Office squandered D Company. It was an asset of priceless value" (p. 159). "D Company had fallen from its D-Day strength of 181 down to 40." (p. 163) The War Office left D Company on the front line after their success at Pegasus Bridge. Slowly, they lost almost their whole Company as casualties in action that was more like trench warfare in WWI and not good use of their special skills. The Company should have been pulled from the front line and used again in a commando role.
Some interesting facts or items presented in the book included:
  • "... a favorite expression in the German Army ... 'The night is the friend of no man.'" (p. 50) The British intentionally trained in the dark so they would have a different opinion than the Germans.
  • "Monty's parting remark was quiet but moving. 'Get as many of the chaps back as you can." (p. 84) It was quite understanding that Montgomery and the British were worried about losses. Their involvement in the war was longer than the USA's and they did not want to take risks which may result in high casualties. Montgomery should have said 'No matter what you have to do, take the bridge' instead of giving a word of caution as his final remark. This may provide a revealing insight into Montgomery's failure to aggressively attack Caen and later during the Market Garden campaign.
  • The British only had one Piat with two bombs for it. Sergeant Thornton placed himself about 30 yards from the intersection and the Piat had a range of about fifty yards. "The Piat actually is a load of rubbish" (p. 117) and was an inferior anti-tank weapon, but Thornton was right on target, destroying the tank. "Sergeant Thornton had pulled off the single most important shot of D-Day, because the Germans badly needed that road." After seeing the first tank destroyed, the Germans assumed the British were using heavier anti-tank guns and the remaining tanks retreated.
  • Thornton later participated in Operation Market Garden with the 1st Airborne Division and fought with Colonel John Frost's 2nd Battalion at Arnhem Bridge, being captured when Montgomery's reinforcements failed to arrive.

    Click here to buy "Pegasus Bridge"

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