BATTLE OF PEGASUS BRIDGE: HISTORY IN THE VICINITY
BATTLE OF PEGASUS BRIDGE: AN INVASION ARTERY TO CAEN
As far back before D-Day as February 17, 1944, Major General Richard ‘Windy’ Gale, the veteran of the previous World War had a conversation with his superior Major-General Frederick Arthur Montague «Boy» Browning. The commander of the 6th Airborne Division since May previous year, the future Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (1958-1960) Gale was briefed by the commander of all British Air Forces at the time. While the revised version of the ‘Operation Overlord’ had been sealed with approval a month before, the commanding officer of the 6th Airborne Division was still not aware of the exact objectives of his military unit. This February 1944 scope of objectives requested merely one parachute brigade and an air-landed anti-tank battery, attached to the Infantry forces to seize a pair of French bridges, 525 meters between the two, over the Caen Canal and River Orne between the villages of Benouville and Ranville. Being harassed with a dismal prospect for the drop soldiers to be cut from the main forces of Invasion deep in enemy territory, General Gale suggested the engagement of the whole 6th Airborne Division under his command. After receiving approval from the high command, the initial set of objectives now included nothing less than backing the supporting area to the East of the main forces near the city of Caen, the annihilation of the German ‘Artilleriebatterie bei Merville’ (a fortified gun battery next to ‘SWORD’ beach), and seizure of other bridges over the River Dives: all these in the hours prior to the invasion of the seaborne forces.
The extended plan for the men for the 6th Airborne Division was now codenamed ‘OPERATION TONGA’, after the Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian country under the British ‘protection’ since 1900. It is worth mentioning, that the enlistment of the whole Airborne division morphed into the next four months of army exercises in England, thus for the sake of gaining practical experience in the seizure of ground targets from the air. The most ambitious part of this war game can be accounted for March-April 1944 and the Exercise Operations under the code names ‘Bizz One’ and ‘Bizz Two’. In the course of these two military maneuvers, nearly three hundred US aircraft supported the landing of the 6th Airborne Division in Oxfordshire county in Southern England. Regretfully, the military exercise of such caliber was not conducted without casualties. Particularly April 4, 1944, claimed the lives of a crew of six men of a ‘Short Stirling’ heavy bomber as well as two pilots and a whole platoon on the board of the glider, attached to it. It was during these maneuvers of the 6th airborne Division on April 15, that Major Reginald John Howard, a former clerk, and a physical training instructor before the War, was now briefed on his future mission. A thirty-one-year-old Major Howard was instructed that the men under his command would take the mission to seize two bridges to the East-North of Caen by means of a glider assault.
Two heavily secured bridges were located half a kilometer distance from each other over Caen Canal and River Orne retrospectively and were a part of the transport arteria, which used to run through the villages of BENOVUILLE and RANVILLE. The landing forces under Major Howard were assigned to eliminate the German military post next to the bridges thus securing the Eastern wing of the Invasion at the ‘SWORD’ beach. The seizure and control over the transport arteries between the city of Caen and the beaches was to prevent the potential German reinforcements, panzer forces in particular from the east-west movement toward the landing zone of the British and Canadian forces. The road across these two crossings was the only one in this area, which could offer a breakout immediately to the South of the landing beaches. On the contrary, a retaining control by the Germans over these bridges spelled a disaster for the Allied forces to be counter-attacked from the unorganized area in the rear and for the 6th Airborne Division to be cut off threateningly behind the enemy lines.
The obvious importance of entrapping the two bridges near Benouville necessitated a lightning-fast attack to annihilate the German forces before the demolition of the crossings. As early as May 2, 1944, merely a month prior to the Allied invasion in Normandy, Major Howard received another and this time more detailed briefing with particular objectives for his men. The trained soldiers of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and the Royal Engineers were assigned not only to seize two bridges but to enhance the security of the Western bank of the Caen canal ‘at all costs’. By the time of the briefing, the Allied reconnaissance air forces had already taken thousands of high-quality aerial photos of the Division landing area in Normandy. Although Major Howard had no privilege to take the reconnaissance data from the building, he and his officers had constant access to the photos. Apart from this, the surveillance officers made footage, and a kind of stereograph system with a three-dimensional view of the photographs made great sense with an almost exact route, which the British soldiers would have to cover from England to the landing zone.
Major Howard took the advantage of the high-resolution photos not only to study the enemy trenches along the Caen Canal but also he was to some extent worried about the glimpses of the so-called ‘Rommelspargel’ (Rommel’s asparagus). In his new position as the Army Group B commanding officer, ERWIN ROMMEL ordered millions of tree trunks with barbed wire between them to be set, thus an anti-paratroop obstacle in order to frustrate the massive invasion of the Allied forces from the air. Based on the result of the reconnaissance flights, Major Howard picked two particular landing zones, one between the two bridges and the second on the Eastern bank of the Orne river. Such a choice had a mindful practical meaning since the soldiers would not be cut off from each other in case of demolition. While the high command initially masterminded the use of only two platoons (one for each landing zone and bridge) for the operation, Howard demanded an assignment of an additional unit, which was justified.
TOUCHING THE GROUND
Handley Page Halifax, a flying giant of 22 meters long and 17 tonnes of sole weight, was a four-engined heavy bomber to carry the gliders with Major Howard’s men on board. Put into service in 1940, after four years in operation the ‘Halifax’ was now to play a critical part in the Invasion of Normandy, particularly during the extensive air raids (bombardment) of the ground targets of infrastructure in Normandy. In total, 181 were now under command of Major Howard, composed of:
- Men of ‘D’ Company of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Division
- Two platoons from ‘B’ Company
- A platoon of 30 engineers from the 249th Field Company, a glider-borne Engineer Company.
In contrast to the extensive military training in the course of the previous months prior to the Invasion, only a portion of these soldiers in their late twenties had combat experience against the Germans. In a wider sense, similar to the US 101st Airborne Division, the men from the British 6th Airborne were to make a combat debut in Northern France.
Major Howard carried a series of detailed briefings for his platoon crews, assigned to reach the landing zones inside six separate gliders, on the matter of their primary objectives and the necessity to be able to cooperate. Six gliders, attached to the ‘Halifax’ bombers to carry the landing forces of Howard were ‘Airspeed Horsa’. Named after the icon-like historical figure from the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, the glider with 26.8 meters wingspread was only 4 tonnes in weight. The ‘secret’ of its modest weight and maneuvering ability could be attributed to the minimal use of the metal parts (operating and control elements, landing gears) and the construction of thirty-six parts made mostly of wood. The ‘Horsa’ was constructed to emplane up to thirty-one men on board or a small load such as jeeps. Each of the gliders required a crew of two experienced pilots: one to maneuver the aircraft and drift down after the detachment from the ‘Halifax’ and the second pilot was to handle the brakes. Apart from their sophisticated training on handling the glider, this two-pilot crew had been intensively trained as full-blooded warriors, who could deal not only with a hand-held weapon but also drive a jeep and fire from the anti-tank weapon if it is required.
The invading forces under Major Howard were made up of six separate units, one for each glider, each one carried by a separate ‘Halifax’ bomber. The seizure of the Canal bridge (Pegasus) was assigned to three platoons:
- 25 PLATOON under command of Lieutenant Den Brotheridge with Major Howard on board. A glider with a Serial No PF 800 carried by Halifax V, LL355-G.
- 24 PLATOON under Lieutenant David Wood within a glider with a Serial No LW 943 by Halifax LL335
- 14 PLATOON of Lieutenant Sandy Smith, No LH 469 Horsa by Halifax LL218-N.
As early as 23:50 June 5, Apr. fifty minutes after the take-off from Tarrant Rushton airfield in Dorset county, the men within the gliders were ordered to check their weapons and to put out any lights. In another fifteen minutes, the soldiers were ordered to fasten the seat belts and to be prepared to lift their legs clear of the floor for the landing. Followed by a challenging descent, five of six gliders succeed to land within the initially scheduled landing zones. Despite extensive training in the course of the previous months and masterful piloting, some soldiers lost their consciousness for moments upon harsh landing.
On the night of June 6, 1944, the defensive measures of the Canal bridge (Pegasus) relied upon a night watch of a small garrison of two incomplete dozens of men. In virtue of the reconnaissance information from the Gondree family in Benouville, the owners of the local restaurant next to the bridge, Major Howard was informed that 40 percent of the garrison at the bridge was ‘static’ and 15 percent could act ‘in a counter-attack role’. In fact, the garrison consisted not only of the Germans by origin but was mixed with the ‘foreign; soldiers such as poles. Apart from such mixed military personnel, a few elderly French peasants from Benouville, known as ‘Hilfsgendarmerie’ (auxiliary police) were paid to perform minor duties as guards without weapons. Apart from their age, they could be identified by a green arm patch with distinctive black ‘Hilfsgendarmerie’ letters on it. Among them was a sixty-seven-year-old Pere Delaunay, later shot by the Germans during the fight, and Seventy-four year-old Alexandre Sohier. Apart from them, the French bridgekeeper, Auguste Niepceron had been performing his duties since the reconstruction of the bridge in the 1930s. In the course of this decade, Niepcerons used to live on the north-eastern side of the bridge until in April 1944 the Germans demolished the two-story house and converted the cellar into a pillbox, and forced the bridgekeeper to move to a house next to the ‘La ‘Chaumiere’ bar, on the west side of the Canal.
Fifteen minutes after midnight the bridge garrison detected a sound of the descending British gliders, yet they mistook it for a sound of a shot down Allied bomber, they considered being taken out of action by a German anti-aircraft forces on its way to or from Caen. The Canal bridge was in its lower (thus open for traffic) position, although just before midnight the bridgekeeper Auguste Niepceron had been called to up the bridge for some time in order to allow the French fishing boat to pass to Caen after the day of fishing in the sea. Ere yet the garrison managed to wake up their sergeant to examine the source of the strange sound, they were attacked by the British soldiers, who had successfully landed merely a few dozen of meters from the bridge by grazing against the wire fence on the edge of their landing zone. The 25 platoon men under Lieutenant Brotheridge rushed to their target and after killing the first guard, started to clear the area. Overcoming the resistance, the attackers succeeded to capture the bridge and the Western bank of the canal. The immediate trophies included a German MG-34 machine gun with a full ammunition load, as well as mines and light weapons. Yet a far more important finding was made by the airborne engineers, who revealed no explosives on the structure. On the one hand, the garrison was not expecting to fight back the Allied invasion on that particular night of June 6. On the other hand, the demolition charges were not prepared due to the precautions, that ‘non-native’ guards among Poles and Soviets, the so-called ‘Ost troops’ could misunderstand the orders and blow up the bridge in panic.
The fight for the control of the Caen canal was fierce, yet lasted merely ten to fifteen minutes and the initial objective (securing the bridge before the demolition) was conducted by 00:35, June 6, six hours prior to the massive landing operations in Normandy. Lt Herbert Denham ‘Den’ Brotheridge, the commander of the fateful 25 platoon was destined not to live enough to see the end of the War and even the operation. He was critically wounded on the West bank of the Canal by German machine gunfire. In a wider historical sense, beyond a local operation in Benouville, Herbert Brotheridge is considered to be the first Allied soldier to have died on D-Day. His body would be later buried in the Ranville churchyard. With a cautious optimism toward the initial success of seizing the bridge, Major Howard designated the capture and defense of Benouville as the next vital objective prior to the arrival of the 7th Battalion (Light Infantry) Parachute Regiment to the East of the Canal.
THE DAWNING LIGHT: WAITING FOR THE 7TH BATTALION
Whereas the garrison of both Benouville and Ranville bridges was swept toward 00:35 of June 6, the Germans in fact had men and material to counter-attack the platoons of Major Howard’s men. One among such regiments in the vicinity was the 736th Grenadier Regiment of the 716th Infantry Division. Despite the cognizance of the strategic importance of the assigned sector of defense, the commander of the regiment Major Hans Schmidt was in no way anticipating the invasion this night and the major part of his soldiers were having a peaceful sleep in their bunkers and trenches and dwellings in Benouville and Ranville. The ‘716. Infanterie-Division’ (716-th Infantry) was not a first-class army unit. Merely 40% of its manpower were the citizens of Germany, mostly aged soldiers, and the greater proportion of the Division was formed of the men from the occupied territories in the East, particularly from Ukraine and Poland.
In the face of a ten-minute fierce fight with light weapons, machine guns, and grenades, the dispersed occupational forces of the Germans were not aware of the Invasion of the enemy forces near Benouville. The British soldiers attacked a Mercedes car, which was moving from the direction of Ranville to find four wounded Germans, including Major Hans Schmidt (commander of the 736th Grenadier Regiment): all were to some degree drunk and got a whiff of women’s perfume. The wounded Germans were medically treated, yet the heavily hurt driver of the Mercedes died due to the fatal injuries to his legs. Once dealing with this accident, Major Howard made his way back to the Canal bridge. His men heard the sound of the coming military vehicle, which then made its way to the North. As early as 2 a.m. they had a glimpse of the material target within the crossroad next to Benouville town hall. By taking advantage of the ambush, Sergeant ‘Wagger’ Thornton fired at a half-track (initially designated as a tank) from his portable anti-tank weapon known as ‘Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank’ or simply ‘PIAT’ from a close range of fewer than fifty yards. The defeated vehicle thus blocked the road and the backing soldiers retreated in the night.
By the time when disabled German machinery was still in flames at the crossroad in Benouville, the first paratroopers from the 7th Battalion, expected en masse, finally reached the area. The initial objectives of the 7th (Light Infantry) Battalion included moving across the Orne River and the Caen canal and the capture of the area even if Coup de Main‘ under Major Howard met failure. Consider the scenario with the demolition of the bridges by the German garrison, the paratroopers were assigned to perform crossing the two water obstacles by means of the boats further to the North. The manpower of the 7th Battalion was now dispersed over an immense territory and it took time to team up and reach the objective. Finally, around 3 a.m. approximately 150 paratroopers of the 7th Battalion tied in with the soldiers of Major Howard to hear the news that the bridges had not been destroyed. Merely one-third of the men of the Battalion (210 of 640 paratroopers) found their way to the landing zone, though they lost a great proportion of its equipment, including the radios. The overwrought soldiers at the bridges were now shouting: ‘Where the hell have you been? As a response, they were delighted to hear ‘Good lads! Well done!’. After a short space, Major Howard was delivered a message of the arrival of Colonel Richard Geoffrey Pine-Coffin, the commander of the 7th Parachute Battalion.
Whereas the British soldiers were delighted to welcome the comrade-in-arms as well as to stop the counter-attack at the cross-road of Benouville, the Germans finally recognized the fact of the invasion and the necessity to react. In virtue of a number of reports from his subordinates, at 2:05 a.m. Hauptmann Eberhard Wagemann, a duty officer of the German 21st Panzer Division initiated the invasion alert for the whole division, which prescribed a readiness to move in ninety minutes. The headquarters of the Division and Wagemann himself was stationed in Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives, 30 kilometers South-East. The 21st Panzer Division was ‘a favorite’ reserve force of Erwin Rommel in Normandy. Its disposition to the East of Caen, as well as the presence of the 12th SS Panzer Division, in fact, had been giving cause for concerns prior to the landing. The 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 21st Panzer Division under Colonel Hans A. Von Luck, unlike the 736th Grenadier Regiment of the 716th Infantry Division under Schmidt, in fact, was one of the best equipped and trained regiments of the German forces in France. By being a disciplined and battle-hardened officer (a veteran of Poland, France, Soviet, and Africa campaigns in the previous five years), at 03:00, von Luck ordered 8th Heavy Grenadier Bataillon to the North of Caen to fight Benouville and two bridges back. In the course of the next few hours, the men of von Luck succeeded to inflict the British with losses and forcing them to retreat from the far part of the village. The German then took up a position close to Château de Benouville in wait for reinforcements.
THE LANDING: IN WAIT FOR THE COMMANDOS
Since the early June dawn overshined the fighting area next to Benouville and Ranville, and on both banks of both bridges, the British forces cathed the roaring sound, this time of no German origin. It was the Allied invasion of Northern France, anticipated since mid-1942. In particular, the men of Major Howard and Colonel Geoffrey Pine-Coffin next to Orne River and Caen canal could hear the battle for the British and Canadian landing beaches just 10 kilometers to the North. At the same time, the sunshine of a new day inflicted the warriors with calamities. The German snipers to the West of the Caen canal now had a good perspective for shooting the paratroopers, which would become a challenge for the remaining part of the ‘longest’ D-day in this sector. In parallel to the effort of revealing the positions of the snipers, the British men captured a number of prisoners. These included, in particular, two exhausted Italian laborers, who were then released with a field ration. Around 8 a.m. two RAF Spitfires appeared in the sky above the fighting zone: they revealed not only the seizure of the bridges intact, yet were signaled from the ground on the matter of control of the situation.
Not long after the appearance of the RAF planes, the men next to the bridges faced another challenge, namely the move of a gunboat toward the Canal bridge from the North direction. Armed with a 20mm gun, this boat was attacked by the men of the 7th Battalion and another German boat, approaching from Caen, was attacked as well. One of these two boats was captured and the crew consisted of one rude German and two natives of the ‘Eastern troops’. Though the men of Major Howard and Colonel Geoffrey Pine-Coffin were anticipating the arrival of the land forces from the landing beaches at noon, as early as 11 a.m. the only arrivers were the French civilians, mainly children and women, who pulled through the area to save themselves. The forces of the British Commandos, particularly the expected 2nd East Yorks, and 1st Special Service Brigade set ashore next to Ouistreham around 8:40 a.m. Once facing the mine defense and the rugged terrain, Commandos proceeded their move towards Ranville and Benouville. Around 1:30 p.m. despite the sound of shots and explosions, the men at the bridges heard a distinctive sound of bagpipes of the Brigade under Brigadier Lord Lovat (No 6 Commando). In the late hours of the same D-day, the men of The Royal Warwickshire Regiment also reached the area of Benouville and took the command from Major Howard, now a national hero. In those later hours around 9 p.m. on June 6, the remaining forces of the 6th Airborne Division in 256 gliders landed within the landing zone of Ranville and to the northwest of Benouville. The area was finally definitely secured.
VILLAGE OF BENOUVILLE: A HOME FOR TWO BRIDGES
The first documented mention of a village with the Latinized spelling ‘Burnolfivilla’ could be found as far back in time as 1066. With the mixed origins of Anglo-Sazon, Danish, Normandin, and German renderings, as early as the XII century the former fisherman’s village is documented as ‘Bernovilla’. The first settlers of the area made great strides in the waters of the Orne river, itself named after the heritage of the Celtic times, and the breadwinner or better to say ‘fishwinner’ for the future generations of the locals. With a water catch basin area of nearly 3000 km2, Orne is the second most important river in North France after the Seine. A few kilometers to the North, the river flows into the sea, which made Benouville a guiding star on the way from Caen to the coast. It must be said that the area witnessed floods as well, some of them did cover the banks with more than a meter layer of water, leaving a mess and clay.
Prior to the mid of the XIX century, when the ever-increasing transport flow settled an erection of an artificial canal, the stream course of Orne through Benouville was naturally located to the West of the modern stream, and a ferry was in operation roughly on the site of the later Canal Bridge (modern Pegasus). Getting so far ahead, the soldiers of three gliders under Major Howard would land on the site of the former river stream, which still could be identified due to the swamped soil and a pond. In a wider sense, during the layout of the Caen canal, it was the Orne river to be ‘straightened’ on the section between Benouville-Ranville on the south and Sallenelles on the North. At the same time, the newly dug canal was placed on the site of the former river stream.
As early as 1892 a small village of Benouville with less than three hundred inhabitants (the 1891 census documented 296 villagers), was fated to become a part of another ambitious transport project. A railway artery, the first one of such kind in the Calvados region, which at that time connected Cabourg (12 km to North-East) and Luc-sur-Mer (10 km to North-West). In September of the same year, a malfunction of the line factored in an accident, which is worth mentioning. Nearly 200 passengers had to spend their time in Benouville for a matter of a few hours while waiting for the repair of their transport in the West direction. The line was laid across the Canal and thus ‘Pont de Bénouville’. Within less than a year, in June 1893 another line connected a train station in Benouville with the Saint-Pierre depot in Caen in the South direction. On its way toward the largest city in the region, the passenger had a chance to make a short stop on the platform near Château de Bénouville, a luxurious mansion of the XVIII century. In the name of fairness, neither of the two lines was a railway in a full sense. In fact, it was a narrow-gauge line of 600 mm and was generally called ‘tram’.
Unfortunately, less than half a century since the opening, the line from the East to the West became irrelevant: the line between Cabourg and Benouville (to the East) was closed in September 1932 and the western one to Luc-sur-Mer after the liberation in 1944. As early as August 1914 and the outbreak of the ‘Great War’ in Europe, Benouville witnessed the establishment of a telephone communication line with Ouistreham to the North. In November 1934 the yearlong works on the construction of a new bridge across the Caen canal were finally completed, thus replacing the crossing of the XIX century. The evolution of the number of inhabitants could be traced through the population censuses carried out in the municipality since 1793 (246 inhabitants). In the mid-XIX and the time of the Canal layout, Benouville had 350 villagers, 296 toward the opening of the tram line, 589 due to the 1936 census, 763 in 1946, and roughly 2000 at present.
In June 1940 when the German forces entered Paris and managed to occupy the Northern part of France, a tram line from Ouistreham (to the North of Benouville) to Caen (In the South direction) in parallel to the Caen canal, was still in operation. Apart from the narrow-gauge railway, the highway used to run in the same direction next to the Western outskirts of Benouville. In a wider sense, the bridge over the Canal (Pont de Bénouville), as well as the neighbor over Orne (Le Pont Tournant) were not the only basis for the strategic importance of the Benouville-Ranville area for the Germans and later for the Allies. It is worth mentioning, that as far back as in the latter half of the XIX century the inhabitants of Benouville were not amused with the ‘aliens’, who, as the local newspaper depicted, had a habit to ‘overflow’ the cozy village and to steal chickens as well. Evidently, the elderlies saw nothing ahead but a hazard from the presence of the enemy soldiers on their soil. The very first reverse experienced by the locals was the decree to set clocks one hour forward to match the Berlin time. This first humiliation of June 1940 was of course just a beginning in the course of the upcoming 1450 days of enemy rule.
The western bank of the Caen canal was never a densely populated area, first of all, due to the intense transport flow by means of both the tram line in three directions and a bridge. Apart from the local tram station, the immediate proximity to the bridge was accommodated by a few restaurants. To the left of the bridge exit, across the road from the ‘Gare’ (station) was CAFE GONDREE, owned by Georges and Thérèse Gondrée since 1934. CAFE PICOT was another public place in the area, owned by Louis Picot and located a few dozen of meters behind the tram stop. Further up the road to the West, one could see a small garage (which has not been preserved until today) and a one-story residential house next to it, with a preserved inscription of 1909 as identification of the building date. The building was neighbored by a cozy fruit grove and a root cellar. Another fifty meters further to the West, the German soldiers of 1940 could see the ‘LA CHAUMIERE‘ bar-restaurant. The occupants took advantage of the site and accommodated an improvised headquarter in Benouville next to the bar. On this site behind La Chaumiere, there was (and still is) a small residential house, which would become a new home for Auguste Niepceron, the Canal bridge keeper, and his family, when in April 1944 the Germans forced them to leave the family house across the Canal.
By moving another one hundred meters to the West, Beauville serves as a transport home for a crossroad, with no further passage at that time (at present it goes further to the West). In the nOrth direction, the road goes to Le Port, the Northern part of Benouville, named after the river port of Orne River, which once had been here prior to the erection of the artificial Caen Canal, extensively used by the boats. In the SOuth direction, two parallel roads go to the ‘main’ part of Benouville, a home for the absolute proportion of the 600 inhabitants in the early 1940s. ‘La Mairie’, the town hall is located between these two roads and next to the crossroad. During the occupation the upper floor was accommodated by Jean Deschamps, the Secretary with his wife Marie and M. Thomas was the mayor. The Deschamps family had to share their home with two German soldiers among the local garrison. The occupants also used to take their time within the local brothel, ‘serviced’ by a few French women and located in the main part of Benouville to the South.
Beginning from June 1943 by way of staged preparation for the Invasion, the German command used to issue decrees on evicting the locals of Calvados not only from the coastline but also from the villages next to the Caen Canal and River Orne. Therewith, the occupational authorities assigned categories of the French considered to be ‘useful’: doctors and nurses, local officials, French gendarmes, and shop and restaurant keepers such as the owners of cafes Gondree, Picot, and La Chaumiere. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the commander of the German forces in Northern France was concerned about the readiness of his troops to face the inevitable invasion of the superior numbers of the Allied forces. Since 1944 the outlook of Benouville witnessed no critical changes and mostly looks pretty the same as eighty years before, if not consider the solar panels on the roofs, The area in the immediate proximity to the bridges also has a similar (to the 1940s) look, now accompanied with dozens of plates and memorials.
Whereas in contrast the greater half of Benouville was (and is) located to the South-West of the Caen bridge, a patch of land next to the crossing had been the most vivid and animated place in the area. Apart from a few residential houses, the site was gradually accommodated by three food and drink values: Cafe Gondree, Cafe Picot, and La Chaumiere bar. Such commercial topography is evident: the layout of the artificial Caen canal in the 1850s settled the erection of two bridges: ‘Pont de Benouville’ or ‘Canal bridge’ (the future ‘Pegasus) and ‘Pont de Ranville’ or ‘Le Pont Tournant’ (later ‘Horsa’). As early as 1892 the Benouville bridge was accompanied by a tram station for two lines in three directions (North, South, and East). As if it wasn’t enough, Benouville was a traffic point on the highway. The ever-increasing traffic flow through the village left no alternatives for the site with the most anticipated activity and infrastructure.
Café Gondrée on the South-West side of the Canal next to the bridge was one of the public venues, which had been used to welcome guests years prior to the Second World War. The very first business of such kind, a remote ancestor of Café Gondrée, originated on this plot of land as far back in time as 1865, eight years after the opening of the Canal. This first venue was half-timbered, thus with a part of the construction made of wood. Moving forward through time, the cafe was named ‘BUFFET DU TRAMWAY’ (A tramway buffet, thus referencing the nearby station, which was opened in 1892) and rebuilt, now completely of bricks (preserved until present). For some period of time already in the XX century, the cafe bore the name of its owner ‘Restaurant Duval’. As early as 1934 the two-story brick house was purchased by the spouses of Georges and Thérèse Gondrée. By that point in time, the tram line to the East in the direction of Cabourg had been closed for two years and the bridge over the Canal had been replaced with a completely new one without a narrow-gauge line.
With the onset of the German occupation in June 1940, the business affairs of the Gondrée became just barely a means of survival. On the one hand, the local peasants now were constrained and had no surplus of money to drink up coffee and wine. As opposed to this, the Germans, among them the garrison of the bridges, were now the most frequent visitors of the food and drink venues in Northern France. Insomuch as the occupation saved the owners of the cafe’s effort of trying to buy some exclusive goods, such as coffee beans, the larger share of Gondrée’s income was now based on the selling of homemade liquor, Thérèse adapted herself to make vegetables and the pre-war frowsy reserves of sugar. The enemy soldiers were delighted to have access to alcohol regardless of quality and used to pay 25 francs for a glass of such a drink. With no obvious intention to wine and dine the occupants with good food, Georges Gondrée filled up ninety bottles of alcohol within his garden soon after the arrival of unwanted guests in June 1940. These bottles were fated to be hidden for the next four years until the arrival of the Allies.
The spouses of Gondrée shared their home with two daughters, Georgette and Arlette (Françoise would be a newly born child in 1944). In order to evade the routine order of accommodating the soldiers, Georges and Thérèse used to sleep in different rooms, thus occupying every residential premise in the house. Prior to the outbreak of the War, the two used to sell gasoline to the bypassing drivers by means of a small petrol pump outside the cafe. The family possessions also included a few boats within a cozy boating station next to Canal. On the occasion when the Germans would make up their mind to have their own station next to the cafe, Thérèse notices of appeal resulted in a harsh interrogation and temporary detention inside the local HQ (next to La Chaumiere bar). The habitants of Benouville and Ranville were far from complimentary on the fact that the Gondrée family catered to Germans, yet the latter were not uncommonly rude with the owners. On one of those days of occupation, Thérèse Gondrée refused to serve a rude soldier and he grabbed the woman by the throat only the appearance of her husband saved them from tragedy.
Despite these occasional conflict episodes toward the occupants, the German garrison in Benouville used to look down upon the Gondrées and regarded them as peasants, up to serving the liquor and then clearing empty plates. As time would prove, this was a damaging misjudgment. The Allied Invasion of 1944 would strongly rely on not only the reconnaissance flights of the air forces but on the crucial data from the local French, the information, which was used to cover the distance from the farmlands in Normandy across the English Channel and Georges and Thérèse Gondrée were among the passionate contributors. Thérèse was born and raised in Alsace, the territory seized by Germany between 1871 and 1919. She was born on 4th August 1904 and relatedly was raised with the German language on her lips. It is worth mentioning, that while her fellow citizens treated Thérèse with suspicion due to her accent, the Germans never revealed the fact, that the owner of the cafe could understand their talks and turn it into a piece of reconnaissance information. In her younger days, Thérèse attended a course for nurses in Strasbourg, later she obtained employment in Paris, and during one of the journeys to the south of France, she met Georges Gondrée.
The patriarch of the family GEORGES GONDREE was born in 1898 in Trouville Sur Mer commune, 30 km North-East of Benouville and he had no German background in the way his wife did. At the same time, by being an educated man, Georges once found his way into banking management, particularly as a clerk in Lloyds Bank, a British conglomerate with bank departments in France. The twelve years in this position allowed Georges to make himself familiar with the English language. Both Georges and Thérèse were distinctively anti-German in the context of the humiliating occupation since June 1940 and although forced to live next to the enemies and to serve the dishes, both Gondrée sought ways to help their own country. In the months prior to the 1944 Invasion, the Gondrées succeeded in gathering intelligence on the German garrison in Benouville and particularly on the bridges over the Caen canal and Orne river. The reconnaissance data was passed through Madame Vion, the head of the maternity hospital located in the Chateau Benouville to the Resistance unit in Caen and then to England. On June 2, 1944, only four days prior to the landing, Major Howard obtained crucial intelligence on the detonator, which was supposedly installed inside a machine-gun pillbox next to the Benouville bridge. The Gondrées were evidently aware of the fact that the revelation of the secret anti-German activity would result in tortures and death for them both and probably for their daughters.
The night of June 6, 1944, was the start of the 1450th day of occupation since 1940. The number comprised the half of life of their elder daughter Georgette, 8 years old, the major part of Arlette’s five years of life, and every day of a newly born Françoise. Fifteen minutes into a new day, the family was awakened by a strange outer noise, caused by the landing of the first glider with the British troops less than 200 meters from their home. A few minutes later, the even tenor of life was finally interrupted by grenade explosions and fire of light weapons. Georges put his head out of the window to see what was happening and he was inches from being shot by a British soldier. The family hid in the basement, yet sometime later Georges made his way to the window one more time, now exchanging words with the warriors outside his home. He convinced (in English) the dialogue partners that he was a civilian and there were no German soldiers inside the house. Even though the Gondrée family would spend the next few hours until dawn hiding inside their house, it is Cafe Gondrée is generally considered the first French building to be liberated in 1944 (yet, Bayeux would be credited as the first city liberated). Apart from this iconic status, separate accounts of the Operation Deadstick soldiers among Howard’s men that night represented the alternative, that Cafe Picot, across the road (and behind the former tram station) from Cafe Gondrée was the first to be seized by the British forces in the early hours of June 6. It must be said that Louis Picot was killed and the iconic status of Cafe Gondrée as the first liberated building in France would become a matter of historical dispute in the earliest decades after.
At daybreak, the Gondrée family listened attentively to the voices outside and distinguished the English phrases. The two British paratroopers entered the building and one for sure checked the house for German soldiers. The Gondrée family of five people was more than happy to welcome the liberators. Thérèse was so dynamic in kissing the cheeks of the paratroopers, that her face was soon covered with camouflage and her daughters now had a chance to taste the very first chocolates in their lives. The warriors of Major Howard soon took advantage of the house and accommodated their temporary Headquarters and Regimental Aid Post. As Thérèse Gondrée was a skillful nurse, she now had a task to treat the wounded. In those early hours of June 6, 1944, Georges dug out some of the ninety bottles of alcohol from 1940 to celebrate the liberation with the Allies, still fighting for the security of their village. The number of volunteers to cheer the successful ‘Coup de Main’ was steadily increasing since the arrival of the 7th (Light Infantry) Battalion and later afternoon the Commandos from the beaches.
The combat veterans of Operation Deadstick and among them particularly Major Howard, made their way back to Gondree cafe as early as June 1945 to commemorate the D-Day and liberation. In the course of the decades after the liberation and the end of the War, Cafe Gondrée would become one of the symbols of 1944 and the Gondrée family would become desirable friends during the annual commemorations. Every year on June 6 the veterans would be welcomed with a glass of free champagne before attending the ceremony at the Ranville military cemetery. The year 1954 witnessed the inauguration of a plate honoring the building as the first French building was liberated in 1944. When in 1962 the filming crew of ‘The longest day’ movie used the actual location of the Pegasus bridge as a movie set, Thérèse refused flatly to allow the episode with a German soldier jumping out of the window. She was convincing toward such a wrench and the sequence was never shot. Georges Gondrée, an admired man by both the British veterans and his fellow villagers, passed away on April 5, 1969, and Thérèse lived forty years after D-Day until July 2, 1984. In 1974 a small museum devoted to liberation was opened in the addition to a building and as early as 1987 the building of Gondree cafe was enlisted as a building of historical importance.
In the time before the invention and mass use of the automobile and the embryo state of the road infrastructure in Normandy, the Orne river for a long stretch of time had been the only transport route between the city of Caen and the sea. Originating amid the woody hills of Northern France, the river makes its way through the region throughout 170 kilometers toward the English Channel. As a matter of historical interest, the predecessor of the Caen canal was laid a century far back in time between 1764 and 1780 to be open for water-borne traffic. Actually, even that artificial water artery had its own foregoer, a short and shallow canal to the North of Clopee city in the direction of Ranville, dug out as far back as 1679 to handle the meanders of Orne. During the so-called ‘high water’ Orner river allowed the passage of the boats and ships with a 3-meter water draft. On the contrary, during the ‘low tide’ the river used to become shallow to the extent of only 0.7 meters and the port of Caen had to deal with the deposition of clay and sand. Yet the XVII century project was not the first as well, as in 1531 king Francis I of France issued a layout of a new bed of the river Orne of 640 toises (roughly 1200 meters), never to be fulfilled.
With the completion of the Caen canal in 1857, more appropriate for bulk ships, the Orne river was now regarded to be used mostly for ships with a shallow draft. The primary route down the river in the second half of the XIX century was between the large port Le Havre (in the first section by sea and then by the river) and Caen. Despite the necessity to keep track of the river water level during the tides, the transport traffic along Orne was still impressive. In 1875 only the total number of ships in both directions amounted to 700 with a total tonnage of more than six tons. During the most ‘tidal’ days, the river was used even by the barges with sand. In the course of the same 1875, the passenger-carrying ships managed to handle merely 19 000 voyagers and four hundred horses.
The layout of the artificial Caen canal resulted in the erection of a number of bridges in Benouville and Herouville over the new transport arteria. At the same time, only a single bridge was assigned to be built over the River Orne on the section between the sea and Caen city, and its building was completed a decade later. The decision of structuring a bridge over the Orne river near the village of Ranville was issued by the General Council of Calvados as early as 1867, ten years after turning the course of the flow. The new crossing was regarded as a means to ease the transport junction between two banks, which had been previously managed by a ferry. The new modern build of a turning bridge was designed by the bureau of Gustave Eiffel, yet his own participation remains a matter of doubt. The construction itself and the adjusting infrastructure, particularly the bricking on both banks, was entrusted to a number of building contractors. As early as October 1869 the local newspaper of Ranville published a note devoted to the ‘first layers’ of the central pier of the future bridge and the ending of the works was expected toward Spring 1870.
The central pillar of the future bridge, which was noticed by the locals in late 1869 near Ranville, was itself an engineering achievement of the time. With a diameter of 7.9 meters, the pillar included a tube with pressed air, dug deeply into the stream bottom. Above this central pillar was a gear-bearing device, which carried the main metal section of the bridge of 66.3 meters in length, which was to pivot around this axis below to let the ships come through the site. Respectively, when the bridge was ‘open’ thus in the position parallel to the river stream, the ships had an access to two equal passages each of 29 meters (66 minus 8 meters of the pier and halved). Both banks of the river were accompanied by concrete and massive piers, facilitated by a contractor company from Lisieux, another commune in Calvados 35 km to the southeast from Ranvile. By its engineering definition, the bridge was similar to the railway turntable designs of that time. In a perpendicular ‘closed’ position for the river transport, it was stacked on the concrete piers on both banks by means of screw jacks. Some parts of these engineering designs traveled from the factory facilities in Le Creusot, distanced 400 km from the site. The operation of the bridge was to be carried by two men, who demanded 12 minutes for the complete pivoting into one of the two positions.
The initial version of the bridge was open for public use as early as 1870 according to the schedule and was designed to make passage for the cargoes up to 8 tonnes above it, which was an imposing capacity years before the invention of cargo trucks. As early as 1892 the ambitious plans for developing the railway transport in the region of Calvados by means of the narrow-gauge tram line demanded ‘Pont de Ranville’, also known as the ‘Le Pont Tournant’ (The pivoting bridge) to be modernized. The conducted reinforcement works now made it possible to endure a load of up to 72 tonnes. Already in June 1892, the local citizens celebrated the operation return of the bridge with a winding. Apart from festivities, in November 1894 the tram noticed the ‘close’ position of the bridge for the ground line at the last moment to stop. A few years after that incident, another tram would go off the rails and get stuck into the mud. Since 1910 and the erection of the dam in Caen, the traffic passage along the river Orne was almost completely suspended, and ‘Le Pont Tournant’ was fixed in one closed position. In 1932 the tram line in the East direction toward Cabourg, would also be terminated.
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, the Ranville bridge was the main target of the crews of three Horsa gliders with chalk numbers 94 (Serial № PF 723), 95 (LJ 326), and 96 (PF 791). Respectively, the 22 platoon was led by Lt Tony Hooper, the 23 by Lt ‘Tod’ Sweeney, and the 17 platoon by Lt Dennis Fox. Their landing zone to the East of the bridge had the form of an elongated rectangular of roughly 800 meters in length and 100 in width, yet the wood line shortened the maneuvering capabilities during the descent. Similar to their combat-in-arms at the Canal bridge, the ‘undershooting’ meant a collision with a line of trees, and ‘overshooting’ could result in a clash with an earth bank next to the road. The 23 platoon experienced an air pocket during descending and had to land 1200 meters from the bridge, while the 17 platoon managed to come closer to the objective. The 22 platoon missed the target for 12 kilometers and landed near another bridge, over Dives river next to the village of Varaville. The soldiers from two gliders at Orne river brought down fire on the enemy garrison and succeeded to clear the area. With the arrival of the paratrooper of the 7th (Light Infantry) Battalion after 3.a.m., the defense of the Ranville bridge was passed to the 12th (Yorkshire) Parachute Battalion, later reinforced by the Commandos. The soldiers seized a local farm a few hundred meters to the East to turn it into a Casualty Clearing Post.
Although both bridges between Ranville and Benouville were seized undamaged, as early as 11 a.m. on June 6 the engineers started the erection of a number of pontoon bridges in the area. In total in the course of the next three months, the Allied engineers would lay more than 3 kilometers of pontoon crossing, particularly three ‘Bailey Pontoon Bridges’ was to be engineered over the Orne river, despite the existence of the Ranville bridge. They had a length of 110 meters and allowed the passage of a tonnage up to 40 tonnes at once. Similar to the way the Canal bridge was later named ‘Pegasus’, the bridge over Orne was also renamed ‘Horsa bridge’, thus commemorating the UK gliders, extensively used during Operation Deadstick and which carried the crews of the men, who liberated Ranville and its bridge.
Whereas the “Pegasus’ bridge was destined to become an iconic-like landmark and became worldwide known since the release of ‘The longest day’ movie, the ‘Horsa’ bridge has been historically less mentioned and distinguished. The authentic pivoting bridge, which had been built back in 1870 and lived through the German occupation and recaptured by the Allies, met its one hundredth anniversary to be dismantled already in 1971. The current replacement of 110 meters in length and 6 wide was opened in June 1972. It is worth mentioning that some parts of the authentic construction were preserved (mostly concrete reinforcements on the banks). As early as 1984 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of D-Day, a commemorative plaque devoted to the glider pilots and soldiers was installed at the Western end of the bridge. The section of the state highway number 8 between two bridges at present bears the name of ‘Avenue Major John Howard’ (The road after Major John Howard).
THE AUTHENTIC BRIDGE: MEMORIAL PEGASUS
Throughout the centuries, the Orne river used to flow into the estuary and was no less than the main transport artery between the sean and the city of Caen. Toward the outbreak of the XIX century Caen experienced an industrial boom and a swell in population, which both resulted in the necessity to ensure water transport options of a superior depth (a means crucial for the passage of boats of the deeper draft) and less dependant of the high and low tides than a natural river flow. Learned through a series of artificial canals in the previous two centuries, as early as 1838 the Calvados authorities decided to lay magnified non-natural water traffic means to the sea with correction of the Orne flow. In the years prior to this decision, the number of ships arriving at the port of Caen had been steadily decreasing and in 1834 amounted to roughly 750. With respect to such a decline, the 4.7 million francs cost of the canal was justified.
A number of small contractors, each assigned to one’s part of the works on a particular section, were contracted to make the Gargantua project possible. Despite the usage of the dredging machines (later extensively used in the Suez and Panama canals), rock picks and shovels were still the main work equipment. The revolution mania of 1848 slowed down the capacity of the works and the dissatisfied laborer (they were working apparently with no enthusiasm considering the 2 francs daily wage) used to delay the process, which in fact resulted in the bankruptcy of a number of contractors. In total, the layout of the new Caen canal took two decades to be finished as early as 1857, de facto in operation since 16 June, and officially inaugurated on 29 August. The final estimates of the costs figured out 9 million francs, but in return, the new passage was 4 meters deep and more than 1600 ships arrived in Caen port in 1860 alone. Although it would take another thirteen years before the erection of the bridge over the Orne river between Benouville and Ranville (until 1870 the crossing was carried by means of a ferry), the first bridge over the canal was in operation since the final stages of the canal layout. In more practical terms, the was now located mostly on the site of the former Orne river flow and the evidence of this could be still seen in swampy lands between the two flows.
This very first Benouville bridge had a swinging structure that allowed it to be pivoted only on one end, fixed on the Eastern bank of the Canal. Such asymmetrical design made it possible not to build a massive pivot, which would not allow ships to pass (the later Ranville bridge). As early as 1892 ‘Le Pont De Benouville’ evidently named after the neighboring village, was reinforced to handle a narrow-gauge tram line, which connected Benouville train station on the West bank (and thus the line between Caen and Luc-Sur-Mer) with Cabourg to the East. Since that, on its departure from the Benouville station in the direction of Cabourg, the tram was to enter a 90* curve to the bridge to cross the canal. On the other hand, such an engineering invention was in some way fraught with security measures. In December 1898 a ten-year-old Georgette Luchessi hid (during the game with her friends) behind the abatement of the bridge and was severely hurt when the bridge was swung (thus opened). In April 1903 another accident occurred, when the tram approached the bridge without noticing it was pivoted at the moment. The locomotive collapsed into the waters of the canal with its conductor, who was later assisted by two engineers of the bridge (Benouville bridge similar to the Ranville one was also serviced by two men). The tram locomotive of 12 tonnes fell on its side and for two days stopped the movement of the large tonnage ships through the channel.
As early as 1907-1910 the Caen canal was significantly widened in certain localities and its new depth allowed the passage of the ships with a draft up to seven meters and 3000 tonnes of freight. The abatements on both sides of the Benouville bridge were enlarged. In 1933 the villagers of Benouville and Ranville could witness the start of the works on the replacement of the existing bridge with a new modern framework, which allowed them to assemble pivoting at one end in order to raise the opposite one (on the Western side) into the air for the sips to pass. Such design of the bascule bridges was known as ‘Scherzer type’ or ‘Scherzer rolling lift bridge’, named after William Donald Scherzer, an American engineer, who had patented the construction back in 1893. Toward that moment in time, a tram line to the East was closed and was not accompanied to the new bridge. ‘Dayde & Pille’ from Paris, which had a few successful projects in France and Romania now had a contract on the replacement of the bridge and the adjustment infrastructure on both banks. The day of November 16, 1934, witnessed the test check of a new bridge: the width of the navigable passage for ships was now 25 meters as opposed to the previous 18 m.
Auguste Niepceron, the bridgekeeper, was now in charge of the operation of a new Benouville bridge since its inauguration in 1934. His eyewitness accounts and the testimonies of his son René (born in 1928) would be of great adventure for the generations of the historians and journalists of the Pegasus bridge. In the fall of 1939, Auguste Niepceron was supervising the digging of the defensive trenches on the east side of the bridge. That year he was accompanied by the soldiers of the 239e régiment d’infanterie (239th French Infantry Regiment). Created in 1914 during WWI, it was reformed in September 1939 and assigned to reinforce the defensive sectors in France against the German invasion. The works on defensive measures around the Caen canal included an installation of a 50-mm gun, which would be later exploited by the Germans during the occupation and which would be used against them (with the purpose it was initially installed back in 1939) on the night of June 6, 1944. The Eastern bank of the bridge was used to allocate a water tower, which served to cool the steam engine, which pivoted the bridge. The Niepcerons used to treat ‘Pont de Benouville’ with due care and on top of that, they (a father and a son) accommodated a two-story house a few meters from the bridge and thus their daily work station. In April 1944, just two months prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy, the family was evacuated to the Western bank of the Canal and their house was dismantled to allow better visibility for the 50-mm gun. The cellar was turned into a pillbox. On the night of June 6 Niepcerons were awakened in their new temporary home next to La Chaumiere bar. A British soldier in camouflage knocked on their door and gave Rene gum, thus finalizing the four years under occupation. Auguste Niepceron then was taken to teach the engineers how to handle the bridge.
It is worth mentioning, that the British troops used to name ‘Le Pont Benouville’ other than ‘Pegasus bridge’ since summer 1944, thus underlining the importance of a semi-mythological emblem on the Horsa gliders on that June 5-6 night. The memorial plaque, which was finally renamed the bridge was installed in Spring 1945 with World World Two in Europe still in its bloody harvest. The inauguration ceremony was attended by a number of VIP guests, such as Pierre Daure, the former rector of the University of Caen and now the prefect of Calvados since July 1944; Léonard Gille, a president of the ‘Comité départemental de libération’ (Departmental Libération Committee) in Calvados; Bernard Montgomery, the famous commander of the 21st Army Group. The renaming was formalized on another occasion in 1948 in the presence of French President Vincent Auriol.
As early as 1994 after six decades of service (since putting into operation in 1934) the iconic-like ‘Le Pont de Benouville’, at that time known as the ‘Pegasus bridge’ was replaced with another of the same construction. The authentic bridge had a far more historical significance to be damped or melted and it was destined to get a second life as a museum landmark. ‘Memorial Pegasus’ was ceremonially opened on June 4, 2000, on the eve of the fifty-sixth anniversary of the liberation of Benouville. His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales (Prince Charles himself born in 1948) was the special guest at the ceremony. Apart from its most precious museum unit, the authentic bridge over the Caen canal itself, the memorial complex also accommodates a sophisticated exhibit devoted to June 6 and the men of the 6th Airborne Division. Since 2004 and the sixty anniversary of the Normandy landings, the open-air exhibition also includes a full-size copy of the Horsa glider.
CHATEAU DE BENOUVILLE
The history of the feudal tenure on the lands of the modern Benouville goes back in history as far back as the XIV century. As early as 1347 a man named Raoul Panthou was documentary mentioned as the Lord of Benouville. In fact, he accepted the title due to the marriage of a woman named Emma Benouville. In the course of the next one and a half-century, the land title on the lands to the West of the Orne river would be inherited by the male line of the Panthou family until the selling of the lands in 1501 to the French knight Jean Gillain. This family would do their best to widen the area of possession in the next two and a half centuries until 1768. Antoine (Gillain) de Benouville, the last male inheritor of this family died in military service and the ownership over the lands was inherited by his daughter Therese Bonne and her husband in 1760 François-Hyppolite Sanguin, Marquise de Livry. Less than a year after the passing away of the former landowner (a father (to Therese) and father-in-law (to Sanguin), in 1769 the spouse decided to build a new spacious mansion worth their land rights. The two contracted Claude Nicolas Ledoux, an established master of his times in creating luxurious country retreats for the French nobility and the representative of the megalomanic school of architecture.
Substantially, the works on building up a new ancestral home took sixteen years and the Chateau was not finished until 1785, both exteriorly and internally. François-Hyppolite Sanguin was not a young man twenty-five years in marriage to Therese Bonne and he in fact had no much time to luxuriate in the new estate. Marquise de Livry passed away in 1789 and left and was heavily indebted, primarily to enormous expenses for Chateau de Benouville. Once spent in a total of 2 million livres (currency in France from the 8th century until 1794) for the building up of the mansion, the widow had to sell the heritage of her father and the architectural remind of her husband for 1.4 million livres to François-Marie Mesnage de Pressigny, a former farmer from Paris, in 1892. This imposing acquisition brought no good fortune to its new owner: as early as May 8, 1794, François-Marie Mesnage de Pressigny was guillotined at the age of 61. After the disorder times of the French revolution, the daughter of the guillotined owner named Flore d’Aubigny went to court and took ownership over the Chateau and the surrounding lands, once she redeemed 216 000 Livres to her brother (dor his share of in heritage), who had previously immigrated to Austria. The perseverance of a young lady would be paid off as in the course of the next one and a half-century Chateau de Benouville would be inherited by her descendants. Baroness d’Aubigny lived a long meaningful life and passed away in 1841.
With a reference to family history, toward the start of the XX century, the new generation of d’Aubigny found themselves in debt once again mainly in virtue of the cost-intensive maintenance of the ancestral mansion. As early as 1917 the General Council of Calvados did consider an agenda of buying Château de Bénouville with the idea of establishing a departmental maternity hospital. It would take another ten years until 1927 when the mansion with three hundred windows was finally bought for 690 000 francs for common occupancy. Apart from such a sizable initial cost, the authorities of Calvados planned to spend another 3 million francs for accommodating a nursery and hospice for young mothers within the XVIII century chateau. The inauguration ceremony on October 27, 1927, was honored with the presence of Raymond Poincaré, the former President of France during WWI and now the President of the Council of Ministers. Run by nuns, it was now ready to welcome young mothers prior to and after the birth of a child. Since January 1, 1929, the Chateau had included the Bénouville Departmental Kindergarten and the first birth in fact took place as early as January 9 the same year, almost one and a half years since the opening ceremony. Toward March 1929 the Chateau witnessed the birth of 95 children and accommodated 120 little lives within the kindergarten facilities.
As late as 1930 Château de Bénouville was listed among the monuments of national historical significance, which imposed limitations on the future renovations. In 1937 the local Calvados newspaper published a 1936 twelve-month report devoted to the operation of the maternity hospital. Among other bare figures, it included 372 children, who had received medical treatment, and the total days of attendance by the mothers reached 48 200. When it came to the financing issue, the total expenses reached 970 000 francs in 1936, yet the greater share of this sum was paid down by the donations. Apart from accommodating young mothers, the institution used to take care of the organs and children, who were given up for adoption at birth. For this purpose, three pavilions beside and in front of the Chateau were used. Toward 1938 more the staff number outreached the figure of 100 employees.
Madame Léa Vion, a woman of a calm but authoritative character born in 1890, became the managing director of the Maternity hospital in 1935. In June 1940, when France was occupied by the German forces, Madame Vion assisted the French military men, who had managed to escape enemy captivity. In the course of the next four years under Nazi rule, she put efforts into putting the Allied pilots, shot-down over the region across the English Channel and the neighbored neutral countries such as Switzerland. By performing her duties as the supervising nurse, Madame Léa Vion joined the Resistance. Her position in the maternity hospital allowed her unevident (for the Germans) means to collect reconnaissance information, which would play a great part in the 1944 Invasion. Madame Vion was not forbidden from taking frequent rides to the city of Caen, thus passing the collected data to the leader of the local resistance, whom she had previously enrolled herself. During the journeys by means of a hospital ambulance, driven by a French escaped soldier, she could collect dispatches, parachuted by the Allies. Château de Bénouville had become a safe harbor for a number of Resistance movement members, including the members of the Communist Resistance, who were hidden, among other places, in the cellar beneath the chapel. Léa Vion was known as ‘the Countess’ and later ‘Mémé fait de la résistance’ (the grandmother of the Resistance).
On the night of June 6, when the British soldiers managed to seize the area on both banks of both Caen canal and Orne river, they faced the hazard of the German snipers, who became even more active at dawn. The sniper activity increased dramatically in the morning with the direction of the fire originating from the Western bank, yet from an unidentified location. Although Major Howard had no information on the exact enemy spot, he was appalled upon revealing the fact that one of his squads was firing on the upper floors of the Chateau. Private Wally Parr was ordered to cease fire immediately and the information that he was firing toward the maternity hospital. To make matters clear, the fire on Chateau was ineffective in regard to the intensity of the sniper fire, which in fact originated from some other location on the Western bank of the canal. Director Madam Vion wasted no time that night and the young mothers with children were hidden in the basement. In the early hours of a new day, the hospital accommodated some British soldiers with clean bedsheets. Regretfully, the firing on the building left its victim as André Fanet de Sallenelles was fatally injured in his neck with the glass from the window.
Soon after the liberation of Normandy, the local authorities put a great deal of trust in the maternity hospital in Benouville as the institutions in Caen were severely damaged. On October 31, 1947, Lea Vion was inaugurated as the mayor of Benouville and remained in this post until May 1953. Since 1949 Château de Bénouville accommodated a preventorium for children suffering from tuberculosis, which later revolutionized into a medico-pedagogical institute. Madame Vion would work here until 1956. Although in 1973 the maternity hospital was moved to the University Hospital Center in Caen, the staff in Benouville continued to assist lonely mothers. Château witnessed the last birth on its territory on December 22, 1972, and in total 11 216 children were brought into life since 1929. It would take another decade until 1985 when all remaining units of its caretaking activities were finally transferred to Caen and the Chateau was fated to accommodate the Calvados Chamber of Accounts after the reconstruction (1984-1990). In the years after the Second World War, Chateau has become a destination point of the annual commemorative pilgrimage by the combat veterans and tourists, by a number of states and government rulers, who generally welcomed her each year during the June anniversaries of the D-Day. Lea Vion left Benouville in 1956 and later once again became a mayor (1959-1965), this time in her childhood village Montreil (Seine-Saint-Denis). She passed away on January 19, 1972, in the year of the last births within the Chateau de Benouville.
I am very grateful to war archives, museums, libraries, private collections, and writers for the historical photos in this article. To the extent that some author or a copyright owner may not want some of the above black-and-white photos to be used for educational purposes here, please contact me for adding credits or deleting the pictures from the article.
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY AND MOST USEFUL SOURCES
- The Pegasus and Orne Bridges their capture, defense, and relief on D-Day by Great Britain. Army. Airborne Division, 6th (Barber, Neil)
- Pegasus Bridge June 6, 1944 (Stephen Ambrose)
- Pegasus Bridge Bénouville, D-Day 1944 by Great Britain. Army. Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Will Fowler)
- Pegasus Bridge and Horsa Bridge (Carl Shilleto)
- France The Dark Years, 1940-1944 (Julian Jackson)
- Britains War A New World, 1942-1947 (Daniel Todman)
- D-Day: June 6, 1944, The Climactic Battle of World War II (Ambrose, Stephen E)
- Normandy ‘44: D-Day and the Battle for France (James Holland)
- FIELD MARSHAL: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel (Daniel Allen Butler)
- Sand and Steel A New History of D-Day (Peter Caddick-Adams)
- Le port de Caen et le canal de Caen à la mer (René Streiff)
- Enfances Normandes: Exposition 1760-1960. Au Chateau de Benouville
- La lutte clandestine en France — Une histoire de la Résistance — 1940-1944 (Douzou, Laurent Blanc)