Pegasus Bridge – And the People Who Saved It
It was 1944 in Benouville, a little village in France. German soldiers had occupied it for four years. Every day, they infiltrated the humble little town for food, drinks, and supplies. They didn’t always ask nicely either. They invaded private homes for billets, and they constantly paced back and forth over the gray-painted road bridge over the Orne Canal. Their boots clunked on its metal surface, and the shadow of its tower enveloped them. They nestled machine guns in its steel flanks, and they strapped packs of explosives underneath it, with a single button to set them all off.
It seemed like a small bridge to make such a fuss over. However, along with another bridge in Ranville, this was the only crossing of the River Orne and Caen Canal. Without those two bridges, German defensive units would be ensnared with delays and run-arounds in the event of an invasion. German command wanted those bridges held at all costs when the allies came. If it looked like they would be taken, then they would have to be destroyed.
One family in Benouville wouldn’t stand for that. They were the Gondrees – Georges and Theresa and their two daughters. They lived and worked at a small café on the west bank of the Benouville Bridge. On the outside, they were compliant and friendly. Georges was happy to serve the Germans that came to dine at his café. Madame waited on them with pleasure. The daughters were courteous and pleasant. The family never caused any trouble for the German guards all over town, or the ones stationed on the all-important steel bridge.
At least, they caused no trouble that the Germans could see. On the inside, the family Gondree hated the Germans, especially Madame Theresa. She seethed at the occupation and the destruction of their country, and the deaths of so many of their people. The shootings, the slave labor, the looting – the Gondrees had long since had enough of it. It was time to do something. They knew the invasion would come someday, and they knew the soldiers would want that bridge.
So, they collected something the allies badly needed – information. Madame Gondree was fluent in German, a skill she kept hidden from the occupiers. Every time the soldiers sat down at the café, every time they sipped the beer, every time their attitudes and tongues relaxed, they were caught in the web of the French Resistance. Their casual chatter was carefully recorded by the couple. The information was sent to a resistance leader at the maternity hospital in Benouville, who passed it on to the network in nearby Caen. Soon, the Gondrees knew it all. They knew all the guards, they knew their positions, they knew where the guns were, and they also found out where the button was that would blow the bridge. When the invasion came, the Gondrees would be ready.
Many people had lost hope in the invasion by June of 1944, but it was well on the way, and it would actually unfold a stone’s throw from Café Gondree. At the stroke of midnight on June 6, 1944, six wooden Horsa Gliders, steered and piloted by members of the “Ox and Bucks” 6th British Airborne Division, were chugged across the cloudy skies over the English Channel. The glider borne troops were led by the firm and capable Major John Howard. He and his soldiers had trained for their one, all-important mission for months. They wanted those bridges. Thanks to resistors like the Gondrees, they knew just how to take them.
A few minutes after midnight, a loud crash was heard quite near the Benouville Bridge. A shower of sparks shot into the night, and a large wooden glider skidded across the turf. A handful of British soldiers were thrown from the glider and slammed to the ground. They were the first allied troops to land on D-Day, but their crash had knocked them unconscious. About one minute later, there was another crash as a second glider came in for a rough landing. A few more followed. Of the six Horsa gliders that left England, only one didn’t make the landing zone (they wound up a few miles away, and they linked up with other British forces).
The Germans on guard ran to the embankment. As their sector had been quiet for some time, they were far from full strength. Some of the guards enjoyed nightlife in Benouville. Some were asleep. Only a few were at their posts when about two-dozen British soldiers, with their faces smeared with black paint and their guns at the ready, stormed out of the fog.
The German guns and mortars flew into action, while the British troops descended with grenades and gunfire of their own. This exchange of lethal fire resulted in the first allied death from enemy fire on D-Day – British Lieutenant Den Brotheridge. There was no time to slow down, though. Explosions erupted all over the place, and bullets flew through the air. In a matter of minutes, sleepy Benouville deteriorated into a full-scale battlefield.
The racket right outside the door of the Gondree café can only be imagined. They were jolted from their sleep in a panic, and Georges crawled on his hands and knees to the nearest window. He dared to sneak a peek, which was a gutsy move that could have cost his life. Because the British were amped with adrenaline, and they couldn’t see well in the dark. Gondree’s simple movement drew a stream of fire. His window was shattered and his wall shot up, but he avoided death or injury. He then herded his terrified wife and daughters into the basement.
The fight outside was violent and intense, but the initial attack was over pretty fast. A couple German guards dove into the bushes, and some in the slit trenches peeled off in the night. The rest had no choice but to surrender. About fifteen minutes after the fighting started, British soldiers barked the words “Ham and Jam” into their broken radios. Their objectives, Benouville and Ranville bridges, had been captured. It cost the first blood, and a lot of risk by the Gondrees, but the first phase of D-Day was a resounding success.
However, the fight was far from over. Howard’s men had to hold the bridges until the rest of their army came up, and German tank reinforcements were on the way. Panzers arrived shortly after one in the morning, and another battle ensued. Heavy artillery got involved this time, and it blew a lot of Benouville half to hell. One German tank was smacked with a Piat gun, and it happened to be packed to the gills with live ammunition. It went up in a massive ball of fire that disrupted operations in the area for the rest of the night.
The Gondrees huddled in their basement, and they had no idea what was going on outside. They could only listen as shells went off, ammunition was spent, and flares were ignited. They buckled at the screams. For five hours, they awaited the end of what they knew was a battle, but they didn’t know with whom or what.
Around six in the morning, Georges glimpsed through a knothole in his cellar. He saw a lot of people moving about by the bridge, but that was it. The smoke still lingered. The tank still smoldered. He had his wife listen for what language the men were speaking. Madame pressed her ear against the wall, but she shook her head in befuddlement. She couldn’t understand a single word. As for Georges, there was one phrase he recognized in all the melee. “All right.”
They were two little words that packed a big punch – because they were English. Before Georges could gather his thoughts, there was a loud knock on the door upstairs.
The family froze. They had no idea what happened by the bridge, but it probably incensed their occupiers. If it was Germans who knocked on the door, there was no telling what would come next. The knock was persistent and meant business, so Georges answered it before his door was shot to pieces.
On the others side stood two soldiers with blacked out faces and very large guns. In French, they demanded to know if Germans were in the house.
Georges’ heart locked in his chest. The uniforms were too camouflaged to make out their nationality, and the French was too fluent to detect an accent. He had no idea who these men were, or what they wanted. He assured them there were no German in the house, but he did mention his wife and daughters. He led the soldiers into his cellar.
One of the soldiers turned to him with a friendly smile. “It’s all right, chum.” All right. Those two little words again. The soldiers were English.
Georges broke down in tears on the spot. His wife wrapped the soldiers in bear hugs, and she planted kisses on their faces. It coated her own face in war paint, but she didn’t care. In fact, she sported that face paint for days after the battle. Theresa Gondree, and her dear family, were the first civilians liberated on D-Day. To her, that was worth a dirty face.
Georges had a special greeting for the soldiers too. He had buried almost one hundred bottles of prized French Champagne on the property. As the sun peeked over the gray horizon, the sound of popping corks reverberated all over Benouville. The family also opened their doors to make an aid post for the wounded. As the champagne swirled around the division, an exceptional number of soldiers were suddenly “ill” and had to report to the aid station.
The Gondrees were happy to oblige them, and they would be for years to come. They never forgot the soldiers who liberated them. In turn, Howard and his glider troops never forgot the family who risked death and imprisonment to get the crucial information on the coveted bridge. Many of them became lifelong friends. Madame Gondree earned the title of “the mother of the British 6th Airborne Division.” British soldiers drank for free in her pub for decades. Every year, when veterans came to the re-named “Pegasus Bridge” for reunions, the Gondrees brought champagne and opened it at 12:16am – the exact time the first glider landed on D-Day.
Georges died in the 1970s, and Madame Gondree followed him in 1984. She held on for one last reunion ceremony at the bridge, and she passed away within days of the last British veteran leaving her café.
I had the honor to visit the Pegasus Bridge memorial in 2018. While Georges and Madame Gondree were long gone, their café still stood. It has been converted into a mini museum and memorial to both the family that lived there, and the soldiers who liberated their town. I marveled as I observed all the charming photos on the walls, and the warm energy within the little place. It all seemed like such a small part of the overwhelming epic that is D-Day. Six horsa gliders, one bold family, less than thirty men, a battle that lasted about fifteen minutes… Yes, a tiny but oh-so-crucial cog in the D-Day wheel.
As always, it got me thinking. It isn’t always up to the soldiers to do the fighting, is it? Sometimes, it takes regular people. Georges Gondree and his wife were just two people who owned a little café. They had no battlefield training. They were not soldiers. At least, they weren’t soldiers in uniform. They had to make battlefield decisions. They had to take risks, they had to stand up, and they had to play their part.
We are all put in a situation where we have to stand up and fight. Maybe it’s not over a bridge with live ammo flying around. Maybe it can be as simple as talking to someone who thinks differently than you, or reaching out a hand where you normally wouldn’t. If we go about it more like Georges and Theresa Gondree, if we remember that it’s people who make the difference, we can build our own Pegasus bridge over the things that separate us. Because it doesn’t always need to come down to armies. Sometimes, it can just come down to you and me.
“Pegasus Bridge” – S. Ambrose
“The Pegasus Diaries” – J. Howard & P. Bates
“D-Day” – S. Ambrose
“The Longest Day” – C. Ryan
Memorial Pegasus – Benouville, France
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more from Normandy and the rest of Europe, click here.
This post is dedicated to everyone, men and women, brave children, army and civilian, of all nationalities, that took part in the historic D-Day invasion 75 years ago. We must never forget.