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.

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This bridge is a replica. The original is housed in the Memorial Pegasus museum that is just a few steps down the road.

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.

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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).

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The Landing Site

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.

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This is the original Pegasus Bridge at Memorial Pegasus Museum

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.

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The real Pegasus Bridge

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.

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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.

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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.

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SOURCES

“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.

110 Comments on “Pegasus Bridge – And the People Who Saved It

  1. This is a fascinating blog post and really brings home the role that private citizens had in helping the Resistance and the Allies in defeating the Germans. Well done. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you for reading! So glad you liked it. The invasion was truly a global effort!

    • I feel a little wrong taking all the credit. It’s their story. I’m just the typist! 🙂

  2. This is another part of WWII history I knew nothing about. I had never heard of the Gondrees until reading this. What an excellent story! You are correct. We need more people like the Gondrees and perhaps more Pegasus bridges.

  3. Thanks for the reminder that each person is responsible for creating peace in this world. Great story, and so well told. Do you have any pics of the Gondrees?

    • There are a couple in the book “Pegasus Bridge” by Stephen Ambrose (listed in the sources below there). There were also some in the little cafe-turned-museum. 🙂 Thanks for giving this a read!

    • Well I always love meeting fellow history buffs! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and giving this a read. Glad you enjoyed it!

    • I’m so glad! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by to give it a read.

  4. very talented story telling! Yes it’s the ordinary people who’ve been wronged who do step up.
    And we can all build bridges, not walls!

  5. Very nicely researched and written account of a small but important piece of history. I enjoyed reading it.

  6. Another wonderful post, MB. The story of the Gondrees is lovely, and the whole thing is, frankly, inspiring. You tell it so well and I liked your closing thoughts – it would be easy to go over the top with that, but you struck exactly the right note. I’ve visited Pegasus Bridge a couple of times and would love to back; my lasting memory is how close those gliders came to their objective – incredible. Have you watched ‘Longest Day’ yet?

    • No I have not 🙁 Fail. I really need to get on that, because I really enjoyed the book. I would love to go back to Pegasus Bridge and Normandy too. There’s so much around there that we didn’t get a chance to see. Glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. Wonderfully written tale of a wonderful event. As always, you take us right there with them. Excellent final philosophy, too

  8. An amazing story very well told, I agree there are often small acts of heroism and kindness that go unsung in war and peace and perhaps if we stood and made our voice count more often we could make a more positive contribution to the peace and help right the wrongs of the world.

    • Yes – I think you are absolutely right. Think of the things we could do if we banded together! <3

    • I do enjoy writing about the lesser known stuff 🙂 They deserve it! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  9. Fabulous post! There were thousands of people across Europe, who like Georges and Theresa, risked everything for their and our freedom. They are truly brave people and deserve so much more recognition than they get.

  10. Great post M.B we’ve just been watching The Longest Day and Band of Brothers so very current in our minds. Hubby thinks the sten gun that smacked the German tank may have actually been a Piat Morter? As a sten gun is a bit lightweight for that job. Also he says there is a program called World War Two Greatest Raids on National Geographic channel and has 6 episodes of which one is Pegasus. Loved reading this you have such a lovely style. 😘

    • Thank you very much! Glad you enjoyed the read. Please tell your husband he is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! Lol. Must have just been a slip of my brain! I’m going to fix it in just a moment here. Thanks for pointing that out 🙂 I owe you one!

      • Oh no, I never mind that stuff! It’s very helpful to have other eyes on a project 🙂 I only mind name calling! Hahahaha.

  11. What a wonderful story, told so well. So much of history is written in broad stokes, it is a pleasure to read the little stories that make up the whole.

    • Glad you liked it! 🙂 I love digging the little and lesser known stories out of history. They deserve to be told

  12. I can’t even imagine living in those times and we are lucky to know war only form the stories, the courage and the loss that claimed so many. My Mom was five and she still remembers stepping on bombs that luckily never went off and having to flee.
    I love love love your last paragraph and completely agree. Together we can make such a big difference. May our world recognize this and keep peace at the forefront.

    • That is so scary about your mother! They were truly an extraordinary generation that a lot was asked of. I hope we can all work together to remember their sacrifices and prevent going down the same path! <3

  13. Thanks for another great look back at history. You are a gifted storyteller. You are not taking credit for someone else’s work but telling an account of an event in a very interesting and memorable way in your own words. That is a gift that not all have. Keep it up, please. 😊

    • Thank you for giving it a read and for your very kind words – I’m always happy to pass on the stories for remembrance 🙂

  14. That is a perfect D-Day post, MB. Gentle resistance won the day along with all the other amazing acts of courage during WWII. I really enjoy surprising people with a comment in Arabic or Spanish when I look like a perfect WASP.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post. Arabic! Wow that’s very cool! 🙂 My Spanish is still pretty good, plus I’m learning French and German. I do enjoy learning other languages 🙂

  15. Oh man. I love this post! I want to be like the Gondrees. Thanks for this beautiful reminder at the end that all of us are called upon in little ways every day to stand for what is right. Beautiful.

    • I’m so glad you liked it. I want to be like them too! 🙂 Thank you for coming by for a read, sorry I missed a bunch of your posts, I haven’t been as caught up with my feed lately 🙁 I always enjoy them though!

  16. Georges and Theresa Gondree sound like a brave and remarkable couple. I love that Madame didn’t tip her hand re: her knowledge of German. It takes a smart cookie to be calm and follow through.

    I like how you ended the post, with a call for each one of us to be brave. Like the Gondrees, we don’t have to be soldiers when it comes to making a change. We need to show courage.

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    • Thank you! It is a pretty neat place to visit isn’t it? 🙂

      • Yes. True story though, there was lightening in the area when we were there so we were a bit cautious. My husband will have to opportunity to go back in about a month.

      • Hmmm…. lightning and a metal bridge… I’d say you were very wise to be cautious!

    • Thanks for reading! Glad you liked it, I’m always glad to share the stories 🙂

    • Thank you very much! I always love your pictures so that is quite a compliment coming from you!

  18. Another fine historical story that grabbed me from the beginning and wouldn’t let go.

  19. That’s a great message to send across. And a great story – full of courage – to tell. I wonder what happened to the daughters?

    • I’m very glad you enjoyed it. I couldn’t find much follow up with the daughters, other than that they attended many of the D-Day reunions at the bridge. The younger daughter kept up the cafe for many years after her parents died as well.

      • I wonder if they’re still alive. And what their kids think about their grandparent’s heroic status.

      • I must say I’m not sure – I know that as late as 2012, the younger daughter still worked in the cafe. She would often talk to customers about the events of that day and her family’s part in it. She also gave a lot of interviews for history enthusiasts and the like. I’m sure it’s possible they could still be living, but even if they’re not, I’m so glad their cafe still stands to remind us of them!

  20. Amen, and thank you for the reminder that it’s the individuals who matter. God bless the Gondrees and all who fought for the freedoms we enjoy and sadly, often, take for granted. Indeed, may we never forget!

    • Thanks so much for reading, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I completely agree, we should never forget!

  21. Your narration made history more interesting. I was hanging in my seat while reading it. Great post!

    • It is a pretty amazing story – I don’t know how some people get to be so brave! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!

    • Thank you, that’s so nice of you to say! I am working on some historical fiction books, but no movies at this time. Maybe someday!

  22. What a beautiful and heroic story. I appreciate the way you wrote it because you put human faces and fears right in history. The Gondrees are very brave and deserve to be called heroes. Their story is one for the movies (and books, of course). 🙂

    • 🙂 Thank you so much, that is so nice of you to say! I’m always happy to share the human stories, and I’m even happier when people enjoy it! 🙂

  23. A really interesting post that MB. Obviously I’d heard of Pegasus Bridge but never the full story around it – the Benouvilles sound like a very characterful bunch!

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 It is an incredible story and we were very glad to be able to visit.

  24. I really enjoyed your post. It was informative and entertaining and also made me think. Yes, it is not always up to the soldiers….we must all stand up for what we believe. Thanks for sharing.

    • I am so glad the post moved you and got your wheels turning! 🙂 That always feels so good to hear. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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