Major John Howard was a pre-war policeman and territorial soldier and in the opening hours of D-Day, he led the 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in the crucial airborne assault on Caen Canal and the River Orne bridges.
The successful capture of these targets were essential to the D-Day Landings as they were the only supply line to Sword Beach, where the 6th Airborne Division were due to land to reinforce Allied forces.
A total of 180 men from the Ox and Bucks were carried by six Horsa gliders from Tarrant Rushton in Dorset the night before D-Day. It was 11pm and the gliders were towed by Halifax bombers who released them over the Normandy beaches at 6,000 feet.
At 1,000 feet Major John Howard opened the glider door and recalled: “As we came into land most of us were scared, but our enthusiasm to get the job done overcame the fear. The landing drill was to link arms with the man either side of you, then butcher’s-grip your fingers, lift your feet and pray your number wasn’t up.”
It’s incredible to imagine falling from such a height in total darkness, let along falling a mere 50 yards from the acquired target. The Horsa gliders shrieked as they suddenly smashed through German defences before sliding to a halt. The men quickly scrambled for the exit and flung grenades at the pillbox.
15 minutes after landing, Major John Howard heard that the River Orne had been taken. His radio operator, Corporal Tuppenderry, gave the success signal, “Ham and jam”.
“Ham and jam,” the Corporal called, “Ham and jam, ham and bloody jam!”
During the Battle of Normandy, the company were ordered to attack Escoville where a sniper’s bullet was shot through Major John Howard’s helmet. The bullet grazed the top of his skull before he was further wounded by shrapnel that struck him in his back. Despite his injuries, Howard refused to take to a stretcher and continued to command his soldiers.
While recuperating in England, Howard was seriously injured in a traffic accident. Both his legs and right hip were damaged and he was invalided out of the army. He received the Distinguished Service Order (1st medal) in addition to the French Croix de Guerre (6th medal) in 1945 for his exceptional leadership during the D-Day Landings.
Each year, on June 6th, Major John Howard would return to Normandy to lay a wreath where the gliders first landed. He also frequently lectured in Normandy to British and foreign military academies with his friend and wartime foe, Colonel Hans Von Luck, who commanded one of Rommel’s Panzer Divisions during the Second World War.
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