On the bridge. Private Romer had just passed his fellow sentry at the mid-point and was approaching the eastern end as Brotheridge and his platoon came rushing up the embankment. Just then a shot aimed at Howard broke the silence, and Romer saw twenty-two British airborne troops, apparently coming from out of nowhere. With their camouflaged battle smocks, their faces grotesquely blacked, they gave the most eerie sensation of blending savagery and civilisation. The civilisation was represented by the Stens and Brens and Enfields they carried at their hips, ready to fire.
They were coming at Romer at a steady trot, as determined a group as Romer thought he would ever encounter. Romer could see in a flash, by the way the men carried their weapons, by the look in their eyes and by the way their eyes darted around, all white behind the black masks, that they were highly-trained killers who were determined to have their way that night. Who was he to argue with them, a sixteen-year-old schoolboy who scarcely knew how to fire his rifle.
Romer turned and ran back towards the west end, shouting ‘Paratroopers!’ at the other sentry as he passed him. That sentry pulled out his Verey pistol and fired a flare; Brotheridge gave him a full clip from his Sten and cut him down. The first German had just died in defence of Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
Simultaneously, Bailey and his comrades tossed grenades into the apertures of the machine-gun pillbox. There was an explosion, then great clouds of dust. When it settled. Bailey found no one living inside. He ran across the bridge, to take up his position near the cafe.
The sappers, by this time, were beginning to inspect the bridge for explosives, and were already cutting fuses and wires.
Sergeant Hickman was driving into Le Port. He had almost arrived at the T junction, where he would make a left turn to go over the bridge, when he heard Brotheridge’s Sten. Hickman told his driver to stop. He knew immediately that the gun was a Sten by its distinctive, easily recognisable rate of fire. Grabbing his Schmeisser, Hickman motioned to two of his privates to get on one side of the road leading to the bridge, while he and the other two privates moved down the left side.
Romer’s shout, the Verey pistol, and Brotheridge’s Sten gun combined to pull the German troops manning the machine-gun pits and slit trenches into full alert. The privates, all conscripted foreigners, began edging away, but the NCOs, all Germans, opened fire with their MG 34 and their Schmeissers.
Brotheridge, almost across the bridge, pulled a grenade out of his pouch and threw it at the machine-gun to his right. As he did so, he was knocked over by the impact of a bullet in his neck. Running just behind him came Billy Gray, his Bren gun at his hip. Billy also fired at the sentry with the Verey pistol, then began firing towards the machine-guns. Brotheridge’s grenade went off, wiping out one of the gun pits; Gray’s Bren, and shots from others crossing the bridge, knocked out the other.
Gray was standing on the end of the bridge, on the northwest corner. Brotheridge was lying in the middle of the road, at the western end of the bridge. Other men in the section were running over the bridge. Wally Parr was with them, Charlie Gardner beside him. In the middle of the bridge, Parr suddenly stopped. He was trying to yell ‘Able, Able’, as the men around him had started doing as soon as the shooting broke out. But to his horror, ‘my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth and I couldn’t spit sixpence. My mouth had dried up and my tongue was stuck.’
Attempts to yell only made the sticking worse, and his frustration was a terrible thing to behold. His face was a fiery red, even through the burnt cork, from the choking and from his anger. With a great effort of will, Parr finally broke his tongue loose and shouted, ‘COME OUT AND FIGHT YOU SQUARE-HEADED BASTARDS’. Pleased with himself, Parr started yelling ‘Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam’, as he ran the rest of the way, then turned left to go after the bunkers that were his task.
The moon emerged from behind the clouds. As it did, Sergeant Hickman crept to within fifty metres of the bridge. He saw no. 1 platoon coming over:
… and they even frightened me, the way they charged, the way
they fired, the way they ran across the bridge. I’m not a
coward, but at that moment I got frightened. If you see a para
platoon in full cry, they frighten the daylights out of you.
And at night-time when you see a para running with a Bren gun,
and the next with a Sten, and no cover round my back, just me
and four youngsters who had never been in action, so I could not
rely on them – in those circumstances, you get scared. It’s my
own poor little life there. So I pull my trigger, I fire.
He fired at Billy Gray, reloading his Bren by the corner of the bridge. Billy finished reloading and fired a clip back. Both men were shooting from the hip, and both were pointing their guns just a bit too high, so each sent a full clip over the other man’s head. While Hickman put another clip into his Schmeisser and started spraying the bridge. Billy popped into the barn on his right. As soon as he got inside. Billy rested his Bren gun on the wall and did his Jimmy Riddle.
Hickman, meanwhile, had run out of ammunition, and besides he was furious with the bridge garrison, which was hardly putting up a fight at all. He was scornful of such troops -‘they had a cushy life, all the war years in France. Never been in danger, only did guard duty.’ The British, Hickman concluded, had caught them napping, and he decided to get out of there. Motioning to his four privates, he got back to the staff car and sped towards Caen, going the long way around to get to his headquarters, which were only a few kilometres straight east. Thus Hickman was the first German to pay the price for the capture of the bridge: what should have been a ten- or fifteen-minute ride took him six hours (because he had to work his way around bombed-out Caen), and by the time he arrived at his headquarters to report the landing, his major had long since been informed.