I recently read The Pegasus Diaries: The Private Papers of Major John Howard, DSO.
I have read Stephen Ambrose’s well-known book, Pegasus Bridge, a number of times, and thoroughly enjoyed reading about the capture of the bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal just after midnight on D-Day. It was that book that inspired me to travel to Normandy and see the Benouville bridge in person.
Pegasus Diaries was published more recently, and I purchased it hoping it would give me additional insight into the planning and training that went into the operation. However, that was not the focus of the book; instead, I learned about the life and personality of one of the greatest heroes of the Normandy campaign.
John Howard kept a personal diary from January, 1942, through early 1946. His daughter, Penny, found the diary as a child, but was prohibited from reading it. She did not see the diary again until after her father’s death in 1999.
Penny (now Penny Bates) decided to transcribe the diary into her computer. This was not an easy task, as her father’s handwriting was very difficult to read; she was one of the few who could decipher it. She then supplemented the diary with her father’s planning notes for D-Day and other documents, and decided to turn these sources into a personal narrative from her father’s perspective. Because her father had worked closely with Stephen Ambrose for Pegasus Bridge, Penny wanted her book to be less about D-Day, and more about her father’s personality and family life.
Reginald John Howard grew up in a large, working-class family in Camden Town, London. His family called him “Reg”, but he preferred to go by his middle name. As a child, John was intelligent and hard-working; he was a good student, and helped care for his eight siblings. He became active in the local Boy Scout troop, through which he became an avid athlete, and also fell in love with the English countryside.
Howard joined the Army at the age of 19, and served seven years in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. While a soldier, he met Joy Bromley, and they fell in love. After proposing to Joy, Howard left the army in 1938 at the rank of Corporal. He was then accepted into the Oxford City Police Force.
War broke out in September, 1939. John and Joy were married in October, and shortly after, John was recalled to the Army and rejoined his regiment as a Corporal. Howard was an exceptional soldier, and was quickly promoted to Sergeant, then Company Sergeant Major; in April, 1940, he was made Regimental Sergeant Major.
The Army expanded rapidly after war was declared. There was a desperate shortage of officers, and Howard was recommended for the Officer Cadet Training Unit. Upon graduation, Howard was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and assigned to be an infantry training officer.
Being athletic, hard-working, and energetic, Howard grew bored and frustrated as a trainer and wanted a more exciting position. Upon the creation of the Airborne Forces, the Army decided to convert 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire L.I. to become a glider-borne unit. Volunteers were needed; Howard thought the Airborne role would suit him, so he applied and was accepted. Shortly after joining the battalion, Howard was given command of D Company, in February, 1942. 2nd Oxf. & Bucks. was part of 1st Airborne Division, then was transferred to 6th Airborne when that Division was created in 1943.
When Howard joined the battalion, most of the other officers had come from aristocratic families and had graduated from the Sandhurst military academy. They looked down on Howard’s working-class roots and the fact that he had come up from the ranks. While a lesser man may have been consumed by resentment, Howard turned his bitterness into determination and focus on his work. He wanted to prove that he could be just as good an officer as the others, if not better.
Howard wanted D Company to be the best company in the Regiment. At first, his men grumbled about how demanding he was; he had very high standards, particularly for physical fitness and stamina. He also gave his men intensive training in weapons handling, unarmed combat, and tactics. He made sure his men were proficient in the use of first aid and signals, driving various vehicles, and cooking rations in the field. The Airborne was made up of volunteers who were more highly motivated and more intelligent than the average soldier. While the men of D Company complained about how hard they had to work, they soon developed a tremendous respect for their energetic officer and took enormous pride in their unit. While Howard’s experiences in the Officer’s Mess were difficult, he soon formed strong friendships with the junior officers in his company.
In June 1942, Howard was promoted to Major; a month later, his son, Terry was born. Whenever possible, Howard traveled home on weekends to spend time with his family. Joy lived with her mother and stepfather, but eventually the Howards tried to find a home of their own, which was very difficult during wartime. Daughter Penny was born in March, 1944.
Howard and D Company were recognized for their capabilities, and were chosen for one of the most important objectives of the invasion of Normandy: the capture of the vital bridges at Benouville. D Company spent several months rehearsing for the operation, even training on real bridges that were similar in size to their objectives.
When D-Day arrived in June, 1944, D Company captured both bridges intact, and held them against enemy counter-attacks. They were reinforced by 7th Parachute Battalion, and then by ground forces from Sword Beach. After the battle, the drawbridge over the Caen Canal was re-named Pegasus Bridge after the Airborne insignia depicting the Greek hero Bellerophon riding the winged horse Pegasus. Similarly, the bridge over the Orne River was re-named Horsa Bridge after the main type of British glider.
D Company had been led to understand that they would be withdrawn shortly after D-Day, so their hard-earned skills could be used again in further operations. Instead, they, and the rest of 6th Airborne, were used as regular infantry and kept in the front lines until the end of August. In all this fighting, D Company took numerous casualties, particularly amongst the officers and NCO’s. Howard himself narrowly escaped death when a sniper’s bullet pierced his helmet, but only grazed his scalp. 2nd Oxf. & Bucks. were finally withdrawn to England, where D Company returned to training and began replacing losses. Several of Howard’s friends had been killed in action; the sorrow of these losses combined with bitterness over being used as regular infantry when D Company’s talents and training should have been better utilized.
Another tragedy occurred in November, 1944. Howard was driving home to Oxford to visit Joy and the children; while navigating a blind curve, he crashed head-on into an American Army truck that had pulled out of its convoy and into the wrong lane. Howard’s lower body was shattered, and he spent several months in hospital. While recovering, Howard learned about 6th Airborne being rushed back to the continent to help stop the enemy offensive in the Ardennes. Then in March, 1945, 6th Airborne spearheaded the crossing of the Rhine and the attack into Germany itself. Howard’s injuries were painful, but being away from his Battalion during these actions caused just as much misery. By May, he had been released from hospital, but had to return for additional surgery, and missed out on the Victory in Europe celebrations.
John Howard never did fully recover from the driving accident. He was forced to leave the Army, and spent the rest of his life using either crutches or a walking stick. Howard had hoped for a long military career, and was deeply upset that this was cut short by his injuries; Joy, however, was quite happy not to have John sent overseas or being put in harm’s way. Howard was able to focus his energy and talents on a successful career in the civil service. He also gave several lectures on the Pegasus Bridge operation, and returned to Normandy nearly every June for the annual commemorations. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions on D-Day.
The book is quite extraordinary. It is well-written, and an enjoyable read. While I did not learn anything about the capture of Pegasus Bridge that was not already covered by other sources, it was fascinating to learn so much more about the man chiefly responsible for the success of the operation. I already knew that John Howard had been a remarkable man, and this book brought to life his courage and determination. The book also demonstrates the difficulties of trying to have a normal family life during wartime. It is also a rather unique concept, in that Penny Bates wrote it in first-person narrative from her father’s perspective. After I read the introduction, I was somewhat dubious about this approach, but the result was quite successful.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is already familiar with the story of Major Howard and D Company, 2nd Oxf. & Bucks.; it is an excellent insight into a true hero of the Normandy campaign. For anyone else, I would suggest starting with Stephen Ambrose’s book and then following up with this one.
The Pegasus Diaries: The Private Papers of Major John Howard, DSO is published by Pen & Sword, and is also available through Amazon and other sources.