I recently read The Devil’s Own Luck: Pegasus Bridge to the Baltic 1944-45, by Denis Edwards. This is a firsthand account of combat in France and Germany from a private soldier of 6th Airborne Division.
Denis Edwards was born in 1924 and enlisted in the British Army in 1941. As he was only 16, he lied about his age, which was not unusual during the War. Shortly after enlistment, he volunteered for 2nd Battalion, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, knowing that it was part of the new Airborne Forces. 2nd Bn. Oxf & Bucks was a glider-borne battalion, utilizing the large Horsa glider, which could carry 28 soldiers plus two pilots.
Edwards, known as “Eddie” to his friends, served in D Company, 2nd Oxf. & Bucks., and took part in the famous assault and capture of Pegasus Bridge the night before D-Day. Edwards was in 25 Platoon, which flew in Number 1 Glider with Major John Howard, D Company’s determined and energetic commanding officer. 25 Platoon was commanded by Lt. “Den” Brotheridge, who was shot leading the charge across the bridge, and is believed to have been the first Allied soldier killed during the Normandy invasion.
While the capture of the bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River went well, the real challenge was holding those bridges against enemy counter-attack, particularly before reinforcements were able to arrive. 7th Parachute Battalion suffered a scattered drop, and it took time for the paratroopers to make it to their objective, and it was afternoon on D-Day by the time the seaborne Commandos arrived. D Company held the vital bridges until reinforced, but several of the officers and NCO’s became casualties.
The men of 6th Airborne had been told that, after taking their objectives, they would be withdrawn back to England to prepare for additional airborne operations. They were told that they would be in Normandy for at most ten days. In actuality, however, the Division remained on the front line and defended the Allied east flank for two and a half months. Finally, as the Germans began to retreat, 6th Airborne took part in the advance to the Seine; it was the beginning of September by the time they returned to England.
After a period of rest and absorbing replacement troops, 6th Airborne played a key role during the campaign in the Ardennes, termed the “Battle of the Bulge” by the Americans. The Division was in England preparing for Christmas, when their leave was canceled and they were hurriedly transported by ship and truck to the front line. The Division helped to contain the attempted German break-out; while 2nd Oxf. & Bucks. did not take significant casualties, some of the other battalions in the Division suffered numerous losses.
In March, 1945, the Division provided an airborne spearhead for the Allied crossing of the Rhine (Operation Varsity). D Company landed at the German village of Hamminkeln, and again took heavy casualties. Edwards was knocked unconscious by an artillery shell burst, but he recovered in a few days. 6th Airborne then took part in the drive northeast, and eventually linked up with Russian troops near the Elbe River.
By the time the war ended, Edwards had survived without serious injury. D Company suffered tremendous casualties from D-Day to V-E Day; Edwards considered himself extraordinarily lucky to have come through unscathed, hence the book’s title.
I have read other books on D Company, 2nd Oxf. & Bucks., in which the focus was on D-Day and Pegasus Bridge. While Edwards’ description of the bridge capture is one of the more exciting parts of the book, D-Day only makes up a small part of the narrative.
Edwards found a small notebook shortly after D-Day, and used it as his diary. This was a prohibited activity; if it fell into enemy hands, a soldier’s diary could become an important source of intelligence. Edwards rarely kept his notebook on his person; most of the time, it was hidden away in his slit trench. This diary formed the basis for most of the book, and allowed Edwards’ depiction of Normandy to be vivid and remarkably detailed. He did not keep a diary during the Ardennes or the Rhine crossing; while interesting, those portions of the book do not have the same depth.
Edwards’ thorough descriptions of his daily activities in Normandy bring his narrative to life, from eating rations to digging trenches to the strain of being under continuous bombardment. The tinned composite rations included an instant sweetened tea; Edwards called it “monkey mixture” and was not impressed with it, saying it provided a hot drink but there was little resemblance to normal tea. It was only towards the end of the campaign in Normandy that he received fresh bread and real tea; otherwise it was hard biscuits and the instant mixture. When the men were issued bully beef, typically two or three men had to share one tin. The men were frequently hungry, and the lack of fresh food over an extended period also resulted in digestive upset, or “compo tummy”.
D Company suffered terrible losses while holding their positions, as they were under nearly constant artillery and mortar fire. Additionally, the summer of 1944 was unusually cold and wet; the men spent weeks in their slit trenches with few opportunities to dry out, let alone bathe or launder their filthy uniforms. Without dry socks to change into, the frequent rain also damaged their feet. The weather and the insufficient food combined to cause the men of D Company to lose much of their physical fitness.
During the Normandy campaign, Edwards’ standard rifle was replaced with the Rifle No. 4 (T), a sniper variant with telescopic sight. He often went out alone or in a small group to perform reconnaissance or harass the enemy. He also captured an enemy “Schmeisser” submachine gun (MP 38 or 40) and a Walther pistol.
Whenever D Company moved to a new position, they were ordered to dig slit trenches. Edwards wrote that the men found this frustrating, as they often took over from another unit that had already dug trenches, but the officers always wanted new ones prepared. Two men shared a trench, which needed to be six feet long, two feet wide, and five or more feet deep. According to Edwards, this was extremely difficult with just the small entrenching tool that was carried with the 1937-Pattern webbing equipment. Eventually, the men of D Company captured full-sized German picks and shovels, which made the job easier. Each trench needed a roof to give protection from shrapnel; stolen doors were a popular choice, as were resupply drop containers, which could be filled with earth and placed over a trench.
As both an amateur writer/historian and a reenactor, I find it extremely valuable to read personal accounts like this one. Reading a high-level description of a battle or campaign is certainly worthwhile, but it is the soldier’s view from the slit trench or on the march that gives me a better understanding of what a typical soldier’s life was like. The Devil’s Own Luck is fast-paced, well-written, and holds the reader’s attention. Additionally, while other books have focused on 2nd Oxf. & Bucks.’ vital and spectacular role on D-Day, Edwards vividly described the experience of holding the Allies’ east flank for several weeks against continuous enemy pressure, as well as the Battalion’s subsequent operations. I highly recommend this personal account of the War in Northern Europe.
The Devils’ Own Luck: Pegasus Bridge to the Baltic 1944-45 is published by Pen & Sword, and is also available through Amazon. The book was first published in 1999; sadly, Denis Edwards died just a few years later in 2008.
For more information on D Company, 2nd Oxf. & Bucks’ Commanding Officer, Major John Howard, please see my review of his autobiography, The Pegasus Diaries.
The Devils’ Own Luck: Pegasus Bridge to the Baltic 1944-45
Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 1999