At 0016 hours, June 6, 1944, the Horsa glider crash-landed alongside the Caen canal, some 50 meters from the swing bridge crossing the canal. Lt. Den Brotheridge, leading the twenty-eight men of the first platoon, D company, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment, British 6th Airborne Division, worked his way out of the glider. He grabbed Sgt. Jack “Bill” Bailey, a section leader, and whispered in his ear, “Get your chaps moving.” Bailey set off with his group to pitch grenades into the machine-gun pillbox known to be beside the bridge. Lieutenant Brotheridge gathered the remainder of his platoon, whispered, “Come on, lads,” and began running for the bridge. The German defenders, about fifty strong, were not aware that the long-awaited invasion had just begun.
As Brotheridge led his men at a fast trot up the embankment and onto the bridge, seventeen-year-old Pvt. Helmut Romer, one of the two German sentries on the bridge, saw the twenty-one British paratroopers — appearing, so far as he was concerned, literally out of nowhere — coming at him, their weapons carried at their hips, prepared to fire. Romer turned and ran across the bridge, shouting “Paratroopers!” at the other sentry as he passed him. That sentry pulled out his Leuchtpistole and fired a flare; Brotheridge fired a full clip of thirty-two rounds from his Sten gun.
Those were the first shots fired by the 175,000 British, American, Canadian, Free French, Polish, Norwegian, and other nationalities in the Allied Expeditionary Force set to invade Normandy in the next twenty-four hours. The shots killed the sentry, who thus became the first German to die in defense of Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
Seventy years ago today. I’ve read avidly about this day, and the war of which it was a part, since at least as far back as 1970. I can recite a lot of facts and anecdotes about D-Day, I can talk about Eisenhower’s strategy, the effort and luck involved in the Allies’ scheme to make the Germans think the landing would come at Calais, and so forth and so on. And yet there remains a part of me that just can’t even imagine …