Pegasus Bridge mission hero dies at 85
THE last-surviving officer of the daring Pegasus Bridge operation, which paved the way for the D-Day landings during the Second World War, has died aged 85.
Colonel David Wood was just 21 when he led a platoon of airborne troopers who helped secure two key bridges in Normandy hours before the Allied beach assault.
He was among dozens of troops who drifted silently behind enemy lines in six wooden Horsa gliders in the early hours of June 6, 1944, and took just 10 minutes to take the bridges. The heroic mission prevented the Germans sending in reinforcements and enabled Allied forces to continue their advance after taking the beaches.
It has been hailed as "the single most important 10 minutes of the war" and featured prominently in the 1962 Hollywood film The Longest Day.
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Colonel Wood was awarded the Légion d'honneur – France's highest military honour – for his heroic actions. He went on to serve 36 years with the Army before his retirement in 1978.
Colonel Wood, who lived with his wife of 25 years Sarah in Cullompton, Mid-Devon, died in hospital on March 12 after a long battle with prostate cancer.
Yesterday, Captain Peter Hodge, secretary of the Normandy Veterans Association, led the tributes.
He said: "He was an absolutely remarkable person. He was a figurehead for the Normandy Veterans Association and he will be sorely missed. He was one of the nicest men anyone was ever likely to meet and, among veterans, he was a household name."
Colonel Wood was commissioned into the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, which later became part of the 6th British Airborne Division.
He was commander of 20 men in Platoon 24 of the Pegasus Bridge mission – codename Operation Tonga – which was led by Major John Howard. The objective was to seize two bridges – the Benouville Bridge, now Pegasus Bridge, over the Caen canal, and Ranville Bridge, now known as Horsa Bridge, over the River Orne.
German forces had laced the bridges with explosives so they could blow them up in the event of an Allied advance.
Colonel Wood's men were in the second glider to land at Pegasus Bridge at 12.17am. Their objective was to clear trenches, machine-gun nests and the anti-tank gun pit along the east bank of Pegasus Bridge.
He was shot in the leg during the assault and was evacuated to a divisional aid post in Ranville and eventually back to England. Both bridges had been secured by 12.26am.
In a previous interview, Colonel Wood said they were blessed with two key strokes of good luck – the German major commanding the bridge was away from his post, reportedly enjoying a romantic liaison with a French woman. And the German commander in Normandy, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, was visiting his wife on her birthday in Germany.
"By the time the major returned, we had captured the bridge," said Colonel Wood. "The surprise was complete and our losses were smaller than predicted.
"Two of our men were killed and only 14 wounded, including myself. I was shot in the leg and I am constantly reminded of my encounter with an enemy gun.
"My left leg, where I was wounded, is one-and-a-half inches shorter than the other mainly due to the fractures I suffered."
He volunteered for the Army at 18 and became an officer cadet. He spent two years training in gliders for the assault on Pegasus Bridge.
Exeter was the training ground for his mission because the bridges over the Exe and the Exeter Canal, including the swing bridge at Countess Wear, were identical to those in France.
After the war, Colonel Wood served all over the world with the Green Jackets and then the Royal Green Jackets, including Cyprus, Egypt and the second Suez crisis.
His other postings were Northern Ireland, Germany, Malaya and Aden, where he was assistant military secretary. He also spent time at Exeter's Higher Barracks followed by a time as deputy commander of the Rhine area in Germany before retiring in 1978.
Colonel Wood, who was childless, was presented with seven campaign medals during his career and was made an MBE for his services to the military.
There are thought to be just a dozen survivors of the Pegasus Bridge operation still alive today.