Reading the photograph
A few kilometres inland from Sword Beach, one of five main landing areas along France's Normandy coast, lay a pair of bridges over the Caen Canal and the River Orne. Capturing them would be crucial to D-Day's success, preventing Germans from moving in troops to attack the Allies on the beach. In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, 180 parachutists and infantry riding in six gliders set out to capture these structures. They were successful in their mission, and the bridges would later be dubbed “Pegasus” after the shoulder patch of British airborne troops and “Horsa” for their aircraft. This photo was taken a month later, possibly to give Allied commanders an idea of what the Germans could see in their own surveillance photos, said Wilfrid Laurier University professor Michael Bechthold. But it may also have been inadvertently taken during a mission to survey nearby enemy positions: “Chances are, they just left the camera running and photographed this area by accident.” Either way, it provides a detailed snapshot of the scene of one of history's most pivotal battles. Both bridges are visible, as are the gliders that bore the troops who captured them. At the time, this area was still near German lines and numerous other scenes of the war zone are visible, including artillery positions, a convoy and earthworks to protect tanks and soldiers.
Soldiers of the British Sixth Airborne Division, which included a Canadian parachute battalion, touched down in gliders throughout the area. Each one carried 30 men. Among the planes that landed in this field is one that is completely destroyed – likely felled by enemy fire or by fuel supplies that exploded during a rough landing – and a pair of Horsas that slammed into each other.
Trucks and guns
A triangle of farm buildings is visible, sheltering a series of trucks. Right of that, on the side of the road, are a pair of 2.5 tonne trucks with what appear to be anti-aircraft guns.
Dugouts and foxholes
To protect their vehicles, equipment and troops from the nearby Germans, the Allies built shallow dugouts in the fields, many of them screened by trees. Larger ones housed tanks and trucks; smaller foxholes were used by individual troops.
The "Horsa" bridge
Horsa Bridge, which spans the River Orne, was captured swiftly on the morning of June 6. In a field below it is one of the gliders that bore the troops. At the moment the photo was taken, a convoy of trucks is passing over it. To the right, the Allies are erecting an additional pontoon bridge; in the trees under it are gun positions defending it.
The Pegasus bridge
The capture of Pegasus Bridge, across the Caen Canal, was the opening battle of D-Day. Above the bridge and to the right are three gliders that bore the troops who captured it. The closest glider, which carried commander Major John Howard, crashed into the barbed wire surrounding it. The second plane broke in half, spilling one soldier into a nearby pond, where he drowned. Its troops took nearby trenches protecting the bridge. The third glider landed behind it roughly a minute later.
The village, which now hosts a memorial, lies to the west of the canal on the road to Caen.