01 July 2011
Ken Rimell on an Airborne veteran who landed at Pegasus Bridge on D-Day and was first to fire a PIAT ...
I first met the soldier featured in this story in 1989. An easy going and rather modest man, anyone who knew Denis Edwards noted he was always wearing the red beret which singled him out as an airborne soldier. The beret was never worn boastfully, he just found it more comfortable to wear than modern headgear, as he told me later. Beneath that beret was a former soldier with nerves of steel and the story he told me over the years until his death in 2008 is something I shall never forget.
Denis Edwards, or Eddie to his soldier chums, was an 18-year-old Private in the Ox and Bucks – the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry – in 1944. His war started minutes after midnight on June 6th 1944 when the Horsa glider he shared with 28 other soldiers came crashing down bang on target by the bridge over the Caen Canal in Normandy. His glider, the first to land in France on that historic night, slithered to a halt just a few yards from the predicated landing spot by the river bridge later to be called Pegasus Bridge.
Commanding the assault that night, and travelling with Denis in the glider, was the legendary Major John Howard. Their orders were to capture and secure, at all costs, the bridge that later took its name from the winged Pegasus that adorns the beret of the airborne soldiers. Their mission to take the bridge and prevent German re-enforcements from getting to the D-Day landing beaches a few miles to the north was to be a tough one. It was imperative the raid was a success for in a few hours time thousands of allied troops would be stepping ashore on French soil as the liberation of Europe began.
Scrambling from the wreckage of his glider and moving to the river’s edge as other gliders slid to a halt nearby, Denis recalled the night silence was broken only by the sound of smashing wood as gliders ran into each other in confined area, some with fateful consequences. The Germans were taken completely by surprise, some who showed any sign of resistance were shot. Within the hour the bridge was secure and the code signal ‘ham and jam’ indicating the raiders had succeeded, was transmitted to HQ.
Denis, whose speciality was sniping, soon found plenty of trade as the enemy, in a state of shock and disarray at the unexpected arrival of a small army and part of the 2nd Battalion 6th Air-landing Infantry Brigade, were presenting themselves as easy targets. Once the Germans realised what was happening they took cover and Denis’s ‘duck’ shooting, as he later called it went on hold, at least for a while, but he was soon able to take advantage of some captured German weaponry. He found the German MP38 Schmeisser better than the British equivalent as it had a faster fire facility and also took the same 9mm ammunition.
The first to fire a PIAT
A short while later after the Germans had recovered, the clank and scrape of enemy tank tracks could be heard approaching. The 100 or so Ox and Bucks survivors of the 180 who had landed by glider were now in for a hard time as the enemy moved tanks up to support their beleaguered troops. It was here that Denis was to witness at first hand the devastating effect of a PIAT, the first to be fired in Normandy on D-Day.
The PIAT, disliked by most soldiers due to its bulk and awkwardness in re-loading, was a Projector Infantry Anti-Tank weapon, was used to good effect by those willing to accept its sometimes odd behaviour.
In this instance the operator of the PIAT that action-packed night was Sgt ‘Wagger’ Thornton and he scored a direct hit on a German tank at just 80 yards range. It was pitch black and he had judged the tank’s distance by the noise of its approach. A mighty explosion followed as the tank was hit and started to ‘brew’ up. The flames lighting up the night sky were enough to send the remaining enemy tanks into retreat. While the battle raged the Royal Engineers, who had accompanied the men of the Ox and Bucks in the gliders, were coolly and calmly dismantling the explosives placed by the Germans on the two bridges, ready to blow should the allies invade. The opportunity to do so was lost with the swiftness of the Allied assault.
Denis’s opinion of the PIAT changed dramatically after watching the enemy tank take a direct hit at the hands of ‘Wagger’ and, although in short supply to his unit, he managed to soon acquire one along with some ammunition which he put to good use. Although he didn’t have cause to hit a tank, since none had presented itself, he did find the weapon to be ideal for dislodging German snipers in buildings, in particular tall ones such as churches or water towers. On the push through Normandy he kept the weapon until the ammunition supply ran out, forcing him to resume using the captured German MP38 Schmeisser.
The Devil’s Own Luck
Denis, who wrote the excellent book The Devil’s Own Luck, his personal story of the war in France and beyond, made little mention of his use of the PIAT. I asked him why he had overlooked to mention such an excellent weapon but he just shrugged his shoulders and said: “I used whatever came to hand at the time and the Schmeisser and its ammunition was always at hand”.
After the war Denis returned to France just once to view his old stomping ground. With regular invitations from The Pegasus Bridge Museum and even the French Government he always replied: “I did my bit and that’s all that matters”. He hated the enemy and told the local radio station in Brighton, near to his Lancing home, during a D-Day interview programme in 1999 that he never lost a night’s sleep over those he had killed (his tally was over 100) but only wishes it had been more. He was fiercely patriotic and for many years until his death wrote the Airborne Forces newsletter aptly titled after the immortal message of success on that D-Day morning of ‘Ham and Jam’.
Few PIATs survive in museums. The Aldershot Army Museum –and the town is the Home of the British Army – doesn’t have one and the Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson only has the technical manuals. However should your enthusiasm be keen enough to see one, then Mark Worthington, Curator of the Pegasus Bridge Museum in Normandy, tells me they have just bought one from a private source and it’s now on display in the museum.
Major General Percy Hobart
The PIAT was an infantry tank weapon and its roots came indirectly from Major General Percy Hobart, a noted British Military engineer. Nicknamed ‘Hobo’, he was responsible for designing many weird and wonderful military contraptions from WWI to WWII and beyond. He is best remembered for ‘Hobart’s Funnies’, modified tanks designed for overcoming various obstacles encountered on D-Day.
Years before WWII Hobart had experimented with hollow charge explosives and this caught the attention of the PIAT’s eventual designer Lt. Colonel Stewart Blacker. In a recent book by Pen and Sword entitled The Adventures and Inventions of Stewart Blacker and written from his grandfather’s notes by Barnaby Blacker, the inventions of this great British military engineer are explained. Blacker discovered that a hollow charge when fired would produce a jet of very hot gas and molten metal and could burn through several inches of tank armour. First known as the Spigot Projector, it was developed with the help of watchmaker Tom Dale and the Parnall Aircraft Company, which was well known for making a range of WWI aircraft and further types until WWII.
Stewart Blacker was not without enemies within the corridors of power. Many in the various government ministries tried to dismiss his inventions as ranging from the barmy to the ridiculous. A huge political argument raged for many months and required the intervention of Winston Churchill to settle the dispute, and valuable time was lost as a result.
The first forces to receive the PIAT were the 8th Army in the desert in 1942. Panzers were soon to face a fearsome new weapon in the hands of a skilful soldier that could easily take a tank out at a reasonable range. During the course of WWII two Victoria Crosses were awarded to recipients using the PIAT.
The excellent Blacker Book, like Denis Edwards, only makes a short mention in its final chapter of this useful infantry weapon with just a few pages allocated to his creation. The final few words in the book details some government ministerial wrangling claiming – and quoting Blacker’s own comments that – “If Whitehall had put the PIAT into production in 1938 as it could well have done, each platoon of staunch Polish Infantry could have had one in 1939. It could hardly have failed to smash every one of von Rundstedt’s tanks. So no Battle of France, or of Holland, or Britain, at all.”
Lt. Col Stewart Blacker died in 1964 aged 77.
I’m obliged for the help from Pen and Sword publishers for allowing me to use pictures of the PIAT and also to The Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson who allowed me to view reams of very complicated technical manuals on the weapon that went far and above my head by their complexity.