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The events of the “coup-de-main” glider-borne assault upon the Caen Canal and Orne River bridges have been told, and retold, in the significant number of volumes covering the Normandy Campaign.  A reinforced company from the second battalion of a historic light infantry regiment  - sufficiently historic to wear the shoulder title “Fifty Second” denoting their precedence in the line, rather than the official “Ox & Bucks” – deployed in the most modern of manners and secured their place in the annals of military history that June night.  This book seeks to add not just the first-hand account of the senior officer present (and the man who planned the assault) at the opening gambit of the Campaign, but also the personal experience of a man who was as much a beloved husband and father, as well as a gifted leader of men.

The Officer Commanding, D Company, Major John Howard DSO, was born in 1912, into a solidly working class family.  His father, in the infantry in the First War, returned to work as a tradesman in the brewery industry, and Reginald “John” Howard, one of nine children was raised in a busy north London home.  Howard was a staunch family member, devoted to his mother in particular, raised in a happy home.  He was keen, however, to get out the house and indeed the city, devoting his spare time to scouting. The Scouts proved a useful hobby for someone who then spent 5 years as a regular in the ranks of the KSLI, prior to married life as a “bobby on the beat” in Oxford.

The book evidences in his own words that John Howard was, in many ways, a driven man.  He appeared caught between the Victorian/Edwardian values of, “bettering oneself”, and the requirement to “know ones place” in the depressed world of 1930s. The perceived necessity to improve his station in society, adequately providing for his wife (and then family) pushed him hard.  Once back in khaki, rather than blue, uniform, upon the outbreak of war in 1939, he pushed himself even harder.  His promotion in the ranks, before his appearance before OCTU was nothing short of meteoric. Arriving with the “Fifty Second” in the dark days of mid-1940, his early life as a commissioned officer were troubled by self doubt, and it was not until his wife was able to join him that the rather elderly subaltern came into his own.  

Once given D Company, and with the Battalion’s move to the Airborne Forces as an air-landing unit deployed by glider, Howard began to drive himself and his men very hard indeed.  He was determined that his company would be the best in the Bn, and as the airborne training cycle for the new 6 Airborne Division developed in 1942 and 1943 D Company and John Howard came to the attention to the strategic planners for the airborne element of the invasion of Europe Op Overlord.  The rest as they say “is history”.  Stephen Ambrose (“Pegasus Bridge”) and Peter Harclerode (“Go to it!”) produced detailed and succinct accounts respectively, with the assistance of John Howard and the notes he made while recovering from injuries caused in a serious road accident in late 1944.  This volume produced from his notes and with further recollections and drafting from daughter is a fascinating addition to those works showing the man rather than the deeds.

Alongside the family and personal (sometimes extremely candid) recollections laid down in diary notes, are details unavailable from other sources.  An example is the ability to determine the date of issue of the famous “Denison” camouflage smock to the Bn – and possibly the Air-Landing Brigade.  A visit in January 1943, by the GOC Major General Gale – wearing the smock – resulted in a flood of applications from subalterns (and John Howard) for an issue, leading to a full issue shortly thereafter.  The illustrations are interesting in their own right, some not previously published.  A curious omission, however, is any reference to the Bn’s appearance in the “propaganda” movie “Airborne Assault” featuring John Howard in a (limited) speaking role.  For many years after the war, after his “demobbing” due to medical downgrading, John Howard continued to provide Staff College lectures on his part in the Normandy Campaign, regularly attended unit reunions, and was a key figure in the annual commemoration events until his passing in 1999 aged 86.  This book provides a fitting family tribute, and useful reference guide to the events of the Summer of 1944, to a man who was sometimes “a stern father”, a “tough” OC, but probably pushed himself harder than anyone. 




"Pegasus Diaries" Cover

The Pegasus Diaries:
The Private Papers of Major John Howard DSO
John Howard & Penny Bates

Pub: Pen & Sword, 2006

198pp, Illus.
ISBN 1- 84415-446-7 


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