A British soldier sent over to France to take part in the 75th D-Day anniversary has drowned while trying to swim across a canal near a bridge that played a key role in the Allies’ Normandy invasion.
The bridge is in Benouville in the north-western French department of Calvados and the British soldier, who has not been named but was reportedly 30 years old, drowned while trying to swim across the canal near the Pegasus Bridge on the night of Saturday 1st June.
The bridge was previously called the Benouville Bridge after a nearby village but was renamed the Pegasus Bridge as a tribute to the British airborne forces who liberated it to pave the way for the Normandy landings on the night of 5th June 1944. A winged horse is the airborne forces’ emblem and the bridge has become a place of pilgrimage for Britons in June, whether they are military personnel or civilians.
The operation to capture the two bridges crossing the River Orne and the Caen Canal – heavily defended by the Germans and wired for demolition according to intelligence reports – was key to ensuring that British forces landing at Sword Beach would be able to leave the shore. It was therefore key to the success of Operation Tonga, the codename for the overall British airborne Normandy landings.
The British airborne commandos, members of the 6th Airborne Division, flew over to Normandy from southern England in six Airspeed Horsa gliders. The operation was a success as both bridges were seized and successfully defended against tanks, gunboats and infantry assaults until the British troops were relieved.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory called the flight part of the operation one of the “most outstanding flying achievements of the war”.
The original bridge was replaced in 1994, but was moved just a few metres away to Ranville’s Pegasus Memorial Museum.
Over 30,000 people, including nearly 500 veterans, are expected in France this week to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, a pivotal moment in the battle to free Europe from the Nazis.
The drowned soldier had been staying along with thousands of other British soldiers at a British military camp in Ranville, according to the French authorities, ahead of the D-Day ceremonies scheduled to take place in a few days.
The town is known for its World War II (WWII) cemetery, home to the graves of 2,154 British soldiers who lost their lives fighting to free France from the Nazis.
Witnesses raised the alarm at 11.45 PM on Saturday evening when the soldier began his attempt to swim across the canal.
According to at least one report in French newspaper Actu, the victim had been on his way back after a night out with his colleagues when he decided to attempt to swim across the canal.
Police have been quoted in local media as saying: “Fifteen gendarmes and as many firefighters were dispatched to the scene.” France Bleu reports that the person in charge of the British regiment was also present during the search operation.
Four hours later, at 3.30 AM, firefighter divers brought the young man’s lifeless body to the surface, according to local media.
According to France Bleu, the British embassy in France has been informed and a spokesperson for the British military confirmed the death to local media, but did not elaborate, saying only in a statement: “It is with great sadness that we confirm the death of this member of staff in France. Our thoughts are with his family during these difficult times.”
The police are investigating the tragic incident.