Jim Wallwork, who has died aged 93, was the pilot of the first glider to land in the coup-de-main on the bridges across the river Orne and the Caen Canal; catapulted through the Perspex canopy on touching down, he was able to claim to be the first Allied soldier to set foot on French soil during the D-Day landings.
Just before midnight on June 5 1944, six Horsa gliders were towed to the French coast, each carrying men of Major John Howard’s D Company of the 2nd Batallion Ox & Bucks Light Infantry. Bearing rifles, Sten and Bren guns, mortars and grenades, and with their faces blackened with burned cork or coke, they had been entrusted with capturing the key bridges near Ranville to prevent German reinforcements reaching the landing beaches further west.
The gliders were towed by Halifax bombers above the clouds to 6,000ft. There was a relaxed atmosphere as the troops sang and joked, but this stopped abruptly as each glider was released from the tug within sight of the French coast. Wallwork was flying the lead glider, and he saw the twin waterways in the moonlight as he descended. He flew a perfect circuit to land within a few yards of the well-defended bridge, later to become known as Pegasus Bridge. Within a minute, two more gliders had landed alongside Wallwork’s, which had its nose buried in an embankment.
Wallwork was injured when he was thrown from the glider and, although concussed, he carried ammunition forward to Howard’s troops, who had advanced on the bridge, overcoming resistance from machine-gun pits and slit trenches, and storming underground bunkers. Despite strong opposition, they held the bridge until relieved some hours later by Lord Lovat and his commandos. Wallwork was later repatriated to England, where he recovered from his injuries.
The precise flying of the glider pilots had been remarkable, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory observed: “It was one of the most outstanding flying achievements of the war.” Wallwork was awarded an immediate DFM.
The son of a First World War artillery sergeant, James Harley Wallwork was born at Salford on October 21 1919 and educated at the local grammar school. He joined the Army just before the outbreak of war, but after being refused permission to transfer to the RAF he volunteered to serve in the new Glider Pilot Regiment. After training, he left for North Africa.
On the night of July 8/9 1943, Wallwork flew one of the 137 gliders on Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Unusually high winds, ill-trained tug aircraft crews and poor navigation led to the force being widely scattered; many gliders landed in the sea, and there was heavy loss of life. Wallwork just managed to make his landing zone, where he was met by heavy enemy fire. He remained in Italy with the 1st Airborne Division until later in the year, when he returned to England for intensive training for the D-Day landings. His was one of eight crews selected for the “special mission” to capture the bridges near Caen. After returning to his regiment, Wallwork flew on the ill-fated landings at Arnhem before converting to the much bigger glider, the Hamilcar. During Operation Varsity, the airborne landings on the Rhine, he took a 17-pounder anti-tank gun and its crew to the east bank of the river. Wallwork had the extremely rare, possibly unique, distinction of flying a glider on the four major Allied airborne landings: Sicily, Normandy, Arnhem and the Rhine. At the end of the war he left the Army as a staff sergeant, and in 1957 emigrated to British Columbia, where he worked for a supply business before running a small livestock farm east of Vancouver. In later life Wallwork attended reunions at Pegasus Bridge, including one in 2004 when the Prince of Wales unveiled a replica Horsa glider at the site. Jim Wallwork married Dorothy Colgate in 1945. He married, secondly, Genevieve O’Donnell, who survives him with two daughters of his first marriage. Another son, whom he named Howard in honour of the Pegasus bridge assault, died in childhood. Jim Wallwork, born October 21 1919, died January 24 2013
. Via Forces War Records