The brother of a brave soldier who led a vital and dangerous mission to Normandy just minutes into ‘D-Day’, 1944, joined 300 people for a poignant commemorative service at the former Dorset airfield from which the army officer flew in a wooden Horsa glider 70 years ago.
Major John Howard led the men of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry who flew in six gliders from the Royal Air Force base at Tarrant Rushton, between Wimborne and Blandford, to seize important bridges over the Orne river and the neighbouring Caen canal just 20 minutes into 6 June, 1944.
The top secret operation – codenamed ‘Operation Coup de Main’ – was vital because the troops had to seize the two bridges in order to stop German re-enforcements from being sent to counter the attack on the Normandy beaches by Allied forces in what was the largest and most daring maritime invasion in history.
On Sunday, 8 June 2014, 82-year-old Roy Howard – the youngest brother of the late Major John Howard – attended a poignant service by the former airfield’s entrance gate, in the shadow of one of its old hangars, to remember the three dangerous ‘D-Day’ operations flown from Tarrant Rushton by Halifax tug crews and glider pilots.
Members of the public – including the children and grand-children of veterans who served at the former top secret Royal Air Force base – took part in the gathering above the village of Tarrant Rushton attended by a senior Royal Air Force officer, Wing Commander Shane Powley based at Blandford Camp.
The Chief of Staff for the tri-service Headquarters Defence School of Communications and Information Systems was the principal guest and reviewing officer at the moving service which first took place at the airfield’s memorial back in 1982 – less than two years after the large airfield closed and was demolished.
The service was conducted by the Reverend David Dennis and Wing Commander Powley was invited to review the various organisations present under the direction of Parade Marshall Spencer Hare.
Featuring two hymns, a Bible reading and an address by service organiser Flight Lieutenant Dennis Hart – a member of the Royal Air Force’s Volunteer Reserve specialising in training for the Air Training Corps – the service included prayers, the playing of the Last Post, a two minutes’ silence and the playing of the Reveille.
After the act of remembrance and the laying of wreaths at the former airfield’s stone memorial, reviewing officer Spencer Hare recited the ‘Kohima Epitaph’ before the Reverend David Dennis gave the blessing.
Service organiser Dennis Hart, who lives in Corfe Mullen, is a retired aviation engineer who worked on jet aircraft at the Tarrant Rushton airfield during the 1950s when it was used as the base for the pioneering Flight Refuelling company.
After the memorial service, a delighted Dennis said: “It was a wonderful and very uplifting occasion as well as being a very moving and poignant one. And the weather was perfect with blue skies, sunshine and a gentle breeze.
“It was great to see so many people – both old and young – attend the service, many of which were the children and grandchildren of people who served at Tarrant Rushton during its Royal Air Force days as well as during the airfield’s Flight Refuelling period.
“As well as being the springboard for ‘Operation Coup de Main’ late in the evening of Monday, 5 June 1944, Halifax bomber tugs from Tarrant Rushton airfield also towed two waves of troop-carrying Horsa gliders – and tank-carrying Hamilcar gliders – over to Normandy on ‘D-Day’ itself: ‘Operation Tonga’ and ‘Operation Mallard’.
“The operation to seize the Orne river and Caen canal bridges just 20 minutes into D-Day, 1944, was key to the success of the Allied invasion of the Normandy beaches. The six wooden Horsa gliders containing members of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were towed by Halifax bombers and took off from Tarrant Rushton just before 11pm for the one-hour trip to France.
“Tarrant Rushton airfield was built for the training of Halifax bomber crews in the dangerous towing of wooden troop-carrying Horsa and tank-carrying Hamilcar gliders not just for the ‘D-Day’ invasion of France, but also the invasion of Arnhem in Holland during September 1944, and the crossing of the Rhine into Germany in March 1945,” explained Dennis.
Donations in memory and recognition of those who served at Tarrant Rushton during the Second World War can be made to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund’s Wings Appeal.
Photographs show the memorial service – including Wing Commander Shane Powley and Roy Howard ©Andrew Wright 2014