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The Mission You've Never Heard Of: The Hours Before D-Day

Hours before the beach landings on D-Day, a group of men underwent a dangerous nighttime mission in France. What happened in that fateful operation? 

By
Giles Milton
Episode #78
Soldiers of D-Day

Who was Denis Edwards? And why was he dropped behind enemy lines some six hours before the beach landings on D-Day? Turns out he was tasked with one of the most dangerous missions to take place on 6 June 1944.

Welcome to Season 3 of Unknown History: D-Day Stories. I'm your host, Giles Milton, and today we're talking about a specialist team who was sent on a mission in which failure was not an option.

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Many hours before the beach landings on D-Day—when it was still pitch dark—an extraordinary and top secret nighttime operation was underway.

A small group of young men—British and Canadian—was dropped into Normandy under the cover of darkness. Their task was to spearhead the initial assault on occupied France with an audacious coup-de-maina swift and surprise attack that would require them to land deep behind enemy lines. Long before the seaborne forces struggled ashore, this little group would be fighting their way through the French countryside with the goal of seizing two vitally important bridges, one at the village of Ranville and one at Bénouville.

The capture of these bridges was crucial to the success of D-Day. They were the principal crossing points for two waterways, the River Orne and the Caen Canal, which ran northwards to the coast. If the bridges remained in German hands, the Allied troops that were due to land at dawn risked being trapped inside their beachhead. If that happened, the SS Panzer divisions would be able to sweep across the bridges and drive those newly landed men back into the sea.

The men worked with clinical efficiency, aware that it was kill or be killed.

Among the young soldiers taking part in the mission was 19-year-old Denis Edwards. He looked far too young to be entrusted with such a hazardous mission. With his scrubbed cheeks and boyish grin, he might have been mistaken for a member of the Sea Cadets. Yet Denis Edwards was far from naïve and had no illusions as to the perils that lay ahead. "Terrifyingly dangerous" is how he described it. "There were so many possibilities for things to go badly wrong."

His young comrades in D Company were equally twitchy. "What if the Germans counter-attacked?" they asked. "What if the seaborne forces don’t break through the German defences in time?" The architects of the operation could provide few answers.

Like everything else on D-Day, the outcome would rest with those like Edwards, who were to do the fighting on the ground.

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About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.

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