IN THE darkness before dawn on D-Day, the air about ten miles inland from the beaches was full of paratroopers and gliders being dropped quietly behind enemy lines in a surprise preparatory attack.

Among them was Sgt Harry Walker, a Co-op worker from Stockton.

The mission – Operation Tonga – had three objectives.

Firstly, it had to secure two bridges – one over the Orne River and the other over the Caen canal which is now called Pegasus Bridge after the paratroopers’ flying horse emblem – so that men coming off the beaches could easily cross over them.

Secondly, they had to destroy five other bridges to prevent the Germans launching a counter attack against the beach landings.

And thirdly, they had to take out the Merville gun battery, just to the east of Caen. This powerful emplacement, it was thought, could bombard Sword beach with its big guns and inflict terrible damage on the soldiers as they landed. Sgt Walker was despatched to land his glider right beside the battery so his 21 soldiers could storm it.

But just as the Germans had prepared the beaches with defences to stop a seaborne invasion, so they had prepared the fields of northern France to deter an airborne attack.

In them, they had planted 'Rommel’s asparagus' – sharpened wooden poles 12ft tall, often armed with a hand grenade or a mine, and joined together by wire, making it impossible for gliders to land in the fields.

It is estimated that, following orders from Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in early 1944, a million poles – or Rommelspargel – were erected in the coastal fields of France and the Netherlands.

Therefore the first paratroopers were dropped shortly after midnight to capture the two bridges and with them came the first pathfinders, whose job it was to ensure that the landing zones were safe for the gliders and then to light them so the pilots could find them.

The Horsa gliders, made out of wood, were towed behind bombers over the English Channel and released at about 6,000ft to glide down into the landing zone.

Dropping parachutists tended to sprinkle them over a wide area whereas a glider could accurately land its cargo, of up to 30 men plus heavy machinery like a tank, at the right spot. Gliders were also silent, so the enemy wasn’t alerted to their presence, and they were usually regarded as single use – unlike an expensive plane which needed an airfield to land on.

In more recent conflicts, the helicopter has replaced the glider.

Sgt Harry Walker was a second pilot on one of three gliders that were due to land at 4.30am on D-Day and provide reinforcements for the paratroopers who were attacking the Merville gun battery.

Those paratroopers had been blown off course by the wind, and much of their weaponry and supplies – dropped separately – had been lost. Many men and machines had ended up landing in the fields that had been deliberately flooded to deter landings.

Therefore, the reinforcements were absolutely vital if the battery were to be silenced before the men started landing on the beaches at about 6.30am.

Harry had grown up in Lanehouse Road, near Thornaby swimming pool, and worked at the Co-op in Oxbridge Lane before joining the regular army. At some point, he volunteered to train as a glider pilot.

Training was intense.

In the months before D-Day the pilots spent hours in their unpowered gliders, proving they could land them in an exact position, first of all by day and then by night. They were bombarded with maps, models and photographs so they could acquaint themselves with all the details of the terrain they were gliding into – the reconnaissance photos were even stitched together into a colour film which was played at the speed it was thought the pilots would be going to simulate their approaches.

On leave, Harry married his sweetheart, Phyllis, much against his parents’ wishes – they were concerned what might happen if he didn’t come home…

On D-Day Harry was in glider CN 27 – the CN stood for 'chalk number' as each glider had a number chalked on its side. The pilot was Staff Sgt David 'Dickie' Fisher Kerr, from Lancashire.

They took off from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire at 2.29am and were towed by an Albermarle bomber over the Channel. They were released without incident – one of the three gliders heading with them for Merville had its tow-rope snapped by the weather so it had to land in England – and they arrived over the landing zone (LZ) at 4.24am.

However, they found it hard to see their zone. Low cloud and smoke obscured it, and many of the pathfinders’ Eureka lights had been damaged in their descent or had been destroyed by an off-target RAF air raid that had been meant to hit the battery.

Therefore, CN27 made five circuits in its attempt to ascertain its LZ, each time coming under fire from anti-aircraft guns.

It was hit several times, four of its soldiers being injured and its wooden frame catching fire.

But somehow, at 4.43am, Dickie and Harry managed to get their blazing machine down, a crash landing, only 50 yards from where they were meant to be.

“They landed short of the LZ, on the edge of an orchard and next to a minefield,” says Michael Thompson, of Stockton, who has researched the story of Harry, his mother’s cousin. “Dickie Kerr was thrown through the Perspex window and landed in a bomb crater while Harry was left hanging in his seat.

“Immediately, they were involved in a skirmish with some German troops who were returning to the battery.”

CN27 was, though, closer than the second glider which came down more than a mile away.

The troops on the ground took the gliders’ unorthodox arrivals as the signal for them to storm the battery. At heavy cost – 50 dead and 25 injured, so half of their force out of action – they succeeded in doing so.

However, once inside rather than discovering fearsome guns that could have wiped out the invaders on the beaches, they discovered Czech-made weapons that last saw active service during the First World War. Still – the guns were disarmed.

Similarly, the rest of Operation Tonga was a success, despite desperately awry landings.

The two bridges were secured within 15 minutes of the first wave of landings shortly after midnight, but because paratroopers were dotted all over the place, the real struggle was gathering the men together and holding onto the bridges as the Germans regrouped.

In an equally haphazard way the five targeted bridges were also destroyed, and by 7pm, the first soldiers from the beaches had reached those who had been dropped from the air to relieve them, although it would still take many days of close fighting before the area was secure.

Harry Walker and Dickie Kerr took part in this fighting, but, as valuable and skilled fliers, this was not their battle and their instructions were to go against the flow and head down to the beaches. There, within days, they were picked up and taken back to Britain.

They were awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for landing their damaged glider with such accuracy.

And then they began preparing for the next operation – an operation that would cost both fliers their lives.

In September 1944, they shared a glider that safely landed a Polish field gun and troops in Arnhem during Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, but later in the day’s fighting, both were injured.

Dickie died in Kate ter Horst’s house – as seen in the film A Bridge Too Far, Kate treated in her house about 250 British airmen who were injured in the landings and cared for those who were dying. Dickie would have been buried nearby, but his body was never discovered.

Harry, with wounds to his head, was captured but he died in a PoW hospital in Apeldoorn and is buried in Oosterbeck.

His name is carved on Thornaby’s massive war memorial, and beside it, in acknowledgement of his highly unusual contribution to the success of D-Day, it says: Glider Regiment.

L With many thanks to Michael Thompson for his information and pictures.

AMONG the first wave of gliders to land on D-Day were those belonging to the 12th Battalion (Yorkshire) Parachute Regiment, who came down shortly after midnight with orders to capture the village of La Bas de Ranville on the outskirts of Caen.

This battalion had been the 10th (East Riding) Green Howards until the spring of 1943 when it was suddenly converted into a glider force, with its infantrymen discovering that, almost overnight, that they had become airborne troops.

They had a spell training in Richmond and Middlesbrough before going to airfields in the south to practice their landings.

Their stories are told in the Green Howards Museum in Richmond. For example, their chaplain, the Reverend JO Jenkins – known as 'the parachuting padre' – jumped with them but got caught in the plane’s undercarriage.

There he hung for 20 minutes until he could be rescued.

He was pulled back into the plane then ordered the pilot to return to the drop zone so he could safely complete his descent.

He didn’t carry weaponry, only a copy of the Bible, a prayer book, a communion set and a small first aid kit. On the Sunday after D-Day, he was seen dashing about under heavy fire so that he could help all the groups of his men with their prayers.