Former comrades unite to pay tribute to great leader

8:30am Saturday 7th June 2014

By Andrew Ffrench

IN their regimental berets, with medals decorating their blazers, D-Day veterans gathered in an Oxfordshire churchyard to honour one of the Second World War’s greatest heroes.

The ceremony at St Michael and All Angels Church, Clifton Hampden, near Abingdon, yesterday was organised by the Oxford branch of The Royal Green Jackets Association, to honour Major John Howard, who died aged 86 in 1999.

Major Howard lived nearby in Burcot, with his wife Joy. They are both buried in the churchyard, where about 100 people gathered on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

In a service conducted by the Rev Anne Ilsley, those gathered at the graveside sang Abide With Me, and a bugler played The Last Post.

In the early hours of June 6, 1944, Maj Howard led 180 troops of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, attached to the 6th Airborne Division.

They captured the River Orne bridge at Ranville, and the bridge across the Caen canal at Benouville – later renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of the troops who wore the Pegasus insignia. They were the first Allied troops on French soil.

At Pegasus Bridge, the Germans were taken by surprise as Horsa gliders landed just metres from their target at 16 minutes past midnight.

The airborne division then held the bridge until they were relieved by troops making their way inland from the Normandy beaches.

On July 16, 1944, Maj Howard – D company commander of the 2nd Battalion Ox and Bucks – received the Distinguished Service Order, Britain’s second highest award for bravery, and on the 10th anniversary of D-Day he received the Croix de Guerre Avec Palme from the French government.

His cousin, Derek Chivers, laid a wreath at the grave at 12.16pm.

Among veterans at the graveside was Sam Langford, 91, from Didcot.

Mr Langford was in the 5th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, when he landed on Juno Beach on D-Day.

He said: “What they achieved at Pegasus Bridge was wonderful.

“After D-Day I was with Major Howard in the Ox and Bucks and he was my commander – I am very glad that I could make it here today.”

Mr Langford was joined by Bob Halliday, 94, from Didcot, who was in the Royal Engineers when he took part in the D-Day landings at Sword Beach.

The former Sapper said he thoroughly enjoyed the ceremony. He added: “There was a lad standing at the side of us watching. I asked if he was the gardener but he said he was a nurse at the John Radcliffe. He stayed for the whole day and helped me in and out of the church. It was lovely.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Lawrence, 82, from Iffley, who served with the Royal Army Medical Corps, and was attached to the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry and the Royal Green Jackets, said: “I knew Major Howard – he was a great leader. It’s a very fitting tribute as he commanded the unit which took the bridges over the Caen canal and the Orne.

“They took the bridges almost without a shot fired – Major Howard’s DSO was well deserved.”

During the service, Major Terry Roper, chairman of the Oxford branch of the Royal Green Jackets Association, received a text message from General Sir Robert Pascoe, a former Commander of the 1st Battalion Royal Green Jackets in Northern Ireland, which said: “We have honoured John Howard and his heroic comrades at Pegasus Bridge.

“We salute you who are gathered likewise at his final resting place.”

The text was also from Major Howard’s daughter, Penny Howard Bates, as she attended the commemoration in Normandy.

A class of pupils aged 10 and 11 from Clifton Hampden Primary School joined veterans as they have been studying the Second World War.

Following the service in the churchyard, Brian Cox, 79, from Wheatley, laid a wreath at a memorial inside the church for the men from the village who died during the two world wars.

Mr Cox was in the 1st Battalion of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry from 1954-56.

He said: “John Howard was one of the great heroes of the regiment.”

Oxfordshire Royal British Legion chairman Jim Lewendon was also at the service.

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