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News > Remembrance & Tributes > Captain John Max and the British 6th Airborne Division on Operation Overlord ‘D Day’ 6th June 1944

Captain John Max and the British 6th Airborne Division on Operation Overlord ‘D Day’ 6th June 1944

All photographs provided by David Ward
All photographs provided by David Ward

1) Captain John H. Max

John H. Max was born in Haslar Naval Hospital, Portsmouth on the 10th March 1919. His father, David Max was a Royal Navy doctor born in New Zealand. Later he became a family practitioner in Wolverton, Buckinghamshire. John Max was educated at Belmont House School, Blackheath in London and at Cranbrook School, Cranbrook, Kent. Whilst at Cranbrook John was in the School’s Shooting team and Officers Training Corps. On leaving school he began a part-time degree course at the London School of Economics whilst working for the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

On the outbreak of the Second World War he joined the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment and was promoted to the rank of Captain. In January 1942 he passed as a military parachutist at Ringway (course 7) and in 1943 volunteered to join the newly formed Airborne Division. He became a General Staff Officer Intelligence (GSO3) in a newly formed G (Intelligence) Branch of the 6th Airborne Divisional Headquarters under the command of Major General RN ‘Windy’ Gale at Syrencot House in the village of Figheldean near Neatheravon.

2) Preparations for D Day

In early 1944 preparations for the D Day invasion intensified and John was involved in the detailed planning of the assault code named – Operation Tonga. He was part of a team led by Major Gerry Lacoste, (GSO2), together with Captain Freddie Scholes, Cpl Norman Ward, Lance Cpl Sid Ellis and Private Pat Piper (clerks), Cpl Taffy Jones and Lance Cpl Jack Forrest (attached draughtsmen), and Gunner Badger Mann (map storeman). They worked long hours carrying out extensive assessment of aerial reconnaissance of the 6th Airborne’s intended landing zones. Their activity was given the top-secret classification ‘bigot’. An important part of their task was to create a scale model of the landing area to visualise planning challenges and eventually to brief troops ahead of the invasion. The model still exists and is in the Parachute Regiment Museum.

A notable intelligence scare occurred in March 1944 when air reconnaissance photos revealed that German defensive operations had recently consisted of planting vertical sticks (nicknamed ‘Rommel’s asparagus’) in some of the Airborne landing zones. Briefly concerns about a security breach were raised. But these fears were allayed when further reconnaissance showed that similar sticks were also being planted further north away from the proposed landing sites and not based on any intelligence of Operation Tonga.

For an interesting account of the 6th Airborne’s intelligence activities see: ‘Worst Fears Confirmed’ by Graham Deeley, published in 2005 by Barny Books.

In early June the Divisional HQ transferred to a secure assembly area at Harwell airfield in Oxfordshire. It was in this period that the scale model of the landing site was shown to troops as they received their pre-invasion briefings. D Day was originally scheduled for 5th June but was postponed by 24 hours due to bad weather.

3) The 6th Airborne Division on D Day

The 6th Airborne role in the allied invasion – codenamed Operation Overlord - on the early morning of the 6th June 1944 was to secure the eastern flank of the landing beaches and prevent the risk of enemy counterattacks. The Division’s objectives and tasks were:

  • To secure and hold two bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal (Operation Deadstick – Coup de Main)
  • To secure and hold a firm base, including the above bridge heads, east of the River Orne
  • To neutralise a German coastal battery at Merville.
  • To prevent enemy reinforcements moving towards the British left flank from the south east.

Operation Tonga consisted of three phases.

Phase I was ‘Operation Deadstick’, the Coup de Main assault on the River Orne and Caen Canal bridges by six Horsa gliders taking off at 2256 hours on the 5th June from Tarrant Rushton airfield to Landing Zones X and Y. Led by Major John Howard of the 2nd Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, this famous action at ‘Pegasus Bridge’ was featured in the 1960’s movie ‘The Longest Day’.

Phase II sent advanced glider parties to Landing Zones ‘K’ & ‘V’; the latter carrying support equipment for dramatic and closely fought assault against the Merville battery led by Colonel Terence Otway of the Royal Ulster Rifles. A further 239 aircraft would drop paratroops and equipment containers on drop zones ‘N’ ‘K’ & ‘V’.

Phase III included the landing of three Horsa gliders onto the Merville battery, and the arrival of General Richard Gale and the 6th Airborne Divisional HQ to Landing Zone ‘N’ at Ranville by 0320 hours. This involved a total 68 Horsa Gliders sent from three airfields; Brize Norton, Tarrant Rushton, and Harwell (6 miles S of Abingdon, Oxfordshire).

The Divisional HQ (including John) was to fly from Harwell in 21 Gliders (Chalk Numbers (CN) 70 to 90) towed by Albermarle tug aircraft of 295 Squadron. The Harwell Gliders were due to cross the English coast over Littlehampton and Worthing. Having followed a flight path across the Channel to the west of Le Havre, the gliders were to cross the Normandy coast by Landing Stream Left and at 1,500 feet release from their tugs and descend to LZ ‘N’ at Ranville.

General Gale in Glider CN 70 took off at 0128 hours. By 0144 hours all 21 were airborne in low cloud and rain. Weather conditions moderated over the English Channel, but a strong cross wind was blowing across the LZ. Pilots also reported heavy flak once they crossed the French coast. Visibility was poor due to lack of moonlight, low cloud, and smoke (caused by bombing raids on the Merville battery). Fifteen of the 21 landed successfully on the LZ.

For an excellent book about the 6th Airborne’s role in D Day see: ‘Operation Tonga, The Glider Assault: 6 June 1944 by Kevin Shannon and Stephen Wright, published in 2014 by Fonthill Media (

4) Glider CN 74 and the Chateau de Grangues

John was flying in Glider CN 74 (LH 475) from Harwell. He was accompanied by Lance Corporal Sydney Ellis of the Royal Army Service Corp and four members of the Royal Signals, L/Cpl. W.D. Ainsley, Sgmn. F.L. Howarth, Sgmn. F.W. Martin and Cpl. A.D. MacDonald. John was seated behind the pilot and ahead of the glider’s load which included a Jeep, Trailer and Motorcycle. The glider pilots were Sgt Barry Powell, (1st Pilot) and S/Sgt Duncan Wright, (2nd Pilot) - both from A Sqn Army Air Corps. The Glider was towed by an Albermarle Tug of 295 Squadron (flown by Pilot Officer Peel). CN 74 took off from Harwell at approximately 0130 hours. Evidently the Glider (like many others that night) experienced severe difficulties in finding the Landing Stream to LZ ‘N’. The combination of low visibility, flak and high winds sent the glider well off course to the East of the River Dives. At approx 3.20, after being hit by flak Glider 74 crash landed into trees in the grounds of the Chateau de Grangues, near the hamlet of Grangues some 3.5 miles south-east of Cabourg. John and Barry Powell were both killed in the crash.

An eyewitness account of the crash was provided after the war by Corporal MacDonald who had been sitting next to John in the glider: “I do not remember much of the crash as I was hit by flak which took one of my feet off and when I regained consciousness I was lying on a road about five yards from the glider. All I could see was the remains of the glider and Captain Max staggering around it. He then collapsed onto a wing and fell to the ground. I didn’t see him move again. Around 07.00 hours I was captured by 8 German Infantry, who robbed me and then went over to the glider. Ainsley, Martin and Ellis had minor wounds and went to a Stalag around 25th June. Howarth and I were prisoners in a hospital in Paris until recaptured by the Americans on the 27th August. I enquired from Howarth about the pilots and he said they were both lying crushed and dead under the glider”.

In fact Duncan Wright survived the crash and taken prisoner but shot by German soldiers of the 744th Grenadier Regiment of the 711th Infantry Division that were bivouaced in the grounds of the Chateau - see war crime section below.

At around the same time another Glider from Harwell (CN 90) also crashed in the grounds of the Chateau. It came down vertically into trees killing all on board. The Glider contained three men from Division HQ and a Forward Observation Party, consisting of an RA Officer and two RN telegraphists, which had been due to direct the fire of a cruiser offshore. The victims were Capt Robert A Hunter, Royal Artillery, Tel Spencer C Porter, Royal Navy, Pte WP Piper, Royal Army Service Corps, L/Cpl W. Winfield, Royal Ulster Rifles, L/Cpl S.A. Davies, Corps. of Military Police, Tel. A.F. Martin, Royal Navy, and Glider Pilots Lt John L. Bromley and S/Sgt Roy Luff.

Earlier that evening two Stirling bombers (EF 295 and EJ116) had also crashed close to the Chateau. EJ 116 carried six aircrew and nineteen parachutists (14 men of 7th Para Bn and 5 men from 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment). All were killed when the Stirling crashed heavily into a field about 400m from the Chateau. EF 295 carried six aircrew and 15 men of 591 Para Sqn RE and two Royal Engineers. Four of the aircrew and four of the Paras were killed in the crash. The others were taken prisoner. (A fascinating survivors account from one of the Stirling bombers written by Lieutenant John S Shinner, Intelligence Officer, RE can be read here:

5) War Crime at the Chateau de Grangues

Later that night, at the Chateau, seven survivors of EF 295 and Pilot Duncan Wright of Glider 74 were shot by the Grenadiers of the 744 regiment under the command of Stabsfeldwebel Hermann Vieseler. On 10 March 1945 a Court of Inquiry was held into the alleged atrocity. Earlier witness statements had been taken by the owner of the Chateau, the Count de Noblet and his employees which confirmed that the eight British soldiers had been captured and seen alive in the night by the Chateau’s stable block but had been shot early in the morning. In January 1945 a British medical team formally identified the bodies and autopsies revealed that seven had been shot through the heart and one through the head. The Court of Inquiry recommended that Vieseler be put on trial for the murderer of the British soldiers. However he was never found and no trial ever took place. All the papers from the Inquiry can be found at the following website:

6) Memorial Stele in Grangues

Today the village has a memorial to all the soldiers and air crew that died there on the 6th June. A stele listing the names of all the soldiers killed on 6th June at Grangues was inaugurated during the 50th anniversary of D Day in 1994. In the village school there is also a permanent exhibition including a photograph of John and some wreckage from the gliders. Initially all the soldiers killed in Grangues were buried in the grounds of the Chateau but by 1946 they had been moved to Ranville British Cemetery. This cemetery contains most of the members of the 6th Airborne Division that died D-Day and in the subsequent weeks and months of fighting. John is buried there in Section IVA, Row H, Position 20. After the war, John’s mother, Mrs Mary Max made contact with the de Noblet family that lived in the Chateau at Grangues. Their conceierge sent her a moving description of the events that place there - See below:

Letter to Mrs M.E.Max from Mrs L. Gauthe 13 July 1945

I received your letter with the photos and we all recognised your dear John. The young Red Cross nurses who helped at the graveside wanted to have one each so I divided them without asking you if you wanted them back. If you should really require them, we shall send them to you. This is what happened since my letter to you. The bodies were taken out of the graves for investigation so we saw your dear son’s body again. I asked the Doctor to pay special attention to Cap Max’s body and to tell me exactly how it was. He was very kind and allowed me to come quite close to him so as to see for myself that it was quite perfect. He and his men surely died when the glider fell on the trees quite close to here. He had no ring on his finger when we found him. The enemy was here at that time and did not allow us to go near the glider for two days. So during that time the poor men were robbed of all their belongings. There was a quantity of photos and letters on the ground which we picked up and sent to the Red Cross. But of course we didn’t know at that time whose they were. We buried the men during a terrible air battle and we had to shelter several times (I hope you will understand my English. I’m afraid it is not quite correct). Then about six weeks ago, Cap Max’s Colonel came here to see his grave and he told me he would write to you immediately. He tried to photograph the grave as we did ourselves but did not succeed as there is too much shade. Now the place is empty as the bodies were taken to a cemetery about 20 miles from here. We are so sorry not to have them anymore. We were used to go every day and take them flowers. I just read over one of your letters in which you say that you had so many different versions on your dear son’s death. Rest assured that this is the only real one. He as well as his companions were all in the glider. I shall ask if it is allowed to send a list of the names. Perhaps you could give news of them to their families. We also nursed 38 men who were wounded but I can’t say from which machines they fell as we were not allowed to question them. They were taken away taken away immediately by the enemy to prison. I am sure that I wrote you all this news already perhaps it is forbidden to do so and that the letter was destroyed, I hope this one will pass and that I shall soon have a reply from you. Perhaps it is better not to send the list of names in this letter so that you will be sure to receive it. It was I who read all the identification discs, so there is no mistake about them. I touched all their hands and said goodbye to them for their dear mothers and families. It was cruel for us to see those fine men who came over to liberate us, all being dead. After that we had a terrible time for two months in cave. Count de Noblet and family all join in sending our very best wishes. We shall always be glad to hear from you.

L Gauthe, Grangues, Dives-sur-Mer, Calvados, France

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