Ted Tappenden was born on the 20th February 1915 at Chatham Kent, a town situated on the River Medway, and famous for its naval links. He grew up on Chatham Hill, a very steep hill leading from the naval basin and it was there that he would meet Florrie. They married at St Augustine’s church, on the very top of the hill in the summer of 1937. Two years later, war was declared against Nazi Germany and on the 25th June 1940, Ted was called up into the army ‘for the duration of the present emergency,’ given a serial number (5386727) and travelled to Oxford to join the 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. This turned out to be a very fateful decision.
There he was placed in D Company under the command of Major John Howard, an officer who had risen through the ranks and was determined to make his company the very best in the battalion. As a result John Howard was summoned and told that D Company would form the basis of a crucial and secret mission as part of the 6th Airborne Division. The mission was so important, that it was classified as Bigot (higher than Top Secret). John Howard immediately began to prepare his men to the very highest level of physical, mental and military fitness, part of their training included learning how to use Horsa gliders. The Horsa carried twenty eight soldiers and their equipment, plus two pilots from the Glider Pilot Regiment who flew and navigated the glider with the minimum of controls – an altimeter, air speed indicator, compass and stop watch. The fully loaded Horsa (made only from wood and fabric) could only land in what was described as a ‘controlled crash.’
On the evening of the 5th June 1944, six gliders tugged by Halifax bombers left Tarrant Rushton in Dorset and joined a large bomber force within which they ‘hid’. The Horsa was about the same size as the bombers and it was hoped that their presence would not be noted. Their targets were the two bridges close to each other across the Caen Canal and the River Orne in Normandy. Their mission was to capture and hold both bridges until relieved. The bridges were vital to the success of the D-Day invasion in that not only would they allow the Allies to cross and fight their way into Occupied France, but if captured and held they would deny the two German Panzer Divisions in the area from crossing and attacking the beachhead, a situation that might have stalled or even caused the invasion by sea to fail.
At sixteen minutes after midnight on the 6th June 1944, the first glider (carrying Ted) landed exactly as planned (within fifty metres of the bridge over the Caen Canal that they were to attack, now known as Pegasus Bridge after the Pegasus badge of the Airborne Forces). This was later described by Air Vice Marshal Leigh-Mallory as the greatest feat of flying in World War Two. Within ten minutes both bridges were captured intact. This is said by some to have been the most important ten minutes of the war.
Ted’s main role was as wireless operator and on capturing the bridges he sent the now iconic success signal ‘Ham and Jam’ to the British paratroopers about to jump nearby. This earned him the nickname of Ted ‘Ham and Jam’ Tappenden for the rest of his life. Despite being surrounded and heavily counter-attacked they managed to hold on until relieved by the Commandos fighting their way inland from the sea.
In September 1944, they returned to England. Of the original 168 men who had landed by glider only 40 remained.