THE AIRBORNE ASSAULT
While Task Force U was still approaching the Transport Area, the first blows had already struck the enemy from the air. The intensive air bombardment of the invasion area had started about midnight, 5 June. At that time RAF bombers made intensive attacks on the known enemy batteries along the entire invasion coast. Shortly before H Hour medium bombers of the Ninth Air Force dropped several hundred tons of bombs on enemy defences at Utah Beach in support of the seaborne assault. Between these bombings, however, came the still more telling attacks by airborne infantry.
It was the largest use of airborne troops up to that time. Paratrooper elements of the 82d and 101st Divisions, comprising 6 regiments, with the normal complement of parachute field artillery and engineers, numbering more than 13,000 men, were flown from bases in southern England to the Cotentin Peninsula in approximately 925 C-47’s. An additional 4,000 men, consisting of glider infantry with supporting weapons and medical and signal units, were to arrive in 500 gliders later on D Day and on D plus 1 to reinforce the Para troops. Seaborne echelons were to join the divisions on D plus 1. To the parachute troops was assigned what was probably the most difficult task of the initial operation—a night jump behind enemy lines five hours before the coastal landings.
At 2215 on D minus 1, 432 C-47’s began taking off from 7 departure airdromes in England, with 6,600 paratroops of the 101st Airborne Division. They were scheduled to begin dropping at H minus s hours. At dawn (H minus 2 hours) they were to be reinforced by approximately 150 glider troops from 51 gliders, and at dusk (H plus 15 hours) by an additional 165 in 32 gliders. Preceding the main echelons of paratroops by half an hour were 20 pathfinder aircraft which had the mission of marking six drop zones (for both divisions) and one landing zone. Marking of the zones was not entirely successful, but all of the pathfinder teams carried out at least part of their missions.
Paratroop echelons approached the Cotentin from the west and made their landfall in the vicinity of les Pieux (Map No. 2). Formations were tight until reaching the coast, but from the coast to the Merderet cloud banks loosened the formations, and east of the Merderet flak scattered them further. In general the division did not have a good drop, although better than that of the 82d Airborne Division (Map V). About 1,500 troops were either killed or captured and approximately 60 percent of the equipment dropped was lost when the bundles fell into swamps or into fields covered by enemy fire. Only a fraction of the division’s organized strength could initially be employed on the planned missions, and many of the missions carried out were undertaken by mixed groups which did not correspond with original assignments.
The fifty-one Waco gliders, carrying command personnel and antitank weapons, came in early on D-Day morning. This type of landing had never been attempted before in darkness. Many gliders were wrecked as they landed in the small Normandy fields and there as damage to equipment and loss of personnel, one of the casualties being Brig. Gen. Don F. Pratt (Assistant Commander, 101st Airborne Division), who was killed in landing. In general, however, losses were not excessive and the mission was a success. Later in the day, at 2100, the serial of thirty-two Horsa gliders—carrying command, communications, and medical personnel and equipment—suffered heavier losses in personnel and gliders because of the unsuitability of the small landing fields. Equipment suffered relatively little damage. A seaborne echelon of the division, including the 3 27th Glider Infantry, joined the division on D plus 1.
The initial widespread dispersion of the 101st Division was not an unmixed evil. The Germans appear to have been confused by the scattered drops. For some time they were unable to estimate the magnitude of the invasion and, in consequence, reaction was slow and uncertain. The war diary of the German Seventh Army noted at 0130, 6 June, reports of Allied paratroop landings east and northwest of Caen, at St. Maricove, at Montebourg, on both sides of the Vire River, and on the east coast of the Cotentin Peninsula. Fighting was reported at le Ham. For several hours the German command was uncertain whether the landings represented a major action. At 0400 it was estimated that the American plan seemed to be to “tie off the Cotentin Peninsula at its narrowest point.”
Uncertainty at the enemy command level seemed to have been duplicated among the subordinate units. It was generally the experience of the 101st Airborne Division, at least, that although the enemy defended freely with fire he was initially reluctant to move out of his prepared defenses to attack. When attacks were launched they were seldom pushed vigorously. Thus in some measure the enemy’s confusion tended to offset that of the invaders and, by dint of considerable improvisation, the 101st was able to accomplish most of its initial missions.
The plan of the 101st Airborne Division called for the seizure of the four inland exits—the western ends of causeways-from the inundated area west of Utah Beach between St. Martin-de-Varreville and Pouppeville (Map II). In the southern part of the division’s sector two bridges across the Douve River, on the main highway northwest of Carentan and the railroad bridge to the west, were to be destroyed. In addition, the division was to seize and hold the la Barquette lock and establish two bridgeheads over the Douve at le Port northeast of Carentan. The sum of these missions thus provided for the clearing of the enemy’s secondary beach defenses and the organization of the Corps’ southern flank for defense and further exploitation. After being relieved in the beachhead area by the 4th Division, the 101st was to seize Carentan and establish contact with V Corps, fusing the Utah and Omaha beachheads. Thereafter the 101st Airborne Division was ordered to protect the southern flank of VII Corps east of the Merderet River. The division would be reinforced by the attachment of a company of tanks of the 70th Tank Battalion, the 65th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, and a troop of the 4th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron when these were landed by sea.
Fighting for the Northern Beach Exits
The task of securing the two northern beach exits was assigned to the 502d Parachute Infantry, with the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion. The 502d was to drop immediately to the west of Exits 3 and 4 in Drop Zone A. The 2d Battalion was to capture and destroy the coastal battery at St. Martin-de-Varreville as quickly as possible. The 3d Battalion was to support this operation, if necessary, and then secure Exits 3 and 4 so that the 4th Division could come up the causeways at H Hour. The 2d Battalion was to remain on the gun position as regimental reserve and establish contact with the 506th Parachute Infantry on its right. The 1st Battalion was to clean up a group of buildings, thought to be the German artillery garrison quarters, just west of St. Martin-de-Varreville. It was also to cover the northern flank of the regiment, establish contact with the 82d Airborne Division on the left, and cover the emplacing of the 377th Glider Field Artillery Battalion guns.
The four serials of the 502d Parachute Infantry came in ten minutes apart. The 2d Battalion led with regimental headquarters, followed by the 3d, the 1st, and the artillery battalion.
The 2d Battalion failed to land in Drop Zone A as planned. A large percentage of the men came down on the southern edge of Drop Zone C. Assembly, without landmarks and far from the designated assembly points, consumed most of the day, and the battalion as a unit took no part in the D-Day fighting.
Lt. Col. Robert G. Cole, commanding the 3d Battalion, landed several hundred yards east of Ste. Mère-Eglise (Map No. 3). Unable to orient himself, he moved toward Ste. Mère-Eglise, collecting a miscellaneous group of about thirty men from regimental headquarters, Company G of the 506th Parachute Infantry, and a few from the 82d Airborne Division. From Ste. Mère-Eglise the men back-tracked north and then northeast, heading for the two northern exits of the beach. On the way the group snowballed to about seventy-five men and made contact with a small enemy convoy. Several of the enemy were killed and ten taken prisoner. This was the only incident of the march.
On nearing St. Martin-de-Varreville, a reconnaissance party was sent to the enemy coastal battery. It found that the position had been destroyed by bombing and was deserted. *1* No heavy guns were found, although there was ammunition in the pits and, antiaircraft guns, including some multiple 20-mm. mounts. Colonel Cole then split his force to seize Exits 3 and 4 and dispatched a small group of men to seek contact with the 506th Parachute Infantry. At 0930, two hours after the defense was established at Exit 3, in the vicinity of Audouville-la-Hubert, the enemy began retreating across the causeway from the beach. Colonel Cole’s men, without loss to themselves, killed 50 to 75 of the enemy, and at 1300 established contact with the 1st Battalion of the 8th Infantry (4th Division). By the end of the day 250 men had gathered under Colonel Cole. That night his battalion was ordered to assemble the next day in the vicinity of Blosville, south of Ste. Mère-Eglise, as regimental reserve.
*1* The St. Martin-de-Varreville position had been a considerable worry to the planners. It had been bombed during the night of 28-29 May, when 356 tons of bombs were dropped by the RAF Bomber Command. Photo reconnaissance, later confirmed by captured German documents, showed heavy damage. Nevertheless, this battery was included among the RAF targets for the night attack of 5-6 June.
The 1st Battalion, 502d Parachute Infantry (Lt. Col. Patrick J. Cassidy), had a much stiffer fight for its D-Day objectives. Colonel Cassidy landed near St. Germain-de-Varreville in the center of the battalion’s drop one and a mile from the first objective-the artillery garrison buildings designated as “WXYZ” in the plan. He gradually collected a small force, mostly from his own battalion, and after discovery of a road sign began moving toward the objective. Objective W, the house at the crossroads west of St. Martin-de-Varreville, was unoccupied. Colonel Cassidy set up his command post in the house and then checked the enemy gun position across the road. There he found a dozen men under Lt. Col. Steve A. Chappuis (commander of the 2d Battalion); Colonel Chappuis, though injured in the jump, had been able to reach his objective. He had decided to wait at the gun position for more of his men. Colonel Cassidy proceeded with his own mission. His plan was, first, to establish defenses at the St. Martin-de-Varreville intersection to prevent the enemy from moving east into the beach area, and then to clean out the XYZ buildings and set up a defensive line to the north.
A patrol sent to check Exit 4 found both it and the causeway clear. The 3d Battalion, in the meantime, reported Exit 3 covered, and Colonel Cassidy, after relaying this information to the 4th Division, turned his attention to consolidating the battalion position. Several groups from Company A assembled north of St. Martin-de-Varreville during the morning. Forty-five men were collected by Lt. W. A. Swanson and ordered to move to Foucarville to establish the right anchor of the battalion line with a series of road blocks. Lieutenant Swanson set up four blocks shortly after noon and within half an hour he trapped and largely destroyed a 4-vehicle enemy troop convoy moving east from Beuzeville-au-Plain. Despite this success, Company A’s positions were not secure as they were dominated by the enemy on the hill to the northwest. The Germans, however, made no determined effort to break through, although a fire fight continued most of the day as the enemy probed at the road blocks without discovering their essential weakness.
Meanwhile the fight at XYZ was carried on most of the day by a mixed group of men under Sergeant Summers, while Company C was held in reserve. It was not an easy task. Not until 1530 were the Germans driven out of the last building, after its roof was fired with bazooka rounds. More than one hundred were killed or taken prisoner as they tried to escape. Another fifty had been killed or captured earlier in the fight.
The establishment of the western end of the battalion line was facilitated by the arrival in the area of Lt. Col. John H. Michaelis, regimental commander, with two hundred men. This left Colonel Cassidy free to move the 1st Battalion north and complete his D-Day mission. Company C was ordered to Beuzeville-au-Plain, while Company B reassembled in the artillery barracks area.
Actually Beuzeville-au-Plain was not reached that night. Company C moved in a body north to St. Germain-de-Varreville and then west along a stream bed toward its objective. A little more than halfway the company split into three “platoons,” no more than combat patrols in strength. Each of these platoons became involved separately with small enemy forces at the hamlet of Fournel, which the leading group had mistaken for Beuzeville-au-Plain. At dark the paratroopers withdrew, and a company line was established south of Fournel, facing northwest.
During the night the line was subjected to continuing enemy pressure from the west. To cope with this threat, Colonel Cassidy put Company B, which had moved north after reassembling, into the line on the left flank. As there was still a dangerous gap between Company C and the battalion’s right flank held by Company A, Colonel Cassidy filled it temporarily with a few spare riflemen and asked Regiment for help. Regiment, however, had already decided to pass the 2d Battalion through the 1st on the following day, and therefore ordered Colonel Cassidy to withdraw and consolidate.
Shortly before midnight the principal enemy threat was unexpectedly removed when the Germans on the hill opposing Company A hoisted a white flag. Bluffed into overestimating Company A’s strength, chiefly by the increasing volume of mortar and machine-gun fire laid down by Lieutenant Swanson’s men, eighty-seven Germans marched into the American lines. Another fifty, attempting to escape north, were shot down by American prisoners who had been freed by the surrender.
Capture of the Southern Beach Exits
Regimental headquarters and the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 506th Parachute Infantry (Col. Robert L. Sink) were to land in Drop Zone C, between Hiesville and Ste. Marie-du-Mont; the 3d Battalion, together with a platoon of the 326th Engineer Battalion and two demolitions sections, was to land in Drop Zone D, between Vierville and Bse. Addeville (Map No. 4). The 506th Infantry had a dual mission-to seize the western edge of the inundated area back of Utah Beach between Audouville-la-Hubert and Pouppeville (including Exits 1 and 2), and to defend the line of the Douve within its sector, capturing the two bridges near the mouth of the Douve at le Port and establishing a bridgehead over the Douve at this point for subsequent use by the division. The bridges were to be prepared for demolition.
These missions were broken down as follows. The 2d Battalion, with one demolitions section, was to seize the two southern exits to the causeways. The battalion was to assemble at Hébert; Company F was to go to Pouppeville and secure Exit 1; Company E, to Houdienville and secure Exit 2; and Company D was to remain at Hébert with battalion headquarters as reserve. The 1st Battalion was to assemble at Hiesville and together with Regimental Headquarters Company constitute the regimental reserve. A reinforced platoon from Company B was to be sent to the south of Ste. Marie-du-Mont to create a diversion and draw the attention of enemy forces there. The 3d Battalion was to seize the two eastern bridges and cross the river to secure a bridgehead at le Port.
In the flight from England and the landings in the respective drop zones on the peninsula, the 506th Parachute Infantry’s experience was similar to that of the 502d. The 126 planes cleared the English coast in good weather shortly after midnight, but when they approached the French coast, fog, and later flak, forced the dispersal of the formation, which resulted in a widely scattered drop (Map V). The 3d Battalion had a good pattern in Drop Zone D, but the 2d Battalion was completely out of its zone. Of eighty-one planes scheduled to drop troops in Drop Zone C, only ten found their mark. Yet the resulting difficulties in assembling did not prove serious.
Within two hours of landing Colonel Sink had collected forty men of his headquarters near the rendezvous point. Near by, the 1st Battalion (Lt. Col. William L. Turner) was assembling slowly, and the whole group soon moved to Culoville, where the regiment established its command post. No word had been received of the 3d Battalion to the south, or the 2d Battalion, which should have landed in Drop Zone C to accomplish one of the regiment’s most critical missions-the seizure of the two southern exits. Colonel Sink wished the 1st Battalion to take over that mission, but, as Colonel Turner had only about fifty men, it seemed foolhardy to split the force and attempt to occupy both exits. Colonel Turner was therefore ordered to proceed only to Pouppeville and seize Exit 1.
About the same time, similar orders were given to the 3d Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry (Lt. Col. Julian Ewell), by the division commander, General Taylor, who had little knowledge of the whereabouts of his units and was particularly worried about the southern exits. The 3d Battalion had been designated originally as division reserve to land in Drop Zone C and protect the glider landing zone northwest of Hiesville.
Although the battalion serial had been scattered, like the others, because of fog and flak, and had lost three planes with three-fourths of their personnel to enemy antiaircraft fire, a substantial number of the men came down within the prescribed area and assembled without undue delay. Just south of Ste. Marie-du-Mont, Colonel Ewell dropped with ninety of his own men and sixty from division headquarters. Another 150 men of his battalion assembled near Hiesville and set up the division command post there as planned. Colonel Ewell, with elements of his battalion (forty men from line companies and some headquarters personnel), set out at 0600 for Pouppeville. General Taylor, Brig. Gen. Anthony J. McAuliffe (101st Airborne Division Artillery Commander), and eighteen other officers accompanied the column. The only enemy troops contacted on the march were six Germans at an outpost west of Ste. Marie-du-Mont.
Pouppeville was held by sixty to seventy men of the 1058th Regiment (91st Division). Colonel Ewell’s men attacked the town. Enemy resistance was not determined, but Colonel Ewell was handicapped by the smallness of his force, which prevented him from maneuvering to envelop the enemy. Three hours were thus consumed in slow house-to-house fighting. At noon the German commander surrendered. Colonel Ewell’s battalion had suffered eighteen casualties and inflicted twenty-five on the enemy. An additional thirty-eight Germans were taken prisoner.
Some of the enemy forces had withdrawn to the beach, but the approach of 8th Infantry, 4th Division, from that side made their position hopeless. Colonel Ewell heard the 4th Division coming, set up his machine guns, and waited for the nutcracker to close. The Germans surrendered to the 8th Infantry, and it was here, at Pouppeville, that Lt. Col. Carlton O. MacNeely (2d Battalion, 8th Infantry) and Colonel Ewell established the first contact between seaborne and airborne forces. In talking to 4th Division men at Pouppeville General Taylor learned for the first time that the 4th’s progress was rapid and that the Utah exits were secure. He thereupon decided to direct the 101st’s efforts to the second part of its mission-securing the Corps’ southern flank.
Meanwhile elements of the 1st Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry, under Colonel Turner, became engaged in a series of small fights and were thus delayed in their advance on Pouppeville. When they arrived, Colonel Ewell’s men had already occupied the town and the 4th Division was coming in across the causeway. Colonel Turner’s force therefore returned to the command post at Culoville.
While Exit 1 was being secured, the 2d Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry (Lt. Col. Robert L. Strayer), was advancing on Exit 2, although this was not known at regimental headquarters. The battalion had achieved a rapid assembly of about two hundred of its men, despite the handicap of a drop entirely out of its designated one. Some eighty men of battalion headquarters (including communications personnel and a machine gun platoon) and about one hundred men from the line companies, principally Company D, had gathered under the battalion S-2 and S-3 near Foucarville. They were joined by twenty men of the 508th Parachute Infantry (82d Airborne Division) and, at 0330, by Colonel Strayer with a group of fifteen men who had initially tied up with the 1st Battalion, 502d Parachute Infantry.
The consolidated force moved out about 0430, heading south. But it immediately met opposition from enemy troops which had moved between Foucarville and St. Germain-de-Varreville after the 1st Battalion, 502d Parachute Infantry, had passed to attack the XYZ buildings. Here Colonel Strayer’s men were held up most of the morning by machine-gun positions and interdictory artillery fire across the road. Part of Company D finally was able to bypass the resistance points and, hurrying south, reached Exit 2 at 1330. Colonel Strayer, with the remainder of the battalion, joined these men about an hour later, and by 1800 the battalion had organized the position at Houdienville. By that time, however, elements of the 4th Division and tanks of the 70th Tank Battalion had already crossed the causeway and were proceeding inland.
Throughout most of the day, regimental headquarters, 506th Parachute Infantry, at Culoville felt virtually alone on the peninsula. It had no contact with the 2d and 3d Battalions, little knowledge of other units of the division, and only sketchy information about the location and strength of the enemy. Its isolation was due in part to the scarcity of radio communication; a more important factor, however, was the small number of men which Colonel Sink had at his disposal and which he decided to keep together in order to protect the rear of the causeway forces and to provide a nucleus for further concentration of the regiment. During the morning he sent out a number of combat patrols to probe enemy dispositions and try to make contact with the 3d Battalion. The missions were not successful. Contact was made only with isolated enemy groups and did nothing to clear up the basic confusion.
At the same time that patrols were seeking out the enemy, actions were developing in the immediate vicinity of the command post. At Holdy, 1,000 yards northeast of Culoville, about seventy men of the 506th Parachute Infantry and the 82d Airborne Division had run into a previously unlocated enemy 105-mm. battery. They could make no headway against enemy defenses of the position, however, and asked for reinforcements. Colonel Sink gradually assembled an additional seventy or eighty men from the 1st Battalion at the command post and sent them up under Capt. Lloyd E. Patch of the 1st Battalion Headquarters Company and Capt. Knut H. Raudstein of Company C. When the reinforcements approached, the Germans withdrew to the earth revetments of the gun emplacements. Rockets were fired into the position, and after they had taken their toll Captains Patch and Raudstein moved the infantry in from two sides.
The battery had thus been overrun when a lieutenant of the 502d Parachute Infantry brought up from forty to fifty more reinforcements. Captain Patch turned over to them responsibility for outposting the guns and reassembled his own force to attack Ste. Marie-du-Mont from the west. The town was taken when elements of the 4th Division, which had crossed the causeway, entered from the east and squeezed out the enemy. While Captain Patch’s men were thus engaged, the lieutenant, doubtful of his ability to hold the gun position with so few men, began destruction of the battery. Meanwhile, Colonel Sink had sent word to save the guns, as he had little other artillery available. The order came in time to rescue only one of the four guns.
Before the patrols and various forces which Colonel Sink had sent out returned that evening, the colonel’s attention was drawn to the vulnerability of the command post itself. In mid-afternoon the sound of small arms came closer and closer. Twice he scraped together all the officers and men in the command post to hold back the Germans who pressed in from the surrounding hedgerows. When the forces of Colonel Strayer (2d Battalion) and Colonel Turner (1st Battalion) came in that evening, after being relieved by the 4th Division, Colonel Sink had a total of about 650 men, most of them from the 1st and 2d Battalions, but including also antitank personnel, men from the 82d Airborne Division, and scattered units of the 101st Airborne Division. There was still no contact with the 3d Battalion, and the whole situation to the south was vague and uncertain. Both General Taylor and General McAuliffe had visited the command post late in the afternoon en route from Pouppeville, and plans had been made to move south in the morning.
Securing the Southern Flank
Unknown to Colonel Sink, a small force from his 3d Battalion, of slightly more than platoon strength, had collected itself and proceeded to its objective. The 3d Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry, was to have landed in Drop one D, in the vicinity of Angoville-au-Plain, and to have seized the le Port bridges (Map No. 4). The enemy evidently anticipated a drop in the area. Shortly before the drop, heavy antiaircraft fire was encountered. An oil-soaked building near the drop field was set on fire and the paratroops were immediately hit by machine-gun and mortar fire. Some of the men landed in or at the edge of the swampy plain east of Angoville-au-Plain.
The battalion S-3, Capt. Charles G. Shettle, came down near Angoville-au-Plain and walked toward the town, looking for some of his men. He found only two other officers and twelve enlisted men. But his thoughts were centered on the bridges, and, without further attempting to build up his force, he set out for the objective. There were thirty-three in the group when the northern bridge at le Port was reached at 0430.
Despite some fire from the opposite shore, a crossing was made and the east bank occupied. When an additional five officers and fifteen men joined the “battalion,” Captain Shettle decided to cross the other bridge as well. Officers of Company H led patrols to the far bank, crossing under the bridge, and the command group followed. Although the bridgehead force killed some Germans and knocked out a few machine guns, after two hours the fight became unequal. The Americans ran low on ammunition and, having no contact with friendly forces, had no hope of reinforcing their position. They withdrew to the west bank to hold there for the remainder of the day.
Contact was made later with the group under Col. Howard R. Johnson (commanding the 501st Parachute Infantry) at the la Barquette dam, and Captain Shettle asked for reinforcements. But Colonel Johnson, who was in an equally precarious situation, could spare none. The best he could do was to promise help in case of emergency. The help that finally came, however, was fortuitous; that night forty men who had dropped farther south, in the Carentan area, walked in and joined the group. Actually the Germans made almost no effort to take advantage of Shettle’s weakness. In the middle of the night they tried a tentative push toward the bridge, which Shettle’s engineers had already prepared for demolition, but gave up in the face of American small-arms fire.
Captain Shettle had thus set up the left anchor of a defensive line along the division’s south flank. The completion of the division’s defensive line in the south was the mission of the 1st and 2d Battalions, 501st Parachute Infantry (Colonel Johnson). To carry it out the 1st Battalion was ordered to seize the lock on the Douve River at la Barquette, and the 2d Battalion (Lt. Col. Robert A. Ballard) to blow the Douve River bridges on the main road from St. Come-du-Mont to Carentan (Map No. 5). The regiment was also ordered to take St. Come-du-Mont, if possible, and to destroy the railroad bridge to the west. Of these objectives, the la Barquette lock had assumed a special importance in the eyes of the planners.
The lock, located due north of Carentan, controls the water level of the Douve River to the west as far as the confluence of the Merderet. When the lock is opened the high tide floods the river channel and spreads gradually over the whole low marshy area between St. Côme-du-Mont and Carentan. Ultimately, through opening and closing the lock according to the tide level, the valleys of the Douve and Merderet can be turned into a shallow lake as far north as le Ham and as far west as St. Sauveur-le Vicomte. East of the lock the tide flow is kept in the river channel by flood banks from six to eight feet high. During the years when the RAF had this area under observation, inundations were observed periodically, extending in a large westward area between the ridges of high ground around St. Côme-du-Mont and the solid lower ground south and west of Carentan. Possession of the lock therefore meant control of a potentially valuable natural barrier to possible German counterattack against the south flank of the beachhead. *2* Furthermore, if seizure of the lock were coupled with destruction of the bridges north of Carentan on the only good route across the swamps, the task of safeguarding the left flank of VII Corps would be greatly facilitated.
*2* Actually the tactical value of the lock was exaggerated. The flooding was unusually slight and erratic. The area behind the lock was flooded and drained so slowly that the inundation could not be used as a flexible defense measure.
Securing of this objective came close to failure at the outset, primarily because of a bad drop. The 501st Parachute Infantry, according to the original plan, was to drop between Vierville and Houesville, astride the two highways north of Carentan. A few days before D Day Drop Zone D was shifted southeastward to the area Anoville-au-Plain-Bse. Addeville at the request of Colonel Johnson, who wished to land closer to his objectives, the la Barquette lock and bridges north of Carentan. A secondary consideration which also favored this change was the fact that anti-airborne landing obstacles were appearing in the fields of the original drop zone. This brought the drop zone considerably nearer the lower Douve, and when the regiment actually made the drop, the first plane serial, carrying the 1st Battalion and regimental headquarters, was badly scattered, some of its sticks landing deep in enemy territory south of Carentan. Many others landed in the swampy bottom lands to the west. The 1st Battalion’s command personnel was particularly hard hit. The commanding officer was killed, his executive officer was apparently captured, and all other company commanders and staff were also missing initially. In part, at least, the day was saved by an accident. A large percentage of planes of the 1st and 2d Battalions’ serials had unloaded too soon. As the jump signal flashed in Colonel Johnson’s plane, a bundle became wedged in the door. The delay caused by this prevented a premature unloading and brought Colonel Johnson and his men squarely down on Drop Zone D.
Moving south, Colonel Johnson collected some 150 men of miscellaneous units. At the trail junction just north of the lock, he verified his position and sent fifty men to take the objective, while the remainder of the force deployed defensively in place. The assault reached the lock in one dash, crossed it, and dug in on the soft ground of the far bank before the enemy could bring the area under shell fire. Even then the Germans made no attempt to press in on the bridgehead. Colonel Johnson thought that with a little additional strength he could proceed with the mission of blowing the bridges, which were only 2,000 yard up the river. But the patrols sent out in that direction drew fire with every movement. Satisfied that the lock situation was in hand, that his own position on this low-lying hollow was not favorable, and that he would need a stronger force for the task of destroying the Douve bridges, Colonel Johnson decided to move north and make contact with elements of the regiment at Bse. Addeville, 1,000 yards to the northwest. Patrols had reported that Maj. R. J. Allen, regimental S-3, had a sizeable force there.
Leaving the defense at the lock, Colonel Johnson took about fifty men to Bse. Addeville, hoping to gather sufficient strength to proceed against St. Come-du-Mont. At 0900, the force arrived at Bse. Addeville. Near this town Major Allen had gathered a hundred men from several units, but these were already engaged with the enemy to the north and west. Without knowledge of other units in the division, Colonel Johnson was uncertain as to how best to employ his small forces. His decision was finally crystallized by a radio broadcast of the BBC from London. It was the noon news bulletin and brought word that the invasion “is going according to plan and the operations of the American airborne divisions are meeting with success.” This news that the battle was going well elsewhere encouraged Colonel Johnson to proceed with the regimental mission. A small force was to be left at Bse. Addeville, with the bulk of his troops returning to la Barquette to move on the bridges.
At this point Colonel Johnson learned that 250 men of the 2d Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry (Colonel Ballard), who had not been heard from previously, were heavily engaged at les Droueries, 1,000 yards to the northwest. Colonel Johnson was intent on the mission to the south and wanted Colonel Ballard’s force to join him. But the enemy was between Colonel Ballard’s force and that of Colonel Johnson’s, and neither Major Allen’s nor Colonel Ballard’s units could move to join forces. Leaving fifty men at Bse. Addeville under Major Allen, Colonel Johnson took command of the remainder of the force and moved out at about 1330.
At the la Barquette position the force was met by intense enemy artillery, mortar, and small-arms fire, coming partly from east of Carentan and partly from the direction of St. Come-du-Mont. Among the men Major Allen had collected was Lieutenant Farrell, the naval shore fire control officer. He was in radio contact with the fleet and called the Quincy. Within a few minutes the first 8-inch salvo was delivered. Despite the difficulties, Lieutenant Farrell’s adjustments brought a remarkably accurate concentration on enemy positions around St. Côme-du- Mont, and their mortar fire slackened immediately. Following this the naval fire was shifted to support the 2d Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry, at les Droueries.
With enemy fire partially neutralized in the vicinity of la Barquette, Colonel Johnson resumed his efforts to take the Douve bridges. A new patrol, however, again reported progress to the west impossible because of heavy enemy fire. Colonel Johnson therefore ordered the extension of the defense at the lock east and west, pushing as close to the highway as possible. The bridgehead was built up to 100 yards in depth south of the lock. As protection against attack from the north, the position was expanded about 200 yards east and west and reinforced with automatic weapons. The 250 men with Colonel Johnson were augmented at 2000 by 30 brought down by Major Allen from Bse. Addeville. About 20 of the defenders were sent out during the night on patrols in an unavailing effort to find the headquarters of the division and of the 506th Parachute Infantry. Contact with Captain Shettle’s men of the 506th at le Port was maintained. The other patrols were lost.
By the end of D Day Colonel Johnson’s miscellaneous force had accomplished only a part of the regimental mission—the part originally assigned to the 1st Battalion. The 2d Battalion, becoming involved with the enemy in the vicinity of St. Côme-du-Mont shortly after the drop, was never able to move south to deal with the Carentan bridges on Colonel Johnson’s right flank.
Colonel Ballard (2d Battalion) had assembled, between Angoville-au-Plain and les Droueries, small groups from each of his three rifle companies and his battalion staff (Map No. 5). He planned to move at once on St. Côme-du-Mont, which lay astride his main route to the Douve bridges. Prior G-2 information had indicated that the town was held by only one enemy platoon. It soon became apparent, however, that there were enemy forces of some strength at les Droueries between Colonel Ballard and his objective. Orders were consequently issued for the attack on les Droueries.
At 0530 two “companies,” each with about thirty men, moved out abreast to seize two crossroads on the two trails from Angoville-au-Plain southwest. The third company followed in support. The enemy frustrated the frontal attack with small arms and mortars but a new group of men, mainly from the 506th Parachute Infantry, arrived and succeeded in flanking the enemy on the right. Some progress had been made, although the Germans had not been beaten back, when Colonel Ballard received orders from Colonel Johnson to join him at la Barquette. The battalion, therefore, disengaged as soon as it could and returned to Angoville-au- Plain about noon, planning to move to la Barquette across the swamps south of Angoville-au-Plain. However, the area was covered by enemy fire and was soon found impassable, and the battalion moved instead along the west edge toward Bse. Addeville, which Major Allen had just reported he was about to vacate in order to join Colonel Johnson. The 2d Battalion had moved only about 400 yards when it was stopped by heavy fire from the same enemy force which had contested the morning attack on les Droueries. There the battalion remained for the night, in close contact with the enemy. The 501st Parachute Infantry had secured the lock at la Barquette, but strong enemy resistance had prevented the capture of St. Come-du-Mont as well as the destruction of the railroad and highway bridges north of Carentan.
West of the 101st Airborne the 82d Airborne Division had gained possession of the east bank of the Merderet River in the vicinity of Ste. Mère-Eglise. Occupation of these positions, however, actually fell far short of the mission assigned to the division by plan. Broadly, its mission was to assist in sealing off the peninsula from the south by destroying bridges at Pont l’Abbe and Beuzeville-la Bastille and securing bridgeheads across the Merderet (Map II). Thereafter the 82d was to protect the southwest flank of the Corps by securing the line of the Douve River. It was therefore also charged with taking the offensive to the west in the direction of St. Sauveur-le Vicomte.
The assignments were as follows. The 505th Parachute Infantry was to land east of the Merderet River, capture Ste. Mère-Eglise, seize and secure the river crossings near la Fière and Chef-du-Pont, and secure a line in the north running through Neuville-au-Plain and tying in with the 101st Airborne Division in the vicinity of Bandienville or Beuzeville-au-Plain. The 507th and 508th Parachute Infantry Regiments were to land west of the river to consolidate the two bridgeheads o the west bank. More specifically, the 507th was to assist the 505th in securing the la Fière bridgehead and then establish a defensive line running southwest from Gourbesville to Renouf. The 508th was to destroy the crossings of the Douve at Beuzeville-la Bastille and Pont l’Abbe and extend the 507th’s defensive line south from Renouf. Both regiments were to be prepared to assume the offensive westward and secure the line of the Douve River. All these forces were to land by parachute and were initially under the command of Brig. Gen. James A. Gavin, assistant division commander. General Ridgway, commanding the 82d Division, was to come in with certain glider elements just before dawn on D Day. The remaining glider artillery and infantry were to follow over a period of thirty-six hours to support the 508th Parachute Infantry in destruction of the Douve bridges. There was also a seaborne force made up of organic and attached artillery, tank destroyers, and other special units under Brig. Gen. Reese M. Howell.
The drop of the 82d Airborne Division was far from good (Map VI). The regiments assigned to the zones west of the Merderet had the worst drop in the entire operation. The 507th Parachute Infantry was to land in Drop Zone T, north of Amfreville, but was scattered widely. The 508th Parachute Infantry was to land southwest of Amfreville and north of Picauville, and had a slightly better drop. But many of its sticks came down east of the Merderet, and for some days many of its men fought with the 101st Airborne Division.
In contrast with the other two regiments, the 505th Parachute Infantry, landing northwest of Ste. Mère-Eglise between the railroad and the main highway, had one of the best drops of any airborne unit. About 1,000 of the 2,200 men landed in the drop zone, and most of the others, although scattered to the north and east, were able to assemble rapidly. They were fortunate to come down in an area nearly devoid of enemy. Rapid assembly of the regiment enabled it to proceed expeditiously with its mission—a mission that became during the day more important defensively than the plan contemplated.
Establishment of a defensive base at Ste. Mère-Eglise was one of the major undertakings of the division immediately after its drop. The other was the establishment of bridgeheads over the Merderet. But, as the latter operation began to founder, the capture and holding of Ste. Mère-Eglise assumed increasing importance. Tactically the most significant operation of the 82d Airborne Division on D Day was, therefore, the action in and around this town (Map No. 6). The town itself was the objective of the 3d Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry, which was to organize the immediate defense by setting up road blocks to the south and east. The 2d Battalion was to establish a line to the north, running from west to east through Neuville-au-Plain and Bandienville, tying in with the 502d Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, on the right. The 1st Battalion was to seize the Merderet crossings at la Fière and Chef-du-Pont, organize the defense of the glider landing zone, and furnish security for the regimental command post.
Like the other serials, the planes of the 505th Parachute Infantry ran into fog and flak, and for a time it appeared that the drops would be scattered. But the pathfinder markers were spotted correctly, and some of the planes which had moved out to prevent collision circled back before flashing the green light. As a result, all three battalions had good drops. The 1st Battalion (Maj. Frederick A. Kellem), after assembling the bulk of its force, started for the la Fière bridge. No troops could be sent to Chef-du-Pont immediately.
The 3d Battalion (Lt. Col. Edward C. Krause) moved after collecting about a quarter of its men. Colonel Krause organized these men into two companies and headed for Ste. Mère-Eglise. Learning from a Frenchman that the Germans had recently established themselves outside the town along the roads, Colonel Krause planned to surround the town and establish road blocks before daylight. He ordered his men to go directly into town without searching buildings, and they were told to use only knives, bayonets, and grenades while it was dark, so that enemy small-arms fire could be spotted by sight and sound. By 0430 the 3d Battalion had occupied the town and raised the same American flag which the battalion had raised over Naples upon its entry into that city. Before daylight the main Cherbourg communication cable had been cut and all the road blocks were in. There was some resistance at three of the locations, but it was overcome with grenades. By 0930 the entire town had been cleaned out. It yielded only about thirty prisoners and ten enemy dead. The rest of the Germans, surprised, fled southward. Colonel Krause had at this time about 360 men under his control.
In the meantime, Lt. Col. Benjamin H. Vandervoort had gathered enough of his 2d Battalion to start on its mission of establishing a line through Neuville-au-Plain and Bandienville on the north. The battalion had been under way for an hour when, at 0614, Col. William E. Ekman, the regimental commander, ordered it to stop. He had not heard from the 3d Battalion, although Colonel Krause had sent runners with news of the situation at Ste. Mère-Eglise. At 0810, still without information about the 3d Battalion’s location, Colonel Ekman ordered the 2d Battalion to return and capture Ste. Mère-Eglise. The order was countermanded on word of Ste. Mère-Eglise’s fall and then, at about 0930, reissued when Regiment received a report of an enemy counterattack against the town from the south.
The Germans had attacked with considerable force—two companies of infantry supported by self-propelled guns and tanks. The attack had begun with mortar and machinegun fire and had hit the flanks of the southern road blocks. The 3d Battalion was spread thinly. When the 2d Battalion came down at 1000 Colonel Krause ordered the scattered elements of Companies G and H on the north to join their companies on the south. The 2d Battalion took positions north and east of the town. Together the two battalion commanders decided on the defense, and by mutual agreement Colonel Krause took charge. Both officers had been injured. Colonel Krause had suffered a slight leg injury from shell fragments, and Colonel Vandervoort had a broken leg but continued to command his battalion from a cart.
Before proceeding to Ste. Mère-Eglise, Colonel Vandervoort had detached one rifle platoon (3d of Company D) on receiving word that Neuville-au- Plain was lightly held by the enemy. He sent the platoon there to organize part of the northern defensive line which was the battalion’s assigned mission. This impromptu decision proved wise, for the German thrust from the south at Ste. Mère-Eglise turned out to be only part of a larger squeeze which extended also to the north of the town. The effectiveness of the squeeze was nullified by the delaying action which the 3d Platoon (Lt. Turner B. Turnbull), Company D, fought at Neuville-au-Plain.
Lieutenant Turnbull had forty-two men with normal infantry weapons plus extra bazookas, BAR’s, and two 57-mm. antitank guns. He deployed the platoon on high ground north of Neuville-au-Plain, and at 1030 the men engaged an enemy column which outnumbered them five to one. By weight of fire power, Lieutenant Turnbull’s men were able to fight the enemy to a draw for eight hours. Gradually, however, enemy mortar fire, which the platoon was unable to neutralize, took its wearing toll, and the Germans began to use their superior numbers to turn the flanks of Lieutenant Turnbull’s platoon. It became clear that the unequal fight could not continue. Colonel Vandervoort sent a platoon of Company E to cover Turnbull’s withdrawal, and he pulled out late in the afternoon with sixteen of his forty-two men.
The platoon’s tenacious fight at Neuville-au-Plain, however, had held back the northern prong of the enemy thrust long enough for the two battalions in Ste. Mère-Eglise to meet the stronger German threat from the south. Companies G and H, though hardly more than platoon strength, still held the southern edge of town. Two companies were in reserve in- side the town. The enemy was building up strength on high ground 1,500 yards south of Ste. Mère-Eglise, where according to reports he had emplaced an artillery battery. He was moving infantry into the draw in front of his base.
After the first German attack had been repulsed, Colonel Krause sent Company I, with eighty men, to strike at the enemy’s western flank. The counterattack was almost disastrous, as Company I, confused by the zigzag course through hedgerows, turned east too soon and emerged on the road just ahead of the enemy position. As a result of this miscalculation, however, the company hit an enemy convoy and destroyed it with Gammon grenades. *3* The surprise and effectiveness of the blow led the enemy forces immediately south of Ste. Mère-Eglise to overestimate American strength, and they began to withdraw. Company I, after following the flank of the withdrawal for some time, returned to the perimeter defense of Ste. Mère-Eglise.
*3* Sacks of 2-pound plastic explosive, point detonated, used as antitank weapons.
As night approached, the general situation around Ste. Mère-Eglise began to appear more satisfactory. A few snipers had to be ferreted out of buildings, and roving groups of enemy delayed the free movement of messengers and supply personnel. But these did not constitute a serious threat. Except for a critical shortage of water, supply was adequate. Considerable quantities of food, ammunition, 57-mm. antitank guns, and engineer and signal supplies were gathered in from crashed gliders, whose occupants had been killed. After the morning attacks the enemy had exerted no pressure against the town during the rest of the day. It was not until after dark that he began to probe half-heartedly at the road-block outposts. These attempts, largely from the north, and presumably made by the same enemy which had overrun Neuville-au-Plain, were defeated without difficulty.
Along the Merderet
The events of Ste. Mère-Eglise assumed a greater significance in view of the critical situation which developed along the Merderet. There, more than anywhere else, the well-laid plans miscarried with a far-reaching impact on the operation as a whole. Securing the la Fière and Chef-du-Pont bridges from the east was the assigned mission of the 1st Battalion, both Parachute Infantry. Company A was to seize the one at la Fière. This company, along with the rest of the battalion, had an excellent drop and effected a remarkably rapid assembly, moving to its objective immediately.
On the other side of the river the 507th Parachute Infantry and the 508th Parachute Infantry, with the mission of securing the west bank of the river, probably depended more than any other units on a good drop pattern for success. Both regiments, however, were scattered and faced some of the most difficult problems of assembly of any of the airborne units (Map VI).
The two regiments came in between 0230 and 0300, as scheduled. Pathfinders preceding them had in many cases found it impossible to mark the drop zones north of Amfreville and Picauville because of the presence of the enemy. Momentarily puzzled by the failure to see marker lights and by the realization that it was necessary to rely on alternative signals like the Eureka, pilots in some cases overshot the drop zones. Large numbers of paratroopers thus landed in the watery marshes along the Merderet. Aerial photos had indicated that the Merderet was a fairly narrow stream bordered with grassy swampland. But the photos were deceptive in that they did not reveal the wide flood areas created by the closing of the la Barquette lock. Grass had grown out of the water so thickly that from above this shallow lake looked like a prairie. Paratroops, heavily laden with equipment, found themselves in water several feet deep. The whole problem of assembly and recovery of equipment was therefore complicated. Both regiments were also widely dispersed. Part of the 508th Parachute Infantry dropped east of the Merderet and operated with the 101st Airborne Division. The 507th Parachute Infantry dropped generally east of its assigned zone, but personnel were found in widely separated places in the entire peninsula. Small groups held out against the enemy for several days, isolated from the rest of the division.
At first there was a noticeable gravitation to the la Fière bridge area, and ultimately elements of four regiments, including the 325th Glider Infantry, had a hand in the establishment of the bridgehead (Map No. 7). This convergence on la Fière was due in part to the tendency of the groups landing in the Merderet marshes to collect at or move toward the railroad. The railroad embankment rose prominently from the marshland and was a convenient orientation feature. The men knew it was the only railroad in the Merderet valley and naturally used it as a guide. Probably the first group to do so was the one led by Capt. F. V. Schwartzwalder. His group of men from the 507th Parachute Infantry had landed along the swamp east of the Merderet and assembled on the railroad embankment. They moved down to the la Fière bridge and met their first opposition there at daylight. In an orchard near the group of houses east of the bridge, they were fired on by mortar and small arms. Several attempts to rush the houses netted only casualties.
The engagement thus begun involved, in the course of the day, groups from all three parachute regiments. Company A, 505th Parachute Infantry, which had assembled almost to a man in the drop zone near Ste. Mère-Eglise, was already engaged on the right of Captain Schwartzwalder’s unit. Next on the scene were men of the 507th and 508th under Col. Roy Lindquist, Commanding Officer, 508th Parachute Infantry. Colonel Lindquist, after landing in the swamps northeast of Amfreville, moved to the railroad embankment, assembling a hundred men as he went along. On reaching the railroad, he was joined by thirty men of the 507th under Lt. John H. Wisner, regimental S-2. Lieutenant Wisner wished to reach the regimental assembly area in the vicinity of Amfreville. Colonel Lindquist’s objective was Pont l’Abbe. Both planned to follow the railroad as the clearest route south, and to cross the river at la Fière if the bridge was taken.
They arrived at dawn at the intersection of the railroad and the highway from Ste. Mère-Eglise west, to find Company A, 505th Parachute Infantry, moving toward the bridge. The company was deployed to the north of the road and Colonel Lindquist decided to move up abreast. Lieutenant Wisner’s men, leading off, were stopped by machine-gun fire 300 yards east of the bridge. At about the same point Company A, also pinned down by enemy fire, tried unsuccessfully to outflank the German positions from the right.
About that time Lieutenant Wisner, reconnoitering to the north, ran across another group making its way to la Fière. This new group numbered about 300 men, principally from the 507th Parachute Infantry, who had assembled, like so many others, north of la Fière and had followed the railroad south. Part had been collected by General Gavin, and part by Lt. Col. Arthur Maloney and Lt. Col. Edwin J. Ostberg. General Gavin’s initial intention, after assembly, was to move this force south against the west end of the la Fière bridge and causeway. However, fruitless efforts to retrieve a jeep and an antitank gun from the marshes delayed the move until daylight. With the light, enemy fire seemed to build up along the west bank. The original plan was therefore abandoned and the force proceeded east and thence south along the railroad embankment.
When this force arrived at la Fière, the first American attempt to approach the bridge had been checked, but still it did not appear that the enemy was strong. Moreover, men of the 507th and 508th continued to drift into the position until by midmorning some 500 to 600 had gathered there. General Gavin therefore decided to commit part of the force elsewhere. Colonel Maloney was sent south with seventy-five men to reconnoiter another crossing. A little later General Gavin and Colonel Ostberg took another group of seventy-five men to try to cross the Merderet at the Chef-du-Pont bridge, which had been reported undefended.
Colonel Lindquist took command of the assorted units remaining at la Fière. The principal organized groups, comprising about 400 men of all regiments, were Company B, 508th Parachute Infantry; Company G, 507th Parachute Infantry; and Company A, 505th Parachute Infantry. Company G, under Captain Schwartzwalder, in position on the extreme left, south of the road, had probed out the weakest portion of the enemy line but had not followed up the advantage. When Colonel Lindquist ordered attack at noon by all forces, Company A, which had displaced to the north of the road, failed to get the order, but Lindquist’s own force, attacking through the area where Company A had been held all morning, destroyed or captured the last of the enemy. As the fire fell away, Captain Schwartzwalder’s men crossed the causeway and made contact near the west end with a patrol from the 2d Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry (Lt. Col. Charles J. Timmes).
The 2d Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry, had achieved an early assembly of fifty men under Colonel Timmes 1,000 yards east of Amfreville, near the battalion’s planned drop zone. Soon after the initial assembly a patrol under Lt. Lewis Levy of Company D was sent to investigate the la Fière causeway and to clear it if possible. The patrol found a few men of the 507th already established in the village of Canquigny, though enemy infantry held the ground south and east. The forces joined but were unable to work their way to the causeway until the attack from the east bank carried across. The success of that attack cleared the west bank and brought eighty men into the bridgehead. Lieutenant Levy then established contact with the forces still on the east side and received assurance that the 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry, was coming across to take over the bridge.
The position seemed secure. Yet within the next hour the bridge was lost. The Germans countered quickly. Enemy artillery began to hit the vicinity of Canquigny, while small-arms fire built up to the south; tanks were heard approaching from the west. Before these signs of coming battle had become critical, Captain Schwartzwalder had decided that his primary mission was to go on toward Amfreville to join the 2d Battalion and, under prodding of the first enemy artillery bursts, had pulled out fast with his eighty men and some additional personnel of the 508th. As no other troops from the east bank crossed over, this move left the bridgehead in the hands of four officers (including Lieutenant Levy) and eight enlisted men. With grenades and rifles and one machine gun, this handful of men fought off the enemy and even succeeded in disabling two enemy tanks with Gammon grenades, but they finally had to withdraw northward to join the 2d Battalion of the 507th.
In the meantime, Company B, 508th Parachute Infantry, had been sent, belatedly, across the causeway. When it arrived on the west bank it met the enemy attack head on. Unable to organize or hold its ground, it was forced south along the river, and survivors swam back under fire to the east bank.
The bridge so handily won was thus lost through failure to consolidate rapidly the west bank position. The reason for the failure was in part that the groups participating in the action had only a vague idea of what neighboring units were doing. The hedgerow country virtually penned each unit in its separate field of action.
Not only had the bridge been lost, but the enemy counterattack had isolated the force under Colonel Timmes (now including Captain Schwartwalder’s men) from the units at la Fière. Colonel Timmes’ group had taken up a defensive position in an orchard near Amfreville and was caught and virtually immobilized by the enemy forces attacking toward the bridgehead. An attack south to la Fière was planned for that night but not attempted. The force numbered about 120 men; many were exhausted or casualties; and, in addition, friendly artillery fire began to fall in the causeway area. Colonel Timmes’ force remained isolated in this position for two more days.
At la Fière, after the retreat of Company B, 508th Parachute Infantry, the position on the east bank was reorganized. Men of the 507th and 508th Regiments under Colonel Lindquist were relieved on the left and the remainder of the 1st Battalion, 505th, joined Company A in the line. Colonel Lindquist’s men were placed in reserve west of the railroad. But the position was still far from satisfactory. The forward defenses of the 1st Battalion, 505th, were exposed to heavy mortar and artillery fire, and the enemy, after his success in clearing the west bank, began to show unusual aggressiveness. Two German tanks attempted to exploit their success by crossing the causeway. Company A’s road block covered by bazooka men stopped the attack, destroying both tanks. But it seemed probable that the Germans would try again. General Gavin came up to la Fière from Chef-du-Pont late in the afternoon and found the situation serious. Ammunition was low; medical aid was scarce. General Gavin sent orders to Colonel Maloney at Chef-du-Pont to bring all his force, less about a platoon, to la Fière at once.
Before Colonel Maloney arrived, the enemy attacked the east bank again in considerable strength, and the position of the 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry, was, in the opinion of its commander, becoming rapidly untenable. At about 2000 Colonel Maloney brought 200 men to la Fière and moved up to the 505th Parachute Infantry line. By dark the American defense was again fairly well stabilized and the enemy had ceased his attack across the causeway.
Locally the situation was secure. But there was still no news at 82d Airborne Division headquarters, located west of Ste. Mère-Eglise, of the progress of the seaborne invasion. General Ridgway therefore took steps to provide for the possibility that the whole division might have to consolidate its defense in the vicinity of Ste. Mère-Eglise. Colonel Lindquist was ordered to move his force, now numbering some 250 men, to a position from which he could prevent the enemy from cutting off la Fière units from Ste. Mère-Eglise. This movement, however, was not accomplished until the next day.
While the chief concern of the 82d Airborne Division during D Day was with the la Fière bridgehead, where the bulk of the assembled forces were committed and where the enemy put up his strongest resistance, another attempt to secure a crossing of the Merderet River had been made at the same time to the south of Chef-du-Pont and had fared slightly better. The initial attack at Chef-du-Pont had been undertaken by the seventy-five men under Colonel Ostberg. The enemy withdrew from the town and the eastern approaches to the bridge but dug in along the causeway and on the west bank. Though apparently not numerous, the Germans fought tenaciously. Colonel Ostberg’s men were stopped at the bridge. The seventy-five reinforcements who arrived later under Colonel Maloney could do nothing to break the deadlock. At about 1700 the Chef-du-Pont force was stripped to a platoon in order to send reinforcements to the hard-pressed paratroopers at la Fière.
The remaining platoon of thirty-four men under Capt. Roy E. Creek almost at once were whittled down to twenty effectives by direct fire from an enemy field piece on the opposite bank. At the same time from seventy- five to one hundred Germans were observed forming on the east bank in some buildings to the left rear of Captain Creek’s position. Captain Creek asked for reinforcements. Before they could arrive, immediate help was provided fortuitously by the landing within American lines of a glider carrying a 57-mm. antitank gun and ammunition. The gun was emplaced and fired to neutralize the enemy artillery piece. Nearly one hundred men came down from la Fière shortly thereafter and the enemy threat was removed. With the reinforcements a defensive position was organized to bring greater fire power to bear on the enemy. In a short time the east bank was cleared, and a platoon crossed the bridge and dug in on the other side without opposition. The bridge was secured, though the position remained enfiladed by enemy fire from the Carquebut area. The capture of Ste. Mère-Eglise, and the fights for the Merderet River crossings at la Fière and Chef-du-Pont, together constituted the principal efforts of the 82d Airborne Division on D Day. But there were also a number of isolated groups of the division which organized themselves west of the Merderet and fought independently-in some cases for four or five days. These isolated groups contributed in some degree to the accomplishment of the division’s missions, though they carried on what amounted to fights for survival rather than battles for planned objectives.
Col. George V. Millet, Jr., commanding the 507th Parachute Infantry, collected in the course of D Day some seventy-five men northwest of Amfreville. But, though he was not more than 1,000 yards from the 2d Battalion, 507th (Colonel Timmes), he made no contact with this battalion or other friendly elements until D plus 4.
Farther south, elements of the 508th Parachute Infantry were having similar experiences. One group, initially led by Lt. Gerald P. Guillot and later by Capt. Jonathan Adams, had one skirmish after another with the enemy, and survived to join the regiment on D plus 5.
The largest force from the 508th Parachute Infantry to assemble west of the Merderet was commanded by Col. Thomas J. B. Shanley (Commanding Officer, 2d Battalion). Colonel Shanley landed near Picauville. He assembled a small group, not large enough to proceed, as he wished, on the mission against the Douve bridge at Pont l’Abbe. Before noon he established radio contact with Lt. Norman McVicar, who had a force of about sixty men a mile to the northeast, and started out to join this force. He met a patrol from another force off to his left under Maj. Shields Warren, Jr. Junction between these three groups, however, was delayed by enemy pressure on the south, which forced Colonel Shanley’s men to engage. It was mid-afternoon before they could free themselves even so far as to choose better ground and organize a defensive position. Before nightfall, however, the enemy had been cleared sufficiently to allow the Shanley, Warren, and McVicar forces to join. But in the meantime Colonel Shanley had learned that the German force which had been trying all afternoon to close in on him had the strength of a battalion, and that more of the enemy was dug in around Pont l’Abbe. He therefore abandoned the idea of attacking toward the Douve bridge and decided to proceed to the regiment’s assembly area, the high ground known as Hill 30, dominating the Chef-du-Pont causeway. At 2300 the entire force, organized into two companies, moved there and improvised an all-around defensive position
A hard fight had been fought on D Day by the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions—a fight that had not gone entirely according to plan and had cost heavy casualties. Not one battle but fifteen or twenty separate engagements had been fought.
Both divisions had had scattered drops, with varying losses in men and materiel. Initial dispersion was further aggravated by the Normandy terrain; the hedgerows made it difficult to assemble and still more difficult to coordinate the maneuver of units. Some units were completely unaware of others, fighting only a few hundred yards away. The groups were usually mixed, and men strangers to their leaders fought for objectives to which they had not been assigned. Still, the airborne operation was in general a success. Small groups of parachutists took advantage of a surprised and temporarily disorganized enemy to seize many of the vital objectives quickly.
When D Day ended, the 101st Airborne Division had accomplished the most important of its initial missions. General Taylor had estimated at noontime that, despite the errors of the drop, the tactical situation of his division was sound. The way had been cleared for the movement of the seaborne forces inland. The northern sector in the vicinity of Foucarville was securely held by the 502d Parachute Infantry. On the other hand, the forces holding the southern flank of the Corps front along the Douve north of Carentan were not as strong as intended. The le Port bridges had been taken, but the bridgehead had to be abandoned. The la Barquette lock was occupied, but precariously. Virtually isolated, with a total strength nearer three companies than three battalions, short of ammunition, and facing unexpectedly tenacious opposition, the prospects of the southern units did not appear bright. In the St. Côme-du-Mont area the enemy effectively held the 501st Parachute Infantry against the swamps in the vicinity of les Droueries and Bse. Addeville. There were no men to be spared to proceed against the railroad and highway bridges across the Douve, and the enemy was thus left strong and mobile to the southwest.
Yet here, as elsewhere on D Day, the weakness of the American forces was more than offset by the almost total lack of aggressiveness on the part of the enemy. Positions which tactically should have required battalions for defense could be and were held by small improvised forces which had to worry more about cover from artillery and mortar fire than about counterattack. Probably the weakest feature of the whole situation at the close of D Day was the lack of communication. This had plagued the activities of most of the battalions during the day. At night, though it was only the southern forces that remained out of contact, the southern flank was precisely the most seriously threatened portion of the division sector (Map No. 9).
The situation of the 82d Division was more serious than that to the east. The plan by which the 82d was to have been placed in possession of both banks of the Merderet was voided by the faulty drop. Large numbers of the division were isolated west of the Merderet, unable to reach the division’s planned objectives in that area. The la Fière bridgehead had been won only to be promptly lost. This was costly, for it created a tactical problem that engaged the major forces of the entire division for the next three or four days. Moreover, the expected reinforcements by sea and glider had not arrived by the end of D Day and many of the latter had been irretrievably lost in landing. General Ridgway, viewing the operation at the Merderet and lacking information about the other divisions, was naturally alarmed and took measures to consolidate his defensive base at Ste. Mère-Eglise.
There was probably little optimism in the minds of most of the commanders of the 101st and 82d Divisions as D Day came to a close. Of the 6,600 men of the 101st Division dropped on the morning of D Day, only 2,500 men were working together at the end of the day. Reinforcements were needed for all of the airborne units. Such reinforcements had to come across the beach. Fortunately the seaborne landing had been relatively unopposed. The arrival of the 4th Division had freed the 101st Airborne Division of responsibility in the north and east and released a large part of this division for employment elsewhere. The rapid progress of the 4th Division on D Day promised to improve greatly the situation of the two airborne divisions.
Excerpt from: Roland G. Ruppenthal, American Forces in Action: Utah Beach to Cherbourg. Washington, D.C.: Historical Division, War Department, 1945. About the author: Major Roland G. Ruppenthal was a member of the 2nd Information and Historical Service, attached to the First Army.
Note: Maps referred to in the text are in the Normandy picture file.
Bookmarks The 101st Airborne Lands / Fighting for the Northern Beach Exits / Capture of the Southern Beach Exits / Securing the Southern Flank / The 82d Airborne Division Astride the Merderet / The Capture of Ste. Mère-Eglise / Along the Merderet / The Airborne Divisions at the End of D-Day