The D-Day Battlefields
American Airborne Operations
British and US Airborne drops heralded the start of the Normandy Invasion when Tuesday 6 June was just moments old. In the east, the British made a textbook glider assault to capture the bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal, after which they dug in to repel the inevitable counter-attack and await the infantry and armour scheduled to land on SWORD Beach around dawn.
Heading for the west of the invasion area, the American 82nd and 101st airborne divisions had taken-off roughly about the same time as their British counterparts. After manoeuvring into their `V` formations, wave after wave of C-47 transports gained the English coastline and continued across the Channel for the Normandy drop zones. The US Airborne`s mission was to isolate the Cotentin peninsula and secure the exits from UTAH Beach.
Above: C-47 Skytrains of the 440th Troop Carrier Group at Exeter, Devon on 5 June 1944. Aircraft of the 95th & 98th Sqdns are in foreground.
Above: This famous photograph, one in a series, shows Eisenhower talking to men of the 101st Airborne Division on June 5th, just several hours before they boarded their transports. Having made the decision to`go`, there was little left for the Supreme Commander to do but watch and wait. About 18:00 hrs he left his temporary HQ at Portsmouth, accompanied by his Naval Aide, Harry C. Butcher, and travelled to Greenham Common airfield near Newbury in Berkshire.
There were hundreds of paratroopers with blackened faces, some sporting Mohican haircuts, all preparing for the big jump. Ike wandered through them, stepping over packs, guns, and equipment, chatting and joking with the men, engaging in general (no pun intended) banter. He was greatly impressed with their relaxed manner and confidence and later commented that they helped to put him at ease with his concerns, rather than the other way round.
The US Airborne C-47`s route took them over the Channel Islands where the flak batteries on Jersey and Guernsey opened up. A Royal Navy Motor Torpedo Boat, MTB 689, acted as a waypoint, signalling where the aerial armada should alter course for the eastward run-in towards the drop zones around the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, south of UTAH Beach.
Once the C-47s reached the French coast, they entered a dense fog bank which the meteorologists hadn`t predicted. The danger of collision with neighbouring aircraft became very real and those at the edge of the formation veered off in an attempt to increase the safety gap. Once clear of the murk, the German flak units put up a steady barrage forcing pilots to increase speed and take evasive action, which was strictly against orders. Some planes were shot down, giving their occupants no chance of escape and convincing many of the other pilots to get rid of their passengers as soon as possible and start on the return leg.
The optimum airspeed for a jump was somewhere between 90 and 110 mph, but many planes were travelling well in excess of this, the paratroopers having no choice but to ‘go’. Canopies opened with a jerk, far more violent than usual, and the men found themselves drifting down in a sky riddled with tracer and machine-gun fire. Some aircraft had been flying below 500 feet meaning the departing occupants` chutes barely had time to fill. Broken ankles and limbs, even broken backs resulted and there were at least two instances of whole sticks of paratroops, eighteen men in each, plummeting straight into the earth.
With large tracts of land deliberately flooded by the Germans to foil such an attack, many US troops drowned, smothered by their chutes or entangled in the lines. Unlike the British quick-release system, the American version was cumbersome and delays in getting free resulted in numerous fatalities following the drop. The terrain in this part of Normandy is similar to the classic Bocage country further inland which was to prove a nightmare for US troops over the following months so, in an attempt to alleviate confusion during the hours of darkness, each man had been given a tin ‘cricket’ toy (right). One click would be answered by two clicks to signify a friendly face concealed in the grass, or taking cover behind a hedgerow, but many preferred to issue the verbal challenge “Flash” with “Thunder” as the response. Both words had been chosen as it was thought that the Germans would have difficulty pronouncing them properly.
Small groups and individuals began to join up, most unsure of their location, and nearly all miles away from where they should have been. Not everyone had a firearm as most of the equipment canisters, attached by a leg strap, proved to be too heavy causing the tape to snap during the descent, but many men went on the offensive right away, taking out gun positions that were targeting the follow-on waves of C-47s overhead, and ambushing German patrols.
Several platoons of the 82nd Airborne did land on target, in and around St Mere Eglise, but the German garrison was on alert and began shooting at the paratroopers as they dropped into the centre of town. Many were riddled with bullets before they had a chance to react but the men on the outskirts quickly formed up and fought their way towards the main square, forcing the enemy to withdraw. St Mere Eglise became the first French town to be liberated.
The first village to fall to the Allies on D-Day was Sainte Marie du Mont located in the southeast of the Cotentin Peninsula, just north of the town of Carentan, and west of the Baie des Veys which is the outlet of the Douve and the Vire rivers. The small settlement lies just 1.5. miles (2.4 km) inland from UTAH Beach at the end of Exit 2 and was within the drop zone of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) and the 3rd Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.
Following the widely scattered drop, a number of the Airborne troops found themselves in and around Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, most among the small fields and hedgerows outside the village but others had to struggle for their lives immediately to save themselves from drowning in the flooded fields.
Once the noise of the follow-on planes overhead and the flak barrages had faded, every sound or shadow in the moonlight was a potential enemy waiting to pounce. The men, however, began to form up in increasing numbers and the village church here was an easily recognisable landmark, enabling the disorientated Airborne troopers to get their bearings. As can be seen above, the church was undergoing extensive renovation when I visited and I was therefore unable to check out the interior.
General Maxwell Taylor (right), the commander of the 101st, who had came down just south of Ste Marie du Mont, knocked on the door of a farmhouse to get information and the occupants confirmed that there was a German garrison in the village. It turned out that there were sixty-three enemy troops from the 1058th Regiment of the 91st Division, all of whom were by now on full alert. As Maxwell turned to organise an assault, the farmer asked him to wait, ducked back indoors and returned with a clip of WW1 rifle ammunition which he handed over and told Maxwell to "Go kill me a German."
The general, by that time, had about a hundred men at his disposal. The first encounter with the enemy was a dugout on the south side of the village. All six defenders were killed here and half of the paratroopers gradually worked their way towards the centre of Ste Marie du Mont while the others moved to secure the nearby village of Pouppeville at the end of Beach Exit 1.
House-to-house fighting ensued and the church in Ste Marie du Mont changed hands several times during the night. The Germans had been using its bell tower as an observation post. When the remaining defenders eventually surrendered, twenty-five had been either killed or badly wounded. Pouppeville was also in Allied hands.
The village has a couple of museums, but they only open for the summer season in April, which was a few weeks after my visit. The Museum of the Occupation, is in an old hospice used as a local HQ by the Germans during WW2, and the Musée de la Libération, is located at 60 Place de l'Église, in the old butchery. Both are reportedly worth a look with unusual items on display, including a rare Weasel M29 tracked cargo-carrier in the latter.
US Airborne troopers pose in the main square after the village was liberated. The base of the Great War Memorial can be seen in the background. The Poilu figure on the memorial honouring local men who died during the Great War was pulled down by the Germans on 20 June 1940 but it was recovered after D-Day and re-erected by the Americans on 14 July 1945. Nowadays, an adjacent plaque describes these events.
Work to prepare the ground for the WACO gliders bringing in reinforcements and heavy equipment got underway and vicious fighting, much of it on a relatively small scale, across and well beyond the designated drop zones continued toward daybreak and well into the morning by which time the Americans were far clearer regarding their own positions and as to where their objectives lay. Before noon, 500 to 600 men from various units had gathered at La Fiére, one of the two known crossings of the Merderet, the 36 km long river which is tributary to the Douve and runs roughly north-south down the middle of the Cotentin peninsula. Elements of the 505th and 507th PIR had tried to rush the bridge and the causeway beyond earlier that morning but were repulsed. General Gavin arrived and split his force in two. Some men were sent south on a recce and discovered the Chef-du-Pont bridge undefended but the Americans remaining at la Fiere could make no progress for several hours. General Ridgway, who had parachuted in with the 505th, joined them and organised another assault.
By the close of D-Day the la Fiére bridge was in Allied hands but the defenders prevented further passage along the causeway. German units assembled and made a counter-attack about 08:00 hrs the following morning. Mortar and machine-gun fire began to strike the US Airborne positions and an hour later four captured Renault R35 tanks heralded an enemy advance. The lead tank fell to a bazooka, or possibly a shell from a 57mm anti-tank gun that had been brought in by glider and hurriedly positioned, and the other R35s were knocked-out (below) but the Germans made the best of available cover and a close-range firefight ensued.
As the day dragged on, almost half of the US troops in the immediate area became casualties but the line held. Eventually the German commander requested a half hour truce to remove the wounded. After the designated period elapsed the men of the Airborne braced for another attack but none came. The Americans held the La Fiére bridge until troops and armour from UTAH Beach linked-up on 9 June and stormed the causeway. The shots below, from the US National Archives, were taken at La Fiére after the battle had moved on. A dead German soldier lies at the roadside in the left hand photo.
While the fight to capture the various crossings over the marshes was ongoing, a group of around 150 men, mostly from the 82nd Airborne, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Timmes, was surrounded in an orchard near Amfreville. Over the course of the next few days this group beat off a succession of attacks, even though at one stage they were outnumbered at least four-to-one.
To the southwest of Timmes` position, another isolated group of 82nd men, led by Lt.Col Thomas J. B. Shanley, were engaged in a bitter struggle for Hill 30, strategically important high ground occupying a wedge between the Merderet and Douve rivers. Surrounded by a much greater force, estimated at Battalion strength, the outpost also held until relieved. The hill-top positions threatened German units moving in from the west and Shanley`s resistance undoubtedly helped save the forces at La Fiére and Chef-du-Pont from a more concentrated attack.
The church has several stained glass windows honouring the men of the US Airborne Divisions who fought in Normandy and the Sainte-Mère-Église coat of arms now includes a graphic of the famous building with a parachute supporting a silver star descending on either side.
The following painting, on display in the UTAH Beach Museum, depicts the attack made by members of the 101st Airborne`s Easy Company, on the German guns at Brécourt Manor manor on D-Day. The battery, located three miles inland, north of the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, had initially been firing onto an exit leading off UTAH Beach and disrupting the forces landing there. Several other units had stumbled onto this strongly defended position earlier in the morning but had been repulsed.
Led by Richard `Dick` Winters, a team of 23 US Paratroopers successfully attacked the four 105 mm howitzers which were linked by trenches and defended by a company of around 60 soldiers. Each artillery piece was destroyed by placing a block of TNT down its barrel and using captured German `potato masher` stick grenades to set off the charges.
These images from the Federal German Archives, all taken in Normandy in June 1944, show a camouflaged SdKfz. 251 half-track passing a column of troops and an 8 cm GrW 34 mortar crew in action, plus (below) a two man MG34 team and a concealed 75cm Pak gun engaging enemy targets.
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Glider-borne Jeeps proved invaluable as the Airborne troops began to organise themselves in the days following the initial drops and started to push further inland, along with the soldiers and armour from the beaches. Many Jeeps, like the one above which is on display in the Airborne Museum at St Mere Eglise, were fitted with an anti-decapitation device, designed to snap any wire or rope strung across narrow roads at head height by the Germans as the Allied vehicles approached at speed.
Next, some historic shots of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, taken shortly after liberation...
The WW1 memorial plinth minus the French soldier figure can be seen in the right hand US Army Signals Corps shot above.
Most of the structures are relatively intact considering the village`s proximity to the coast and the fighting that took place here. The Allies had refrained from plastering Sainte-Marie-du-Mont with bombs or heavy naval gunfire as rubble from damaged buildings would only block the roads and severely hinder the breakout from UTAH Beach.
Above: A Jeep full of US 101st Airborne paratroopers in conversation with a Military Policeman at a Normandy check-point, June 1944. The Horsa gliders in the background were among those bringing additional men and equipment to the fight in the days following the initial landings.