The D-Day Battlefields
American Airborne Operations - Carentan
Although I didn`t have time to visit Carentan during my trip, I`ve included some information on the battle for control of the town as it was a key objective for the Allies as they pushed inland from UTAH and OMAHA Beaches. The town of some 4,000 inhabitants is a transport hub and sits astride the N-13 highway with the main Cherbourg–Paris railway line running through it. The settlement had been built on dry, low ground, surrounded by rivers and marshes. To improve irrigation in the area, canals had also been built and centuries before, Napoleon Bonaparte had once flooded the fields for miles around to turn Carentan into a fortified island. Following the Fall of France in 1940, the Germans subsequently did likewise.
Any attacker approaching from the coast to the north had only a few possible routes to choose from and in June 1944 these were guarded by Major Friedrich von der Heydte with two battalions of his crack 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, plus two Ost battalions. The 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, ordered to reinforce Carentan, was delayed by transport shortages and constant attacks by Allied aircraft.
The 101st Airborne was given the task of taking Carentan, even though Its three parachute regiments (501st, 502nd, and 506th PIRs) had been badly scattered during their air drops on D-Day and had lost a significant number of men killed or missing as a result. The Division had suffered further casualties in taking Saint Côme-du-Mont. Its 327th Glider Infantry Regiment had landed at UTAH Beach on D+1 (7 June) and except for its third battalion, had yet to engage in serious combat.
The Americans advanced towards the town on 8 June, but progress was slow due to determined enemy resistance, even though aerial reconnaissance suggested that Carentan itself may be only lightly defended.
The Allied attack, a pincer movement, using the 502nd PIR on the right and the 327th GIR on the left, began just after midnight on 10 June. In the darkness, the Americans sustained heavy casualties as they tried to cross the various waterways, some in rubber boats, on improvised bridges or even wading chest-deep between the banks.
By first light, the men of the 101st began to surround the town and the following day fought their way over the fields and through the hedgerows, past the outer defences and charged into the streets. House-to-house fighting followed with many casualties on both sides. The beleaguered defenders of the town called for supplies to be dropped from the air, but no Luftwaffe cargo planes appeared.
An American howitzer targets German forces defending Carentan. During the night of 11/12 June, the town was subjected to a heavy bombardment from land based artillery and naval guns before the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment moved in from the north-east to link with the 2nd Battalion of the 506th driving up the N171 from the southwest. The gun pictured below, `Blues`, is on display at the American Airborne Museum, St Mere-Eglise.
At 07:30 hrs on the morning of 12 June, after a brief fight with Germans holding out in the ruins of the railway station, the two prongs of US paratroopers met up in the town centre. Under heavy American fire, the remaining defenders, running seriously low on ammunition, abandoned Carentan. In the shot below, US Airborne troops move up to the front, past a knocked-out Sherman.
The German withdrawal didn't end the battle. Rommel saw the recapture of Carentan as essential if he was to successfully defeat the Allied invasion and the inevitable counterattack took place on the morning of 13 June.
Elements of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment got within 500 yards of the town before they were defeated by the 101st Airborne with help from the US 2nd Armoured Division.
Worse was to follow for the Germans, for the movement of the 17th SS had left a gap in their lines, which the US 1st Division exploited to capture Caumont.
The capture of Carentan closed the gap between the UTAH and OMAHA beachheads, the last remaining physical divide between the forces moving inland from the D-Day landing zones. It not only created a solid line along the whole Normandy front, but enabled General Collins, the US Army Commander, to begin the campaign in the Cotentin Peninsula, which lasted until the end of June and ended with the capture of Cherbourg, then eventually St.-Lô. Once St.-Lô was in American hands, the Cotentin Peninsula was secure and the breakout into the heartland of France began in earnest.
Battle damage to some of Carentan`s buildings can be seen in the above view, while the shots below show victorious US Airborne troops in the main square.
On 15 June, engineers of the Ninth Air Force began construction of an Advanced Landing Ground for fighter aircraft south of the town. Declared operational on 25 June, the airfield was designated as `A-10`. It was used by P-47 Thunderbolts of the 50th Fighter Group until mid-August, then as a support airfield for supplies and the evacuation of wounded personnel until November when it was closed. Today, a small private airfield occupies part of the wartime site.
Above: Troops of the 327th GIR (Glider Infantry Regiment), identified by the Ace of Clubs motif on the right of their helmets, watch as Jeeps of the 101st Airborne drive down Carentan`s Rue Holgate towards the front. The lead vehicle is towing a 57mm Anti-tank gun, while the second Jeep contains Medics of the 101st US Airborne`s 326th Airborne Medical Co.
Members of the 101st Airborne, stationary at the junction of Rue Holgate and RN 13, are using a Kübelwagen liberated from their German counterparts. The vehicle, the equivalent of the US Army Jeep, bears the registration WL 333 369. The prefix WL signifies `Wehrmacht-Luftwaffe` therefore it`s likely that this Kübelwagen was previously operated by von der Heydte`s FallschirmJäger. The other US troops, resting outside Café-restaurant Désiré Ingouf, carry the helmet markings of the 327th GIR (Glider Infantry Regiment).
Above: Another ex-German vehicle: NSU "Kettenrad" type HK 101SdKfz 2 with trailer.
Above: An M-7 Priest of the 14th Armoured Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd US Armoured Division, rolls through Carentan towards the Paris - Cherbourg railway crossing. Note the crossing barrier in the upright position on the right hand side. Right: Stretches of railway line lie buckled and broken on the edge of Carentan as a result of the heavy bombing and shelling prior to the town`s liberation. A sandbagged checkpoint at a bridge on the outskirts, manned by an MP, is shown below.
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Additional shots of US troops in the town after its capture.
The above photos, taken on on 2 August 1944, show American engineers inspecting the double metal railway bridge crossing the Vire at Montmartin Graignes east of Carentan. There is no information as to whether the damage was caused by Allied bombing or the bridge sabotaged by the retreating Germans to hinder the Allied advance.
Two sprawling U.S. tented hospitals were established in Saint Hilaire Petitville east of Carentan.
In both World Wars, the standard of care given to the wounded in front-line medical units was recognised as having critical implications for their subsequent surgical progress. The emergence of blood transfusion had been one of the most important medical developments during the First World War and the technique was in regular use from 1916 onwards. Surgery in WW2 benefited from significant advances in this area; refrigeration enabled stored blood to become a standard resource, fluid and dried plasma was widely in use and an increasing number of personnel were familiar with intravenous transfusion procedures. The use of penicillin, antibiotics discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming (6 August 1881 – 11 March 1955), in the treatment of war wounds vastly improved prospects for casualties that were likely to have proved beyond saving in 1914-1918.
Below: French civilians begin to clear up rubble from destroyed buildings in Carentan pending the town`s lengthy reconstruction.