The American 82nd Airborne Division on D-Day was tasked with dropping in the area west of Ste-Mère-Eglise. This veteran unit had fought in Sicily and Italy and on 6 June its major task was to secure the bridges and routes running west to east towards Ste-Mère-Eglise. This area had been flooded by the Germans to restrict the Allied ability to land gliders and airborne troops, and limit any invader using set roads and bridges. The Germans planned to control events by holding these bridges, but on D-Day things did not go quite to plan, for all concerned.
Eisenhower talking to American airborne personnel before the D-Day drop.
For a number of reasons, the night drop of 5/6 June went badly wrong for the majority of the American airborne troops and men and units were scattered right across the landscape around Ste-Mère-Eglise. This certainly was the case west of Ste-Mère-Eglise, where the units charged with taking and holding the vital bridge leading to the causeway at La Fière dropped over a very wide area. But faithful to their training, many men were able to work out where they had landed, and estimate a route to their objective.
By the middle of the morning 500 to 600 men of miscellaneous units had gathered at la Fière, which was one of the two known crossings of the Merderet in the 82nd Airborne Division zone. The la Fière crossing was an exposed narrow causeway raised a few feet above the river flats and extending 400 to 500 yards from the bridge over the main river channel to the gently rising hedgerow country of the west shore.
Two of the first groups on the scene, portions of Company A of the 505th and a group mostly of the 507th Parachute Infantry under Lt. John H. Wisner, had tried to rush the bridge in the early morning but were repulsed by machine gun fire. When General Gavin arrived, he decided to split the la Fière force and sent seventy-five men south to reconnoitre another crossing. Later, receiving word that the bridge at Chef-du-Pont was undefended, he took another seventy-five men himself to try to get across there. The groups remaining at la Fière made no progress for several hours. Then General Ridgway, who had landed by parachute with the 505th, ordered Col. Roy Lindquist, the commanding officer of the 508th Parachute Infantry, to organize the miscellaneous groups and take the bridge.1
By the close of D-Day the position was in American hands, and while efforts had been made to get across the causeway and link up with those west of the flooded area, these had been repulsed. The men dug in and expected a counter-attack. They did not have long to wait as on 7 June the Germans made their move.
While the 82nd Airborne Division had thus consolidated its base, its principal D Day assignment – the establishing of bridgeheads across the Merderet – came no nearer accomplishment. On the contrary, during the morning of 7 June it was touch and go whether a determined enemy counterattack might not break the division’s hold on the east bank of the river. At about 0800 the attack of elements of the enemy 1057th Regiment began to form against the American la Fière position. Mortar and machine gun fire ranged in, chiefly on Company A, 505th Parachute Infantry, which was dug in to the right of the bridge. An hour or so later four Renault tanks led a German infantry advance across the bridge. The lead tank was disabled by either bazooka fire or a shell from a 57mm. anti-tank gun that was supporting Company A. Although this checked the advance, the German infantry took advantage of the cover furnished by the knocked-out tank and some burned-out vehicles, which the American defenders had pulled onto the causeway during the night, to open a critical fire fight at close range. At the same time German mortar shells fell in increasing numbers among Company A’s foxholes. The American platoon immediately to the right of the bridge was especially hard hit and eventually reduced to but fifteen men. These men, however, encouraged by the heroic leadership of Sgt. William D. Owens and by the presence in the thick of the fighting of division officers, including General Ridgway, held their line. The fight was halted at last by a German request for a half-hour’s truce to remove the wounded. When the half hour expired, the enemy did not return to the attack. A count of Company A revealed that almost half of its combat effectives had fallen in the defence, either killed or seriously wounded.2
Aerial view of La Fière causeway. (US National Archives)
The business end of the defence of the bridge against this armoured attack had been the responsibility of two bazooka teams which were dug in either side of the eastern part of the bridge. In one of the positions to the left of the road was Marcus Heim of 505th PIR.
When we arrived at the bridge, men were placed down the pathway to the right and to the left of the Manor House and out buildings. The four bazooka men included: Lenold Peterson, and myself, John Bolderson and Gordon Pryne. Peterson and I took up positions on the Manor House side facing Cauquigny, below the driveway. There was a concrete telephone pole just in front of us and we dug in behind it. We knew that when the Germans started the attack with their tanks, we would have to get out of our foxhole and reveal our position to get a better view of the tanks. Bolderson and Pryne were on the right side of the road just below the pathway. I do not remember how many paratroopers were around us, all I saw was a machine gun set up in the Manor House yard. On the right side down the pathway a few riflemen took up positions.
There was a 57mm cannon up the road in back of us along with another machine gun. We carried anti-tank mines and bazooka rockets from the landing area. These mines were placed across the causeway about fifty or sixty feet on the other side of the bridge. There was a broken down German truck by the Manor House, which we pushed and dragged across the bridge and placed it across the causeway. All that afternoon the Germans kept shelling our position, and the rumour was that the Germans were going to counter attack. Around 5:00 in the afternoon the Germans started the attack. Two tanks with infantry on each side and in the rear following them was a third tank with more infantry following it. As the lead tank started around the curve in the road the tank commander stood up in the turret to take a look and from our left the machine gun let loose a burst and killed the commander. At the same time the bazookas, 57mm and everything else we had were firing at the Germans and they in turn were shooting at us with cannons, mortars, machine guns and rifle fire. Lenold Peterson and I (the loader), in the forward position got out of the foxhole and stood behind the telephone pole so we could get a better shot at the tanks. We had to hold our fire until the last minute because some of the tree branches along the causeway were blocking our view. The first tank was hit and started to turn sideways and at the same time was swinging the turret around and firing at us. We had just moved forward around the cement telephone pole when a German shell hit it and we had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit as it was falling. I was hoping that Bolderson and Pryne were also firing at the tanks for with all that was happening in front of us there was not time to look around to see what others were doing. We kept firing at the first tank until it was put out of action and on fire. The second tank came up and pushed the first tank out of the way. We moved forward toward the second tank and fired at it as fast as I could load the rockets in the bazooka. We kept firing at the second tank and we hit it in the turret where it is connected to the body, also in the track and with another hit it also went up in flames. Peterson and I were almost out of rockets, and the third tank was still moving. Peterson asked me to go back across the road and see if Bolderson had any extra rockets. I ran across the road and with all the crossfire I still find it hard to believe I made it to the other side in one piece. When I got to the other side I found one dead soldier and Bolderson and Pryne were gone. Their bazooka was lying on the ground and it was damaged by what I thought were bullet holes. Not finding Bolderson or Pryne I presumed that either one or both were injured. I found the rockets they left and then had to return across the road to where I left Peterson. The Germans were still firing at us and I was lucky again, I returned without being hit. Peterson and I put the new found rockets to use on the third tank. After that one was put out of action the Germans pulled back to Cauquigny and continued shelling us for the rest of the night. They also tried two other counter attacks on our position, which also failed.
During the battles, one does not have time to look around to see how others are doing. We were told that when we took up our position by the bridge that we have to hold it at all cost until the men from the beach arrived, for if the Germans broke through they would have a good chance of going all the way to the beach. Our job was to be in the forward position by the La Fière Bridge with our bazooka to stop any German tanks from advancing over the bridge and onto Ste Mere-Eglise and the beaches. This we accomplished all the while the Germans were continuously firing everything they had at us. After I went across the road and found more rockets for the bazooka and returned, the third tank was put out of action and the Germans retreated. When the Germans pulled back, we looked around did not see anyone, we than moved back to our foxhole. Looking back up the road toward Ste Mere-Eglise, we saw that the 57mm cannon and the machine gun were destroyed. Looking down the pathway across from the Manor House we could not see any of our men. We were thinking that we were all alone and that maybe we should move from here, then someone came and told us to hold our position and he would find more men to place around us for the Germans may try again to breach our lines. We found out later, of the few that were holding the bridge at this time, most were either killed or wounded. Why we were not injured or killed only the good Lord knows.3
One of the captured French tanks used by the Germans, knocked out on the causeway. (US National Archives)
The bridge had held and would remain held until the relieving troops arrived from UTAH Beach on 9 June and the final attack across the causeway was made.
While the fight for the bridge was going on, across the marshes – unknown to Heim and his comrades – was a group of men from the 82nd surrounded in an orchard. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Timmes, 2nd Bn 507th PIR, had dropped in and like many that night, found that his men had been widely scattered. He gathered up those he could find, and sent some probing attacks towards Amfreville, close to where he had landed. This proved to be too strongly held for his force so he withdrew them to a position he could defend, a nearby orchard, linked up with men from 508th PIR and dug in. With no radio communications – none of his radios had survived the drop – he was unable to ascertain what was happening elsewhere, so he sent patrols out. One of these under First Lieutenant Levy got to the causeway between Cauquigny and La Fière. While they initially found it clear, they were forced back as the Germans arrived and so Timmes decided to hang on with around 150 men, machine guns and a 57mm gun. Over the course of the next few days his men beat off attack after attack; at once stage they were outnumbered by at least four to one. On 8 June an attack by men of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment between Timmes’ position and the chateau to the north known as ‘The Grey Castle’ broke down, and the survivors withdrew into Timmes’ position. They held out until late the following day when the battle of the La Fière causeway was over and men from the other side of the marshes finally linked up with these isolated airborne troops.
Colonel Charles Timmes.
Further to the south-west another isolated group of 82nd men were in a bitter struggle to hold on to the high ground at Hill 30,
Elements of the 508th, amounting to about two companies of men under command of Lt. Col. Thomas J. B. Shanley, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, were the most important of at least four groups of paratroopers who assembled west of the Merderet but who for the most part, being forced to fight for survival, could contribute little toward carrying out planned missions. Dropped near Picauville, Colonel Shanley gathered a small force of paratroopers – too small to proceed with his mission of destroying the Douve bridge at Pont l’Abbé. He tried during the day to join other groups in the vicinity with whom he had radio contact, but under constant enemy pressure he was unable to effect a junction until late in the day. It had then become apparent to him that he was engaged with an enemy force of at least battalion strength, and he decided to withdraw to the battalion assembly area on Hill 30. In fact, the Germans, elements of the 1057. Regiment, had been pushing eastward in this area most of the day under orders to counterattack in order to wipe out American parachutists west of the Merderet. Colonel Shanley’s resistance undoubtedly helped save the forces at la Fière and Chef-du-Pont. Once he was firmly established on Hill 30, he formed a valuable outpost against continuing German attacks and a few days later would be in position to contribute substantially to establishing the Merderet bridgehead. For Colonel Shanley’s success three enlisted men have received a large share of the credit. They were Cpl. Ernest T. Roberts, Pvt. Otto K. Zwingman, and Pvt. John A. Lockwood who, while on outpost duty in buildings at Haut Gueutteville, observed the forming of a German counterattack by an estimated battalion of infantry with tank support. They stayed at their posts holding off the enemy attack for two hours and allowing the main body of Shanley’s force to establish an all-around defence at Hill 30.4
Thomas Shanley was a regular army officer who had transferred to the airborne on its formation. He had fought with the unit in Sicily and Italy and used his men here in a model example of a defensive action. In the end they held on for three days. The whole regiment was recognised with a unit citation which read,
The 508th Parachute Infantry is cited for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy between 6 and 9 June 1944 during the invasion of France. The Regiment landed by parachute shortly after 0200 hours, 6 June 1944. Intense anti-aircraft and machine-gun fire was directed against the approaching planes and parachutist drops. Enemy mobile anti airborne landing groups immediately engaged assembled elements of the Regiment and reinforced their opposition with heavily supported reserve units. Elements of the Regiment seized Hill 30, in the wedge between the Merderet and Douve Rivers, and fought vastly superior enemy forces for three days. From this position, they continually threatened German units moving in from the west, as well as the enemy forces opposing the crossing of our troops over the Merderet near La Fière and Chef du Pont. They likewise denied the enemy opportunities to throw reinforcements to the east where they could oppose the beach landings – the courage and devotion to duty shown by members of the 508th Parachute Infantry are worthy of emulation and reflect the highest traditions of the Army of the United States.5
While these are just three examples of what men of 82nd Airborne did on D-Day, they give a good flavour of how a scattered unit fought small but cohesive battles in the key areas where they knew the vital objectives were. These small-unit actions also testify to the character and bravery of these airborne troops, cut off from the big picture but determined to hold on until relieved.
Walk 12: In the Airborne Area
STARTING POINT: Car park, in front of the church at Ste-Mère-Eglise
GPS: 49°24′30.6″N, 1°18′57.8″W
DURATION: 20.1km/12.5 miles
This is a full-day walk and as there are few bars or cafés in this area you are advised to take a packed lunch with you. There are plenty of places in Ste-Mère-Eglise to get food, including a couple of sandwich bars. Park your vehicle in the car park next to the church in the centre of Ste-Mère-Eglise. Start your visit at the church.
The church at Ste-Mère-Eglise largely became famous following The Longest Day film in the 1960s. During the airborne drop in the early hours of D-Day some of the buildings in the square were damaged and caught fire. The local populace had been mustered and under the eyes of the German occupiers were putting the fire out. At this point men from 82nd Airborne were mistakenly dropped into the town. At least one man fell into the fire and perished, his explosive charges detonating in the heat. Others were cut down as they dropped into the square and while the image of airborne troops hanging dead from the lamp posts in the town was a little overplayed in the film, it certainly happened. One man, Private John Steele, became entangled on the church spire. He had to feign death when the Germans spotted him and opened fire. Steele was a thirty-one-year-old barber from Illinois who had dropped into Normandy with the 505th PIR. He was later brought down from the church tower and was captured and held by the Germans until his unit took Ste-Mère-Eglise later in the day, when he was released. He returned to Normandy in later years and became quite famous following his story being told in the film. The town placed a life-size model of Steele on the church tower, still hanging by a parachute, which can be seen for many miles around. Inside the church there are stained glass windows commemorating the airborne troops on D-Day and a commemorative service is held here each year.
The Airborne Museum close to the main square is also worth visiting before you start the walk. It has many large exhibits relating to the fighting around Ste-Mère-Eglise, much of the personal material donated by veterans. The museum is open every day and more information is available on their website (www.airborne-museum.org).
From the church walk across the square into Rue General de Gaulle and turn right. On your right is a Normandy memorial and a 0km marker which indicates the start of this section of the ‘Liberty Way’, running from Normandy to the Ardennes. This route is marked by similar stones along its length. At the next main junction go left onto the D16, Rue de Verdun. Follow this out of the town and where the road forks beyond the bridge go right onto the D15. Then take the next left onto Chemin d’Hiersac and follow this past the houses out in the countryside. At the next main junction of this minor road go right and follow it roughly westwards towards the railway line. Walking in this area will give you a good sense of the nature of the terrain the men of 82nd Airborne dropped into on D-Day. Go over the railway bridge and follow the next stretch of the minor road to the D15. At this junction go left. Almost immediately on your left is a chained-off hole. Stop. This is General Gavin’s Foxhole. Brigadier General James ‘Slim Jim’ Gavin was Deputy Commander of the 82nd Airborne and had parachuted in during the early hours of D-Day in the area west of Ste-Mère-Eglise. Coming across the marshes he had found men dug in on their objective near the bridge at La Fière and set up his command post on this spot. Whether this is his actual foxhole is hard to say, but it certainly is in an area where he operated; right in the midst of battle, commanding his men from the front.
Continue along the D15 to the bridge area at La Fière. This is the area where a bitter struggle took place on D-Day and the following days as this vital site was first captured and then held by men of 82nd Airborne. Numerous decorations were awarded for bravery, and the road at the bridge is now named after Marcus Heim, in recognition of his bravery here in 1944. Today, the La Fière site is dominated by the fine bronze sculpture, ‘Iron Mike’, which looks out across the bridge and battlefield where so many fought and fell. There is also a very good orientation table next to the statue, which visually explains what took place here on D-Day. Across the road is the La Fière Battlefield B&B where the owners always welcome visitors and you can buy books and postcards.
Iron Mike Memorial at La Fière.
From the bridge go straight across on the D15 and across the road that was the causeway in 1944 where the German column and tanks were knocked out. This is a busy road, so stay left on the verge. On the far side take the first right. There is an information panel immediately on your right, and after looking at this walk to the church. The Cauquigny church remained in no-man’s-land’ on D-Day, and it is known the Germans used the wall here as cover to fire on the airborne troops across the flooded marshes where the green fields are now. On 8 June a group from 325th Glider Infantry Regiment tried to get through here but were thrown back by the Germans. The next day a second attack came in from glider troops under Captain John Sauls and troops from 507th PIR under Captain Robert Rae. This attack started from La Fière and became the battle of the causeway. Supported by tanks that had come up from UTAH, the men struggled to get across the narrow road and into the area of the church. As the attack seemed to falter, Rae led ninety men in a rush across the causeway and with tank support overran the Germans and the position was taken. The causeway was now free for traffic and men to cross unhindered by German fire. Both Sauls and Rae were decorated for their bravery here on 9 June, and there is a memorial on the church to those who fought here along with one glider veteran who regularly returned to the area.
The La Fière Battlefield B&B, a building that featured in the fighting here in June 1944.
The bridge at the start of the La Fière causeway.
From the church continue on the minor road in front
(Rue du Hameau aux Brix) and at the next junction go right. The farm buildings here give a good picture of the sort of structures in this area that both sides used in the fighting here in 1944. Continue past the houses and follow the minor road out in the fields. This area has gates that need to be opened and closed (cattle are in the area), but it is a recognised walking route so none of the gates will be locked. The area of fields you will walk though now was where many of the 82nd Airborne gliders landed on D-Day. This being soft ground, in the autumn and winter the marks made where gliders came in are often visible. Continue along the track until you reach a T-junction. Here go left, through another gate, and into a bocage sunken lane. Further up on the left is a memorial. Stop.
This memorial site commemorates the battle for Timmes Orchard. Colonel Charles Timmes held on here in the orchard from D-Day until 9 June with a mixed force of men from 325th GIR, and 507th and 508th PIRs until they linked up with other units from 82nd Airborne following the battle for La Fière causeway. From the memorial continue along the track and follow it into the outskirts of Amfreville. Here the track joins Rue de la Rosiere. A plaque on a building on the left indicates this barn was used by the Germans as a field hospital in June 1944, with a tented hospital opposite where German nurses worked. It treated both Americans and Germans wounded on D-Day and in the period that followed.
Timmes Orchard Memorial.
Turn right here and at the next junction stop. The tree-lined road ahead is a private road to what the airborne troops called ‘The Grey Castle’, a chateau visible across the fields. Many of the German attacks came from here and this area was controlled by them for several days following the landings. The building on your right was used to interrogate prisoners and a plaque on the wall remembers one of them, First Lieutenant Walter Chris Heisler of 507th PIR.
Here go left and follow the road to the church. The Germans used the tower of this church as an OP until directed naval gunfire brought it down on 8 June. The shell came from an American battleship anchored off UTAH Beach. At the church go left onto the D126 and follow it out of the village to the 507th PIR Memorial site in Rue du Moulin. This commemorates the men of this unit, widely scattered on D-Day, who fought in a number of engagements here on 6 June and the following days. The unit lost more than 300 dead in Normandy.
From the memorial go right on the D130, Rue des Helpiquets, and immediately turn left onto a track in front of a Norman farm complex. Follow this track, going straight across at the first junction until it reaches the D15. Again, this route gives you an insight into the terrain and how it could be used by both sides for ambushes and defence. At the main road turn right and then take the first left into Gueutteville. On this road go left and then first right and then left. Follow this minor road out of Gueutteville and then take the first track on the right. This then leads to a crossroads of tracks at the summit of Hill 30. Stop.
Hill 30 is high ground, but looking around this area the close nature of the terrain with tree-lined sunken lanes and bocage hedgerows indicates what a defenders’ paradise it is. This is where Lieutenant Colonel Shanley and his men of 508th PIR held out against attack after attack until relieved. A road sign is all that marks this part of the battlefield today.
507 PIR Memorial at Amfreville.
Memorial plaque at the crossroads on Hill 30.
From the junction follow the minor road south-west (going right from where you emerged from the tree-lined track), at the next junction go left and at the end left again into a small hamlet. Continue and further up on the right is a fascinating decorated memorial wall made by a local to the men from 82nd Airborne who fought in this area. After the hamlet, take the first right and follow this road to the D70. Here go left to the road bridge. Just beyond it is a memorial. Stop.
This bridge at Chef du Pont was just as important as the bridge guarding the causeway at La Fière. The ground beyond the river was flooded in 1944, and the road you have just walked down from the hamlet was a causeway, as in the other location. Men from the 508th PIR took the eastern side of the bridge on D-Day,
the attempt to cross at Chef-du-Pont about two miles south had reached a temporary deadlock, as a relatively small number of Germans dug in along the causeway tenaciously resisted all efforts to dislodge them. Late in the afternoon, after most of the paratroopers had been recalled to strengthen the la Fière position, the understrength platoon left at Chef-du-Pont under Capt. Roy E. Creek was threatened with annihilation by an enemy counterattack. Under heavy direct fire from a field piece on the opposite bank and threatened by German infantry forming for attack on the south, Creek’s position seemed desperate. At that moment a glider bearing an antitank gun landed fortuitously in the area. With this gun the enemy was held off while about a hundred paratroopers, in response to Creek’s plea for reinforcements, came down from la Fière. The reinforcements gave Creek strength enough to beat off the Germans, clear the east bank, and finally cross the river and dig in. This position, however, did not amount to a bridgehead and Creek’s tenuous hold on the west end of the causeway would have meant little but for the action of the 508th Parachute Infantry west of the river.6
Memorial wall near Hill 30.
That action was the fight for the ground around Hill 30, visited earlier in the walk.
From the bridge continue into Chef du Pont and take the first left onto Rue de la Cooperative. Take the second right down a tree-lined minor road and at the end follow this route round to the right past a farm complex. Follow this through the countryside and past some houses on the right to where it runs parallel to the railway line. Cross over the railway on the bridge and on the other side take the left fork. Stay on this as it weaves through the bocage. At the first junction go left and stay on this minor road – keep on going at every junction – until you reach a farm complex on your left. Here take Chemin de Vaulaville and continue to the D15. Go right and then left and follow the D15 back into the centre of Ste-Mère-Eglise and the car park in front of the church, and your vehicle.
A good follow-up visit to this walk is the Dead Man’s Corner Museum (www.paratrooper-museum.org ) at nearby Ste Comte du Mont. It houses an unrivalled collection of American airborne uniforms and equipment.