Dropping in for Breakfast: the 82nd and 101st Airborne arrive in France
21 Tuesday Jul 2015
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By Alan Davidge
During the eight years that I have lived in Normandy I have accumulated a cornucopia of stories about D-Day. Some of the most memorable of these involve the exploits of the paratroopers who cast their ‘chutes and their fates to the wind and dropped out of the skies in the early hours of June 6, 1944. Their mission was to prepare the ground for the Allied soldiers who would beach their landing craft later in the morning.
The tasks assigned to the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne at the western end of Normandy are the stuff that history is made of. Spielberg and Hanks have immortalized Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) in “Band of Brothers,” and the iconic image of Sergeant John Steele hanging from the belfry of the church in Sainte Mere Eglise is indelibly printed in the memory of anyone who has watched “The Longest Day.”
However, some of the most powerful tales have yet to make it on to the screen or even into the guidebooks. It is the purpose of this article to recount a handful of these events in the hope that visitors to the area may track down the locations where they took place and be able to appreciate the sacrifices that were made by ordinary people who helped to make the world a safer place.
The men of the 101st Airborne were given the task of dropping behind Utah Beach on the Cotentin Peninsula in the early hours of D-Day to secure the four causeways off the beach and allow safe passage inland for troops of the U.S. 4th Division, who were due to land at 6:30 a.m. The Dakota aircraft from which they jumped were given a hostile reception as soon as they crossed the English Channel. In addition to enemy anti-aircraft fire, they had to contend with a low cloud base which guaranteed that a number of planes would lose their bearings — and inevitably their passengers — when they missed their pre-arranged drop zones. Had it not been for the remarkable efforts of the “Pathfinders” who had dropped minutes earlier and set up lights and beacons in the drop zones, even more could have gone astray. But even with these additional navigation aids, many found themselves off target and having to pick their way through the lanes and hedgerows of a foreign country in total darkness in ones and twos to find a recognizable rendezvous where they could regroup and begin their mission.
A number of men from the 506th PIR were scattered around Marmion Farm, which today can be found at the junction of the D14 and D15 just south of the town of Ravenoville, behind Utah Beach. It was significantly north of their intended arrival point, which had been chosen for its proximity to the town of Sainte Marie du Mont. This beautiful little Norman town straddled Causeway Two, a major route off the beach for the liberators who were due to arrive within a few hours, and it had to be cleared of enemy troops. Fortunately, the first paratroopers to arrive at the farm had the element of surprise on their side and were able to evict and capture the German occupants fairly quickly. For the next couple of days it served as a temporary base for members of the 101st, and achieved some prominence for a short while when the film crew that later arrived with the infantry landing craft flashed back the first images of the landings to an eager public back in the U.S. A short Internet search is all that it takes to reveal some of these images.
Within a few days Marmion Farm was deserted again, and that is how it has remained. Its fields and barns look just the same as they did in 1944, partly due to its reputation of being haunted (three people hanged themselves in the same room at various times) and it takes very little imagination for visitors who succeed in finding the place to identify the location of those 1944 newsreel pictures.
The D14 south of Marmion runs parallel to the coast, and would have been the chosen route for members of the 506th PIR racing against time to get to their objectives around Causeway 2. Among them were members of Easy Company, alias “Band of Brothers.” If you have the boxed set (episode 2 “Night of Nights”), it’s possible to pick up the story which culminates in the legendary destruction of the guns at Brecourt Manor by Lieutenant Dick Winters and 11 of his men.
Shortly after the Utah Beach landings had commenced, Winters’ small team on their way south to Sainte Marie du Mont were informed of the existence of four large guns hidden near Brecourt that were firing on to the beach. His orders were to destroy them immediately. Setting off from Le Grand Chemin, they located the guns in a trench flanked by a hedgerow and, against considerable odds, silenced all four guns in an epic maneuver which is still used at West Point Academy as a case study of good military practice.
Although Brecourt Manor is private property, it is still possible to see the hedgerow from the road, and in recent years an Easy Company memorial has been constructed to remember the actions of those who took part as well as their comrades who never returned.
By following the D14 for a few hundred yards south of the memorial, visitors gain access to the D913 which in 1944 comprised Causeway 2; a right turn on to the road leads straight into Sainte Marie du Mont. Like the farms and hedgerows, this beautiful little Medieval town has changed little in the last 70 years, except for the repairs to damage caused on D-Day when the 101st finally arrived and liberated it from German occupation. Carefully positioned on the walls of the town are plaques bearing accounts of the individual events which took place that morning. Some are poignant, others amusing, but together they provide a full account of how the town, and the road on which it stands, were secured to ensure safe passage for the troops as they drove inland from Utah Beach.
When accompanying school groups or families around the town, I try to find time to visit the church which was the unlikely scene of a series of gunfights during the morning of D-Day. We discover bloodstains that still exist on the floor, and I point out the confessional that is riddled with holes from an American carbine, aimed at the Germans who were sheltering there.
This is the point to share feelings about the sanctuary of church premises in wartime, and an interesting discussion frequently follows.
In complete contrast to the violence that took place in this sacred building is the tale of compassion that is associated with another church, a little further south at Angoville-au-Plain.
On D-Day, this village was in a drop zone assigned to another 101st Airborne regiment, the 501st PIR and once the confrontation began it was commandeered as a first aid post for American casualties.
Two young medics, Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore, utilized the pews as hospital beds to treat the wounded, and a number of these still contain their bloodstains today. While they were treating their comrades, a German officer appeared at the door and asked if his wounded could also be brought into the church. With the understanding that all weapons were to be left outside the church door, the medics agreed and set to work. After two days, transport arrived to pick up the wounded and provide them with more permanent hospital care. At this point there were 74 American and German soldiers and a child from the village in the church, all of whom survived thanks to the night-and-day care provided by Wright and Moore. This little tale is just as thought-provoking as the story of Sainte Marie du Mont, but for very different reasons. Not surprisingly, the church is visited regularly by Americans and Germans. When I was last there a taxi arrived — all the way from Paris.
While the men of the 101st Airborne were searching out their objectives behind the coastline of the eastern Cotentin Peninsula, their Brothers in Arms, the 82nd Airborne, were pursuing an even more dangerous mission deeper behind enemy lines. The three regiments of the 82nd were dropped further inland, around the town of Sainte Mere Eglise, which was the focus of four main roads to the north, south and east-west across the peninsula. Their task was to secure this significantly larger town from counterattacks and hold the main bridges across the rivers Douve and Merderet.
Ultimately they would create a line of defense that would cut off the peninsula from further German advances and then allow the newly arrived troops to push north towards Cherbourg which, once captured, would provide a good port facility for supplying the troops with all the heavy materials needed to support the invasion. Being further away from the beaches, they knew that they would have to hold on much longer before being relieved, and initially they expected to be seriously outnumbered. For some of these men it was the Alamo all over again. Two examples of how a few men held back the might of the German army are particularly worthy of note.
Drive westwards out of Sainte Mere Eglise, and in a few minutes the tiny bridge of La Fiere comes into view. More prominent than the bridge today are the series of military monuments that accompany it. They are here for a good reason: This is the site of a particularly heroic action which lasted for three days after the first arrival of 82nd Airborne troops.
Once their parachutes had announced their arrival, it was just a matter of time before German troops arrived to ensure that they gained control of this single crossing point of the River Merderet. It was essential for the Germans to prevent the Americans from progressing westward across the peninsula and isolating them on the north side so that they could be picked off by the thousands of infantry that would be arriving daily from the coast. Furthermore, if the Germans could gain control of the road over the bridge, they could launch a counterattack on Sainte Mere Eglise and win back the town that they had lost early on the morning of D-Day. It was imperative, therefore, that the small 82nd band that had won the bridge should hold it until reinforcements arrived. Because the surrounding land had been flooded by the Germans opening the lock gates that controlled drainage in this marshy area, the only route now available to them was the road itself, and they mounted an attack that included tanks as well as infantry. Anti-tank mines were quickly laid, but the American trump card was the two bazooka teams lying in wait on the other side of the bridge. When the front German tank stopped to deal with the mines, the first bazooka team stood up, took aim and scored a direct hit. The wreckage held up further progress along the road and the continued launching of bazooka rockets by these two-man teams — who were fully exposed to small arms fire — managed to seal off the road. This brief action (commemorated by the naming the road Voie Marcus Heim after one of the gunners) gave the Americans an overwhelming advantage in the fight to hold the bridge. However, the remainder of the German regiment, who greatly outnumbered the paratroopers, tried every trick in the book to win it back. Exhausted, wounded and running low on ammunition, they somehow managed to hold on for three days till help arrived, a remarkable achievement against tremendous odds.
While the defenders of the bridge at La Fiere were holding back a sizeable chunk of the German army, the American commanders were looking at the other routes into Sainte Mere Eglise that could be used by the Germans to retake the town. Of greatest concern was the road that led north into an area known to be heavily occupied, and a platoon of the second battalion 505th PIR under Lieutenant Turner Turnbull (known as “The Chief” by his men because of his Choctaw ancestry) was sent to the nearby village of Neuville-au-Plain along the road. Before long, a Frenchman appeared on a cycle with the news that some distance behind him were a group of paratroopers escorting a large number of German prisoners. Something didn’t sound right to Turnbull, so he set up a machine gun and anti-tank gun pointing up the road as he waited for them to appear. Sure enough, a large number of men and vehicles appeared: Germans on the road and men in U.S. uniforms armed and escorting them.
To test his hypothesis, Turnbull fired a few shots in the air. Immediately the “prisoners” suddenly transformed into a regiment of German soldiers with the firepower to wipe out the 42 men who were holding the road. Swift communication with his commanding officer gave Turnbull his orders — be as big a nuisance for as long as possible and then make a tactical departure to the town. This would give the rest of the troops in Sainte Mere Eglise time to work out a defensive plan.
With the help of the anti-tank gun and clever placing of his men, The Chief managed to create the impression that the Germans were facing a large enough force for them to proceed with caution. Within a couple of hours, however, the attackers had gotten closer and realized they had the upper hand. It was time to go, so Lieutenant Turnbull collected everyone who was in any shape to move — no more than 18 by this time — and carefully withdrew to the town, leaving two volunteers to look after the wounded. His actions had bought the rest of the paratroopers stationed in the town enough valuable time to hold back the enemy until the troops arrived from the beach. Sainte Mere Eglise was now permanently in American hands. The Chief sadly never received the recognition that he was due: by nightfall the next day his name was on the list of those killed in action.
Today Neuville-au-Plain is a quiet and unremarkable little village with a church, a few houses and the odd farm. However, one sight that the visitor driving up from Sainte Mere Eglise cannot miss is the wall plaque that was placed there after the engagement by grateful villagers, a familiar sight in many communities in Normandy.
There is an interesting footnote to this story which will be of interest to anyone familiar with “Saving Private Ryan.” The film was based on a true story involving an American mother losing three of her four sons in the war, which prompted the U.S. army to invoke its Sole Survivor Policy. The family name was Niland, changed to Ryan for the film, and one of the volunteers who stayed behind to help the wounded was Robert Niland. Tragically, he was killed defending them when the Germans took Neuville. The surviving Niland brother, Fritz, was himself a member of the 101st Airborne that had dropped just a few miles away.
There are of course many sites such as these which will testify to events which are not prominent in the history books, and I would encourage anyone with a day to spare after visiting the beaches, cemeteries and excellent museums that exist in Normandy to go out into the backroads and check them out. Not only are they free from crowds, especially in the summer, but invariably nothing has changed except a layer of tarmac on the road. Switch off your engine, get out of the car, take a deep breath and your imagination will do the rest.
Acknowledgements: Lee Murphy, student of new media communications at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and copy editor for A Woman’s Paris.
Alan Davidge was born in London two years after World War II ended. Now, after forty years of working in education, he lives with his wife Carol in a part of Normandy that was liberated by U.S. troops who landed on D-Day. They have recently moved out of the Norman farmhouse that took five years to renovate and are now taking on the bigger challenge of restoring an old cottage that carries a 1785 datestone above the door and sits in an acre of land. Since 2009, Alan has been using his knowledge and experience as a historian to accompany visitors around the Normandy beaches and battlefields. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post D-Day Travel Guide: For American visitors to Normandy, France, by Alan Davidge, D-Day tours historian, Normandy. Alan has managed to seek out a number of places of significance that do not usually feature in guidebooks. Guides included.
Stars, Stripes and Seine: Americans in occupied Paris 1940-1944, by Alan Davidge. 5,000 Americans refused to leave Paris after war broke out in September 1939. Who were they? Read the stories of how Josephine Baker, Sylvia Beach, Arthur Briggs, Drue Leyton, and others lived and breathed Paris during the war. (A Woman’s Paris interview with Alan Davidge)
Tilar J. Mazzeo’s “The Hotel on Place Vendôme” – Hôtel Ritz in Paris: June 1940 (excerpt). Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of the New York Times bestseller The Widow Clicquot, and The Secret of Chanel No. 5. This riveting account uncovers the remarkable experiences of those who lived in the hotel during the German occupation of Paris, revealing how what happened in the Ritz’s corridors, palatial suites, and basement kitchens shaped the fate of those who met there by chance or assignation, the future of France, and the course of history. (A Woman’s Paris interview with Tilar J. Mazzeo)
John Baxter’s “Paris at the End of the World” – Patriotism transforming fashion (excerpt). Preeminent writer on Paris, John Baxter brilliantly brings to life one of the most dramatic and fascinating periods in the city’s history. Uncovering a thrilling chapter in Paris’ history, John Baxter’s revelatory new book, Paris at the End of the World: The City of Light During the Great War, 1914-1918, shows how this extraordinary period was essential in forging the spirit of the city we love today. (A Woman’s Paris interview with John Baxter)
Normandy never forgets: WWII monuments and memorials in France (part one), by Alan Davidge, D-Day historian for tours in Normandy. Alan shares a number of places of significance and remembrance. Guides included. (A Woman’s Paris interview with Alan Davidge)
Normandy never forgets: WWII, a homecoming (part two), by Alan Davidge, D-Day historian for tours in Normandy. Alan shares his remembrance of a tour he created for an American WWII veteran who was returning with his daughter to visit places in France where he had served.
The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 – Excerpt from Ronald C. Rosbottom’s “When Paris Went Dark”. June 14, 1940, German tanks entered a silent and deserted Paris and The City of Light was occupied by the Third Reich for the next four years. Rosbottom illuminates the unforgettable history of both the important and minor challenges of day-to-day life under Nazi occupation, and of the myriad forms of resistance that took shape during that period. August 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris, perfect timing for Ronald C. Rosbottom’s riveting history of the period. (A Woman’s Paris interview with Ronald C. Rosbottom)
Text copyright ©2015 Alan Davidge. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2015 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.