Operations of the 1st Bn, 506th Prcht Inf Regt, 101st Airborne Division June 6/8 1944, Carentan and Vicinity, (Personal Experience of a Company Commander), Maj Knut H. Raudstein
The operations of a Parachute Battalion in the Normandy Campaign is an unusual subject for military study for several reasons :
(a) The missions assigned to the airborne units participating in the campaign were successfully accomplished despite an initial operational fiasco.
(b) The pre-invasion prediction of Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory that the operation was so hazardous that it was doomed to failure was not confirmed.
(c) While the Normandy campaign entailed the first large scale use of airborne troops, the actual number of troops seizing the objectives was relatively small.
This archive relates to the operations of the 1st Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, from D Day to D plus 2 in the seizure of a beachhead on the Cotentin Peninsula near Carentan, France, during the Normandy Campaign in June of 1944. The operations of this battalion can be considered typical of the other participating parachute battalions. Its esprit de corps was high; its pre-combat training had been intensive; its troops were properly imbued with the will to close with and destroy the enemy; and its missions were accomplished with similar difficulties and degrees of success.
The seizure of the Cotentin Peninsula and the port city of Cherbourg was of vital importance to the success of Operation Overlord, the plan for the invasion of western Europe. Drafting of the operation had begun in the summer of 1943, when the Germans had been driven out of Africa and the assault in Italy was progressing as planned. Troops and supplies had been built up in England to permit a major campaign designed to cross the channel, establish beachheads for the unloading of troops and logistical support, and to secure ports for the more efficient movement of battle impedimenta. The general plan envisaged the employment of five assault beaches : three in the British sector to the east, and two in the American sector to the west. Two American airborne divisions and one British airborne division were available in addition to the seaborne troops. It was determined that the two American divisions, the 82d and 101st, would be employed in the rear of the western beaches to facilitate the early capture of Cherbourg. Two terrain features which dominated the area of operations prescribed the majority of the initial objectives for these two divisions.
Terrain off the Cotentin
The Douve river is the dominating feature of the Cotentin Peninsula. Its course is generally to the southeast, winding through a wide flat valley and emptying into the English Channel north of Carentan. A lock near Carentan was believed to control the drainage of this valley, and It was thought that the force holding the lock could flood the valley, thereby restricting traffic into the peninsula to a few bridges. The westernmost assault beach, given the code name of Utah, was a wide, flat, sandy beach which was dominated by high ground about a thousand yards inland. Between the beach and the high ground was a strip of low, marshy ground which air photos revealed to be inundated. This area was traversed by four causeways, which could be easily blown or obstructed, and was defended by a system of entrenchments, pillboxes mounting tank turrets, and concrete gun emplacements, all of which gave interlocking fire with adjacent positions. Thus the terrain dictated that the look to the north of Carentan, the bridges across the Douve, and the high ground dominating the four beach exits be quickly seized to permit the unrestricted use of the beach, and to prevent the enemy from moving his reserves into the beachhead. In addition to these, the disposition of enemy troops demanded that one other objective be secured.
On the high ground dominating the northern part of the beach was an emplaced coastal battery which commanded the entire beach The reduction of this position and the capture of troops manning it was another mission given to the airborne force. Elsewhere on the peninsula, intelligence reports indicated that the 79. and 243. Infantry Divisions were disposed along the east and west coasts respectively. Shortly before the invasion, additional intelligence revealed that the 91. Infantry Division had also moved into the Utah beach area. The enemy was believed capable; of rigid defense of the beaches by the 79. Division supported at Adjacent divisional areas. Other divisions occupied the areas around the landing zones, including : 243. Infanteriedivision (Static) (Generalleutnant Heinz Hellmich), comprising the 920. Infanterieregiment (two battalions), 921. Infanterieregiment, and 922. Infanterieregiment Infantry Regiment. This coastal defense division protected the western coast of the Cotentin Peninsula; the 711. Infanteriedivision (Static), comprising the 731. Infanterieregiment, and 744. Infanterieregiment. This division defended the western part of the Pays de Caux; and 30. Schnelle Brigade (Oberstleutnant Freiherr von und zu Aufsess), comprising three bicycle battalions.
Rommel’s defensive measures were also frustrated by a dispute over armoured doctrine. In addition to his two army groups, von Rundstedt also commanded the headquarters of Panzer Group West under General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg (usually referred to as von Geyr). This formation was nominally an administrative HQ for von Rundstedt’s armored and mobile formations, but it was later to be renamed Fifth Panzer Army and brought into the line in Normandy. Von Geyr and Rommel disagreed over the deployment and use of the vital Panzer divisions. Rommel recognized that the Allies would possess air superiority and would be able to harass his movements from the air. He therefore proposed that the armored formations be deployed close to the invasion beaches. In his words, it was better to have one Panzer division facing the invaders on the first day, than three Panzer divisions three days later when the Allies would already have established a firm beachhead. Von Geyr argued for the standard doctrine that the Panzer formations should be concentrated in a central position around Paris and Rouen, and deployed en masse against the main Allied beachhead when this had been identified. The argument was eventually brought before Hitler for arbitration. He characteristically imposed an unworkable compromise solution. Only three Panzer divisions were given to Rommel, too few to cover all the threatened sectors. The remainder, nominally under Von Geyr’s control, were actually designated as being in “OKW Reserve”. Only three of these were deployed close enough to intervene immediately against any invasion of Northern France, the other four were dispersed in Southern France and the Netherlands. Hitler reserved to himself the authority to move the divisions in OKW Reserve, or commit them to action. On 6 June, many Panzer division commanders were unable to move because Hitler had not given the necessary authorization, and his staff refused to wake him upon news of the invasion.
21. Panzerdivision (Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger) was deployed near Caen as a mobile striking force as part of the Army Group B reserve. However, Rommel placed it so close to the coastal defenses that, under standing orders in case of invasion, several of its infantry and anti-aircraft units would come under the orders of the fortress divisions on the coast, reducing the effective strength of the division. The other mechanized divisions capable of intervening in Normandy were retained under the direct control of the German Armed Forces HQ (OKW) and were initially denied to Rommel.
Missions and Plans
The mission of the VII Corps, as indicated in Field Order Number 1, dated 28 May 1944, was : VII Corps assaults Utah Beach on D Day at H hour and captures Cherbourg with minimum delay.
The 101st Airborne Division was assigned to this Corps with the general mission of landing in rear of the beach, securing the beachhead from the north, preventing the movement of enemy reserves into the south flank of the Corps along the Douve river, seizing the high ground in rear of the beach, and making contact with the 82d Airborne Division to the west. The division plan called for the initial employment of its three parachute regiments in the seizure of the division objectives, to be later supported by the glider regiment which, due to the scarcity of planes, would have to arrive by sea. The 506th Parachute Infantry was given the mission of seizing the two southern beach exits, destroying all lines of communication in its zone, particularly the underground cable connecting Carentan and Cherbourg, the seizure of two wooden bridges across the Douve between the look and the sea, and establishing contact with the 501st Parachute Infantry which was to seize the lock and the bridges leading into Carentan. The regimental plan prescribed the use of two drop zones and assigned the mission of seizing the beach exits to the 2nd Battalion, the seizure of the bridges to the 3rd Battalion, and the severance of the Carentan – Cherbourg cable to a platoon of the 1st Battalion, which was to remain in regimental reserve.
The 1st Battalion was given another platoon mission – that of demonstrating to the south of the village of St Marie du Mont while the 2nd Battalion marched around the north of the town en route to the beach exits. Drop Zone C was assigned to the 1st and 2nd Battalions plus Regimental Headquarters. Drop Zone D was assigned to the 3rd Battalion.
These and most of the other planning details were settled prior to May 29 1944, when the Regiment was sealed in its marshaling areas at airfields in the south of England. There, the first order of business was the orientation and briefing of troops. For this purpose, paper mâche models of the area, including the drop zones and objectives, had been previously prepared, and were issued to the units. Briefing was done by platoon. Initially, the Battalion staff officers and company commanders were briefed, then each platoon leader brought his platoon into the briefing tent for a complete orientation on the enemy situation. The missions of the regiment, the objectives of each battalion, the regimental, battalion, and company plans, and the terrain, paying particular attention to the drop zones and the routes to the objectives, were studied.
As the 1st Battalion was to be in Regimental reserve, Lt Col William A Turner, the battalion commander, personally briefed each platoon of his battalion on his plan for the execution of any of the Regimental missions which the reserve battalion might inherit should anything happen to any of the other battalions. A platoon, of A Co. studied routes to the Carentan – Cherbourg cable and a platoon of B Co paid particular attention to the terrain south of St Marie du Mont.
It must be kept in mind that at the time of this operation the battalion consisted of one headquarters company and three rifle companies and that one headquarters company consisted of one headquarters, one 81 MM mortar platoon (four guns), one machine gun platoon (eight guns), one communications platoon and one section of rocket launchers (this was not authorized by TO&E). The rifle companies consisted of one headquarters and three platoons of two rifle squads and a 60 MM mortar squad each. The total strength of each rifle company was 128 men and 8 officers and the total strength of the battalion with medical and other attachments was slightly over 600.
Following the initial orientation, maps were distributed in three scales. Quantities were sufficient that each enlisted man received a 1/100,000 map of the entire Cotentin Peninsula. Each officer, first sergeant, and mortar squad leader received 1/50,000 sheets of the division zone of responsibility, and each officer platoon sergeant, and mortar squad leader received a set of 1/25,000 maps of the division area. As the complete set in the latter two scales was too voluminous for one individual to carry, the recipient selected those sheets which he considered to be of utmost tactical value and distributed the other sheets to individuals of his command.
In addition to these, a specially prepared night map of the drop zone and immediate vicinity was distributed to each individual. This map consisted of a 1/7,500 vertical photo of the center of the drop zone, surrounded by sketches of the adjacent country side as it might appear from an elevation of 1,000 feet over the center of the drop zone. These maps were studied by individuals, squads, and platoons. Road nets were sketched and memorized, and, finally, each platoon visited the briefing tent to study the terrain model at least one more time. This substitution for a ground reconnaissance prior to an attack was carried on concurrently with the distribution of special equipment.
The lack of ammunition carriers made resupply of mortar and machine gun ammunition a serious problem. In an attempt to solve this problem, each individual not a member of a machine gun or mortar crew was required to carry either a belt of ammunition or a 60 MM mortar round. Additional ammunition for these weapons was put in bundles to be dropped from the racks of the airplanes. Antitank defense was to be initially confined to the rocket launchers carried in the platoons.
Experience had indicated that the tubes of these weapons were frequently bent or otherwise damaged on dropping. Therefore, half of these weapons were to be dropped on the person of the gunners and the balance dropped in bundles from the racks. To supplement this meager antitank defense, each individual was given a one-pound Hawkins antitank mine to be collected upon reaching the assembly areas.
Phosphorescent discs were issued for individual identification or night recognition, and phosphorescent cords were made available to distinctively mark each squad bundle. Ordinary ten-cent-store metal crickets were distributed for challenging during the assembly – one click the challenge; two clicks the reply. The passwords for the first five days were memorized.
Flight manifests were prepared. The chaplains held daily well-attended services. Letters were written and censored. Movies were shown nightly. Some athletic activity was arranged, although this was limited due to the need for security. While the marshalling tent camps had been erected several weeks prior to their occupancy, the grass in the center of the fields had not been trampled, and it was, therefore, prudent to limit traffic to the edge of the fields lest aerial reconnaissance reveal the presence of troops.
A new type individual first aid packet was made available, which contained a large dressing, a tourniquet, and a morphine syrets. Benzedrine tablets were issued to the company commanders halazone tablets were issued to all. Gas proof capes, vesicant detectors, and assault type gas masks were issued. The uniform was the jump suit, gas impregnated. Ranges were provided, where a last check of the weapons’ zero setting could be made. The troops were permitted to exchange the money in their possession for French, francs. One thousand francs were entrusted to each company commander for use in paying guides. Pilot escape kits were signed out to each officer. The escape kit included in its rubberized-fabric container one thousand francs, a compass small enough to be concealed in the anus, a map of France printed on a piece of silk the size of a handkerchief, and a small steel file.
British-type leg bags had been procured to be used by radio operators and members of weapons crews to permit them to descend with their equipment available for immediate action. Mae Wests and parachutes were issued, fitted, and checked, Containers for rifles, sacks for machine gun belts, and ammunition was allotted. The basic load of small arms, crew-served weapons, ammunition, and grenades was prescribed for each individual. In addition to this, as much, additional ammunition of any type that an individual desired to carry was made available. Ordnance, Signal, and Quartermaster teams were present in the marshalling area to repair, replace, or issue any of the normal items of troop equipment. A service detachment prepared excellent meals. These service units relieved the units of all responsibilities and details that were humanly possible.
Most of the details of preparation had been completed prior to D minus 1, so that day was devoted to last minute adjustments of equipment, the final honing of trench knives, and rest. Supper on D minus 1 consisted of white bread, steak, and ice cream in addition to other more familiar items on the menu.
At 2000 hours, the men blackened their faces, buckled into their equipment and marched to their planes on the airstrip; stopping en route at the hangar to pick up their parachutes and Mae Wests. While this was a short march, it was fatiguing, as the weight of equipment and parachute paraphernalia nearly doubled the weight of the individual. Pilots and jump masters checked the plane manifests, a jeep messenger delivered to each plane farewell messages from Generals Montgomery and Eisenhower, the motors were turned over, motion sickness pills were taken, and at 2310 the battalion was airborne.
Taking off from Upottery Field, in addition to the 1st Battalion, was the Regimental Headquarters serial, and a battalion from the 501st Parachute Infantry, also scheduled to land on Drop Zone C. The regiment’s 3rd Battalion had taken off from Exeter Airfield with another battalion of the 501st, which was bound for Drop Zone D. The joint briefing of pilots and jump masters on D minus 2 had thoroughly covered rendez-vous areas for all elements of the division, serial composition, time and space between serials, routes of all serials to and from the drop areas, and particular stress had been given to the drop signals. It had been prescribed that a tight formation would be flown, the altitude over the drop zone was to be a minimum of six hundred feet and a maximum of one thousand feet, and air speed was to be approximately one hundred ten miles an hour while parachutists were jumping.
The crew chief would notify the jump master when the planes were ten minutes away from the DZ. A red light would be flashed five minutes away from the DZ and all planes of a aerial would flash a green light simultaneously, the GO signal, when the serial leader had passed over the pathfinders’ T, and signaled the other planes from his astro dome. Pathfinder markings would consist of the location of radar and radio homing sets at the bisection of the two green electrically lighted lines of the Ts. Pathfinders would fly slightly different routes and would arrive on the ground one-half hour before the combat serials.
The takeoff, serial rendez-vous, and formation of the sky train were uneventful. The air was calm, the anti motion pills had tended to make the men drowsy, and the formation was extremely tight. Two-ground check points, the Bill of Portland and the Portland Light Ship, were passed and everything appeared propitious for a successful jump, when the coast of France was clearly sighted some fifteen hundred feet below. Just inland of the coast, the formation entered a dense cloud or fog bank. The pilots immediately compensated for this by taking some interval. As the fog grew even more dense and visibility dropped to zero, pilot apprehension could be detected in that the planes were not handled as smoothly as before. To add to the difficulties of poor vision, light flak was experienced and some ships were shot down. Upon flying out of the fog into a clear sky, the arcs of small arms tracers could be observed looping up from the ground.
The pilots, disregarding their orders, took violent evasive action, some diving to treetop level, others climbing, turning, and doing whatever could be done to avoid the light ground fire. The formation left after leaving the fog was soon entirely dissipated, and with it went tactical unity and all of the carefully made plans to land in mass on the drop fields. Jump master reports indicated that elements of three planes tended to stay together, which was some small consolation. The speed of ground assembly is directly proportional to the concentration of planes in the air. Experience has proven that the conditions for an ideal jump assembly are :
– minimum distance in depth and width of serial/effect the greatest concentration of parachutists in the air;
– calm air and minimum air speed, short of stalling, prevent dispersion due to both drift and extended interval between the first and last men out of the planes;
– flat even terrain to prevent minor injuries on landing, and to give an unobstructed view of the entire drop zone; and experienced troops.
Assembly training had been extensive, both after actual jumps and simulated jumps. The best possible jump fields had been selected. The air was calm, but the factors of air speed and flight concentration were not under the control of the tactical commander, and consequently the speedy assembly of troops and prompt execution of the missions appeared to be doomed to failure as predicted.
Some sticks were dropped as far as twenty miles away from the nearest drop zone. The majority of the jump masters reported they did not see their crew chiefs after they were airborne; most got a warning light in varying times from the drop; air speeds seemed to be excessive, although this was only a matter of opinion; and jump altitudes varied from four hundred feet to fifteen hundred feet. Some sticks were dropped so near to the coast that the last few men in the sticks landed in the water.
– The 2nd Battalion drop was centered about four miles to the north of its prescribed zone; only one of its planes landed near DZ C. The battalion mission of capturing the two southern beach exits was thus made more difficult by virtue of the additional distance interposed between landing and objective.
– The 3rd Battalion, while dropped in a fairly concentrated pattern, was unfortunate in that the German defenders in the selected drop areas had considered that area to be a likely parachute landing field, and had ringed the area with troops in elaborate defensive positions. A house in the center of the zone had been soaked in oil and was fired when the troops were in mid air. This light, in addition to the light of the battle, was sufficient to permit better marksmanship than in the other zones, and more numerous immediate casualties resulted. This defense further prohibited any kind of assembly, and made the seizure of the two wooden bridges across the Douve seem a remote possibility.
– The planes of the Regimental Headquarters, Headquarters and Service Companies were also scattered far from the drop zone C, but the most unfortunate result of this was that three of the sticks of communications personnel, with their equipment, were dropped miles from the area of proposed operation.
– The 1st Battalion’s drop was comparatively concentrated and centered south of St Marie du Mont, about a mile from the prescribed zone. While this area was also defended, the resulting casualties were not nearly as heavy as the 3rd Battalion had experienced, but the assembly problem was as great, for the drop was centered between St Marie du Mont, which was occupied in strength by the enemy, and a battery of 105’s which had not been reported in any intelligence. Movement from this field was slow and hazardous, and many men took cover in drainage ditches and indentations, and did not leave the field for several hours.
Aside from the poor drop and enemy interference, the major factor retarding the assembly was the terrain. The carefully made map and terrain model studies were rendered worthless by the drop dispersion of troops outside of the division zone, but in addition, the size of the hedgerows and their influence on observation had not been taken into account. The hedgerows were man-high, and averaged about three feet in thickness, and were surmounted by brush and other vegetation. These served to make each field, which was normally small, a compartment which denied observation out of the field, and from the tops of the hedgerows permitted observation into only the adjacent field. Therefore, a man could have been dropped alone into a field and he would have been as effectively isolated from the other troops as if he had been dropped a mile away. It was the loneliness and darkness of the night, coupled with the lack of observation, that primarily slowed down the troops in their assembly. Daylight did little to improve the movement to the assembly areas, for the increased observation was shared equally with the enemy. Assembly lights had been of little assistance by virtue of their limited range; cow bells, whistles, and other sound means were equally poor for the noise of battle tended to drown them out, and the new sound of the high cyclic rate enemy machine guns commanded the greater attention.
Supply problems were aggravated by the poor drop. Simultaneously with the debarkation of the parachutists, the pilots had salvoed the equipment bundles under the planes. Few bundles were retrieved during darkness, as each was marked with a small electric light and the dangers inherent in moving these lights about were all too fully realized by the troops. In the areas wherein the troops were under fire or near heavy firing, primary attention was given to departing those areas with utmost speed. Consequently, equipment believed to be cumbersome or unnecessary was abandoned with the parachutes and Mae Wests at the drop site. Gas masks were most generally discarded. Some men were forced to leave their musette bags with the precious mortar and machine gun ammunition and the mines. Supply details, working the fields in the succeeding few days, retrieved much of this equipment, although some was picked up by the natives and the enemy.
Most of the enemy positions captured held several bundles and an abundance of American equipment, ammunition, rations, weapons, cigarettes, and souvenirs. Thus, until noon of D Day, the troops had few automatic weapons, mortars, radios, or rocket launchers, other than those which had been jumped on the person of the jumper, a practice which had been unpopular in training, but which paid dividends in combat.
H minus 4 Hours
Col Turner, the battalion commander, assembled about thirty of the men who had landed with him on drop zone C, joined the regimental commander on the field and sent patrols to locate other parties assembling. The jump had taken place at about 0115, June 6 and it had been anticipated that in two hours the bulk of the battalion would be assembled and would move to its reserve position near Culoville. When the battalion commander arrived at Culoville, his command consisted of two officers and about forty men. By 0400 small groups had wandered in and raised the strength of the battalion to nearly fifty.
Col Robert F. Sink, commander of the 506th Parachute Infantry, being without communications equipment, was unable to contact his 2nd and, 3rd Battalions or to locate either unit by patrols. Knowing the importance of the seizure of the beach exits, at approximately 0430, he ordered Col Turner to take the 1st Battalion to seize beach exit 1. One officer was left behind to assemble the rest of the battalion as it came in, and the force moved off down the road to accomplish the mission of the 2nd Battalion. Meanwhile, the 2nd Battalion was having much better fortune in its assembly and with a strength of about two hundred was en route to the beach, exits. The division commander not having been in communication with Col Sink, had committed his reserve end when the Turner force arrived at the exit, it was already in the hands of the Division, whereupon the force returned to Culoville, meeting light resistance.
Action at Holdy
The route of the Turner force from Culoville to the beach exit passed within five hundred yards of the 105 battery, which was receiving attention from other members of the battalion. The battery was firing its four pieces toward the beach, and its personnel had been engaging the troops in the field with small arms fire. The sound of this fire attracted several of the lost who gravitated to the sound in search of their units. At Holdy, the company commanders of Headquarters and C Co joined a force of ten or more men from Headquarters, A and B Cos who were attempting to place the battery under fire. This group was immediately increased by two men from the 82nd Division, who were far from their landing zones. One of these men had a 1903 rifle with a grenade launcher and some rifle grenades. The other principal armament of the force was a light machine gun with three belts of ammunition.
This group left the buildings at Holdy and moved to a stone farmhouse about twenty yards from the battery position. The machine gun was set up in the road and one belt fired at the position. The hedgerows on both sides of the road restricted the traverse of the gun to less than ten degrees, and it is doubtful that this firing caused any casualties to the enemy. However, the proximity of the fire did cause the gun crews to leave their pieces and take cover in the ditch surrounding the position and the pieces were thereafter not fired by the enemy. The attacking force realized that it had not yet accomplished anything of real value and would not until the guns themselves were seized. It was decided that a base of fire would be established with the machine gun and the grenade launcher, and the remainder of the force would cross the road and attempt to enter the ditch in which the gun crews were taking cover. The grenade launcher was set up at the edge of the building atop a hedgerow, but while targets were being pointed out to the gunner, he was shot in the neck; whereupon, he withdrew to Holdy where aid men had established an aid station.
The machine gun and grenade launcher, under the command of one officer, was moved to positions on higher ground across from the farmhouse. The other officer and two men prepared to move along a hedgerow toward the position and then, under cover of the hedgerow surrounding the position, planned to enter the ditch from the northwest. Just as they were moving out, the battalion antitank officer, with one rocket launcher and two men from the antitank platoon, arrived from Holdy. They were oriented quickly and sent around a lateral hedgerow to get into position where they could fire into, or preferably enter, the ditch from the southwest. These two flanking elements moved forward while the machine gun fired short bursts at the top of the hedgerow concealing the ditch.
Both flanking units crossed the road at about the same time and advanced toward the entrances to the ditch, throwing grenades. The enemy threw grenades back. Although the potato masher grenade could be thrown further, its effect was not comparable to the fragmentation grenade. The ditch was entered from both directions as planned, and the two forces converged toward the center of the position. The ditch had been improved and made into a deep trench in which ammunition for the guns and grenades and small arms had been liberally stocked. The defenders gave little resistance once the trench was entered, because the blast of the rockets from one flank and the continual concussion of grenades from the other took most of the fight out of the artillery men. Some fled down a drainage ditch to the east. About thirty prisoners were taken, and approximately fifty dead or wounded were found in the trenches.
The reduction of the position permitted many soldiers, who had landed near the position, to leave their cover and proceed toward their assembly areas. Some of these men had lain within fifteen yards of the ditch all night, and would have most certainly been killed or captured had the defenders left the cover of their trench and aggressively policed the field instead of attempting to cover the field by fire.
Included in those released from their enforced retirement were the battalion S3, several division staff officers who had landed in the field by glider during the night, about forty 1st Battalion men, and numerous others from other organizations. Total casualties for the attacking force was the one man wounded in the neck. Found on the position were numerous supply bundles, a quantity of small arms ammunition and grenades, an SCR 300 radio, and the bodies of several parachutists who had landed within the position. Ammunition was redistributed, the troops reorganized, and the decision reached to attack the village of St Marie du Mont through the ditch system to the east and north. A radio operator was located. The frequency was adjusted to the regimental command net on the retrieved radio and the regimental commander notified of the situation and the decision to attack the village. He concurred in the decision and urged caution. He further requested that he be kept advised of the situation and progress, as he had radio contact with only one other force, the other 1st Battalion element at Exit 1.
The force, consisting then of the company commanders of Headquarters and C Cos, the S3, the anti tank platoon commander, and about ten men each from Headquarters, A and B Cos, with an armament of one light machine gun and one rocket launcher, entered the ditch to the east of the battery position and proceeded in column of files toward St Marie du Mont.
In the ditch and in the field, many seriously wounded men were found. These were assisted back to the Holdy aid station by members of the force. This so dissipated its strength that when a junction of two major ditches was reached, about two hundred yards from the edge of the town, only about ten men and the officers were left.
The same tactics were agreed upon for the capture of the town. A base of fire unit and an assaulting force was established. At the ditch junction, one company commander proceeded up the ditch with one man and a machine gun, and the other party attempted to cross the open field to the east to close on the south edge of the village. Two men were selected as scouts and directed to proceed across the field by bounds. The first man ran about twenty feet into the field and took cover behind some wisps of hay. A machine gun from the edge of the town opened fire on this man and wounded him. He was retrieved under continuous machine gun fire and the plan to cross this open ground was abandoned. The progress of the other officer with the machine gun was equally fruitless, and the force withdrew to the battery position. Here one of the guns was bore sighted on the steeple of the town church and after knocking that potential observation point out, the suspected machine gun locations on the edge of town were fired upon.
Col Sink was again contacted by radio and informed of the failure of the attack, and advised that the town could be taken if more troops were available. Reinforced by forty or more men from the regimental CP, another attack on the town was launched. By this time, 1300, elements of the 4th Infantry Division were pushing into the town from the east, and the town fell without serious opposition.
During the day, the 3rd Battalion had secured the second beach exit and troops of the seaborne units were passing through the exits and proceeding inland to the north. At dusk the two elements of the 1st Battalion and the 2d Battalion were assembled at Culoville. There had still been no word from or contact made with the 3rd Battalion, which was responsible for a regimental objective to the south. Neither had there been any contact with the battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry, which was responsible for securing the highway bridges over the Douve, north of Carentan.
Tactically, the regiment could be considered the best established of any in the division. The regimental commander had control of two of his battalions and was more or less centrally located within the division area; whereas, the other regiments were engaged in accomplishing their missions on the perimeter. These, and the absence of positive information of the units to the south, were the considerations that caused Maj Gen Maxwell Taylor, the Division Commander, to visit the regimental CP on the night of 6 June, and order the regiment to reconnoiter the area to the south in force. To assist in this, he attached to the regiment the 401st Glider Infantry, which had come
ashore during the day.
Reconnaissance to the South
As the 401st was at full strength and fresh, Col Sink planned to have it lead the attack through Vierville toward St Come du Mont, to be followed by the 1st Battalion, the 2nd Battalion, Regimental Headquarters, a platoon of attached AT guns, and a platoon of engineers. The strength of the 1st Battalion was unpretentious; A Co numbered around forty, B had nearly fifty, C totaled thirty odd, and Headquarters Co approximately fifty. The attack was planned for 0430 on June 7. The 401st Glider failed to appear at the appointed time and the 1st Battalion was given the mission of leading the attack. B Co was ordered to take responsibility for two hundred yards on the right of the road, C Co two hundred yards on the left of the road, and A and Hqs Cos were ordered to follow on the road. The Battalion S4 had been active during the night, and as the Companies passed the IP on time, rations and a limited quantity of ammunition were handed out.
B Co was harassed by sniper fire which came from the hedgerows to its front and right; consequently, its progress was slow. C Co, moving in a line of platoons in column along adjacent hedgerows, had no contact with the enemy until reaching the highway from the beach to St Come du Mont. Here, at the north of Vierville, C Co was engaged by a force of approximately a platoon. The Company deployed on both sides of the road and sent one squad around the extreme left-flank to attempt to dislodge the enemy from the hedgerows. This squad did not move far enough to the left and was outflanked and pinned down by fire.
B Co had come up to Vierville on the right of the road and was preparing to continue toward the south when Gen Taylor and Col Sink contacted Col Turner in the Vierville church. Hqs and A Cos had continued on the road into Vierville without opposition. Col Sink had received information that elements of the 3rd Battalion had held their objective, so he ordered the 1st Battalion toward a crossroads to the south of St Come du Monte. As C Co was still engaged, A Co was ordered to take A Co’s position on the left of the road, and C Co was ordered to disengage and take A Co’s place in the column.
C Co requested an anti tank gun to assist in disengaging the forward squad. This gun was made available by the regimental commander, and with it the hedgerows in which the enemy was concealed were taken under direct fire, relieving the pressure on the squad so that it withdrew without suffering any casualties. The enemy did, however, pursue the squad along the hedgerows, so that when the squad had rejoined the Company at the edge of the town and the Company had proceeded south on the road toward St Come du Mont, the 3rd Battalion, following on the road, was taken under fire while in the town, and pinned down for several hours.
The progress of B and A Cos, after leaving Vierville, was slow. The enemy occupied the hedgerows, particularly on the right of the road, and forward progress by B Co was made by sending out units to outflank the enemy positions. Whereupon, the enemy would withdraw one hedgerow to his rear, and the same process would have to be repeated. The smokeless, flash less properties of the enemy’s ammunition, and his skill at camouflaging himself and his positions, made it extremely difficult to locate the precise location from which he was firing.
The hedgerows deserve more than just passing comment for they had a direct affect on the tactics employed by units of all echelons. The French farmers considered them as part of the economy of the land, as they served in a variety of ways. A hedgerow was at once :
a permanent fence which required little or no maintenance;
a plot of ground which supported the growth of small trees and brush, providing the farmer with his cooking am heating fuel;
a cover to birds and small animals for his table;
a vineyard from which he harvested berries;
a barrier for the control of surface drainage and erosion; and, not the least important
a wind break, protecting his crops from channel storms.
The Germans integrated these barricades into their defenses. Throughout the hedgerows and particularly the intersections, they dug spider holes, carefully removing the soil and retaining the natural appearance of the position. These provided a series of pré-constructed outpost lines or defensive lines, which could be manned by a minimum of troops and permitted the greatest flexibility of movement to the defenders. The trees and brush were ideal for the erection and concealment of telephone wire, as they screened observation from everywhere except the air. The hedgerows were thick enough to give protection from the fire of all weapons except direct hits of artillery.
The ditches at the base of each side of the hedgerows were available for protection when the attacker employed his mortars, so that the only effective fire which could be placed on defending troops was direct hits in the ditches or on the spider holes. The advantages of the hedgerow systems were predominately with the defender through his knowledge of the terrain and the location of the pré-constructed emplacements. A small holding force could delay a relatively large force and cause it to deploy, bring up its mortars, search the suspected hedgerow, and probe extensively to the flanks. The decision to abandon the position remained with the defender until antitank weapons could be brought up, and, by direct short range fire, blast open the spider hole. This method, while effective, was costly in gun crews, and embarrassingly slow, for a squad could delay a battalion for a matter of hours.
While training in England, the division had maneuvered in the Slapton Sands area on the south coast. This area had been chosen as it most nearly represented the terrain of Normandy. The hedgerows, the clay soil, the Norman type architecture, the deep sunken roads, and the tactics were essentially the same as were later seen in Normandy. Unfortunately, the tactics at Slapton Sands and for the first few days in Normandy were confined to maneuvering along the road nets, and the tremendous tactical benefits which could have been gained through better use of the Slapton Sands area were lost.
Action at Beaumont
The distance from Vierville to Beaumont by road is less than 1700 yards, yet it took approximately an hour and a half for the 1st Battalion to reach this small cluster of farm buildings. Here, the line was slowly straightened when B Co pulled up along side of A Co, which had had relatively open terrain on its flank and had progressed more rapidly. It was here, also, that the first organized defensive position, occupied in strength, was reached. On the right of the road, in B Co’s sector, was a farmhouse surrounded by orchards. It was on commanding ground and the area around had been built up into a strong defensive position. Connecting trenches ran down the hill to the house, where they branched off in all directions and gave clear fields of fire and excellent routes of withdrawal. B Co, in its forward push, had pressed the enemy back to the house but could not stretch its already thin line further to insure that the house and the adjacent trenches were cleared. These positions were reoccupied by the enemy and B Co was taken under heavy fire, suffering several casualties. At approximately the same time, accurate mortar fire fell on the crossroad at Beaumont, and continued to fall intermittently throughout the remainder of the time the battalion operated in that area.
A Co, pushing off again on the left, was stopped, immediately by machine gun fire from the hedgerows to its direct front. Previously, in the morning’s advance, most of the opposition had been rifle fire, but this fire was much heavier in volume and the casualties inflicted in the first skirmish with this position were heavy. About seven men from B Co had become casualties since leaving Vierville; A Co now lost five, C and Hqs Cos together had lost another five from mortar fire on the road.
Shortly before noon, three light tanks from the beach joined the battalion at Beaumont. They were sent up the road toward the head of the column, where Col Turner and the Tank Commander decided to attempt to knock out the machine gun positions by tank artillery fire. To point out targets, Col Turner, who was a farmer Cavalry officer, got into the lead tank and it started down the road. It had gone but a few yards when Col Turner, who was standing up in the turret, was shot through the head and killed instantly. The news of this misfortune spread rapidly through the battalion, and served to split the battalion into four separate companies.
Col Turner was a slight, aggressive individual, and had been with the battalion since its activation. He had dominated his staff and company commanders, but his strong character had been a source of inspiration and confidence to the battalion. His executive officer had only one previous opportunity to demonstrate his capabilities to the battalion, and that had been an unfortunate experience on the occasion of Col Turner’s only leave. The incident had occurred on the last battalion exercise prior to moving to the marshalling area. It had been a cold, miserable night, and nothing had been accomplished according to plan. The route had been lost and there was much marching without purpose. The troops chose to ignore the difficulties of the terrain, the complete darkness, and other inadvertent misfortunes, and laid full blame for their misery, whether or not it was justified, on the acting battalion commander. Although Col Turner had been a strict disciplinarian, and had been exacting with his officers and men, he was respected by all; so it was the news of his death and the lack of confidence in the new commander that reduced the morale of the battalion to a low point.
Another tank was struck by a German rocket, and all the tanks withdrew to the crossroad where shortly after, on Col Sink’s order, they moved to Angoville au Plain to assist the 2nd Battalion in clearing out that town. B Co continued to press toward the farm buildings on its right flank with little success. A 57 MM AT piece was brought forward and pushed through the hedgerows to bring direct fire on the farmhouse and the trench system, and B Co was then able to clear out this area. While B Co was mopping up, C Co was committed to the attack with instructions to probe to the left and endeavor to locate and envelop the enemy flank, C Co moved laterally along the road toward Angoville au Plain for about four hundred yards, then turned to the right, and, in a column of files with one squad one hedgerow out on each flank for security, made its first probe.
This probe was successful only in determining that the enemy occupied the hedgerows here in as great strength as at Beaumont. Several maohine guns brought fire on the company, and it retired to the road and attempted another probe further to the left. This attack was just getting underlay when the company was ordered back to Beaumont. B Co’s success in clearing out the farmyard was to be exploited, and it was planned to move the battalion through B Co’s sector and continue the drive toward the St Come du Mont crossroad. Before the plan was implemented, the enemy moved in again and occupied the farmyard, and brought fire on the troops at Beaumont. Two of the tanks rejoined the battalion, and once more B Co assaulted the farm buildings; this time to meet even stronger resistance; and after receiving more casualties, withdrew to Beaumont.
D Company Attached
Col Sink, upon being informed of the situation, decided that more of a force was needed than the 1st Battalion could muster, and D Co was attached. D Co, consisting of more than ninety men and probably the largest company in the regiment, was attached to the 1st Battalion at 1630, and was ordered to assist B Co by fire from a position about four hundred yards to the north of the farm buildings. With this assistance, the two tanks and the 57, B pushed the enemy back from the farm again. C Co was then ordered to relieve B Co and hold the farm position until the battalion could move out of Beaumont. A heavy concentration of mortar fire was delivered on the crossroad during this relief, and additional casualties were incurred. By this time the troops were utterly fatigued. They had little or no sleep for more than fifty-two hours; they had experienced the emotional strain of a parachute jump; they had been continually active, either marching, fighting, patrolling, or sitting out the nights under most trying circumstances. They were losing confidence in their commander and his ability to get the battalion moving. They were bushed ! They had almost “had it.”
D Co was recalled from its position and ordered to move down the road immediately toward St Come du Mont. One tank was to be loaded with the wounded and was ordered to the Angoville au Plain aid station. The other tank was ordered to support C Co until the column had cleared the crossroad. Hqs, A, B, and C Cos were to follow the relatively fresh D Co in that order. At 2100, D moved out down the road which a few hours before had been so heavily defended. Its progress was so fast that the fatigued men of the battalion had difficulty in keeping pace. The CO of D had been given the briefest orientation when he was ordered forward. Consequently, he and his men knew only that there was supposed to be friendly troops somewhere in the vicinity of the crossroad south of St Come du Mont, their objective. As they approached the crossroad east of St Come du Mont they put up orange flares, the signal of friendly troops. The flares brought down a blast of fire from both flanks, and D Co was halted, momentarily, in the ditches on both sides of the road.
The word was passed back down the column for the tank to come forward. It left the Beaumont crossroad in response to the message just as the last of C Co was falling in on the road. Within a few minutes, another message was passed back. “Machine guns to the head of the column !” All of the machine gun crews ran forward. While they were still running down the road, another message came back calling for the Bazookas to come to the head of the column, and all of the rocket launcher crews double-timed toward the head of the column. It was nearly dark, and visibility was limited to the hedgerow nearest the flanks and to about ten yards to the front and rear.
Upon arrival at the head of the column, the tank fired with good effect to the flanks, and forced the Germans to keep down while the column regained its momentum and pushed ahead. All of D Co and most of Hqs and A Cos cleared the crossroad east of St Come du Mont without suffering casualties and continued toward the objective about seven hundred yards to the front. The Germans permitted this much of the column to pass, then, from positions north and east of St Come du Mont, brought heavy fire upon the column.
Severance of the Column
This was a little too much for the troops just about to start their third day of fighting without rest. The battalion commander, his S3, and the company commanders of Hqs and A Cos were with D Co to the front along with all of the machine guns and rocket launchers. Someone along the line passed the word, “Pull back”, and the tail of the column recoiled into Beaumont. The battalion adjutant, at the rear, directed the companies into assembly areas around the crossroad as they came in, and an effort was made to determine who had ordered the withdrawal. This point still remains in doubt. None of the officers would admit having originated the message, and not all of the men could be interviewed in the dark. It was the opinion of the most reliable observers that the enemy was too strong at the front to permit another attempt to rejoin the battalion until automatic weapons could be obtained. Meanwhile, D Co, with the tank, had pushed on to the objective and occupied a strong defensive position prepared by the Germans. By midnight the forward elements of the battalion were well disposed to hold until morning. It was with considerable surprise that the battalion commander received, at 0015, a radio message to return to Beaumont. At 0030 the return was well under way, and at 0130 the battalion had closed in Beaumont. The tank had been knocked out by a German rocket on the objective, and the body of one of the tank crew was blown out of the tank into the ditch at the side of the read where it burned. The crossroad was subsequently referred to as “Dead Man’s Corner” to distinguish it from another crossroad, the one to the east of St Come du Mont.
Plan for D Plus 2
When the rearmost element of the battalion had decided against attempting to join the forward part of the battalion, the senior officer present took a patrol and reported the situation to Col Sink in his CP at Angoville au Plain. He arrived a few minutes behind Brig Gen Anthony McAuliffe, the Assistant Division Commander, who had brought news of new attachments. The belated battalion of the 401st Glider Infantry Regiment was attached again to the regiment, along with a battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry. Nearly two battalions of artillery and additional light tanks had been made available and were also attached.
With such a strong force available for the attack on St Come du Mont and the bridges to the south, Col Sink did not believe it prudent to leave the 1st Battalion in its extended position, and he had promptly ordered it back to Beaumont.
The order for the attack in the morning was given verbally, and generally it called for the convergence of all the available battalion upon St Come du Mont and the highway extending south to the bridge over the Douve, which was assigned to the 401st for destruction. The 501st was assigned a sector on the right of the 401st, and the 1st Battalion was given the extreme right sector. The 2d Battalion was to follow the 1st Battalion by bounds. The attack would be supported by tanks and artillery. The line of departure extended roughly northeast and southwest from a point on the road about four hundred yards south of Beaumont. The attack was to jump off at 0445, preceded by an elaborate artillery preparation. The two battalions of artillery were to fire a ten-minute preparation on suspected enemy strong points, including St Come du Mont, to be followed by a rolling barrage scheduled to advance one hundred yards every four minutes.
The time left for preparation of the attack was negligible. It permitted passing the orders to only battalion and company commanders, and left very little time for orienting junior leaders on the situation and the mission. The battalion commander of the 501st Parachute Infantry knew little of the general situation in the area, and could make only a map study of the terrain. Time was of interest to the 1st Battalion as a period for sleep only. So fatigued were the troope that the company commanders had to physically kick the men awake and on their feet at jump off time. The gun crews and ammunition bearers, who had left their units the preceding night, were sorted put into their respective units en route to the line of departure. The battalion plan of attack envisaged that A Co, followed by C Co, would attack toward the east side of St Come du Mont on the battalion’s right, while D Co, which was still attached, would attack on the left of A Co, followed by B and Hqs Cos.
The attack was launched on time, although there was still considerable confusion caused by men moving to their proper units. The artillery preparation was fired as planned and the troops followed it as close as one hundred yards. No enemy resistance was encountered and the attack progressed to the road leading east out of St Come du Mont. Along this road the battalion halted and built up a line, and soon was brought under heavy mortar fire. Mortars could be heard firing from the southwest part of the town; either the fire was observed, or it had been previously registered for it was incredibly accurate. The zone of fire extended from the east edge of town, along the road, and past the crossroad, the crossroad receiving particularly heavy concentrations.
From this point, the situation becomes obscure. Other historians have attempted to record the succeeding events with doubtful success. Col S. L. A. Marshall, the historian of the European Theater, spent several days in June and July 1944 interviewing the available participants in the action. His record, which appears in a small unit study entitled, 506th Parachute Infantry in Normandy Drop, is brief and somewhat misleading. His story alleges to relate the actions of battalions, whereas in point of fact, the battalions had become so dispersed and intermingled that their identity was lost, and the history relates more accurately the movements of the battalion commanders and small elements of the battalions.
At the crossroad, the commanders of the 1st Battalion, 506th PIR and the 1st Battalion of the 501st PIR met. This was their first contact, the attack order having been given to each individually, and their first opportunity to discuss boundaries, mutual support, and rate of progress. Both commanders were of the opinion that the crossroad south of St Come du Mont was the specific objective of their own battalion. Additionally, the 501st was being pinched out, as the 1st Battalion’s left flank lay on the road and the inundated area on the right was forcing the 401st into the left of the 501st. Col Sink was contacted by radio and the situation explained to him. He directed the 1st Battalion of the 506th to seize St Come du Mont, and the 501st, 1st Battalion, to seize the crossroad. In the half hour that this conference had consumed, most of the troops had taken what cover they could and had fallen asleep. Others, uncomfortable under the heavy mortar fire, had moved forward to avoid it. Troop leaders had become casualties and virtually all control was lost. Thus, when the order to attack the town was given, there were few troops available to execute the mission.
The battalion adjutant and the S3 rounded up the few Hqs Co men that could be found, and this force of about ten men attacked the town along the road west, under the direction of the adjutant. The S3 endeavored to find more of the battalion and finally located part of a platoon of D Co. This unit attacked from the north on the east side of the main highway. Both of these attacks were stopped by the enemy at the edge of the town. About twenty men from A and C Cos had gone forward while the battalion commanders were determining who was to seize the crossroad. They moved to a position on top a cut along the highway from which they could cover the crossroad by fire, and stretched out to sleep. The remainder of the battalion, according to reports of officers that night, was either asleep or drowsily waiting for the attack to advance. A part of D Co had gone on down to the objective prior to the time that the rest of the battalion had halted. This element, finding itself over extended, returned to the crossroad about 1000 and occupied German prepared positions. The two units attacking the town spent most of the day exchanging a few shots with enemy soldiers in the town, but made no aggressive effort to continue the attack until 1600, when a patrol returned and reported the town to be empty. The situation was little better in the 501st Battalion. Part of it had eventually gone forward past the objective, and had then returned to it when 88 MM fire from the south made their more exposed forward position untenable. There are at least two views of the enemy action that day; The one taken by Lt Col Charles H Chase, the Regimental Executive Officer, that the enemy resistance encountered in and around St Come du Mont was a high-powered delaying action; and the view taken by this writer, although neither can be proven.
The first element of the battalion to engage in a fire fight was the mixed group from A and C Cos shortly after 0800, when it had taken position along the highway cut. This action was with what appeared to be a patrol moving south out of the town. In the ensuing fire fight, each side incurred one casualty. The patrol withdrew and no further enemy activity was noted in the south of town. The second encounter was about 0900, when the adjutant’s group attacked the east side of the town and was held off. The third encounter was shortly after 0900, when the D Co force attacked and was pushed back. The fourth contact was at about 1000 when the A and C Co group, and the elements of the 501st near the crossroad, were attacked by a small force from the west. This attack was driven off, and another, in greater strength, was launched immediately. The apparent objective of the attack was the high ground overlooking the cut. This attack was also stopped, but with a loss of about half of the A and C Co men. They were on exposed ground and had no entrenching tools to make any kind of cover. Further, the ground to the rear was so exposed that retreat was impossible, and the safest tactics appeared to be the continuous employment of every weapon available.
These attacks continued until nearly no on, when the enemy executed a flanking maneuver around the right flank and seized the hill, driving the eight or ten remaining men back to the road on the east. At precisely this moment, reinforcement in the form of three light tanks arrived from the direction of Beaumont and were immediately committed front ally toward the cut. About twenty men from the 501st and the A and C Co forces, taking cover in rear of the tanks, advanced and recaptured their previous position. The presence of the tanks put an entirely different light on the situation, apparently, for the enemy promptly withdrew to the west.
Seizure of the crossroad, and the clearing of enemy from the beachhead area, completed the initial mission of the 101st Airborne Division. At about 1800, the battalion was assembled east of St Come du Mont and reverted to regimental reserve. The following day, an abandoned supply train was found with its head at the objective crossroad, and extending back along the road to the west. This train was horse drawn, and consisted of about fifty wagons with various supplies, a few artillery pieces and kitchen wagons with utensils, containing food, still warm. Whether or not this train belonged to a unit emplaced to execute a delaying action, or to a unit which was attempting to fight its way southward through St Come du Mont to Carentan, was never determined. The question is of importance now only in considering the doctrine of defense against airborne troops. The Normandy campaign clearly indicated that the German defense against airborne attack was not tactically sound.