The American airborne operation and Utah Beach on D-Day
D-Day, 6 June, 1944, a most important date where the liberation of Europe is concerned. On this day the largest amphibious landing in history took place on the continent. During Operation Overlord allied soldiers set foot on French territory. The target was breaking through Hitler’s Atlantikwall. By following this route you will pay a one-day-visit to the most important places of interest in the sector of the American airborne operation and Utah Beach on D-Day.
On D-Day the first American wave of attack consisted of five divisions, three infantry divisions and two airborne divisions. With the three infantry divisions the Americans took two of the five landing beaches on their account, Utah and Omaha Beach. Both airborne divisions, the 82nd and the 101st Airborne Division, and the 4th Infantry Division which was to land on Utah Beach were part of the American VII Corps, who’s target was the capturing of the port of Cherbourg.
Overview of the landing locations on D-Day. Source: Peter Boellaard.
The American airborne operation.
The American airborne operation in Normandy had been divided into two missions, Mission Albany for the 101st Airborne Division and Mission Boston for the 82nd Airborne Division. The target of the two airborne divisions was to secure the west flank of the five landing beaches. This operation was carried out by approximately 13,100 soldiers of the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Division.
For the supplying of the landed forces, it was necessary that the allies would get a deep sea harbor in their control within short notice. Cherbourg was such a harbor and that is the reason that Operation Overlord planned a landing on Utah Beach. Utah was a sandy beach with a concrete sea wall structure, behind which grassy sand dunes were situated. At low water tide, the beach was approximately 820 yards wide. Utah was separated from the other landing beaches by the double river mouth of the rivers Douvre and Vire.
|A||Startpunt||German War Cemetery La Cambe|
|German War Cemetery La Cambe|
Every story has two sides and that’s why we visit the German War Cemetery La Cambe on this day. The cemetery was finished in September 1961. From then onwards another 700 German soldiers have been recovered and buried here. In total 21,160 German soldiers have been buried here, of whom 207 have not been identified. One of the most famous graves is the grave of tank-ace Michael Wittmann.
A place to dwell, the German War Cemetery La Cambe. Photo: Jeroen Koppes.
In the middle of the graveyard is a hill with a memorial with the text: "Gott hat das letzte Wort".
|B||Waypoint||2nd Combat Medics (501 PIR) Memorial|
|The little church of Angoville-au-Plain|
The drops of Mission Albany would start at 00:48 and be terminated at 01:40 and would be carried out by 6,928 para troopers of the 101st Airborne Division who would jump from 443 C-47 Skytrain aircraft. The dropzones of the 101st Airborne Division were situated south and eastwards of Sainte-Mère-Église and were assigned letters A, C and D.
The First and Second Battalion of the 501 Parachute Infantry regiment (PIR) and the Third Battalion of the 506PIR landed on Drop Zone D, just south of Angoville-au-Plain. The targets of these parachutists were the occupation of the locks near La Barquette, the destruction of the bridges across the Douve at Sainte-Côme-du-Mont and the occupation of the wooden bridges across the Douve near Le Port. Once landed, it appeared that the Germans were waiting for them. In the center of the drop zone the German troops had set fire to a barn, which had been prepared for that purpose, in order to illuminate the area. And the drop zone was surrounded by mortar and machine gun positions. The parachutists landed in an infernal crossfire of German machine guns and mortars which made many victims.
In spite of the inferno at the landing the Battalion Commander of the Second Battalion of 501PIR, Robert Ballard, succeeded in gathering 250 paras. He advanced from the region of Angoville-au-Plain in the direction of Sainte-Côme-du-Mont in order to demolish the bridges across the river Douve. At Les Droueries his group was held up by troops from the German 1058. Grenadier Regiment. A group of 50 parachutists under command of Richard Allen who were also on their way to Sainte-Côme-du-Mont were retarded at Basse-Addeville. During the day neither of both groups succeeded in breaking through towards Sainte-Côme-du-Mont.
During the landing of the First Battalion of the 501PIR the Battalion Commander and his replacement were killed. Regiment Commander Howard Jonson consecutively succeeded in rounding up 150 paras from the First Battalion of 501PIR. At 04:00 the group succeeded in reaching and occupying the locks at La Barquette. Thereafter Johnson returned to the drop zone and collected another 100 parachutists, amongst whom the group of Richard Allen, in order to reinforce and held on to the bridgehead at the locks.
At the landing of the Third Battalion of the 506PIR the Battalion Commander, his assistant and a large part of the battalion fell immediately victim to the German fire. Only two sticks succeeded in regrouping under the command of Captain Charles Shettle, but they had actually landed in the wrong spot. Subsequently his group absorbed on the way all parachutists they met. Most of them were of 501PIR. With a group of 50 para troopers they succeeded around 04:30 to occupy the bridges across the river Douve near Le Port. The bridges were not to be demolished as they were the connection between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach.
The little church of Angoville-au-Plain as shown here is just like it was in 1944. Photo: Barry van Veen.
The village of Angoville-au-Plain itself is located in the middle of the battlefield and it changed hands various times on D-Day. In the meantime in the church approximately 80 American wounded, but also Germans were taken care of by Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore, two medics of the 101st Airborne Division. Various stained glass windows in the church memorize the moments in time that happened here and on one of the pews bloodstains of a wounded man can still be seen. The church is usually open and a visit is a special experience.
|C||Waypoint||War Memorial Sainte-Marie-du-Mont|
|Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and Von der Heydte|
On drop zone A east of Saint-Martin-de-Varreville 502PIR landed with 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion. The First and Second Battalion of the 506PIR and the Third Battalion of the 501PIR landed on dropping zone C north of Hiesville. The targets of these paras were the occupation of Exit 1, 2, 3 and 4, the destruction of buildings WXYZ at Meziers and the demolition of the German artillery battery near Saint-Martin-de-Varreville.
Almost all battalions of the 502PIR were spread apart. Only the Second Battalion of 502PIR landed rather close together, although erroneously on the wrong drop zone. More by luck than by judgment, they landed almost on top of the German artillery battery at Saint-Martin-de-Varreville. Arriving there they established that the battery, after a bomb raid, had already been dismantled by the Germans. Consecutively the First Battalion of the 502PIR sent a patrol to the buildings of WXYZ and occupied a perimeter on the northern flank of the theatre of operations of the division.
The destruction of the German artillery battery near Saint-Martin-de-Varrevile and the building complex WXYZ at Mezieres had succeeded. The occupation of the Exits however was to become more problematic. The Third Battalion of the 502PIR landed close by Saint-Mère-Église. It took some time before Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole understood this. Consequently he hurried westwards as soon as he could, together with everybody he met on his way, and succeeded to occupy Exit 3 at Audouville-la-Hubert at 07:30. Here the battalion held out until they made contact with the 4th Infantry Division from Utah Beach. Also the Second Battalion of the 506PIR which had to occupy Exits 1 and 2, was completely off course. Fortunately the Third Battalion of the 501PIR was still there as a divisional reserve.
The Third Battalion of the 501PIR commanded by Colonel Ewell served as the division reserve and rounded up just south of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. In the course of the night, the division-commander Maxwell Taylor, artillery commander Tony McAuliffe, the chief of the divisional staff Gerald Higgins and the commander of the engineer-division Pappas all joined Ewell’s group ("never had so few men been led by so many"). As they had no contact with the other units, Taylor decided to advance towards Pouppeville in order to check whether Exit 1 had been occupied. At 11:00 the village fell and herewith also Exit 1 came into American hands. In the afternoon of 6 June, 1944, also Exits 2 and 4 followed.
During the night of the landings of the American para troopers, also the 3,500 strong 6th German Parachutist Regiment under the command of Colonel Von der Heydte entered the battle area. Colonel Von der Heydte himself drove ahead on his motor cycle to reconnoiter and early in the morning he reached the church tower of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. Around Sainte-Marie-du-Mont everything was quiet. In the fields near Château-de-Brécourt and near Holy, which were separated by hedgerows, batteries with 4 guns of each 105mm were placed. Both batteries were in deep rest and would later on be exterminated by paras from 506PIR. With one of the captured guns they even succeeded to destroy the German look-out post in the church tower of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.
The church tower of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, look-out of Von der Heydte. Photo: Barry van Veen.
When Von der Heydte looked at the beach his breathing stopped. At sea hundreds of boats could be seen and landincraft were beached and from each of the landingcrafts thirty to forty armed soldiers streamed ashore. Behind them war ships, firing from all their gigantic guns.
|D||Waypoint||Musée du Débarquement d'Utah Beach|
|The Musée du Débarquement at Utah Beach|
Utah Beach was the most westerly beach of the five landing beaches. According to plan at 06:30 8 LCTs would disembark 32 Duplex Drive Tanks just before the waterline. Right behind them 20 Higgins boats with 600 soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division would run ashore at the beach. Unfortunately, or luckily, not everything went according to plan. The Higgins boats which ought to have stayed behind the Duplex Drive Tanks which came from the LCTs, overtook the Duplex Drive Tanks on their way to the beach and unloaded the soldiers at about 100 yards in front of the beach.
During the landing General Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt jr discovered already quite quickly that in the chaos they had landed approximately almost 1.5 miles too far to the south. Thereby they had not ended up across from the heavily defended Exit 3 at les Dunes de Varaville but across from the less heavily defended Exit 2 at La Madeleine. This location actually had been the first choice of the infantry but the Navy had disapproved of this as the water was too shallow.
With the famous: "We’ll start the war from here!" General Roosevelt decided to begin the war from La Madeleine and he directed all incoming landing waves towards this point. While around him artillery shells landed, General Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt jr welcomed all landing waves personally, indicated the changed situation and presented their targets. For his actions on Utah beach he was awarded the highest American award: the Medal of Honor.
The Musée de Débarquement on Utah Beach with small German and large American equipment. Photos: Peter Bijster.
Within one hour the Seabees and the engineers had cleared all obstacles from eight lanes of some 50 yards wide and they continued to blast the remainder of the barricades. The tanks landed and together with the infantry cleared Exits 1 and 2 in order to advance inland through these. At 11:10 they made contact with the paras of the 101st Airborne Division at Pouppeville in order to advance from there to the operational theatre of the 82nd Airborne Division.
A visit to the Musée de Débarquement d’Utah Beach is very much worth your while when you are interested to learn more about the achievements of the 4th Infantry Division on Utah Beach.
|E||Waypoint||The Airborne Museum|
|John Steele and the church of Sainte-Mère-Église|
The American airborne operation in Normandy was divided into two missions, Mission Albany for the 101st Airborne Division and Mission Boston for the 82nd Airborne Division. Mission Boston was viewed to be the most risky of the two and therefore it was carried out by the most experienced 82nd Airborne Division. In practice however only one in three regiments which were applied in Normandy had gained experience in Italy. The target of the 82nd Airborne Division during Mission Boston was the conquering of Sainte-Mère-Église, the capture of the two dam roads along the Merderet at la Fière and Chef-du-Pont and the destruction of two bridges across the Douve at pont l’Abbé and Beuzeville-la-Bastille.
Sainte-Mère-Église was the center of dairy farming of rural Normandy and was situated at a cross roads. In the night of 6 June, 1944, a small hay shed at the south side of the church square had caught fire by unexplained causes. The Mayor, Alexandre Renaud, had ordered the villagers to line up in a bucket brigade from the village pump in order to extinguish the blaze. The German garrison of Sainte-Mère-Église kept an eye from the village square at this violation of the curfew.
It was 01:15 in the night when the first American airborne troops landed in Sainte-Mère-Église. They were parachutists of the 506PIR who actually would have had to land in Drop Zone C at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont but a few sticks drifted away. Several parachutists landed at the church square and were either killed by the German garrison or taken prisoner. Within a few minutes, rest had returned in Sainte-Mère-Église but the German garrison had now been alerted.
The extinguishing by the bucket brigade had continued but in the meantime the fire had run out of control. Subsequently a part of 505PIR had the bad luck at 01:45 to jump right over Sainte-Mère-Église. The parachutists were so to speak drawn towards the blast where the German garrison stood by in order to aim their fire at them. Some of the parachutists were even drawn straight into the blazing fire.
The parachutists who landed on the church square or in the trees and telephone poles were an easy target for the German soldiers. The paras Russell and Steele landed on the church roof. Steele even got stuck with his parachute on the steeple of the church roof and was hit in his left foot by German fire. Russel succeeded to liberate himself from his dire position and fled. Steele was hung for hours on end next to the louver-hole of the church bells and was still deaf for weeks to come. It became quiet again in the village and the German troops withdrew to their lodging addresses in the village and its surroundings.
In Sainte-Mère-Église time stood still and John Steele still hangs from the church steeple. Photo: Jeroen Koppes.
So the Third Battalion of the 505PIR, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Krause at 04:30 succeeded simply to occupy Sainte-Mère-Église after some small scale skirmishes. When the parachutists entered the village they saw the earlier landed and killed paras hanging from trees and telephone poles. In the morning of 7 June 1944 Sainte-Mère-Église was relieved by the 4th Infantry Division.
The Musée Airborne is one of the earlier museums in Normandy but the innovation with regard to the 70-year remembrance is looking promising. Certainly worth a visit.
|F||Eindpunt||Iron Mike Memorial|
|Iron Mike overlooks the dam road at La Fière|
The target of 508PIR was the occupying and destruction of the bridges across the river Douve at Pont l’Abbé (today Étienneville) and Beuze-la-Bastille. Only 25% of the parachutists however landed within 1500 meters of their drop zone. Another 25% of the paras landed within three kilometers of their dropping zone. The remainder landed on the east side of the river Merderet and were therefore not available to carry out the tasks of their regiment. The landing of the 508PIR was herewith the most spread out of all regiments and it would take days before the regiment could operate again as one unit.
The task of the First Battalion of the 505PIR was the capturing of Manoir de La Fière. The vanguard of A Company under the command of John Dolan approached unimpeded up till some 300 yards of the bridge. Arrived at that point a machine gun opened fire from somewhere in the brick buildings and the advance got stuck. Towards midday Manoir de La Fière was still not in American hands. At that moment a small unit under command of Second Lieutenant Oakley succeeded to get at the flank of the German troops and to arrive unnoticed in between the stone buildings. The battle was quickly concluded. Three to four German infantry men were killed, eight were made prisoner and the remainder got away.
At 13:45 a group of 80 paras stormed the dam road in the direction of Cauquigny. La Fière, the bridge, the dam road and Cauquigny were now in American hands and the road was cleared for the 4th Infantry Division. Then the para troopers heard German tanks approaching them. The German tanks appeared to be French Renault tanks originating from the beginning of the second World War which were used by German troops. The tanks were supported by infantry troops. It was an uneven battle which only lasted for ten minutes but still the American paras succeeded in eliminating three Renault tanks at the church of Cauquigny before they were defeated.
The beautifully modelled statue "Iron Mike" looks out over the river Merderet and the bridge across the river. Photos: Barry van Veen (01), Jeroen Koppes (02) and Peter Bijster (03).
Consecutively the tanks advanced over the dam road in the direction of La Fière. Private Peterson succeeded with heroism to stop the German tanks after which also the German infantry troops fell back. At the end of the first day the American parachutists occupied the western river crossings at La Fière and Chef-du-Pont. The bridges and dam road however were not conquered and therefore the road was not free for the 4th Infantry Division...
Source text: Pieter Schlebaum, Jeroen Niels and Barry van Veen
Source pictures: Peter Bijster, Jeroen Koppes and Barry van Veen.
Translation: Fred Bolle