Paratrooper Pathfinders.jpg

Part 2, The Allies Return

CHAOS REIGNS

It all began at 12.16 am British time on the early hours of June 6th.

 

Gliders carrying the D Company, 2nd Battalion, The Oxfordshire and Buckinghampshire Light Infantry, commanded by a 31-year-old former NCO, Major John Howard, swept over the Orne river, and touched down near the two bridge that was their objectives.

 

The two bridges in conjunction linked Ranville on the eastern side to Benouville on the western side of the Orne. The first of these, codenamed “Pegasus” bridged the Caen canal, while the second, codenamed “Horsa” bridged the Orne river. Within 10 minutes of landing, Howard’s men, for the loss of two troopers killed, had captured both the bridges.

One was Lt Denham Brotheridge, leader of No 1 Platoon, whose unit was the first one on the bridge. As and his men pushed on towards the western bank where the Café Gondrée stood, something metallic snapped out of the night air and plunged into Brotheridge’s neck, severing an artery.

 

As he fell to the ground, his life leaking out of him, one of his men, Private Wally Parr rushed to his aid. Cradling Brotheridge’s head in his hands, all Parr could think was” “What a waste! All the years of training we put in to do this job —it lasted only seconds and he lay there and I thought, ‘My God, what a waste’.” Nearby, another officer, Lt David Wood, took three bullets in the leg.

"Gentlemen, in spite of your excellent training and your splendid briefing, you must not be daunted if chaos reigns. It undoubtedly will.” Brigadier James Hill

Brigadier Hill visits 1st Canadian Parac
Ranville Pegasus Bridge June 9.jpg

Vehicles cross "Pegasus Bridge" over the Caen Canal at Benouville on 9 June 1944. IWM B 5288

A shaken Howard set up his command post in a machinegun bunker on the eastern side of the bridge. The first element of Operation “Tonga” (the British 6th Airborne landings in Normandy) had come off all right. Howard’s company had become the first attackers on French soil since 1942 and the first unit to achieve its objective on D-Day. Now, he had hold on to his gains. He began to impatiently await the arrival of rest of the 6th British Airborne Division.

Howard expected Brigadier Nigel Poett’s 5th Parachute Brigade and Lt-Colonel Richard Geoffrey Pine-Coffin’s 7th Parachute Battalion to land on the eastern edge side of “Pegasus” bridge and reinforce his defenses. But by 1.26 am, forward German units were already sniffing at his positions.

 

At Le Port, just 700 metres from “Pegasus,” German tanks crews from the 21st Panzer Division mobilized. Howard and his men were appalled to hear the sound of tank engines approaching from the direction of Ouisterham. However, incredible instead of turning left at T-junction which would have brought them to the bridge and the meagre force of paratroopers, the German went straight south towards Benouville.

Aerial image of Ranville Bridge

An Allied recon photo of the Orne bridgehead, taken on July 5, nearly a month after D-Day. Gliders still litter the fields. Pegasus bridge is on the bottom. This is a high-resolution image. US National Archives

“They will be back,” Howard said to himself and ordered his troops do deploy their portable anti-tank weapons, the PIATs (Portable Infantry Anti-Tank Projector) and marshal what little gammon anti-tank bombs they had.

The British answer to the American bazooka, the spring-loaded PIAT could throw a 2½-pound bomb 115 yards. It was a quirky weapon. It required a strong man to cock the spring, and in theory, was mean to self-cock upon being fired. Often, this did not happen. While its bulbous needle-nosed bomb could in theory penetrate up to 100 mm of armor at 90 degrees, it sometimes failed to do so.

 

Finally, German tanks appeared. These were not the big beefy German panzers, but old 1940-era captured French tanks. One of the British paras, Private Eric Woods described what happened next: “One of my most vivid memories on reaching the bridge was finding myself lying alongside Sergeant [Charles] Thornton, who was armed with an anti-tank weapon. On the road on the opposite side of the bridge was a junction, and from this emerged three French tanks which had been commandeered by the Germans.”

 

From a range of about thirty yards, Thornton fired his PIAT, “hitting the foremost tank broad-side on. It must have been a direct hit on the tank’s magazine, for there was an almighty explosion and ammunition continued to explode for more than an hour afterwards. The two remaining tanks quickly retreated.”

 

With the situation stabilized, Howard’s thoughts once again turned towards the rest of the 6th Division. “Where was the rest of the airborne?” he wondered. Still up in the air, it turned out. The division was being spirited over in 400 aircraft ranging from some designed specifically for the task of transporting troops such as Albermarles and C-47 Dakotas but some of which were old and obsolete Whitley and Stirling bombers, and even old Halifaxes of 38 and 46 Groups (Transport Command).

 

In the hours before they had left their base in Britain, one contingent of the 6th Airborne was honored by a visit from the divisional commander, Maj-General Richard "Windy" Gale. “The Hun thinks only a bloody fool will go there [to Normandy]. That’s why I’m going,” Gale had told the men who erupted into cheers. Meantime, at Down Ampney, Brigadier James Hill, commander of the 3rd Parachute Brigade, advised his men: “Gentlemen, in spite of your excellent training and your splendid briefing, you must not be daunted if chaos reigns. It undoubtedly will.”

"We do not know or seek what our fate will be. We only ask this, that if die we must, that we die as men would die, without complaining, without pleading and safe in the feeling that we have done our best for what we believed was right." - Epic stuff

Normandy Airborne Night-01.jpg

Simultaneously, 822 C-47 Dakotas were American paratroops were racing towards the Cotentin peninsula. At the pivot point, codename “Hoboken,” a solitary Allied submarine positioned northwest of the German-occupied Channel Island, flashed beacon directions to the airborne armada. Dakotas carrying the 82nd Airborne received a signal to turn to the southeast on a heading of 135, while the Dakotas carrying the 101st Airborne turned to a heading of 140 degrees.

The planes were racing towards the drop zones at 130 miles per hour but as they closed the Drop Zone (DZ), they throttled back to 110 mph. A hornet’s nest of ack-ack fire rose up to greet them. The green light came on within the aircraft. Paratroopers began to hook on to the parachute-triggering line. Soon they were tumbling out of aircraft into the murky night sky illuminated by racing flashes of lethal light.

Among those who jumped with Maj-General Maxwell D Taylor, commander of the 101st Airborne. Just after landing and freeing himself of his parachute, Taylor unearthed his “cricket,” a 15-cent gadget which made a chirping sound like a cricket and intended to alert paras to each other’s presence. “The first man I met in the darkness I thought was a German until he cricketed. He was the most beautiful soldier I’d ever seen. We threw our arms around each other, and from that moment I knew we had won the war,” Taylor said.

Aside from a smattering of large towns, Normandy was largely hodge-podge of villages, but in Cotentin one town stood among the others on D-Day. This was the market town of Ste-Mère-Église where a spider-web of roads radiated outwards to Carentan, Montebourg, Bayeux and Valognes.

The 82nd Airborne had five main objectives in Normandy: to capture and hold Ste-Mère-Église following which they were to link up with the 101st Airborne by securing the area north of Neuville-au-Plain and Beuzeville-au-Plain. A third objective was to secure the two road bridges, the D67 which ran though Chef-du-Pont and the D15, which ran through a small, unremarkable stone bridge at a hamlet called La Fière.

The 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) was to seize the western end of La Fiére at the hamlet of Cauquigny, while the 508th PIR would secure crossings over the Douve River at the southwestern end of the drop zone. After the La Fiére bridge was secured, the 507th was to establish a defensive line from Gourbesville to La-Croix-Renouf. The 508th meantime, had the task of blowing the bridges over the Douve River at Pont-l’Abbe and at Beuzville-au-Bastille, to prevent German reinforcements from moving into the invasion area.

These were the plans made at headquarters on reams of neat paper. Over the battlefront, heady winds and ack-ack fire scattered the airdrop. Thousands came down in miles from their objectives.

I find myself wondering what lives these men lived, those who survived the war.

Some of the first American paras to launch into enemy-occupied France that night realized they were coming right over Ste-Mère-Église where a fire was raging in the town church. One of them was Private Earl McClung of “Easy’ Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne, who had jumped with a musette bag packed to the brim with machine-gun and mortar rounds that weighed more than sixty pounds.

“I couldn’t lift [my leg],” he said. “I landed on the roof of a small Catholic shrine about a block and a half west of the church. I hit that roof and bounced off. It was pretty hectic for the first few seconds. Two Germans were running toward me. I guess they saw me coming down, but they were shooting at my chute that was on this little roof. I jumped with my M1 [Garand] assembled and in my hands. It was no contest—they were only a few feet away and I took care of those guys. At least I think I did; I didn’t wait around long enough to make sure. I went on by them and headed out of town. I ran through the graveyard and ran into a kid named Payne from the 501st. Later that morning he got shot through the ankle, so I was looking for a medic.”

McClung was lucky. Hundreds of paratroopers of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment were landing around the town, but some from F Company landed directly inside the town upon waiting German troops. A bloodbath ensued. Several of the Americans were killed before they had even hit the ground.

One paratrooper became snagged in a tree near the blazing church in the center of town. The mayor later recalled: “About half a dozen Germans emptied the magazines of their submachine guns into him and the boy hung there with his eyes open, as though looking down at his own bullet holes.”

 

Another paratrooper went straight into the flames in the church. Yet another, Private John Steele, snagged on the corner of the church steeple and was shot in the foot as he dangled helplessly. He cheated death by playing dead. The writer Cornelius Ryan later estimated that about 30 US paratroopers landed in Ste-Mère-Église of which about 20 died.

By now, McClung had run out of town. Soon, he realized he was miles from his actual drop zone. It would be nine days before he saw his unit again – at Carentan. He was not the only one dropped in the wrong place.

Colonel Leroy Lindquist’s 508th PIR was supposed to land on DZ “N,” between Etienville and Cauquigny. Instead, most of the regiment’s 2,000 men missed the DZ. Some paras came down in the flooded areas inland and were so bogged down by their gear that they died in less than four feet of water. At least 36 paratroopers were recorded to have drowned on the night of the invasion, often in less than three feet of water.

Cotentin Paratrooper drowned.jpg

A paratrooper of the American 82nd Airborne Division found drowned in the inundated area of the Douve River near Beuzeville-la-Bastille. He was most likely a member of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

Other paras suffered other mishaps. In the lead plane carrying the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, the regimental commander, Colonel George Van Horn Mosley Jr, 39, shattered his leg upon landing in Drop Zone "A” and had to be moved around in wheelbarrow by his troops.

 

Another officer to suffer a bad leg injury was Lt-Colonel Robert Strayer of the 2nd Battalion, 506th PIR. A third officer, Lt-Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort of the 2nd battalion, 5050th PIR fractured his ankle upon landing and had to be pushed around a small ammunition cart.

For another officer, a more grievous fate was in shore. Lt-Colonel Robert Wolverton of the 3rd Battalion, 506th PIR had come down into a thicket of an apple tree and was unable to free himself. Hours before takeoff, he had gathered his battalion together and told them that he would meet all of them one year from then at the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City.

He then led them in prayer, saying: “Men, I am not a religious man and I don’t know your feelings in this matter, but I am going to ask you to pray with me for the success of the mission before us. I would like you to get down on your knees and pray and while you do this do not look down, but look up, with heads held high to the sky. God almighty! In a few short hours we will be in battle with the enemy. We do not join battle afraid. We do not ask favors or indulgence but ask that, if you will, use us as your instrument for the right and an aid in returning peace to the world. We do not know or seek what our fate will be. We only ask this, that if die we must, that we die as men would die, without complaining, without pleading and safe in the feeling that we have done our best for what we believed was right. Oh Lord! Protect our loved ones and be near us in the fire ahead, and with us now as we each pray to you.”

As Wolverton struggled to free himself form his harness, a hail of bullets plunged into his body from German troops nearby.

US Para Beyrle POW.jpg

American paratroopers Joseph Beyrle in Nazi captivity. Beyrle is considered the only American soldier of WWII to fight the Nazis in both the American and Soviet armies.

By morning, the orchard would be a collection point for American prisoners of war. Among the men in the goal was Staff Sergeant Joseph Beyrle also of the 506th, who was appalled to see Wolverton's body hanging about 10 feet off the ground, swollen and caked with blood, his head tilted unnaturally back at an angle, his throat neatly severed.

 

To the horror of the paratroopers, German reinforcements marching by on the road were using it for  target practice. US troops who later found Wolverton would count 150 bullet and bayonet holes in the body.

Rage filled Beyrle, who had fallen into captivity near St Come-du-Mont after he had become separated from the rest of his stick. He requested permission from his German captors to bury Wolverton but his German guard was apathetic. As the Germans prepared to move the prisoners, Beyrle's thoughts transitioned to another - Escape. Despite several attempts, it would take seven months for him to fulfill his ambitions and get away. By then, he was deep in Nazi Germany. 

His last and successful escape attempt was in January 1945, while he was an inmate of Stalag IIIC at Alt Drewitz in western Poland. He headed east, linking up with a Soviet tank battalion and convinced them to take him on as a combatant. With this battalion which was headed by a woman, Aleksandra Samusenko, Beyrle would eventually liberate his former POW camp. Subsequently wounded in an air attack in February, Beyrle was out of the fight. Samusenko herself would be killed on March 3.

 

Beyrle would eventually return to his home in Michigan in April 1945. He had already been declared dead.

Back on the Orne front, the 9th Parachute Battalion was dropping near Merville at 1 am. The battalion commander, 29-year-old Lt-Colonel Terence Otway landed near a farmhouse which he recognized from pre-invasion briefings as being that of a German battalion headquarters.

 

The next moment, he was slamming against the wall of the farmhouse and plummeting into a garden where two of his troopers were already lying. As he unhooked his parachute. A German opened an upstairs window and looked out. Spotting the British Paras, he opened fire. One of the paratroopers hurled a rock through the window. The German ducked. The British ran.

 

As the men ran towards the rendezvous point, they came across several stragglers who joined the party. Finally, Otway came across his second-in-command, Major Allen Parry, who also doubled as commander of “A” Company. Parry told him: “Thank God you’ve come, sir. The drop’s bloody chaos. There’s hardly anyone here.”

 

Instead of landing as one in Drop Zone “V,” the 9th Para had been scattered across 50 square miles. Otway was conflicted. The battalion’s objective was the Merville Gun Battery outside the village of Descanneville: four six-foot-thick concrete casemates, each with one WWI-vintage Czech M14 100mm guns. However, British planners had believe the guns were of the 150 mm variety and thus capable of inflicting heavy damage on amphibious forces of the British 3rd Division who were scheduled to land in the morning.

 

By 2.35 am, only 110 of the battalion’s 750 troops had reached the rendezvous zone. Fifteen minutes later, 40 more men showed up, but the troops had none of the mortars, radios, jeeps, guns, trailers, anti-tank weapons and even the sappers and the naval bombardment group they had left England with. One Canadian contingent from “A” Company which was supposed to neutralize a 20mm AA gun emplacement plus machineguns across 15 positions, had vanished.

Normandy - Sword 6th Airborne.jpg
Model of the Merville battery

A two-section topographical model of the German gun battery at Merville. IWM HU 100233

Instead, all Otway and his tiny band had in excess of their small arms and standard kit were one Vickers heavy machinegun, one Bren light machinegun and one flare gun. The German garrison comprised 80 gunners of 1st Battery, 1716th Artillery Regiment and 50 engineers, set behind lines of mines, barbed wire and machineguns, under the command of Sergeant-Major Johannes Buskotte.

Otway was nervous. The assault was scheduled to take place at 3 am, and the battery had to be in British hands by 5.30 am, by which time the flare gun would have to be fired to signal its capture. If the flare did not materialize, the navy would assume that the assault had failed and would send the cruiser HMS Arethusa to shell the battery.

As the British prepared to attack, they were spotted. The Vickers opened up in answer and the paras went roaring in. Bangalore torpedoes blew a gap through the German minefield. Major Allen Parry, who was appointed attack leader, blew his whistle and his men raced through the breach. Something hit Parry’s left thigh. He collapsed under his own weight and fell into a bomb crater.

He later said: “I saw my bat-man [Private George Adsett] who was just alongside me, looking at me as if to say, ‘Bad luck, mate,’ and off he went.” Adsett was killed moments later. The surviving paras were soon in close-combat with the Germans. Half an hour later, the battery was in British hands, but the guns they found seemed tiny, almost a mockery of their sacrifice. Out of the original 150 British paras who attacked, only 75 were fit for combat. The rest were dead or wounded Out of the German garrison, only 22 had survived as prisoners of war.

By now, at the Ranville bridges, Howard’s long-expected reinforcements started landing — 2,000 of them from Lt-Colonel’s Richard Pine-Coffin’s 7th Parachute Battalion. At 3 pm, Pine-Coffin and his men approached the bridges and set up their headquarters at in Benouville.

More gliders continued to come of the night gloom, bringing in more men, equipment and weapons. The largest single group was 47 Horsas and two giant Hamilcar gliders – survivors of 68 Horsas and four gliders which eventually landed in France. Out of one Hamilcar stepped Maj-General Gale. His staff jeep within the Hamilcar could not be extricated and so he and his men walked to the Château du Heaume at Le Bas de Ranville where they set up their headquarters and waited for morning to come.

On the Cotentin, the paratroopers swarmed like scattered ants, overrunning everything they could find. On the western flank of the Cotentin, Lt-Colonel Thomas Shanley of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment had the job of capturing the Pont-l’Abbe bridge over the Douve river. However, he could count on only 300 paratroopers, some of whom did not even belong to his battalion. Unable to delay any longer, Shanley and his 300 set off, only to come across heavy German fire which halted them a mile from the bridge.

To press on was suicide. Shanley withdrew east towards the battalion rendezvous point which was an orchard near the tiny hamlet of Caponnet, five miles away. Their destination was a small bump in the landscape, which had been marked as “Hill 30." This was not much of a hill, and in fact it was only 30 meters above sea level. As Shanley and his troops withdrew, Germans from the 1057th Regiment of the 91st Airlanding Division set off in pursuit.

Meanwhile, in the darkened country around Ste-Mère-Église, Lt-Colonel Ed Krause of the 3rd Battalion, 505th PIR was moving to attack the town with about 200 men. The 505th PIR was the only parachute regiment with any combat experience to land on D-Day. In Krause’s jump jacket was an American flag which he had raised at Naples eight months ago. God-willing, he would raise the flag here as well, he thought.

By when Krause and his men entered the town, the slaughter of the men from F Company had long since ended. Everything was quiet. The fire in the church had been put out, the townsfolk had gone back to bed and the Germans had vanished. But the grisly flotsam of war remained. The spent bullet casings, the black scorch marks of fire and the bodies of the dead paras still hanging in the trees and poles.

Krause’s men came across a building which the Germans were using as the town barracks. The Airborne prepared for vengeance. They went in, guns blazing. Ten Germans died before the remaining 30 surrendered. Ste-Mère-Église was in American hands. It was 4.30 am and the first major town in Normandy had fallen to the Allies. The paratroopers set up a defensive perimeter and cut the main German communications cable leading to Cherbourg. Krause hoisted his stars and stripes over the town hall.

Ste-Mere-Eglise

The market town of Ste-Mère-Église in 1944. Photo composite by author

Map of US Airborne forces on June 6

Meantime, the 82nd Airborne moved on the bridge at La Fière. This was located just southwest of Ste-Mère-Église, running past the Manoir de la Fière and a loose collection of buildings owned then by the Leroux family. The bridge had been hewn out of stone blocks. It was old-world construction, this. Little more than a ditch spanner, just a few feet across, but it might as well have been the bridge at Antietam Creek of American Civil War fame for all the importance it would take. For one, the Merderet had flooded, turning the area for a thousand yards around the bridge into a swamp. The elevated causeway between the farm and Cauquigny was the only passable way through.

On the charts at Eisenhower’s headquarters, two regiments: the Colonel William Ekman’s 505th PIR and Colonel George Millet’s 507th PIR had the task of capturing and hold the eastern and western ends of the bridge.

 

In reality, the job fell on a single company . This was A Company, 505th PIR under First Lt. John “Red Dog” Dolan, so-named for his red hair. Like the other airborne units that night, Dolan’s company had been scattered, but only two out of 136 company men had failed to reform at Landing Zone “O.” Dolan’s plan was to deploy in the manor overlooking the bridge, but in the confusion of the night, he lost touch with his lead platoon.

 

Then, about 700 yards from the bridge, he and his remaining men found themselves on a dirt road with a wide field beyond. There was no cover. Dolan was in the process of moving up to the bridge when heavy fire hurtled into his troops. The Germans had deployed in the manor and in the surrounding foliage. Altogether, there were only about 28 Germans from the 1057th Grenadier Regiment of the 91st Airlanding Division. But they held superior ground.

One of Donlan’s platoon commanders, Lt. Donald Cox, lay on the ground nearby, dead. A German squad was nearby blazing away.

 

Using their superior numbers, the paratroopers eliminated the squad and prepared to move on the manor. Dolan, together with Major James McGinty, the executive officer of the battalion and a platoon of men flanked the position. Another platoon of paratroopers crossed the road to attack along the northern side down to the bridge. Major McGinty was at the head. As the platoon travelled alongside a hedgerow, a burst of gunfire cut through the leaves. McGinty fell, dead. Dolan and the rest returned fire, but two more Americans died. Fortuitously, an abandoned German slit trench was nearby and the American piled in. Soon, it was under fire from two directions. One of Dolan’s sergeants began lobbing mortar shells at the Germans but stopped because there was a chance that he could hit other Americans coming in from the north.

“I can’t estimate how long we were pinned down in this fashion but it was at least an hour,” Dolan later recalled. The paras would be still short of their goal by when dawn started to break.

By now, the flanks of the outer landing areas had been secured by the paratroopers, at least for the time being. But the paras were not the only servicemen active that night.  Allied bomber crews had been busy since before midnight, identifying and hitting the batteries, bunkers and bridges along the coast, dropping over 5,000 tons of bombs.

At the same time, the Germans were receiving confused reports of allied activity all over France. Commanders reported exchanging fire with paratroopers, but these were later found to be the dummies. Then reports came in from units on the Orne, again reporting paratrooper activity. But if German reaction had been blunted by Fortitude, then it was distinctly dulled by the absence of several front-line commanders who were on their way to attend a map exercise in Rennes intended to simulate, of all things, an Allied invasion.

Among the officers at Rennes or en-route were Lt General Wilhelm Falley of the 91st Airlanding Division, Lt-General Karl-Wilhelm von Schleiben of the 709th Infantry Division, Lt-General Heinz Hellmich of the 243rd Division, von Rundstedt’s intelligence officer Colonel Wilhelm Meyer-Detring, the Operations Officer of Army Group B Colonel Hans Georg von Tempelhof and General Sepp Dietrich, the commander of the I SS Panzer Corps who was travelling to Bordeaux. Rommel himself was away visiting his wife in Germany. June 6 was her birthday.

Many senior German commanders were away from their post when the paratroopers landed.  Among them were General Wilhelm Falley of the 91st Airlanding Division, Lt-General Karl-Wilhelm von Schleiben of the 709th Infantry Division, Lt-General Heinz Hellmich of the 243rd Division, General Sepp Dietrich, the commander of the I SS Panzer Corps and Rommel who was in Germany for June 6 was his wife's birthday.

At 4.30 am, a second wave of 3,000 glider-borne troops began landing in the Cotentin as part of Operations “Chicago” and “Detroit.” Among them were 51 Waco gliders carrying 155 combat troops of the 101st Airborne plus 25 jeeps, a midget bulldozer, 16 anti-tank guns of 57mm variety, and the deputy divisional commander, Brigadier General Don Pratt. Half of the division-allocated gliders crashed or sank in the flooded fields, along with much-needed 105mm howitzers and jeeps. Pratt was killed when the jeep in his glider broke its restraints and tore through the insides of the glider. Other gliders, headed to the 82nd Airborne Landing Zone “Z” with 220 troops, plus jeeps and two batteries of the 80th Anti-tank battalion plus signaling and headquarters went through lingering low clouds and became scattered.

Meantime, German reconnaissance pilot Lt Adalbert Bärwolf departed his airbase at Laval in the early dawn hours of 6 June, not knowing what to expect. In the last two hours, the commanding officer of his unit, Nahaufklärungsgruppe 13 (short-range reconnaissance group 13) at Chartres, had received varied reports on allied paratrooper activity at the mouth of the river Orne, northeast of Caen. At 4.30 am Bärwolf and his wingman, Corporal Maurer, were ordered to fly to the area and investigate.

As the two Me109G-8s flew towards the coast, heavy rain began. A little distance from Caen, Bärwolf instructed Maurer to eject his ventral fuel tanks, and ordered him close formation. Pushing down the control stick, Bärwolf then took his Me109 down until both fighters were skimming over the shrubs and trees. The darkened gray urban sprawl of Caen was visible on their right.

Following the slow bends of the Orne, the Germans suddenly came upon hundreds of gliders of the 6th Airborne on the ground. Switching on his two wing cameras, Bärwolf captured the images on film which showed RAF markings on the wings and fuselage, accompanied by the official invasion stripes of alternating black and white rows. Then wishing to avoid enemy fighters which were patrolling high above, the German pilots sped down the river estuary and out into the sea. When crossing the coast, a new spectacle came into view – a flotilla of more than 50 ships of all types. To Bärwolf, this was clearly the long-awaited invasion. 

If confirmation of the invasion fleet had occurred hours before the amphibious landings began, why then, did the Germans delay in sounding the alarm?

For one, Field Marshall Hugo Sperrle, commander of Luftflotte 3 in Western Europe, doubted of the veracity of Bärwolf's reconnaissance report. But this was not first indication of the invasion that the Germans had. As early as April 25, one of the last successful Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights over England had showed a concentration of no less than 264 ships at the southern English ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. The Germans had also photographed the mulberry ports, which would serve as vital makeshift harbors in France.

Only at 6 am would Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the overall commander of German forces on the Western Front place the units on the coast on full alert. By then it was too late.

As dawn broke, Dolan, with reinforcements from the adjacent 508th PIR broke German resistance at the Manoir de la Fière and occupied the building. More Americans had died but with the manor and the bridge were finally in American hands. Dolan deployed his company east of the Merderet River. One of the reinforcing paratroopers, Private James Kurz of B Company, 508th PIR was shocked to see bodies littering the manor ground and near the bridge.

“We went along the south side of the manor and passed four dead officers (a major, a captain, and two lieutenants); all were shot through the head or heart,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dolan took in his new realm. No Germans would be coming through from the marsh ranging in front of him. However, they would be coming from the causeway itself.

The battle of La Fiere

Elsewhere, Colonel Mosley Jr, with his broken leg, was relieved of command early that morning, and his executive officer, Lt-Colonel John “Iron Mike” Michaelis, took over. Michaelis' objective was immediate: neutralize a German coastal artillery battery of 122mm howitzers at Sainte Martin-de-Varreville, a mile behind Utah Beach. To take out the guns, the 502nd had to also deal with the battery garrison billeted in fifteen stone farmhouses and barns laid out the road on the northeast fringes of Mésières. The entire place was known to American planners as the “W-X-Y-Z complex.”

Lt-Colonel Steve Chappuis, commanding the 2nd Battalion had the job of knocking out the battery, while being aided by Lt-Colonel Robert Cole’s 3rd Battalion which was to seize the causeways leading from Utah Beach. Meanwhile, Lt-Colonel Patrick Cassidy’s 1st Battalion was to destroy the Germans at the W-X-Y-Z.

 

At the complex, a blood-bath ensued. More Germans were billeted there than expected and the American paras found themselves under heavy fire. One man, Staff Sergeant Harrison Summers, went berserk, running from building to building, spraying the interiors with bullets from this Thompson submachine gun, killing dozens. A lieutenant with Summers was badly wounded. Summers did not refrain from his killing spree. Moving from forward he and another man, Private First Class John Camien (who had an M1 Carbine), killed some 32 Germans.

 

Confronted by a two-story building set up as a barracks, Summers’ luck appeared to run out. Furious return fire from the Germans killed four paratroopers and wounded another four. One of the wounded, a machine-gunner, sprayed the house with bullets, igniting a haystack next to the building which also set a nearby a shed full of ammunition on fire.

 

As the ammunition began to cook off, an 80-strong group of panicked German tried to make a break for it. Summers and his men opened up. Thirty Germans fell. Another paratrooper with a bazooka arrived and began to push rounds into the two-story building, which prompted other Germans to flee. The place turned into a charnel house. Summers was put in for a Medal of Honor but the recommendation became lost and he instead had to settle for a Distinguished Service Cross. Camien was awarded a Silver Star, albeit years late in 1948.

 

Summers could never say what had prompted him to do what he had, except that when it had started, it seemed impossible to stop because other paratroopers were following him. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t, he said. One of his fellow paratroopers would add that Summers had just lost his head.

 

Another group of paratroopers from “E” Company, 506th PIR was detailed to knock-out four 105mm gun at a farm known as Brécourt Manor, a few hundred yards north of St. Marie-du-Mont. Those guns were also knocked out.

At St. Marie-du-Mont, First Sergeant David “Buck” Rogers, of the HQ Company, 1st Battalion, 506th PIR was experiencing another kind of battle. He and other troopers mounted the town’s church steeple and were greeted by an astounding sight: the invasion fleet massing off “Utah” beach. “There were hundreds and hundreds of ships of various kinds laying off the beach,” he said. “I could see some of the ships firing on the beach. Later there were planes dropping bombs. After some time had passed, we saw the boats carrying the landing forces moving toward the beach. We now knew the sea-landing forces were on their way.”

 

Something caught his attention on the ground. A wounded US paratrooper slowly making his way towards the church square, hugging the sides of buildings for support. A gunshot rang out. The paratrooper fell dead on the sidewalk. A German ambled from around a corner and began searching the para’s pockets. Outraged, Rogers and his men opened fire. The German fell dead upon the body of the American.

 

Meanwhile, to the east, Shanley’s paratroopers were still withdrawing eastwards. Progress was slow. A small group of 30 airborne had joined his contingent on the way, but then the force stumbled a group of 200 paratroopers sitting idle in a field at Haut Guetteville, waiting for some to come along to tell them what to do. Shanley added them to his force. Through his SCR 300 radios, he managed to reach another airborne officer, Major Warren Shields, the executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 508th PIR, who drummed up another 200 men nearby. It was 7 pm on June 6 before the Americans reached Picauville. It was a little after this that Lindquist, by now at Chef-du-Pont, reached Shanley on the radio and told him stay at Hill 30 for the night.

 

Shanley soon found that the “hill” militarily indefensible.  The place abutted the Merderet River to the east and where it led out to land, it was soon ringed by the German 91st Airlanding Division. Shanley and his men dug-in desperately, but to the Germans, the position threatened the movement of German forces trying to reach Chef du-Pont. Soon Shanley and his men were preventing the Germans from sending troops to the Utah beachhead.

The German lay siege and soon Shanley and his men were fighting for their lives for the next 48 hours.

HAVE YOUR SAY