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Part 2, The Allies Return


Back on the Cotentin, at the La Fiere bridgehead, Major Frederick Kellam, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 505th PIR, had fortified the bridgehead with mines and additional troops. A disabled German truck was pushed onto the bridge to become a roadblock. Meantime, a 57mm anti-tank gun which had come in on the second wave of gliders was deployed at the manor house at 8.30 that morning. This had been followed by three more guns, plus troops.

At 4 pm, ante began to rise. Heavy firing was heard to the west and Dolan saw a patrol from the 508th PIR which had gone out earlier running back across the marshland. It was clear they were under pursuit. Three German tanks hove into view from around the causeway from the direction of Cauquigny. A small American force which had been deployed at the hamlet had been routed. But these were not the big beefy German tanks that Allied troops had come to begrudgingly respect. These were some French lightweights captured in 1940.

Then, the Americans at La Fiere saw something which made their stomach turn. The Germans were using a group of 12 to 15 captured American paratroopers as human shields. The tank commander was ordering the troopers to pick up the mines that Kellam had laid and throw them into the fields, explained Sgt. Elmo Bell of C Company, 505th PIR.

Major Frederick Kellam

Major Frederick Kellam

Half an hour later, as suspense reaching tipping point, the German force drew closer to the bridge. The Americans, their hearts in their throats, held fire, unwilling to hit the captive paratroopers. Just then, one of the German tanks lobbed a shell at the manor. Like a hornet’s nest roused, the American defenders hurled heavy fire at the Germans. The captured paratroopers threw themselves onto the ground.

“When the lead tank was about forty or fifty yards from the bridge, the two Company A bazooka teams got up just like clockwork to the edge of the road. They were under the heaviest small-arms fire from the other side of the causeway, and from the cannon and machine-gun fire from the tanks,” Lt. Dolan said.

In one of the bazooka teams, Privates Lenold Peterson and his loader Marcus Heim, took aim at the lead tank. Before they could fire, an American machine gun fired a burst and killed the tank commander who was standing up in the turret. Peterson then launched his rocket at the same time one of the 57mm guns fired. The bazooka round appeared to miss but the gun round blew the track off the tank, bringing it to a halt. The turret swung around, took aim at the 57mm gun and blasted it, killing the crew. A furious fusillade erupted from the German infantry following the tanks. Mortar rounds began to tear into the hellscape.

As the gunners died, paratroopers rushed to take their place. According to one paratrooper, seven airborne men died while manning the guns.

Private Heim saw the first crippled tank start to turn sideway while blazing away. A round hit a cement telephone phone near the bazooka team. Both men scrambled to avoid being pummeled. From a new position, Peterson and Heim began to pump shell after shell into the tank until it ceased moving. Another paratrooper ran over and dropped a grenade into the open turret hatch. The tank ceased firing.

The remaining 57mm guns began to blast the remaining two tanks. The second tank attempted to push the first tank out of the way but failed. The American guns hit this second tank repeatedly until it blew up in flames. Peterson and Heim then knocked out the third tank.

Dolan was full of praise for his bazooka men. “To this day, I’ll never be able to explain why all…of them were not killed. They fired and reloaded with the precision of well-oiled machinery. … I don’t think that either crew wasted a shot,” he said. The German attack had failed, but soon intense mortar fire began to saturate the area.

Back on “Utah Beach,” the 8th Infantry was pushing off the coastline. Within an hour of landing, Sergeant Salinger and other in his Intelligence unit were moving along a causeway west where they would eventually link up with Salinger’s home regiment, the 12th Infantry, which was to land five hours later.

Under Colonel Russell Reeder, the 12th found itself facing a confounding defensive position they had ill-trained for – flooded marshland which extended up to 2 miles long. The troops found they had to wade through the waist-high water while under sporadic German fire. In spots, the ground dropped abruptly, submerging soldiers who for decades after would fear open shallow water. By the end of the day, despite these travails, the 12th Infantry would reach village of Beuzeville-au-Plain, five miles inland from the beach. It would be the deepest penetration made by any American unit on D-Day. They dug-in and waited for orders.

“Sword Beach” was a mess by mid-morning. Gathering an orchard outside Hermanville that mid-morning, the commander of I Corps, Lt-General John Crocker told Maj-General Tom Rennie of the 3rd Divisions that the offensive was going badly. For one, the 8th Brigade units, the South Lancs and the Royal Suffolks, who had to clear two obstacles on the way to Caen: Periers ridge and a sprawling strongpoint codenamed “Hillman,” had failed to complete their objectives.

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Major Hans von Luck reads a map as one of his panzergrenadiers gestures towards a landmark in Normandy.

Worse, on the other side of the Orne, increasingly frustrated messages were emanating from the 6th Airborne Division, indicating heavy attacks from a German battlegroup of the 21st Panzer Division. This battlegroup,  Kampfgruppe Luck, comprised the 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, under a professional soldier, Major Hans von Luck.

All that previous night, von Luck and his men had seethed in anger, having waited hours for order to attack the paratroopers, which never came until after dawn. Finally, orders came from General Erich Marcks of 84 Corps who ordered the 21st Panzer Division into action. While the Germans had prepared to move another order had come from the Seventh Army: "The bulk of the 21st Panzer Division will attack the enemy forces that have landed west of the Orne; only elements of von Luck's combat group will attack the bridgehead east of the Orne."

And so von Luck's regiment, together with the divisional Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion 21 and a platoon of 88mm antitank guns had attacked the paratroopers. By 5 pm, he would be joined by a force of tanks from the 4th Company of the 22nd Panzer Regiment. Von Luck's orders were succinct: "crush the 6th Airborne's bridgehead, recapture the two Orne bridges at Benouville and establish contact with the coastal units."

Some British forces landing at "Sword" began to veer to the right to support the beleaguered paratroopers but for the bulk of the British 3rd Division, the focus was Caen.

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The main body of the division began arriving on the beachhead by late morning. The firse were the troops of Brigadier K P Smith’s 185th Infantry Brigade which clustered north of Hermanville. Then, between 10 am and 11 am, Brigadier J C Cunningham’s 9th Infantry Brigade arrived, plus the Sherman tanks of the 1st East Riding Yeomanry. Smith’s orders were to race into Caen as soon as the first wave of troops of the 8th Brigade had cleared Periers and Hillman. But the 8th Brigade was stuck and so was the 185th.

Cunningham’s orders were advance along the right flank of the 185th and link up with the Canadians landing in Juno. Unfortunately, as the Royal Marines had failed to secure Lion-sur-Mer on the left flank, Crocker instead told Cunningham to reinforce the 6th Airborne bridgehead. This decision would result in a large gap between Juno and Sword. The Germans noticed.

Proof that humans can create a traffic jam anywhere, even in a combat zone. This impressive traffic jam takes shape at the beachhead on Juno beach as dozens of combat units coupled with an advancing tide, mill about on the narrow shore.

Meantime, Smith and the 185th Brigade were stewing. They were supposed to have “rushed” Caen moments after landing at 10 am. But split into two by traffic jams, the brigade had become stuck. Now, as the clock hit 11 am, the 65 tanks of Lt-Colonel Jim Eadie’s Staffordshire Yeomanry which were to carry the troops of Lt-Colonel F J Maurice’s 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (KSLI) still had not appeared. Maurice commandeered a bicycle and rode back to the beach to see what was happening. He found the tanks stuck in gridlock traffic.

Overlord’s planners had counted on a high tide to leave an expanded beachhead for the troops to muster in. However, strong winds had brought the water up to within ten meters of land. Within this compressed stretch of beachscape, hundreds of vehicles and thousands of men milled. A disheartened Maurice returned to Smith at 11.30. An hour later, Smith came to a decision. He told Maurice to attack without tank support. The 1st Royal Norfolks was to attack on the KSLI’s left flank, towards Colleville, while the third brigade battalion, the 2nd Warwicks were to advance on the right flank.

Together, the three battalions set off south, accompanied by the clattering Bren Gun carriers of a reserve company from the 2nd Middlesex Regiment.

Meantime, Cunningham’s 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) was travelling to reinforce Pine-Coffin’s 7th Parachute Battalion at Benouville, while the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles went to occupy the ground south of Periers. AT the same time, the 2nd Lincolns went to Cresserons to shield the right flank. They were both supposed to have tank support, but as the Staffordshires were trapped on the beachhead so too were the tanks of the East Riding Yeomanry, albeit in a worse off way. Their 60 Shermans were still on their LCTs at sea, as the beachmasters desperately tried to clear the beachhead of traffic.

Cunningham himself set off for the front with his headquarters motorcade. They had just passed a group of troops digging trenches south of Hermanville when German mortar bombs began raining down. Three explosions later, the motorcade was hit. Cunningham was unconscious and bleeding. Three of his officers were dead. The next in line for command was Colonel Denis Orr, but he was headed to Benouville with the 1st KOSB. There was no one to lead the brigade.