Posts Tagged ‘d-day’

Jun 07

The Battle of La Fière Bridge

Jumping on the night of D-Day, the 82nd Airborne had to capture the town of Sainte-Mère-Église. Holding the town, however, would have meant little without also holding the roads to and from it. One such route had a bottleneck:  the La Fière Bridge a small stone bridge at La Fière manor, 700 yards to the west of the outskirts. The manor itself was a small group of buildings a grenade-throw away from the bridge. On the far side of the bridge, the road led west, the small hamlet of Cauguigny standing by it two-thirds of a mile away.

Securing La Fière Bridge fell to the 505th PIR. The 1st Battalion was one of the few units that night to jump on time and land in its designated drop zone to the east of the bridge, between it and the town. They quickly learned that things were not as expected: the Germans have flooded large areas of Normandy and the tiny Merderet River running north-south under the bridge was now a marsh 1,000 yards across at its narrowest. The elevated road between the bridge and Cauguigny became a causeway surrounded by water, providing no cover.

An hour before dawn, 1st Lt. John “Red Dog” Nolan, nicknamed for his hair and his canine tenacity, led his company towards La Fière Bridge and manor. With visibility low due to hedgerows, stone walls and the darkness, Nolan told Lt. Dolan Coxon to send his scouts forward. Coxon didn’t have the heart to send his men alone into harm’s way and accompanied them. A few moments later, German machine gun fire barked up and killed Coxon and another man. With two platoons trying to flank the foxhole, a firefight developed and the Americans got pinned down. After about an hour, the Germans quietly withdrew without losses.

Unknown to Nolan and his men, they were not alone. Many of the airborne who were misdropped in the area honed in on the only landmark in the flooded plain: the causeway. They were now arriving piecemeal, but most of them have lost their radios in the water and couldn’t inform others of their presence. When these surprise reinforcements started showing up, Nolan drew up a plan to attack the manor from the north and the south simultaneously. Units were put in place, one of them wading through the neck-deep swamp with bullets ricocheting off the water around them. However, the runner who was supposed to give the message to attack got lost and coordination was broken. At 9 am, Brig. Gen. James Gavin arrived with 300 men from the northwest on the far side of the causeway. After being briefed on the situation, he decided it was in good hands and moved on south to capture another bottleneck along another road further away.

Despite the lack of coordination between units, the airborne finally reached the manor. Some 10 to 12 Germans fought back from inside but were suppressed in 10 minutes of fierce fighting. Seeing a white sheet being hung from a window, a paratrooper went forward to accept the surrender, only to get shot by a German who was standing by another window and didn’t know his comrades had already given up. After another round of furious firing, the defenders finally surrendered for good.

At 1:45 pm, with the manor in American hands, two men were sent to scout out the La Fière Bridge. German soldiers hiding on the far side tried to ambush them, but one of the men, Pvt. James Mattingly, shot the first man then wounded and captured the rest, later receiving the Silver Star for what one officer called “the best piece of individual soldiering I have ever seen.” The La Fière Bridge and the causeway were clear and a nine-man force was left on the west end in the half-dozen stone buildings of Cauguigny. The causeway was blocked by a truck, mines were laid and three anti-tank guns brought in by glider were set up.

The German counterattack came at 4 pm. Three German-driven French light tanks appeared with infantry in tow from the west, overrunning the force in Cauguigny and heading for the causeway. About a dozen US airborne were driven in front of the tanks as human shields, forced to pick up mines and throw them into the water. Once they were 40-50 yards from the defenders, American bazooka teams and anti-tank guns opened up while the captured paratropers dove for safety. The first tank was destroyed, followed by the other two, but at a high price: German infantrymen, using the tanks as cover, poured automatic weapons fire into the defenders, causing heavy casualties before retreating to the west end of the causeway. With depleted numbers and low ammo, but in a strong position and with additional reinforcements arriving, the American dug in at the manor while the Germans did the same on the far side of the swamp.

With the fight for Sainte-Mère -Église still going on, both sides started building up their numbers at La Fière Bridge, until June 9 brought a need to break the stalemate. By this point, the 4th Infantry Division had made its way up from Utah Beach and needed the road cleared to proceed. Twelve Shermans and an artillery battery were brought up for the final push with the airborne to spearhead the attack with a suicidal charge down the exposed, 1,000 yard long causeway into German machine gun and mortar fire. Lt. Col. Charles Carrell’s 2nd Battalion, 401st Glider Infantry Regiment was given the thankless task.

Carrell lost his nerve in the last moment and declined to attack and was replaced on the spot. At 10 am, rifles, machine guns, tanks and artillery all opened up, and G Company’s Cap. John Sauls was the first to jump onto the causeway with a shout of “Follow me!” Some men faltered in the face of certain death, other were cut down running and yet others fell down wounded or trying to scramble for some cover. Miraculously, Sauls himself made it across the corridor of fire and ran past the first line of German defense, shooting Germans with his Thompson SMG.

The causeway got quickly congested with the dead, the dying and the terrified; but the push got going. At one point, General Matthew Ridgway, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division was spotted on the causeway, trying to remove a cable from a knocked-out tank to make it easier to pass. He was soon joined by General Gavin. The sight of the division’s two highest-ranking officers in the middle of the killing zone has inspired the troops to push themselves beyond all limits and the Germans were forced to flee. A final, heavy counterattack was repulsed later that night and the battle for the La Fière causeway was won, allowing allied forced to move west and further into the Cotentin Peninsula.

Visiting La Fière in the 1980s, General Gavin recalled the aftermath of the battle: “When I came to this point […], I had no idea as to how hard this fight was. I looked back down the causeway. It was covered from the church to as far as I could see with bodies. I could have walked back to the bridge and never stepped on pavement. I just had no idea as to the strength of the position. It took airborne soldiers to do this.”

Take a look at these other WWII Posts: WWII Today: June 6 WWII Today: June 17 Los Baños Raid Brécourt Manor Assault

Jun 07

Dead Man’s Corner – Saint Côme-du-Mont – June 7, 1944

After landing on the beaches on D-Day, the Allied troops had to make their way further inland, capturing key locations to allow forces from the various beaches to link up. The road, known as causeway #2, leading inland from Utah beach passed through the villages of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Verville and Saint-Côme-du-Mont, leading into the town of Carentan, an important target. The junction of the roads from Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and Saint-Côme-du-Mont would come to be known as Dead Man’s Corner.

The area was defended by the German 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, the “Green Devils” of Major von der Heydte (who, coincidentially, was cousin to Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who tried to kill Hitler with a bomb on July 20, 1944 during Operation Valkyrie). Fate pitted the heavily dug-in Green Devils against their American counterparts, the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division.

On June 7, the paratroopers have linked up with a platoon of 6 Shermans and several M5 Stuart light tanks, and were approaching the outskirts of Carentan amidst heavy fighting in the hedgerows. Not far from the town, they came up on a crossroads dominated by a large building, its corner painted red and white: the headquarters and aid station for the 6thFallschirmjäger. The Stuart at the head of the line was knocked out right at the crossroads by a Panzerfaust fired by Bruno Hinz. The shot killed the tank commander 1st Lt. Walter T. Anderson, whose body was left hanging halfway out of the hatch.

In the first days following D-Day, priority lay with getting the troops and artillery off the Utah Beachhead and moving inland; there was no time to deal with the dead and wounded. The Stuart, with Lt. Anderson still hanging out of the turret, was moved to the side of the road to make way for the line of tanks to proceed towards Carentan. With D-Day being imminent, the Germans had removed all road signs in Normandy to make it as hard as possible for the Allied invasion troops to find their bearings. As a consequence, there was no road sign at this particular crossroads pointing the way to Carentan. The Stuart tank became a reference point for the troops moving inland and they soon started to refer to the crossroads as “the corner with the tank with the dead man in it,” which was later shortened to Dead Man’s Corner, the name by which it’s known today.

At least that is the best-known version of the story. Some historians, such as Mark Bando, a specialist on the 101st Airborne, suggests that it wasn’t the commander who died in the tank, but the driver, and that rather than hanging out through the hatch, he remained in his seat, only visible if someone walked up to the vehicle and peered inside from a specific angle. While the opinion might forever remain in contention, it’s a fact that there are no visible corpses on the two contemporary photographs of the tank.

Today the former headquarters is the heart of the D-Day Experience with a C-47 simulator as well as the Dead Man’s Corner Paratrooper Museum, which not only documents the incident, but also displays several unique historical artifacts, including items owned by Dick Winters and other notable members of Easy Company.

Take a look at these other D-Day Posts: June 6: D-Day The Battle of La Fière Bridge Exercise Tiger: The Slapton Sands Disaster

Jun 06

The Brécourt Manor Assault: Classic Small Unit Assault

The Brécourt Manor Assault began early on the morning of June 6, 1944, after the chaotic nighttime drops, Lt. Winters and some men of Easy Company, 506th PIR, arrived at the Command Post of the 3rd Bn 506th PIR in the hamlet of Le Grand Chemin. The command post at the hamlet was aware of a nearby German artillery position to the south, overlooked by the Brécourt manor house on the opposite side of the field.

Assault on Brécourt Manor – The ditch Winters and his men used to approach the guns

The guns, believed to be 88mm flak cannons, were firing at one of the causeways leading off Utah beach. A small groups of  soldiers had already attempted to take the guns but had been repulsed. Lt. Winters received curt instructions: “There’s fire along that hedgerow there. Take care of it.” After reconnoitering the battery alone at around 8:30 a.m., he gathered 12 men of Easy Company he had at that point, telling them to only carry their weapons, ammo and grenades.

Rather than the expected 88mms, the battery was comprised of four 105mm howitzers, three firing towards Utah beach and one facing the opposite direction. Descriptions usually state that the firing positions were connected by trenches, but in this case, these weren’t properly built-up and reinforced trenches like the ones used in World War I, but rather a drainage ditch running along the tree line, fortified by logs and sandbags. It was this hasty construction of the position and the cover of the hedgerow that protected the site from being discovered by air reconnaissance during the preparation for D-Day.

Brécourt Manor Assault – Overview of the site. Brécourt Manor is off the lower left corner of the picture, overlooking the field

Once near the site, Winters ordered four of his men to set up their machine guns and suppress the German MG-42 nest. Another two men were sent a bit further afield to give covering fire from yet another direction. Sgt. Lipton, one of these two, climbed up a tree, getting a good view of the enemy but exposing himself to fire.

Over looking the guns at Brécourt Manor Assault – Lipton climbing up into a tree to lay down covering fire in the series

Once the machine gun nest was suppressed, three men threw their grenades and charged in, knocking it out, allowing Winters and his men to run to the trench and dive in, quickly taking the first artillery position. They started preparing for an attack on the second gun and Winters peered down the trench – at the last moment, as the Germans were setting up a machine gun to fire down it, preventing any further American advance. By this point, other German machine guns were firing across the field, limiting safe movement to the trench.

The assault shot from Band of Brothers: Winters spotting the German machine gun being set up to prevent American advance beyond the first gun.


Winters quickly shot both men, preventing them from pouring lethal fire down the trench and trapping the Airborne at the first gun, unable to move in any direction. Moving further on, Winters led his men in an attack on the second gun. It was here that he located a radio and map room, finding a map of all German batteries on the Cotentin peninsula. After capturing the third gun, he ordered all the guns destroyed. The men placed C4 charges down the gun barrels and ignited them with looted German stick grenades.

Brécourt Manor Assault – Winters dropping a grenade down a gun barrel in the series. True to history, a C4 charge can also be seen being inserted shortly before.

Lt. Ronald Speirs arrived with 5 more men as reinforcements. Speirs, known as an extremely aggressive commander, led his men out of the trench and charged the final gun position by running through machine gun fire in the open. Once the last gun was destroyed, Winters ordered everyone to fall back, as crossing the field and assaulting Brécourt Manor itself was far beyond their abilities.

Brécourt Manor Assault – Speirs and his men outside the trenches, charging the last gun position (on the right, in the background) in the series

While Band of Brothers does a good job at depicting the assault and includes numerous historically accurate details, it does fail in getting across the scope of combat. Rather than the 10-15 minutes of furious fighting the viewer is lead to imagine, taking the 200 yard stretch of trenches and the four guns took 2-3 hours, including at least one mission back to the hamlet for ammunition.

Consolidating after the Brécourt Manor Assaulte – Scene from Band of Brothers, condensing the events into a much tighter timeframe.

Back at the hamlet of Le Grand Chemin, Winters handed over the captured German map to his friend, intelligence officer Lt. Lewis Nixon. Recognizing its importance, Nixon ran three miles to Utah beach to deliver it to his superiors immediately. Command on the beach was so impressed that they sent their first two tanks to Le Grande Chemin to support Easy Company. Once the tanks arrived, it was finally possible to assault and take the manor house.

After the Brécourt Manor Assault – Nixon arriving with the first two tanks off the beach in the series

During the fighting, a young French boy named Michel de Vallavieille, son of the manor’s owner, was mistaken for a German soldier and accidentally shot, becoming the first French civilian casualty of the invasion. Luckily, Michel survived and was evacuated to Britain. He went on to become the mayor of the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and founded the Utah Beach Museum. Several generations of the de Vallavieille family have devoted their lives to keeping the legacy of the Normandy invasion alive in the Utah Sector.

The assault on the Brécourt Manor guns is a textbook example of frontal assault on a fixed position and is taught West Point, as a case study. With 24 men, including reinforcements, Winters defeated approximately 60 Germans in a defensive position, killing about 20 and taking 12 prisoners, at the cost of only 6 American casualties: 4 dead and 2 wounded. Originally, the commander of the 506th PIR put him up for the Medal of Honor, but US Army policy at the time limited the highest award to one per division: the MOH was awarded to Col. Robert G. Cole for his bayonet charge and taking the last 4 bridges on the road to Carentan.  Lt. Richard D. Winters was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

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Jun 06

June 6 D-Day – World War II Today

Before dawn, the Allied Expeditionary Force of British, American, Canadian, Polish, and Free French troops begins Operation Overlord, the long-awaited invasion of France.→ Read more

Apr 22

Exercise Tiger: The Slapton Sands Disaster

The failure of the Dieppe Raid in 1942 made it clear for Allied war planners that the Invasion of Normandy had to be prepared as thoroughly as possible. One important part of this preparation was Exercise Tiger, a nine-day secret live fire rehearsal held in April, 1944.

Slapton Sands

Exercise Tiger was held along the British coast at Slapton Sands in southwest England. The 3,000 civilian residents of the area, which was chosen for its similarity to the Normandy beaches, were evacuated beforehand without learning of the reason. The exercise was held by 30,000 troops from “Force U,” the American force slated to land on Utah Beach. Due to the need for secrecy about the upcoming invasion, most of the participating soldiers weren’t told the purpose of the exercise. In order to prevent discovery by German E-Boats (fast attack craft), a Royal Navy force of 2 destroyers, 3 motor torpedo boats and 2 motor gun boats patrolled the area, with another force watching the E-Boat base in Cherbourg, Normandy.

Utah Beach

The first four days, starting from April 22, concentrated on marshaling and embarkation drills, followed by a naval exercise and the actual beach assault. LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) loaded with troops sailed out to sea, took a circuitous route during the night to simulate crossing the Channel, then arrived at Slapton Sands just before dawn. It was this second part of the exercise that turned into tragedy. With the U.S. and U.K. militaries still declining to share some information up to this day, the order of some events is uncertain. What we know if that two unrelated incidents led to the death of hundreds of troops.

During the night, a convoy of eight LSTs were making their way towards the coast, traveling along a straight line in a single column. They were meant to be escorted by two British warships but one was damaged in an earlier collision and left for harbor, leaving the convoy’s defense to the corvette HMS Azalea. The same night, a force of German E-Boats departed from France, slipped the British ships on guard and came upon the exercise. Once the German vessels were spotted, a radio message was sent to warn the convoy. Due to a typographical error in orders, however, the radios onboard the American LSTs were tuned to a different frequency than the one used by the Brits and only the Azalea received the warning. The LSTs, dubbed Long, Slow Targets by their crews, didn’t even know they were under attack until the first torpedoes exploded under them with the E-Boat weaving in and out between the ponderous targets before getting away. Two of the eight transports were sunk, one was damaged by friendly fire and one was set on fire but managed to make it to shore, though only after losing over 120 men.

Hundreds of people went under with the LSTs and others jumped into the frigid waters. The men were not instructed on the proper use of their life belts and many wore them on their waist rather than under the arms. Many of these men, therefore, turned upside down and drowned with their heads held underwater by the weight of their equipment, while others froze to death in the four hours it took for rescue to arrive. According to one widespread estimate, 749 soldiers died that night. According to one survivor, “When we got back and then the light broke, you could walk across the dead bodies in the water.”Among the people lost were ten officers who knew vital information about D-Day. Allied planners were afraid that some of them might have fallen into German hands and Operation Overlord was at risk of being canceled until the bodies of all ten officers were found.

The German attack wasn’t the only thing to go horrendously wrong. More people died during a beach assault exercise either the preceding or the following morning. In order to make the operation realistic and acclimatize soldiers to the conditions they were to experience in Normandy, General Eisenhower decided that a live fire exercise should be incorporated to give the troops experience with the sight, sound and smell of actual naval bombardment. The plan called for a shelling of the beach for 50 minutes, ending just as the first wave of landing craft were to arrive at 7:30am, while soldiers inland were to fire live ammunition above the incoming assault force.

Admiral Moon

Several of the landing ships were delayed en route to the beach and U.S. Navy Admiral Don P. Moon, who commanded the exercise, decided to delay both the landing and the preceding bombardment by one hour to give them time to catch up. Some of the other landing craft, however, did not receive the message and stuck to the original schedule, their second wave hitting the beach just as the navy bombardment commenced. The exact number of casualties from the appalling incident are unknown but might have been as high as 450.

The catastrophic results of Exercise Tiger were kept a secret to prevent the loss of morale among the troops slated to participate in the invasion. Survivors, as well as local doctors, tending to the wounded were sworn to secrecy and information about the ill-fated exercise was suppressed for decades. Admiral Moon went on to direct the Utah Beach landing but committed suicide in August 1944. The case was blamed on combat fatigue. Corvette Captain Bernd Klug, the German officer leading the E-boot attack on the convoy, became an Admiral in West Germany during the Cold War. Local rumors of several hundred American soldiers being buried in secret mass graves have never been fully confirmed or disproven.

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Feb 26

Other D-Days in WW2

Where does the name “D-Day” come from, and how D-Days were there?.

What is the actual meaning of the D in D-Day?.  A popular view in France is that it stands for disembarkation or debarkation, referring to the invading Allied troops disembarking from their landing craft. Another, more romantic, explanation is decision, deliverance or doom. None of these are the true meaning of “D-Day.”

In 1964 the former Supreme Allied Commander and President Eisenhower was asked what “D-Day” meant. President Eisenhower’s executive assistant Brigadier General Robert Schulz,  responded, writing  “General Eisenhower asked me to respond to your letter. Be advised that any amphibious operation has a ‘departed date;’ therefore the shortened term ‘D-Day’ is used.”

“Departed date” comes from a rather authoritative source but it still doesn’t paint a complete picture. Schulz’s statement might have reflected how the phrase was understood specifically during the planning of amphibious operations, however, the historical use doesn’t seem to fully support the claim.  It appears, the U.S. military first used the term D-Day on September 7, 1918, during the World War I, referring to a planned attack: “The First Army will attack at H hour on D day with the object of forcing the evacuation of the St. Mihiel Salient.” The attack on the German-held area protruding into French lines started on September 12 and was the first and only offensive of the war launched entirely by American troops. Catching the Germans mid-retreat and with their artillery out of position, the battle saw the First Army victorious, thanks in part to the exploits of then-Lieutenant Colonel George Patton.

A brief anecdote about this first D-Day is in order. During the battle, Patton happened to meet Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, another officer who reached the apex of his fame in World War II, on a hilltop. While the two were talking, a German creeping artillery barrage started up, each barrage landing closer and closer to the hill. Both officers had a reputation for fearlessness and neither wanted to flinch in front of the other, so they ignored the approaching peril and carried on their chat until the barrage passed over them, leaving both men unharmed.

The battle, however, was not an amphibious attack, so Schulz’s post-World War II explanation is incorrect. The version accepted by the military today is that D simply stands for “day””and H for “hour.” While the phrases sound generic, their use, however, is pretty specific. Large, complex operations that take multiple days must be planned in great detail and comprise numerous dates and times for various actions and deadlines. If an operation starts early or late, as the Normandy invasion did due to bad weather, all of these times must be changed as well. Rather than setting every date and time in the traditional way and then possibly having to scramble to change it, the starting day and hour of the operation are simply designated D-Day and H-hour regardless of when exactly they would occur. All preceding and subsequent times are given relative to them. For example, D-3 means three days before and H+75 means 75 minutes after the operation commences. Numbers added to or subtracted from H-Hour could also represent hours. This way, last-minute changes in the schedule of the operation don’t force planners to rewrite every single document, nor others to use outdated texts with incorrect times.

The terms D-Day and H-hour saw use numerous times until the most famous example, Operation Overlord. The invasion of Normandy, however, was such a major effort that its very existence caused a decline in the use of the phrases elsewhere. With so much effort, supplies, transport capacity and personnel tied up in the landing in Western Europe, other major operations in the same year received different codes for their starting times to avoid confusion. Thus, the October 20, 1944 invasion of the Island of Leyte in the Philippines started on A-Day, while the first day of the landing on Okinawa, on April 1, 1945, was L-Day, for “landing.”

X-Day was planned to be the invasion of Japan on November 1, 1945, and Y-Day the invasion of Tokyo Plains on March 1, 1946 but these attacks never manifested due to the war ending. J-Day was used as a general term for the date of a specific assault in both world wars. Z-Day was the landing of Australian forces to liberate Brunei in North Borneo on June 10, 1945 and Q-Day was June 23, 1945 rehearsal for Trinity, the first atomic bomb test.

Check out these other WW2 Posts: Dead Man’s Corner – Normandy WW2 American Slang D-Day: June 6, 1944 The Sherman Tank

Jan 02

NBC Words At War “D-Day 5th War Bond Drive Special“

Words At War “D-Day 5th War Bond Drive Special“ Released June 13, 1944.

NBC and the Council of Books in Wartime bring you Words At War, the series that brings you radio versions of the leading war books, brings you further excerpts from “Here Is Your War”,  by war correspondent, Ernie Pyle.


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