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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.