Utah and the Airborne

The dawn of D-Day on the Cotentin peninsula brought only a little clarity to the scattered American airborne troops. The tall hedgerows of the Normandy fields made it hard to orientate themselves. For many, daylight meant that they could at last light a cigarette without giving their position away. Finding containers and equipment bundles also became easier. A French boy with a horse and cart helped an airborne staff officer gather them up. German soldiers also profited as a result of the manna from heaven which had rained down in containers during the night. They helped themselves to American K-Rations and cigarettes.

Those paratroopers who had survived the drop began to coalesce into mixed groups and attack their objectives, although they had no radio contact with their divisional headquarters. They were, however, aided by an even greater German confusion. The cutting of telephone wires by paratroopers and the Resistance had proved an invaluable tactic. German forces on the peninsula were also uncertain in their reactions. They had no idea where the main American paratroop forces were concentrated and they lacked leadership. Generalleutnant Falley of the 91st Luftlande-Division was dead from the ambush near his headquarters, and Generalleutnant Karl-Wilhelm Graf von Schlieben, the commander of the 709th Infanterie-Division, was still absent.

Schlieben had been asleep in a hotel in Rennes prior to the Seventh Army map exercise planned for that day. The telephone rang at 06.30 hours, waking him. ‘The war game has been cancelled,’ a staff officer informed him. ‘You are requested to return to your unit.’ Schlieben, realizing that the Allies had stolen a march on them, told his driver to take the road up the west coast of the peninsula. They drove as fast as possible and turned inland, stopping only to collect a wounded German soldier spotted in a hedgerow by the side of the road. Schlieben could hear heavy guns firing to the east.

When the curfew expired at 06.00 hours, French civilians emerged from their houses to find out what had been happening during the night. In Montebourg, north of the main drop zones, they went to the central square, where they saw ‘American prisoners with blackened faces’ guarded by German soldiers. The Americans winked at the French and made V for Victory signs. When the Ortskommandant appeared, the mayor could not resist asking him if he needed any workers that day for erecting the ‘Rommel asparagus’ poles against glider landings. ‘It is not necessary,’ he replied stiffly. The Germans, they noticed, were very nervous.

The 82nd Airborne Division had taken its chief objective of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, but it had landed close to the main units of the 91st Luftlande-Division and would suffer numerous counter-attacks. Its other task was to secure the line of the River Merderet in preparation for VII Corps to advance right across the peninsula. This proved hard, since its units were so scattered. Many small groups of paratroopers made their way to the La Fière crossing by following the railway embankment. Brigadier General James Gavin, the second in command of the division, took a large group further south to help the attack on Chef du Pont and the bridge there.

When a small bridgehead had been taken across the Merderet at Chef du Pont, the regimental surgeon of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment had to operate in the field with the barest equipment. All their medical bundles had been lost in the drop. ‘A soldier had his leg blown off right by the knee and the only thing left attached was his patellar tendon. And I had him down there in this ditch and I said: “Son, I’m gonna have to cut the rest of your leg off and you’re back to bullet-biting time because I don’t have anything to use for an anesthetic.” And he said: “Go ahead, Doc.” I cut the patellar tendon and he didn’t even whimper.’

Another medical officer in the same regiment, who had found himself having to hold up plasma bags while being shot at, was soon captured by the Germans. They took him to the 91st Luftlande-Division’s Feldlazarett, or field hospital, set up in the Château de Hauteville, five miles west of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. The German medics treated him as a friend, and he went about his work tending wounded American paratroopers assisted by a German sergeant who was a Catholic priest in civilian life.

Although the Americans were superior in numbers, the capture of the bridge and causeway at La Fière proved very difficult. It was later taken and then lost again. The Germans had sited machine guns on the far side with excellent fields of fire. The river made it impossible to outflank them. The French family who had saved so many paratroopers with their rowing boat had told an airborne officer about a nearby ford across the Merderet, yet for some reason he never passed on the information. The ford was only put to good use later after it was discovered accidentally by another soldier.

Other widely scattered groups had dropped in the marshy area on the west side of the Merderet. They found the hedgerows thick with bramble and thorn, and small German detachments ensconced in Norman farms whose solid stone walls provided natural defensive positions. Once again, the lack of communication with the main American forces on the east of the river made it impossible to coordinate their efforts.

While the 82nd was responsible for holding the western flank, the 101st Airborne Division’s task was to assist the landings at Utah on the east coast of the peninsula. This included suppressing German batteries and seizing causeways across the marshes just inland from the beach. Lieutenant Colonel Cole’s group occupied the German battery position at Saint-Martin-de-Varreville, which they found abandoned. They then seized the western end of the causeway leading from Utah beach across the flooded area. Other groups, meanwhile, protected the northern flank by aggressive action, which convinced the isolated German defenders that they were heavily outnumbered. Attempts to seize the southern causeways from the beach to Saine-Marie-du-Mont and Pouppeville were, however, delayed by well-sited German machine guns.

Apart from securing the causeways ready for the 4th Infantry Division’s advance from Utah beach, the other task of the 101st Airborne was to seize the lock on the River Douve at La Barquette and also take two bridges north-east of Carentan. This would later allow the American forces on the Cotentin and the 29th Division advancing from Omaha to link up. The biggest threat in the area was the unexpectedly large German force in Saint-Côme-du-Mont on the Carentan- Cherbourg road.

Major von der Heydte, a veteran of the German airborne invasion of Crete three years before, had pushed forward two battalions of his 6th Paratroop Regiment from Carentan. His men, among the most experienced of the Luftwaffe’s Paratroop Army, were to prove formidable opponents. When dawn broke, they gazed in amazement at all the different coloured parachutes lying in the fields. They wondered at first whether they represented different units, but soon got out their knives to cut themselves silk scarves. Heydte himself went forward to Saint-Côme-du-Mont later in the morning and climbed the church tower. From there he could see the huge armada of ships lying offshore.

For American paratroopers, the sound of the naval bombardment of Utah beach provided the first reassurance that the invasion was proceeding according to plan. But with the loss of so much equipment and ammunition in the drop, and the increasing concentration of German forces against them, everything depended on how quickly the 4th Infantry Division would arrive.

The landings at Utah proved the most successful of all, largely due to good fortune. The naval bombardment force, commanded by Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk in the heavy cruiser USS Augusta, was no less powerful than that at Omaha. Kirk had the battleship USSNevada, the monitor HMSErebus, the heavy cruisers USS Quincy and Tuscaloosa , the light cruiser HMS Black Prince and, for close-in support, the light cruiser HMS Enterprise with a dozen destroyers. As soon as the naval bombardment started, French civilians fled from their villages out into the countryside and awaited events in relative safety.

The gunfire, while failing to hit many of the German positions, cleared large parts of the minefields on which the enemy had relied. Meanwhile the medium bombers of the Ninth Air Force dropped their loads much closer to the target area at Utah than the Eighth had at Omaha, but even so the effect on German positions was negligible. The rocket ships were also inaccurate, but none of this seemed to matter.

Utah was the responsibility of VII Corps, commanded by Major General J. Lawton Collins, a dynamic leader known to his men as ‘Lightning Joe’. The assault was led by the 8th Infantry Regiment in Major General Raymond O. Barton’s 4th Infantry Division. Luck certainly played a large part when the current pushed the landing craft towards the Vire estuary. Colonel Van Fleet’s 8th Infantry came ashore 2,000 yards further south than planned, but on a stretch of beach which turned out to be far more lightly defended than where they were supposed to have landed.

The calmer waters meant also that none of the DD tanks were lost, except for four destroyed on a landing craft which struck a mine. One of the landing craft crewmen described them as ‘odd-shaped sea-monsters depending upon huge, doughnut-like, canvas balloons for flotation, wallowing through heavy waves, and struggling to keep in formation as they followed us’. In fact the light resistance presented few targets for the tanks to attack. Even the artillery was landed without loss. Altogether, the 4th Infantry Division’s 200 casualties on D-Day were far fewer than the 700 losses caused by an E-boat attack during Exercise Tiger off Slapton Sands in Devon that April.

The first senior officer ashore at Utah was the irrepressible Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt Jr, son of a former president and a cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Teddy Jr had named his Jeep ‘Rough Rider’ in his father’s honour. On seeing that the 8th Infantry Regiment had landed in the wrong place, Roosevelt rightly decided that it would be stupid to try to redeploy. ‘We’ll start the war from here!’ he announced.

Roosevelt, who stalked around fearlessly under fire with his walking stick, was loved by GIs for his constant jokes with them and his extraordinary courage. Many suspected that he secretly hoped to die in battle. A major who landed without his vehicle made for the beach, where he first sought cover and then ‘met General Roosevelt, walking the beach wall oblivious to the fire’. ‘General Teddy’ was also known for preferring to wear the olive drab knitted cap and not a helmet, a habit for which he was often upbraided by more senior generals because it set a bad example.

The assault on Utah beach against isolated German riflemen and machine-gunners was ‘more like guerrilla fighting’, as an officer in the 4th Division put it. One young officer was amused when a colonel came over in the midst of heavy fire and said, ‘Captain, how in the hell do you load this rifle?’ In contrast to Omaha, the Germans had no ‘observed fire’. Instead they just ‘walked their fire up and down the beach, always maintaining a different pattern’. But the comparatively easy fighting did not mean that men were not ready for dirty tricks by the enemy. A soldier in the 8th Infantry Regiment recorded that their officers had ordered them to shoot any SS soldiers they captured on the grounds that ‘they could not be trusted’ and might be concealing a bomb or grenade. Another stated that ‘during the briefings, we were informed that all civilians found along the beach area and for a certain distance inland were to be dealt with as enemy soldiers, shot or rounded up’.

The beaches were cleared of Germans in less than an hour, thus creating something of an anticlimax. ‘There was little of the expected excitement and not much confusion.’ Instead of opening fifty-yard channels through the obstacles, the engineers began to clear the whole beach at once. The contrast with Omaha could not have been greater.

The only factor the two beaches had in common was Allied air supremacy. The presence of Lightnings, Mustangs and Spitfires almost constantly overhead greatly boosted morale, but they found no Luftwaffe to attack. Only two German aircraft reached the beaches during daylight on D-Day, largely because of the huge Allied fighter umbrella inland, ready to attack any plane which took off. The wide-ranging sweeps inland of American Thunderbolt squadrons to attack German reinforcements and armour offered their pilots disappointingly few targets in the western sectors that first day.

Frustration and the inevitable tension of the historic day produced a trigger-happy mood. Allied aircraft shot up French camionettes run on charcoal. At Le Molay, due south of Omaha, US fighters riddled the water tower with cannon fire, perhaps thinking that it was an observation post. It became a huge shower, spraying water in all directions, until emptied of its 400,000 litres. Troops on the ground and at sea were also trigger-happy. A number of Allied aircraft were shot down by their own side, and on the following day an American pilot, shot down over Utah beach, was machine-gunned as he parachuted down by an over-excited combat engineer.

Beyond the western side of the Cotentin peninsula, an umbrella of Spitfires patrolled at 26,000 feet and P-47 Thunderbolts at 14,000 feet. Their task was to protect the anti-submarine patrols on the south-western approaches to the Channel from German fighters, thought to be based on the Brest peninsula. They did not know that the airfields had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe itself, fearing an invasion there. In any case, the RAF and US pilots were furious to be given this fruitless job, instead of what they had imagined to be direct combat over the beaches.

Another less than active duty was the dropping by medium bombers of leaflets to the French, to advise them to abandon towns and seek refuge in the countryside. Warnings had also been issued by the BBC, but many radios had been confiscated and most areas were without electricity.

The two leading battalions from the 4th Infantry Division began their advance inland as soon as the beach was secured. A Sherman from the 70th Tank Battalion fired at one strongpoint guarding the causeway and the Germans inside immediately came out to surrender. The company commander jumped down from his tank to approach them, but they began yelling at him. It took him a moment to work out that they were shouting, ‘Achtung! Minen!’ at him. He retreated to the safety of his vehicle and called up the engineers. But he was to have less luck later in the day. After his tank company advanced south-west to Pouppeville, their attention was attracted by some wounded paratroopers from the 101st calling for help. The commander climbed down, taking their first-aidkit, but on the way over to them he stepped on an anti-personnel mine. He shouted to his crew not to come anywhere near, but they threw him a rope and towed him out with the tank. The remains of his left foot were amputated later.

Inevitably, civilians and their property suffered during the advance inland. A company of the 20th Field Artillery with the 4th Division came under fire from some farm buildings. The widow who lived in the farm told the Americans that the ‘sniper’ was a very young soldier in her barn who was drunk. The artillerymen turned one of their guns on the barn. The first round set it on fire and the young German inside shot himself.

One soldier’s account was particularly revealing. ‘French people, of course, lived there,’ he recounted. ‘Us being there was as big a surprise as anything in the world to those people. They didn’t really know how to take us, I guess. One man started to run, and we hollered for him to halt. He didn’t halt, and one of our men shot him and left him there. I remember one house a couple of us went into and hollered, trying to tell them to come out. We didn’t know any French. Nobody came out. We took a rifle butt and knocked the door in. I threw a grenade in the door, stepped back and waited until it exploded. Then we went on in. There was a man, three or four women and two or three kids in that room. The only damage that was done was the old man had a cut on his cheek. It was just a piece of luck that they didn’t all get killed.’ He then went on to tell how they captured a small hill with the support of tank fire. ‘It was pretty rough. And those guys [the Germans] were baffled and they were crazy. There were quite a few of them still in their foxholes. Then I saw quite a few of them shot right in the foxholes. We didn’t take prisoners and there was nothing to do but kill them, and we did, and I had never shot one like that. Even our lieutenant did and some of the Non Coms.’

The French had to cope as best they could in the circumstances. A couple of American officers ‘came across a little French farm cottage where a good sized French woman was dragging a dead German soldier out of her house. With one heave, she flung him across the road up next to the hedgerow. She waved to us indicating that she was glad to see us, but she went back into the house, I suppose to clean up the mess that had been made.’ On the road to Sainte-Mère-Eglise another American saw ‘a German soldier lying dead, stripped to the waist and shaving cream on his face’. He had been in the middle of a shave when paratroopers stormed the building and was shot down as he ran out. At the back, there was a field kitchen, or Gulaschkanone as the Germans called them, with its draught horses dead still in their traces.

The most extraordinary encounter of the 4th Division’s advance to relieve the paratroopers was American infantry fighting a German cavalry unit made up of former Red Army prisoners. The horsemen had forced their mounts to the ground to take up firing positions behind them, a classic cavalry tactic. ‘We had to kill most of the horses,’ wrote a lieutenant unused to such warfare, ‘because the Germans were using them for shelter.’

Other surprises came when talking to prisoners. One German captive spoke to an American soldier of German origin.

‘There isn’t much left of New York any more, is there?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘you know it’s been bombed by the Luftwaffe.’

Americans were to find that many German soldiers had swallowed the most outrageous lies of Nazi propaganda without question.

The paratroopers had managed to hold off German counter-attacks against their Chef du Pont bridgehead over the Merderet. They knocked out two light French tanks from the 100th Panzer-Battalion with bazookas. Elsewhere, particularly round Sainte-Mère-Eglise, they stalked them with Gammon grenades, which they found just as effective.

Generalleutnant von Schlieben, the commander of the 709th Infanterie-Division, had hoped that the sound of tanks would panic the Americans. He ordered this attached panzer battalion of Renault tanks, captured from the French in 1940, to drive around, but when they came to close quarters, the paratroopers found it comparatively easy to knock out these obsolete vehicles with their Gammon grenades. Yet the airborne commanders remained extremely concerned. Their men were low on ammunition and they had no idea how the seaborne invasion was progressing. French civilians were afraid that the landings might fail, like the raid on Dieppe in 1942, and that the Germans would return to take revenge on anyone who had assisted the Americans. Rumours even spread that the invasion had failed, so when the Shermans and leading elements of the 4th Infantry Division made contact with the 101st, the relief was considerable. The advance over the narrow causeways had been slow and came to a halt before nightfall, but at least the right flank between Sainte-Mère-Eglise and the marshes by the sea had been secured by the follow-up regiments of the 4th Division.

The area near Les Forges, south of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, where part of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment was due to land at 21.00 hours, had still not been properly secured. An Ost battalion of Georgian troops held out just to the north. Spread between Turqueville and Fauville on the road from Carentan northwards, they prevented the reinforcement of the increasingly embattled force at Sainte-Mère-Eglise, which Schlieben was trying to recapture from the north. When the sixty gliders of the 325th Glider Regiment swooped in, fierce machine-gun fire opened up. They lost 160 men killed or injured on landing, but the survivors had all their equipment and were fresh. They went into action that night, fording the Merderet, and swung left to secure the crossing at La Fière on the west side.

When the first American prisoners were marched through Carentan, the reserve battalion of Heydte’s 6th Paratroop Regiment gazed at their tall, shaven-headed counterparts from across the Atlantic. ‘They look as though they’re from Sing Sing,’ they joked. From Carentan, the prisoners were taken south to Saint-Lô to be interrogated at the Feldkommandantur, then on to a holding camp, which they dubbed ‘starvation hill’, because they received so little to eat. French civilians, having known since before dawn from the frantic activity of German troops that the invasion had begun, watched their arrival with sympathy.

Citizens of Saint-Lô had been reassured the day before by the precision of an American fighter-bomber strike against the railway station. One group playing cards had watched ‘as if it were a movie’ and applauded. ‘These friendly pilots,’ wrote one of them later, ‘comforted us with the idea that the Allies did not blindly bomb targets where civilians were in danger.’ But on the evening of 6 June at 20.00 hours, Allied bombers began to flatten the town systematically as part of a strategy to block major road junctions and thus delay German reinforcements rushing to the invasion area. The Allied warnings over the radio and by leaflet had either not been received or not been taken seriously.

‘Windows and doors flew across rooms,’ one citizen recalled, ‘the grandfather clock fell flat, tables and chairs danced a ballet.’ Terrorized families fled to their cellars and a number were buried alive. Old soldiers from the First World War refused to shelter underground. They had seen too many comrades suffocate under the earth of bombarded trenches. The air became choking with dust from smashed masonry. During this ‘night of the great nightmare’ they saw the double spires of their small cathedral silhouetted against the flames. Some burst into tears at the sight of their ruined town.

Four members of the Resistance from Cherbourg were killed in the prison. The headquarters of the Gendarmerie, the Caserne Bellevue, was completely destroyed. Well over half the houses in the town were razed to the ground. Doctors and aid workers could do little, so wounds were disinfected with Calvados. Accelerated by the vibration from the bombing, one heavily pregnant woman went straight into labour and a baby girl was ‘born right in the apocalypse’. As soon as the air raid started, many had instinctively run out into the countryside, where they sought shelter in barns and farmyards. When they finally summoned the courage to return to Saint-Lô, they were horrified by the smell of corpses still buried beneath the ruins. Some 300 civilians had died. Normandy, they had discovered, was to be the sacrificial lamb for the liberation of France.

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