This was the US aerial delivery of Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s 101st Airborne Division into the area just to the north of Carentan in German-occupied France, in the angle of the east coast of the Cotentin peninsula and estuary of the Douves and Vire rivers, as one of the first stages of 'Overlord' (5/6 June 1944).
Some 6,930 paratroopers jumped from 432 main force Douglas C-47 Skytrain troop carrier aircraft into an intended objective area of roughly 15 sq miles (39 km²) located in the south-eastern corner of the Cotentin peninsula of German-occupied northern France five hours ahead of the D-Day landings. The airborne landings were badly scattered over an area twice as large as the intended area, largely by bad weather and Flak, with some troops dropped as far as 20 miles (32 km) away.
The division nonetheless took most of its objectives on D-Day, but required four days to consolidate its scattered units and complete its mission of securing the left flank and rear of Major General J. Lawton Collins’s US VII Corps of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army landing on 'Utah' Beach, and to be reinforced by 2,300 glider infantry troops landed from the sea.
The 101st Airborne Division’s objectives were to secure the four causeway exits behind 'Utah' Beach and so facilitate the inland progress of Major General Raymond O. Barton’s US 4th Division, destroy a German coastal artillery battery at St Martin de Varreville, capture buildings nearby at Mésières believed to be in use as barracks and a command post for the artillery battery, capture the lock in the Douve river at La Barquette (opposite Carentan), capture two footbridges spanning the Douve at La Porte opposite Brévands, destroy the highway bridges over the Douve at Ste Côme du Mont, and secure the Douve river valley. In the process, the 101st Airborne Division’s units would also disrupt German communications, establish roadblocks to slow the movement of German reinforcements, establish a defensive line between the beach-head and Volognes, clear the area of the drop zones to the unit boundary at Les Forges, and link with Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s US 82nd Airborne Division landed farther to the north-west in 'Boston' (ii).
The German forces opposing 'Albany' included the 3/1058th Grenadierregiment of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Falley’s 91st Luftlande-Division in the vicinity of St Côme du Mont, the 919th Grenadierregiment of Generalmajor Eckkard von Geyso’s 709th Division behind 'Utah' Beach, the 191st Artillerieregiment of the 91st Luftlande-Division equipped with 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzers, and the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment sent to Carentan during D-Day.
'Albany' was the earlier of the 1st Army’s two major parachute missions, with 'Boston' following it by one hour. Each mission consisted of three regiment-sized landings. The drop zones of the 101st Airborne Division lay to the east and south of Ste Mère Eglise and, from north to south, were lettered A, C and D. (There had been a DZ B, allocated to Colonel Howard R. Johnson’s 501st Parachute Infantry before changes to the original landing plan on 27 May). Each of the division’s three parachute infantry regiments was transported by three or four 'serials' (formations containing 36, 45, or 54 C-47 aircraft), totalling 10 serials and 432 aircraft, which were complemented by 11 pathfinder aircraft of the same type. The serials were scheduled over the drop zones at six-minute intervals, and the paratroopers were organised into 'sticks', which was an aeroplane-load of 15 to 18 troops.
The main combat jumps were preceded at each drop zone by three teams of pathfinders who arrived 30 minutes before the main assault to set up navigation aids, including Eureka radar transponder beacons and marker lights, to aid the C-47 transports in locating their DZs in the dark.
In an effort to secure a measure of tactical surprise, the transport aircraft were routed to approach Normandy at low altitude from the west. The aircraft lifted off from 22.30 on 5 June and, once assembled into their planned formations, flew south-west over the English Channel at 500 ft (150 m) to remain under the lower edge of the German radar cover. At a stationary marker boat codenamed Hoboken and carrying a Eureka beacon, the aircraft turned south-east and flew between the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Alderney to their initial point on the Cotentin coast at Portbail, codenamed Muleshoe. Over the Cotentin peninsula a number of factors combined to degrade the accuracy of the forthcoming drops: these factors included solid cloud over the entire western half of the 22-mile (35-km) wide peninsula at the penetration altitude of 1,500 ft (455 m), ground fog over many drop zones, and intense German anti-aircraft fire. The weather conditions dispersed many formations and the Flak scattered them still farther. However, the single most important factor militating against the success of the operation was the decision to make a large-scale parachute drop by night.
The men of the 101st Airborne Division jumped between 00.48 and 01.40 on 6 June. The first wave, inbound to DZ A, which was that farthest to the north, was not surprised by the cloud and maintained formation, but navigating errors and a lack of Eureka signal caused the first error. Although the 2nd Battalion of Colonel George V. H. Moseley’s 502nd Parachute Infantry was dropped as a compact unit, it jumped on the wrong DZ, while the battalion’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Steve A. Chappuis, came down virtually alone on the correct DZ. Chappuis and this stick captured the coastal battery soon after assembling, and found that it had already been dismantled after an air raid. Some 70 of the 502nd Parachute Infantry’s 80 sticks dropped in a disorganised pattern around the impromptu drop zone set up by the pathfinders near the beach.
The commanders of the 502nd Parachute Infantry’s 1st and 3rd Battalions, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick J. Cassidy and Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole respectively, took control of small groups and accomplished all of their D-Day missions. Cassidy’s group took St Martin de Varreville by 06.30, sent out a patrol under Staff Sergeant Harrison C. Summers to seize the XYZ objective, a barracks at Mésières, and established a thin defence line between Foucarville and Beuzeville. Cole’s group moved during the night from near Ste Mère Eglise to the Varreville battery, then continued and captured Exit 3 from 'Utah' Beach at 07.30. The group held the position during the morning until relieved by troops moving inland from 'Utah' Beach. Both commanders found Exit 4 covered by German artillery fire, and Cassidy recommended to the 4th Division that it should not attempt to use this exit.
The division’s 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion did not fare nearly as well. Its drop was one of the worst of the operation, and the battalion lost all but one of its 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzers, and dropped all but two of 54 loads some 4 to 20 miles (6.4 to 32 km) to the north, where most ultimately became casualties.
The second wave, assigned to drop the 506th Parachute Infantry on DZ C, 1 mile (1.6 km) west of Ste Marie du Mont, was badly dispersed by cloud, then subjected to intense Flak for 10 miles (16 km). Three of the 81 C-47 transports were lost before or during the jump. Even so, the 1/506th Parachute Infantry was dropped accurately on DZ C, landing two-thirds of its sticks and the regimental commander, Colonel Robert F. Sink, on or within 1 mile (1.6 km) of the DZ. The 2/506th Parachute Infantry, much of which had jumped too far west near Ste Mère Eglise, eventually assembled near Foucarville at the north edge of the 101st Airborne Division’s objective area. It fought its way to the hamlet of le Chemin near the Houdienville causeway by mid-afternoon, but found that the 4th Division had already seized the exit hours before. The 3/501st Parachute Infantry, also assigned to jump onto DZ C, was more scattered, but assumed the task of securing the exits.
An extemporised company-sized team that included Taylor, the divisional commander, reached Exit 1 at Pouppeville at 06.00. After a six-hour house-clearing battle with units of the 1058th Grenadierregiment, the group secured the exit shortly before units of the 4th Division arrived.
The third wave of the 101st Airborne Division also encountered severe Flak, losing six aircraft. The troop carriers still made an accurate drop, placing 94 of 132 sticks on or close to the DZ, but part of this was covered by the pre-registered fire of German machine guns and mortars, which inflicted heavy casualties before many of the men could rid themselves of their parachutes. Among the dead were two of the three battalion commanders and the executive officer of the 3/506th Parachute Infantry.
The surviving commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert A. Ballard, gathered 250 men and advanced toward St Côme du Mont to complete his mission of destroying the road bridges over the Douve. Less than 880 yards (805 m) from its objective at Les Droueries, Ballard’s group was checked by elements of the 3/1058th Grenadierregiment. Another group of 50 men attacked the same area from the east at Basse Addeville but was also pinned down.
Johnson, commanding the 501st Parachute Infantry, collected 150 men and captured the main objective, the lock at La Barquette, by 04.00. After establishing defensive positions, Johnson went back to the DZ and assembled another 100 men to reinforce the bridgehead. Despite naval gunfire support by the 8-in (203-mm) guns of the heavy cruiser Quincy, Ballard’s battalion was unable to take St Côme du Mont or to link with Johnson.
An officer of the 3/506th Parachute Infantry, Captain Charles G. Shettle, put together a platoon and achieved another objective by seizing two foot bridges near La Porte at 04.30 and crossed to the eastern bank. When its ammunition was almost exhausted and it had knocked out several machine gun emplacements, this small force withdrew to the western bank. The force doubled in size overnight as stragglers came in, and repulsed a German probe across the bridges.
Two other noteworthy actions near Ste Marie du Mont involved units of the 506th Parachute Infantry, both actions concerning the seizure and destruction of 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzer batteries of the 3/191st Artillerieregiment. During the morning, a small patrol of men from E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry under 1st Lieutenant Richard D. Winters overwhelmed a force some three to four times its size and destroyed four guns at a farm called Manoir de Brécourt.
At about 12.00, in the course of a jeep reconnaissance, Sink was informed that a second battery of four guns had been discovered at Holdy, a manor between his command post and Ste Marie du Mont, and that the battery’s defenders had a force of some 70 paratroopers pinned down. Captain Lloyd E. Patch of the Headquarters Company of the 1/506th Parachute Infantry and Captain Knut H. Raudstein of C Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry led an additional 70 troops to Holdy and enveloped the position. The combined force then continued on to seize Ste Marie du Mont. A platoon of the 502nd Parachute Infantry, left to hold the battery, destroyed three of the four guns before Sink could send four Jeeps to save them for the US airborne soldiers' own use.
At the end of D-Day, Taylor and his assistant divisional commander, Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, returned from their foray at Pouppeville. Taylor had control of approximately 2,500 of his 6,600 men, most of whom were in the vicinity of the 506th Parachute Infantry’s command post at Culoville, with the scanty defence line to the west of St Germain du Varreville or with the division reserve at Blosville.
The 'Chicago' and 'Keokuk' glider airlifts had brought in limited reinforcements and had resulted in the death of Taylor’s other assistant divisional commander, Brigadier General Don F. Pratt. Colonel George S. Wear’s 327th Glider Infantry had come across 'Utah' Beach, but only one of its three battalions had reported in. The 101st Airborne Division had nonetheless accomplished its most important mission of securing the beach exits, but had only a tenuous hold on positions near the Douve river, over which the Germans could still move armoured units. The three groups clustered there had limited contact with each other, but no contact with the rest of the division. A shortage of radio equipment caused by losses during the drops exacerbated his control problems. Taylor made the destruction of the Douve bridges his division’s first priority and delegated the task to Sink, who issued orders for the available battalion of the 327th Glider Infantry to lead three battalions to the south during the next morning.
The Battle of Carentan which followed the initial consolidation of the US air-head was part of the Battle of Normandy, and lasted from 6 to 13 June on the approaches to and within Carentan. The objective of the attacking forces was the consolidation of the US ‘Utah’ and ‘Omaha’ beach-heads and the creation of a continuous defensive line against the inevitable counterattacks by the German forces, who sought to hold the town for a time long enough to allow reinforcements on their way from the south to arrive, prevent or delay the merging of the two US lodgements, and keep the US 1st Army from launching an attack toward Lessay-Périers, whose capture would isolate the Cotentin peninsula from the rest of German-occupied France.
Carentan itself was defended by two battalions of the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment of Generalleutnant Bernhard Ramcke’s 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision and two battalions of Osttruppen (units raised from Soviet prisoners). SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Werner Ostendorff’s 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ was ordered to reinforce Carentan but was delayed by transport shortages and attacks by Allied aircraft.
The consolidation of the two US beach-heads was not achieved as rapidly as had been planned because of the determined German resistance at ‘Omaha’ Beach. Allied intelligence believed that three German divisions were being massed to drive a wedge between the beach-heads, and Eisenhower inspected the ‘Omaha’ Beach lodgement on 7 June and ordered a ‘concentrated effort’ to effect the linking of the two beach-heads.
Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, who was the senior US ground commander, ordered a change from the original tactical plan and make the US priority the junction of the lodgements through Isigny and Carentan. Major General J. Lawton Collins’s US VII Corps was assigned responsibility for the capture of Carentan, and Collins gave the 101st Airborne Division, the US formation closest to the town, ‘the sole task of capturing Carentan’.
The small port city of Carentan lies in the valley of the Douve river at the base of the Cotentin peninsula, and possessed a population of about 4,000 persons. Four major roads and a railway line converged in the city, these routes from Cherbourg in the north-west, Bayeux and Caen in the east, St Lô in the south-east, and Coutances in the south-west. The town is dominated by high ground to the south-west and south-east, all under German control during the battle. Its other three approaches are bordered by watercourses: the Douve river to the west and north, a boat basin to the nort-heast, and the Vire-Taute Canal to the east. The Germans had flooded much of the Douve river floodplain before ‘Overlord’, thereby creating a marshland impassable to vehicles and difficult to cross on foot.
The road from St Côme du Mont crossed the floodplain along a narrow causeway about 1 miles (1.6 km) long. This had banks rising between 6 and 9 ft (2 and 3 m) above the marsh. Four bridges spanned the Douve river and several of its tributary streams along the causeway. In their retreat from St Côme du Mont, the Germans had destroyed Bridge No. 2 on the causeway and also part of the railway embankment. The nature of the natural and man-made terrain meant that troops in the open under fire could find cover only by digging in on the sloping eastern bank of the causeway.
Carentan was defended by two battalions of Oberst Dr Friedrich Freiherr von der Heydte’s 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment and remnants of the 1058th Grenadierregient of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Falley’s 91st Luftlande-Division, each of which had escaped from St Côme du Mont on 8 June when that village was taken by the 101st Airborne Division. The 2/FJR6 and 3/FJR6 battalions were still intact as combat units, but the 3/GR1058 had been nearly destroyed in three days of combat and was no longer effective.
General Erick Marck’s LXXXIV Corps of Generaloberst Friedrich Dollmann’s 7th Army reinforced the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment with two Osttruppe battalions and a few survivors of the 914th Grenadierregiment of Generalleutnant Dietrich Kraiss’s 352nd Division after the division’s defeat at Isigny on 9 June. Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, commander of Heeresgrup[pe ‘B’, ordered von der Heydte to defend the town ‘to the last man.’.
von der Heydte positioned the weak Osttruppe battalions along the Vire-Taute Canal to defend to the east, the 2/FJR6 across the Carentan end of the causeway, and the 3/FJR6 to defend against an attack from the north.
Stationed in and round Thouars, the 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ was nominally a mechanised infantry formation of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s mobile reserve, but had neither armoured vehicles nor adequate motor transport, and on 7 June was ordered to relocate to Normandy. The movement was badly delayed by a shortage of trucks and the attacks of Allied tactical aircraft that destroyed bridges over the Loire river and interdicted railway movements. The division’s advance elements reached Angers on 9 June and St Lô on the following day, by which time Rommel’s main concern was the need to prevent an American attack to the west from Carentan in order to cut off the Cotentin peninsula. The 38th Panzergrenadierregiment formed a mobile battle group to resist formations and units of Major General Leonard T. Gerow’s US V Corps, in the area to the south of Isigny, as it advanced westward from ‘Omaha’ Beach, and the the 37th Panzergrenadierregiment was sent to Carentan.
The 101st Airborne Division had consolidated its forces in Normandy by 9 June. Its three parachute regiments had been badly scattered during their delivery in ‘Albany’, losing a significant number of men killed and missing in the process, and had suffered further casualties as they took St Côme du Mont. Its 327th Glider Infantry had landed largely at ‘Utah’ Beach on 7 June and except for its third battalion (the attached 1/401st Glider Infantry) had yet to engage in serious combat.
Major General Edward H. Brooks’s US 2nd Armored Division, part of the US V Corps, had advanced off ‘Omaha’ Beach to support the drive of the 175th Infantry of Major General Charles H. Gerhardt’s 29th Division to Isigny. The division’s Combat Command A, consisting of M4 Sherman medium tanks of the 2/66th Armored and mechanised infantry of the 3/41st Armored Infantry, was available as an armored force reserve for the 101st Airborne Division.
On 9 June the 101st Airborne Division completed its consolidation with the 502nd PIR guarding the right flank along the upper reaches of the Douve river, the 506th PIR deployed across the Carentan highway, and the 327th GIR on the left in positions along the Douve river opposite Brévands. The 501st PIR was the divisional reserve, and guarded the left flank to the east of the 327th GIR.
Patrols and air reconnaissance indicated that Carentan might be defended only lightly, and a plan to capture the town by means of a double envelopment was created, starting at just after 00.00 on 10 June and using the 502nd PIR on the right and the 327th GIR on the left. The task of the 502nd PIR was to force the bridges and capture Hill 30, which was the high ground to the south-west of the town along the Périers highway in order to block any German withdrawal. The 327th GIR was to cross the Douve river at Brévands, circle 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east, and advance to Carentan on the road to the west of Isigny to take the town.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole’s 3/502nd PIR discovered that the Bridge No. 2 (the Douve bridge) was unrepaired, and the engineers assigned to the task were pinned down by fire from an 88-mm (3.465-in) gun, and Cole sent a patrol led by 1st Lieutenant Ralph B. Gehauf to cross the river in a small boat. The men moved forward to the last bridge, which was found to be blocked by an anti-tank obstacle of the Belgian gate type. The patrol was able to push the obstacle aside only 18 in (46 cm), just enough for one soldier at a time to pass. The patrol was then illuminated by a flare, came under mortar and machine gun fire and eventually returned at 05.30, when the attack was postponed. Most of the fire appeared to be coming from a large farmhouse and a hedgerow on higher ground 250 yards (230 m) to the right of the road beyond Bridge No. 4.
The 1 and 2/327th GIR crossed the Douve river early in the morning of 10 June. The 1/327GIR suffered ‘friendly fire’ casualties from US mortars as it crossed in rubber boats, and some units waded across the river. After reaching the eastern bank soon after dawn, the 327th GIR veered to the south in the direction of Catz. The 1/327th GIR attacked on the Isigny road’s southern side and the 2/327th GIR was on the northern side. With Company G leading the 2/327th GIR, heavy casualties were received as the men neared Carentan. G Company was then retired to reserve and attached to the 3/327th GIR. Early in the light of 11 June, Company A of the 3/401st GIR Company G of the 327th PIR attacked to the south along the Bassin a Flot, again suffering heavy losses.
At 01.45 1/327th GIR began started to cross the foot bridges over the lower reaches of the Douve river, and by 06.00, under cover of artillery fire, the entire regiment had crossed, then taking Brévands and beginning the 3-mile (4.8-km) movement to the south and west. Company A of the 401st GIR left the column and moved east toward Auville sur le Vey to link with the 29th Division. The 327th GIR did not encounter much opposition until 18.00 as it closed on the bridges spanning the Vire-Taute Canal to the east of Carentan. The regiment attacked with two battalions in line, and by 00.00 held the east bank.
The Douve river bridge had still not been repaired when the 3/502d PIR returned at 12.00. The paratroopers used whatever engineer materials they could find to improvise a footbridge and began their attack shortly after 13.00. Moving in single file down the causeway, the head of the 400-man battalion reached Bridge No. 4 at about 16.00, by which time most of the unit’s men had passed Bridge No. 3. Subjected first to artillery and mortar fire, and then sniper and machine gun fire as they closed, the 3/502nd PIR suffered heavy casualties. The fall of darkness ended the advance but not the casualties, when an attack at 23.30 by two Junkers Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ attack aircraft strafed the causeway, killing 30 men and knocking I Company out of the battle. The severe casualties suffered by the 3/502d PIR, estimated at two-thirds of the original force, resulted in the emergence of the nickname ‘Purple Heart Lane’ for that portion of the road linking Carentan and Ste Mère Église.
During the night the volume of German fire diminished. Company H crept through the opening in the obstacle, and when it suffered no casualties, at 04.00 Company G and the Headquarters Company followed, taking cover on both sides of the road. Then, in the early morning light, as they approached the main farm house, scouts were cut down by German fire. Cole immediately called for artillery support, but the German fire did not cease. At 06.15, under cover of a smoke screen, Cole ordered his executive officer, Major John P. Stopka, to pass word to the battalion that it would have to charge and destroy the German positions.
Using a whistle to signal the attack, Cole led a bayonet charge that overwhelmed the defenders. At first only some 20 men had charged, but Stopka quickly followed with 50 more. The attack then gained momentum as the other paratroopers saw what was happening and joined the fray, crossing a ditch. Overrunning the empty farmhouse, men of Company H found many German paratroopers dug in along the hedgerow behind it, and Companies H and G killed them with hand grenades and bayonets, though only at a high cost to themselves.
The survivors of the 3/502nd PIR set up defensive positions and asked 1/502nd PIR to press the attack. Lieutenant Colonel Patrick F. Cassidy’s battalion also suffered heavy losses from mortar fire, however, and could only strengthen Cole’s defensive line, taking up positions from the 3/502nd PIR’s command post in the farmhouse to the road. During a two-hour truce in the middle of the day, in which US forces attempted to negotiate for the recovery of casualties, a company of the 502nd PIR moved forward from Bridge No. 4 into a cabbage patch between the second and third hedgerows. Another company of the same unit moved forward and extended the US line across the road. Fighting at the cabbage patch during the afternoon took place largely at very close range with the Americans and Germans on opposite sides of the same hedgerow.
Except for the noon truce, which FJR6 also used to reorganise and resupply, the US forces drove back several German attacks. The last of these nearly succeeded in overwhelming the 3/502nd PIR at 18.30, gaining all but the last hedgerow between it and the Douve river. However, Cole’s artillery officer was able to overcome the German jamming of his radio, and called down a concentration of VII Corps artillery fire so close that several Americans were also killed. The overwhelming violence of the five-minute barrage rolled back the last German counterattack.
Patrols from the 327th GIR had discovered a partially destroyed footbridge over the Vire-Taute Canal at the point where it joins the Douve river to the north-east of the town. The bridge had been repaired by 10.00, and single company’s of the 2 and 3/401st GIR crossed and attacked down the wooded banks of the Bassin à Flot but, like the 502nd PIR, they were stopped about 900 yards (825 m) short of Carentan by the fire of mortars and machine guns which the US artillery could not suppress.
With almost all of its ammunition expended, FJR6 withdrew during the night, leaving only a small rear guard. A German parachute resupply drop that night at a spot about 6.8 miles (11 km) to the south-west arrived too late to help the paratroopers. Ostendorff’s 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Götz von Berlichingen’, which had been on the move toward Carentan since D-Day, had been delayed by air attack and lack of fuel, and by the fall of night on 11 June only a few of the division’s advanced elements had reached the division’s designated areas.
To complete the capture of Carentan, Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges of the US 1st Army created a task force under Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe to co-ordinate the final assault. The mission to take Hill 30 was reassigned to the 506th PIR, the attack along the Bassin à Flot was renewed, and the 501st PIR was relieved of its defensive positions to circle behind the 327th GIR and approach Hill 30 from the east. The movements were covered by an all-night artillery bombardment of Carentan using naval gun fire, corps artillery, 4.2-in (107-mm) mortars and tank destroyers which had joined the 327th GIR along the eastern canal.
Two battalions of the 506th PIR moved down the Carentan causeway after dark, passed through the 2/502nd PIR at 02.00 on 12 June, and marched cross country to Hill 30 (the village of la Billonnerie), which they took by 05.00. The 1/506th PIR assumed defensive positions facing to the south across the road, while the 2/506th PIR was ordered north to attack the town. In the course of the night, the 501st PIR moved into position behind the 327th GIR, crossed the canal, and 06.30 reached Hill 30.
At 06.00 Carentan was attacked from the north and south by the 1/401st GIR and 2/506th PIR respectively. Both of these battalions encountered machine gun fire from the German rearguard, and the 2/506th PIR was also sporadically shelled by artillery to the south of Carentan. Despite this, both units swiftly cleared the German rear guard in a short fight near the railway station and advanced to meet each other at 07.30 in the town centre after brief combat. The 1/506th PIR became engaged in more strenuous fighting to the south of the town when it had to rescue Sink’s command post, which had become surrounded because it had pushed too far toward the German line in the dark.
In the afternoon both the 506th PIR and 501st PIR advanced to the south-west, but after 1 mile (1.6 km) were stopped by new German units including a few tanks. The 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ had planned a counterattack to retake Carentan, but its assault guns were delayed in the assembly areas by Allied air attacks. Thus unsupported infantry dug in on higher ground below and fought the US paratroopers until the fall of darkness.
At dawn on 13 June, the 101st Airborne Division was about to attack the German line when it was itself attacked by tanks and assault guns. Two battalions of the 37th SS Panzergrenadierregiment, supported by the 17th SS Panzerabteilung and the 3/FJR6 fell on the US left flank, where the 501st PIR had to fall back under heavy pressure. D and F Companies of the 506th PIR then gave way, and by noon the German spearheads were within 500 yards (460 m) of Carentan. The 506th PIR’s Company E, led by 1st Lieutenant Richard D. Winters, held its right flank against a railroad embankment, however, and did not retreat. Reinforced by the 2/502nd PIR, which took position on its right, Company E slowed the German attack until US tanks could arrive.
Reacting to an ‘Ultra’ warning about the weight of the German counterattack, Bradley diverted CCA of the US 2nd Armored Division (commanded by Brigadier General Maurice Rose) from Isigny sur Mer to Carentan at 10.30. At 14.00 CCA attacked, supported by the self-propelled howitzers of the 14th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. One task force of tanks and mechanized infantry swept down the road to Baupte in the 2/506th PIR’s area and shattered the main German thrust. A second task force drove German forces back along the Périers road, in the process inflicting heavy losses in men and equipment. CCA, followed by the 502nd PIR, then pushed to the west 1 mile (1.6 km) beyond the original lines.
With Carentan in their hands, the US forces were then able to drive westward to reach the little coastal towns of Lessay, Portrait and Carteret, thereby cutting off the Cotentin peninsula and paving the way for a drove to the north to take the city of Cherbourg and, it was hoped, its port as a means of increasing the rapid flow of men and equipment to the Allied forces in Normandy.
When they were creating their plan for the invasion of France, the Allied staff considered that it would be necessary to secure a deep-water port to allow reinforcements to be shipped directly from the USA: in the absence of such a port, heavy equipment would first have to be unloaded at a port in the UK, unpacked, waterproofed and then reloaded onto landing craft to be transferred to France. Lying on the northern coast of the Cotentin peninsula, Cherbourg was the largest port accessible from the landings.
The Allied planners decided at first not to land directly on the Cotentin peninsula as in lay in an area separated from the main Allied landings by the Douve river valley, which had been flooded by the Germans to deter airborne landings. On being appointed overall land commander for the invasion in January 1944, General Sir Bernard Montgomery reinstated the landing on the Cotentin peninsula, partly to widen the front and therefore prevent the invaders becoming sealed into a narrow lodgement, but also to enable a rapid capture of Cherbourg.
Immediately after the ‘Neptune’ (iii) landings that launched ‘Overlord’, the priority for the invasion forces at ‘Utah’ Beach on the south-eastern counter of the Cotentin peninsula was to link with the main Allied landings farther east. On 9 June the 101st Airborne Division managed to cross the Douve river valley and take Carentan on the following day. After house-to-house fighting in Carentan, the airborne troops were able to take the town, ensuring that the Allies had a continuous logement rather than a number of isolated lodgements. The front was maintained despite a German counterattack.
This success allowed Collins’s US VII Corps to advance westward and cut off the Cotentin peninsula. An additional three infantry divisions had been landed to reinforce the corps, and Collins drove his troops hard, replacing units in the front lines or sacking officers if progress was slow.
The Germans facing the US VII Corps were a mix of regiments and Kampfgruppen from several divisions, many of which had already suffered heavy casualties fighting the US airborne troops in the first days of the landings. Very few German armored or mobile troops could be sent to this part of the front because of the British and Canadian threat to Caen farther to the east, and the German infantry reinforcements arrived only slowly. Tactically, the Germans' flooding of the Douve river valley worked against them because it secured the Allied southern flank.
By 16 June there were no further natural obstacles in front of the US forces. The German command was in some confusion. Rommel and other commanders wished to withdraw their formations in good order into the Atlantic Wall fortifications of Cherbourg, where they could have withstood a siege for some time, but Adolf Hitler demanded that they hold their present lines even though this risked disaster.
Late on 17 June Hitler agreed that the troops might withdraw but specified that they were to occupy a new but illogical defensive line crossing the whole of the Cotentin peninsula in an area just to the south of Cherbourg. Rommel protested, but believing that he was attempting to circumvent it on 17 June replaced Wilhelm Fahrmbacher, commander of the LXXXIV Corps since 12 June, with General Dietrich von Choltitz.
On 18 June Major General Manton S. Eddy’s US 9th Division reached the west coast of the peninsula, isolating the Cherbourg garrison from any chance of reinforcement. Within 24 hours, Barton’s 4th Division, the 9th Division and Major General Ira T. Wyche’s 79th Division were driving to the north on a broad front. There was little opposition on the eastern and western sides of the peninsula. The exhausted defenders around Montebourg collapsed, and the US forces discovered several large caches of V-1 flying bombs and a V-2 rocket installation at Brix.
In two days, the US divisions were within striking distance of Cherbourg. The garrison commander, Generalleutnant Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben, had a garrison of 21,000 men, but many of these were hastily drafted naval personnel or from labour units. The combat troops who had fallen back to Cherbourg (including the remnants of von Schlieben’s own 709th Division), were both disorganised and exhausted. The Germans’ supplies of food, fuel and ammunition were short, and while German aircraft did manage to drop a small quantity of supplies, these were mostly items such as Iron Crosses, intended to bolster the garrison’s morale. von Schlieben nonetheless rejected a summons to surrender and began carrying out demolitions to deny the Allies any significant use of the port facilities.
Collins launched a general assault on 22 June. The initial German resistance was stiff, but the Americans slowly cleared the Germans from their bunkers and concrete pillboxes. Allied warships bombarded fortifications near the city on 25 June, and on the following day the British No. 30 Commando (also known as the 30th Assault Unit) assaulted the Octeville suburb to the south-west of Cherbourg. This was the location of the German naval intelligence headquarters at Villa Meurice, which the commandos captured along with 20 officers and 500 men. On the same day the 79th Division captured Fort du Roule, which dominated the city and its defences. This ended all possibility of an organised defense. von Schlieben was captured. The harbour fortifications and the arsenal surrendered on 29 June after a ruse by two Allied officers, who employed a bluff about the Allies’ overwhelming advantage in manpower, armour and artillery to convince the German officers to surrender the peninsula. Cut off outside the defences, the last German unit held out until 1 July.
The Allied casualties in the Battle of Cherbourg totalled some 22,000 men in the form of 2,800 killed, 5,700 missing and 13,500 wounded, while those of the Germans were between 37,000 and 38,000 in the form of 7,000 to 8,000 killed or missing and 30,000 taken prisoner.
The Germans had so effectively wrecked and mined Cherbourg’s harbour that it was not brought into use, although only in a limited way, until the middle of August: a small number of ships had been able to dock late in July, however. Even so, the Germans had suffered a major defeat. Commanding the 7th Army, Dollmann had died on 28 June, reportedly as a result of a heart attack but possibly from self-administered poison, soon after being told that he was facing a court martial as a result of the capture of Cherbourg.