Operation Assault on Brécourt Manor

The 'Assault on Brécourt Manor' was a small-scale engagement between US airborne troops and German forces within the 'Albany' undertaking of Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s 101st Airborne Division on the first day of 'Overlord' (6 June 1944).

This action is often cited as a classic example of small-unit tactics and leadership in overcoming a larger enemy force.

Command of Company E, 2/506th Parachute Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division had temporarily fallen to its executive officer, First Lieutenant Richard Winters. After linking with his parent unit at the hamlet of Le Grand Chemin on the morning of 6 June, Winters was ordered away from his company. With minimal instructions of 'There’s fire along that hedgerow there. Take care of it' and no briefing, Winters found himself given the task of destroying a German artillery battery.

The battery, initially reported to have been 105-mm (4.13-in) leFH 18 howitzers, was firing onto causeway exit no. 2 leading off 'Utah' Beach, disrupting the landing and inland movement of Major General Raymond O. Barton’s US 4th Division. The battery was located at Brécourt Manor, 3.1 miles (5 km) to the south-west of 'Utah' Beach and to the north of the village of Ste Marie du Mont. Earlier in the morning, several other units had stumbled onto the position and been repulsed.

Winters undertook a reconnaissance at about 08.30, after which he collected a team of 12 men from his own and other companies. He knew the general location of the gun emplacements to the south of Le Grand Chemin, but had no information about the other side of the hedgerow. Winters’s team attacked and discovered the 6th Batterie of Oberst Bruno Gerloch’s 90th Artillerieregiment. This was an element of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Falley’s 91st Division (Luftlande), and its artillery was therefore not based on the standard leichte Feldhaubitze 18 howitzer but rather the lighter Gebirgshaubitze 40, of which the battery had four connected by trenches and defended by one infantry company.

Winters believed that the unit was part of the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment and included emplaced MG42 machine guns. The 1/6th Fallschirmjägerregiment had been ordered to Ste Marie du Mont from Carentan during the afternoon, and arrived after dark. The 1st Kompanie of the 919th Grenadierregiment, an element of Generalleutnant Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben’s 709th Division, was positioned at Ste Marie du Mont and was responsible for the area. Elements of the 1058th Grenadierregiment of the 91st Division (Luftlande) were defending throughout the vicinity. The 795th Ost-Bataillon (georgisch), attached to the 709th Division, was to the north-west at Turqueville, but is less likely to have been present because of terrain difficulties. Whichever unit defended the battery, the US paratroopers were opposed by about 60 German soldiers.

The crews originally assigned to the four 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzers had apparently deserted during the night of the airborne landings. Oberstleutnant Friedrich von der Heydte of the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment, who was observing the landings at 'Utah' Beach, learned that the howitzers had been abandoned, and travelled to Carentan, where he ordered his 1/6th Fallschirmjägerregiment to occupy and hold Ste Marie du Mont and Brécourt, and find men to work the howitzers of the artillery battery.

On reaching the area of the battery, Winters made his plan: he positioned a pair of 0.3-in (7.62-mm) M1919 machine guns to provide covering fire and sent three men to one flank to destroy a machine gun position with grenades and to provide additional covering fire.

While the trenches connecting the artillery positions provided the Germans with an easy way to supply and reinforce the howitzers, they also proved to be their major weakness. After destroying the first howitzer position, Winters and the rest of his team used the trenches as covered approaches to attack the remaining howitzers in turn. Each gun was destroyed by placing a block of explosive down its barrel and using German stick grenades to set off the charges.

Reinforcements from Company D, led by 2nd Lieutenant Ronald C. Speirs, arrived to complete the assault on the fourth and last howitzer. Speirs had a reputation for extreme aggression, and led his men against the last howitzer position by running outside the trenches, exposing himself to German fire.

After the four howitzers had been disabled, Winters’s team came under heavy machine gun fire from Brécourt Manor and withdrew. In one of the howitzer positions, he had discovered a German map marked with the locations of all German artillery and machine guns in that area of the Cotentin peninsula. This was an invaluable piece of intelligence, and once Winters returned to Le Grand Chemin, he gave it to the 2nd Battalion’s intelligence officer, who forwarded the information up the chain of command. Command was so excited by the information that it sent the first two tanks to reach 'Utah' Beach to support the paratroopers. Winters directed their fire to eliminate remaining German resistance.

Winters lost one man from an 81-mm (3.19-in) mortar platoon, and another man had been wounded during the attack. Other casualties were a warrant officer who had been killed when he came upon the battle while searching for the headquarters of the 506th Parachute Infantry, a sergeant of Company F, who was with Speirs, and one soldier of Company D under Speirs’s command. Another soldier from Company D was wounded.

Troops coming ashore at 'Utah' Beach had a relatively easy landing, in part as a result of this small but very successful assault.