Operation Battle of Carentan

The 'Battle of Carentan' was fought between US and German forces for the town of Carentan in north-western France in the immediate aftermath of the Allied 'Overlord' invasion of France (6/13 June 1944).

The objective of the attacking US forces was consolidation of the US 'Utah' and 'Omaha' beach-heads and the creation of a continuous defensive line against the German counterattacks which were known to be inevitable. The German defenders tried to hold the town long enough to allow the arrival of reinforcements on their way from the south, prevent or delay the merging of the two lodgements into a single unit, and prevent Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army from launching a westward attack toward Périers and Lessay, whose success would cut off the Cotentin peninsula.

Carentan was defended by two battalions of Oberst Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte’s 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment of Generalleutnant Bernhard Ramcke’s 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision. SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Werner Ostendorff’s 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Götz von Berlichingen', which had been ordered to reinforce Carentan, was delayed by transport shortages and attacks by Allied aircraft. Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s US 101st Airborne Division, which had landed by parachute on 6 June as the 'Albany' part of the US airborne landings in Normandy, was ordered to seize Carentan. In the battle which resulted, the 101st Airborne Division forced a passage across the causeway into Carentan on 10 and 11 June, and a shortage of ammunition forced the German forces to withdraw on 12 June. The 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision counterattacked the 101st Airborne Division on 13 June, but though initially successful, this counterattack was thrown back by Combat Command A of Major General Edward H. Brooks’s US 2nd Armored Division.

On 6 June 1944, the Allies had launched their massive and long-anticipated 'Overlord' air and amphibious invasion of Normandy in the 'Neptune' (iii) initial amphibious assault. The 101st Airborne Division’s paratroopers landed behind 'Utah' Beach with the task of blocking German reinforcements from attacking the flank of Major General J. Lawton Collins’s US VII Corps during its primary mission of seizing the port of Cherbourg. The division’s glider troopers landed by glider and ships on 6 and 7 June.

Merging the US 'Utah' western and 'Omaha' eastern beachheads was a D-Day objective of the amphibious forces, but was not achieved because of heavy German resistance at 'Omaha' Beach. Moreover, Allied intelligence believed that three German divisions were massing to drive a wedge between them. The Allies' supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, inspected 'Omaha' Beach on 7 June and ordered a 'concentrated effort' to effect the linking of the two US beach-heads.

Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, heading the US 1st Army and the senior US ground commander, ordered a change to the original operational to make the first priority of the US operations the junction of the two lodgements by means of advances through Isigny on the mouth of the Vire river and Carentan near the confluence of the Taute and Douve rivers. The VII Corps received the Carentan assignment and assigned the 101st Airborne Division, which was the US formation closest to the city, 'the sole task of capturing Carentan'.

Carentan is a port town in Normandy region of France in the Douve river valley on the south-eastern shoulder of the Cotentin peninsula. At the time of World War II, Carentan’s civilian population was about 4,000 persons, and the town’s significance lay in the fact that four major roads and one railway line converged in it, from Cherbourg to the north-west, Bayeux and Caen to the east, St Lô to the south-east and Coutances to the south-west. The town is dominated by high ground to its south-west and south-east, all of which was under German control during the battle. Its other three approaches are bordered by waterways: the Douve river to the west and north, a boat basin to the north-east, and the Vire-Taute canal to the east. The Germans had flooded much of the Douve river flood plain before 'Overlord' began, creating a marshland impassable to vehicles and difficult to cross by infantry. The road from St Côme du Mont, to the north-west of Carentan, crossed the floodplain along a narrow causeway 1.25 miles (2 km ): this causeway had banks rising 6.6 to 9.8 ft (2 to 3 m) above the marsh. Four bridges spanned the Douve river and several tributaries along the causeway. Troops under fire in the open could find cover only by digging in on the sloping eastern bank of the causeway. In retreating from St Côme du Mont, the Germans had blown up bridge no. 2 on the causeway and also a portion of the railway embankment.

Carentan was defended by two battalions of the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment, currently attached to Generalleutnant Wilhelm Falley’s (from 6 June after Falley’s death Generalmajor Bernhard Klosterkemper’s) 91st Division (Luftlande), which contributed the remnants of its 1058th Grenadierregiment. Both had escaped from nearby St Côme du Mont on 8 June when the village was captured by the 101st Airborne Division. The 2 and 3/6th Fallschirmjägerregiment were still intact as fighting unis, but the 3/1058th Grenadierregiment had been nearly destroyed in three days of combat and was no longer effective as a unit.

General Erich Marcks’s LXXXIV Corps, of Generaloberst Freidrich Dollmann’n 7th Army, had reinforced the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment with survivors of the 914th Grenadierregiment of Generalleutnant Dietrich Kraiss’s 352nd Division following the latter’s defeat on 9 June at Isigny. Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, commander-in-chief of Heeresgruppe 'B', had ordered von der Heydte to defend Carentan 'to the last man'.

Stationed at Thouars to the south of Normandy, the 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision was a mechanised infantry formation of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s mobile reserve but without tanks or adequate transport, received orders on 7 June to move to Normandy following the Allied landings. It was delayed, however, by shortages of trucks and attacks by Allied 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 prevention of an attack to the west from Carentan to cut off the Cotentin peninsula. The 38th Panzergrenadierregiment formed a mobile Kampfgruppe to resist the units of Major General Leonard T. Gerow’s US V Corps, which had come ashore on 'Omaha' Beach, to the south of Isigny, and the 37th Panzergrenadierregiment was sent to Carentan.

The 101st Airborne Division consolidated its forces in Normandy on 9 June. Its three parachute regiments (501st, 502nd and 506th Parachute Infantry) had been badly scattered during their air drops, losing a significant number of men killed and missing as a result, and had suffered further casualties in taking St Côme du Mont. Its 327th Glider Infantry had landed largely at 'Utah' Beach on 6 and 7 June and, except for its third battalion (the attached 1/401st Glider Infantry), had yet to engage in serious combat. The 307th Glider Infantry’s headquarters company anti-tank platoon had reached France by glider.

The 2nd Armored Division, part of the US V Corps, had advanced off 'Omaha' Beach to support the drive of the 175th Infantry of the 29th Division to Isigny. Its Combat Command A, comprising M4 Sherman tanks of the 2/66th Armor and mechanised infantry of the 3/41st Armored Infantry, was available as an armoured force reserve for the 101st Airborne Division.

On 9 June the 101st Airborne Division completed its consolidation, with the 502nd Parachute Infantry guarding the right flank along the upper Douve river, the 506th Parachute Infantry deployed across the Carentan highway, and the 327th Glider Infantry on the left in positions along the Douve river opposite Brévands. The 501st Parachute Infantry was the divisional reserve and guarding the left flank to the east of the 327th Glider Infantry.

Patrols and aerial reconnaissance of Carentan indicated that the town might be lightly defended, and a plan to capture the city by a double envelopment was contrived, using the 502nd Parachute Infantry on the right and the 327th Glider Infantry on the left, scheduled to jump off just after 00.00 10 June. The 502nd Parachute Infantry’s mission was to force the bridges and capture the high ground to the south-west of the town along the Périers highway (Hill 30) to block any German withdrawal. The 327th Glider Infantry was to cross the Douve river at Brévands, circle 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east, and reach the road to the west from Isigny to take the town.

Leading the attack, Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole’s 3/502nd Parachute Infantry found bridge no. 2 over the Douve river had not yet been repaired and the engineers assigned to the task pinned down by the fire of an 88-mm (3.465-in) gun. Cole sent a patrol across the river in a small boat, and the men made their way to the last bridge, which they found blocked by a Belgian gate. The patrol was able to push the obstacle aside only some 18 in (460 mm), which was just enough to allow one man at a time to pass. The patrol soon came under flare illumination, mortar fire 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 about 250 yards (230 m) to the right of the highway beyond bridge no. 4.

The 1 and 2/327th Glider Infantry crossed the Douve river during the early morning of 10 June. The 1/327th Glider Infantry suffered a number of 'friendly fire' casualties from US mortars as it crossed in rubber boats. Some units waded across the river. After reaching the eastern bank in the early daylight hours, the 327th Glider Infantry swung to the south in the direction of Catz. The 1/327th Glider Infantry attacked on the southern side of the Isigny highway and the 2/327th Glider Infantry on the northern side. With Company G leading, the 2/327th Glider Infantry suffered heavy casualties as it approached Carentan. Company G was then pulled bak into reserve and attached to the 3/327th Glider Infantry. In the early daylight hours of 11 June, Company A of the 3/401st Glider Infantry and Company G of the 327th Glider Infantry attacked to the south along the Bassin ā Flot boat basin, again taking heavy casualties.

At 01.45 1/327th Glider Infantry started to cross the footbridges over the lower stretch of the Douve river and by 06.00, under cover of artillery fire, the entire regiment was across. It captured Brévands and began the 3-mile (4.8-km) movement to the south and west. Company A of the 401st Glider Infantry left the column and marched east toward Auville sur le Vey to link with the 29th Division. The 327th Glider Infantry met no serious opposition until it approached the bridges spanning the Vire-Taute Canal to the east of Carentan at 18.00, went into the attack with two battalions in line and by 00.00 held the eastern bank.

The Douve river bridge had still not been repaired when 3/502nd Parachute Infantry returned at 12.00. The paratroopers used engineer materials at hand to improvise a footbridge and began their attack shortly after 13.00. Moving single file down the causeway and advancing by crouching and crawling, the point of the 400-man battalion reached bridge no. 4 at about 16.00, with most of the unit past bridge no. 3. Under artillery and mortar fire, and then sniper and machine gun fire as it got within range, the 3/502nd Parachute Infantry began to suffer heavy losses. The arrival of darkness ended the advance but not the casualties, when a strafing attack at 23.30 by two Junkers Ju 87 single-engined ground-attack aircraft killed 30 men on the causeway and knocked Company I out of the battle. The severe casualties suffered by the 3/502nd Parachute Infantry, estimated at 67% of the battalion’s original strength, led to the nickname 'Purple Heart Lane' being applied to that portion of the road linking Carentan and Ste Mčre Eglise.

During the night the rate and weight of the German fire declined. 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. Scouts in the lead had nearly reached the main farmhouse in the morning twilight when they were cut down by German fire. Cole immediately called for artillery support, but the German fire did not cease. At 06.15, using a smoke screen for concealment, Cole ordered his executive officer, Major John P. Stopka, to pass word to the battalion that it would have to charge the German positions to eliminate them. Using a whistle to signal the attack, Cole led a bayonet charge that overwhelmed the defenders in savage close combat. Initially, only a small portion of the battalion, about 20 men, charged, but Stopka quickly followed with 50 more. The attack gained momentum as the other paratroopers saw what was happening and joined it, crossing a ditch. Overrunning the empty farmhouse, men of Company H found many German paratroopers dug in along the hedgerow behind it. Companies H and G killed them with hand grenades and bayonets, but only at severe cost to themselves.

The survivors of 3/502nd Parachute Infantry established defensive positions and requested that the 1/502nd Parachute Infantry continue the attack. However, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick F. Cassidy’s battalion also suffered serious casualties from mortar fire and could only strengthen Cole’s defensive line, taking up positions from the 3/502nd Parachute Infantry’s command post in the farmhouse to the road. During a two-hour truce at mid-day, in which the US forces attempted to negotiate for removal of casualties, Company C of the 1/502nd Parachute Infantry moved forward from bridge no. 4 into a cabbage patch between the second and third hedgerows. Company A of the same battalion moved up just behind Company C and extended its line across the road. Fighting at the cabbage patch during the afternoon often took place at extremely close range with the contending forces on opposite sides of the same hedgerow.

Except for the noon truce, which the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment also used to resupply and reorganise, the US forces repelled repeated attacks, of which the last nearly overwhelmed the 3/502nd Parachute Infantry at 18.30 as the German attack took all but the final hedgerow between it and the Douve river. However, Cole’s artillery officer, able to overcome jamming of his radio, called down a concentration of VII Corps artillery so close that several Americans were also killed. The overwhelming violence of the 5-minute barrage rolled back the last German counterattack.

Patrols from the 327th Glider Infantry had discovered a partially destroyed footbridge over the Vire-Taute Canal at the point where it connected with the Douve river, to the north-east of the town. The bridge had been repaired by 10.00, and Company G of the 2/401st Parachute Infantry and Company A of the 3/401st Parachute Infantry crossed and attacked down the forested banks of the Bassin ā Flot boat basin but, like the 502nd Parachute Infantry, were stopped about 880 yards (805 m) short of Carentan by the fire of machine guns and mortars which the US artillery could not suppress.

Almost out of ammunition, the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment withdrew during the night, leaving only a small rearguard. A Luftwaffe parachute resupply drop that night 7 miles (11.25 km) to the south-west arrived too late to help. The 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision, on the road toward Carentan since 6 June, had been delayed by air attack and lack of fuel, and by the fall of night on 11 June only a few advanced elements had reached the division’s assembly areas.

To complete the capture of Carentan, Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges, the 1st Army’s deputy commander, created a task force under the command of Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, the 101st Airborne Division’s artillery commander, to co-ordinate the final assault. The task of taking Hill 30 was reassigned to the 506th Parachute Infantry, the attack along the Bassin ā Flot was renewed, and the 501st Parachute Infantry was relieved of its defensive positions to circle behind the 327th Glider Infantry and approach Hill 30 from the east. The movements were covered by an all-night artillery bombardment of Carentan using naval gunfire, corps artillery, 4.2-in (106.7-mm) mortars and tank destroyers that had joined the 327th Glider Infantry along the eastern canal.

Two battalions of the 506th Parachute Infantry moved down the Carentan causeway after dark, passed through the 2/502nd Parachute Infantry at 02.00 on 12 June, and marched cross country to Hill 30 (the village of La Billonnerie), which they had captured by 05.00. The 1/506th Parachute Infantry took up defensive positions facing to the south across the road, while the 2/506th Parachute Infantry was ordered north to attack the town. During the night the 501st Parachute Infantry moved into position behind the 327th Glider Infantry, crossed the canal, and had reached Hill 30 by 06.30.

At 06.00 Carentan was attacked from the north by the 1/401st Glider Infantry and from the south by 2/506th Parachute Infantry. Both battalions encountered machine gun fire from the German rearguard, but the 2/506th Parachute Infantry was also sporadically shelled by artillery to the south of Carentan. Despite this, both units swiftly eliminated the rearguard in a short fight near the railway station and advanced through the streets, and the two battalions met at 07.30 in the town centre after brief combat. The 1/506th Parachute Infantry engaged in more serious combat to the south of town when it had to rescue Sink’s command post, which had been surrounded as it had pushed too far toward the German lines in the dark.

During the afternoon both the 506th and 501st Parachute Infantry advanced to the south-west, but were brought to a halt after 1 mile (1.6 km) by heavy contacts with fresh German units including a few tanks. The 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision had intended a counterattack to retake Carentan, but its assault guns were held up in the assembly areas by Allied air attacks, so its infantry units instead dug in on higher ground to the south of the town and fought the paratroopers until dark.

At dawn on 13 June, the 101st Airborne Division was about to attack the German line when it was itself taken under attack by tanks and assault guns. Two battalions of the 37th SS Panzergrenadierregiment, supported by the 17th SS Panzerabteilung and the 3/6th Fallschirmjägerregiment, struck at the 501st Parachute Infantry on the US left, which fell back under heavy pressure. The left-flank elements (Companies D and F) of the 506th Parachute Infantry then gave way, and by 12.00 the German spearheads were within 500 yards (460 m) of Carentan. However, the battalion’s Company E, commanded by 1st Lieutenant Richard D. Winters, anchored its right flank against a railway embankment and held its position. Reinforced by the 2/502nd Parachute Infantry, which took position on its right, Company E slowed the German attack until US tanks could be brought up.

Reacting to an 'Ultra' warning of the size and threat of the counterattack, Bradley diverted Brigadier General Maurice Rose’s Combat Command A of the 2nd Armored Division, to move from the area of Isigny sur Mer to Carentan at 10.00. At 14.00 Combat Command A attacked, supported by the self-propelled howitzers of the 14th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. One task force of tanks and mechanised infantry swept down the road to Baupte in the 2/506th Parachute Infantry’s area and shattered the main German thrust, and a second task force drove back the German forces along the Périers road, inflicting heavy losses on men and equipment. Combat Command A, followed by the 502nd Parachute Infantry, then pushed 1 mile (1.6 km) to the west beyond the original lines.