Operation Battle of Graignes

The 'Battle of Graignes' was fought between US paratroopers and German forces within the context of the Allied 'Overlord' invasion of north-western France (10/12 June 1944).

During the engagement, paratroopers of Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne Division held the town of Graignes for two days against SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Werner Ostendorff’s 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Götz von Berlichingen'. This action delayed the 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision’s counterattack on Carentan, which was repulsed at the 'Battle of Bloody Gulch' on June 13. After retaking Graignes, the German troops massacred 44 civilians and a number of prisoners of war taken in the capture of a US aid station, and set fire to the town.

Shortly after 02.00 on 6 June, 12 planeloads of US paratroopers of the 3/507th Parachute Infantry, an element of the 82nd Airborne Division, were scattered throughout the marsh area to the south of Carentan. The paratroopers were to have been dropped 18 miles (29 km) to the north-west at Drop Zone T near Amfreville, but instead landed in the vicinity of the village of Graignes: this was the worst mis-drop of any US airborne unit on D-Day.

By 10.00 hours, 25 US men had gathered in the village under the command of Captain Leroy D. Brummitt, and two hours later more men of the 3/507th Parachute Infantry had arrived under the command of Major Charles D. Johnston. Because the troopers were deep behind the German lines and far from their drop zone, the decision was made to remain where they had landed and to defend Graignes.

As the paratroopers readied their defensive positions, the mortar platoon dug in around the cemetery and sent a detachment to occupy the church belfry as an observation post. From that vantage point, the observer enjoyed an unobstructed view of the network of roads and trails leading to the village from the west and south-west. While these defences were being prepared, Johnston established his command post at the boys' school. Throughout this preparatory phase, more US paratroopers continued to arrive in Graignes, and by the end of the 7 June the group had grown in number to 182, in the form of 12 officers and 170 other ranks).

On the morning of 6 June, the village’s mayor, Alphonse Voydie, awoke to find US paratroopers in the field behind his house. He provided information and later called a town meeting to assess the supply situation. During that meeting, there was a unanimous decision to feed the paratroopers, despite the risks that came with helping the enemy. Under the direction of Germaine Boursier, the women of Graignes began cooking around the clock so they could serve two meals each day. Teams of men, women and children hauled wagon loads of valuable salvaged equipment back to the Graignes perimeter.

During the afternoon of 10 June, a German mechanised patrol approached a position manned by some of First Lieutenant Murn’s Company B, 3/507th Parachute Infantry. The US soldiers let the patrol get close, then opened fire, killing four Germans. When the troopers searched a dead German’s pockets, they discovered some documents that revealed him to be assigned to a reconnaissance battalion of an armoured division.

On the following day, there was no sign of the Germans and all remained quiet during the morning, so Johnston gave permission for some of the men to attend mass. Half way through the service, however, a woman burst into the church shouting that the Germans were coming. The first assault, which lasted only 10 minutes, had been an unco-ordinated effort, however, but at about 14.00 the Germans began a severe mortar bombardment of Graignes. This preparatory fire was swiftly followed by a second infantry assault against the flanks of the US defensive perimeter, and on this occasion the Germans moved so swiftly that the perimeter was almost breached at one point. Captain Brummitt quickly shifted forces to meet the threat, and the line held. Once again, the paratroopers' supporting fire was decisive in staving off defeat as mortar fire inflicted heavy losses and scores of German infantry were caught in the crossfire of the multiple machine guns defending the village centre.

During the evening, the guard posts could hear heavy vehicles move about. Since the observed evidence indicated that Graignes was about to be the target of a major attack, Johnston sent away all of the civilians. At about 19.00, two German 88-mm (3.465-in) guns opened fire on Graignes from the heights of nearby Thieuville, a short distance away. This fire rapidly disorganised the Americans and killed Johnston. With the observation post in the belfry destroyed, it was no longer possible for the troopers to employ their mortars against the approaching Germans with any degree of useful accuracy.

By the time the Germans made the final thrust into Graignes that night, the defenders had been reduced to a few isolated pockets of resistance spread out around the village, and many of the men were running out of ammunition. The Germans were quick to exploit the situation by overrunning the outer perimeter and moving into the streets of the village centre. With Johnston dead, command of the force at Graignes fell to Brummitt, who soon ordered the men to pair off and try to make it to either Carentan or Ste Mère Eglise.

Elements of the 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision had undertaken the final assault on Graignes. When the division first attacked, it was with a regimental sized force of some 2,000 men, giving the German a numerical advantage of about 10/1. The 182 paratroopers defending Graignes inflicted an estimated 100 men killed and 200 wounded during the fighting on 10 and 11 June.

At the end of the 11 June, men of the 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision entered the church and found Captain Abraham Sophian’s aid station. Sophian, the battalion surgeon, had surrendered the building to them by waving a white flag at the door. Waffen-SS troops forced Sophian, his two medics and 14 wounded US paratroopers to line up against a wall. The captured Americans were by definition prisoners of war and should therefore have been protected under the terms of the Geneva Convention of 1929, to which Germany was a signatory. In fact, the wounded Americans were divided into two groups and murdered. One group of five wounded men was taken to the edge of a nearby pond, where Waffen-SS troops bayoneted them and threw the bodies into the water. The other group of nine was forced to march at gunpoint some 2.5 miles (4 km) to the south, to a field near the village of Le Mesnil Angot: on reaching the field, the group was forced to dig a pit and then kneel. Waffen-SS men then shot each of the wounded men through the head and pushed the bodies into the pit.

Other Waffen-SS men began to seize French civilians suspected of assisting the US troops. A total of 44 villagers was rounded up, interrogated by the Germans as suspected US collaborators and then shot. Other Waffen-SS men dragged Father Leblastier and Father Lebarbanchon from the rectory into the courtyard outside, and shot both these priests. The Germans then discovered Madeleine Pezeril and 80-year old Eugénie Dujardin and shot them both in their beds. Thereafter, the Waffen-SS men ransacked the village for valuables. On 13 June, the Germans burned the village. They poured petrol over the bodies of Fathers Leblastier and Lebarbanchon, Dujardin and Pezeril and then set them on fire. The blaze was then allowed to burn out of control, destroying 66 homes, the boys' school, Boursier’s café, and the 12th-century church. Another 159 homes and other buildings were damaged either as a result of that fire or the fighting. Before the 11 June battle and the German retaliation that followed, the village of Graignes had consisted of slightly more than 200 dispersed homes and other structures, but in the aftermath only two houses survived unscathed.

By then most of the defenders of Graignes had left. Small groups arrived in Carentan late in the night on 12 June. Other troopers, some alone and some in pairs, continued to straggle in during 13 and 14 June. Some 21 men hidden by the Rigault family and taken to Carentan by Joseph Folliot on the night of 15/16 June were the last from Graignes to make it to the US lines. Out of the original 182 troopers involved in the defence of Graignes, 150 survived.

The misdropped paratroopers of the 507th Parachute Infantry had severely checked the advance of the 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision, which could have reached the important communications nexus of Carentan before Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s US 101st Airborne Division. The 507th Parachute Infantry remained in the fight in Normandy until 15 July, when it returned to England and then, after reassignment to the the 17th Airborne Division, went on to fight in the 'Battle of the Bulge' and 'Varsity', the latter the airborne assault across the Rhine river. In September 1945, the 507th Parachute Infantry returned to the USA and was disbanded.