Interactive: U.S. Paratroopers in Normandy, 1944 | HistoryNet MENU

Interactive: U.S. Paratroopers in Normandy, 1944

By John Antal
4/13/2017 • HistoryNet

You are Major Charles D. Johnston of 3d Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), U.S. 82d Airborne Division. At 2 a.m. this morning, June 6, 1944, your unit took part in massive Allied airborne drops that placed American and British troops behind German lines to operate in support of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, France.

Unfortunately, bad weather, darkness and intense antiaircraft fire caused the troop carrier planes to scatter your paratroopers all over the countryside, miles south of the intended drop zone between Sainte-Mère-Église and Carentan. Capturing these two towns is a vital objective of 82d and 101st airborne divisions, since controlling them will help ensure the two American invasion beaches, Utah and Omaha, can be linked up.

After wandering for hours, at noon you finally arrive at Graignes, a small town southwest of Carentan. There, you are met by Captain Leroy D. Brummitt, also of 507th PIR, who has gathered some of the “lost” paratroopers from your airborne unit and others. After informing you that he has conducted an observation of the area from the steeple of a nearby church, he begins briefing you on what he has seen.

“Graignes sits atop high ground on the main road running northeast to Carentan,” Brummitt reports. “The surrounding area is marshy, flooded terrain, which, as we discovered last night, is extremely difficult to traverse on foot and impassible for vehicles. While I saw no German troops in the immediate vicinity, a large enemy force of infantry, tanks and assault guns is visible several miles to the southwest.

“So far,” Brummitt continues, “I’ve collected 25 paratroopers and placed them in defensive positions around Graignes, and I believe more are likely to trickle in over the next few hours. The men all carry small arms, plus we’ve got a couple .30-caliber machine guns, two mortars, and ammunition for all the weapons. Furthermore, the townspeople are feeding us, so rations are no problem.”

“Thank you, Brummitt,” you reply, “good report.”

“That’s not all, Sir,” adds Brummitt. “I heard heavy firing to the northeast, in the direction of Carentan. I thought we could ‘move to the sound of the guns’ and help our guys there capture that town. I also figured if we stayed at Graignes, it would get pretty hot for us if that large German force to the southwest heads this way. But since you are now the ranking officer, you of course will decide our next move.”

WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, MAJOR JOHNSTON?

ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION

The purpose of the Allied parachute drops and glider landings behind German lines last night is to conduct combat operations to ensure the success of the main amphibious landings of American, British and Canadian troops on the five Normandy invasion beaches. Airborne forces are to sow confusion among the German defenders, block enemy forces from counterattacking the beach landings, delay the movement or repositioning of German units, and facilitate linking up the separate beachheads. If the invading Allies are unable to consolidate and expand their footholds along the beaches, the Germans could push them back into the sea.

To accomplish these goals, the airborne forces must quickly seize and hold key objectives such as bridges, crossroads and towns. In particular, U.S. airborne troops must gain control of Sainte-Mère-Église and Carentan as well as the roads that pass through them to block German counterattacks against the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha. Most importantly, they must hold these towns at all costs to allow the beachheads to link up.

You received this information during pre-invasion briefings and it remains foremost in your mind as you assess the current tactical situation. At the moment, you have barely two dozen paratroopers at Graignes, although more likely will make their way to you over the next few hours. Enemy forces pose no immediate threat to the town, but the large German unit massing only miles to the southwest almost certainly will use the road through Graignes to move north to oppose the Allied attack.

Your task now is to determine what your small band of paratroopers can do to help ensure the success of the D-Day invasion.

POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION

You see two possible courses of action:

The first option is to “move to the sound of the guns” by leading your paratroopers to Carentan to join the battle to capture that all-important objective. Since last night’s airdrops apparently dispersed 82d and 101st paratroopers across a wide area, every available Soldier likely will be needed to seize and hold Carentan.

The second option is to remain at Graignes, collect as many paratroopers as possible, and turn the town into a roadblock to prevent or delay enemy forces – such as the one massing to the southwest – from moving into Carentan from this direction. Defending from Graignes’ sturdy stone buildings will allow your small force to hold off much greater numbers of enemy troops for as long as possible, while the narrow streets will inhibit the use of German tanks and assault guns. JOHNSTON’S ORDERS

“Captain Brummitt,” you order, “tell the men we are going to turn Graignes into a roadblock. Defending the town is the best way to help our guys capture and hold Carentan. If we stop the Germans from using this road, or at least significantly delay them, we can give our men at Carentan a fighting chance. Every German we engage here means one less they’ll have to face there.

“While I inspect our defensive positions to ensure we’re maximizing the protection offered by these stone buildings, I want you to send patrols into the countryside to gather as many paratroopers as possible to add to our force.”

Colonel (Ret.) John Antal is the author of the must-read book “7 Leadership Lessons of the American Revolution: The Founding Fathers, Liberty and the Struggle for Independence” (Casemate, 2013).

HISTORICAL NOTE: Major Johnston’s defense of Graignes proved vital in helping to delay 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division’s advance to Carentan. By June 10, when 2,000 of the division’s troops began attacking Graignes, Johnston had gathered 182 82d Airborne Division paratroopers, who defended the town in fierce combat for two critical days while facing 10-to-1 odds.

Johnston was killed during the fighting at Graignes. As the overwhelming German force captured the town on June 11, Brummitt ordered the remaining paratroopers to make their way to Carentan. In the wake of the Battle of Graignes – known as the “Alamo of D-Day” – SS troops executed 19 wounded paratroopers and 44 French civilian residents.

The delayed 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division arrived at Carentan the night of June 12-13, which was too late to prevent the Americans from capturing the town. Moreover, the division’s June 13 counterattack to retake Carentan was defeated.

 

Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Armchair General.

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