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Captain John Sauls crouched low behind a stone wall, the rest of G Company, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, strung out alongside him, as scores of shells rattled over their heads toward the Germans. Twelve M4 Sherman medium tanks, lined up on a ridge behind the soldiers, bombarded the opposite shore of the little Merderet River in Normandy. There, German troops had taken up defensive positions at the end of a 500-yard causeway–the only means of crossing the flooded plain beyond the swollen river. It was June 9, 1944, three days after D-Day, and the paratroopers were fighting to capture the La Fiére causeway.
Mortars, Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), bazookas and machine guns helped the tanks plaster the German positions. But what Sauls and his men really needed was a smoke screen. Even though heavy fire was being concentrated on the enemy, crossing that causeway, which offered no cover for its entire length, would be near suicide once the Germans opened up with their own weapons. Nevertheless, at 10:45 a.m. Sauls yelled out 'Go! Go! Go! and began running for all he was worth, never looking back to see if anyone followed him. The company was to split into two columns, one on each side of the macadam roadway, as soon as they crossed the narrow bridge that spanned the river. After traversing the flooded area, each column would then peel off left and right to roll up the enemy positions along the edge of the flood area.
But Sauls' plan began to come apart as soon as the men started across the bridge. The Germans opened up with a barrage of mortar, artillery and machine-gun fire that transformed the narrow roadway into a gantlet of destruction. Men fell by the score; some rolled into the river and drowned. The fallen men began to clog the path, and the attack slowed. Soon 100 men were down. Those who were left dashed for what little cover they could find. Sauls, against all odds, had reached the far side, but when he turnedaround to signal his men into position, he found himself alone.
La Fiére causeway became the linchpin in the larger struggle for the U.S. Army VII Corps' operational objectives. But if all had gone according to plan, the battle at La Fiére, which cost the U.S. Army 60 killed and 529 wounded, captured or missing, need never have happened.
After years of planning, the D-Day operation was set by early 1944. The massive invasion forces would gather in England and then dash across the Channel to France. British, American and Canadian infantry would land on five Normandy beaches, code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
The Normandy invasion was preceded by extensive paratrooper drops, including the insertion of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions onto the Cotentin Peninsula. Their mission was to seize important crossroads, bridges and towns north of the Douve River, playing havoc with enemy communication lines and clearing the way for the advance of Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins' VII Corps, which was coming inland from Utah Beach. The 82nd was to capture the crossings over the Merderet River at the tiny hamlets of La Fiére and Chef-du Pont.
Facing the 82nd were some of the toughest units in the German Seventh Army. Although squabbling among the German high command helped the invaders, the Normandy landscape itself proved to be a difficult hurdle for the Americans to overcome. Centuries-old hedgerows of impassable thorn bushes and tangled trees divided the countryside into sections and could actually prevent combat units from hearing or seeing one another, even in adjoining sections. To make matters worse, the Merderet was three or four times its usual size because the Germans had opened the locks at Carentan at high tide to flood the peninsula. Since tufts of tall grass still showed above the water surface, reconnaissance aircraft were unable to spot the flooding before D-Day, resulting in the deaths of many paratroopers who landed in the water and were dragged down by the weight of their equipment.
Luck was not with the nearly 13,000 paratroopers who drifted to earth in the early morning hours of June 6. A second wave of 3,000 glider-borne troops was to arrive later that morning. The first to land were the men of the 101st, whose objective was to secure four exit routes from Utah Beach for VII Corps. The paratroopers were scattered all over the countryside, coming down in orchards and town squares. Half of the division's gliders crashed or sank in the flooded fields, along with its much-needed 105mm howitzers and jeeps. When the 82nd landed through lingering low clouds, they too were scattered.
On paper, the objectives of the 82nd's three parachute regiments looked clear. The 505th would take the important crossroads town of Ste. Mére-Eglise and the eastern ends of two crucial crossings over the Merderet River at Chef-du-Pont and La Fiére. The 507th would seize the western end of La Fiére at the village of Cauquigny, and the 508th would secure crossings over the Douve River at the southwestern end of the drop zone. On the ground, things turned out quite differently.
The confusion of missed drop zones and rendezvous areas was compounded by a crippling lack of radio communication and difficulty with the terrain. All over the Merderet area, men sloshed across swamps, thrashed through thorny hedgerows or moved warily along darkened roads, vainly looking for landmarks and each other. Fortunately for them, there was almost as much confusion in the enemy camp. After constant rumors of imminent invasion, the Germans had grown somewhat complacent. Two of their division commanders, Lt. Gen. Wilhelm Falley ofthe 91st and Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben of the 709th, were attending war games in Rennes when the landings occurred. When reports of the invasion began to reach German headquarters, they first sought verification before putting troops on general alert. Schlieben did not reach his headquarters at Valognes until noon on June 6, and Falley was killed by some of the widely scattered American paratroopers just as he was returning to take charge of his division. Meanwhile, hundreds of American pathfinders, who had parachuted in ahead of the air-borne divisions, had been busy for hours cutting communications wires, and thousands of dummy parachutists created false alarms and provoked the Germans to launch wasteful counterattacks.
Still, for most of the American paratroopers, their troubles began immediately after they entered French airspace. Not only did they miss their drop zones by nearly two miles, but because of the flooding, many were convinced that they had come down somewhere south of the Douve River instead of in the Merderet region. One of those paratroopers was Colonel Leroy Lindquist of the 508th, who landed in 2 feet of water on the correct side of the Merderet but north of his objective, the town of Etienville. Assembling his scattered men, he made his way to a raised railroad embankment that ran north and south of La Fiére. Lindquist had landed west of the Merderet and then followed the railroad, but he did not realize that the railroad crossed the river at this more northern point. He unknowingly led his men to the east side of the river, severely weakening that portion of the force that had managed to come down on the west side and whose mission was to seize and hold Cauquigny on the west end of the La Fiére causeway.
Meanwhile, slightly north of Lindquist's position, the ramrod of the 82nd Division, Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin, landed in an orchard, saw the same embankment and, hearing heavy firing from the east, guessed correctly that he was somewhere just west of Ste. Mére-Eglise and that by following the railroad south he would arrive at the east end of the La Fiére causeway.
He set off with nearly 200 men in tow, hoping to reach it before dawn.
As the most prominent landmark in the flat expanse of flooded fields, the railroad embankment drew paratroopers like a magnet. Soon there were more than 500 men moving south along the embankment toward La Fiére.
What was left of the 507th on the west side of the Merderet was just emerging from the cold flood waters. Its most senior officer, Lt. Col. Charles J. Timmes, had been dragged across the river before cutting himself free of his parachute harness. Even without the aid of a railroad embankment, Timmes was able to figure out that he was just a mile east of his objective, Amfreville.
Picking up men as he headed south, he reached Cauquigny at first light. Miraculously, although the Gemmans had prepared defensive positions at the west end of the causeway, they had yet to deploy in the area.
From Cauquigny, Timmes headed for Amfreville, joining up along the way with Lieutenant Louis Levy and 30 more men. Out side Amfreville, he ran into stiff resistance and retreated to a nearby apple orchard. The next morning, with his immediate objective out of reach, Timmes decided to send Levy and l0 men to occupy Cauquigny. There, Levy was unexpectedly reinforced by another 39 men whose lieutenant, upon seeing how Levy had disposed his tiny force to cover the bridgehead, exclaimed, If we can hold this, we've got it made! As he spoke, heavy fire could be heard across the river around a group of buildings called the Manoir de La Fiére that overlooked the east end of the causeway. Constructed with heavy stone walls, some of the half-dozen farm buildings rose two or three stories, and most were connected and enclosed by a 5-foot wall strong enough to withstand mortar fire.
Of all the scattered airborne groups gravitating to the La Fiére causeway, only the 505th's A Company knew exactly what it was doing from the start. Its assigned objective was the Manoir. It hit the ground in the same landing zone as the force that was to assault Ste. Mére-Eglise, 700 yards to the east. Everything went according to plan, and the company proceeded toward its target soon after completing an orderly assembly. Within a few hundred yards of the Manoir, however, they came under sniper and machine-gun fire.
Led by Lieutenant John J. Dolan, A Company halted and hit the ground while lieutenant George Presnell took a squad of men around to the right along the river. When they were stopped by a burst from the same machine gun, they lobbed a grenade in the general direction of the enemy and drew back. But even as Dolan's group sat in the predawn darkness deciding what to do next, other American units were closing in on the La Fiére bridgehead from all directions. As Dolan approached from the north, Captain Ben Schwartzwalder led more than 40 men of the 507th to the south side of the Manoir, where he was also stopped by machine-gun fire. Lindquist was coming in from the east, and Levy was ensconced in a graveyard across the river at Cauquigny. At dawn, Schwartzwalder was joined briefly by Gavin, who decided, based on incomplete information, that the situation a La Fiére was under control, so he oted to take his 300 men south to seize the lower causeway at Chef-du-Pont.
As battles raged along the Normandy beaches, the scattered American units around La Fiére began to close in on their target. Each was under the impression that it was the only outfit making the attack, but gradually word got around that the Manoir was under siege from all sides. It was not until midday, when the 82nd Division's commander, Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, arrived–fresh from Ste. Mére-Eglise, which had been captured earlier that morning–that the command situation was resolved and Lindquist placed in charge.
Lindquist rapidly came up with a plan for a coordinated attack on the Manoir, with Dolan on the right, Schwartzwalder on the left and his own main force striking in the center. The attack was set for noon, and timing was everything. Unknown to Lindquist, however, the runner to Dolan got lost amid the hedgerows and never made it through with his message. The lack of communication once more threatened to ruin the attack, but fortunately for the assault force, Dolan had not been sitting idle.
Dolan had sent out a patrol under Lieutenant William Oakley, which had managed to reach the river embankment after wiping out a small group of Germans that charged them. Oakley and his men then dashed to a stone wall at the western end of the Manoir and, led by Sergeant Oscar Queen, burst through a gate and killed the German machine-gun crew that had been holding up the whole division. By noon, Lindquist's and Schwartzwalder's men had charged the Manoir as planned. They killed three and capture the remaining eight Germans.
With the capture of La Fiére on the eastern end of the causeway and Levy's men holding Cauquigny on the western end, the Americans were now in control of the key crossing of the Merderet River. Schwartzwalder sent a lone scout, Private James Mattingly, out onto the causeway. He promptly shot three German machine gunners hidden in pits along the river and captured a dozen more. Orange signal markers were exchanged between Schwartzwalder and Levy, and the former crossed the river with his 80 men. Seeing everything apparently under control, Schwartzwalder then made a grave error. Leaving Levy in Cauquigny with eight men, he headed inland in search of Timmes. Some time passed as Levy visited the east side of the river, and Lindquist came over to inspect Levy's position. That lull came to an abrupt end, however, when Levy heard the 1057th Panzergrenadier Regiment of the German 91st Division approaching from the west.
Confronted by a line of French-built Renault light tanks and a large number of heavily armed infantrymen, the Americans wasted no time going into action. Using any weapon available–bazooka, machine gun or hand grenade–Levy's men disabled one tank after another, sometimes from only a few yards away. At last out of ammunition, the men regrouped and retreated toward the orchard, where Timmes and Schwartzwalder would spend the next crucial 48 hours cut off from the causeway battle. The Germans now held the western end of the causeway in force.
Meanwhile, unaware of the action across the river and somehow having missed Schwartzwalder, Dolan's men spread out along either side of the little bridge that connected the embankment to the causeway, occupying the empty pits from which Mattingly had rousted the Germans. After pushing a truck across the road and laying down some mines, they felt secure.
They had competed those preparations none too soon, as the Germans sent their tanks across the causeway. The lead tank stopped at the line of mines and was taken out by a series of rockets fired by Private Lenold Peterson. The second tank wandered to the side of the causeway, trying to avoid the mines, and Peterson destroyed it as well. A company of enemy infantry was mowed down by massed fire, sending its reserve force scrurrying back to the far shore.
Ridgway, still in the neighborhood with Lindquist, came up at the sound of the guns. Approving the way Dolan had disposed his men but fearing a German counterattack, he ordered Lindquist to support Dolan. In the meantime, Gavin had returned from the successful capture of the east end of Chef-du-Pont. Seeing the situation at La Fiére, he sent word back to Colonel Arthur Maloney to leave a platoon behind at the lower causeway and proceed north to La Fiére with the balance of his men. When Maloney arrived with 200 soldiers a few hous later, the entire area was under heavy fire. During the night a German threat to Ste. Mére-Eglise drew away Lindquist's and Maloney's men, leaving A Company once again alone to defend the bridgehead.
At 8:00 on the morning of June 7, Dolan's men came under increased mortar and enemy machine-gun fire. Four German tanks started across the causeway but were forced to stop by the wreckage of the tanks that had tried unsuccessfully to cross the day before. The lead tank was hit by a 57mm gun, but managed to creep forward a few more feet until it came alongside the truck Dolan's men had placed across the road, then stopped. That blocked the tanks following it, but afforded cover for infantry moving up in their wake. Mortar fire on the Americans' exposed position increased, and the Germans emptied their automatic weapons point-blank into the American line. Men dropped like flies, including the intrepid Oakley.
Things were looking grim for the paratroopers. The platoon immediately before the bridgehead was reduced to 14 men. A message was sent to Dolan for orders, and the reply read, I don't know a better place to die. Those brave words inspired the men to hold their position. They were in no mood to let the Germans just walk in after all they had suffered. Then, suddenly, it was over. The Germans asked for a truce to remove their wounded, retired and never came back. The battle for the west end was still to come.
By the morning of June 8, Dolan's exhausted men had at last been relieved by a company of the 507th from Maloney's group, commanded by Captian R.D. Rae. The crisis at Ste. Mére-Eglise had been settled, and a linkup with elements of VII Corps reassured Ridgway and his worried paratroopers that the invasion of Europe had not failed after all.
Late in the day, the airborne troops were trying to circumvent the causeway when word reached Ridgway that two of Timmes' men had found a submerged road farther north that might be used to outflank the enemy. That night, Major Teddy H. Sanford's 1st Battalion of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment was sent across to link up with Timmes, but it was stopped by a strong German counterattack. Another force under Colonel George V. Millett, which had advanced west of Amfrevile only to be cut off, also tried to link up with Timmes' force but was also foiled by the Germans, with Millett and some of his troops being taken prisoner and the rest driven northeast toward the river.
With the 4th Infantry Division breathing down his neck, Ridgway was left with only one option–a frontal attack across the causeway. The 3rd battalion of the 325th was designated to lead the suicidal charge, but a last-minute substitution that placed Major Arthur Gardner in command of the battalion–and relieved its original commander, Colonel Charles Carrell–set off a subtle crisis of morale among the troops. Covering the battalion as it approached the causeway on the morning of June 9, tanks and artillery farther back behind La Fiére opened up on the German positions across the river, while the enemy replied in kind. As the men of the 325th joined members of Rae's 507th hunkered down near the water, they could see a score of bodies lying nearby.
Rae was told that the inexperienced 325th would make the attack across the causeway, but should the attack waver, charge with your company and take over the assault.
With the 325th was Captain Sauls, who began to look for a better spot from which to jump off, and found one along the same stretch of road used on D-Day by Schwartzwalder. It sported a good length of stout wall to crouch behind but also a number of Rae's dead, which, correctly judging the mood of his men, Sauls decided to have removed. That done, he brought his men up and waited for the suppressive fire to lift, unhappy to see that they would have no smoke screen to mask their movements. The Germans continued to rain artillery fire on the bridgehead, and machine-gun fire raked the causeway like a million angry insects. Then Sauls shouted Go! Go! Go! and dashed out to start across the 500-yard gantlet.
Directly behind Sauls came Lieutenant Donald Wason, a squad of men led by Sergeant Wilfred Ericsson, a BAR man and two riflemen. Those were the only men from G Company in that first attempt to make it to the other side. Ericsson took his squad to the left when he reached the end of the causeway, and Wason and the two riflemen ran up the main road, never looking back.
It was Sauls, who had stopped to catch his breath and direct those behind him, who was the first to notice that no one else was coming. One man in the lead platoon, Private Melvin Johnson, rose and began to run but was instantly killed, further paraIyzing the men. Then Lieutenant Frank Amino stood up and shouted, Follow me. Let's go kill some sons of bitches! and ran off with no more than a dozen men behind him. A weapons company tried to follow them, but weighted down by their equipment, they were too slow and were cut down one by one.
A supporting Sherman tank advanced along the causeway but was soon disabled. Sergeant George Myers, in spite of a wound in the eye, dashed across, then fell from loss of blood. More and more men stopped to seek shelter when the fire became too much for them. As they crowded the edge of the exposed embankment, they left no room for those following them. Slowly, the bodies mounted and blocked the road.
Meanwhile, Wason had been killed taking out a machine-gun position on the western shore, and Ericsson's squad began to flush out enemy gunners along the riverside, rounding up more than 40 prisoners and sending them back to the bridgehead. Soon, Germans were also being shot as they tried to make the deadly passage in the opposite direction. Sauls, still standing at the bridgehead, met the returning survivors of Amino's weapons company and ordered them in to support Ericsson. Those men and the others that joined them secured the bridgehead, but the flow of westbound traffic was still held to only a trickle. Squads, platoons and companies became hopelessly tangled as some men tenaciously made their way forward while others took cover, straggled back or just started shooting at the shoreline. The congestion increased casualties as some officers lost heart and took their men back while others, many severely wounded, braved fire to encourage their men to keep moving forward. Come on you bastards! Get up there! yelled Lieutenant Bruce Hooker, who had been shot in both legs.
Thinking that the battle was in danger of being lost, Gavin ordered Rae's company forward. Forming a flying wedge, Rae's 90 men bulled their way through the crowd and reached the opposite end of the causeway, believing theirs the first group to make it. By that time, enemy fire on the causeway had considerably lessened, allowing Lieutenant Lee Travelstead's heavy weapons company to cross almost intact and Ridgway to get out into the open to help clear the road of blasted vehicles–including the disabled Sherman. With the road open, a column of Sherman tanks began to cross the river, sweeping the opposite shoreline with thelr weapons and flushing the remaining Germans from cover.
A heavy German counterattack threatened to push the still disorganized Americans back across the river the next day, but the assault was repulsed. By mid-afternoon, a linkup was finally achieved with Timmes' men, who were still defending their orchard.
Thus ended the fight for the causeway at La Fiére. Laced with individual stories of both heroism and faintheartedness, the tale, with all its confusion, error and misjudgment, shows human strength and frailty in all its diversity.
This article was written by Pierre Comtois and originally appeared in the July 2000 issue of World War II magazine.
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