With his battalion being shredded by the German defenders of Carentan, Lt. Col. Robert Cole ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge.
General Omar Bradley knew he had to have Carentan. The crossroads town of some 4,000 people sat astride the N-13 highway as well as the Cherbourg–Paris railroad, which meant that in June 1944 it was also positioned between the American landing beaches at Utah and Omaha. Taking it, though, would be no simple affair.
The ancient community had been built on low ground amid a series of rivers and marshes that wove ribbons around and through it. To improve irrigation in the area, canals had also been built. Napoleon Bonaparte had once flooded the surrounding area in an effort to turn Carentan into a fortified island. In 1944 the Germans did the same thing. Any attacker coming from the north had only a handful of dry approaches. Once there, they would then have to contend with Major Friedrich von der Heydte and his crack 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment. The Bavarian-born paratroop commander had explicit orders from Field Marshal Erwin Rommel himself to defend Carentan to the last man.
Seizing this key objective would be the job of the 101st Airborne Division. After destroying or driving off their German counterparts, the “Screaming Eagles” were to link up with the 29th Infantry Division, which was attacking westward over the Vire River. This joining of hands among VII and V corps soldiers would connect the two American beaches, making possible a concerted push for Cherbourg, and eventually St.-Lô. Once St.-Lô was in American hands, the Cotentin Peninsula would be secured and the breakout into the interior of France could begin.
Major General Maxwell Taylor, the 101st Airborne Division commander, planned to take Carentan with a pincer movement, crossing the Douve River in two places. In the east, the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR) would cross at Brevands and push south. Part of the regiment would move southeast and link up with the 29th Division’s 175th Infantry Regiment west of the Vire, near Isigny. The rest of the regiment would circle around Carentan from the southeast. Meanwhile, the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), with Lt. Col. Robert Cole’s 3rd Battalion in the lead, was to cross over a series of four bridges and then swing southwest of the town to seize Hill 30, the commanding ground that controlled movement in and out of Carentan. At Hill 30, Cole’s men were to link up with the 327th. Following behind Cole would be the 502nd’s other two battalions and Colonel Robert F. Sink’s 506th PIR. Once the encirclement was complete, Taylor would then advance into the town itself.
Taylor’s plan seemed excellent. A pincer movement made great sense on a map, but there was a problem: only one northern approach to Carentan—the four bridges that spanned the N-13. The flat, open ground on either side of what was little more than a raised causeway meant that Cole’s battalion would be advancing out in the open with nearly no cover. The situation was less than ideal, but there was no other way to cross the river and advance to the objective from the north.
In an effort to mitigate some of the hazards, the attack would commence shortly after midnight on June 10, but fire from an 88mm gun in the town had prevented the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion from building a span over the bridge. When Cole’s battalion reached the crossing, its troopers found the engineers pinned down on either side of the road. While the assembled paratroopers waited, Lieutenant Ralph Gehauf took a patrol across the water in boats. He had flown over Carentan in an observation plane that day and it looked undefended, but he figured that was too good to be true.
Gehauf’s patrol paddled across the Douve River and proceeded single file down the causeway. At the fourth bridge, the Americans discovered a “Belgian Gate.” Built of iron and concrete, the obstacle spanned the road. Germans had placed one at bridge No. 2 and another at bridge No. 4. The one at the second bridge had been destroyed by the retreating Germans, but the one at bridge No. 4 now stopped Gehauf’s men in their tracks. Only by arduously prying at the obstruction could the engineers force an opening large enough for one man at a time to get through.
Beyond the gate, the Americans then came under enemy mortar and machine gun fire. Gehauf sent two runners back to Cole with a message to bring his mortars forward, but the runners passed along the wrong message. They told Cole not to go forward because the opposition was too heavy. Just then, Cole also got the word from regimental headquarters to postpone his attack. Disgusted, he and his men hiked back to Les Quesnils and caught a couple hours of fitful sleep.
Throughout the morning of June 10 Cole and his men waited for orders to attack. All he had been told was that he was to receive artillery support sometime in the afternoon. By noon, he was becoming impatient. He took Gehauf and returned to bridge No. 2, where they found that the engineers had still done nothing to repair it. Fed up and unwilling to wait any longer, Cole grabbed a rope and, with the help of his G Company commander and two other men, built a rickety footbridge from planks and other material left by the engineers.
Finally, Cole’s battalion began crossing the bridge. Gehauf’s intelligence section led the way, followed by I Company, then G and H, with the battalion’s headquarters group at the tail of the column. Slowly and cautiously, each man negotiated his way across—some of them by the ropes only when the planks eventually gave way.
The Americans were under intermittent enemy fire, mostly from 88s or mortars, but it was not until they approached the fourth bridge that the fire grew most intense. Jagged pieces of steel were now hitting the battalion from both flanks and the front as well. Once Cole’s men were within range, they also began to draw machine gun and accurate sniper fire.
Many troopers sought cover along the embankments, but the Germans had the entire area under fire. Worse, the men soon discovered they could not dig in—the ground was too hard. With nowhere to go, some tried to crawl forward. Some hugged the ground; only a few shot back. Most could see little beyond their own slice of embankment or causeway.
Men were being hit at a dizzying rate. Lieutenant John Larish was peeking around a tree when a sniper got him between the eyes and he went slack, like a partly filled sack of potatoes. Another man felt a German machine gun bullet crease his thighs. While lying on his back, he undid his trousers, pulled them down and inspected the damage. “I thought that SOB got the family jewels!” he exclaimed—relieved to discover he hadn’t. Dead troopers lay all along the causeway, many with bullet holes in their foreheads or between the eyes. Private First Class Theodore Benkowski was hit by an enemy sniper. He considered himself lucky—the bullet cost him an eye but not his life.
The one-sided carnage went on for several hours. As his battalion was being cut to ribbons, Cole took up a position at the second bridge to make sure none of his men ran away. With the situation getting out of hand, at 4 p.m. he turned that job over to his executive officer, Major John Stopka, and went forward. As he proceeded along the causeway he did what he could to rally his men and get them moving forward. Seemingly unfazed by the fire sweeping across the road, Cole walked around in plain sight of the enemy as he admonished his men: “God damn it, start firing and keep firing! God damn you, listen. Spread out. How many times must I tell you?!” Sniper bullets zinged by him, but miraculously he was not hit. Cole was brave, but no amount of bravery was going to get this attack moving again. His battalion was stalled.
Only a few men had managed to cross the fourth bridge, and they were pinned down, praying to survive the hellish crossfire. Only darkness, and American artillery, offered any surcease. Unable to see their targets, the Germans slackened their fire a bit, but the 3rd Battalion was completely disorganized and strung out along the causeway. Many of the wounded could not be evacuated. The dead lay where they fell. Everyone else settled down for the night, knowing that in the morning they must attack again.
At midnight they experienced something American soldiers in Normandy were unaccustomed to. A German Stuka divebomber and another unidentified enemy plane strafed the battalion on the causeway. The Stuka came from the direction of Carentan, flying at treetop level along the road, and unloaded on the helpless GIs. With wing guns blazing, it flew north along the road. Tracer rounds splattered against the pavement, bouncing like ping-pong balls or kicking up sparks as they smashed into the paved road surface.
A little farther up the road, which the Americans had now dubbed “Purple Heart Lane,” I Company took the brunt of the German strafing. The other enemy plane unloaded bombs onto the company’s position near bridge No. 3. It took the two German interlopers a matter of seconds to leave 30 men dead or wounded. In one day the company had lost 62 of its 85 men.
Once the enemy planes departed, Cole went back to regimental headquarters at La Croix Pan, where he received word from his regimental commander, Lt. Col. Mike Michaelis, to continue his attack. That was just fine with him. For the rest of the night, the 3rd Battalion commander prepared the battered remnants of his command for another push on Carentan. H Company, with 84 men, would now be in the lead; G Company would follow with its 60 remaining men, while headquarters chipped in another 121.
At 4 a.m. on June 11 the troopers moved out. In the darkness, they made it through the Belgian Gate on bridge No. 4 and over the Madeleine River without taking casualties. The lead scouts veered to the right, across flat fields that led to a line of hedgerows and a cluster of four stone farm buildings belonging to the Ingouf family. The scouts were drawn to the farm buildings, one of their battalion’s key objectives.
The lead scout, Private Albert Dieter, moved slowly in the morning mist, heading straight for the farmhouse. Like any good scout, he kept his weapon ready and his eyes peeled for signs of the enemy. Behind him, the platoons of his H Company were strung out over a distance of some 200 yards, almost all the way back to the bridge.
Dieter had closed to within five yards of a hedgerow near the buildings when all at once the air exploded with the sound of German machine gun, rifle and mortar fire. In the fusillade, his left arm was shredded from wrist to shoulder. Two others behind him were killed instantly. Instead of hurling himself to the ground, Dieter calmly turned and walked back in the direction he had come, all the way to a ditch on the east side of the road, where much of H Company had taken cover.
Spotting his commanding officer, Captain Cecil Simmons, Dieter blurted out, “Captain, I’m hit pretty bad, ain’t I?” “You sure are,” answered Simmons. “Will I make it?” the private asked. The captain shrugged: “I’m not sure.” Unfazed, Dieter said: “Captain, they’ve always called me a f—up in this company. I didn’t let you down this time, did I?” “No, you sure didn’t,” his commander answered. “That’s all I wanted to hear,” Dieter said, then walked north along the road in search of a medic. A few followed but were quickly pinned down by enemy fire.
Back at the ditch where Captain Simmons lay, the enemy fire intensified. Wounded soldiers were crawling back, plopping themselves next to the captain. For a time Simmons gave his men first aid. When he ran out of medical supplies, he took some from the pack of the stiffened, cold body of a nearby dead German.
Cole was crawling in the ditch, looking for his forward artillery observer, Captain Julian Rosemund. When he found him, he barked, “Get some shellfire on the farmhouse and the hedges.” Rosemund called back with the request and reported to Cole that the guns could not fire until an absent artillery commander assented.
Cole, in the middle of a desperate fight for survival, had no patience for such command niceties. “God damn it! We need artillery, and we can’t wait for any general.”
He got what he wanted. For nearly half an hour artillerymen firing from St.-Côme-du-Mont dropped shells among the hedgerows and farm buildings. Cole watched the friendly artillery crashing in, but he was dismayed to hear no slackening in the enemy fire. If anything, it was heavier. Cole slid back down into the ditch and wondered what to do next. He looked across the road and saw Major Stopka lying in a ditch on the other side. He got his executive officer’s attention. “Hey!” he shouted, “we’re going to order smoke from the artillery and then make a bayonet charge on the house.”
“OK!” Stopka replied. Since Cole had not expressly told the major that he wanted him to pass the order on to the rest of the scattered force—having assumed that Stopka would do so— Stopka told only the men immediately adjacent to him.
A few minutes later, smoke shells began exploding in front of the farm buildings and in a wide circle from the edges of Carentan (to Cole’s left) and the Madeleine River. At 6:15 a.m. the smoke shells stopped and the U.S. artillerymen shot several high-explosive rounds at presumed German positions beyond the farm buildings.
Cole had a whistle in one hand and a pistol in the other. He put the whistle to his lips, blew, got up out of the ditch and trotted forward. Only the 20 men immediately around him followed. As Cole’s men headed into the smoke, Stopka realized that he had failed to adequately communicate his commander’s orders. The major raced around rallying as many men as possible. “Come on! Let’s go! Follow the colonel!” About 40 men rose.
Cole was considerably ahead of everyone else. When he got to the middle of the open field, he glanced back and saw almost no one following. For a second, he thought his men had failed him. He took a knee, peered in the direction of the ditches and sized up the situation. Now he saw several men trying to make it across the field. Bullets and shrapnel filled the air and zipped through the grass at the colonel’s feet.
Most of the men of the 3rd Battalion had no idea what was going on. They either had not heard the order to charge or had received confused commands. When they saw what was unfolding, the majority of the soldiers understood that they were supposed to assault the German positions and, acting on their own or in small clusters, rose up and rushed into the storm of enemy fire.
Cole was striding all over the field, wildly firing his pistol, urging men to keep going: “God damn,” he shouted, “I don’t know what I’m shooting at, but I gotta keep on! These goosestepping Heinies think they know how to fight a war. We’re about to learn ’em a lesson!” Some of the men around him, despite the grim circumstances, laughed. Soldiers were falling like bowling pins, but the survivors kept going. Stopka surged ahead, screaming: “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
The smoke was clearing now, and just ahead they could see the buildings. Cole tried to keep up with Stopka. He jumped a low hedge and splashed into a ditch with water up to his neck. In an ironic twist, contrary to the famous infantry slogan, he hollered to his radioman, “Don’t follow me!”
Back at the ditch along the road, Captain Simmons lay half conscious. An artillery shell had landed a few feet away, nearly killing him. Then he felt someone shaking him hard. He snapped to, and saw Staff Sgt. John White looming over him. Simmons cleared the cobwebs out of his brain, left the ditch and rambled across the field with Sergeant White. The captain spotted a German and shot him. The enemy soldier involuntarily stuck his tongue out as he died, a gesture that somehow struck Simmons as funny.
By now, Cole and the others at the front of the charge had made it across the open area (roughly the length of two football fields), closed with the Germans in the Ingouf farm and either killed them or put them to flight. The Americans howled like demons as they charged. It was grisly—warfare at its most elemental.
Dead and dismembered Germans lay everywhere—in foxholes, behind embankments, outside the farm buildings and behind hedgerows. Very few of them had been bayoneted, although some had. Most had been killed by rifle fire or grenades at close range. The rest were retreating west, in the direction of the Cherbourg–Paris railroad. First Sergeant Kenneth Sprecher and Private George Roach shot the lock off the door of the main farmhouse and charged inside, only to find the place abandoned. Cole followed and used the building as his command post.
Lieutenant Edward Provost, a diminutive man regarded by Cole as an ineffective runt, had led one of the few actual bayonet charges. He was tingling with excitement, walking around saying, “They squeal when you stick ’em!” Private Bernard Sterno, wounded several times that day, watched Provost carry on: “He was kind of bloodthirsty.”
Breaking away from the lieutenant, Sterno set off to help a sergeant wounded in the chest and discovered he himself had a wounded finger. A medic bandaged the bloody digit and Sterno moved on to a line of hedgerows near an apple orchard that separated the newly won Ingouf farmhouse from the Germans. He and several other Americans traded shots with the enemy.
The recoil of his weapon had loosened the bandage on Sterno’s hand so he had it rewrapped. This time the medic ordered him to the rear by way of an access road that led east, past the farm buildings and on to the N-13. As he was doing so, he came across three wounded Americans lying in a waterlogged ditch by the road. They begged him to flag down an ambulance that was just then driving along the road, but 88mm shells blasted the ditches, forcing everyone to hug the ground. Sterno saw shrapnel tear the eye of one soldier right out of its socket, leaving a bloody hole. “Is my eye gone?” the man asked. Sterno responded, “Even if it is, you should be glad you have the other one,” and bent over to apply sulfa powder to the awful wound. As he did so, another enemy shell landed close by. Something hit him that felt like being “kicked by a mule in the spine.” A shell fragment had torn into his back and then lodged itself in his groin. He shook off the effects of this new wound and looked around at the others. Among them was the lifeless remnant of one of his H Company buddies, who had sported a handlebar mustache. The sight of the mustache prompted Sterno to think back to June 5, the evening before D-Day.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allied supreme commander, had visited the men of H Company right before they boarded their planes. The general had asked the mustachioed man about his civilian life. “I was a waiter in a restaurant in Philadelphia, sir.” Grinning, the general joked, “With that mustache, I thought you might have been a pirate.” Sterno stared at the mustache now. It was still well groomed—even though the man’s head from the nose up was gone. The soldier who lost an eye had been hit again: This time his arm had been torn from its socket and the man was weakly crying, “My arm, oh, my arm, my arm.”
Five feet away, another soldier was bleeding from his ears, nose and mouth, babbling unintelligibly—symptoms of concussion. Sterno felt blood running down his back—or was it sweat? Figuring that he couldn’t do anything to help the badly wounded men around him, he left, but had such difficulty walking that he crawled toward the fourth bridge and dropped into a foxhole. A mortar shell exploded just outside it. Fragments ripped into Sterno’s neck and killed a lieutenant lying next to him. Sterno lay there for a while, then gathered the strength to walk back to an aid station.
With the exception of a brief truce (which both sides used to evacuate wounded and scout each other’s positions), the fighting raged at the Ingouf farm for the rest of the day. Troopers from Lt. Col. Patrick Cassidy’s 1st Battalion, 502nd PIR, eventually reinforced Cole’s force. The newly arrived troopers occupied positions near the road at a spot dubbed the Cabbage Patch. There they fought a bitter close-quarters battle with the Germans. “It was just like shooting at rabbits,” Lieutenant Delmar Idol of A Company said, “and just as hard to hit them.” The two sides worked hard to flank each other or force the other to quit. At one point, Idol was blasting away at the Germans with his Tommy gun when some return fire smashed into the helmet of the man next to him.
Idol picked up the helmet and saw that it had a hole through each side. “Damnedest thing I ever saw,” the lieutenant later said. “The bullets hit both sides of the helmet, but missed his head in-between!”
Cole and the rest of his 3rd Battalion soldiers spent the remainder of the day in and around the farmhouse, fending off determined German counterattacks. Carentan’s defenders knew that if the Americans kept their foothold across the Madeleine, it would be a major step toward capturing the town.
The most determined counterattack came in the late afternoon, when German soldiers advanced to within one hedgerow of the Ingouf farmhouse. By then, Cole had hardly anyone left to man his firing line. From behind hedgerows that bordered the apple orchard, a few survivors shot at the advancing enemy. Standing near a window in the farmhouse, Cole saw these men fighting as best they could. Although his chest filled with pride at their grit, he knew that the exhausted remnants of his battalion could not hold out much longer and he began to contemplate withdrawal.
But artillery changed everything. For much of the day, Captain Rosemund had been out of communication with the batteries near St.-Côme-du-Mont. When he finally got through to them, he learned that the artillerymen were low on ammunition. “Then for God’s sake, get some!” he pleaded. “Get it! Please get it! We must have some!”
Like a scene from a movie, trucks laden with ammunition arrived at the batteries just in time. Rosemund got all the artillery support he could handle. He called the fire down on the Germans, who were now less than 100 yards away. The supporting artillery was so close that everyone in the CP could tell it was arcing over the roof of the house, landing just beyond in the apple orchard. The fire killed some Americans, but it stopped the Germans cold. “We lost some good men, but we had to have that fire,” one GI later said. Shrapnel from the artillery shells scythed through the exposed German infantrymen. In five minutes, their attack petered out. From his window, Cole exulted as he watched the artillery do its job: “Listen to it! Just listen to it!”
It was a successful end to a long, bloody and tragic day for Cole and his paratroopers. The water along the causeway was running red from the blood of so many Americans. The orchard, Cabbage Patch, open fields and ditches around the Ingouf farm were littered with the bodies of wounded or dead soldiers. From the 700 young men at Cole’s command, just 132 were still standing. That night, Sink’s 506th PIR crossed the bridges and relieved what was left of the 3rd Battalion.
The price had been terrible, but the exhausted 502nd had done its job. It opened the northern route into Carentan, paving the way for the 506th and the 327th to swing around the town and execute Taylor’s plan to envelop it. In so doing, they had outdone the best the Germans had—most of von der Heydte’s 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment was shattered trying to prevent the 502nd from crossing the four bridges. By June 12, the Americans controlled Carentan. The next day, they fended off a German counterattack. Bradley could now prepare his next move. Cole would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits on June 11, but he did not live to receive it. A German sniper killed him in Holland in September 1944.
John C. McManus is a professor of U.S. military history at the University of Missouri-Rolla and a member of World War II’s Editorial Advisory Board. For further reading on Carentan, see his recent book, The Americans at Normandy: The Summer of 1944—The American War From the Normandy Beaches to Falaise.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.