Cover image: ‘Iron Mike’ – The Airborne Trooper memorial at La Fiere, picture by Richard Matthews
Here, Jay Wertz - who spoke with Hatch and Geere on BFBS radio (click on the video just below to hear the interview), describes with eye-witness accounts the Battle of La Fiere Bridge - this action proved vital for American troops trying to break out of Utah Beach and advance into Normandy.
Article by Jay Wertz
One of the key aspects of the ‘Operation Overlord’ campaign was to insure that exits from the beaches be taken.
Then the landing forces could move off the beaches before a rapid buildup of German units could force the invasion back into the sea.
The role of securing beach exits was assigned to airborne units.
Soldiers jumping out of planes, a tactic of warfare begun by the Germans (and Soviets) was, by 1944, perfected by American and British paratroopers, making the D-Day invasion the largest and most successful airborne campaign in the war.
Three divisions of paratroopers - the British 6 and American 82 and 101 Divisions - took to the skies late on June 5, 1944, and by the time the first landing craft were hitting the beaches, the ‘sticks’ (squads) of jumpers, ‘cricket’ signal clickers in hand (devices used to make a distinctive noise so men could find each other in the dark after they’d parachuted in), were gathering together to go after the objectives assigned to them.
Because of the success of the ‘Band of Brothers’ television series, the accomplishments of the US 101 Airborne Division on, and immediately after, D-Day are well documented. And those in the UK who know a thing or two about D-Day have heard the stories of the paratroopers of the British 6 Airborne Division and Pegasus Bridge.
Now, more attention is being given in popular media to the struggle that took place on the Cotentin Peninsula between 82 Airborne Division and the German forces of the Seventh Army. They had no intention of giving up a major part of Normandy and the strategic city of Cherbourg without a fight.
Although one battalion of 82 Airborne had captured the important objective of St-Mère-Église village, it, and part of another battalion, spent most of the day fighting off a German counterattack.
The other scattered 82 Airborne units failed to achieve their objectives; securing a bridgehead east and west of the Merderet River and north of the Douve, as well as linking up with the flank of 101 Airborne Division.
Separated from the main force, and west of the Merderet, were part of 2 Battalion, 507 Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR). They were isolated in a firefight at Amfreville with another group from 507 PIR nearby, north of Gray Castle. Meanwhile, much of 508 PIR were clinging to a defensive position on Hill 30, north of the Douve.
American paratroopers killed the German general in charge of one of the three divisions on the Cotentin Peninsula, Wilhelm Falley, of 91 Air Landing Division, on D-Day morning. His troops, however, put up a continuous and spirited fight.
At the center of this fight was La Fière Bridge over the Merderet.
This bridge, and another downstream at Pointe du Chef, both a few miles west of St. Mère-Église, proved to be troublesome but necessary objectives. With the Germans having intentionally flooded all the adjacent ground, these two bridges were the only exits from the Utah beachhead. As long as the Germans controlled them, the Americans would be bottled up.
La Fière Bridge was taken by American paratroopers in the morning, but almost immediately lost again to a German counterattack. The German 1057 and 91 Air Landing Regiments were squeezing in on 82 Airborne’s positions from three sides.
Assistant divisional commander, Brigadier General, James Gavin was busy trying to supply enough men to hold one or both of these Merderet crossings. But he lacked the manpower to hold the bridgehead.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Charles J Timmes’ 2 Battalion, 507 PIR, was holding an orchard halfway between La Fière Bridge and Amfreville after being repulsed from that town shortly after their landing.
In a three company attempt to retake the bridge at noon, A Company under Captain FV Schwarzwalder rushed the bridge and causeway, then continued on to reinforce Timmes. But they could not secure their position all the way back to the bridge and became cut off as well. Lieutenant John Marr was in this group:
“We spent D-Day night and D plus 1 (day and) night in a perimeter defense, backed up against the water in what is now Timmes’ Orchard, which is very near Amfreville and that was a place that was called the Gray Castle.
"It was an old French castle, and that happened to be the 91st German Division command post. We patrolled out … and of course we got repulsed by automatic weapons fire and some mortar fire on D plus 1. And (on) D plus 2, Timmes sent me on a patrol at about 8:00 in the morning to go to the Gray Castle behind some tall trees.
“I went back and I reported to Timmes that nobody was going to go into that castle today through the fire that they were doing as we approached through the wooded area. And so then he said, ‘Well, why don’t you go across to the northeast and see what you see … if you can locate any friendly troops over there.'
“So I took Carter, my runner, and we went out a road running to the north of Timmes’ Orchard to the water’s edge. And we found out there was a (submerged) cobblestone road headed toward the railroad section house, which was on the far side of the water, about 1,200 yards away. So we just started following that road out there, broad daylight, and the Germans never took notice of us at all, never fired on us the entire trip.
"The head of the family that occupied the section house offered to take us up the river in his boat, which he guided with a long pole.
"He poled us up the river to the far side and to the treed area where the 325th Glider Infantry had landed and assembled on D plus 1.
“One of the battalion commanders of the regiment put us in a jeep and headed up the road to deliver us to the division command post so that we could tell our story. And on the way to the division command post, we met (General) Ridgway coming our direction in his jeep and I briefed General Ridgway as to what we were doing over there.
"We had no communication with the division during those three days that we were in there in Timmes’ Orchard area.
“So Ridgway told the battalion commander to take us on to the division command post, which he did. We went out into the woods and took a much-needed nap. And along toward evening one of the 82nd headquarters people came and got us out of the woods and said, ‘Okay we got a plan, and we need your help.’”
The plan was for Marr to lead 1 Battalion, 325 Glider Infantry, down the railroad and across the swamp on the sunken road he had discovered:
“Somewhere around… probably 9:30 or 10:00 by the time it was dark enough, the battalion and their vehicles went down the road, crossed over the railroad, went into Timmes’ Orchard and the battalion commander met with Timmes and made a battle plan to attack the Germans from the rear, on the western approach of the causeway.”
The glider battalion commander wanted a paratrooper who knew the area to accompany each of his companies. Marr went out with C Company to attack the churchyard overlooking the causeway. The Germans at the west end put up white sheets and began surrender talks while they maneuvered their weapons for enfilading fire.
The glider troops were caught out in the open in fields.
“The enfilading fire took its toll,” says Marr. “People were out in an oats field. And so there was a tremendous exchange of fire in there, and as daylight broke, the attack failed, but not before a soldier named DeGlopper, Charles DeGlopper, had gone on a rampage with his Browning Automatic Rifle. And he took out a lot of the defenders, and kept going until they finally killed him.
"He was the only guy to win the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Normandy operation with the 82nd Division.
“Now then, what happened next was, I looked up toward the churchyard, and against the berm were two soldiers from C Company, and they were the wiremen who were laying the field wire along with the company as it advanced. So, I called over to where they were, and I said, ‘Okay, we need to, we need to get us a withdrawal thing here’. I decided that what we had to do was to crawl through that oats field, back toward the way we came, guided by the wire that they had laid up during the darkness hours.
“And so we started crawling, a little at a time, so that we would not be making big waves in the oats field to attract the Germans.
"We did that all the way down this field, which was about 300 yards long, and then we started up a slope on the other side, and came back to the juncture of the hedgerow where we took an alternate course earlier in the night.
“What I did not know at that particular time was that the division had a backup plan to attack the Germans on the west side of the causeway if the night attack had failed.
"The attack started at 10:00 (on June 9) but it was preceded by artillery fire from the 82nd Division Artillery and the 90th Division Artillery.”
Encouraged by 82 Airborne Division leadership and backed up by Captain Bob Rae’s company from 507 PIR, elements of three companies of 325 Glider Infantry Regiment* crossed La Fière Bridge and established a bridgehead on the west side, despite intense fire from German infantry, artillery and tanks.
(*Like the British 2 Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry battalion, active at Pegasus Bridge on D-Day, some American airborne infantry came into action on gliders instead of by parachute).
They secured their position and, as enemy fire began to wilt, linked up with Timmes and the 327 Glider Infantry Regiment to the north, and Captain Charles G Shettle’s outpost of 508 PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment) men on Hill 30 to the south.
The last of the important D-Day bridgehead missions of the airborne troops were finally accomplished, paving the way for the infantry to move into the far reaches of the Cotentin Peninsula.
It was a great accomplishment. Official US Army historian SLA Marshall, who was present for the Normandy invasion, once said:
“La Fière Bridge was the fiercest battle in the European war.”
Now, this pivotal action, long known to veterans as well as scholars and students of the Normandy Campaign, is being commemorated as part of D-Day 75.
A new documentary on the battle, ‘Seize & Secure: The Battle for La Fière’, produced by the National WWII Museum, recently premiered.
And a new film, to be directed by Saving Private Ryan senior military advisor Dale Dye, entitled ‘No Better Place to Die’, is in pre-production.
Soon, audiences worldwide will have a chance to see these interpretations of a battle that turned the tide for the Americans, from potential disaster to ever-increasing victories in the early stages of the Normandy Campaign.
Jay Wertz is the author of seven books and numerous magazine and online articles about World War II and other historic periods. Among his books in print is D-Day: The Campaign Across France from the award-winning War Stories – World War II Firsthand™ series.
And, most recently, he created and edited ‘D-Day 75th Anniversary – A Millennials Guide’ for Monroe Publications.
US readers, click here to pick up your copy. Use the code ‘bfbs’ on the order codes section to get a 20% discount.