Wednesday 30 November 2022

The 82nd Airborne on the Cotentin Peninsula (June 1944)

The population of the South-West of England, including Bristol, were saved the trauma of V-Weapon attacks by the success of Operation Overlord - the huge scale amphibious attack on German occupied Normandy by Allied forces on 6th June 1944. The loss of the Cotentin Pensula over subsequent weeks put paid to German plans to activate launch sites in the Cherbourg area. 

Last month I spent a week in Normandy exploring parts of the battlefield. The weather was glorious and conditions were perfect for hiking. I started by exploring the ground covered by Major General Matthew Ridgeway's 82nd 'All-American' Airborne Division to the west of Sainte-Mère-Église in the vicinity of La Fière and Eteinville. Landing by parachute and glider the 82nd Airborne were to assist with the capture of Sainte-Mère-Église, secure the approaches to the Utah Beach landing areas and push westwards to capture a couple of crossing points over the River Merderet.

'Iron Mike' statue at La Fiere

Using Paul Reed's excellent book 'Walking D-Day' as a guide, I parked up in the car park near the church in Sainte-Mère-Église where a dummy parachutist representing John Steele of the 505th Parachute Regiment, 82nd Airborne is suspended from the church tower. Steele's parachute was caught on one of the pinnacles of the church tower and he hung there for two hours before being cut down and taken prisoner by the enemy (he escaped a few hours later). Walking due west from the centre of town brings one to the site of the river crossing at La Fière, easily discernible because of the striking 'Iron Mike' statue overlooking the bridge.

Sainte Mere Eglise - John Steele Dummy & Parachute

Nowadays the river runs in an orderly fashion underneath the bridge and the causeway beyond offers a raised roadway over green fields. On the 6th June 1944 the river valley had been deliberately flooded so the causeway offered the only real way of getting men and material across - so as to cut the Carentan / Cherbourg road and railway routes. The bridge was secured on D-Day but was recaptured by the Germans shortly thereafter. The battle to secure the area raged for four days and the situation was finally resolved on the 10th June with the help of the 90th Division which had landed on Utah Beach during the original assault.

Memorial Area on Utah Beach

Following Paul's advice I walked over the bridge to La Chapelle de Cauquigny on the other side. The church and the surrounding buildings were taken by men from the 507th PIR under Captain Robert Rae on the 10th June, an attack by men from the 325th Glider Regiment having been repulsed 24 hours earlier.

There is a memorial plot outside the church and a rather striking stain glassed window to the 82nd inside. From the 10th June the causeway was open and available for traffic but the fight at La Fière had taken a heavy toll - more than 250 American lives. From the church I struck out across the fields to the right where many of the gliders from the 82nd Airborne landed during the initial assault. Today the paths are rarely trodden and the surrounding countryside is a peaceful place. One can only imagine the impact that the 'All-American' airborne assault had on the area all those years ago.

Bridleway near La Fiere

Following the path through the fields one passes the apple trees which mark what is known as 'Timmes Orchard'. Colonel Charles Timmes held on here from D-Day to the 9th June with a mixed force of men from 325th GIR, and 507th and 508th PIRs until linking up with the troops who had managed to get across the nearby causeway. Further on one comes to the outskirts of Amfreville where on the Rue de la Rosiere there is a large barn that was used as a German field hospital in June 1944.

Timmes Orchard

The walk continues past the entrance to a private road leading to what the Airborne troops called 'The Grey Castle', a chateau visible across the fields. The nearby church at Amfreville was used as an opbservation position until the tower was destroyed by naval gunfire from a US battleship anchored off Utah Beach. I followed the rest of Paul's walk up on to the high ground known as 'Hill 30' and then on to the site of the second contested river crossing at Chef du Pont. Again, at the time of the battle much of the river valley in this area was flooded.

Unexpected encounter near Amfreville

After returning from the walk, I would definitely recommend the American Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église. I'm not one for museums generally - preferring to walk the ground, but this one is definitely worth visiting - picking up, as it does, the linked actions of both the 82nd 'All-American' Airborne Division and the 101st 'Screaming Eagles' Airborne Division 

The American Airborne Museum - Normandy

The museum houses a C47B Dakota and a Waco CG04 glider - the two main workhorses of the airborne assault. In addition there are hundreds of contemporary artefacts including weapons and uniforms. The displays are complemented by compelling film footage and a vast array of letters and personal documents. 

For my full portfolio of photographs taken during this trip to Normandy (including this 82nd Airborne walk) click here