Walk Where They Fought: La Fière, 82d Airborne Division, D-Day 1944
During the first three days of the Normandy invasion, the 82d Airborne Division struggled to capture and hold the bridge and causeway at La Fière just east of Ste. Mère-Église. Pressured by the weight of German infantry, artillery and even armor, the division held its ground, subsequently pushing the enemy westward in what has been called “the bloodiest small struggle in the experience of American arms.” To learn how the 82d prevailed at La Fière, Armchair General invites you to walk where the “All Americans” fought during those first critical days in Normandy.
The Setting – Operation Overlord
Manoir de La Fière (La Fière manor house) is a small settlement of stone buildings just west of Ste. Mère-Église that in June 1944 was owned by M. Louis Leroux. Because of its strategic location astride the Merderet River , Manoir de La Fière was one of the primary D-Day objectives of Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s 82d Airborne Division. (See strategic map, Operation Overlord, June 6, 1944.) Under normal conditions, the Merderet is little more than a narrow, meandering creek. But conditions were far from normal in June 1944, and the Merderet was less like a river and more like a huge shallow lake, one kilometer wide by 10 kilometers long. The virtually impassable inundated area produced by the flood-stage river separated Amfreville/Motey on the west bank from Carentan, Chef-du-Pont and Ste. Mère-Église on the east bank.
The American invasion plan for the Cotentin Peninsula called for first the establishment and then the expansion of a beachhead at Utah Beach , followed by a drive north toward Cherbourg . The swollen condition of the Merderet River would present a significant obstacle for the U.S. Army VII Corps – the force that would establish the beachhead. With infantry and mechanized units pouring across Utah Beach , the road networks leading into the interior of the Cotentin Peninsula and over the river held inestimable strategic value. After establishing the beachhead, VII Corps personnel and vehicles flooding Utah Beach would need somewhere to go.
The three parachute infantry regiments of the 82d Airborne Division each had been given mission objectives in the Ste. Mère-Église area. The 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) would capture the Douve River crossings to the southwest. The 505th PIR would take Ste. Mère-Église itself, as well as the eastern ends of the Merderet River crossings at Chef-du-Pont and La Fière. And the 507th PIR, dropping near Amfreville, would be in a position to capture the village of Cauquigny where an elevated roadway stretched 500 yards across the inundated Merderet basin to La Fière on the east bank. Holding Cauquigny, La Fière, and the causeway that stretched between them would give the U.S. Army VII Corps back at the beach an open artery over the swollen Merderet. Failure to secure the river crossings could spell disaster for VII Corps. For that reason, taking Ste. Mère-Église, Chef-du-Pont and the bridge and causeway at La Fière during the first hours of the invasion was of the utmost importance.
|This photograph shows evidence of the extensive damage Manoir de La Fière suffered during the fighting of June 6-9, 1944. Image Credit: COURTESY OF DOMINIQUE FRANCOIS||C-47s fly over southern England in mid-1944. Image Credit: 82ND AIRBORNE MUSEUM|
By an inconvenient stroke of bad luck, 28 German infantrymen had arrived at Manoir de La Fière at 11 p.m. on June 5 to establish an outpost. Roused out of bed, M. Leroux and his family were surprised by the arrival of the German soldiers because none had ever occupied the manor before that night. Thus, as the men of the 82d Airborne were being flown across the English Channel in the early morning hours of D-Day, the Germans they would soon be fighting at La Fière were just beginning to settle in and prepare their defenses. The stage was set for battle.
As the 378 C-47s carrying the 82d Airborne Division approached their drop zones (DZs) during the predawn hours of D-Day, they encountered obscuring cloud cover and German anti-aircraft fire – circumstances that combined to produce a scattered drop. Out of the three regiments, the 505th had the best luck, with most of its “sticks” (planeloads of paratroopers) landing between Ste. Mère-Église and the Merderet. Many of the 508th PIR’s sticks ended up west of the river, while a large number of 507th PIR sticks were dropped east of DZ T in the northern end of Merderet River ‘s inundated area. Most of the paratroopers who landed there quickly moved toward the dry ground closest to them – the Carentan/Cherbourg railroad embankment. (See the battle map, La Fiere, June 6, 1944, map.) Once there, they followed the embankment south to its junction with the road to Ste. Mère-Église, and then west 800 yards to La Fière manor.
The opening shots of the battle were fired at twilight when an MG-42 in the manor’s main house opened up on troopers of Lieutenant John J. “Red Dog” Dolan’s A Company/505th PIR. After making contact with the enemy, Dolan’s 505th troopers attempted to flank the enemy by maneuvering around to attack the north side of the manor. In doing so, they ran into more small-arms and machine-gun fire. Soon thereafter, a force of 80 507th paratroopers led by G Company commander, Captain Ben Schwartzwalder, joined the developing battle. Several units were simultaneously converging on the same objective in a piecemeal, uncoordinated manner.
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