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Posted on May 10, 2006 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

Walk Where They Fought: La Fière, 82d Airborne Division, D-Day 1944

By Martin K. A. Morgan

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.  

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An aerial view of the La Fière causeway looking toward the west. Manoir de La Fière is in the foreground with the causeway extending across the Merderet River to Cauquigny beyond. Image Credit: U.S. ARMY PHOTOGRAPH An aerial view of the La Fière causeway looking toward the east. Manoir de La Fière is in the foreground and the outskirts of Ste.-Mère-Église are visible in the upper left. Image Credit: U.S. ARMY PHOTOGRAPH

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.  

The 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.  

June 10, 1944. Disabled four days earlier by the paratroopers of the 505th Parachute Infantry, tanks of the 100 Panzer Ausbildungs und Ersatz Abteilung (100th Tank Training and Replacement Battalion) sit on the La Fière causeway. Image Credit: NATIONAL ARCHIVES Two U.S. Army Soldiers pose in front of a French-made Hotchkiss light tank on the La Fière causeway. Image Credit: COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL D-DAY MUSEUM

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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29 Comments

  1. Several years ago I accidently came upon the Fiere battlefield, as me and my brother were taking an independent personal WWII history tour of the Normandy area. Not knowing about the severity of the battle I was greatly moved being there. This article gives me much more information on the site. I live in Texas, USA and if I ever get to go back, I will make sure I get to this area again. I am 77 years old and missed the war by a few years but have always been interested in WWII. Thanks for this article.

    • I was there with my 2 sons in 2001. Met the owner and thru an interpreter and he walked me around the manor buildings. They show bullets in the walls of the buildings. There is a room under the front of the main house full of all sorts of battle items he has picked up from time to time. There is a road running left from the church on the other side of the causeway. Along this road is a memorial to a Medal of Honor recieptent. Did you see it. If not go to Google Earth and follow along and you will see it. Chas Deglopper, Medal of Honor.com

  2. In June of 2007, I had the privelege of visiting and spending several days behind Utah beach studying the troop movements of the 82nd A/B. I spent an entire day at the La Fiere bridgehead. It never dawned on me how strategicaly important that battle was. I learned more by being there than I could ever learn reading about it. When you see, hear, touch and smell the little battlefield, it all comes in perspective.Had it not been for those brave men, the war would have surely turned on a differant course. The actions and bravery of those men will live forever in our hearts and minds. Thank you for posting such a wonderfull and insightful webpage.and a veyy special thanks to the men of the 82nd airborn.

  3. In June of 2007, I had the privelege of visiting and spending several days behind Utah beach studying the troop movements of the 82nd A/B. I spent an entire day at the La Fiere bridgehead. It never dawned on me how strategicaly important that battle was. I learned more by being there than I could ever learn reading about it. When you see, hear, touch and smell the little battlefield, it all comes in perspective.Had it not been for those brave men, the war would have surely turned on a differant course. The actions and bravery of those men will live forever in our hearts and minds. Thank you for posting such a wonderfull and insightful webpage.and a veyy special thanks to the men of the 82nd airborn.

  4. I first became aware of the LaFiere history in preparation for my first visit to Normandy in 1984. At the time, I was a Captain stationed in Giebelstadt, West Germany. My Aeroscout Platoon provided direct support to the 3ID’s Cav Sqdn (3/7 Cav) which had planned an Officer Professional Development (OPD) trip for the 40th Anniversary of DDay. The Army paid for bus transportation and each of us paid our own food/board and adult beverages. It was not all fun and games though, our group leader was LTC Shinseki the Sqdn Commander (later became the Chief of Staff of the Army) who expected each person to teach a class on site. While most of his personnel were tankers and were assigned various aspects of the assault and the breakout/pursuit, us aviators were assigned classes on the airborne operations. I had read SLA Marshall’s “Night Drop” and the LaFiere fight sounded interesting with many professional teaching points. I had always been interested in DDay since my Dad landed on Omaha beach on D+3 with an Ordnance unit assigned to 1st Army. He seldom talked about it, but my Mom (who was English) always talked about knowing something was happening when all the troops started convoying out, or were confined and the massive number of Airplanes departing the night before. Anyway back to 1984, the day prior to the class the bus parked in Ste. Mere Eglise and the four of us that were presenting the class hiked out to the Manoir. Along the way we talked to a Vet that was a pathfinder on DDay. He was climbing a gate into an orchard to show a magizine reporter where he had landed. We told him we were US Officers stationed in Germany and he said it was great to see young Americans interested in military history. He asked us to tag along so we climbed over with him. He had been back several times over the years and knew exactly which tree he landed in. He told us about hearing guys dropping into the water and yelling and gunfire seemed to be in all directions. He showed us were he crawled through the hedgerow to move toward the Manoir house. The best part of this experience was the day of the class we took everyone there and parked the bus on the side road where the Iron Mike is today (it wasn’t there in 84). Using charts, diagrams and map boards we presented a pretty thorough review of the battle and were able to point out many lessons learned focused on the principles of war. I read specific passages from various resource books and pointed out each location as we walked the area. After completing our part, I and another Captain were standing behind the group on the right side of the road facing the Merderet while one of the Lieutenants briefed his part. We spotted an elderly man at the house with several escort personnel that turned out to be from the Embassy and a French reporter. He was wearing an 82nd Association baseball hat, so we approached him to say Hi and he introduced himself as COL John Marr retired. I said, Sir are you the Lt Marr mentioned in SLA Marshall’s book and he said Yes!! We explained who we were (since we were in civies) and asked if he would tell us a little about his experience. From that point our class went out the window while we were all treated to a step by step (literally following his DDay footsteps) account of the taking of the Manoir, actions at the bridge, his excursion to contact Timmes and the crossing of the causeway. Our class went well over the time allotted but nobody minded. Since then I have been back twice and took my Dad in 2000 and 2004. I would highly recommend that any American visiting the area stop and see LaFiere, read-up on it first. I have been to Yorktown and Gettysburg, and this location will haunt you just the same. MAJ (Ret) D.E. Laack

  5. Thank God for the Late Syracuse Coach
    Captain Floyd “Ben ” Swartzwalder

  6. My father served in the 82nd airborne 505 company B Lt Weinberg’s platoon. He would occasionally discuss the war including D-day, the parachute drop, and the action in Ste Mere Eglise.

    His only comment about La Fiere was when he moved out to the position at the bridge ; he stated, “and then it began”.

    It was too painful for him to remember. He had 4 combat jumps. In addition to D-Day, he fought in Sicily, Italy, Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge, across the Siegfried line into Germany. He was one of the few of the original men in his company to survive the war.

    I have read a number of descriptions of the battle at La Fiere bridge and it must have been terrible for the paratroopers. Low on ammo and supplies, facing large numbers of well equipped German troops supported by armor. My dad had a photo of the his company boarding a boat after their 30 some days of action in Normandy , and his company had about 2 dozen survivors.

  7. My uncle Dale C. Hudson a 82nd Airborne 505 PIR Company F and Pasthfinder on Plane #10 survived D-Day, but was KIA on June 16, 1944. My father Lowell E. Hudson was drafted about 4 months later and served in the Army in Italy. His brother, Carl F. Hudson was in the Naval Air Corps and trained in the U.S. and before being deployed out of U.S., the WW II was over. Carl however, 1.5 yrs. after Dale’s death was in an air crash which took his life and was part of the USNR at that time. His sister Doris Hudson was a WAVE.

    I found a letter that James L. Bowdoin wrote to Dale’s parents telling them of his sorrow of Dale’s death. I don’t know James Bowdoin, but it was comforting to know that Dale had at least one good friend while he was in the Army.

    • Juliane thank you for sharing you story. I was doing a search on my Dad James L Bowdoin and came across the comment you had made. My dad had offten talked about his friend Dale. He also named his first son Dale. He had told my brother were his name came from and the history. Thank you Darryl Bowdoin

  8. What is written on the book at the Iron Mike statue in Normandy, I was very touched by the saying but can not remember it.Thank You

  9. The book near Iron Mike states (in French and in English):

    To pass on the memory
    To remind that today
    we live in peace,
    freedom, and dignity
    Because others
    gave their life for us

    A wonderful memorial, highlight of my visit to Normandy

  10. In June 2009 I was privileged to be taken to La Fiere by my Norman aviation researcher friends. I have been to Normandy many times, but this was my first visit there. I was awe-struck to think that I was standing on that very earth where our boys gave so much. As I walked that small bridge over the Menderet, I pictured those German tanks clanking along, heading toward Utah Beach to stop our assault. They were stopped in their tracks on the causeway, never allowing the enemy to retake the bridge.

    My dad was a pilot with the 404th Squadron, 371st FG, 9th Air Force. He was lost over Cherbourg-Octeville on 24 June 1944 while attacking the German guns at Ft du Roule, overlooking the city. An 88mm round blew the tail completely off his aircraft and he went straight down from approx. 2000′, crashing into Octeville. Today there is a monument on his crash site on Rue du Poitoi in the town. The citizens of Octeville told me that he is their Liberator, since he was the only Allied soldier to give his life within the boundaries of the town.

  11. any body frome 3rd brig 1st of the 508 a co. 68-69

  12. Thank you for your article. My Dad, William Buchta, was 82nd Airborne, 507th, Company D, First Platoon in WWII. As many others, I grew up listing to every word of every story Dad wanted to tell. When he and Mom visited the cemetery at Normandy back in the 80′s, the first 4 crosses Dad saw were of 4 men in his platoon… men he saw die. Needless to say, emotion got the best of him and they had to turn away. I’m sure you can well imagine what it was like went I went with my dad to see “Saving Private Ryan”, and can’t even begin to imagine what he was feeling when he saw that opening scene. The movie begins and ends at that cemetery. I think I watched Dad’s facial expression more than I watched the movie. Dad was injured in the Battle of the Bulge, and went home after over a year in hospitals in Europe and then stateside.

    • Hi,

      My dad was in the 507th paratrooper’s Company E. I am looking for any history or information about them during the war. Any information that you can share would be appreciated.

      Thanks,

      Ron

      • My grandfather George M. Hickey, (PVT First Class, NY) was in the 507th Company E.
        He returned home with an injury suffered in the battle and died of those injuries in Cushing General Hospital in Mass on August 16, 1945.
        I am looking for any information concerning his company.

  13. Love reading all of this.I am the daughter of a 507th paratrooper who jumped onto Normandy on DDay near Fresville. For me history has come full circle as I now own a historical home at La Fiere not 3 km from where my Dad landed.To see such interest from those who have visited is heartwarming to me.

    • Hi,

      My dad was in the 507 Paratrooper’s Company E. I was wondering if you have any information or history about his unit during the war.

      Thanks,

      Ron

  14. I’m currently researching the 82nd and 101st Airborne activities on D-Day in preparation for a visit. Like David Laack I am a Serviceman with the RAF going on a Personal Development tour.

    Your comments maintain the connection and reality of the events which I hope to share with the other personnel attending.

    Thank you for sharing and your families involved for their brave actions.

  15. I am writing a story about 1st Sgt. Ray Nelson, F Co/401st (3/325) who fought at LaFiere. Ray, 95, is alive and feisty in Beloit, WI.

    I’d appreciate any stories about the 401st at LaFiere.

    All The Way,

    Tom
    501st/82nd Airborne 1960-63
    Editor
    The Wisco All Airborne Reporter

    • Tom,
      My uncle, Corporal Frank Gallagher, served with F Co. 325th GIR and was wounded (severely) on June 9, 1944. I’m guessing that it might have occurred in the battle for the la Fiere causeway. He passed away in the mid 1970′s. I was wondering if you have ever come across his name.

      • John, I have not but will send this to Ray’s daughter and call Ray.

        Thanks!

        Tom

  16. The barn of the La Fiere manor is now an American-French Bed & Bath named ‘B&B a la Bataille de La Fiere’ and is owned by Randolphe and Vivian Roger.

  17. just got back from a four day visite to normandy with my brother.we camped at Camping la Baie des Veys a bit behined Utah Beach.i didnt realise we where drivin past the battle area nearly every day.now i have read more about it we’ve alredy started planing our next visit next year.What an amazing place Nornmandy is,i now have a more understanding how precious life is.
    Thanks for been so BRAVE
    Nick from England

  18. i spent the better part of a week this september in normandy. la fiere bridge was an amazing part of my trip. even moreso now that i have read all about the battlesite. i was touring with my former company commander in vietnam 3rd brigade d company, 1/505 82nd abn, james callahan who now lives in normandy. what a wonderful trip. thank you for telling such a vivid and remarkable story. i took many pictures and it is so meaninful how it looks now vs. june, 1944. i am proud to be an american and to have served with the 1/505.

  19. If anyone wishes a copy of The Wisco Airborne Reporter Summer Edition, which includes an article on 1st Sgt.Ray Nelson, F/401st (3rd Bn 325) who fought at LaFiere, send me an email:

    tlaney1776@gmail.com

  20. I am looking for a war time photograph of Capt. Floyd”Ben” Schartzwalder of CO “G” 507 PIR 82 Airborne Division, later to become head football coach for Syracuse Univ.

  21. my father served in the 82nd 505 pir co.a 1st bat. and was at La Fiere during those days, well at least 2 of those days. was wounded on D+2 by art. shells. Was very good friends with R. Murphy, B. Ownes, W. Tamarty, and others He made 3 Combat jumps with co. A (Sic., Ita., Normadey) before being wounded so bad he was shipped home. He dien in 2008 with shrapnel still in his back and near his heart.

  22. Hi,
    My dad was part of the 507th Paratrooper Infantry Regiment, Company E .
    I am looking for any information or history about this group that you are willing to share.

    Thanks,

    Ron

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