Walk Where They Fought: La Fière, 82d Airborne Division, D-Day 1944
Major Teddy Sanford’s 1st Battalion/325th Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR) drew the mission. The 325th had arrived by glider beginning at 7 a.m. on June 7, and had not as of yet been committed to heavy action. According to the plan, the men of the 1st/325th would attempt to reinforce the paratroopers isolated at Timmes’ Orchard and attack south toward the western terminus of the La Fière causeway at Cauquigny. They crossed the flooded Merderet and began their assault just before first light, despite drawing fire from German soldiers in the famous Grey Chateau. Moving south from Timmes’ Orchard, the battalion at first advanced steadily against sporadic resistance, but as the sun began to rise, the defenders quickly organized. The German counterattack that followed overwhelmed the glidermen. With concentrated automatic weapons fire directed at them, the 325th were unable to maintain the momentum of the advance and thus began withdrawing toward Timmes’ Orchard in an effort to avoid a disaster.
When word reached General Ridgway that the attack on the west bank had failed, he ordered a direct assault across the La Fière causeway and appointed his 37-year-old assistant division commander, Brigadier General James M. Gavin, to coordinate the attack. Gavin selected the 3d Battalion/325th GIR to serve as the spearhead of the effort and designated a composite company of 507th paratroopers to serve as the reserve force in the event things turned ugly for the glidermen. Leading this composite force was Captain Robert D. Rae of Service Company/507th.
At 10:30 a.m. on June 9 (D+3), the plan was set in motion when six 155 mm howitzers of the 345th Field Artillery Battalion commenced a preliminary bombardment that pounded German positions on the west bank of the Merderet. The barrage ended after 15 minutes, and then the infantry charged in. Leading the way was Captain John Sauls’ G Company/325th, which jumped off from a low stone wall running along the south side of the road at a perpendicular angle to the bridge and causeway. Sauls and his men ran out onto the bridge and started down the 500-yard open roadway to Cauquigny. As soon as the preliminary bombardment lifted, the Germans began pouring small-arms fire at the exposed and vulnerable glidermen. Despite enemy fire, Captain Sauls and a group of about 30 men made it all the way to Cauquigny. Others, however, were not so fortunate. Lacking cover, the men of E Company/325th and then F Company/325th began to fall. The causeway was soon littered with dead, dying and wounded troopers. The German machine-gun fire was of such murderous intensity that many of the men threw themselves down on the edges of the elevated road where they found at least some measure of protection. As the glidermen of G Company stumbled forward, stepping over the casualties scattered along the road, the assault bogged down and lost its momentum.
Back at La Fière, General Gavin could only assess the situation based on what he could see – which was not encouraging. Soldiers crouched along the sides of the road embankment in search of cover and dozens of dead and wounded men lay sprawled out in the middle of the causeway. To Gavin, it appeared that the 3d/325th GIR’s attack had stalled and that the entire battalion was about to retreat. That’s when he turned to Bob Rae and said, “All right, you’ve got to go.” With that, Captain Rae led his men out onto the La Fière causeway. The Company streamed across the bridge in two columns with Rae in the lead. As the 507th troopers passed glidermen, they shouted for them to follow, and many of them did. Although Rae’s men suffered casualties, most of them made it all the way across and joined the 325th troopers struggling in the hedgerows at Cauquigny.
The sudden arrival of Rae Company 507th and additional 325th troopers turned the tide of the battle. Soon, the Germans were pulling back from Cauquigny in a fighting retreat toward Le Motey and Amfreville. The causeway now belonged to the 82d Airborne Division and the battle of La Fière was won.
Today, La Fière isn’t much different than it was in June 1944, and it can be an exciting visit for any military history enthusiast. Reaching the manor is a drive of only a few miles from Ste. Mère-Église on the D-15 west toward the village of Pont-L ‘Abbé. (See La Fiere Battlefield Tour map.)
Tour Point 1 – Railroad Embankment : On the way to the manor, the first stop of any tour of the La Fière battlefield is the point where the D-15 crosses over the Carentan/ Cherbourg railroad line. As hundreds of 82d Airborne Division paratroopers slogged their way out of the Merderet River inundated area during the predawn hours of D-Day, they moved south along the railroad tracks until they reached this spot. They then climbed up to the road and turned west to approach La Fière manor. It was here that 82d paratroopers took their first cautious steps toward the enemy before dawn on June 6, 1944.
Tour Point 2 – Gavin’s Foxhole : Several hundred yards southwest of the railroad crossing, the D-15 makes a sharp bend to the right just before La Fière manor. Beyond the bend on the left (south) side of the road, is a shallow pit that is identified as General Gavin’s foxhole (see tip of red arrow for Tour Point 2). Although the 37-year-old brigadier general was in this immediate area for the first three days of the invasion, many people remain skeptical that Gavin used this little depression in the ground as his foxhole.
Tour Point 3 – The Manor : Arriving at La Fière manor is fairly obvious even to a first-time visitor because the hedgerows that flank the D-15 give way to the Merderet River basin , an open pasture area that the French call marais . While the Merderet is only a few yards wide and a few feet deep here, during the summer of 1944 this entire expanse of pastureland was effectively a large shallow lake.
La Fière manor is a cluster of seven stone buildings on the south side of the road. With a barn, stable, mill, tractor shed and château, the manor has all of the structures needed for an autonomous farm. Today La Fière is owned by Yves and Chantal Poisson, who operate it as a dairy farm and chambres d’hôte, or guesthouse.
Tour Point 4 – Iron Mike Statue : Immediately across the D-15 from the manor is the airborne monument known as Iron Mike. From the statue at the monument, visitors can take in the best view of the entire La Fière battlefield.
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