D-Day, 6th June 1944 – Part Three The US 101st ‘Screaming Eagles’ Airborne DivisionThis post is dedicated to the memory of those who died on Tuesday 6 June 1944 in pursuit of freedom. It is through their sacrifice that we enjoy the freedoms we have today.
In the early hours of Tuesday 6 June 1944 when three Allied Airborne Divisions were dropped by parachute and reinforced by gliders to secure the flanks of the invasion area. The US 82nd ‘All American’ Airborne Division was to be dropped by parachute and reinforced by gliders in the area of Sainte-Mère-Église to protect the right flank of the invasion area. The US 101st ‘Screaming Eagles’ Airborne Division was to be dropped by parachute and reinforced by gliders in the area of Vierville to secure the four beach exits and support the US VII Corps landing at UTAH Beach. The British 6th Airborne Division, comprising 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades and the 6th Airlanding Brigade, was to be airlifted and delivered by parachute and glider to the area between the River Orne and River Dives to protect the left flank.
In this the third part of the story of D-Day, 6 June 1944 we concentrate on the actions of the US 101st ‘Screaming Eagles’ Airborne Division securing the area behind UTAH Beach. This is their story…
The US 101st ‘Screaming Eagles’ Airborne Division were dropped onto the Cotentin Peninsula behind UTAH Beach. They were tasked with securing the four beach exits and the south of the UTAH Beach area, including seizing and holding the lock at La Barquette. The purpose of these missions was to secure the area immediately behind UTAH Beach in order to allow the troops of the US VII Corps to come ashore and move inland. It was also intended that the two US Airborne Divisions would neutralise any initial German counterattack.
Between 00.15 and 03.00 hrs on 6 June 1944 nearly 1,000 Dakota C-47 transport planes of the US IX Troop Carrier Command dropped more than 13,000 American paratroopers over the Cotentin Peninsula. The conditions for the drop were far from ideal with unexpected low-lying cloudbanks over the Normandy coast. The efforts of the pathfinder teams to mark the landing zones were largely ineffective. This was partly due to the inaccuracy of their own drop and the unexpected presence of German troops in the area. This meant that the aircraft carrying the main drops of the paratroopers had to rely on the Eureka beacons to guide them in.
The pilots of the main drops knew they had to maintain formation, but to do so they had to be able to see the aircraft next to them. If they lost sight of them the danger of a mid-air collision became very real. The low lying cloud loosened up the formations as the pilots lost sight of the leading planes and the German anti-aircraft flak broke them up further as the aircraft took evasive action. Consequently both US Airborne Divisions were widely scattered during the drops and many of the paratroopers found themselves in entirely the wrong areas and ended up fighting with different units. Others landed in the flooded areas of the River Douve and its principle tributary the River Merderet. Some paratroopers drowned in these deliberately flooded areas and those that did not had great difficulty in assembling.
The parachute drops were followed at 04.00 hrs by the arrival of the first wave of gliders. These brought the heavier equipment of the Airborne Divisions and the bulk of the Glider Infantry Regiments. Losses were sustained in these glider landings due to the presence of German troops in the vicinity of the LZs, the German anti-airborne landing obstacles and the high Normandy hedgerows, but they were not as bad as some had predicted. One of those to die in the glider landings was Brigadier General Don F Pratt, the deputy commander of the US 101st Airborne Division, who thus became the first Allied officer of General rank to die in the liberation of Northwest Europe.
The 101st were more widely scattered than the 82nd in the drop and not one of its Battalions mustered successfully. Those that did muster were under strength and often included men from other units of the Division and in some cases even men of the 82nd. Time was lost identifying their location relative to their objective and covering the ground in between.
The US 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel George Moseley was tasked with securing the two northern beach exits, destroying the German Coastal Artillery Battery at Saint Martin-de-Varreville and linking up with the 82nd, which should have been on their right. 1/502nd commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Cassidy was responsible for securing the area to the rear of UTAH Beach and tying in with the 82nd, 2/502nd commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Steve Chappuis was responsible for destroying the German Battery and 3/502nd commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole was responsible for securing the beach exits.
Despite the initial confusion 1/502nd secured the area behind the beach exits but was unable to link up with the 82nd. 2/502nd were widely scattered and did not really function properly as a unit on D-Day, though Lieutenant Colonel Chappuis (despite being injured in the drop) did manage to occupy the German Battery position with some of his men. 3/502nd managed to secure both beach exits and deal with the German soldiers who retreated across them without loss before establishing contact with the 1st Battalion of the 8th Infantry Regiment at 13.00 hrs.
The US 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Robert Sink was tasked to secure the two southern beach exits and securing the line of the River Douve to the south of the UTAH area, including the two bridges near Le Port. 2/506th commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Strayer was tasked with securing the beach exits, 3/506th commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wolverton was responsible for seizing the two bridges at Le Port and 1/506th commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Turner was to be the Regimental reserve.
2/506th was dropped well off their designated DZ and assembled with difficulty. With only a portion of his Battalion available Lieutenant Colonel Strayer set off for exit number 2. They encountered an enemy force en-route that held them up for most of the morning and their lead elements did not reach the inland end of exit 2 until 13.30 hrs. By 14.30 hrs 2/506th had secured the inland end of this exit and by 18.00 hrs men from the US 8th Infantry Regiment were coming across the causeway from UTAH Beach.
Colonel Sink had received no word from 2/506th about their progress and decided to send Lieutenant Colonel Turner and the 50 men of 1/506th that had assembled to secure exit 1. He would have liked to do the same at exit 2 but did not have sufficient men. Major General Maxwell D Taylor was also concerned about the two southern beach exits and despatched Lieutenant Colonel Julian Ewell and his men of 3/501st that were the Divisional reserve to secure exit 1. 2/506th became embroiled in a series of small skirmishes and was delayed. 3/501st reached the village of Pouppeville near Sainte Marie du Mont which they then captured house by house due to their small numbers. Lieutenant Colonel Ewell’s men finally secured the village and the inland end of the causeway from the beach. It was at Pouppeville that the first link up of the seaborne and airborne forces happened when Lieutenant Colonel Carlton O MacNeeley’s 2nd Battalion of the US 8th Infantry Regiment came up from UTAH Beach. When 2/506th reached Pouppeville, 3/501st had already occupied the village and 1/8th was already crossing the causeway.
To the south of the UTAH area along the River Douve 3/506th was less successful. The Germans had anticipated a parachute landing in the area and were prepared for the drop. As 3/506th came down onto their DZ it was lit up by an oil soaked building that the Germans set on fire. A large number of the men were killed, including the commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Wolverton and the executive officer Major George Grant.
The only part of the Battalion that played any part in D-Day was that which missed the DZ. This was a small force under Captain Charles Shettle the Battalion S-3 which seized the two bridges. Captain Shettle’s force became entangled with the defending Germans in the area and after a series of small engagements withdrew to the western end of the bridges, as they were low on ammunition. They continued to hold on to the western end of the bridges until they were relieved two days later.
The US 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Howard Johnson had been tasked with securing the lock at La Barquette, blowing two bridges on the road to the northwest of Carentan and capturing the town of Saint Côme-du-Mont. 1/501st commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Carroll was responsible for securing the lock on the River Douve at La Barquette. 2/501st commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Ballard was responsible for blowing the bridges and securing Saint Côme-du-Mont. 3/501st had been detached as the Divisional reserve.
Most of the paratroopers of the 501st landed well away from their designated DZs and the actions of the night of 5/6 June 1944 bore little resemblance to those that had been so carefully planned. Stiff resistance from the defending Germans met those members of the 501st that landed on the DZ and a number were killed including the 1st Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Carroll. The Battalion’s executive officer Major Philip Gage was wounded and taken prisoner. All of the 1/501st Company commanders and staff officers were also initially missing.
Colonel Johnson who had landed on the DZ, but managed to extract himself, collected together a mixed group from the 501st and led these to the La Barquette lock. With this force he secured the lock and attempted to co-ordinate the actions of his Regiment in carrying out their other tasks. Colonel Johnson tried to move from La Barquette to destroy the road bridges but was unable to follow the line of the river. He then tried to outflank the enemy by moving away from the river, but this proved unsuccessful.
Lieutenant Colonel Ballard on landing gathered together a portion of 2/501st before moving off towards Saint Côme-du-Mont. At Les Droueries they encountered a German force that he considered to be too large to leave in his rear. Whilst engaging the enemy Lieutenant Colonel Ballard received word from Colonel Johnson to move his force to La Barquette. Consequently when 2/501st had taken the Les Droueries position they withdrew and set off towards the lock. However, they were unable to cross the marshy area between the two positions and ended the day fighting once again for the ground that they had taken that morning.
After 24 hours, only 2,500 of the 6,000 men in 101st had assembled and many continued to fight behind enemy lines for days. Despite this however the Division achieved considerable success on D-Day and they too achieved the overall aim of preventing German counterattack and reinforcement of the UTAH Beach area.
Ian R Gumm