Sainte-Mère-Église, Liberated France June 5, 1944

On this date in 1944 the stolid citizens of Sainte-Mère-Église on the Coten­tin Penin­sula in Nor­mandy, France, retired to their beds on the eve of the largest air- and sea­borne inva­sion in history—Oper­a­tion Over­lord. As early as 1942, U.S. mili­tary planners had been eyeing this cross­roads town. If the Allies could gain con­trol of Sainte-Mère-Église, they could deny German rein­force­ments the most likely route to Utah and Omaha inva­sion beaches. It would also cut the road and rail links to the vital deep­water port of Cher­bourg, a bit more than 30 miles north­west of Utah Beach. (Utah was the most westerly of the five Allied landing beaches.)

Roughly 30 paratroopers of the U.S. 82nd “All Americans” and 101st Air­borne “Screaming Eagles” Divi­sions landed at Sainte-Mère-Église in the wee hours of June 6, rein­forced at day­break by another unit of U.S. infan­try. The lightly armed sol­diers held the town, garri­soned by Germans, until rein­forced by armor moving up from nearby Utah Beach in the after­noon of June 7. Today hanging from the church steeple is a life-size effigy of Pvt. John Steele, whose canopy snagged the spire, leaving him dangling for two hours as one of two wit­nesses to the car­nage taking place in the church­yard below, lighted by a house fire. (Steele pre­tended to be dead.) The effigy is a per­ma­nent memo­rial to the brave Amer­i­cans who liberated the first town in France.

Although the 82nd Air­borne had taken its chief objec­tive, it had landed close to German units and would suffer numer­ous coun­ter­attacks. Mean­while, the size­able bridge­head estab­lished by the Allies’ pre­cisely timed air, naval, and am­phib­ious “shock and shatter” attacks over­whelmed the static German coastal defenses. The three British and Cana­dian beaches (Gold, Juno, and Sword) were joined together on June 7, and a day later they linked up with Omaha Beach. By June 12 Utah Beach was incor­po­rated with­in the 50‑mile front. How­ever, the Nor­man bocage and its maze of thick, tall hedge­rows behind the beaches bogged down follow-on opera­tions, not helped by an increas­ingly deter­mined German defense that slowed Allied progress in the West.

In the East the Soviets launched their major sum­mer offen­sive, dubbed Oper­a­tion Bagra­tion, throwing 2.5 mil­lion men, 5,200 tanks, and 5,300 air­craft at German Army Group Center. On July 1, Adolf Hitler’s chief of staff at German Supreme Head­quarters in Berlin, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, tele­phoned Field Marshal Gerd von Rund­stedt, com­man­der in chief of German forces in France, seeking advice on what to do. Von Rundstedt did not mince words: “The writing [is] on the wall, make peace you fools.” Less than a month later von Rundstedt was relieved of his command.

Sainte-Mère-Église: First French Town Liberated on D‑Day

Cotentin Peninsula on D-Day

Above: Map of Cotentin Peninsula showing the location of Utah Beach, the cross­roads town of Sainte-Mère-Église roughly six miles to the rear of the U.S. landing beach (admittedly hard to see), and the port of Cher­bourg near the northern tip of the peninsula. Like Sainte-Mère-Église, Cher­bourg was at the top of the list of U.S. objec­tives in the first days of Oper­a­tion Over­lord because the port city lay a little over 70 nauti­cal miles from the logis­tic ports in England. On June 24, U.S. troops entered Cher­bourg against fierce oppo­si­tion; three days later the city was declared secured.

Bocage country, Normandy, France Sainte-Mère-Église, Normandy, 1944

Left: Bocage country on Nor­man­dy’s north-jutting Coten­tin Penin­sula, France. Bocage ter­rain is a mix­ture of wood­land and pas­ture, with fields and winding coun­try lanes sunken between nar­row low ridges and banks of ancient, thick hedge­rows that break the wind but also limit visi­bility. Bocage country (hedge­row country) made pro­gress against German defenders dif­fi­cult and dangerous for the Allies. Aerial bombing, bull­dozers, and tanks out­fitted with steel “teeth” welded to their fronts (former German tank obstacles scavenged from the Normandy beach­head) were used to bust through the vexing hedge­rows. The “inventor” of the hedge­row buster received the armed service’s Legion of Merit for his contribution to the success of the Normandy Campaign.

Right: Aerial view of Sainte-Mère-Église, Nor­man­dy, June 1944. For the Ger­mans, Sainte-Mère-Église was the gate­way to Utah Beach. At 10 a.m., June 6, German attacks on the town began with a fury, and by early after­noon enemy armored columns were slam­ming the 505th Para­chute In­fan­try Regi­ment of the 82nd Air­borne Divi­sion from three direc­tions in an attempt to reach the vulnerable invasion beaches.

Normandy’s Sainte-Mère-Église church with parachute memorial Normandy’s Sainte-Mère-ÉgliseMilepost Km 0

Left: This church in Sainte-Mère-Église, with its para­chute memo­rial (the white drape on the roof of the bell tower), recalls the famous inci­dent involving 31‑year-old John Steele of the 505th Para­chute In­fan­try Regi­ment, whose chute caught on one of the back steeples of the church bell tower. Taken prisoner by the Germans, Steele later escaped and rejoined his divi­sion. Another para­trooper, 17‑year-old Ken Rus­sell was also snagged by the roof, though his story is not as well known. Both wit­nessed their comrades, among them a ser­geant who attempted to res­cue them, being killed in the fire­fight that erupted early on June 6. Steele was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart for being wounded later in com­bat. Upon com­pleting oper­a­tions in the Sainte-Mère-Église area, the 505th Para­chute In­fan­try Regi­ment was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

Right: This marker in Sainte-Mère-Église, Km 0, is recog­nized by French­men as the com­mence­ment point for their coun­try’s libe­ra­tion from Nazi Germany (Borne 0, point de départ de la voie de la Liberté). In the Normandy Cam­paign alone, 15,000 French civil­ians died either from Allied bombings or in com­bat opera­tions between Allied (including French Resistance fighters) and German ground forces.

“Eve of Battle”: Contemporary Newsreel Footage of the Lead-up to Liberation of France

WWII Chronicles book coverHistory buffs, there is good news! The Daily Chronicles of World War II is now avail­able as an ebook for $4.99 on The ebook contains a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site. Featuring inven­tive naviga­tion aids, the ebook enables readers to instantly move for­ward or back­ward by month and date to different dated entries. Simple and elegant! Click here to purchase the ebook.
WWII Chronicles book coverHistory buffs, there is good news! The Daily Chronicles of World War II is now avail­able as an ebook for $4.99 on Con­taining a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site, the ebook brings the story of this tumul­tu­ous era to life in a com­pelling, author­i­ta­tive, and suc­cinct man­ner. Fea­turing inven­tive naviga­tion aids, the ebook enables readers to instantly move for­ward or back­ward by month and date to dif­fer­ent dated entries. Simple and elegant! Click here to purchase the ebook.