RESIDENTS WITNESS LIBERATION BY FIRELIGHT

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

On this date in 1944 the people 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 this town, they could deny Ger­man rein­force­ments the most likely route to Utah and Omaha landing beaches. It would also cut the road and rail links to the vital deep-water 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 and 101st Air­borne Divi­sions landed at Sainte-Mère-Église in the wee hours of June 6, rein­forced at day­break by an­other in­fan­try unit. The lightly armed sol­diers held the town until rein­forced by armor 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 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 were joined together on June 7 and a day later 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 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, 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’s advice: “The writing [is] on the wall, make peace you fools.”





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 immedi­ately 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.

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 “teeth” welded to their fronts (former Ger­man tank obstacles scavenged from the Normandy beach­head) were used to slice through the vexing hedgerows.

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 (the All Amer­i­cans) 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-Église Milepost 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).

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