CITIZENS WITNESS LIBERATION BY FIRELIGHT

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 of sturdy homes, shops, and churches solidly built of a whitish-grayish-yellowish lime­stone unique to the area. 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 6–8 miles away. 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.)

Most of the over 13,000 parachutists whose drop zones were in the dark fields around Sainte-Mère-Église and Caren­tan landed safely in the wee hours of June 6. How­ever, 20 or so—pri­marily from F Com­pany, 505th Para­chute In­fan­try Regi­ment, 82nd “All Amer­i­can” Divi­sion—acci­dent­ally landed in and around the town’s church square, where many were killed by the fleeing German occu­piers, their bodies left lying on the pave­ment or hanging from trees and poles. Rein­forced at day­break, the lightly armed sky sol­diers held the cross­roads and town until fresh addi­tions of U.S. armor arrived from near­by Utah Beach in the after­noon of June 7. Today hanging from the town’s 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 and chaos taking place in the church­yard below, the cloud-obscured night sky pierced by the light of a two-story house fire that made the descending para­troopers easy targets for the German defenders. (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 and ditches behind the landing beaches bogged down follow-on opera­tions, not helped by an increas­ingly deter­mined German defense that slowed Allied progress.

Around the same time as the nylon chutes of Anglo-American para­troopers filled the gray-black skies behind the inva­sion beaches, thou­sands of French Resis­tance fighters began turning up the heat on the occu­piers. It started with com­mu­ni­ca­tions prob­lems. Towns, cities, and German garri­sons from Paris to Normandy and Brittany were being iso­lated from the out­side world and from each other by cut tele­phone/­tele­type, high­way, and rail lines. And radios started screeching mad­den­ingly due to acti­vated jam­mers that had been dropped ear­lier to Resis­tance groups. As dawn broke on June 6, 1944, reports trickled in of Normandy’s beaches being pum­meled from the air and sea and filling up with enemy sol­diers. Although on full alert, Normandy’s defenders at the shore­line and in com­mand bunkers further inland; at regi­mental, divi­sional, and corps head­quarters—even top brass in Paris at Western Army (West­heer) head­quarters—reacted to the inva­sion as if hit by a ton of bricks. Months of agonizing inva­sion sus­pense regarding when and where were blessedly ended. The invasion was here, now.



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 6 miles to the rear of the U.S. landing beach (admittedly hard to see but directly to the left), 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, FranceSainte-Mère-Église, Normandy, 1944

Left: Bocage country (hedge­row 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 and limit soil erosion but also limit visi­bility. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, whose Army Group B was respon­si­ble for the defense of the Coten­tin Penin­sula, had recently come to appre­ci­ate the suit­ability of the patch­work bocage coun­try for air­borne landings: it was rela­tively easy for para­troopers and glider troops to land in open areas and then quickly hide in the hedgerows. On the flip side, bocage 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 memorialNormandy’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, 82nd Air­borne, whose chute caught on one of the rear steeples (not the one shown here) of the church bell tower. (Steele was played by the Amer­i­can actor Red Buttons in the Academy Award-winning 1962 epic D‑Day film The Longest Day.) Wounded in the foot by gun­fire and taken pri­soner, Steele later escaped and rejoined his divi­sion. Another para­trooper, 17‑year-old Ken Rus­sell, was snagged by the church 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 sev­eral Purple Hearts for combat wounds. 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, a little known statistic.

Associated Press News Agency Reports Normandy Landings and Liberation of Paris