Carentan, Cotentin Peninsula, France June 13, 1944

Late Monday, June 5, 1944, the largest amphib­ious inva­sion in his­tory was set to launch. The next day, June 6, D-Day, three Allied armies began depo­siting their pre­cious cargo of men and equip­ment on five Nor­mandy beaches and in mul­tiple aerial drop zones behind them. By evening the first-day wave of 156,000 U.S., British, and Cana­dian infan­try and air­borne troops, backed by 5,000 ships and landing craft and 11,000 air­craft, had taken pos­ses­sion of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. These five inva­sion beaches were the code­names for nearly 60 miles of coast­line on the Coten­tin Penin­sula in North­western France. Facing the inva­ders were 80,000 Wehr­macht defenders, mostly German troops with a smat­tering of Ost­troopen “volun­teers” (Polish and Russian former POWs in German uniforms).

Among the priorities of Operation Overlord in the week Amer­i­can forces slapped down pay­ments on their Utah and Omaha beach pro­per­ties were these: (1) merge the two U.S. lodg­ments, (2) destroy enemy forces and lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion across the paths from the shore­line to the interior, and (3) pre­vent the arri­val of enemy rein­force­ments intent on pushing them off their beach­heads. Caren­tan, a cross­roads town (four inter­secting high­ways, a canal and river, and a rail­road station) of 4,000 resi­dents some 10 miles south of Utah Beach and 30 miles south­east of the stra­te­gic ocean port of Cher­bourg, was a signif­i­cant imped­i­ment to achieving U.S. objec­tives. The town was gar­ri­soned by two bat­tal­ions of German para­troopers of the crack 6th Fall­schirm­jaeger Regi­ment (3,450 men, average age 17½) along with an assort­ment of infan­try, air­borne, and tank bat­tal­ions belonging to the 91st Infan­try Divi­sion. Tasked with removing the Caren­tan obsta­cle after securing safe exit points from Utah Beach was Maj. Gen. Max­well Taylor’s 101st Air­borne Divi­sion (“Screaming Eagles”), which had para­chuted into D‑Day’s inky blackness near Carentan.

Legendary Field Marshal Erwin Rom­mel, since Janu­ary 15, 1944, in charge of Wehr­macht for­ma­tions in North­western France, was worried. Should Caren­tan fall to the invaders, Cher­bourg harbor and the entire Coten­tin Penin­sula would be cut off from the rest of German-occupied France. The field marshal correctly assumed the Caren­tan gar­ri­son must be at the top of the list of U.S. targets after the 101st Air­borne’s para­chute and infan­try glider regi­ments had consol­i­dated their scat­tered forces around the French town on June 9. Rom­mel there­fore instructed 37-year-old gar­ri­son com­man­der Major Fried­rich von der Heydte, who had served with him in North Africa two years before, to defend Carentan “to the last man.”

The Battle of Carentan began just after mid­night on June 10, 1944. It ended on this date, June 13, when German defenders with­drew late in the after­noon following a mauling by Amer­i­can tanks, air­craft, and infan­try on the out­skirts of town (Battle of Bloody Gulch). The pre­vious day, June 12, two regi­ments of the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion had secured the approaches to Carentan, as well as the town itself, after 48 hours of fierce, house-to-house, touch-and-go combat. The rem­nants of the German gar­ri­son, having evac­u­ated the town during the night of June 11/12, counter­attacked on June 13, resupplied and aug­mented by a divi­sion of SS Panzer­grena­diers. They were beaten off by strafing P‑47 Thunder­bolt dive-bombers, anti­tank guns, a third para­chute infan­try regi­ment of the 101st Air­borne, and the timely arrival of tanks from the Nor­mandy beaches. Together they inflicted a staggering loss of 500 sol­diers on the Wehr­macht. It can­not be over­stated that the U.S. vic­tory at Caren­tan con­trib­uted to the suc­cess of Operation Overlord. The vic­tory closed the gap between the Utah and Omaha beach­heads, the last gap in the five D‑Day beaches, and it greatly reduced the danger of the enemy pushing the Western Allies from their hard-won French foothold.

Deadly Paratrooper Brawl at Carentan, June 10–13, 1944

Battle of Carentan: Men from 101st Airborne display captured German flagBattle of Carentan: 101st Airborne paratroopers walk Carentan street, mid-June 1944

Left: Two officers of the 101st Airborne Division proudly display a cap­tured German flag on June 12, 1944, the day the shat­tered enemy with­drew from Caren­tan. Although the town it­self was lib­er­ated, the enemy still held the out­skirts and most of the Coten­tin Penin­sula. Cher­bourg, for in­stance, the chief port city at the tip of the penin­sula, did not fall to the Allies until 20 days after D‑Day. Its cap­ture was tem­pered by the dis­covery that the deep-water harbor on the English Chan­nel, so cri­ti­cal to sus­tain and rein­force Allied forces in Nor­mandy, had been sys­tem­at­ically wrecked by German engi­neers starting the day after D‑Day, June 7. The main harbor basins were not made service­able until Septem­ber 21, causing a log­jam of war maté­riel and vehi­cles, mixed with a short­age of fuel, that forced the Allied advance east­ward across France to sputter out near the German fron­tier. The effi­cient demo­li­tion of Cher­bourg har­bor bought the Third Reich three extra months before Germany’s apocalyptic collapse in April and May 1945.

Right: Men from the 101st Airborne Division move through Caren­tan after the Germans were expelled from the town and its approaches on June 14, 1944, in nearly a week of non­stop fighting. Cap­ture of Caren­tan’s key high­ways and rail line not only linked up Amer­i­can forces at Utah and Omaha beaches, but because of Caren­tan’s posi­tion at the base of the Coten­tin Penin­sula it also led the way for U.S. advances on the stra­te­gic harbor of Cher­bourg. Mopping-up oper­a­tions on near­by Cap de la Hague were com­pleted by July 1, which was also the last day the Germans could conceiv­ably have reversed their sagging fortunes in Normandy.

Battle of Carentan: Residents welcome liberatorsBattle of Carentan: Residents mourn U.S. dead

Left: Both the Allies and the Germans realized the impor­tance of Caren­tan: for Amer­i­cans, Caren­tan was a link between their landing beaches at Utah and Omaha, pos­ses­sion of which would firm up the Allies’ defen­sive line in Nor­mandy. Also, Caren­tan provided a spring­board for fur­ther attacks deeper into German-occupied France. For Germans, holding Caren­tan would, in view of the recent Nor­mandy landings, be the first step toward driving a wedge between the two U.S. inva­sion beaches, a step that would severely dis­rupt and possi­bly even push back the advancing Allied inva­ders. In this photo, taken two days after bitter fighting for pos­ses­sion of Caren­tan, the French Tri­color floats high above the main street. Caren­tan was the first signif­i­cant French town to be liber­ated by the Amer­i­cans. Grate­ful resi­dents wave their hands in wel­come and appre­ci­a­tion as soldiers of the U.S. VII Corps, which landed at Utah Beach, drive past.

Right: Two residents lay flowers on the corpses of Amer­i­can para­troopers. By one esti­mate, the Battle of Caren­tan cost Amer­i­cans at least 400 dead and hun­dreds more wounded and missing. The number of German dead, wounded, and missing is not pre­cisely known. According to various con­tra­dic­tory sources German dead at Caren­tan ranged from 500 to 800. During the last day of com­bat, June 13, 1944, dubbed the Battle of Bloody Gulch, U.S. casual­ties were 32 killed and 73 wounded, while German casual­ties were 43 killed and over twice that wounded. During the 85‑day Battle of Nor­mandy (June 6 to August 30, 1944), the Allies suffered 226,386 casual­ties and the Germans between 288,695 and 530,000. French civil­ian deaths were 25,000 to 39,000 when the pre-­invasion bombing and the invas­ion itself are com­bined. During one 38‑day-stretch the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion suffered 868 killed (about half occurring at Caren­tan), 2,303 wounded, and 665 missing in action.

Excellent Documentary on the 101st Airborne Division’s Attack on Carentan, June 10–13, 1944