Cole’s bayonet charge

U.S. troops approaching Carentan on June 14, 1944, passing dead American and German soldiers (Photo: U.S. Army)
U.S. troops approaching Carentan on June 14, 1944, passing dead American and German soldiers (Photo: U.S. Army)

The days after the Normandy landings showcased some of the finest acts of courage, gallantry and ferocity in World War II. Airborne units that dropped amid much chaos the night before D-Day (Read our earlier article: Jumping into chaos) had to scramble to capture and hold vital locations behind German lines. Hanging onto these locations tooth and nail allowed the forces coming ashore at the five beaches to link up into a single, secure foothold from where the liberation of Europe could begin. This article will detail the heroic and bloody charge of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole, which allowed the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division to capture the town of Carentan, allowing Utah and Omaha Beaches to link up with each other.
The town of Carentan, inhabited by around 4,000 people at the time, lay at a strategically important location. It straddled the Cherbourg-Paris railroad (Read our earlier article: The liberation of Cherbourg), and highways leading to Bayeux, Saint-Lô and the German stronghold of Caen also ran through it. Even more urgently, it was the one location where American forces landing on Utah and Omaha Beaches could link up.

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American troops in Carentan pointing out the town's strategic location (Photo: U.S. military)

Carentan was not exactly a fortress, but it stood in a highly defensible location. A historical agricultural town, the area around it was crisscrossed by rivers and canals bringing water to farmland located in low-lying floodplains. In fact, the defensive value of these waters had already been recognized by Napoleon Bonaparte, who once had the surrounding plains flooded to turn the area into a giant moat for Carentan. In 1944, the Germans did exactly the same thing in the same spot, turning much of the land around the town into an untraversable marsh.
The 101st Airborne Division, still reeling from numerous misjumps and heavy casualties the night before D-Day, was the nearest Allied unit to Carentan, and was thus charged with capturing the town. The attack would pit them against two battalions of their German counterparts, the elite paratroopers of the 6th Parachute Regiment from the 2. Fallschirmjäger Division, who were supplemented by survivors from other units, including Eastern European soldiers who were either conscripted into or volunteered to serve in the German army. (The liberation of Carentan was also depicted in Episode three of the famous Band of Brothers miniseries.)

German paratroopers and SS soldiers near Carentan, sometime around June 10, 1944 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
German paratroopers and SS soldiers near Carentan, sometime around June 10, 1944 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

General Maxwell Taylor, commanding general of the 101st, planned a double envelopment. First, a force from the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) would approach the town from the northwest, and push out the Germans occupying the high ground located there. Once the Germans no longer controlled the high ground, the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment would attack from the east, and take the town.
The main problem was that the area to the northwest of town happened to be flooded, with a single elevated causeway crossing over four bridges and leading to Carentan, surrounded by temporary marshland. Paratroopers' movements would be restricted to the narrow, exposed causeway. Meanwhile, German defenders could make use of local vegetation to hide and attack the causeway with artillery and sniper fire. This was not going to be an easy fight for the 502nd PIR, and they needed just the right leadership to have a chance of success.

June 11, 1944 photo of the causeway. You can see the third and fourth bridges, the Douve and La Madeleine Rivers the causeway crossed, the untraversable flooded area, and the town of Carentan in the distance.
June 11, 1944 photo of the causeway. You can see the third and fourth bridges, the Douve and La Madeleine Rivers the causeway crossed, the untraversable flooded area, and the town of Carentan in the distance. (Photo: U.S. military)

That leadership manifested in Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole. Quickly rising through the ranks during training, Cole jumped the night before D-Day and managed to round up a force of 75 men by the evening of the 6th while capturing one of the exits from Utah beach. By June 10, the first day of the battle for Carentan, Cole had a force of around 400 men at his command. When the 502nd moved out after midnight, in the early hours of the 10th, his 3rd Battalion was at the front.

Lieutenant General Robert Cole (right) with Eisenhower before D-Day (Photo: U.S. military)
Lieutenant General Robert Cole (right) with Eisenhower before D-Day (Photo: U.S. military)

Cole got to the second of the four bridges along the causeway when the attack hit its first snag: the Germans had blown the bridge. An American Engineer Battalion was trying to repair it, but they were pinned down by an 88mm cannon firing from somewhere within Carentan. Unable to progress, Cole sent out a patrol in a boat to reconnoiter the third and fourth bridges while the second one was getting fixed. The patrol got to the fourth bridge and found a second obstacle: a steel-and-concrete barrier called a Belgian Gate blocking the bridge. A Belgian Gate, also known as a Cointet element or C-element, was a 2,800 lbs (1280 kg) metal fence that normally took two horses to move. The men managed to pry an 18 inch gap in the barrier, which allowed one man to pass through at a time. As they were squeezing past, they came under mortar fire from somewhere up ahead, and decided to turn back. Just after they made their report, an order also came in ordering Cole to postpone his attack until the afternoon, when he'd receive some artillery support. Cole used the opportunity to retreat and give his men a few hours of sleep.

A Belgian Gate being pulled into location on one of the Normandy beaches (Photo:
A Belgian Gate being pulled into location on one of the Normandy beaches (Photo:

He went back to the second bridge at around noon and was furious to see that the combat engineers still hadn't done anything to fix it. He rounded up three of his men, gathered up whatever planks and ropes were lying around, and fashioned a makeshift rope bridge that allowed his men to cross very slowly and carefully.
Once Cole's battalion was past the broken bridge, it came under intermittent mortar and 88 mm fire that became stronger once they got close to the fourth bridge, the one with the barrier; there the Germans also opened up on them with machine guns and sniper fire. And, with the metal barrier still blocking the last bridge, this was as far as they could get.
For the rest of the day, Cole and his men could do little other than take whatever punishment the Germans dished out at them. They were trapped in the open, hemmed in by the marshes on both sides. Men tried to find some minimal cover by getting down to the left and right embankments of the causeway and lying on the ground, but even this only offered minimal protection. Digging trenches was impossible, since the embankments were far too hard-packed for that.

At least one of the two attacking planes was identified as a Junkers Ju 87 "Stuka," the type of aircraft depicted on this photo. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
At least one of the two attacking planes was identified as a Junkers Ju 87 "Stuka," the type of aircraft depicted on this photo. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Starting at 4 a.m., the men used the cover of night to quietly get past the metal barrier on the last bridge. Past the bridge, the lead scouts noticed that the road veered to the right, leading toward hedgerows and a cluster of four stone farm buildings belonging to the local Ingouf family. The scout in the very front, one Private Albert Dieter, quickly moved up to the buildings to scope them out for German presence. He was five yards from a nearby hedgerow when thunderous enemy fire opened up on him. His left arm was immediately shredded from shoulder to wrist, while two men standing behind him were killed on the spot. Most likely in shock, Dieter did not throw himself on the ground or try to run. He calmly turned around and walked back to a ditch on the far side of the road, where his commanding officer was waiting. "Captain, I’m hit pretty bad, ain't I?" he asked Captain Cecil Simmons. "You sure are." "Will I make it?" The captain answered honestly: "I'm not sure." Dieter said: "Captain, they've always called me a fuck up in this company. I didn't let you down this time, did I?" "No, you sure didn't," his captain replied. "That’s all I wanted to hear," Dieter said, then walked off to find a medic.

The Ingouf farm (Photo: Unknown photographer)
The Ingouf farm (Photo: Unknown photographer)

Once again, Cole's men were immobilized, pinned down by the Germans occupying the farm buildings and the hedgerows. In desperation, Cole considered a bayonet charge – a possibly suicidal tactic that he put to good use against Germans a few days earlier. Cole had his artillery observer call the nearest battery for support fire, then shouted down a man on the other end of the line when he said he couldn't open fire without his superior's authorization.

American troops in Saint-Côme-du-Mont, where the artillery battery was set up (Photo: U.S. military)
American troops in Saint-Côme-du-Mont, where the artillery battery was set up (Photo: U.S. military)

Half an hour of artillery pounding came crashing down on the farm, but it did little to reduce the rate of German fire. Out of other options, he decided on a charge. He told his executive officer, Major John Stopka, to let the men know they'll be executing a bayonet charge after a round of smoke shells from the artillery.

Modern-day photo of the Ingouf farm (Photo:
Modern-day photo of the Ingouf farm (Photo:

A smoke barrage came in, closed by a few high artillery rounds popped at the Germans hiding in the hedgerows behind the buildings. Cole blew his whistle, got out the ditch, then started for the four buildings. He didn't realize that due to miscommunication, most of his soldiers did not receive news of the plan. Only a few men followed him in the first terrifying seconds. Then the others noticed what was happening and rushed after their commander without waiting for orders.

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Newsreel with footage of Lt. Col. Robert Cole at the Ingouf farm (Video: Youtube)

The furious charge, driven by the pent-up frustration and anger of the previous day of helpless suffering, drove the men across an open area about two football field's length and into the farm. The savage attack killed many Germans and forced the rest to flee the buildings and run into the hedgerows behind them.
Cole's men now held the farmhouses, but the Germans were still in the hedgerows, and there was no let-up in the fighting. More and more paratroopers moved up from behind, joining Cole and his men in the bitter fight for every foot of land, including one quickly designated as the “Cabbage Patch”. Sometimes, American and German soldiers were located on the two sides of the same hedgerow, firing at each other at point blank range through a layer of green vegetation.

Photo of the farm and the hedgerows behind it in (center of picture). Cole's forces approached from the left edge of the image. (Photo: U.S. military)
Photo of the farm and the hedgerows behind it in (center of picture). Cole's forces approached from the left edge of the image. (Photo: U.S. military)

A brief truce was arranged at noon to allow both sides to remove their wounded (and to bring up more ammunition and scout out enemy positions), then the fight resumed. Just as desperate as the Americans and having their backs to the wall, the Germans fought with equal ferocity until the late afternoon, when they launched one final all-out attack to retake the farm buildings. Cole knew he could not hold out against that final charge… at least not without artillery support. He contacted the battery again, asking for a strike on the hedgerows. He was told that the artillerymen were low on ammunition. "Then for God’s sake, get some! Get it! Please get it! We must have some!" he pleaded.
And the artillerymen came through. The Germans were only a hundred yards away from the farm buildings, when trucks rolled into the artillery battery some 1.2 miles (2 km) away from the fighting, bringing ammunition. The artillery struck so close to the farm that several American soldiers were killed, but the German attack was broken for good. Cole's men stayed in control of the area and were relieved the next day. Capturing the high ground northwest of Carentan allowed for the town's liberation to proceed and for Utah and Omaha Beaches to link up.

U.S. paratroopers in Carentan (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
U.S. paratroopers in Carentan (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading his men across the causeway and capturing the farm despite suffering appalling casualties. His citation reads as follows:
“For gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life, above and beyond the call of duty on 11 June 1944, in France. Lt. Col. Cole was personally leading his battalion in forcing the last 4 bridges on the road to Carentan when his entire unit was suddenly pinned to the ground by intense and withering enemy rifle, machinegun, mortar, and artillery fire placed upon them from well-prepared and heavily fortified positions within 150 yards of the foremost elements. After the devastating and unceasing enemy fire had for over 1 hour prevented any move and inflicted numerous casualties, Lt. Col. Cole, observing this almost hopeless situation, courageously issued orders to assault the enemy positions with fixed bayonets. With utter disregard for his own safety and completely ignoring the enemy fire, he rose to his feet in front of his battalion and with drawn pistol shouted to his men to follow him in the assault. Catching up a fallen man's rifle and bayonet, he charged on and led the remnants of his battalion across the bullet-swept open ground and into the enemy position. His heroic and valiant action in so inspiring his men resulted in the complete establishment of our bridgehead across the Douve River. The cool fearlessness, personal bravery, and outstanding leadership displayed by Lieutenant Colonel Cole reflect great credit upon himself and are worthy of the highest praise in the military service.”
On the outskirts of Carentan, a memorial has been erected as a tribute to him where he led the bayonet charge against the German positions.

The Cole’s Bayonet Charge Memorial in Carentan (Photo: Author’s own)
The Cole’s Bayonet Charge Memorial in Carentan (Photo: Author’s own)

He did not live long enough to receive his Medal of Honor. On September 18, 1944, Cole was in the Dutch village of Best, fighting in Operation Market Garden. His unit was asked by Allied pilots in the air to put orange identification panels on the ground to help avoid friendly fire. Cole knew that German snipers were in the nearby woods, so he decided to take the panels and place them out in the open field himself, rather than ask one of his men to risk his life. Just as he raised his head and shielded his eyes to see the plane making the request, he was hit by a German sniper in a farmhouse 300 yards (274 m) away, and died instantly. Today, he is buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial along with more than 8,200 American soldiers. There is also a memorial dedicated to him in the Dutch village of Best close to the place where he was killed.

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Robert G. Cole's grave in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial (Photo: Wikipedia/Wammes Waggel)
Robert G. Cole's grave in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial (Photo: Wikipedia/Wammes Waggel)

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