Dick Winters' first battle

Beaches of Normandy Tours
Dick Winters later in the war, as major. (Photo: U.S. Army)

One of the highlights of D-Day is the slew of combat actions performed by small groups of paratroopers behind German lines. These skirmishes and the securing of numerous locations had a tremendous compound effect: they prevented the Germans from forming a cohesive response to the Allied landings on the Normandy beaches, giving the Allies time to link up and set their feet firmly into European soil. One such small-unit action was the assault on Brécourt Manor, commanded by then-First Lieutenant Dick Winters of the famous Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) of the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division. This article focuses on the assault, which is still considered an excellent example of a smaller force attacking an entrenched enemy.
 
After the chaotic nighttime drops (Read our earlier article – Jumping into chaos), Winters and some of his men finally met up with others from 506th PIR in the morning of the 6th, at the hamlet of Le Grand Chemin, three miles to the southwest of Utah Beach. The command post at the hamlet was aware of a nearby German artillery position to the south. The position had a hedgerow immediately next to it on one side, and an open field on the other, with a manor house called Brécourt Manor overlooking it from the far side of the field. There seems to be some confusion about what artillery guns the American paratroopers were expecting to find there. Some sources claim the Allies believed they were dealing with the iconic German 8.8 cm flak cannon, while others state they were thought to be 10.5 cm light howitzers. Either way, the battery had a phone line to a German observation post at Utah Beach, and was directed to rain fire on one of the exits from the beach, a trail American troops were desperate to use to get further inland.
 
As it happened, the American command post was only some 530 yards (480 m) away from the battery, so they clearly had to be the ones to clear it out. In fact, small groups of airborne had already encountered the battery early in the morning, but were repulsed by the Germans. Winters was given simple orders: "There's fire along that hedgerow there. Take care of it."
 
Understanding the importance of acting on solid information, Winters went out alone at 8:30 a.m. to scout out the target. He found that the battery consisted of 4 guns: neither 8.8 cm flak cannons, nor light howitzers, but 10.5 cm Gebirgshaubitze 40 mountain howitzers (also called "pack howitzers") – the heaviest mountain howitzer in history, which had the same caliber as the aforementioned light howitzers, but used different, non-interchangeable shells.

A Gebirgshaubitze 40, the type of gun present at Brécourt Manor. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
A Gebirgshaubitze 40, the type of gun present at Brécourt Manor. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Winters realized that one of the great strengths of the location was also its weakness. The four guns were connected by a trench, but it was unlike the properly built-up, reinforced trenches of World War I. Instead, the trench was really just a drainage ditch running along the treeline, hastily fortified by logs and sandbags. Its small size, and the cover of the adjacent hedgerow, kept it hidden from Allied air reconnaissance before D-Day.

Overview of the area. Brécourt Manor is to the bottom left of the picture.
Overview of the area. Brécourt Manor is to the bottom left of the picture. (Photo: www.wwiidogtags.com)

While the trench protected the Germans inside it, Winters saw that it could also be used against them. Any attack approaching the position from outside the trenches was exposed to machine gun fire from across the field. Once an attacker got inside the trench, however, he would enjoy protection from that same fire.
 
Winters went back to the command post and assembled 12 men, some from Easy Company and some from other units, for the assault. His training made him certain that the correct way to attack the battery would not be a charge down the middle. Instead, he would have attack from the flank: take one end of the trench, then move down it, destroying the guns one by one.

Modern-day photo of the ditch Winters and his men used to reach the guns.
Modern-day photo of the ditch Winters and his men used to reach the guns. (Photo: www.wwiidogtags.com)

Once near the site, he had four of his men set up two machine guns in a position from where they could suppress the German MG 42 machine gun located at the western end of the trench. He said an addition two men a bit further afield to find a spot from where they could provide additional cover fire, keeping the German machine gun crew suppressed from two different directions. One of these two men, Sergeant Lipton, climbed up a young tree whose thin branches were straining to support his weight. This made him exposed, but also gave him a good view of the MG 42.
 
Once everyone was in position, Winters gave the order to attack. The German machine gun was quickly suppressed, three men threw grenades at it, and charged in. Once the gun was out of action, Winters and his men ran up to the trench and dove in, rapidly taking the first artillery piece and destroying it by sticking C4 down the gun barrel followed by a primed German stick grenade.

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The beginning of the attack, including the suppression of the German MG 42, as depicted in Band of Brothers. (Video: YouTube)

As the force was preparing to move further down the trench toward the second gun, Winters peered ahead and saw the Germans setting up a machine gun pointed right down the trench. Winters shot the men without hesitation, possibly saving the entire assault. A deployed machine gun in the trench would have prevented the airborne from advancing, while getting out of the trench to go around on open ground would have exposed them to German machine gun fire from across the field.

One of the guns at Brécourt Manor
One of the guns at Brécourt Manor (Photo: brooklynwargaming.com)

Once the men cleared the second gun, Winters found a radio room with a map inside which he quickly took. Once the second gun was down, the force moved further down the trench and also destroyed the third.
 
At this point, Lieutenant Ronald Speirs arrived with five more men as reinforcements. Speirs was known as an extremely aggressive commander, and he certainly acted like one. Ignoring machine gun fire from the manor house, he led his men out of the trench and charged the fourth and last gun across open ground, overrunning its defenders.

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Extract from Band of Brothers, depicting the destruction of guns and Speirs' charge. (Video: YouTube)

Winters knew that he didn't have nearly enough men to attack the manor house, so he retreated after destroying all the guns. Once back at the command post, he gave the map he found to First Lieutenant Lewis Nixon, Winters' close friend and the regiment's intelligence officer. The map showed all German artillery positions on the entire Cotentin Peninsula. Nixon realized that the find was worth more than its weight in gold. He ran three miles (5 km) down to Utah Beach to pass on the map. The commanders on the beach were so impressed with the find that they sent the first two Sherman tanks to come ashore straight up to Le Grand Chemin. Once the tanks arrived, their firepower allowed the airborne to capture the manor house.

One side of Brécourt Manor, with the trail the two Shermans approached from. (Photo: mapio.net)
One side of Brécourt Manor, with the trail the two Shermans approached from. (Photo: mapio.net)

During the fighting for the manor, a paratrooper mistook a local young French boy for a German soldier and shot him. The boy, named Michel de Valavielle, fortunately survived and was transported to Britain for treatment. He became the first French civilian to be evacuated from France during Operation Overlord. Later in life, he became friends with many 101st paratroopers, was elected the mayor of the nearby village of Sainte-Maire-du-Mont, and founded the Utah Beach Museum in 1962 (Read our earlier article – The Utah Beach Museum). De Valavielle devoted much of his life to preserving the memory of the Allied liberation of Normandy, and the museum was a way to express his gratitude. His son, Charles de Vallavieille, is currently the mayor of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.

Michel de Vallavieille, the founder of the Utah Beach Museum in 1962 (Photo: Utah Beach Museum, Facebook)
Michel de Vallavieille, the founder of the Utah Beach Museum in 1962 (Photo: Utah Beach Museum, Facebook)

Winters' assault on the battery was small in scope, but it was a shining success of effective small-unit tactics. With 24 men (including reinforcements), Winters defeated approximately 60 Germans in a defensive position, killing about 20 and taking 12 prisoners, at the cost of 4 dead and 2 wounded American soldiers. Winters was considered for the Medal of Honor, but never received it. Policy at the time only allowed one medal to be awarded per division, and by the time Winters' name was submitted for consideration, the medal was already in the process of being awarded to another man from the division. That man was Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole, who famously led his men down an exposed causeway and dislodged Germans from a farm with a bayonet charge. (Read our earlier article - Cole's bayonet charge) Winters was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross instead.

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Extract from an interview Rep. John Payne made with Winters. Winters is talking about the assault. (Video: YouTube)

The acclaimed HBO miniseries Band of Brothers does a very decent job at depicting the assault, and includes numerous historically correct details. It does, however, skip Winters' initial reconnaissance, and also gives a false impression of just how long it took to take out the gun. Watching the series, one might get the impression that the assault was over in maybe 10 to 15 minutes. In actual fact, the battle took two to three hours, and included at least one occasion of people being sent back to the command post to fetch ammunition.
 
Join us on our respective tours that travel through Normandy to visit the site of the assault and the memorial erected in honor of the fallen paratroopers and the surviving veterans.

One of our groups visiting the memorial dedicated to the assault just outside the grounds of Brécourt Manor (Photo: Author's own)
One of our groups visiting the memorial dedicated to the assault just outside the grounds of Brécourt Manor (Photo: Author's own)

Save 10% now either way...

Beaches of Normandy Tours
One of our groups with a tour bus (Photo: Author's own)

Please remember that our 2022 list prices are 10% lower than in 2023, so if you book your tour for this year, you can still enjoy the hotel and bus transportation services we purchased before inflation came. If you are planning to travel in 2023 or 2024 for the 80th anniversary of D-Day, but still want to save 10% from our list price, book now by paying the registration fee and the tour price together. 

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"This tour was so moving, I was brought to tears"Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
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