"It took airborne soldiers to do this"

Colonel Harry Lewis studying a map near La Fière. (Photo: U.S. Army)
Colonel Harry Lewis studying a map near La Fière. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The fight for the La Fière causeway was one of many displays of heroism and sheer grit by Allied forces landing in Normandy on D-Day, and one of the battles that deserve greater recognition. In order to open up passage further into the Cotentin Peninsula, American airborne troops had to capture and hold an exposed causeway in the middle of flooded lowlands. The battle lasted several days, earned a private a posthumous Medal of Honor, and involved not one but two generals putting their own lives on the line in the decisive moment. In light of the heavy casualties, military historian S.L.A. Marshall called it “probably the bloodiest small unit struggle in the experience of American arms."
 
Jumping on the night of D-Day, the 82nd “All American” Airborne Division had the mission of capturing the town of Sainte-Mère-Église to the west of Utah Beach. Holding the town, however, would have meant little without also holding the roads leading into and out of the town: these roads led further northwest into the Cotentin Peninsula, and to the deep-sea port of Cherbourg – one of the most important locations the Allies had to capture in order to secure a foothold in German-occupied France (Read our earlier article – The liberation of Cherbourg). The Merderet River, located to the west of Sainte-Mère-Église, was a natural barrier. The river itself was rather small, but the Germans flooded the farmlands around it, creating a marsh 1,000 yards (app. 900 m) wide at its narrowest. Bridges and causeways leading across this artificial marsh and suitable for the movement of entire divisions were few, precious and defended by the Germans. One such route went over a small stone bridge at the La Fière manor, some two miles (three kms) to the west of Sainte-Mère-Église. The manor, a collection of stone houses, stood at the eastern bridgehead; to the west, the bridge led onto an elevated and exposed causeway which led to the small hamlet of Cauguigny some two-thirds of a mile away.

Aerial view of the area looking west. La Fière manor is at the bottom center, the causeway leading away from it. During the invasion, the large fields to the left and right of the road were flooded with water. Cauguigny is visible beyond the causeway, slightly to the right of center of picture. (Photo: U.S. military)
Aerial view of the area looking west. La Fière manor is at the bottom center, the causeway leading away from it. During the invasion, the large fields to the left and right of the road were flooded with water. Cauguigny is visible beyond the causeway, slightly to the right of center of picture. (Photo: U.S. military)

Securing the bridge and the causeway fell to the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR). The regiment's 1st Battalion was one of the few units that jumped on time and landed in its designated drop zone on the night before D-Day (Read our earlier article: Jumping into chaos), and was thus located between the bridge and Sainte-Mère-Église to the east.

Aerial view of the area looking east. La Fière manor is in the bottom left, the outskirts of Sainte-Mère-Église can be seen near the top. Note the typical bocage terrain: fields separated by tall, thick hedgerows. (Photo: U.S. military)
Aerial view of the area looking east. La Fière manor is in the bottom left, the outskirts of Sainte-Mère-Église can be seen near the top. Note the typical bocage terrain: fields separated by tall, thick hedgerows. (Photo: U.S. military)

An hour before the dawn of June 6, First Lieutenant John Nolan, nicknamed "Red Dog" for his hair color and canine tenacity, led his men toward the bridge and the manor standing next to it. Visibility was low due to the darkness, the stone walls separating fields and the thick, tall bocage hedgerows which dominate the Normandy landscape. Nolan ordered one of his subordinate officers, Lieutenant Dolan Coxon, to send scouts forward. Coxon was reluctant to send his men into harm's way while he stayed behind, so he decided to accompany the scouting party. A few moments after they moved out, German machine gun fire barked up from a hidden foxhole, killing Coxon and another man. Two platoons tried to flank the foxhole in an attempt to flush out the Germans, but the ensuing firefight ended up pinning the Americans themselves. After about an hour, the Germans quietly withdrew without losses, allowing Nolan's force to move on to the La Fière manor.

(Photo: War Department Historical Division)
A map of the area, with the manor, the causeway and Cauguigny in the center, showing troop locations after the battle on June 9 (read on for details). (Photo: War Department Historical Division)

Unknown to Nolan and his men, they were not alone. Many of the airborne who misjumped during the night found themselves on the flooded plains. With most of their radios lost in the water, they decided to head toward the single visible landmark: the causeway. They started to arrive piecemeal in the early hours of the morning, providing Nolan with unexpected but welcome reinforcements. Nolan knew that the Germans would occupy the manor, since it was a defensible location, and drew up a plan: he split his force in two and had one part go around in the water, so that the buildings could be attacked from the north and south simultaneously. Some units had to wade across neck-deep water while German shots were ricocheting off the water around them, but the men took up their positions. Unfortunately, the runner who was supposed to give the order for the flanking force to attack got lost, and thus coordination between the two forces was broken.

The La Fière manor and the bridge today. (Photo: Anabase4/Wikipedia)

At 9 a.m., General James Gavin, the "jumping general" and assistant division commander of the 82nd Airborne (Read our earlier article: James M. Gavin, the "Jumping General"), showed up from the northwest with 300 men. After being briefed on the situation, he decided it was in good hands and he moved on south to capture another crossing across the floodplains further south.
 
Despite a lack of proper coordination between units, the paratroopers eventually reached the manor and engaged the roughly dozen Germans inside directly, suppressing them in 10 minutes of fierce fighting. Some of the Germans hanged out a white sheet from a window, signaling surrender. One paratrooper went forward to accept the surrender. The next moment, he was killed by a shot from inside. This was not treachery, but a tragic misunderstanding: one German was standing in another window and was not aware that his comrades had just surrendered, and thus believed the man to be a fair target. The shooting led to another round of furious fighting, which ended with the Germans surrendering for good.

Aerial photo of the manor (note the battle damage on one of the buildings) and the bridge. (Photo: U.S. military)
Aerial photo of the manor (note the battle damage on one of the buildings) and the bridge. (Photo: U.S. military)

The manor was now in American hands, but the causeway and its west end were still contested by the Germans. At 1:35 p.m., two men were sent out to scout the bridge. German soldiers hiding on the far side tried to ambush them, but one of the Americans, Private James Mattingly, shot the first man, then wounded and captured the rest, later receiving the Silver Star for what one officer called "the best piece of individual soldiering I have ever seen."

American soldiers (and a dead German) near La Fière. (Photo: U.S. Army)
American soldiers (and a dead German) near La Fière. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The bridge and the causeway were clear, at least for the time being, so a nine-man force was sent over to the west end to take up positions in the half-dozen buildings of Cauguigny on the far side. A truck was pulled in front of the bridge to prevent passage by German vehicles, mines were laid down, and three anti-tank guns brought in by gliders were set up to receive the inevitable counterattack.

A dug-in American soldier with his bazooka near La Fière. (Photo: U.S. Army)
A dug-in American soldier with his bazooka near La Fière. (Photo: U.S. Army)

That counterattack came at 4 pm. Three German-driven French light tanks, used by a local training regiment, appeared with infantry in tow from the west. They overran the forward force in Cauguigny and headed for the causeway. About a dozen captured U.S. airborne troopers were driven in front of the tanks as human shields, forced to pick up mines and throw them into the water. Once the Germans were 40-50 yards from the defenders, American bazooka teams (Read our earlier article – The Bazooka) and anti-tank guns opened up while the captured airborne dove for safety. The three tanks were destroyed, but their wreckage provided the Germans with cover, from where they poured automatic weapons fire into the defenders, causing heavy casualties before retreating to the west end of the causeway. One of the tanks was destroyed by Private Joseph Cyril Fitt, who ran out onto the bridge into the enemy fire, climbed one of the tanks and threw a grenade inside. Fitt was killed by a German sniper a week later.

Private Joseph Fitt (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Americans were low on ammunition and fight-capable men, but they held a strong defensive position and knew that reinforcements would arrive in time; they decided to dig in at the east end of the causeway, while the Germans set about doing the same in the west.

American soldiers posing with one of the three destroyed tanks on the causeway. (Photo: U.S. Army)
American soldiers posing with one of the three destroyed tanks on the causeway. (Photo: U.S. Army)

With the fight for Sainte-Mère-Église still going on, both sides started building up their numbers at the contested bridge. Several American elements actually managed to establish small footholds on the west shore of the marsh, but they could not move forward. Pressed hard, one such unit was forced to retreat at around dawn on June 9. When the men found themselves in an untenable situation, one of them, Private Charles deGlopper, volunteered to distract the enemy and enable his comrade to retreat. Stepping out into the open road, deGlopper started firing his Browning Automatic Rifle (Read our earlier article: The Browning Automatic Rifle) at German positions with abandon. He was hit multiple times, but was still shooting his gun while on his knee until he was finally killed. His sacrifice bought time for the men in his unit to retreat to the east. DeGlopper's action earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor.

Private Charles deGlopper. (Photo: U.S. Army)

By June 9, the situation evolved to a point where a resolution had to be forced. Sainte-Mère–Église had been liberated, troops were coming in from Utah Beach, and they needed to move forward. An artillery battery, twelve Shermans (Read our earlier article: The M4 Sherman) and fresh troops were assigned to the decisive push down the causeway. General Matthew Ridgway, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne and General Gavin were both present at the manor. The charge was to be performed by the 2nd Battalion of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment.

The destroyed enemy tanks on the causeway. (Photo: U.S. Army)
The destroyed enemy tanks on the causeway. (Photo: U.S. Army)

At 10:30 a.m., an artillery barrage was fired at the western, German-held end of the causeway to suppress defenses. This was to be followed by an immediate charge by Captain John Sauls of G Company, taking advantage of the shock caused by the artillery among German troops. Sauls, however was given wrong information. He was told that he should wait for smoke rounds to hit the causeway, and then charge. However, there were no smoke rounds, and Sauls' men lost precious moments before rushing forward, giving the Germans time to come to their senses.
 
Sauls and his 30-man platoon charged across the bridge and down the causeway amid heavy enemy fire… and were the only ones to do so. The second platoon was supposed to follow on their heels, but was pinned down by machine gun fire as soon as they got out of cover. Sauls men proceeded with the charge, not realizing that nobody was following them. They disappeared after a slight bend in the road, and were believed to have been all killed.

A photo of the manor from before the battle… (Photo: Unknown photographer)
A photo of the manor from before the battle… (Photo: Unknown photographer)

Officers were desperate to get the charge going. General Gavin personally stepped up on the bridge to wave and push the men forward, while Ridgway started to tie a cable to the truck still blocking the bridge, so it could be pulled aside and allow the Shermans to advance. The sight of their two highest-ranking commanders exposing themselves to enemy fire gave some of the men the courage to step out onto the deadly causeway, while much pushing and shoving got others to join the charge as it started picking up steam.

…and a photo from a similar angle made afterward, showing damage from German artillery. (Photo: Unknown photographer)
…and a photo from a similar angle made afterward, showing damage from German artillery. (Photo: Unknown photographer)

 With the truck pulled aside, Ridgeway waved to the first Sherman to cross the bridge. The tank rolled forward and promptly ran onto one of the mines placed by the paratroopers on D-Day. It lost its track, and caused a greater obstruction than the truck ever did, forcing men to push past it one at a time.
Nevertheless, the attack was successful. By around 11:15 a.m., American forces were fighting in Cauguigny, where the German command post was, realizing that Captain Sauls was still alive with 12 of his men after cutting through the German defenses and turning around to outflank them all on their own.

The bridge over the Merderet River and the causeway leading to the west today. (Photo: Author’s own)
The bridge over the Merderet River and the causeway leading to the west today. (Photo: Author’s own)

Moving across the causeway and dislodging the Germans to its west finally allowed forces from Utah Beach to move further into the Cotentin Peninsula. General Gavin visited the battle site in the 1980s, and recalled the aftermath: "When I came to this point […], I had no idea as to how hard this fight was. I looked back down the causeway. It was covered from the church to as far as I could see with bodies. I could have walked back to the bridge and never stepped on pavement. I just had no idea as to the strength of the position. It took airborne soldiers to do this."

Generals Matthew Ridgway and James Gavin (Photo: U.S. Army)
Generals Matthew Ridgway and James Gavin (Photo: U.S. Army)

The La Fière manor and the bridge still stand today. The statue of a paratrooper named Iron Mike (after St. Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers) stands on a nearby field overlooking the bridge and the manor as a memorial to the courage and sacrifice of the men who captured this vital location. Despite the memorial, erected in 1997, the battle receives relatively little recognition to this day. Captain Sauls, in particular, was given far less credit for his lonely charge than he deserves: he was decorated with a Silver Star, while the officer eventually following him with another platoon received a higher medal. Captain Dale Dye, military adviser and actor of the movie Saving Private Ryan and the Band of Brothers miniseries, planned to write and direct a movie called No Better Place to Die about the battle. The film was supposed to be based on Colonel Bob Murphy’s book of the same title. Murphy, a paratrooper of the 82nd himself, was a pathfinder on D-Day marking the drop zones for incoming paratroopers. He passed away in 2008. Unfortunately, filming has been put on hold for several reasons and we need to wait a while longer until we see this story in the movies.

The Iron Mike paratrooper memorial (Photo: Author’s own)
The Iron Mike paratrooper memorial (Photo: Author’s own)

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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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