BATTLE OF SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE
BATTLE OF SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE

THE NORMAN HEARTLANDS: SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE

On June 18, 1940, Franz Halder, Chief of the General Staff of the German Army High Command included a new passage into his years-to-come famous war diary regarding the cut-down of the number of Wehrmacht divisions from 165 to 120 and redistribution of the forces across the continent upon the earlier of complete triumph in the West. The day before, an 84-year-old Marshal Philippe Petain, the man of merely unlimited credit of trust among the French, delivered a radio broadcasting speech to the nation from his headquarters in Bordeaux. The combat veteran and the commanding officer from the times of the Great War, the elderly Marshal regarded the resistance to be void of reason and announced his late appeal to the Germans to conclude an armistice. In the late hours of June 18, another French officer, largely unknown at that time in the country and among the allies, delivered his speech from the BBC office in London. By reading from his scratch of paper, Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle of 49 years declared that the French people may be devastated today, yet the nation will triumph once more in the future. This short five-minute-long speech of depressed tone and without expression of a leader would become famous only years from that day as a retrospective of De Gaulle’s contribution. 

On that very day of June 18, 1940, when the high-ranking officers and politicians were making entries into their war diaries and were declaring speeches, and Adolf Hitler was to welcome Benito Mussolini and Count Galeazzo Ciano within the railway station of Munich, the peasants of the unremarkable French town of Sainte-Mère-Église witnessed the first German soldiers on their streets. As befits the conquerors, which the Germans considered themselves, they entered Sainte-Mère-Église mounted on horses. The officers were followed by the Wehrmacht soldiers on their pompous march, the one who had been lucky enough not to be killed or wounded during the French campaign and fighting through the Cotentin peninsula towards the English Channel. The townspeople would later recall the intruders, who were cheerfully singing “Wir fahren gegen Engeland” (We sail to take on England). The words of the song had been written as far back as the enthusiastic months of 1914 and now made a new sense. The German army was now in a position to devastate the French and English armies forcing them to retreat to the sea. It stands to mention, that despite the grotesque perspectives to invade England after 1940, the occupational forces in France would distribute the ‘Gegen Engeland’ newspaper toward the very June 1944. 

Photo sainte mere eglise 1944
The German garrison in Sainte-Mère-Église during the occupation, standing on the southeast side of the church

In June 1940 the common soldiers regarded themselves as triumphers already. Even if they were not to cross the English Channel to conquer England, the role of the masters in Norman heartlands seems a pleasant perspective. On the very first day of the occupation of the town, the Germans raised the Nazi banner over the local town hall. The local historically peasant population of Sainte-Mère-Église with its old agricultural traditions was now to face the changes. Setting the clock one hour ahead under Berlin time was, indeed, the least inconvenience in virtue of the landlord-like appetites of the invaders. The locals were now issued with ration cards, which had been implemented not so much to underwrite the specific rations for the French, as emphasizing the foods, which were now to be supplied to the German army. Throughout the centuries, the Norman cows, well-known for their breeding power, had been grazing within the spacious green fields of Cotentin. The Northern part of Sainte-Mère-Église was well-acknowledged for the Beauvais farm, which would be later (after the War) turned into ‘Ferme-musée du Cotentin’ (Cotentin Farm Museum) with an authentic interior and inventory. From June 1940 the cows were now assigned to supply the ‘master race’ with cream, milk, cheese, and butter. 

Rue Cap de Laine Saintre-Mere-Eglise before the war
Rue Cap de Laine, the main street in the town depicted before the WWII
sainte mere eglise tour de france
The Western part of the town’s square Lengthwise Rue Cap de Laine. The Church is to the right beyond the perspective
sainte mere eglise france today
The same crossroad as from the photo above. The square space is to the right and Rue Cap de Laine is ahead toward the North outskirts

The local market, next to the ancient church, with its paired Gothic windows, as it is easy to guess, used to summon the farmers and peasants from all over the area. In the course of the very first weeks of occupation, the locals could now witness the caution signboards across the streets of Sainte-Mère-Église and other towns and villages close to the sea aimed to threaten the French people with death for those, who would try to cross the English channel on boats apart from the common fishing activity. Despite such a dogmatic attitude toward the locals, the French officials of Sainte-Mère-Église succeed in interfering with the German plans of setting the artillery positions inside the town’s buildings, which would save the houses in Sainte-Mère-Église in 1944 from total destruction. 

Streets of sainte mere eglise normandie
The crossroad of Rue 505E Airborne (named after the 505th regiment) and Rue General Gavin (named after James M. Gavin)

For the first time in centuries since the ‘Hundred Years War’, the townspeople of Sainte-Mère-Église did not feel themselves the masters of their soil, which had been used by the ancestors to graze cows and to breed horses. In actual fact, the history of the modern settlement in the area originates from not even the XI century, but as far back as the turn of the Common era and the tines of the Roman empire. The German garrison, who invaded the town in 1940, could see the ancient Roman column with the milestone on it. The historical remnant of presumably the ancient Roman system of roads in Cotentin Peninsula, which used to connect the areas where Cherbourg, Sainte-Mère-Église, Carentan, and Bayeux would later make its place into history. There is a historically based educated guess, that back in XI century William the Conqueror led his armies toward the sea to invade England through the ancient Roman roads. Sainte-Mère-Église is a part of the region, which in French is called ‘La Plaine’ which can be translated as ‘plain’ or ‘flatland’. In the East and North, it borders the English Channel, naturally cut by the Merderet River in the West and Carentan in the South. 

The church of Sainte Mere Eglise before the World War Two
The old postcard depicts the icon-like church of Sainte-Mere Eglise. The ancient Roman column is in the foreground of the photo
Normandin cows at Sainte-Mere-Eglise today
The well-known Normandin cows are next to the Hospice building and the Northern edge of the town. They looked surprised to see mee

In contrast to the past as part of the Roman empire, the French historiography takes the count of the existence of Sainte-Mère-Église since the XI century. The very first documented references, dated around 1080, included ‘Sancte Marie Ecclesia’ in Latin, which may be translated as ‘L’église Sainte-Marie’ into French and the ‘Church of St. Mary’ in English. Therefore, the town is indebted to the church for its name, the one laid in the XI century and finished three centuries later. As early as the XIV century, Sainte-Mère-Église suffered from the devastating military campaigns of the Hundred Years War, particularly when the Englishmen had damaged the church badly, which would demand decades to be restored. Another period of unease and conflicts emerged in the XVII century with the population of Sainte-Mère-Église finding themselves on different sides of the religious wars between the Catholics and protestants. As early as 1840 the famous church was enlisted to the monuments of the historical importance of France. In the course of the next one hundred years (since 1840) the population decreased from 1740 to 1160 in 1936, mostly due to the urbanization and migration of the peasants to the cities. 

l'église Notre-Dame Sainte-mere-Eglise
Another pre-war picture of an ancient Roman column and the well-recognized l’église Notre-Dame
Church at Sainte-Mere-Eglise today
I have taken this photo looking in the Eastern direction in July 2019

The interrior of the Sainte-Mere-Eglise l'église Notre-Dame

On the threshold of World War Two, everyday life in Sainte-Mère-Église used to go on in much the same way as centuries before. The family celebrations such as weddings were the most intriguing events, conventionally attended by all neighbors and the town’s seniors. The annual national festivals, such as Bastille Day and the ones devoted to the harvest season, were another rare breaker of the routine. Since the XI century, the town square with the church used to be the heart of the locality. In the shadow of the trees, the locals used to take advantage of the shops with medicine, press, food, and cloth. People here were historically taught to wake up early in the morning, before the sunrise, to have their substantial nutrient-dense breakfast, and then to spend the day in hard work in the field or within the farm toward the usual evening encounters with the family with cheese and wine. The most ‘eventful’ occasion in the week was the market day, here next to the old church. The market of Sainte-Mère-Église was known and appraised across the region for its animal farming, a place to buy, sell or barter cows and horses. The market would be restored after the occupation as early as 1973. 

The cattle market in Sainte-Mere-Eglise
One of the rare pre-war photos of the famous cattle market once located within the town’s main square
cattle market with the l'église Notre-Dame
Another photo of the cattle market with the l’église Notre-Dame, particularly its Eastern side in the background
Market day at Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The market day had always been regarded at Sainte-Mere-Eglise with merchants and farmers from all over the area

Throughout the four years of occupation between June 1940 and 1944, the life of the German soldiers in the area of Sainte-Mère-Église, as well as in France in general, was a safe haven in contrast to the horrors in the East (the war on annihilation in the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union) and the fierce battles in North Africa. Whilst the building of the so-called ‘Atlantic wall’ had been initiated back in 1942, the Germans experienced the actual changes in February 1944. Alexandre Renaud, the newly appointed mayor of Sainte-Mère-Église (his predecessor since 1937 was Louis Leroux), pharmacist and the combat veteran of the Great War in the past, would later recall the inevitable reverses since spring. Now the townspeople of Sainte-Mère-Église could witness the long columns of people and equipment. In one direction there were the French civilians, who had been forced to leave the area next to the sea, and the German soldiers in the opposite direction, assigned to defend Hitler’s fortress in Western Europe. 

Sainte-Mere-Eglise main square
The Western part of the main square in the direction to the South. This time, the church is to the left beyond the frame
The crossroad of Rue de Verdun and Rue General de Gaule
Another rare pre-war postcard of the town. The exact location is the present crossroad of Rue de Verdun and Rue General de Gaule (former Rue Cap de Laine)
Memorial to Alexandre Renaud in Sainte-Mere-Eglise
A memorial to Alexandre Renaud in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. The church is in the background and the Monument to liberators is to the left

It may sound strange in retrospect, yet back in Spring 1944 the majority of the locals, apart from the members of the French resistance, paid little regard to the possibility of the Allied invasion and treated the German maneuvers skeptically. As early as April 1944 the Germans proclaimed the harsh punishment for those who dared to listen to the BBC broadcasting from England. Another stage of the preparations toward the possible invasion, was the setting of so-called Rommelspargeln (Rommel’s asparagus), anti-glider obstacles along the coastal area. The German soldiers in Normandy accepted the new order without enthusiasm, yet the commanding officer in the area daily demanded the mayor Sainte-Mère-Église (Alexandre Renaud) of around forty French men to be assigned to the hard work. These logs of wood of three meters high were now raised around the town and looked like giant candles and the cows, unfortunately, used to hurt themselves by touching the barbed wire. 

The total number of the German troops in the nearest proximity to Sainte-Mère-Église numbered from 300 to 400 men and included the infantry, the reconnaissance units, and around fifty men with half-track motorcycles. The common soldier used to have little contact with the locals (the post-war testimony of Rudolph May, one of the Germans) apart from bartering products, particularly cheese milk, and alcohol. In that very spring of 1944, the German high command in the region assigned a ‘Flak-Abteilung’, a unit of anti-aircraft gunners, a part of the ‘30th Flak-Regiment’ to be stationed in the town. The 30th was formed as far back as August 1939 prior to the invasion to Poland, participated in the French campaign, and since 1940 was stationed in the region of Cherbourg within the Cotentin peninsula. It was now a part of the 13th Flak division. The soldiers of the anti-aircraft units accommodated the premises of the school in Sainte-Mère-Église. The majority of them were of Austrian origins and their commander of 58 years, was said to be a music critic in Vienna before the War. He was not very enthusiastic about Nazism, or fighting war and spent his time in Sainte-Mère-Église listening to music and drinking local wine. The flak unit had a direct telephone line of connection with their headquarters in Cherbourg, which had been installed in one of the buildings facing the town’s main square. 

A group of the German soldiers on the front steps of the Sainte-Mère-Église Hôtel de Ville
A group of the German soldiers from the Luftwaffe flak unit on the front steps of the Sainte-Mère-Église Hôtel de Ville
German soldiers in front of a furniture shop on the Rue Géneral Kœnig in Sainte-Mère-Église
German soldiers in front of a furniture shop on the Rue Géneral Kœnig in Sainte-Mère-Église. The shop once faced the main square and the church

 

WE SHOULD TAKE SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE: THE PLANNING

Toward the threshold of 1944, when General Eisenhower was appointed the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, the Allied high command had been already alive to the importance of the matter of seizing and holding the Cotentin Peninsula regardless of the exact scenario of the invasion to Northern France. There were two dominating terrestrial factors within the peninsula: two rivers, Douve and Merderet respectively, which had historically divided the region into a few separate pieces of land. In contrast to the hilled ‘OMAHA’ sector, the ‘UTAH’ beach had no high cliffs or natural earth platforms, which may be regarded as paramount factors. In the first months of 1944, both the townspeople of Sainte-Mère-Église and the German forces in the area were unable to pay full regard to the importance, which the masterminds behind the Allied invasion had paid to the locality in the heart of the Cotentin peninsula. As a matter of fact, the town was now to become one of the principal objectives of the D-day in the American sector. Whilst in a wider sense, the primary objective of the US forces in the area was the capture and holding the right flank of the invasion area next to the British on the left, the success of the landing in Cotentin and Utah beach particularly depended on a lot on the success of the U.S. paratroopers. Two airborne divisions, Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s 82nd and Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s 101st were assigned with an enormous task of cutting the peninsula from the continent far behind the enemy lines. 

The aerial view of SAinte-Mere-Egluse in 1944
The aerial view of Sainte-Mere-Eglise from North to South. The hospice building is to the left in the center. The church could be identified in the far background
Modern map of Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The informational board with the map next to the bus stop, which connects the town with Carentan. My own walking originated from this site

THE 82ND AIRBORNE DIVISION. Without waxing too poetic and quite literally, the utmost importance of the whole invasion was placed, among other army units, on the shoulders of this US Airborne division. Its commander, Major General Matthew B. Ridgway, was one of the first-hand authors of the whole operation ‘Neptune’ and was one among the few believers in assigning superior troops to the objectives assigned. In a more comprehensive military sense, the men of the 82nd Airborne Division were to complete an indeed demanding mission: to assure the back area defense of the whole ‘Utah’ sector of invasion from the West. Putting it bluntly, the 82nd was to act as a human shield in the way of the German counter-attacks. Initially, Ridgway’s men were to land Westerly (near St-Sauveur-le-Vicomte) 25 to 30 kilometers to the West of the Utah beach to prevent German movements in the Western part of the Cotentin peninsula. In may 1944 the Germans moved their ‘91. Luftlande-Infanterie-Division’ (the 91st Infantry Division) to the Eastern part of the peninsula. In contrast to its air landing nature as the Luftwaffe unit, the 91st Division was purely infantry, yet its allocation demanded the Allied command to make changes to the initial plan, weeks prior to the invasion. Wilhelm Falley, the commanding officer of the 91st would be killed near Picauville on D-day, 6 km South-East from Sainte-Mere-Eglise. He would become the first German general to perish in Normandy. 

As the initial plan was altered, the 82nd Airborne Division was now to be dropped further East, 10 to 15 kilometers from the Utah area, on both sides of the River Merderet. The new-made proximity to the 101st Airborne Division increased the chances to secure the West flank of the U.S. landings. It is worth mentioning, that the airborne forces of the 82nd would leave the ground of England merely ten minutes after their comrades from the 101st just. Speaking in terrestrial terms, the Merderet river was the dividing line, which in one way or another determined different dropping zones. The ‘T’ and ‘N’ drop zones of the 507th and 508th parachute regiments retrospectively were placed to the West of the river, whilst the 505th men were to land within the ‘O’ drop zone to the East. The latter regiment was reinforced with the soldiers of the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion (previously fought in Italy and later in Rhineland and during the Battle of the Bulge) and the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion (backed the 82nd since the landing in Sicily in July 1943). Divisional Commander, Major-General Ridgeway was to land with the boys of the 505th as well. In total, the Allied command designated as many as 4000 glider-men and more than 6000 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne division to fulfill their missions in the invasion. 

Douglas C-47 Skytrain
Douglas C-47 Skytrain

The 82nd Airborne Division was finally assigned with five primary objectives on D-Day: 

  1. Sainte-Mère-Église, its seizure, and holding became one of the key objectives of all American forces during D-Day. Since the times of the ancient systems of roads in the Roman Empire, this area, now dominated by a town of 1200 inhabitants, has preserved its crucial location in the intersection of the main transport arteries within the peninsula. The town was cut across by Route 13 (the after-war N13 bypassed the center of the town), the main road between Cherbourg in the North of Cotentin to the South in the direction of Paris. Apart from the network of the pre-war French roads, Sainte-Mère-Église was now an essential element of the German landline cable system of communication, which had been facilitated along the French coast. In fact, in the town, the local anti-aircraft regiment had a direct line with its headquarters in Cherbourg through this line, the capture of which by the Allied forces was a military advantage, which has been since (after the war) conventionally underestimated in sources regarding the D-Day. 
  2. The second primary objective of the 82nd Division, particularly of the 505th parachute regiment, was to secure the area to the North of Sainte-Mère-Église, in the area between another two small towns: Neuville-au-Plain and Beuzeville-au-Plain. The movement in the Northern direction was important regarding linking with the forces of the neighboring 101st Airborne Division. 
  3. The third key mission assigned to the men of the 82nd and it is generally considered as the most important, was to seize and control two bridges over River Merderet: near Chef-du-Pont and La Piere retrospectively. In this particular objective, the 505th parachute regiment was backed by the men of the 507th, which was to land Westwards. 
  4. Apart from backing the operation around River Merderet, the 507th parachute regiment was to seize Gourbesville next to its dropping zone and then secure the vast area to the South in the direction of la-CroixRenouf in 5 kilometers. 
  5. Another parachute regiment, 508th was tasked to take and destroy the bridges over River Douve further to the South in Pont-l’Abbé and Beuzeville-la-Bastille, thus cutting the possible German counter-attack from this direction. After the accomplishment of this task, the soldiers of the 508th were to connect with the neighboring unit of 507th further to the North. 

THE 101ST AIRBORNE DIVISION. Globally speaking, the mission of this elite American division was no less ambitious than the one of 82nd, particularly the landing to the West of the ‘Utah’ beach sector and backing the main landing from the sea. The capture of Carentan was to eliminate the disastrous danger of the German counter-attacks from the South direction. Even though all men of the 101st were volunteers, made through the rigorous training course, and were highly motivated to perform their duty, they were not hardened in the War yet and the invasion to Normandy was to become the 101st’ baptism under fire. The 101st was created as far back as November 1918 day before the ceasefire and the armistice in Europe and had no chance to participate in World War One on a full scale. It was restored as the Airborne Division in August 1942, at that time under the command of Major General William C.Lee. After spending that first year in training at home in the United States, as early as the second half of 1943 the Division set out to England in anticipation of the ‘second front’. In February its commander passed away due to a heart attack and the command was assigned to Brigadier-General Maxwell D.Taylor as early as March 14, 1944, less than three months prior to the landing in France. The main airborne forces of the 101st were to land within Cotentin one hour into a new day of June 6, approximately thirty minutes after the drop of the pathfinders, the foregoers of the invasion. 

An american paratrooper from the 506th regiment, 101st Division climbs aboard Dakota C-47
The well-known photo of D-Day. An American paratrooper from the 506th regiment, 101st Division climbs aboard Dakota C-47

Similar to the 82nd, the 101st Airborne Division had its own primary objectives on D-Day, generally counted to six. The first and the most crucial mission was to assure the safeguard of the four main ‘exits’ from the Utah beach for the main forces. The second objective, assigned to the 502nd parachute regiment was the elimination of the German coastal battery, armed with 122mm K390/2 guns, the trophies from the Eastern front, and its barracks next to St-Martin-de Varreville village, 3 kilometers inland. The seizure of the town of Foucarville and prevention of the possible German counter-attacks in the direction of Utah beach from the North, as well as connecting to the units of the 82nd Airborne Division was all to form the third key task of the 101st. The next (4th) objective was to successfully land within the assigned ‘D’ drop zone to the North of Carentan and thus to obtain control over the water level of both Rivers Douve and Merderet. The fifth task involved another two dropping zones of the 101st Airborne Division to the South-West from the Utah beach near St-Marie-du-Mont and the final six mission was to capture two bridges across River Douve and to make the future link with the ‘Omaha beach’ sector possible. 

The men of the 506th parachute regiment of the 101st Airborne Division
The men of the 506th parachute regiment of the 101st Airborne Division within the airfield of England in the late hours of June 5, 1944

 

BREAKING THE TRAILS ON D-DAY: THE PATHFINDERS 

‘Pathfinders’ were the first American soldiers, who touched the ground of Normandy on Day. They were the soldiers of the airborne troops, whose actions directly factored in the success of the whole invasion. In accordance with the planning behind the Normandy invasion, around 300 trail breakers, the vanguard of both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were assigned to touch the ground around 00:15-00:30 on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The operational map of the Airborne forces within the Cotentin peninsula included six drop zones, three with 82nd (Drop zones ‘O’, ‘T’, ‘N’) and three with the 101st (‘A’, ‘C’, ‘D) retrospectively. These six dropping zones resulted in the formation of the eighteen units of the pathfinders, three on each of these six drop zones. As soon as they landed, the trail breakers were to suppress the possible resistance, get the lay of the land around, reach the exact position, and mark the dropping zone for the landing of the main airborne forces, which were therefore assigned to land around 1-1:30 a.m. 

All while the 101st Division had no combat experience prior to D-Day, the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division had gained their combat experience at great cost of lives in the previous year. The very first airborne operations of the 82nd in Sicily back in July 1943 resulted in a heavy death toll due to the low accuracy of the landings:  the paratroopers were mainly dropped too far from their designated, yet unmarked, drop zones. The analysis of this first experience made it possible for the command to designate special units of the pathfinders, the trail breakers, who were to be parachuted prior to the main forces to secure the area and mark the drop zones for the paratroopers. The theory succumbed to reality when the very first squads of the pathfinders touched the ground in Paestum (to the South of Salerno in Italy) as early as September 13, 1943. The results of this invention proved to be successful. Toward February 1944 in anticipation of the invasion to Northern France, the Troop Carrier Command Pathfinder School was created in England. The training included multiple exercises in parachute jumping up to seven times a week. At least two of these figures were to be carried at nighttime. 

The pathfinders in Normandy
Another well-known photo was taken on the evening of June 5, 1944

To have the ability to mark the dropping zones with enough efficiency for the main forces of the paratroopers, the pathfinders had superior equipment. Every one of them was extensively trained to use the beacon transmitter codenamed “EUREKA”, which signal was to be received by the receiver codenamed “Rebecca”, located on the board of every C-47 plane with the paratroopers. The short-navigation system of this pair was designed in the UK in 1943 and had been previously used to drop the cargos for the resistance fighters in occupied Europe, mainly in France. Pathfinders were trained to activate the transmitters fifteen minutes prior to the passing of the airborne crafts. The implementation of different frequencies within separate dropping zones made it possible for the crews of the planes to distinguish the designated areas. Each unit of the pathfinders was under the command of the lieutenant and his assistant officer, two main and two assistant operators of the ‘EUREKA’ transmitter, 7-8 men to use the marking with the Holophanes lamps (they used them on the ground to indicate the direction of the jump) and from 4 to 6 men to protect them all and the dropping zone. The commanding officer of each unit had an SCR-536 radio with him to contact two other officers from the neighboring units of the same dropping zone. Apart from all the equipment, the men had smoke grenades for alternative marking the zone in the daytime. 

June 5, 1944 the paratroopers
Waiting for ‘The longest day’, the evening of June 5

At around 11:30, June 5, thirty minutes after the landing off of the planes with the eighteen units of the pathfinders (some men recollected 10:30, not 11:00 as the takeoff time for the pathfinders) from the North Witham airfield, near Grantham, in Lincolnshire, the takeoff of the 101st Airborne Division began. On these late minutes of June 5, 1944, the men of the 502nd parachute regiment, as well as the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion and the 307th Airborne Medical Company, boarded their planes within Greenham Common royal air force station near Newbury, England, 165 kilometers distance from the pathfinders. At the same time, the men of the 501st regiment took off in Welford. In total now 432 Dakota planes of the 101st were heading toward the Cotentin Peninsula. Roughly ten minutes after the 101st, the men of the 82nd Airborne Division were to board another 377 planes (some sources give 369, not to mention 52 gliders with heavy equipment) for takeoff from five airfields in Lincolnshire. 

The total scale of the airborne landings in Normandy sounds impressive. During the initial hours of the landings more than 13 000 men (nine centuries before William the Conqueror had the same figure while conquering England in the opposite direction from France), five hundred artillery weapons, 110 jeeps, and one million kilograms of combat equipment and supplies were dropped in Northern France. 6400 men of the 82nd alone touched the ground in the first two hours of June 6. Only eight among the 13 000 men from both divisions were reported to refuse the jump that night and around 200 got injured during the landings. 

Waco CG-4A “Hadrian” glider
Waco CG-4A “Hadrian” glider, the famous transport of the Battle of Normandy

These first 300 American pathfinders of the D-day were to face the cloudy weather with a distinctive westerly wind of 25 meters per hour. On that night, they were awaited by two layers of clouds in the height of 3000 and 300 meters respectively, which was worsened by the fog above the ground within some of the areas. The armada of the planes with the trail breakers crossed the Cotentin peninsula, on their way from England, from West in the East direction, and the carrying planes, which now faced the fire of the German anti-aircraft guns. Despite all these obstacles, the very first pathfinders touched the ground around 00.15-00:16 hrs, 6 June 1944, the same minutes their British brothers landed near Benouville and two bridges, eighty kilometers to the East. The pilots of the planes were ordered to assure the landing at all accounts with no permission to come back to England with the paratroopers. Only a small proportion of the eighteen pathfinder units managed to land within the designated areas. The majority of the 300 missed the dropping zones and, which were even worse, faced the German resistance on the ground. In wider means, these brave trail breakers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions suffered the first American losses on D-Day

The 1st battalion of the pathfinders of the 505th parachute regiment, 5 June, 1944
The respected 1st battalion of the pathfinders of the 505th parachute regiment, in the late hours of 5 June 1944
The 2nd battalion of the 505th' pathfinders, 82nd Division
The 2nd battalion of the 505th’ pathfinders prior to the taking off England
The 3rd battalion of the 505th regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division
The 3rd battalion of the 505th regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division just before their mission

Whilst the isolated units of the pathfinders were facing the miss droppings and the German guns on the grounds, the main forces of 800 U.S. airborne crafts were heading toward Cotentin Peninsula in the first minutes of June 6. Some of the pilots with no combat experience prior to that night now disrupted the flight formation facing the fierce German anti-aircraft fire. As a result, the ineffectual landing of the trail breakers, the cloudy weather, and the German fire from the ground resulted in separated landings of the main airborne forces throughout the peninsula. In total, merely one of every six sticks of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions touched the ground in relative closeness to the dropping zones and some missed the target for twenty miles. Despite the difficulties in accomplishing the initial objectives for the American paratroopers, this large-scale dispersion confused the Germans as well that night, which frustrated the officers on the scale of the invasion and the ‘key points’ to be counter-attacked. 

 

SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE: THE NIGHT BATTLE

In late May, roughly two weeks prior to D-Day, the townspeople of Sainte-Mère-Église experienced what may be called a ‘false alarm’. People were woken up in the middle of the night by the roar of the passing planes (one of the Allied air raids prior to the invasion, an armada was moving in the direction of Cherbourg). They did not leave their homes, yet on that occasion, many of the townspeople retired to the night wearing outdoor clothing and with the bags of belongings next to their beds: the evacuation, which had not come. Following two weeks of relative calm, the night over June 6, 1944, was to become an indeed challenge to survive. 

As for the German garrison inside and in the nearest proximity to Sainte-Mère-Église, the late hours of June 5 were of no significance to them. The soldiers detected no evidence of something out of ordinary during their usual late going around with bicycles. Millions of WWII enthusiasts, who had the pleasure to read the famous ‘The longest day» by Cornelius Ryan, are aware of the story of Madame Angèle Levrault, a school teacher from Sainte-Mère-Église, who was to become one of earliest French civilians, who witnessed the Allied soldier on D-day. She surprisingly dropped herself across Private Robert M. Murphy, an eighteen-year-old pathfinder from the 505th Parachute Regiment of the 82nd Division, who had landed in her garden on the outskirts of the town Apr. at 00:20 June 6, 1944. 

The American paratroopers stick Inside a CG-4 Waco glider
The American paratroopers Inside a CG-4 Waco glider

The dropping zone ‘O’, the nearest to Sainte-Mère-Église in accordance with the invasion planning, included three relatively large open fields to the West of the town and at the same time to the North of a road in the direction of La Fière. This sector of landing (DZ ‘O’) was assigned to three units of the pathfinders, the 1st, 2nd, and the 3rd, trail breaking the path for the three battalions of the 505th parachute regiment respectively. The 1st Battalion pathfinder team was assigned to mark the most ‘Western’ sector of the dropping zone ‘O’, literally the Western field close to La Fière and Chef-du-Pont, one of the main objectives of the 82nd Airborne Division assigned to the 1st battalion under Major Frederick C.A. Kellam (would be killed on D-day neat to his objective). The second battalion of the pathfinders was to mark another sector of the dropping zone closer to Sainte-Mère-Église, which paratroopers under Lieutenant-Colonel Vandervoort (promoted from major in the night of D-day), who broke his left ankle during the landing) were assigned to take positions to the North of the town. And finally, the 3rd battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Krause was the closest to the town and had a mission to seize Sainte-Mère-Église. 

Monument to 82nd and 101st Divisions in Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The monument to the 82nd and 10st Airborne Division in the heart of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, looking in the Eastern direction toward the church
heroes of normandie sainte mere eglise Memorial
Another monument within the main square, which commemorate the liberators of France among the Allied nations
A rare post-war photo of the newly inaugurated Monument to the liberators
A rare post-war photo of the newly inaugurated Monument to the liberators during the annually June celebrations

Sixty-year-old Madame Levrault could see from her garden the fire of the German anti-aircraft guns, which now lightened the night sky in their pursuit to hit the above planes, the carriers of the pathfinders. Robert M. Murphy was one among those trail breakers, who had been assigned and trained to mark the dropping zone ‘O’ to the North of Sainte-Mère-Église. In about thirty minutes after the encounter of Murphy and Madame Levrault in the garden, around 1:00 a.m. the most of the townspeople in Sainte-Mère-Église were awakened by the sound of the ringing of a bell of their iconic-like ancient church in the very heart of the town. Whilst the post-war testimonies, including the detailed eyewitness account of town’s mayor Alexandre Renaud, may not give the definite answer, the best-educated guess of the modern historiography suggests that during the landing of the pathfinders around the town at 00:15-00:20 (some sources give 1:20, the difference in testimonies may be a result of two different time zones), the marker flare dropped from the plane fell on one of the houses facing the main square and provoked a fire. Some other testimonies, including of Raymond Paris, a young son of the local fireman, stated that the fire had started before midnight, thus with no correlation to the landing. 

The house of Juliette Pommier was located on the site of the modern Airborne museum and was swept by the fire in a matter of minutes. The two local firemen (one of them was the father of Raymond Paris, one of the witnesses) were the first two persons, who did their best to handle the disaster. Sometime after the ringing of the bell, a few dozen locals formed a ‘bucket brigade’ bypassing the buckets with water from the old pump in the cattle market (which had been used to water animals) and were doing their best to stop the fire. The armed German soldiers (they had orders not to allow the civilians to move outside their homes during the curfew restriction) were now standing within the town square at arm’s end from the fire and were making fun of the French. The fire could easily spread to the neighboring wooden erections. 

The main square of Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The main square of Sainte-Mere-Eglise looking in the Eastern direction

The German soldiers soon felt bored with the goings-on. When they decided to come back to the barracks outside Sainte-Mère-Église, the one on the church tower (thus an observation point) shouted, pointing out the huge plane, which had just fled over the town at a disturbingly low altitude. It is not entirely surprising that the local garrison had no time to analyze the situation, not realizing the start of the all-out invasion. They thought that the enemy plane was hit by the previously seen fire from the anti-aircraft gun on his way to Cherbourg. The soldiers had clear instructions on such a scenario: to capture the enemy soldiers on the ground, those who may be catapulted. In a few minutes, a small unit of the Germans left Sainte-Mère-Église in the direction of the field to the North, where they thought the enemy crew had made a harsh landing. Amid the night with low clouds, they could hardly see each other, far from identifying enemy forces on the ground, and sometime later they made their way back to Sainte-Mère-Église, seeing the ongoing fight with the fire. 

The church of Sainte-Mere-Eglise today

One of the most detailed and authoritative accounts of the events to follow is of Monsieur Alexandre Renaud, the mayor of the town since early 1944 (some sources suggest late 1943). Apart from his eyewitness account on the fire in the heart of Sainte-Mère-Église, he left a detailed testimony about the night battle in the town, particularly about the emerging of the armada of the American planes and the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division above the city. His testimonies, as well as the recollections of the few surviving paratroopers (such as John Steel) and the Germans, give us the dramatic picture of the events Apr. over time between 1 am and 1.30 a.m. June 6, 1944, later depicted in ‘The longest day’ movie. 

It started with the large plane, which passed over Sainte-Mère-Église and called attention to every man or woman in the streets by moving at scarily low altitudes. The townspeople got themselves down sheltering under their arms as the huge shadow tore above the town’s square and the fire. The paratroopers inside of this plane could also see the fire on the ground as well as crowds of people within the square. The townspeople could see the figures of the paratroopers standing beyond the open access door. 

A post-liberation aerial photo of Sainte-Mere-Eglise church
A rare post-liberation photo of the main square, the church, and the temporary military facility next to the Roman column

The first plane was followed by a few ones and the German troops in the town now thrust aside their illusions on the nature of going on above their heads. The garrison opened fire at the passing planes and the paratroopers, whose silhouettes were now hardly distinguished in the reflections of the fire on the ground. In the course of these dramatic minutes, some of the men of the 505th Parachute regiment of the 82nd Division were killed even before touching the ground of France during their ascending, most of them were of the 2nd Platoon, Company F under Sergeant John P. Ray (wounded upon landing and later deadly wounded by the German soldier). Years after June 6, 1944, it would be ascertained that two American paratroopers, Private First Class Alfred J. van Holsbeck (twenty-years-old) and Sergeant Edward White descended directly into the fire (which had probably drawn the cloth of the parachute toward heat) of the still-burning house. They died inside the fire and their ammunition exploded once touched by the flames, which intensified the fire even more, despite the previous efforts of the locals. 

Some of the paratroopers were killed never working off the hooks of their parachutes. It is generally said that several US warriors were killed by machine-gun fire from the observation point at the church tower. At the same time, the post-war account of Rudolph May, the direct participant on the German side, denied the shouting from the tower. At least three paratroopers landed on telephone poles and were later found dead. Since the fight inside Sainte-Mère-Église started, a number of the German soldiers took their bicycles and moved in the direction to the North to report to Captain Fischer, the commanding officer on the matter of the battle in the town. Exactly at 1.30 a.m. On June 6, one of the operators of the 6th Parachute Regiment HQ in England intercepted the German report about the enemy paratroopers in the vicinity of Sainte-Mère-Église. 

The church of Sainte-Mere-Eglise 1944
Another perspective over the church and the hangar in the middle of the town’s square after the liberation. The burned house is behind the back.

In the course of just a few minutes, a few dozens of American paratroopers were scattered above the ancient town of Sainte-Mère-Église. Some of them managed to land on the roofs of the buildings, some got into a muddle of the trees, particularly the chest-nuts within the town’s square (could be identified on many pre-war photos). One soldier, Clifford A. Maughan touched the ground in the garden of one of the houses, facing the square. The German soldier on the spot initially took Maughan as a prisoner, yet later released him by realizing the scale of the happening (the invasion). At present, the visitors of Sainte-Mère-Église may see the memorial plaque devoted to Clifford A. Maughan and some other men of the 2nd platoon, near the cafe facing the square. Some of the paratroopers nearly opened fire at the local French firemen, who looked like the Germans of the First World War with their gold-colored helmets. 

Clifford A. Maughan memorial plaque Sainte-Mere-Eglise
A memorial sign, which commemorates the memory of Clifford A. Maughan from the 505th regiment, who succeeded to live through the night battle

Another famous paratrooper of the night, probably one of the most well-known warriors in Normandy as a whole, was Private John Steele, whose story is worldwide known, in no small part due to Cornelius Ryan’s ‘The longest day’ book and later the movie of the same name. While descending into the middle of the town, John Steele’s parachute caught on the church pinnacle. Being wounded, he now found himself in the height of the battle and at arm’s end from the German firing position: Steele simulated being killed. After a while, the German finally took him as a prisoner and forwarded, along with some other captured US soldiers, to the North, yet Steele managed to escape the march and later rejoined with the 505th parachute regiment in the morning. He would visit Sainte-Mère-Église as an honorary citizen many times until his death in 1969 and the puppet soldier depicting him is still hanging on the church tower. Apart from John Steel, he was not the only paratrooper of the F company, who hit the church roof: private Kenneth Russell, a former young student from Maryville, Tennessee, also landed near the pinnacle. He managed to use his trench knife to cut the risers. A few dozen meters from him, Private Ernest R. Blanchard was so hurried to cut the risers that he cut his finger as well. 

John Steele, a hero of Sainte-Mere-Eglise
Left: John Steele during his service. Right: John Ray, Philip Lynch, John Steele, and Vernon Francisco from the F company. All three, apart from Steele, were killed
The main entrance to the Sainte-Mere-Eglise church
The main entrance to the Sainte-Mere-Eglise church looking in the Eastern direction
sainte mere eglise paratrooper church
The manikin of John Steele is evidently among the most recognized symbols of the Battle of Normandy in France.

After the war, two beautiful stained glass windows commemorating the memory of the paratroopers were inaugurated inside the church. One of them was designed by Paul Renaud, son of the war-time mayor Alexander Renaud. Apart from these windows, there is a framed transcript of the prayer, once written by Major George B. Wood, the chaplain of the 82nd Airborne Division, and now translated into French and German. 

There are a few reasons why several paratroopers descended toward the town itself and did not manage to land within the drop zone nearby and the reasons behind the bloodbath in the main square: 

  • The Dropping zone ‘O’ of the 82nd Airborne Division and particularly assigned to the men of the 505th parachute regiment, was close enough to Sainte-Mère-Église itself, in fact, less than 2 kilometers to the West. Such proximity, unfortunately, resulted in the miss droppings directly on the town, which anyway was to be taken. 
  • Despite the relative success of the pathfinders of the 505th regiment near Sainte-Mère-Église, on approaching the dropping zone, the pilots of the C-47 airplanes had to lower the planes below 500 feet to pass below the cloudbank that night. Otherwise, they would not see the pathfinders’ lights on the ground. The crews of the airplanes had only a few seconds for the dropping when each meant the distance of hundreds of feet. 
  • The fire, which absorbed one of the villas facing the main square in Sainte-Mère-Église, unfortunately, served as a dramatic orienting to some paratroopers, who were disoriented with its light on the ground. 
  • The German garrison was familiar with the locality of Sainte-Mère-Église as opposed to the American paratroopers, who found themselves within an unfamiliar environment and were disoriented. On the contrary, the Germans were effective in killing the enemies on the site where they had spent weeks. 
Two American soldiers being overcautious on the possibility of the German sniper's nest in the tower
Two American soldiers being overcautious on the possibility of the German sniper’s nest in the tower, June 6

Taking the gage of the night landing around Sainte-Mère-Église from the historical perspective (should say retrospective), the results of the 505th regiment are still regarded as a success in comparison with the other paratrooper units on D-Day among the 82nd and 101st Divisions. Of roughly 2200 paratroopers and 118 planes, around 1000 were dropped within or close to the dropping zone ‘O’ near Sainte-Mère-Église. On the contrary, some units of the 505th missed their dropping zone by more than two kilometers. The 3rd Battalion of the 505th is considered as ‘’the most successful’’ in regard to their results in droppings. Whilst a considerable proportion of the regiment missed their targets, a few hours later a considerable part of them managed to rejoin into groups. Above all the men of the 505th faced a relatively small resistance in the minutes after the landing, except for fierce fighting in the heart of Sainte-Mère-Église. Speaking about the night ‘results’ of the whole 82nd Airborne Division, 272 soldiers among 6400 (4.2%) are considered killed or injured during the landing. In contrast to the 505th, the 507th and 508th were scattered in the area and mostly missed their dropping zones. 

crossroad of Rue de Verdun and Rue Cap de Laine depicting the American soldiers after the liberation
Another photo of the crossroad of Rue de Verdun and Rue Cap de Laine depicting the American soldiers after the liberation
82nd airborne sainte mere eglise
This photo was taken on June 7, 1944, and depicted the US soldiers on their move lengthwise the main street. The town’s square is to the right

 

CAPTURING THE TOWN

Speaking once again about the initial objectives of the 82nd Airborne Division, the dropping zone ‘O’ to the North-West of Sainte-Mère-Église was the destination point of the 505th parachute regiment and each of its three Battalions. Whilst the 1st Battalion under Major Frederick C.A. Kellam was assigned to move westwards toward La Fière and Chef-du-Pont, two other units: the 2nd (Lieutenant-Colonel Vandervoort) and 3rd (Lieutenant-Colonel Krause) were assigned to secure the road to the North in the direction of Cherbourg and to seize Sainte-Mère-Église itself respectively. Although dropping zone ‘O’ was a relatively small area of Apr. 2 square kilometers and the results of the 505th as a whole were «the best» among the units of both Airborne Divisions, its three regiments were scattered Westward of the city. 

 Rue de General de Gaulle Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The information board within the modern Rue de General de Gaulle

The task of capturing and holding Sainte-Mère-Église was a prerogative objective of the 3rd Battalion of the 505th regiment, the greater proportion of which, as the result, managed to land either within the dropping zone ‘O’ or in the closest vicinity of a few kilometers. Lieutenant-Colonel Krause, the commanding officer of the battalion, was only twenty-seven years old that night. Born in Wisconsin in 1916, he was now a respected young officer, hardened in the battles of the 82nd Division in Italy. For Krause and the men from his plane, the landing was not an easy walk, despite at least fifty similar training and combat jumps in the previous two years. Soon after departure from England, his plane nearly collided with another three Dakota-47 once they emerged from the night cloud. As they approached the target, Krause and his crew had to jump from the height of over 600 meters, despite the pilot’s efforts to stay at the low altitude beneath the clouds. The Lieutenant-Colonel was now descending with his parachute while other D-47s were passing meters below at the risk of killing the paratroopers above them. After the rough touching of the ground, Krause ordered an improvised collecting point to accumulate enough soldiers from his battalion to proceed with the primary objective: seizing Sainte-Mère-Église. At that moment in time, Lieutenant-Colonel Krause was not aware of the fierce fight in the heart of the town. 

Krause took a well-considered decision not to move his forces in the direction of Sainte-Mère-Église until he managed to rendezvous with 150 to 180 (according to different testimonies) men, roughly one-fourth of the battalion. Merely forty-five minutes after the landing, Lieutenant Colonel Krause finally ordered his paratroopers to work one’s way up to the town in a close file march. By that point, the US paratroopers had met the half-drunk local French civilian, who confirmed their location and volunteered to lead the Americans to the town. In accordance with his words, Sainte-Mère-Église was controlled by a relatively small garrison of the Germans, scattered across the area and not concentrated as one fighting force in the town. With a reasonable doubt (the French men could have led them to the ambush), Krause sent a small reconnaissance unit ahead with the main forces moving on the distance behind. In half an hour of a deliberate pace, they finally reached the outskirts of Sainte-Mère-Église. 

It appeared that the drunk French was right and he forwarded the paratroopers by a trail inside the town. The battalion (or at least men in Krause’s possession at the moment) had not yet faced resistance during the landing in the fields to the West of the town and now Krause decided not to partition his men into separate teams before getting into the center of the town. The paratroopers rushed to the town main square, secured it facing a little resistance, and then six units moved into the directions to secure the outskirts and five main roads to and from the town, particularly the main road from Caen to Cherbourg, one of the D-Day objectives. Some sources stated that Krause assigned five units to secure the outer defenses of the town, while the six squads managed to seize Sainte-Mère-Église. One way or another, Lieutenant Colonel ordered his men to take advantage of only bayonets and knives and hand-grenades without firearms until daylight. In fact, the paratroopers faced no significant fighting resistance. The majority of the Germans had already left the town after the night fight with some captured American POWs and the remaining garrison mainly capitulated without a fight once the men of the 3rd Battalion secured both the town itself and set up blocking posts. 

On the streest of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, June 7 1944

The streets of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Normandy, France
I have taken several photos of the crossroad with Rue de Verdun because the building in the center made its appearance on many of the June 7 photos

The paratroopers under Krause did not suffer losses during seizing Sainte-Mère-Église. The same can not be said in regard to the Germans in the town and its nearest proximity. The established estimates, being later repeated from one source to another, gives the figure of ten Germans killed and around thirty taken prisoners. In contrast to such success for the attackers, the paratroopers were shocked with the indication of the fierce night battle, which had slaughtered the F company a few hours before. Next to the burned house facing the main square, they found the charred remains of one of the paratroopers, who had crept for a few meters from the fire, and the mortal remains of the other were spread across the area with the explosion of the ammunition of the warrior. Some bodies were still hanging on the high-voltage line and the others, filled with bullets, were scattered within the main square and the bushes were hanging on the trees and bayoneted on the ground. 

Toward 4:30 a.m. and the first rays of the sun of a new day of June 6, Lieutenant Colonel personally made his way to the town hall of Sainte-Mère-Église, to the North of the square and halfway between the heart of the town and the Northern outskirts. In the course of the previous four years of occupation since June 1940, Hôtel de Ville was accommodated by the Germans and the local District Civil Affairs Office of the German army. In those early hours of June 6, 1944, the American flag was raised above the building, the one that the 505th regiment had previously raised in the Italian city of Naples back in October 1943, another proud victory of the 82 Airborne Division. Once the town was secured and the German garrison liquidated, Krause also cut the German communication cable to Cherbourg and now block posted the main road from South to the North. Summing up, toward the sunrise of D-day, one of the key objectives (taking Sainte-Mère-Église and securing the highway) on D-Day in the American sector was achieved. 

Hotel de Ville SAinte-Mere-Eglise
Hotel de Ville at Sainte-Mere-Eglise years prior to the War
The mayor of Ste. Mère-Eglise, Mr. Alexandre Renaud
The mayor of Ste. Mère-Eglise, Mr. Alexandre Renaud (second from left), talking with the American paratrooper and the local Frenchmen soon after the liberation

 

THROUGH D-DAY TO JUNE 7 

Toward 6 a.m. June 6, 1944, when the main forces of the Invasion were to set ashore Normandy to the East of Sainte-Mère-Église, the town was blocked from all directions and secured from the enemy forces. By that point in time, the US garrison, mostly of the 3rd Battalion, numbered Apr. 350 men in the town or the nearest vicinity, still a little more than a half of the Battalion initial forces. Now, these American warriors, deep in the enemy territory, were to defend their taken positions in anticipation of the main forces from Utah Beach. Along with that, the defenders of Sainte-Mère-Église had something more to expect apart from their munition and the captured anti-aircraft flak guns and their own two Pack Howitzers, the artillery piece designed back in the 1920s to be used and transported in difficult terrain. 

The American soldiers at Ste-Mere-Eglise, June 1944
The American soldiers on their march through the main square of Ste-Mere-Eglise, June 1944

American patrol in the streets of Sainte-Mere-Eglise

At the same hour as the men of the 505th 3rd Battalion were securing the streets of Sainte-Mère-Église from the Germans and were to raise the Stars and Stripes above the town, a few dozens of mostly wooden gliders of the 82nd Division were descending toward the dropping zone ‘O’ Apr. at 4:00-4:10 a.m. June 6. ‘Operation Detroit’ was the second of the three successive airborne assaults after ‘Operation Boston’ itself and the latter ‘Elmira’ (further delivering of the soldiers and heavy equipment). ‘Operation Detroit’ was aimed to supply the paratroopers (who had landed in the night) with ammunition, radio equipment, light vehicles such as jeeps, machine guns, and artillery pieces. The 52 C-47 with the gliders (each plane carried one) did depart from England at 1:20 and had to fly the same route as the paratroopers before them, facing the same fierce anti-aircraft fire from the ground.

In total, 16 guns (of 57mm caliber) of the 80th Airborne Anti Aircraft Battalion along with 220 men, 22 jeeps as light vehicles, and more than ten tonnes of ammunition and equipment for the paratroopers were now on the planes. Despite clouds and the German anti-aircraft fire from the ground, twenty-three gliders managed to touch the ground actually within dropping zone ‘O’ and 9 others touched the ground in a 3km radius. The majority of them suffered damages, including the fact that at least half of the equipment was now out of order. Six or seven of the 16 guns were put into action by noon June 6. Three soldiers lost their lives during the landing and another few dozens (some estimated 23 figures) were wounded. 

A Horsa glider near the Sainte-Mère-Eglise sector, D-day
This horsa glider was cut in half purposedly to take its cargo out. The photo was taken close to Sainte-Mère-Eglise
A 155 mm M1 howitzer towed by an M5 crawler tractor in the Sainte-Mère-Eglise sector
A 155 mm M1 howitzer dragged by an M5 crawler tractor next to Sainte-Mere-Eglise

In the early hours of June 6, the local townspeople of Sainte-Mère-Église appeared on the streets to witness the soldiers, who, for the first time in the last four years, were not the hated Germans. Alexander Renaud, the mayor would later write a letter to General Charles de Gaulle depicting the initial reaction of the locals on the liberation, including women’s cry not to leave the town. In contrast to enthusiasm on a large scale from both sides (the Allied soldiers and the French men) in Normandy, there was, unfortunately, the reverse side of the liberation of France, particularly in the areas of fierce fighting with the Germans. The Allied soldiers were in one way or another instructed on the fact that at least some of the locals may be collaborators with Germans. This was one of the arguments for Krause’s caution toward the assistance of the drunk French man during the night. 

In different parts of Normandy the restrained, not to say cold reception of the liberators was an outpouring of the fear of possible German punitive measures if they somehow would come back to the villages and towns, which had been suppressed with fear in the course of the previous four years. Apart from this, thousands of French civilians would do their best, often at the expense of their safety and sometimes lives, to help the wounded Allied soldiers. There were also now to experience the horrors of war from the early hours of D-day. It should be said that in most cases paratroopers had not had many alternatives other than to trust their rescuers and feeders, which would form warm relations for decades after the War. In the weeks after June 6, the silk parachutes of the Airborne divisions, including of the 505th regiment at Sainte-Mère-Église would be accepted with gratitude by the locals. The silk was turned out for cloth, particularly for the wedding dresses for the Norman brides in the years after 1944. 

Sainte-Mere-Egglise, Normandy. June 7 1944

The liberation of Ste-Mere-Eglise, June 7 1944
A French family welcomes two paratroopers of the 82nd Division at Sainte-Mere-Eglise, June 7

Four hours after raising Stars and Stripes above Sainte-Mère-Église and the landing of the first gliders with supplies, the defenders of the town were now to repel the first German counter-attack from the direction of the block-post on Route 13. Around 9 a.m. on June 6 a few dozens of soldiers of the ‘Ost battalion 795’, backed by three tanks and two self-propelled guns, launched their attempt to recapture Sainte-Mère-Église from the South, particularly from the highness, known as ‘Hill 20’ between Fauville and Sainte-Mère-Église. What is more, they used the local Normandian cows to drive in the head of the attack as a ‘meat shield’ against the Americans. The men of the 3rd battalion stood up for the attack, yet their pursuit to counter-attack in the same direction proved itself a failure. Relatedly, the active efforts of the paratroopers impressed the soldiers of the ‘Ost battalion’ in the superiority of the enemy and they withdrew. In virtue of the presence in Sainte-Mère-Église of the two battalions and the assistance of the 2nd battalion to the North, the 3rd under Krause now concentrated their forces in the South direction. Krause’s men suffered the loss of, including Captain Harold H. Swingler, commander of the I Company, and the total dominance of the Americans in the South direction near the so-called ‘Hill 20’ would not be a reality until the morning of June 7. 

Germans called the very first so-called ‘Ost battalions’ back in 1943, composed mainly of the volunteers from the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. In most cases, they were neither collaborators, nor believers, but just wanted to avoid the forced labor or the vengeance of the Soviets towards the prisoners of war, thus ‘traitors’. Among the forty-five such battalions in France on D-Day, twenty-one were included in the Wehrmacht’s 7th army, thus composing 25% of its soldiers. ‘Ost battalion 795’, under Hauptmann Stiller, was one of the formations under the Third Reich known for its predominantly non-German nationality: on June 6 it included 830 Georgians and only 90 Germans. The combat unit was included in the 709th Division, which itself had been notoriously non-German. Prior to the reconnaissance information about the troops’ projection of the 91st Division to Cotentin in Spring 1944, the 709th under Gen Lt. Karl W. von Schlieben was one of the two large formations in the area. Schlieben was a veteran of the Great War and an experienced combat officer within the last five years, predominantly on the Eastern front. On D-day, the 709th division was dispositioned along the East coast of the Cotentin peninsula, thus in the nearest vicinity of both the Utah beach and the dropping zones of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, particularly near Sainte-Mère-Église. 

The men of the 795th Ost Batallion, June 6
The men of the 795th Ost Batallion photographed a few kilometers from Sainte-Mere-Eglise on their way to counter-attack the town, June 6

The 709th Division included two ‘eastern battalions’: ‘Ost battalion’ 649th and 795th. The latter, composed mainly of the Georgians, lost its communications with the division headquarters in the early hours of June 6, yet being stationed in Turqueville, 2 km to the East of Sainte-Mère-Église, launched several local counter-attacks against the Americans the same day. The soldiers of this ‘Ost battalion’ were backed by the remnants of the anti-aircraft garrison, who had previously managed to flee from Sainte-Mère-Église during the night. The main forces of the 795th battalion capitulated as early as June 7, yet some of its soldiers managed to escape the surrender and later they rejoined with Wehrmacht units further to the South. 

The June days of France may seem like an endless marathon of the daytime with the dawn prior to 6 a.m. and the sunset after 10 p.m. In regard to the fact that the night over June 6 demanded maximum strain on the Allied soldiers and the onboarding had been started even earlier throughout June 5, toward the late hours of D-day the Allied soldiers had not slept for around forty hours. The German counter-attack against the ‘G’ and ‘I’ companies of the 3rd battalion of the 505th regiment from the direction of Fouville was exhausting, yet not the climax of the day in the sector. Since the launch of ‘Operation Detroit’ and the landing of three dozens of gliders in the vicinity of Sainte-Mère-Église, the third Airborne assault operation that day was to land around 9 p.m. 

Horsa gliders in the fields of Sainte-Mère-Eglise
Several Horsa gliders in the fields to the West and to the North of Sainte-Mère-Eglise

The first 75 planes of ‘Operation Detroit’ touched the ground within its designated landing zone ‘W’ (three kilometers distanced from dropping zone ‘O’) between 9.10 и 9.20 p.m. on June 6. Two hours later, between 11.00 and 11.10 another one hundred Waco CG4 and British Horsa gliders touched the ground in the area: 175 in total. They carried not only the equipment but also the artillerymen, signal company, the officers of the 82nd division’s staff, medics, and engineers. Among the 1190 glider men, more than 150 were killed during the landing or severely injured or killed by the separate German units on the ground. Toward the end of June 6, the greater proportion of the 82nd Airborne Division was in the vicinity of Sainte-Mère-Église with the loss of around 500 killed or injured and 756 missed in action (most of them killed as well). 

Mission ELmira Battle for Normandy
The gliders of ‘Mission Elmira’ in Normandy
A Waco glider near St. Mere-Eglise, 1944
Waco glider damaged during touching the ground after hitting a hedge near Sainte-Mere-Eglise

Throughout the night into June 7, both the American defenders and the local townspeople at Sainte-Mère-Église suffered the German shelling gunfire, including the use of the 88mm guns: all these resulted in the destruction of some buildings across the ancient Normandian town. In the early hours of June 7, the Germans launched a more fierce attack by the forces of the three infantry battalions, this time from the North direction. The advance in this direction started as far back as 11 a.m. June 6, escalated into the night gunfire and snowballed into the challenging counter-attack with hundreds of enemy soldiers. 

Destruction in the streets of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, D-day +1 Normandy
This photo was taken on June 7, 1944, and it shows the destruction of the town during the previous two days of fighting and artillery shelling

The destruction on the streets as a result of the night 85mm shelling

The units of the »243. Infanterie-Division» (the 243rd Infantry Division of Wehrmacht), armed with ten STuG III/IV fully tracked armored fighting vehicles as well as the men from the 1st Battalion, 1058th Regiment of the 91st Division, along with three artillery units of the ‘191. Gebirgs-Artillerie-Regiment’ (Artillerie-Regiment 191 of the same 91st Division), launched the counter-attack on Sainte-Mère-Église along with the N-13 highway from the north direction near Neuville-au-Plain. The starting point of their advance was initially a small hill to the north of the farmhouse museum. The locals used to call the area ‘the valley of woe’ in regard to the village, which had been erased from Earth by the Englishmen during the 100 Years War and by an outburst of a plague. 

sainte mere eglise photographs of d day 6 june 1944
American paratroopers marching lengthwise Rue General Koenig

The paratroopers of the US 82nd Division set up a roadblock post near Neuville-au-Plain to the North already on June 6 and despite the use of the M1 57mm Anti Tank Gun (taken from one of the wrecked gliders during the night), suffered losses. The defenders were mostly forty men of the third platoon (under Lieutenant Turner B. Turnbull), D company of the 2nd battalion, who had been previously assigned to take the position here by lieutenant colonel Vandervoort (the commander of the 3rd battalion of the 505th). In the afternoon of June 6, they were reinforced by the men of Theodore Peterson’s First Platoon. After a greater proportion of the unit of the American gun was killed or injured in the early hours of June 7, one of the American soldiers of the ‘H’ company of the 3rd Battalion, Pvt. John E. Atchley, left his position and managed to destroy the German STuG III fully tracked armored fighting vehicle (the first one was damaged sometime before) which finally allowed paratroopers to stop the German column on its way to the town. Private First Class John Atchley would be awarded for this action near  Sainte-Mère-Église and killed in January 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge.

German Sturmgeschütz III self-propelled gun Sainte-Mère-Eglise
German Sturmgeschütz III self-propelled gun after the counter-attack towards Sainte-Mère-Eglise, on the morning of June 7
Sturmgeschütz 3 and 4 tanks at Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The same distinctive (due to extrusive metal) vehicle is on the right. Sturmgeschütz 4 tank is in the far background to the left. The photo is taken in the North direction.
Sturmgeschütz 4 tank destroyed by J. Atchley with a 57 mm anti-tank gun.
The closer perspective over Sturmgeschütz 4 tank destroyed by J. Atchley with a 57 mm anti-tank gun. The third vehicle is in the background
The present edge of Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The present edge of Sainte-Mere-Eglise is close to the site where the above photo was taken, looking in the North direction toward Neu la Plain

German STUG IV gun near Sainte-Mere-Eglise

Later in the same day, ‘D’ company delivered a successful attack against the German positions and even killed the enemy officer, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 1058th Regiment. This regiment was awakened by the alarm at 1.30 a.m. the previous day June 6, soon after the landing of the paratroopers and it took them eight hours to come closer to Sainte-Mère-Église. The Germans suffered great losses particularly during the counter-attacks in the direction of the town and the 243rd Infantry Division under Generalleutnant Heinz Hellmich took casualties within the Cotentin peninsula in wider means. It would be disbanded on September 12, 1944. Heinz Hellmich, born in 1890, was a veteran of the »Great War», the staff officer during the 1939-1940 campaigns, and later the inspector of the troops in the East. He would be killed during the Allied air raid on June 17, 1944. 

The men of the 82nd Airborne Division march toward Sainte-Mere-Eglise June 7
The men of the 82nd Airborne Division march toward Sainte-Mere-Eglise from the north direction

US paratroopers on their walk towards Sainte-Mere-eglise

American soldiers moving toward St. Mere-Eglise, June 10, 1944.
American soldiers moving toward St. Mere-Eglise, bypassing the surrendered German soldiers, 10 June 1944

Military vehicles to the north of the town, June 7 1944

Around 6 a.m. on June 7, the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division, including those in Sainte-Mère-Église were once again supplied and backed by parachuting equipment and men during the ‘Operation Freeport’. In the run-up to 3 p.m. and on the heels of the successful defense on the North direction, the defenders learned the roar of the forthcoming heavy machinery and the American tanks of the Task Force Raff and two battalions of the 8th Infantry Regiment finally entered Sainte-Mère-Église from the Western direction. These forces finally supported the complete seizure of the Northern outer defenses of the town around 6 p.m. June 7. The men of ‘E’ company backed with two of the newly arrived tanks attacked on the flank of the German battalion to the west of the N-13 road destroying the unit. As a result of the fierce fighting of the previous two days, the remaining 160 German soldiers, many of them wounded, capitulated. In the late hours of June 7, the fields to the north of Sainte-Mère-Église were quite literally fraught with the dead bodies of around 400 Germans, apart from roughly 700 taken as prisoners in the vicinity of Sainte-Mère-Église in the course of the two-day battle. After the capitulation, the German POWs were medically treated by the Americans. 

The local townspeople welcome the American tanks on their streets, June 7 1944
The local townspeople welcome the American tanks on their streets, June 7
Private Elmer Habbs of the 82nd Airborne Division SAinte-Mere-Eglise
The most well-known photo was taken on June 7. Private Elmer Habbs of the 82nd is resting next to the entrance to Sainte-Mère-Eglise from the North.
ENtrance to SAinte-Mere-Eglise
The present entrance to the town is taken a little bit closer to the Hospice than the photo of Private Elmer Habbs

Sainte-Mère-Église itself was heavily damaged and was partially destroyed. The overwhelming majority of the buildings in the town were now standing without windows. The traditional cafes and restaurants were swamped with shatters of glass and the streets were covered with the pieces of the roof tile and bricks. Unfortunately, the liberation of Sainte-Mère-Église was not the automatic equivalent of safety for the townspeople. The retreating Germans troops left hundreds of mines, trip wires, and booby traps, the cause of the tragic incidents even weeks after D-Day. Among the victims of such combat heritage were children. The mine lifting of the liberated territories in Normandy and particularly within the Cotentin peninsula was to become a challenging task for the Allied engineer units in Summer 1944

US troops moving across the streets of Sainte-Mere-Eglise

US paratroopers cheering the liberation of the town, Normandy 1944

A US soldier destroy the portrait of Adolf Hitler at Sainte-Mere-Eglise

 

THE HOSPICE

At present, eight decades after D-day, the building at 36 RUE DU CAP DE LAINE close to the Northern outskirts of Sainte-Mère-Église witnesses rare tourists despite the informational sign with the photos of historical significance. Today it accommodates Communal social and medico-social establishment, which provides nursing care for the elderly and disabled people. Along with that, back in 1944 less than one hundred meters from the walls of the complex of buildings, one could witness one of the most fierce and deadly fights of D-Day except for the landing beaches. It was here in the early hours of June 6 the paratroopers of the 505th parachute regiment set up one of the two main Aids stations in the area. The so-called ‘Aid station №1’ was set up further to the North within the isolated farm near Neuville-Au-Plain and close to the original dropping zone. 

A 505th PIR medical station in Sainte-Mère-Eglise
A rare photo of the 505th’ medical station №2 inside the Hospice of Sainte-Mere-Eglise

The French Hospice at Ste-Mere-Eglise

The old pre-war postcards of Sainte-Mère-Église, whose, photos on which were taken from the Northern entry to the town, reveal the sign: »l’hospice et la gendarmerie», which means ‘The hospice and the Gendarmerie’. The case is that those two municipal buildings in Sainte-Mère-Église were stationed close to each other. The well-known archival photo taken later, in June 1944 soon after liberation, depicted an elderly couple of the locals in their dark clothes while passing next to the Gendarmerie building to the right of the hospice (while facing it). Since the 1920s the building of the hospice, the same as today, accommodated Hospice for the elderly. Alexander Renaud, the 1944 mayor of the town, had been working as a staff member of the local municipality since 1929 and always backed the privileges of the hospice. Both the pre-war and June 1944 photos of Sainte-Mère-Église reveal the fact that the complex of the buildings of the hospice at that time was the last on the street and actually marked the North end of the town. The territory would be expanded after the War as well as the new buildings further North. 

Hospice and Gendarmerie at Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The pre-war photo of the Hospice and the building of the Gendarmerie is to the right
L'Hospice Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The front side of the Hospice
Gendarmerie building at Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The well-recognized elderly couple in front of the former Gendarmerie building

Whilst the pathfinders and paratroopers of the 505th did not face the fierce resistance inside the ‘O’ dropping zone, the casualties and the number of wounded Americans would rise throughout June 6-7 and after. The men of the 307th Airborne Medical Company of the 82nd Airborne Divisions were among the trail breakers of the invasion. Toward the end of June 6, both Aid stations, № 1 on the farm near Neuville-Au-Plain and №2 in the hospice of Sainte-Mère-Église were full of wounded paratroopers and supporting troops. In contrast to the fact that the defenders of the town were facing the fierce German counter-attack from both the Southern and Northern directions since the early hours of D-day, the greater proportion of the wounded inside the Aid station №2 had no gunshot injuries. They were mainly injured during the landing of the gliders and some suffered shell fragment wounds. Toward the late hours of June 6, at least 120 wounded Americans were already medically treated within the former Hospice. 

Sainte-Mere-Eglise medical station 1944
This photo was taken just meters from the Hospice, which is to the left beyond the frame. The building across the road was heavily damaged.
American and German medical personnel Aid Station #2
American and German medical personnel near the Hospice turned into 505th Regimental Aid Station #2

L=hospice Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Normandy today

It may sound disputable, why the medical Aid station was set up in the Northern outskirts of the town in the nearest proximity of the German counter-attacks from the North direction. First of all, the German advance here did not gain full strength until the early hours of June 7, when the aid station had already been functioning a 24-hour day. On the second hand, one should consider the nature of the hospice: the building included all basic means, including wards, hospital beds, and even the essential medical supplies. Apart from these two arguments, the paratroopers positioned one of the two 57mm guns (previously taken from the wrecked glider) across the street of the hospice and another one further to the North. It was here, where Pvt. John E. Atchley of H Company committed his well-known act of bravery by damaging the forwarded German STUG III, which was in fact stopped 50 meters from the Hospice wall. 

Medical Station 2 Ste-Mere-Eglise
The photo is in the North direction. The distinctive Stug III was stopped merely one hundred meters from the Aid station
North outskirts of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, D-day 1944
This photo was taken from the site of the damaged Stug III in the direction of the Hospice (on the left) and the RENAULT sign (to the right)
STUG III and Hospice
STUG III is now clearly visible and its proximity to the Hospice
The aerial view of the Hospice in the town of Ste-Mere-Eglise
The aerial view of the Hospice complex of buildings at the Northern edge of the town

The preserved photos taken on June 7 after the fighting, revealed the main building of the complex, the wall, and the fence, the remnants of the American guns and German heavy machinery, as well as the large ‘HUILES RENAUD’ sign on the wall of the building (exist today) across the road. The French automobile concern Renault started producing and selling oil and lubricants back in 1911 and the advertising banner in the North part of Sainte-Mère-Église was reasonable, as the main route from Cherbourg to Caen (N-13) and further to Paris used to run through the town. Some of the German POWs were later assigned to assist with the American wounded and dead. 

Aid Station №2
The routine of the medical care next to the Aid Station №2

Another well-known event related to the hospice is the crash of one of the gliders on June 7, which in fact landed next to the main building. Against all odds, it did not hit the building, which could cause the tragedy and the death of dozens of wounded soldiers and of medical personnel. The WACO glider of the 77th Troop Carrier Squadron, 435th Troop Carrier Group literally smashed the section of the brick wall behind the hospice, causing the immediate death of the pilot. ‘Operation Freeport’ was aimed to supply the paratroopers with ammunition and equipment, including medical supplies. Later on, the building would accommodate the ‘Headquarters of the American cemeteries’ № 1 and 2 within Sainte-Mère-Église. 

glider at Ste-Mere-Eglise
A rare photo of the WACO glider once it crushed the territory of the Hospice
Crushed Glider near the Aid Station
The glider smashed a section of the Hospice brick wall. The main building is in the background
‘Headquarters of the American cemeteries’ № 1
‘Headquarters of the American cemeteries’ № 1 and 2 within the Hospice

 

SAINT-MEEN FOUNTAIN

This, one would think, WWII outside location, nonetheless did become an integral part of D-Day, June 6, 1944, in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. The prettiest stories are being born from the legends and the story of Saint-Meen Fountain is no exception. The spring was once named after Saint Méen, an English pilgrim and later a ‘Saint’ who is well-known for his pilgrimage journeys, among other places, across Northern France. In accordance with a legend, in the second half of the VI century, Meen betook himself to get an encounter with another well-known pilgrim of his time, later regarded as Saint Marcouf. The latter presumably lived in the Southern part of the Cotentin peninsula. On his way through the La Manche region, Meen allegedly made a stop and, being thirsty, hit the ground with his stick. As a result, a spring broke out the soil on the very place. 

SAINT-MEEN FOUNTAIN
The old photos of the Saint-Meen Fountain and the caretaker of the pilgrimage site

SAINT-MEEN FOUNTAIN today Sainte-Mere-Eglise

There are no documented testimonies on how this legend had been cultivated in the region since the VI century, yet the townspeople of Sainte-Mere-Eglise used to have (and still do) a belief, that this spring has not been dried for fourteen centuries. It is believed that the water from it has therapeutic value, particularly regarding dermatological diseases. The fountain could be found at the arm’s end from the town main square and the ancient church and is still a place of pilgrimage and is being taken care of. It should come in no surprise, that in the early hours of June 6, 1944, in the height of the fighting for Sainte-Mere-Eglise, a number of locals took a shelter in a small lowland around the spring, particularly inside the laving house, built on the site back in the XIX century. At present, one could find the modern and bigger fountain next to the marble statue of Saint Meen and the original source. 

SAINT-MEEN FOUNTAIN
The large open site around the fountain looks more well-cared-for in comparison with the greenery and trees in the beginning of the XX century

The fountain in Sainte-Mere-Eglise

 

THE FIRST US CEMETERIES 

Back at the stage of planning of the Invasion, the staff analysts voiced the discouraging estimates of the anticipated losses during the first wave of the landing in Northern France. In total, up to 70% of the soldiers among the infantry were estimated to be killed, wounded, taken prisoners, or missed in combat on D-Day. As actual, toward the end of June 6, 1944, the enormous amount of around 175 000 American, British and Canadian soldiers in one way or another (by sea or air) touched the ground of Normandy. The exact number of the Allied warriors, who lost their lives on the very first day of the invasion is still a cause of debate among historians. The latest research of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation gives the figure of 4,414 dead Allied men on June 6. Speaking about the particular ‘Utah’ beach, roughly 21 000 men set ashore on this sector of the coast on D-day, 589 among them were casualties, including 197 dead (60 men died when their boat hit the mines). One would say that such a relatively small figure of less than 600 is in contrast with the enormous 4700 killed, wounded, or missed in action within ‘OMAHA’ beach (among the 35 000 men of the first wave). Along with that, the toll of casualties at ‘Utah’ is regarded to June 6 only (in contrast to the total losses at Omaha) and does not include more than 700 men killed during the ‘Exercise Tiger’ military exercises in April 1944. 

Soldiers killed near Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The photo of the killed soldiers to the North of Sainte-Mere-Eglise soon after the cease of fire

Above all, the bare figures may be elusive and misleading, particularly in regard to human lives. Whilst the losses specifically within the Utah beach sector of the coast were relatively small (if compared with the whole Invasion), two Airborne Divisions, 82nd, and 101st suffered significant losses and faced fierce German resistance behind the enemy lines, not to let the enemy interfere with the landings. In a single day of June 6, the 82nd Airborne Division experienced the casualties of 1259 killed, wounded, or missing in action, twice as many as the infantry forces on the beach. The initial calculations throughout June included the great proportion of missing in action, which later was factualized as dead. 

The 42nd American field hospital located in the Sainte-Mère-Eglise
American field hospital located in the vicinity of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, June 1944

By the time of their evacuation from Normandy in early July 1944, the 82nd lost 4840 men or 46% of its soldiers (compared to 7300 of total Division’s losses during WWII): at least 1161 were killed, 720 were still regarded as missing (mostly dead) and 2959 wounded. Let alone, the Division lost 16 of its original 21 regimental and battalion commanders and the largest death toll was among the vanguard paratroopers and the glider units. Speaking about the 505th parachute regiment, which faced the fierce battles inside and around Sainte-Mere-Eglise in the first days of the invasion, they lost at least 186 men killed, 60 missed, and more than 650 wounded, of which 481 later returned to duties. The ‘Screaming Eagles’ of the 101st Division, who had not had battle experience prior to the invasion, lost 4670 men in Normandy: 9510 men from both divisions. 

The medical officer gives a cigarette to the wounded soldier at the 307th Airborne Medical Company Aid Station №1
The medical officer gives a cigarette to the wounded at the 307th Airborne Medical Company Aid Station №1 on a farm to the North of Sainte-Mère-Eglise
Alexandre Renaud, Mayor with a Paratrooper and U.S. Priest L. Roulland,
Alexandre Renaud, Mayor (first left) with a Paratrooper and a U.S. Priest

As I have already stated above, the death toll within the Cotentin peninsula was to increase in the course of the first days of the Invasion. In regard to the sectors of the invasion, the VII Corps was the army formation, whose soldiers would be the first and would form the largest proportion within the first American cemeteries in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. In fact, the modern cemetery Colleville-Sur-Mer next to ‘Omaha’ beach is also claimed to be the first in Normandy. Leaving behind disputes, toward the end of June 6 hundreds of dead bodies of the Allied soldiers were scattered across the fields of Normandy and were to be buried in the first instance. As early as June 10, 1944, Major-General Lawton Collins, the supreme officer of the VII Corps and the youngest corps commander in the US army (he was 48), issued an order to create a temporary military cemetery at Sainte-Mere-Eglise. In wider means, the first large American military cemetery in Normandy was of the VII Corps, responsible for Utah Beach and the Cotentin peninsula. 

 

Temoparaty cemetery at Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The sign of the first provisional military cemetery at arm’s end from the town’s main square

Whilst an official decree was issued on June 10, onwards of June 9 the locals and the German prisoners of war had been assisting the Americans in digging graves at Sainte-Mere-Eglise for the fallen soldiers. The third  (later backed by the first) platoon of the 603rd Quartermaster Graves Registration was assigned as the unit responsible for the operation of the pioneer American cemeteries in Normandy. The local hospice and now the Aid station №2 in Sainte-Mere-Eglise were assigned as the headquarters. In the course of the next days and weeks, the bodies found throughout Normandy and particularly Cotentin were transported to the ‘collection point’ near the town and later buried within a few cemeteries. In the course of the most ‘intense’ first days, they had to provide burials for at least two hundred men at one day. As for Major-General Lawton Collins himself, he used to visit the cemeteries at Sainte-Mere-Eglise often in June, thus providing an example to the division commanders of his Corps. Toward July 1, 1944, the VII Corps regarded 8500 soldiers dead or missing in action and more than 13 000 were wounded, some of them later died as well. 

German prisoners of war under guard digging the graves for the provisional cemetery at Sainte-Mere-Eglise
German prisoners of war under guard digging the graves for the provisional cemetery at Sainte-Mere-Eglise, June 1944
German POWs at work digging graves at the Sainte-Mère-Eglise Cemetery No. 1, June 9, 1944
German POWs were forced to dig graves for the Sainte-Mère-Eglise Cemetery No. 1, June 9, 1944. The photo is often confused with Omaha beach.

In total, it was calculated that 3195 soldiers were buried within the military cemetery №1 at Sainte-Mere-Eglise, less than 200 meters from the town Church, thus almost in the heart of the town. Among this figure, 1000 were fallen Germans and 2195 Americans. As early as 1948 the three provisional cemeteries, at the time a place of burial for more than 14 000 warriors, in and near Sainte-Mere-Eglise were liquidated, including the ‘Cemetery №1’. Approximately 9300 or two-third of the remains were repatriated to the United States at the request of their families and the remaining fallen soldiers were reburied in two American cemeteries: at Colleville-Sur-Mer and Brittany American cemetery at Saint-James. 

Sainte-Mère-Eglise Cemetery No. 1, 1944
The panoramic view over the Sainte-Mère-Eglise Military Cemetery No. 1
Sainte-Mère-Eglise Cemetery No. 1
It took me less than ten minutes to get here from the bus station on the heels of the arrival from Carentan.
Military cemetery №1 Ste-Mere-Eglise, Normandy
Apart from the inscription, indeed it was 3195 graves and 1000 of them were the burials of the Germans, who are not mentioned on the plaque.

A few days after the first burials within the first designated American cemetery at Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the 603rd Quartermaster Graves Registration Unit was granted to open another burial grounds of ‘larger’ capacity beyond the town limits. After examining the area in the vicinity, a spot of land just outside the town on the road toward Chef-du-Pont was chosen for the Sainte-Mere-Eglise ‘Cemetery № 2’. In parallel with the marking routine at the new cemetery, the burials within the ‘Cemetery № 1’ were to continue for some time as well. The units of the 603rd Quartermaster moved to the second one as early as June 23, 1944, which was fully operational two days later. 

The overal view of the Provisional Cemetery №2 Sainte-Mere-Eglise
The overall view of the Provisional Cemetery №2 within the Southern outskirts of the town
An aerial view of the Military Cemetery №2, Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Normandy
An aerial view of the Military Cemetery №2 beyond the town’s limits at that time. The first cemetery, as well as the Church, are clearly distinguished at the top
The memorial of the Provisional Cemetery №2 Ste-Mete-Eglise, France
The exact figure of the former burials within the second cemetery was 4798 fallen soldiers

In total, the second provisional cemetery had become the resting place for the bodies of 4788 soldiers until its liquidation in 1948 and the repatriation of the remains. With no doubt, the most well-known grave here and in the whole of Normandy was of General Theodore Roosevelt Jr, the elder son of the former US president Theodore Roosevelt and the cousin of the war-time president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). As soon as the General presented an appeal to give him permission for commanding the active army unit, he was granted to join his 4th division at Utah Beach and Roosevelt is considered the be the first American general to touch the land in Normandy. He had been suffering from cardiac diseases prior to the Invasion and he passed away from a heart attack on July 12, 1944. General Roosevelt was 56 years old when he died, passing away a few hours before being assigned as the commander of the 90th Infantry Division. He was buried within the provisional cemetery №2 in Sainte-Mere-Eglise on July 14. The ceremony was visited by a pleiad of high-ranking officers, including Omar Bradley, George Patton, Raymond Barton, and Major-General Lawton Collins, the issuer of the cemeteries. The local Frenchmen, including the wife of Sainte-Mere-Eglise mayor Simone Renaud and the local children, used themselves to take care of the grave of the general. Roosevelt would be reburied at Colleville-Sur-Mer. 

This rare photo of General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. during the Normany campaign
This rare photo of General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. during the Normandy campaign was taken on the streets of Sainte-Mere-Eglise
Generals Bradley, Patton, Hodges, Collins, Patton, Barton at the funeral of General Roosevelt
Generals Bradley, Patton, Hodges, Collins, Patton, Barton paid a tribute to Roosevelt’s extraordinary courage and popularity
A girl lays flowers on graves at Sainte-Mère-Eglise Temporary Military Cemetery No. 2
This photo was taken on July 14, the day of Roosevelt’s funeral. A local girl lays flower to one of the graves at Sainte-Mère-Eglise Temporary Military Cemetery No. 2

One of the most well-known photos of the first days in Cotentin, taken on June 8, 1944, depicted a group of American soldiers, who had covered the bodies of their fallen brothers in arms with a white cloth. The photo was taken next to the village of Blosville, 3 km to the South of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. The site was initially one of the first burials after D-day with more than 500 bodies already buried in the first days after June 6, later to become the ‘Military Cemetery № 3’. Despite the active work on burials within the two cemeteries in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, men of the 603rd Quartermaster were also assigned to create other burial grounds. In the course of the first days after June 6, the field of the future largest military cemetery in the area was covered with the fragments of the collapsed gliders, who had crashed here in the first wave of the Invasion. It was in the belly of one of the gliders, where the men of the fourth platoon (of the 603rd) set their temporary headquarters, being backed by the local Frenchmen. In the following months, the greater proportion of the burials here would be of the VIII Corps (not to be confused with the VII Corps), operational in Normandy since June 15 as a part of the U.S. First Army. In total, 5804 soldiers, including some Germans, were buried on this site. The cemetery near Blosville existed until 1948 as well as the two in Sainte-Mere-Eglise and at present, the enthusiasts may find the memorial sign. At arm’s end from it, the one could also witness a monument to two ‘Brothers-in-Arms’ soldiers: Myron G. Gibbons, 320th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division and Sam M. Gibbons of the 501st Regiment, 101st, two brothers, who outlived the Third Reich until 1989 and 2012 respectively. 

The bodies of US paratroopers and Germans near Sainte-Mère-Église on June 7, 1944.
The bodies of US paratroopers and Germans are covered with parachutes prior to identification and burial near Sainte-Mère-Église on June 7, 1944.
‘Military Cemetery № 3’ Blosville
‘Military Cemetery № 3’ near Blosville, was the largest among the three provisional cemeteries on Contentin with 5804 graves

 

THE TOWN HALL AND THE ‘LIBERTY WAY’ MILESTONE 

One of the rare pre-war photos of the Sainte-Mere-Eglise town hall was written down beneath with: ‘L’hotel de Ville — la justice de Paix et bureau des postes T.T.’ Therefore, in the early XX century this magnificent and at that time solitary building used to accommodate a number of municipal institutions. In the same way as the town square and the church had been for centuries a heart of the civilian, cultural, merchant life of the town, the main administrative building of Sainte-Mere-Eglise used to include a number of offices. At present, anyone can see two inscriptions on both sides of the main entrance above the windows of the second floor: ‘POSTES’ and ‘LA JUSTICE PAIX’. Relatedly, the building accommodated the local post office as well as what can be translated into English as ‘Justice of the peace court’ or ‘civil magistrate’s court’. The tradition in France originated in 1790 and the local ‘magistrate’ or simply judge of thirty years and older was to be elected by the local civil assembly, accompanied by two accessors. As society demanded more qualified institutions, the ‘La justice paix’ practice was abolished in 1958. 

The old photograph of the Sainte-Mere-Eglise town-hall
The old photograph of the Sainte-Mere-Eglise town-hall

The Town-hall of Sainte-Mere-Eglise today

The even more unique pictures of the 1940-1944 period depicted the German soldiers while posing in front of the former town hall. Not long after seizing the town in June 1940, the Germans for obvious reasons accommodated the key administrative building and turned it into the local headquarters of the ‘District Civil Affairs Office’ of the German army. The purpose of this occupational institution was to manage the civil issues and appeals of the locals in accordance with the occupational laws in the operational areas of Wehrmacht. Apart from around 1200 inhabitants of the city itself, the Germans accepted appeals from the peasants of the commune around Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Alexandre Renaud, the long-time hard worker of the French administration in the town, used to work in the building before and during the occupation. The same photos reveal a guarding post with two German soldiers at the main entrance. 

Two German soldiers in front of the Sainte-Mère-Église Hôtel de Ville
Two German soldiers on a motorcycle pose in front of the Sainte-Mère-Église Hôtel de Ville during the occupation
German soldiers poses at Sainte-Mère-Église Hôtel de Ville
German soldiers poses on the front steps of the Sainte-Mère-Église Hôtel de Ville

In the late hours of June 5, 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Ed Krause declared an emotional speech in front of his soldiers of the 3rd battalion of the 505th parachute regiment within the airfield near Lincolnshire, England. He hoisted the American flag over his head and reminded his men that the »Stars and Stripes» were the first to fly over the city of Naples when it had been seized by the troops of the 82nd Airborne Division. Now he appealed to his men to put all their efforts into their mission (of the 3rd battalion): a march to and seizure of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Approximately six hours before the actual capture of the town, Krause foresaw the flying of the particular flag over Sainte-Mere-Eglise. It is worth noting that on October 1, 1943, the soldiers of the 505th regiment were the vanguard of the Allied soldiers in the first major European city liberated in Europe. Back in those days, the seizure of Naples was not the climax of their involvement in Italy and they moved further North to face the German resistance pockets. 

Around 4.30 a.m. on June 6 the vanguard soldiers of the 3rd battalion indeed raised the same flag over town-hall of Sainte-Mere-Eglise: it is generally told, that Lieutenant Colonel Ed Krause was the one who did the procedure himself. It is generally believed that eight decades from that day the legendary ‘Star and Stripes’, literally the very same flag, is still displayed inside the town hall. In fact, the original flag of the 3rd battalion, the one Krause raised over Sainte-Mere-Eglise, is a relic in the 82nd Division’s museum at Fort Bragg in the USA. 

As opposed to the legendary flag in the US, the town hall of Sainte-Mere-Eglise still has a few historical monuments, which are worth attention. From the road, one can see the ‘Guerre 1939-1945’ war memorial, which commemorates the memory of the forty-five townspeople, who lost their lives during the four years of occupation, including the German repressions and Allied bombardments and during the Battle of Normandy. One of the signs claims Sainte-Mere-Eglise to be the first town to be liberated on the Western front. This argument is debateful as the people of two other villages: Benouville and Ranville near Caen (the capture of the Pegasus and Orne Bridges by the British) have the same claims. Among those 45 names, we can see more than one man with the same second name: two Lebrumans, two Reffrays, three Viels. 

War memorials in Sainte-Mere-Eglise
‘Guerre 1939-1945’ war memorial and the ‘K — O’ sign in front of it as they are today

Just in front of the French memorials, one could see the ‘Liberty milestone’, in fact, the very first of such kind, which marks the ‘Liberty way’ from Sainte-Mere-Eglise in France to Bastogne in Belgium. It symbolizes the long and bloody way, which the American soldiers made through the previously occupied territories of Western Europe toward the German border. Without disputing the matter of the first town in France to be liberated, Sainte-Mere-Eglise anyway has a sacral meaning for the Americans. The forty-eight stars were used to represent the number of states in the US back in 1944. Beneath there is a ‘K — O’ sign, which means the first milestone. In fact, the sign ‘KM OO’ is placed at Utah beach and leads to Sainte-Mere-Eglise and from here the liberty way goes in two directions. The first one is to the South in direction of Carentan and the second one is in the direction of Cherbourg to the North. The one to the South passes Rennes, Angers, Reims, Verdun, Metz, then in the North direction to Luxemburg and finally to Bastogne. The total length of the ‘Liberty way’ is 1146 kilometers with the appropriate number of signs. 

Paying regard to the surrounding area, a small orchard next to the right side of the town hall reveals another memorial related to the heroes of D-day and after. It was once erected at the expanse of the local townspeople of  Sainte-Mere-Eglise to commemorate the memory of Matthew Bunker Ridgway and James Maurice Gavin. Ridgway stood at the origins of the 82nd Airborne Division back in February 1942 when it had existed only on paper. He was one of the masterminds behind the whole ‘Operation OVERLORD’ and jumped with his division on June 6 and fought in Normandy for thirty-three days, being later appointed the commander of the Airborne Corps. The second heroic officer, James Maurice Gavin was promoted to be a commander of the famous 505th parachute regiment when he was only thirty-five years old. In October 1943 he was promoted to brigadier general and the assistant division commander, who later led the parachute troops during D-day and after. 

Matthew Bunker Ridgway and James Maurice Gavin
A memorial devoted to Matthew Bunker Ridgway and James Maurice Gavin, next to the Town-hall

 

THE MUSEUM 

The eyewitnesses from either German, French or American frames of reference left the modern historiography a number of versions in regard to the exact time and the causes of the fire, which since 1944 has become one of the most cited episodes of D-day in Normandy and particularly in all regarding Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Apart from merely the human component, the one-hour difference between the Berlin time (the occupied territories had been set to it back in June 1940) and the British one, also edited different versions. The most factual educated guess we have, assume, that the house of Juliette Pommier, which had once faced the town’s main square, was unintentionally set on fire around 00:20 June 6 with a marker flare during the landing of the pathfinders’ teams within the dropping zone ‘O’. The alternative accounts (particularly the one of Raymond Paris) of the locals claim the fire started an hour before midnight. In one way or another, toward 1:00 a.m. the fire had become so intense, that a brigade of two local firemen had to weaken the whole town by ringing the church bell. The situation was not of an overstatement as the fire could migrate to the neighboring wooden structures and further. The building was the home of Juliette Pommier, who used to take care of the children in the town. There is one preserved photo of the burned house, taken from the backyard in the direction of the main square with a distinctive church tower in the far background. 

A rare photo of the burned house of Juliette Pommier Sainte-Mere-Eglise
A rare photo of the burned house of Juliette Pommier from the backyard. The church is clearly visible in the far background as the house once faced it.

After 1948 and the decision to repatriate the burials of the American soldiers (and the burials of the Germans as well) from the two provisional cemeteries, the townspeople of Sainte-Mere-Eglise were overcome with a sort of depression. A feeling of anxiety based on the idea that the memory of 1944 may be staggeringly forgotten. Alexandre Renaud, the mayor of the town in 1944, was the driving force beyond the vision of creating a place of commemoration in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. In the 1950s he had active lettering both with the French statesmen and the American military organizations on the matter of creating a museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. The idea was, in fact, a challenging task in virtue of the titanic efforts of the French people in the years after the war. As a final result, Alexandre Renaud succeeded in finding the financial backing and the local authorities if the town allocated the area, which had been previously occupied by a house of Juliette Pommier. The location was in some way symbolic as at least two American paratroopers lost their lives in the fire on this very site in the early hours of June 6, 1944. 

In the aftermath of the construction permit, an issue arose in regard to collecting the authentic relics related to the actions of the 82nd and 101st Divisions. As early as May 1957 Alexandre Renaud, still a moving force of the whole idea, requested an authentic D-day glider from the command of the 82nd Airborne. The high-ranking officers of the active army unit, some of them were the combat veterans of Normandy, were inspired with an idea and succeeded in finding the authentic unit of equipment for the museum. In the early 1960s, the Americans sent a wrecked Waco CG4A glider in bad condition, which demanded repair. After the repair works the glider was to become the most precious piece of the ‘Permanent display of Airborne troops’ in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, run under the newly created association, assigned to manage the future museum designed in the shape of a parachute. The inauguration took place in June 1964 due to the 20th anniversary of the liberation in the presence of General Matthew Ridgway (commander of the 82nd during the Invasion), General James M. Gavin (commander of the 505th regiment and assistant division commander under Ridgway), general Maxwell D. Taylor (commander of the 101st Division in 1944), the new town mayor Jean Masselin and the iconic Alexander Renaud. 

John Steele, Alexandre Renaud, and William Bill Tucker at the 20th anniversary of the liberation, June 1964
John Steele, Alexandre Renaud, and William Bill Tucker (another paratrooper of the 82nd) at the 20th anniversary of the liberation, June 1964
Laying the cornerstone of the first building of the museum, June 6, 1962.
Laying the cornerstone of the first building of the museum, June 6, 1962. James M. Gavin, with Mayor Jean Masselin (far right) of Sainte-Mère-Église

This was the starting point of the museum and its precious collection of war-time relics and as early as the mid-1970s it was complemented with an authentic Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft. The aircraft was directly involved in the events of June 5-6, 1944. It was used by the unit of the 101st division and later during ‘Operation Market Garden’ and ‘The battle of the Bulge’. On March 29th, 1982 it made its last flight carrying 82nd pathfinder veteran Robert Murphy, who made a parachute jump over Sainte-Mere-Eglise. In the meantime, the collective efforts resulted in a decision to expand the museum territory and to build the second building, designed as Delta wing. The new erection would be inaugurated on June 6, 1983, to the 39th anniversary. The third building in the shape of the plane wing was finally opened on June 5, 2014, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-day with a number of veterans of the 82nd Division present, including Don Jakeway, the veteran of the 508th parachute regiment. In 2016 the citizens and guests of Sainte-Mere-Eglise witnessed the opening of another building, called the ‘Ronald Reagan Conference Center’ with a space for 120 attendees. In the same year, the daughters of general Gavin presented the portrait of their father to the museum. 

airborne museum sainte mere eglise

airborne museum sainte mere eglise france
A spacious territory of the Airborne museum is now filled with several relics and thematic expositions devoted to D-Day

I am very grateful to war archives, museums, libraries, private collections for the historical photos used in this article. To the extent that the authors or copyright owners may not want some of the above black-and-white photos to be used for an educational purpose, please contact me for adding credits or deleting the pictures from the article.