The Merderet crossing, a major strategic position
La Fiere Memorial Park was founded to pay tribute to the US Airborne Divisions who landed on D-Day. It is situated 4km west of Sainte-Mère l’Eglise, on the D15 and by the Pont de la Fière that spans the river Merderet.
The causeway had always been of strategic importance. It was indeed the only road that spanned the river and ran across the Merderet marshes and lowlands.
Back in the early Middle Ages, a wooden defence tower stood atop the hill (where the Memorial Park today is) to monitor the causeway and the river crossing.
The causeway (current D15) was improved and strengthened over the centuries, but still remain the main road over the marshes.
During WWII, La Fière and Chef-du-Pont were therefore the only two bridges that allowed the crossing of the Merderet River with armour.
The 500m long causeway led to the village of Cauquigny.
The marshes and lowlands spread along the Merderet and Douve rivers. They unfold 3km inland and followed the layout of Utah Beach.
Four ‘secondary’ causeways traversed them and linked the beaches to Carentan and Sainte-Mère l’Eglise, the two main crossroads towns of the region.
Capturing Cauquigny, La Fiere and the causeways would therefore block off any reinforcement of German troops coming from the south.
It would obviously also secure the beachhead of Utah Beach and allow the landing troops progress inland across the marshes.
The bridge at La Fiere and Chef-du-Pont was a major position for both the Germans and the Allies.
As a result, the Battle of La Fière was one of the fiercest fights of the Battle of Normandy. Tragically, it took the Allies four days to capture and secure the causeway and the casualties were massive.
Merderet marshes and lowlands
1- Three of the four ‘secondary’ causeways led directly onto Tare Green and Uncle Red and thus formed a natural line of defence, which the Germans had taken advantage of.
They indeed fiercely defended these roads with their coastal batteries of Saint-Marcouf and Azzeville.
2- The landing on Utah was assigned to the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and was divided into three sectors: Tare Green, Uncle Red and Victor (from west to east).
The landings were to concentrate on Tare Green and Uncle Red (Dunes de Vareville area).
These two sectors, situated opposite the Merderet marshes and lowlands, however, were heavily defended by the coastal batteries of Saint-Marcouf and Azzeville.
3- The Germans were also in control of La Barquette – on the estuary of the Douve River – the lock that controlled the water level in the marshes.
Field General Erwin Rommel ordered the lock’s flow valves to be opened at high tide and closed at low tide to flood the entire area.
Battle de La Fiere – 82nd Airborne Division
The 82nd Airborne Division was divided into three forces of assault:
1- The Parachute Infantry Regiments under the command of General Gavin
2- The Glider Infantry Regiment commanded by General Ridgway
3- The seaborne support of troops and armoured regiments landing on Utah.
The 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment was to capture Sainte-Mère-l’Eglise – a crucial crossroads town situated inland from Utah – and the eastern ends of the bridges spanning the Merderet River at Chef-du-Pont and La Fière.
The 507th PIR was to capture the village of Cauquigny, which was linked to La Fière by the 500m long causeway that traversed the flooded marshes.
The 508th PIR’s mission was to destroy the bridges spanning the Douve River to the southwest.
Achieving these targets would seal off the Cotentin Peninsula from the south and block off any German counterattack from the west.
As a result, the troops who would be able to securely land on Utah at 6.30am.
The Mission Albany would take place 1 hour prior to Mission Boston.
The paratroopers of the U.S. 101st Airborne would be dropped west of Saint-Martin-de Varreville and west and southwest of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont to capture the causeways linking Utah to the inland (to allow the landing troops exit the beach).
The missed drops
The drops of the 82nd Division were scheduled five hours before the landings.
However, the poor weather conditions – low cloud on the northern part of the Cotentin Peninsula and ground fog over the drop zones – altered the visibility of the light markers installed by the pathfinders.
Add to these the heavy German anti-aircraft fire!
As a result, the drops occurred over an area four times larger than the scheduled one.
The 505th was in fact the only Regiment to be dropped almost accurately to the northwest of Sainte-Mère-l’Eglise.
The paratroopers of the 507th and the 508th were indeed dropped a long distance away from their planned landing zones and were scattered all over the flooded area.
Tragically, the paratroopers of the 508th had the worse drop of all the regiments.
Indeed, many of their men touched ground in the flooded marshes on the western bank of the river.
Their pathfinders had landed in the accurate drop zones, however, were unable to use the marker lights because they were too close to the German positions!
Over 150 paratroopers were killed, either before touching ground, or were wounded and drowned under the weight of their heavy equipment!
Many men of the 507th, however, landed in the northern end of Merderet marshes near the Carentan-Cherbourg railway line.
They were therefore able to regroup and follow the line until its junction with the road to Sainte-Mère-l’Eglise, and then turn west towards La Fière Bridge.
The drops had been chaotic! However, they had the advantage of confusing the Germans, who had difficulty assessing where the attack would be coming from.
Battle of La Fiere
All through the night, paratroopers managed to regroup randomly with men from other units and moved towards the west of the Merderet river.
They positioned near La Fière under the command of General Gavin who had established his headquarters along D15, overlooking the causeway.
On June 5, a group of 28 German infantrymen had established an outpost in the Manoir de la Fière.
Colonel Lindquist– the commander of 508th – attacked the building with men from his regiment and from the 505th, and captured it by the end of day.
They immediately began digging in and prepare to secure their position. They therefore positioned bazookas and anti-tank guns in the bend of the D15 that faces the causeway.
Marcus Heim and his comrades Peterson, Bolderson and Pryne from the 505th anti tank unit were among the men in charge of the defence of La Fière.
The were all awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for holding their position and repelling the Germans on June 6.
1- Their orders were indeed to position in first line with their bazookas to stop any German tank from crossing the bridge and advancing towards Sainte-Mère-l’Eglise and the beaches.
Heim and his comrades, who had spent the afternoon under constant direct shelling, were attacked by the Germans around 5pm.
However, they successively destroyed three tanks and forced the Germans to withdraw in Cauquigny. The Germans failed two more counterattacks.
2- The mission of men of 507th under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Timmes, was to occupy the western end of La Fière causeway.
They took their defensive positions in an orchard in Le Motey, a hamlet situated northwest of Cauquigny.
The ten-man patrol Col. Timmes sent at midday found that the Germans had left Cauquigny.
3- La Fière, Cauquigny and the causeway secured therefore allowed other troops of the 507th to move to the western bank of the Merderet in order to join Col. Timmes.
4- However, in the late afternoon, a German infantry company and a Panzer battalion equipped with captured French tanks counterattacked.
They easily overran the paratroopers positioned in Cauquigny, crossed the causeway and attacked the men positioned in La Fiere.
4- The fierce fight that followed ended in heavy casualties among the German troops, who were exposed on the open road.
On the morning of June 7, the Germans launched another counterattack supported by mortars and artillery against the paratroopers positioned in la Fière.
Once more, they nearly reached the bridge, however, retreated towards Cauquigny under the fierceness of the paratroopers’ fire.
They didn’t attempt any counterattack on June 8, but kept the paratroopers under constant artillery and mortar fire. The deadlock had to be broken.
It was therefore decided that on June 8, troops would cross the flooded area situated north of La Fière to link with the paratroopers isolated at Le Motey and assist them in capturing Cauquigny then attack the western end of the causeway.
This mission was assigned to the men of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, who had arrived by glider in the morning of June 7. They set off across the marshes in the early hours and progressed towards their target.
However, by late morning they found themselves overwhelmed by a German counterattack and had to retreat in Le Motey with the isolate paratroopers to avoid being decimated.
It was on that day that Private First Class Charles DeGlopper was heroically killed in action.
His platoon indeed entered an outer line of German artillery positions that forced them to retreat in a ditch situated 200m from Cauquigny on D15 in a place called Hameaux Flaux.
Cut off from the rest of their unit, they found themselves under direct enemy fire.
They had little chance of escaping, until DeGlopper volunteered to cover them while they were retreating through a breach in a hedge some 40m back.
DeGlopper stood up on the causeway and continuously fired at the Germans. He killed many of them and diverted their attention from his comrades who escaped to safety.
DeGlopper kept firing at the Germans until his last breath.
His sacrifice allowed his platoon to regroup in a better position and join other units in order to secure the bridgehead and move closer to Cauquigny.
DeGlopper was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour, the highest military distinction.
This attack had, however, failed in capturing Cauquigny.
Colonel Gavin therefore assigned a direct assault across the causeway to the troops of the 325th GIR with the 507th in reserve.
The glider men had to sprint the 500m long causeway that separated the bridge from the chapel that stood at the entrance of Cauquigny.
At 10.30am the 90th Infantry Division artillery started a blockage fire with smoke in order to screen the movement of the men.
The assault was launched under constant German machine-gun fire. Soon the road was littered with dozens of wounded and dead!
The units that followed stumbled on the scattered casualties. This slowed down the assault, but a group of 30 men managed to reach Cauquigny.
However, General Gavin could only see the chaos on the causeway from his foxhole at la Fière, and thought that the assault had failed and the men were ready to retreat.
He therefore sent the paratroopers of the 507th PIR and additional men of the 325th GIR to reinforce the troops fighting outside Cauquigny.
This decision was very effective, as the Germans were overwhelmed and left Cauquigny to retreat towards Le Motey and Amfreville.
The outcome of the battle
The 82d Airborne Division had won the Battle of La Fière!
It had succeeded in taking control of the causeway and bridge at La Fière over the Merderet River and freeing the access to the western bank of the river.
The Division consolidated its positions until June 13 and was replaced on June 14 by the 90th in Picauville.
The Allies kept moving westward and Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte was freed on June 17.
The western half of the Cotentin Peninsula up to Braneville was under Allied control from June 18 onwards.
The German forces installed in Cherbourg found themselves isolated and the Allies took the city on June 27.
La Fiere Memorial Park
Several commemorative features today stand along the path that leads to the memorial.
They pay tribute to the men of the 505th and 508th PIR, the 80th Airborne anti-aircraft Battalion and the 325th Glider Infantry regiment of the US 82nd Airborne Division.
1- Iron Mike, the bronze statue of a paratrooper looks towards the Merderet marshes. It was unveiled on June 7, 1997. Its twin statue is in Fort Benning.
2- An observation table in the shape of an partially unfolded parachute recounts the chronology of the fights that took place on June 6-7, 1944.
3- A Memory Stele honours all the men who fell in action during this fight in the name of Peace, Dignity and Liberty.
4- The PFC DeGlopper Stele pays tribute to Private First Class Charles DeGlopper of the 325th Glider infantry regiment of the 82nd Airborne, who was posthumously rewarded with the Medal of Honour for his heroic attitude in the final fight that led to the capture of the bridge.
5- La Fière Bridge and this spot of the causeway have been renamed the Marcus Heim Way to honour the memory of the paratrooper of the 505th PIR who fought the German counter attack on June 6, 1944.
6- The fox hole in which General Gavin took position during the assault is visible along the D15 towards Sainte-Mère-l’Eglise.
These various memorials allows us to better appreciate the magnitude of the fighting. They are dediacted to all these men who contributed to free the world from Nazism, to those who died and those who survive.
Department of Manche
Coordinates: Lat 49.401038 – Long -1.363536
Gold Beach: Arromanches – Ver-sur-mer
Sword Beach: Ouistreham-Riva Bella
Rediscover the landing beaches during the 75th Anniversary Commemorations