Normandy Section

Sainte Mere Eglise - US Paratroopers - WWII

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Sainte Mere Eglise, a strategic crossroads town

Sainte Mere Eglise was a strategic crossroads town situated along the N13, the road that led to Utah and Omaha beaches.

The Germans had occupied it since June 1940 and turned it into a secondary inland outpost, which had been subject to regular Allied air raids.

The landing on Utah was assigned to the US 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, were heavily defended by the coastal batteries of Saint-Marcouf and Azzeville.

The marshes and lowlands spread along the Merderet and Douve rivers. They unfold 3km inland and followed the layout of Utah Beach.

Four causeways traversed them in the direction of the beaches and thus formed a natural line of defence for the Germans.

One of them linked Sainte Mere Eglise directly to Utah Beach and therefore would provide a perfect exit road for the landing troops.

Taking control of the area would also block off any German reinforcement troops coming from the south and would therefore seal off the Cotentin Peninsula.

Paratrooper dummy on church steeple

U.S. 82nd Airborne Division

Mission Boston was assigned to the 82nd US Airborne Division and the capture of Sainte Mere Eglise to the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

Their other objective was to seize the eastern ends of the bridges spanning the Merderet River at Chef-du-Pont and La Fière.

These were the only two bridges that could sustain the crossing of the river with armour.

The drops of the 82nd Division were scheduled five hours before the landings.

Mission Albany would precede Mission Boston by one hour.

The paratroopers of the US 101st Airborne were to destroy the batteries in Saint-Martin-de-Varreville and Mésières, capture the Douve River's lock at La Barquette, two footbridges spanning the river at La Porte and the bridges that spanned it at Sainte-Come-du-Mont.

Finally, they were to capture the causeways that linked Utah to the inland to allow the landing troops exit the beach.

Merderet Marshes seen from the Memorial Park

The disastrous drops

In the early hours of June 6 (between 00.50am and 1.40am) the pathfinders were dropped behind the enemy lines in order to prepare the drop zones.

At 1.40am the men of the 82nd U.S. Airborne Division were dropped off over the Merderet River and marsh.

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 marker flares installed by the pathfinders.

Heavy German anti-aircraft fire added to the situation.

As a result, the drops of both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were scattered over an area four times larger than the scheduled one!

Indeed, the aircraft carrying the paratroopers found themselves under severe anti-aircraft enemy fire, as soon as they approached the coasts.

The 505th was the only Regiment to be dropped almost accurately to the northwest of Sainte Mere Eglise!

Many paratroopers from the 101st Airborne touched ground near Sainte Mere Eglise, far west from their planned drop zone.

Sainte Mere Eglise - 1.00am to 4.30am

At 1.00am the constant enemy shelling - or may be one of the marker flares dropped by the pathfinders - triggered a fire in one of the houses situated by the church in Sainte Mere Eglise.

This obviously raised the alarm among the inhabitants and the Germans positioned in the village. Soon the fire wreaked havoc upon the town.

Tragically, it also lightened up the sky and allowed the Germans to locate the paratroopers of the 2nd Battalion of the 505th PIR, as they were coming down.

Numbers of paratroopers were therefore riddled with bullets before reaching the ground.

Others landed on trees or utility poles and were killed before they could even undo their parachutes. Tragically others landed straight into the inferno.

They were eventually rescued by 158 paratroopers of the 3rd Battalion of the 505th Parachutist Infantry Regiment and elements from the 101st Airborne, all placed under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Krause.

The men encircled Sainte Mere Eglise and seized the village at 4.30am, making about 30 prisoners.

Sainte Mere Eglise became known to the world after the film The Longest Day because of the paratrooper John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

Steele indeed landed on the church's steeple and pretended to be dead to avoid being shot by the Germans. He stayed put, hanging in the air, for two long hours and watched helplessly as the Germans shot his comrades around him.

The Germans, however, took him as prisoner, but not for long. Steele managed indeed to escape and joined his Division, when it entered the village at 4.30am.

A German counterattack was neutralised on June 7.

Sainte Mere Eglise is proud to be one of the first Norman towns liberated on D-Day.

Memorials

You will find several memorials in Sainte Mere Eglise.

1- The Liberation Monument pays tribute to 82nd and 101st U.S. Airborne Divisions who liberated the town on D-Day.

The monument stands on the church square where the market is held.

2- The Voie de la Liberté - Borne 0 - Liberty Road - Milestone 0 stands on the pavement, in front of town hall. It was unveiled on September 16, 1946.

2- Fifteen Liberation Boards have been placed throughout Sainte Mere Eglise in order to relate its liberation on D-Day.

The Liberation Board #13 stands a few meters from the Milestone 0.

It displays photos taken during the war: Germans soldiers standing outside the town hall during the Occupation; the inauguration of Milestone 0; the town's liberation.

3- The Ridgway-Gavin Stele is also in front of the town hall.

It pays tribute to the two Generals and to all those who liberated Sainte Mere Eglise.

4- Sainte Mere Eglise has found the finest tribute that could be to John Steel and all his comrades who lost their lives under German bullets or landed in the fire.

The municipality has indeed hung a dummy paratrooper and his parachute on the steeple of the church.

5- Two stained glass windows were created for the church to commemorate the liberation of the town by 82nd Airborne Division on June 6,1944.

One of them depicts the Virgin with two paratroopers. One of them is Private John M. Steele (1912–1969).

6- The 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment Stele commemorates the 505th P.I.R. of the 82nd Airborne Division. It is located on the south side of town.

7- You'll find the 82nd Airborne Plaque in Rue Cayenne.

It pays tribute to four parachutists of the 505th P.I.R. Company C, who were killed on that spot on 6 June 1944.

8- An American Sherman tank is exhibited in the Airborne troops Museum Park.

9-  Finally, three War Cemeteries Monuments mark the site of temporary American War cemeteries that were open near Sainte Mere Eglise.

War Memorials:

Juno Beach: Bernieres-sur-mer - Corseulles-sur-mer - Graye-sur-mer - Douvres-la-Delivrande

Gold Beach: Arromanches - Ver-sur-mer

Sword Beach: Ouistreham-Riva Bella

Landing Beaches:

Sword - Gold - Juno - Omaha - Utah

Rediscover all the landing beaches during the 75th Anniversary Commemorations

Department of Manche
Coordinates: Lat 49.409904 - Long -1.318183

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