Normandy Research Foundation

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No Better Place to Die

September 1, 2015

 

The Battle for La Fiere Bridge
Ste. Mere-Eglise, Normandy

Getting out of the car I could hear the gravel crush under my feet. I closed the car door, my journey of 3,000 miles ended. Silence I thought, hearing only the sounds I brought to this place. The wind blew strongly pushing me towards the old stone bridge over the Merderet River. My visions had been limited to old black and white photos and the texts of book pages. Over 70 years removed from the battle, my senses are filling with sights, sounds, and smells.  History had come alive.  My overloaded senses mixing with the words of a veteran of the battle fought here.  He was then a young American soldier calling this place, “No Better Place To Die”. I am in Normandy, less than 2 miles from Ste. Mere Eglise at the La Fiere Manoir house, Bridge, and Causeway.


In the first few weeks of June 1944 the most valuable real estate in the world was a small strip of land called Normandy. Located on the northwestern coast of France, it held the world’s greatest hope for victory over Hitler’s forces.  The beaches, roads and bridges were the greatest hope of the men who planned the invasion. And for the men who landed from the sea and sky their greatest hope was to survive. The most valuable real estate on earth was exchanged for the dead and dying in a man-made hell to capture those beaches, roads and bridges.

One of those bridges and roads was the Bridge and Causeway over the Merderet River just beyond Ste. Mere Eglise.  Vast areas of Normandy had been flooded by Rommel in an effort to limit the movement of the Allies once they landed.  Rommel had created the lonely and dangerous roads that the Americans would use to advance. The unintended consequence of that action was that Rommel’s German forces were also limited to finding roads and bridges not flooded. Inevitably, it would lead to deadly battles fought over old stone bridges and cart paths called roads. In June 1944, Normandy was the most dangerous place on Earth. And La Fiere Bridge and Causeway was one of the most dangerous places in Normandy.

The invading Americans needed to cross the Merderet River. Their options were limited. The La Fiere Bridge was identified by the D-Day planners as a strategic requirement for the troops advancing from Utah Beach. Its value to the success of the Normandy landings was best described as somewhere between irreplaceable and incalculable.

 

 It was irreplaceable to the Germans as well. The Germans needed to recapture the strategic crossroads town of Ste. Mere-Eglise, and advance towards the invading American army landing at Utah Beach. With limited options to travel, the Germans had to hold the bridge and causeway at La Fiere. The stage was set for a fierce battle. Liberators and conquerors, freedom and tyranny separated by the width of an old stone bridge.   

 

I traveled westerly for 2 kilometers on the D-15 from Ste. Mere-Eglise. Not sure exactly how to get to the Bridge, I take a wrong turn. I was on a road that is a picture post card of what Normandy was and remains – an active farming area. The old road narrow and winding, invites me to slow down and savor the end of my 3,000 mile journey.   It is late September and the morning air chilled me. The leaves on this country lane have  surrendered their vibrant greens for softer yellows and warmer reds. They were a colorful reminder of my New England roots and that autumn has followed me here.  Fearing an oncoming farm tractor, I drive slowly, hugging the hedgerow on my right. The hedgerow. The countryside is unchanged; I feel I am driving into history.

 

Before long I see the Manoir de La Fiere. Built beside a peaceful bend in the Merderet River, it sits as a companion to an old stone bridge. Cows grazing in the low-lying pastures are my first sign of life.  To them I am the invader as I drive into this idyllic French country setting. 

 

The fighting here began on D-Day morning. Elements of the 82nd Airborne Division landed in the area of Ste. Mere-Eglise. This is ground zero for any student or tourist of D-Day.  Ste. Mere-Eglise was one of the first towns contested in Normandy. It was a vital communication center, and road junction. It is located just a few short miles from Utah Beach. Descending American Paratroopers battled with the Germans who had held this historic city for four long years.

 

On D-Day early in the morning residents of Ste. Mere - Eglise were fighting a large fire in the center of town.  The Americans and Germans fought all around the stunned firefighters. The battle was bloody and swift.  On D-Day morning at 04:30 hours, Ste. Mere-Eglise was no longer occupied - it was liberated.


Just outside Ste. Mere-Eglise other American Paratroopers were falling into a man-made lake.  1 Kilometer wide by 10 Kilometers long, the lake was created by the narrow and shallow Merderet River. The Germans had closed the locks and created an area of flooded pastures, marshes and swamps. What was a River was now a lake. Undeterred, the Paratroopers of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) found the road, bridge and manor house they were charged to capture and hold on D-Day.

 

I was 71 years behind them as I approached the Manoir de La Fiere. Before me were the very same ground, walls, and buildings that were so bitterly contested for so long ago. Walking towards the big house and farm I can hear the nearby river flowing towards the old stone bridge. I see before me what they saw. Yet, now over 70 years later, it is very different.

 

 Where the Germans and Americans battled I see a tour group. And on the manor house a sign, Bed and Breakfast of the Battle of La Fiere.  I close my eyes and think back to another time...

 

It is D-Day and it is still dark in Normandy. In my black and white world, the men of the 82nd Airborne Division are face to face with a stone manor house full of Germans. Under the command of Lieutenant John J. “Red Dog” Dolan some of the men of the 505th PIR engaged the Germans occupying the old stone farm house.  Before long other paratroopers, men from the 507th PIR join the battle.  As the fight wears on men from the 508th PIR arrived to help attack the manor. Before long American paratroopers were fighting into the manor yard and into the house.  The remaining Germans surrendered. In his recollections of the battle for the manor, Paratrooper Robert M. Murphy described the fight as,” intense”. He remembered it as just the opening act in what he described as, “…likely the worst killing ground in the Normandy Airborne battle zones.”  I open my eyes and smile thinking that today this house bears witness as a bed and breakfast, a haven for modern invaders – tourists.

 

Turning away from the Manoir house I am face to face with the old stone bridge at La Fiere. It still functions as an important bridge over the meandering Merderet River. The tour guide and his charges are walking down the causeway – the bridge is mine. Standing at the eastern end, I cast my gaze over a river that looks more like a creek. My imagination recalls the pictures of the flooded pastures, marshes and lowlands that so long ago formed a lake from this innocuous country creek. Thus establishing a value on this bridge it has never again achieved. 

 

For the men of A Company, 1st Battalion of the 505th PIR capturing the manor was only a side show. Their mission was to capture and hold the old stone bridge at La Fiere.  In his memoir, “No Better Place To Die”,   Robert Murphy said, “[the Bridge was] captured…at 11:00 hours on June 6… The La Fiere Bridge was never again crossed by German troops except as prisoners.”   Murphy’s words written 65 years after D-day, lead me over the bridge. I stand on the western end where the Germans attacked, and the killing continued. 

 

On D-day at 17:30 hours, 5:30 PM, the Germans came to take the bridge back. Further down the causeway that leads to the bridge came the sounds of tanks. The Paratroopers had very little answer for heavy weapons like tanks. Undaunted, the men of the 82nd Airborne dug in. The German tanks started to cross the 500 yard causeway followed by scores of German infantry.  The Paratroopers had earlier in the day put mines across the causeway to protect the invaluable bridge. The lead German tank stopped short of the mines; it was the last thing the tank driver ever did. Suddenly the tank was hit by a US bazooka round. The tank commander opened his hatch and was shot dead immediately. Then a shell from an anti-tank gun that had just been brought up by the Americans finished off the tank. It exploded in a burst of flames. As a second tank approached, it slowed near the knocked out tank. Then - It was hit with multiple bazooka rounds. It was now finished, unusable to the Germans. 

 

The German infantry swarmed around the tanks heading for the bridge. They were exposed, easy targets out on the causeway. They paid the full price modern weapons extract. They were gunned down by well-placed machine guns. The German attack ended with the dead and dying covering the causeway. As the sun set on Tuesday, June 6th the Bridge was still in the hands of the Americans. The “day of days” was over, but the battle for the old stone bridge and causeway was not.  

 

Wednesday morning June 7TH,   the Germans made their intentions clear. Mortar and artillery rounds rained onto the defenders of the old stone bridge.  Then the tanks appeared as they had on D-Day. With little cover the tanks were just steel death traps. Easy targets for American gunners. The German infantry used the tanks as cover and threw everything they had at the American defenders. Bringing forward mortars and machine guns they pounded the men of the 505th.  The Paratroopers were unbreakable and they paid a bloody price for their resolve.
In the chaos and killing around the bridge, command fell to Sargent Owens. Owens had nearly singlehandedly slowed the German assault. First firing a 30 caliber machine gun at the oncoming Germans, and then anything he could find.  Owens knew he needed help. Needing men and ammunition, Owens Sent a runner to Lieutenant” Red Dog” Dolan’s command post at the manor. The runner quickly returned and gave the beleaguered Sargent a note. “I know of no better place to die than this”.  Dolan had no help to offer. His words an epitaph to those killed holding the old stone bridge.  Sargent Owens and what was left of the Airborne defenders held out, the German attack failed.

 

From the western side of the bridge I started to walk down the causeway. It has changed more than the farm, manor or bridge. Today the causeway is overgrown with trees. Cars race by, reminding me I am over 70 years from the famous battle. Cows stare at me as I walk past them. I say to my traveling companion, “This is where so many died.” On this causeway, an elevated dirt mound of a road. The only way through the flooded low lying lands of this corner of Normandy.   

 

My traveling companion stops and takes in this place. The serenity disturbed by only the wind. Standing at the end of the causeway with her, my voice just above a whisper, “Young men like your Dad fought and died here.”  My companion’s father walked across Omaha Beach just days after D-Day. He was 19 years old in 1944, and fought from Normandy to Germany. Thinking of him, I see the faces, the black and white images of those who fought and died here. 

 

At the end of the causeway I look back towards the bridge and manor house. Even with over seventy years of growth the causeway is still a raised exposed road offering little cover. I thought of young American soldiers in June of 1944 who had to come down this road.

 

On June 8th the Germans thought the Americans would come down that lonely dangerous causeway. They did not. The Americans sent elements of the 325th Glider infantry regiment (GIR) around the causeway road to connect with paratroopers who had landed there on D-Day. Able to ford across a shallow area the Glider troops linked up with Paratroopers already there. The combined forces of the Glider troops and Paratroopers attacked the Germans from the side and rear.  The fighting was bloody and unsuccessful. The Germans were able to hold their ground. Time was running out for the Americans. Something drastic was needed. 

For three days in June of 1944, American and German forces had been killing each other for a farm house, an old stone bridge and a cart path. The Germans still held the western end of the causeway. Time was bearing a weight for the Americans that overruled all other concerns.  The troops that had been landing at Utah Beach needed that causeway to get inland.  There was only one question to be answered. What would be the toll, paid in blood, for the cart path over the old stone bridge in the world’s most deadly place in June of 1944?

 

Four Generals met on the morning of June 9TH : Major General J. Lawton Collins, US VII Corps Commander, Major General Raymond Barton, 4th US Infantry Division Commander, Major General Mathew Ridgeway, 82nd Airborne Division Commander and Brigadier General James Gavin, 82nd Airborne Division Deputy Commander. Together they detailed a simple plan of a bombardment followed by an assault down the causeway. Bombardment and assault, sounds like something out of history when guns held a single bullet and had bayonets attached to them. A plan out of place in World War II.

 

James Gavin, was one of the youngest Generals of World War II. He was ordered to secure the west end of the causeway. He would do so by a direct frontal assault - A charge.  70 years later, I am standing where the Germans were dug in. My field of view of an oncoming charge nearly perfectly unobstructed. 

 

What were these soldiers asked to do?  My visions fade into the legendary charges of armies written into history. Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg and that fateful charge by another war’s youngest general -   George Custer and his charge at the Little Big Horn. 

 

On the morning of June 9th,   the fourth day of fighting began as elements of the 325th GIR were ordered across the causeway. Lt. Colonel John J. Carrell was chosen to lead three companies of the 325th Glider troops. Col. Carrell said to General Gavin,” I don’t think I can do this”. General Gavin snapped, “Why?” Carrell’s diminutive response, “I am Sick”. Gavin fired him on the spot.
 
Just before the Glider troops stepped off, US artillery pounded the German positions on and at the end of the causeway. The results of the bombardment were futile. Ominously, as the glider troops broke from their cover a lead soldier was shot in the head.  The shock of a comrade’s blood and brains splattered over them was debilitating. they froze. their trip into hell temporarily delayed.

 Unknowingly, Their new leader, Captain John Sauls screamed, “Go, Go, Go!” as he sprinted over the bridge and down the causeway. His troops would be far behind him. 
 
I slowly walk back towards the bridge. I imagine the faces of those young men as they rushed down the open road to their destruction. I think of lives hardly lived, never to be the same, forever broken. Faces pale white, ashen, their blood drained, they are carried only by their adrenalin and the order to charge.

The Glider troops run across the Causeway.  They run by the bodies of dead Americans and Germans. Trying themselves not to join the dead and dying on that old cart path. More are killed, many more are wounded. Others make it across the 500 yard maelstrom of death. There they attack the Germans in the final chaotic and deadly struggle.

 

 Believing the attack is faltering the young General Gavin orders Colonel Maloney to send what is left of his 507th PIR across the bridge and causeway. A junior officer spoke up, “Colonel, it will be a slaughter”.  The men knew for 500 yards they would be in the open.  Captain Bob Rae and the paratroopers of the 507th PIR joined the fateful charge.  Gavin was out of time and options.

Before long the fighting at La Fiere is over.  The price paid in American blood, 569 killed, wounded, or missing. The exchange rate for:  four days, a farm house, an old stone bridge, and a 500 yard long cart path.

 

I keep walking back towards the Bridge and Manor House. I remember the words of one of the men of the 507th PIR, Paul Mank. Decades later, Mank   recalled, “I could have walked across [the causeway] stepping on rows of bodies… 

Noted American Military historian, S.L.A. Marshall described the Battle of the La Fiere Bridge and Causeway as “…probably the bloodiest small unit struggle in the history of American arms…” That puts into perspective what happened here. It was historic.

 

My walk back down the causeway is leading me to the old stone bridge. My steps are slower.  My breath is deeper. I can feel my heartbeat. Walking over the bridge my eyes have tears in them. I am alone with my thoughts listening to the wind.
I approach my car and I can hear again the gravel under my feet. I feel compelled to turn around and take one lasting look. Maybe a photo or two.  But what I have seen and felt cannot be captured in an image.  Chasing history, my recollections are best captured by these words – “Earn this.”   And my promise to them, “Don’t Let Their Glory Fade”  

 

©2015 Amelia McNutt

 

 

References

Booth, Michael T, and Spencer, Duncan. The Airborne’s Watery Triumph. Overlord. Spring 1994. Military History Quarterly, Vol. 6 # 3.

Dolan, John, J. Letter to General James Gavin. March 15, 1959.


www.thedropzone.org, 

 

Mank, Paul. Veterans History Project, Collection. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress,   www.lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/bib/loc.natlib.afc2001001.22846

Morgan, Martin K A. Down To Earth, The 507th Parachute Regiment in Normandy June 6-July 15, 1944. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.: Atglen, PA. 2004.

Murphy, Robert M. No Better Place to Die. Casemate Publishers: Drexel Hill, PA, 2009.

 

Nightingale, Keith. Col (Ret.). The Taking of La Fiere Bridge. Small Wars Journal. May 28, 2012. www.smallwarsjournal.com 

 

Woodage, Paul. Richard B. Johnson – The Forgotten Hero of the Causeway Charge. 2008. www.reba.net/images/UserFiles/File/news/Richard%20B%20Johnson.pdf 

Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg. (Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon. Producers: Ian Bryce, Mark Gordon, Gary Levensohn. Screenwriter: Robert Rodat). DreamWorks Pictures, 1998. 

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