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"The Last to Fall" The Battle of Graignes

November 12, 2015

 

 

 

On D-Day, 12 C-47 aircraft flying 1,000 feet above the Cotentin Peninsula, suddenly made an unexpected right turn. Caught in overcast foggy skies, the inexperienced pilots were evading German anti-aircraft guns, and doing their best not to get shot down.  It was 02:00 hours and some of the men of the 3rd Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division found themselves falling onto German occupied French soil in Normandy. They were 20 miles off course and 20 miles from their mission. Theirs was the longest miss-drop on a night of miss-drops. Of the 13​,100 US Paratroopers sent to Normandy on D-Day they were: The Last to Fall.

 

They were supposed to be dropped just outside the strategically important town of Ste. Mere-Eglise. Their mission was to help defend the vitally important Merderet River crossings, bridges and causeways that would allow the Allies to advance off Utah beach and into the interior of Normandy. But they landed in meadows, marshes, and lowlands flooded by the Germans to slow or stop the American invasion forces. Those who survived were wet and disoriented. Yet, as the sun rose on D-Day morning, they could see a bell tower in the distance. Slowly they began to band together and headed for a distant bell tower believing it was Ste. Mere-Eglise.

 

The American Paratroopers found their way to that bell tower and many of their comrades. Captain Leroy Brummitt arrived in town by 10:00, and by noon time Major Johnson arrived.  By the end of the next day, June 7th, 182 Paratroopers, mostly from the 3rd Battalion of the 507th had found their way to the bell tower in the Village of Graignes.  Graignes was an idyllic French village which had stood in Normandy for over a thousand years. High and dry surrounded by swamps and lowlands, the locals call Le Marais, Graignes is 15’ above sea level. It is a junction of smaller roads converging onto a main road to Carentan. Carentan was the strategic point where the forces that landed at Utah and Omaha Beaches would meet.

 

The villagers explained to the Officer in Charge, Major Johnson, that he was surrounded by marshes, swamps and Germans. Major Johnson had to decide if the men were to leave Graignes and try to get to St. Mere-Eglise and their D-Day mission, or stay where they were. Johnson realized he was just South of Carentan, and knew Carentan was of vital importance to the Allies. He could further see he was near the main road the Germans would use to attack Carentan. Johnson decided to stay and hold Graignes and the road to Carentan. It was the correct military decision. He was a Paratrooper and trained to recognize, organize, and act. The men began to dig in.

The Villagers offered all their assistance. The Paratroopers and their officers found the full support of the locals, who embraced them as liberators. The help the villagers afforded the Americans insured their instant death should the Germans reoccupy Graignes. The Germans soldiers could summarily shoot any French citizen that aided the invaders. The villagers knew the dangers and helped any way they could. Led by the town’s Mayor, Alphonse Voydie, and the owner of the only cafe in town, Madame Germaine Boursier, the residents of the village rallied to the full support of the Americans. They fed the Americans two hot meals a day. They sent their children to deliver those meals to the Paratroopers in the outlying areas. The women of the town cooked and scavenged for food. Some of the women traveled to other villages when the food supplies were dwindling. If they were caught by the Germans, they would be killed.

 

When Paratroopers jump from a plane their equipment is also released in big bags with separate parachutes. The bags of the 507th fell into the fields and marshes surrounding the village. Covertly, the men of the village searched the outlying marshes and fields for the equipment the soldiers would need to defend Graignes. They recovered the equipment and delivered it to the American Soldiers in and surrounding the Village. Mortars, machine guns, mines, medical supplies and ammunition were recovered and delivered to the Americans now defending Graignes. The Paratroopers also now possessed explosives to blow out one of the local bridges. But the Paratroopers had no radio equipment, and the local phone lines had been cut. They were deep behind enemy lines and isolated from the rest of the invading forces.

 

By Saturday June 10th, the Paratroopers had used their time effectively. They created and occupied the needed defensive positions. The Paratroopers also had observers in the church bell tower with a commanding view of the approaches to the town. The Americans knew it was just a matter of time before the Germans attacked Graignes. The Germans approached through the roads and fields they did not flood - the lonely and dangerous roads they had created to trap the invading Allies. On Saturday, June 10th a German reconnaissance patrol came down one of those roads.

 

The Paratroopers ambushed the Germans – killing them all. The Americans quickly checked out their dead prey for anything of value. To their disappointment, they discovered that these men were scouting for an advancing SS unit – the 17th SS Panzer-Grenadier Division. The 182 Paratroopers of the 507th were all that was standing in the way of an SS division heading to Carentan, planning to throw the Americans back into the sea.

 

Sunday Morning, June 11th started as Sundays had for a thousand years. The villagers went to Church. All was quiet in Graignes. Many of the soldiers who were not on duty attended mass at the church beside the bell tower. Mass began at 9:30 just as it always had in the peaceful Norman Village. These were the last moments of peace in a place that had not seen war since the middle ages.

 

At 10:00 AM, June 13th - D-Day plus 5, the Germans attacked Graignes. They encountered the Paratroopers in the outlying areas. The fighting was fast as the Germans swarmed from the fields. The men of the 507th held and forced the Germans to retreat. But the Germans were able to assess the strength and determination of the defenders. The battle did not last long and the Paratroopers knew the Germans would return soon with a stronger force.

 

When the fighting ended the villagers resupplied the Paratroopers and cared for the wounded and dead. The idyllic church beside the bell tower was transformed into an aid station, where local priests and their housekeepers helped Captain Bud Sophian, 3rd Battalion doctor, tend to the wounded.
 

At 2:00PM the SS attacked again. They began with a withering mortar barrage to soften the American positions they failed to overrun earlier. The Americans answered with their own mortars. The Germans again swarmed from the fields and ran headlong into the dug-in Paratroopers. The Americans had all they could do to hold back the Germans.  The fighting was chaotic with both sides taking casualties. Still unable to take the village of Graignes and move on to Carentan, the frustrated Germans retreated,

 

The second German attack required the Americans to use much of their finite supply of ammunition. There were also many more casualties, and no way to care for them all. For the Americans everything was running low except their remarkable courage. Major Johnson knew he could not repulse another German assault. As time quickly passed Johnson and his Paratroopers heard the sounds of heavy vehicles moving closer to the village. The Americans and Germans understood the uncompromising importance of the road to Carentan.  Johnson realized the next attack would be the last.

Johnson ordered all villagers out of Graignes. Some left, some did not. The Americans were dying to liberate their ancestral home and so many of the villagers stayed. Those villagers who fled were captured by the Germans, and ordered to tend to the German dead and wounded.
  
Suddenly as the summer sun was getting lower in the sky, shouts of “Incoming” could be heard. The church that had stood for nearly a thousand years was blown to pieces. The Germans were firing their 88mm guns with deadly accuracy, out of range of the American mortars and machine guns. The soldiers in the bell tower were instantly killed as it crumbled to the ground. The bell tower’s collapsing sections fell on the American command post - instantly killing Major Johnson.  The Paratroopers were leaderless and blind as the German final assault began.

 

At 7:00 PM the Germans attacked with an entire regiment of over 2,000 SS soldiers. The Americans were outnumbered by over 10-1, a greater margin then the legendary men who defended the Alamo, 108 years earlier. Command fell to Captain Blummitt, who ordered the Paratroopers to return to the marshes and swamps outside of the village, where they had landed as liberators just five days ago.

 

The men of the 507th hoped the waterways and cart paths would lead them to the American lines near Carentan or St. Mere Eglise.  With the aid of the villagers, some of the Paratroopers escaped and found their way to the Americans advancing from the beaches. Other Americans were hidden in barns and houses by the brave citizens of Graignes.

 

The Germans entered the town square at 10:00 PM, The Battle for Graignes had ended. The German reprisals would begin. The SS men immediately killed the priests and their housekeepers who were tending the American wounded.  They burned their bodies, horrifying the peaceful residents of Graignes. The American doctor, Captain Sophian and some of the wounded Paratroopers were bayoneted by the SS men. Other American soldiers were forced to dig a pit. The wounded Paratroopers were shot in the back of the head and thrown in the pit.

 

The SS monsters were not through yet. They rounded up as many of the villagers as they could find, and began questioning them. “Who helped the Americans?” “Where did the Americans go?”  “Who is in charge of this town?” The villagers kept silent, not one spoke. In reprisal, the Germans allowed the fire, burning the bodies of their earlier victims, to spread to some houses. Graignes would soon be burning to the ground. Of the 200 residences that made Graignes a Village, all but two would suffer damages from the fires. The village of Graignes, a place settled in the times of the Vikings, was dying, murdered by the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division.
The men of the 507th had exacted a damming price from the SS men. In their defense of Graignes, the American Paratroopers had stopped an entire German Division for at least two full days. Some estimates of German casualties are as high as 100 killed and 200 wounded or missing. The 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division could not replace its casualties, and most importantly could not make up the vital time that had been lost.   

The loss of those two days would make an extraordinary difference in the outcome of the Normandy Campaign.

 

When the SS arrived near Carentan, they discovered the city had already fallen to the US 101st Airborne Division. It was now the men of “Easy Company”, the famed, “Band of Brothers” that held the prize - Carentan.  And, it was the men of Easy Company who would successfully oppose the efforts of the SS to retake the city.  The 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division simply arrived too late and under strength, thanks to the men who were on D-Day the Last to Fall.

 

On June 13, 1944 a week after D-Day, elements of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadiers tried to retake Carentan from the 101st. The Struggle is remembered as The Battle of Bloody Gulch. The TV mini-series captures the events of that day in episode 3, titled, “Carentan”.  With the help of the 2nd Armored Division coming off Utah Beach, the SS soldiers were overrun and forced to retreat. The TV show features a member of Easy Company taking a flower from a dead SS German soldier’s lapel. It was Edelweiss, “…it is the mark of a true soldier”. The American Soldier, Albert Blithe puts the flower in his lapel. He is the victor. He is the better soldier in more ways than he knows.

The 32 dead Americans, and 44 dead villagers at Graignes had no idea that their sacrifices had meant so much to the victory in Normandy. They allowed the Americans to consolidate the Utah and Omaha Beachheads at the crossroads town of Carentan. An important step in the victory in Normandy.
 

In 1986 the United States Government awarded its highest civilian honor, Award for Distinguished Civilian Service to eleven residents of Graignes for their role in helping the men of the 507th. Of the 11 residents of Graignes that earned this award, six were posthumous.

 

And what of the German 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division? History and battlefield retribution found them on July 14, 1944. It was near the French city of St. Lo, and it was there that Allied air forces used Napalm tactically for the first time in combat. The target of that attack was not accidental. It was carefully chosen. It was the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division.

 

©2015 Amelia McNutt 

 

 

References

 

Ambrose, S. E. (1992). Band of brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's nest. Simon & Schuster.

 

McCue, Paul and Baker, Max (2009). SAS Operation Bulbasket: Behind the Lines in Occupied France. Pen and Sword Books 

 

Morgan, Martin K. A.  (2004).

Down to Earth: The 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Normandy: June 6-July 11, 1944. Schiffer Publishing.

 

Nightingale, Keith, Col. (Ret), Army History Spotlight: The Battle of Graignes, June 14, 2014. http://www.military.com/army-birthday/army-history-spotlight-battle-graignes.html

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