The Bridge at La Fiere
JR has reminded me that the anniversary of D-Day is Sunday. It’s been quiet around here of late and I thought I might drop in this little story; something I wrote and posted on another blog about four years ago. It contains some photos I took at La Fiere bridge in Normandy, France. I was unfamiliar with the place until my visit, where I received a guided tour and was told the story of what happened here on June 6, 1944. The remarkable thing about this area, like much of rural coastal Normandy is that it hasn’t changed much at all. Same buildings, farms and churches. Same fields and hedgerows. It is possible to view the landscape and little villages largely as they were seen in 1944, however the secondary roads are now paved. Below is a brief story of what happened at the bridge.
(Note: Click on maps and photos for larger and better resolution images)
La Fiere Bridge
In the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944, elements of the 82nd Airborne Division parachuted into the vicinity of Ste. Mere Eglise with the objective of seizing certain key crossroads and other objectives that would block an inevitable counterattack by the Germans toward Utah Beach. If successful these tactics would help facilitate a rapid drive inland by the American infantry divisions that would hopefully cut through and isolate the Cotentin Peninsula.
Ste. Mere Eglise is about six miles west of Utah Beach:
The road out of Ste. Mere Eglise continues further west and crosses the Merderet River:
There is a small bridge over the river adjacent to a picturesque estate compound called La Fiere Manor. A narrow causeway extends this crossing over the Merderet floodplain for a distance of about 600 yards. These features can be seen on this reconnaissance photo from the period:
Back then there were few bridges over the river and this one was very close to the Ste. Mere Eglise crossroad, so it was critical that the 82nd Airborne seize this bridge quickly on D-Day, as well as a small village at the opposite end of the causeway, named Cauquigny.
Company A of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) was assigned the objective of taking the La Fiere bridge. Early on the morning of June 6 this group of paratroopers assembled west of Ste Mere Eglise and proceeded toward the bridge. They met fierce resistance by a German unit dug in near the bridge and occupying the buildings of La Fiere Manor but were able to overcome this opposition and take many prisoners. Not knowing if the 507th PIR had captured Cauquigny on the opposite end of the causeway, they immediately began preparations to defend the bridge from the possibility of a counterattack coming from the other side. A 57mm cannon (brought in by glider) was placed in the road above the manor in a position where it could cover the bridge approach. Two bazooka teams were placed on the far side of the bridge in foxholes on either side of the road. Rifle teams were positioned around the bridge, along the river banks, and in and around the Fiere manor house and its large stone barn. A shot up German truck was rolled over the bridge and placed in front of it as a roadblock.
Here is a photo I took of the bridge looking west and across the causeway:
Note in this Photo 2 (above) that the causeway doglegs to the right. This bend in the road is a notable detail later in the story. You can also see Cauquigny church in the distance (between the trees).
Here is a photo taken back toward La Fiere Manor from the unfriendly side of the bridge:
Another photo of the manor buildings:
Here is the barn which is the closest building to the river channel and bridge:
On this same day, elements of the 507th PIR were to capture Cauquigny on the far side of the causeway. Unknown to the Allies, the Germans had blocked the discharge of the Mederet River near Carentan and caused it to inundate the entire floodplain. Given the high marsh grass this new lake was not visible from the air (especially at night) and quite a few of the 507th paratroopers, to their surprise, landed in several feet of water, and a number of them, loaded with heavy equipment, drowned. This is a photo I took facing north from La Fiere showing the floodplain where many 507th paratroopers landed:
About a dozen or so paratroopers who landed on the far west side managed to gather together and by afternoon had occupied Cauquigny. This photo shows the little church in Cauquigny as seen from the Fiere side of the floodplain:
This small group from the 507th had just entered Cauquigny and set up a perimeter around the vicinity of the church when they heard, and then could see, a German armored column (the 1057th Panzer Grenadier Regiment and the 100th Panzer Replacement Battalion) coming down the main road from the southwest (see Photo 1). They fled north from the churchyard as the Germans entered Cauquigny. However the Germans barely paused, and several light tanks accompanied by grenadiers proceeded onto the causeway and headed directly toward the American defenders guarding the bridge at the opposite end.
Soon the lead German tank rounded the slight bend in the causeway (see Photo 2 of the bridge above) and became visible to the forward positions of A Company 505th guarding the bridge. When the tank was close enough the two bazooka teams stood up in their foxholes and began putting rockets into it. A second tank attempted to push through and around the first tank, and panzer grenadiers were now moving up in close quarters to the Americans. The bazooka teams fired repeated rounds into the second tank setting it on fire and the grenadiers were pushed back by heavy fire from the paratroopers dug in around the bridge and from buildings and walls around La Fiere Manor. With their bazooka damaged in the fight, one of the two teams retreated from its position. A third tank approached and the only remaining bazooka team was out of ammunition. In the desperation of the moment, Major Fred Kellam, the battalion commanding officer, and his S-3 Capt. Dale Roysden attempted run across the bridge with the needed bazooka ammo and were both killed. One of the bazooka men (Marcus Heim) then ran across the road and retrieved ammo from the position vacated by the other team. He then returned to his own position, and with his partner Gordon Pryne, they fired several rockets, thus destroying the third tank. With that the Germans broke off the attack and fell back across the causeway to Cauquigny. The survival of this bazooka team was remarkable as nearly all other paratroopers in the forward positions were killed or wounded.
This began three days of fighting at La Fiere where both sides pounded each other with artillery, mortars and machinegun fire from opposite ends of the causeway. The Germans made two more attempts at crossing but these were repulsed and additional German tanks were destroyed on the causeway. Photo 8, below, was reportedly taken of some of the wreckage on the causeway, the next day, on June 7:
A tour guide that I spoke to at La Fiere said that the defense of a bridge in the movie Saving Private Ryan was inspired by the events at La Fiere bridge. According to him the filmmakers visited the bridge in developing the story.
In order to break this stalemate and complete their objective, on June 9, the 82nd Airborne sent the 3rd Battalion of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment over the causeway in a full frontal assault that would dislodge the Germans from the Cauquigny area, thus opening the road in preparation for the invading force approaching from the beaches. This assault was joined by elements of the 507th PIR. Ultimately this objective was accomplished but it became one of the bloodiest fights of the invasion, with hundreds of casualties on both sides. The causeway was strewn with bodies and so much wrecked equipment it became largely impassable. The events of this June 9 assault are chronicled in a detailed U.S. Army action report found here:
cut and paste…. http://www.history.army.mil/documents/wwii/lafiere/325-LaF.htm
In one dramatic moment, soldiers recall Mathew Ridgway (commanding general of the 82nd Airborne) on the causeway attempting to attach a cable to a wrecked vehicle so that it could be dragged out of the way of his advancing forces, and doing this while under fire. Probably not a scene you’d see in these modern days.
Here is a photo of “Iron Mike” as he forever stands guard over the bridge at La Fiere Manor:
[Update: Have started to do a little follow-up research on photo #8 above,with respect to the wrecked tanks shown on the causeway. There are actually four of them visible, one being in the foreground and only a small part of it can be seen, including its track which has come off. More to come…]
June 6, 2010 update:
As mentioned above, in photo #8 there are four knocked out German tanks located on the causeway just west of the bridge.
Based on research done (by others), these vehicles can be identified as follows: The tanks seen on the left and right sides of photo#8 are R-35 Renault light tanks. The tank in the background is an H39 Hotchkiss light tank. In the forground (barely visible) is a Pzkpfw III medium tank. This identification is based on a few pieces of information, including this photo and other subsequent photographs taken of the wrecks as they were shoved out of the way to make way for the Allied advance once the causeway was secured. There are also after-action accounts by the battle participants.
These tanks would have all belonged to a training and replacement unit known as Panzer Ersatz und Ausbildungs Abteilung 100 (or PzAbt100). They were the only German armored unit stationed in the region at the time of the attack.
The photographer of photo#8 would be standing immediately in front (west) of the bridge and next to the Pzkpfw III. The two R35s are located in the road bend, and the Hotchkiss is sitting in the distance, just beyond the bend. (The bend is seen clearly from the bridge in my photo#2)
As the story goes, and summarized above, the paratroopers knocked out three tanks on the afternoon of June 6. Then why are there four destroyed tanks in front of the bridge? This is because one of them was destroyed in a second counterattack from the Germans that occurred later on June 7/8.
I will address the events that knocked out each of the four tanks, but this will be later, because I have some other things I need to do today.
Update June 6, 2010:
OK. I have placed three of the tanks into the photo I took of the bridge. Using photo #8 as a guide, the PzIII is in front of the causeway bend, the R35s are within the bend, and the Hotchkiss is just beyond the bend and out of view. This will be helpful for addressing the fate of each tank, later.
In this location the PzIII is about 125 ft to 150ft from the bridge and about 200 feet from where I took the photo.
The road is paved now and the surface (typical French backroad) is narrow. In 1944 it was wider and unpaved with thick brush on the banks of the causeway on both sides.
Update June 7, 2010:
Paratroopers who were involved in the defense of the bridge recall that they placed a number of anti-vehicle mines in the road about 50 feet in front of the bridge (and in front of the broken down German truck they had placed as a road block).. These were placed in plain sight of anyone approaching in daylight. The idea being that this would cause any approaching vehicles to pause at the sight of them, and perhaps long enough to allow the bazookas to get a good shot on target. This may have been good strategy.
As the tanks were coming into view in the causeway bend, it is reported that the lead tank stopped and the commander opened his turret hatch and climbed up to have a view toward the bridge. Perhaps he was just surveying the situation up ahead, or perhaps he could see that mines had been placed in the road. Either way, an American machine gun opened up and killed the tank commander. All hell broke loose after that.
Note to Readers: If the events of this particular battlefield interests you:
There has been some debate over whether there were three or four tanks wrecked on the causeway, and also whether one of them was in fact a Pz III. Some very good analysis and discussion on these topics, and some great photos of shot up tanks from Panzer Ersatz und Ausbildungs Abteilung 100 (Tank Replacement and Training Battalion 100), can be found HERE. Still more photos of German tank wrecks in the American Airborne drop zone vicinity can be found HERE. Check it out.