The Taking of La Fiere Bridge

Editor’s Note: There are numerous sites with maps and photographs of the battlefield described here.  This site is just one of many, but its pictures will help to understand the narrative given here.     

In 1984, the 40th Anniversary of the D Day insertion, I had the privilege of walking La Fiere with LtGen James Gavin (Ret) as he outlined the action to the active duty 82d Airborne Division soldiers that had returned to Normandy for the event.  Prior to that walk, as the commander of the composite element, I had face to face and telephonic discussions with most of the major and many of the minor players who were at that location 6-9 June 1944.  Here is their story.

Fig. 1: La Fiere Bridge battlefield.  U.S. National Archive photo.  West is up.  Sainte Mère Église is east/down off the photo.  Gavin's foxhole is near where the causeway road, clearly emerges at bottom of picture near the orchard.  Manoir complex is just east/down from the river, which appears white in this picture running under La Fiere Bridge near the bottom of the frame.  The Iron Mike statue now stands to the northeast/down-right of the bridge.  The split in the road around the orchard referred to near the end of the narrative can be seen just above the center of the picture where the causeway road splits.  The Cauquigny church is just to the right of this split.  The scene of PFC DeGlopper's Medal of Honor action is down the left fork of this road near the hedgerow that borders the far end of the orchard.  See this site for more detail.

Fig. 2: War Department Historical Division map.

The 82d Airborne Division (of which then-BGen Gavin was Assistant Division Commander at the time) had three key missions on D Day: seize and hold Sainte Mère Église, seize and hold the bridge and bridgehead at Chef du Pont, and seize and hold the bridge and bridgehead at La Fiere.  The bridgehead is defined as sufficient land on the other side of the bridge to expand forces.  The latter two were strategically crucial tasks in order to cut the Cotentin Peninsula, stop German reinforcements and seize Cherbourg. These two insignificant appearing bridges and road nets had to be taken to pass through the major forces coming from Utah Beach so they could complete the strategy.  The Division took Chef Du Pont on D-Day but battled to take the La Fiere Bridge, which it still did not hold by 9 June.

The morning of 9 June, MG J. Lawton Collins, the VII Corps Commander (of which the 82d and 101st were a part for the battle) arrived in Sainte Mère Église, surveyed the battlefield and troops and met MG Matthew B. Ridgway, the 82d Airborne Division Commander, approximately where the railroad tracks cross under the road to La Fiere.  Note that the field next to the location was the major medical dressing area and casualty collection point.  In Collins’ words, he saw the troops were extremely tired, seriously weakened by losses and, in his view, marginally effective as a major fighting unit.  He went to Ridgway, an old friend, and said; “Matt, your troops are tired and beat up and fought themselves to a standstill.  Why don’t I pass the 90th [Infantry Division] through and have them clear the causeway and move west?” 

In 1983, in General Ridgway’s kitchen, I asked him about this.  Then 91, he looked at me with his sharp hawk-like eyes and said with all the youth and vigor of 9 June 1944,  “This is the only mission this division has not accomplished and we will complete it.”   I am fairly certain that this is almost verbatim what he told Collins as when I corresponded with Collins this is almost exactly what he wrote regarding the meeting.  

Also present was MG Raymond O. Barton, the 4th Infantry Division Commanding General, who was also very close to Ridgway.  He turned to Ridgway and with intensity said;  “What do you need Matt.  It’s yours.  Trucks, guns, ammunition?  Whatever you need I will get you.”   LtGen Gavin and Col Bob Piper of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) said this had an electrifying effect on the 82d command group.  Eyes lifted, they suddenly felt infused with positive energy.  Ridgway turned to Gavin and said; “You are in charge.  We attack at 0930.”  That was about two hours later. 

Then-LTC Frank Norris, the commander of the 90th Division’s 345th Field Artillery Battalion, was on the scene, as well.  He told Ridgway and Gavin he was moving his unit off the beach but it wouldn’t be ready to fire until around 1030.  Ridgway looked at Norris and said;  “Can you do this by then?  Its imperative that you can do what you say you can do.”  Norris thought a moment and said;  “Yes sir.  We can do it but not until 1030.”  Ridgway turned to Gavin, “The attack is postponed until 1030.” 

As an aside, Frank Norris, later a Major General, was my next door neighbor for many years and in his book, The 90th Division, he related how terror-struck he was when Ridgway asked him that question with those cold brown laser eyes less than three feet from his face.  This was a moment he could not fail for he knew how crucial this attack was.  Virtually every vet I have met that described Ridgway, highlighted those eyes and their plasma-like abilities to penetrate the soul of the recipient.  I saw that in his kitchen and the force had not diminished in 40 years.

Bob Piper described this gathering as one of the best examples of leadership at the higher levels he saw in the war. They were standing in a circle with a map on a C ration box in the center.  Ridgway was tired, haggard, and full of nervous adrenalin-charged intensity.  Gavin, the tallest and somewhat stooped with a uniform in tatters, dirt and sweat on his face like a basic infantryman, was intent on the map.  Collins, immaculate, holding his helmet in hand with a shock of white hair around a pink face, feet spread equally apart was looking at Ridgway.  Barton, shorter than the rest with a prominent stomach (hence his nickname Tubby), exuded physical energy. Norris, the tallest of the group as well as the youngest, nervously moved his feet side to side and looked back and forth to the others as a cat eyes a group of dogs.  The respective staffs were equally circled outside the ring of principles.  Within 30 yards and well within view, were the wounded and dead of the 505th and other units – a constant reminder to the commanders of the distilled cost and consequences of their deliberations.

Gavin mentally went over the division force list available and immediately selected the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR) as the assault force.  Despite its bad experiences on landing – approximately 30% casualties – it was intact, rested and uncommitted.  He ordered them to move immediately from their position in Sainte Mère Église to La Fiere where he intended to brief them.  His intent was to force a crossing over the causeway, place one battalion on the left/south of the bridgehead after relieving LTC Thomas Shanley and his force (2-508th PIR) on Hill 30; place one battalion on the right/north after relieving LTC Charles Timmes and his force (2-507th PIR) from the orchard along the Merderet and place the third battalion in the center in the approximate position of Le Motey.  The 325 PIR would then assume control of the bridgehead and pass the 90th Division through.  Who would actually lead the initial assault was entirely dependent upon who led the march column from Sainte Mère Église.

At approximately 0900 on 9 June, G Co, 3-325 led the regimental column on the road from Sainte Mère Église, crossed the railroad overpass and turned the down-sloping corner toward the bridge.  The column stopped at the large protective cut in the road just before it turns into the bridge/causeway.  This could not have been a pleasant traverse on a warm June day.

The cut was the final protected ground from the ongoing raging battles continuously engaging the bridge and its defenders.  Casualties had been so high in 1-505 PIR that Gavin relieved the remnants with a scratch company of 1-507 soldiers and odd pickups organized as A/1-507 under the command of Captain Robert Rae.  They now occupied the La Fiere Manoir area (a complex of stone farm buildings, hereafter Manoir) and the ground where the Iron Mike statue stands today.

Only briefly described in historical narratives, but vivid in the mind of participants on site was the incredible noise, smoke, shrapnel, dust, dirt and material continuously assailing the defenders and now the march column.  The Germans were engaging the whole area with mortars, artillery, and small arms from the other side of the Merderet.  Gavin believed, and it must have felt so to the defenders, that the Germans were giving much better than they got.  LTC Norris noted that from his position on the high ground looking to the bend in the road where today’s “Gen Gavin foxhole” is marked, the pavement was continuously dancing with bullet and shrapnel impact as if a giant vibrator was at work.  That piece of road, which the 325 had to cross would surely be Purple Heart alley.  The effect of all this was overwhelming to the senses but especially so to the unblooded G/3-325.

To add to the psychological impact, was the physical and visual nature of the cut.  The arriving soldiers were standing on a narrow farm road subjected to the worst noise and realities of a true combat engagement-and this after an extremely bad experience just landing into Normandy.  The right side of the road cut (west) was stacked with the poncho covered bodies of dead troopers.  To the right (east) was the immediate aid station.  Wounded troopers were laying on every inch of available space, legs and boots on the road and medics were going from patient to patient administering aid, inserting IVs,  and moving the dead to the other side of the road between the standing rows of soldiers.  For G/3-325, there could have been no better reality check on the true nature of combat than their immersion in the road cut.

Just before the bend in the road, Gen Gavin and Col Harry L. Lewis (325 GIR Commander) met the column.  LTC Charles Carrell, 3-325 battalion commander, and Captain John Sauls, G Co commander, approached the pair.  In Gen Gavin’s description to me, he said the noise and distractions were so great that they had to be almost face to face to effectively converse.  Gavin assumed that Carrell was already aware of the task and was going to brief him on the plan.  Carrell wavered a bit and told Gavin he felt ill and wasn’t sure he could physically lead the assault.  He also made a comment regarding the plan itself which Gavin interpreted as showing distinct lack of confidence.  He immediately informed Carrell that he was relieved and asked for the battalion XO.  While this was going on, he turned to Sauls and told him to get ready.

In Sauls’ later narrative, he told Gavin “I think there is a better way to do this rather than down this road.  Give me some time to make a recon.”  Gavin said; “OK.  You have 30 minutes.  At 1030 you go.”  It was now about 0945 and LTC Norris, above them on the high ground was beginning to adjust his artillery.

Sauls passed through Norris’ position and went down behind the stone Manoir and followed the defense line established by Rae’s soldiers and crept along the stone wall that reached almost to the bridge road.  Satisfied that he had a covered and concealed position as close as possible to the causeway, he returned to the column and briefed his soldiers and began moving them to their assault positions.

Meanwhile, the respective generals were performing their tasks.  Ridgway went through all the troop positions and picked up a number of stray, unattached field grade officers-most of whom had lost their units on the jump but were reliable soldiers such as LTC Arthur Maloney of the 507th and LTC Edwin Ostberg of the 508th.  These and several senior NCO’s he assembled in the courtyard of the Manoir.  His intent, as he explained, was to insert them in whatever critical situation arose to insure his polyglot force did what it must to carry the causeway.  He positioned himself in what is now the garage of the Manoir, less than 50 feet from the frontline.

Collins and Barton, now joined by a colonel from the 90th Division, sat behind Norris’ position on the high ground where they were relatively safe from incoming but could still see the objective, brilliant in the morning sunshine but largely obscured by the smoke, haze and fires of the opposing exchanges. Portions of the church and stone buildings at Cauquigny would be exposed as the smoke ebbed and flowed. Just to the rear of the cut, a number of Sherman tanks from the 4th Infantry Division had arrived as well as two 57mm anti-tank guns.  They were deployed in a line on the high ground overlooking the causeway and began to seek and engage targets with their main guns.

Gavin, after seeing Sauls off, went to CPT Rae and pulled him aside. The precise location of this conversation is where the Manoir stone barn abuts the wall leading to the main road.  In Gavin’s description at the bridge in 1984, he told Rae, “I don’t think these guys can take the causeway.  At some point they will falter.  I need your people to be prepared to carry it.  When I give you the sign, move out, and take over.  We must take this causeway.”  Rae said he understood completely and began to brief his soldiers.   This was all done under the heavy backdrop of a continuous rain of artillery, mortars and machinegun fire.

The causeway presented a number of issues for Sauls and his assault.  The road itself was narrow with a high crown in the center.  It was lined with old sycamore and willow trees anywhere from two feet to four feet in girth.  Over the course of the battle, they had been shattered and shaved to where nothing remained of the trees but three or four feet of trunk connected by brush and debris.  The Germans had dug fighting positions between the trees on both sides of the road and many were still actively occupied.  There was less than 20 feet of ground between the lapping waters of the flooded Merderet on both sides.  Maneuver space would be at a premium.

Immediately in front of the bridge was an overturned French truck placed earlier by A/1-505 as a roadblock.  They had also scattered a number of anti-tank mines on both sides. The width of the road on the bridge preceding this obstacle, the first thing to be crossed by Sauls, was about 12 feet.  Farther along the road were three Renault tanks killed by the A/1-505 bazooka teams on 6 June.  One was less than 50 feet from the truck partially skewed on the south side of the road.  The second was another 50 yards farther along the causeway on the north side astride the road.  The third was another 50 yards back on the south side of the road, tilting against the tree stumps.  Remaining throughout the road, both on the pavement and between the trees were innumerable bodies, mostly German but some scattered US soldiers from previous engagements.   Sauls and his soldiers would have to assault what was in effect a bowling alley lane with obstacles throughout as well as dug in and fully engaged Germans.

The Germans were very mindful of the significance of this causeway and were sensitive to any penetration to their side of the bank.  They had reacted strongly to Shanley and Timmes’ elements and had ensured they were bottled up and could not assist the units on the other side of the lake.  Earlier in the week on 7 June, 1st Battalion of the 325 under LTC Terry Sanford had attempted to relieve Timmes and secure Cauquigny but had been strongly counter-attacked and had to join Timmes’ force to keep from being annihilated.  It was this action in which PFC Charles N. DeGlopper won his Medal of Honor.

The primary force Sauls was asked to overcome was approximately a regiment-sized element from the 91st Airlanding Division. At this point, the true size was unknown by the 82d.  It was well-disposed along the flooded bank on both sides of the lake and with plentiful artillery and mortars to its rear.  The German CP was established in the stone barns and outbuildings behind the church and was impenetrable to all but heavy artillery of which there was very little.  The front line, with many MG42 medium machineguns, was forward of the church cemetery and almost at the water’s edge.  Both German and US troops were continuously engaging each other across the water creating a torrent of fire in both directions.  Both sides could interdict the causeway with ease.  Sauls recounted later that as he observed the causeway and mapped his assault in his mind, he was distinctly aware of the constant falling rain of leaves, twigs, bark and pavement along his restricted course as both sides engaged each other.

At this time, neither Gavin nor Ridgway were aware of the true defensive strength holding the bridgehead.  Intelligence indicated portions of a battalion, albeit reinforced with some heavy weapons.  In Gavin’s mind, he had now assembled sufficient force and reinforcement to carry the position with relative ease.  At 1030, he would find out.

While Sauls was maneuvering his force into position, Norris was conducting the artillery barrage.  Sauls brought his company around the rear of the Manoir and using the protection of the stone wall ringing the property he slid his unit along its length.  He and his lead platoon squeezed tightly into the last 30 feet of wall before it ended at the road.  He estimated that this got his force closest to the bridge, minimizing their exposure before actually clearing the causeway. The other two platoons massed just behind a hole in the protective wall to Sauls’ rear that had been created by earlier German fire. 

Erroneously, Sauls was informed that he was to assault as soon as he saw smoke rounds which would be the final rounds fired.  Much later, Norris said that he never addressed smoke and if it had been raised he would have informed them that no smoke was available.  He was firing with what the guns arrived with in caisson.  The bulk of ammo was still on trucks moving from Utah.

At approximately 1035, the barrage ceased and there was a stunning silence as the smoke slowly drifted away from the targets.  Some Germans began appearing on the road and around Cauquigny dazed and bloody from the barrage.  Gavin looked at Sauls and shouted “Go.  Go!”  Sauls looked back and then led the way to the road and the near side of the bridge followed by his lead platoon, a total of 31 people on the most significant journey the 82d Airborne had taken to that point.

By the time Sauls exposed himself, the Germans began to recover from the artillery and resumed firing.  Immediately behind the lead platoon, the first man in the second platoon began to cross the hole in the wall.  He was virtually decapitated by a stream of MG42 rounds, fell in a heap and everyone behind him froze.  Unbeknownst to Sauls, he and 30 soldiers were on their own for this journey.

How did they survive?  The disabled truck on the other end of the bridge forced the unit to split in half, Sauls leading one column and an NCO the other.  Both elements sought the relative protection of the tree stumps lining the road as they moved down the road.  As either would come across an occupied German position they would grenade it and clear with Thompson sub-machineguns – the paratroopers’ favorite close-in weapon.

By this time, both sides were fully engaged with a hail of fire going both ways.  In fact, the assaulting force was already flanked by enemy elements lining the banks perpendicular to the causeway.  They only had to fire into the causeway to engage Sauls, which they did.  The A/1-507 troops, the Shermans and elements of 1-505 from forward reserve positions were firing across the entire front in support of the assault.

About a third of the way down the road, the terrain makes a subtle, but significant change.  The bridge can no longer be seen and the friendly support forces can no longer see the assault force.  Friendly supporting fire from other elements necessarily slackened and diverted to the positions on the far bank.  Any supporting fire on the causeway would have to come from Sauls and his small group.

Slightly less than halfway along the causeway, as the assault moved forward, it came upon the second tank on the left of the road.  Immediately, the road took a straight line to the edge of Cauquigny.  In front of the church wall and aimed straight down the narrow road was an MG42 position fully engaging the assault force.  The two split elements received unexpected cover from the second and third dead tanks protecting them from the withering machinegun fire but not from flanking fires.

Sauls and his platoon were moving at a trot as the enemy and the debris permitted.  German mortar and artillery fire now began to fall along the causeway.  Airborne mortar and artillery also began to renew their coverage of German positions.  At this point, Saul and his two elements reached the point where the causeway meets dry ground.  They had made it but with significantly less personnel than they began.  The force had shrunk to less than 25 but this was all unknown to Sauls who assumed the rest of the company and the regiment were following just behind.  He was totally focused on what was forward and could discern nothing toward the rear due to the smoke and flying debris.

At the Manoir, the leadership was equally ignorant of events.  Both Gavin and Ridgway saw the collapse of the G Company elements and began to take action.  Gavin and the senior leadership pool Ridgway had assembled began to hastily push the soldiers down the road.  Ridgway waved a tank forward and personally pulled the tow cable out and tried to attach it to the overturned truck to get it out of the way so tanks could support Saul. 

Frank Norris would later recount this scene as a major general lecturing at the Joint War College in Norfolk, VA.  Ridgway with stars on his shoulder trying to tie a cable to the truck.  Gavin pushing soldiers down the road.  Lewis leading a tank around the curve.  Officers and NCOs moving back and forth trying to get the frightened and wary soldiers moving forward.  It was a stunning example of the very best in combat leadership under the most trying conditions.

As soon as the G Co troops were pushed down the road, they began coalescing in frightened leaderless groups.  Ridgway sent LTC Maloney to the first bunch.  Maloney was a big man with a nasty head wound, face and neck covered with blood.  He literally threw soldiers down the road and began to get them moving, but they lost momentum again as they collected behind the first knocked-out tank.  Gavin sent more leaders to that location to repeat what Maloney had done.  It was imperative that the division get as many people as possible to the other side if it was to succeed.

Gavin could see nothing to his front but confusion, fear ,and failure.  Smoke and fire obscured any vision past the bridge itself.  Just as Ridgway waved a tank past the truck, it hit one of the earlier Airborne-emplaced mines and lost its track, effectively blocking the road except for a small opening to the right of the truck, sufficient only for a single person to pass.  At this moment, enduring increasingly heavy German incoming fire and assuming Sauls had failed, Gavin grabbed CPT Rae at the point where the stone wall meets the road and said; “You have to go.  You have to do this.  Go.  Go.”

Rae waved at his troops, now assembled behind the wall, shouted “Let’s go” and ran straight for the bridge, his soldiers close behind.  Once past the truck and Sherman, Rae’s men spread out and ran as best they could through the smoke, haze and fire at the enemy beyond which they could not yet see.  Rae assumed he was now the point of the assault and all depended on his success.

Meanwhile, Sauls and his now-reduced force were quickly reacting to fortune and fire.  Somehow, the machinegun on the road had been silenced.  It was either hit by a mortar or withdrew.  Sauls’ force momentarily slowed their progress as they met the dry ground.  They had effectively flanked the German positions on the left and were receiving withering fire from the church area on the right.  Sauls took one element and went down the flank positions, clearing Germans as it went.  The second element raced up the small rise and hedgerow left of the road which gave them protection from the church positions and also provided a flank opportunity.

 In Sauls’ interview in England after withdrawal.  He noted that his mission was to clear to Hill 30 (South).  This plus the very heavy fire from the church area convinced him to continue on the left and south, ignoring the right.  After all, he had the rest of his company and battalion immediately behind. 

Rae and his soldiers arrived at the church positions and were immediately taken under heavy fire from their right and saw no sign of Sauls or his people.  Rae immediately began clearing the buildings and was heavily engaged.  Time was now about 1115.  Between both Sauls and Rae, in the apple orchard between the road splits astride the Cauquigny complex, was a very active MG42.  Both commanders made an independent decision to take it out, each ignorant of the existence of the other.  Rae’s soldiers began directing suppressive fire at the gun while Saul’s radio operator crawled behind the position, using a hedgerow for cover and killed the crew with his M1.  With that issue settled, both returned to their seemingly independent tasks.

Nervous and with increased tension and frustration, Gavin decided to go to the other side.  Eyes focused straight ahead and seemingly oblivious to his surroundings – the constant fire, explosions, ricochets, quickly moving soldiers, falling wounded and dead, and the huge detritus of battle littering the now-conquered roadway – he reached Cauquigny, spotted the intersection just ahead and found Rae clearing the orchard and barns.  He, like Rae, assumed Sauls and his element were dead on the causeway and that Rae had taken the prize.  Gavin ordered Rae to clear the complex and as soon as relieved by the remainder of 325 GIR, to move forward to Le Motay and hold.  This would be the most advanced element of the Division and the route the relieving 90th Division would take. 

Oblivious to all this was Sauls and his small band.  They continued clearing the southern area, their actions muffled by all the other battlefield noises.  Only when he sent out a team to bring up the rest of the unit did he realize he was utterly alone:  just he and his surviving 12 soldiers.  But, in truth, he had carried the position with 12 on a mission that should have been conducted by 140.  Historically, he and his soldiers received little credit while Rae received a great deal.  Such is the fog and confusion of war.

In July 1944, the Army Historian, BG S.L.A. Marshall and his team assembled elements of the division and debriefed them at the small-unit level to gain insight into what actually happened.  Only then did the facts come together in an indisputable manner.  For whatever reason, General Gavin was always reluctant to award Sauls and his men full credit.  In his heart, I believe he thought that it was really Rae and A/1-507 that truly saved the day.  In several interviews with him, he would acknowledge Sauls’ actions albeit with some hesitation.  Of note is that Rae was awarded an impact Distinguished Service Cross for his actions whereas Sauls, later in England, was awarded a Silver Star.

On the terrain walk in 1984, General Gavin led us all on the route of Sauls and Rae, stopping and explaining actions and issues much as this narrative repeats.  He halted us all at the intersection of the split where Sauls and Rae’s elements divided.  He was looking back to the causeway as we faced him in a crowded semi-circle.  His voice dropped several octaves and he looked at us and said, “When I came to this point and met Rae, I had no idea as to how hard this fight was.  I looked back down the causeway.  It was covered from the church to as far as I could see with bodies.  I could have walked back to the bridge and never stepped on pavement.  I just had no idea as to the strength of the position.  It took Airborne soldiers to do this.”  He then looked up at us and the sea of red berets, swept his eyes past everyone and said; “Don’t you ever forget what you have to do.  Our Nation depends on you like it depends on no others.”  

Somewhat later in life, as the honored guest, he attended a small insignificant dinner at the invitation of another Division veteran.  The flight and travel had taken a toll combined with his advancing Parkinson’s.  Before the dinner began, he turned to his host and inviter and said, “Do you know why I came here?”  The veteran, taken somewhat aback, said “No.”  The general turned to him with a shake of the head but firm voice, “I can never say No to someone who crossed the Causeway.”

ADDITIONAL NOTE ON CASUALTIES

The fighting in and around La Fiere was the most intense the 82d experienced in the entire war.  This is reflected in the casualty figures.

A/1-505

147 men assembled on the drop zone under Lt Dolan.  By 10 June there were 46 KIA and 81 WIA.  The KIA included two battalion commanders.

A/1-507

Assembled 90 men under Cpt Rae.  By 10 June they had 20 KIA and 35 WIA

G/3-325

In march column on 9 June, Cpt Sauls had 148 men.  By 10 June, there were 35 KIA and 102 WIA.  Within that total, of the 32 men, including himself, who reached the other side of the Causeway on the assault, 12 remained. 

2-507 under LTC Timmes at the Orchard

LTC Timmes initial headcount was 142 men.  On 10 June there were 65 KIA and 45 WIA

 2-508 under LTC Shanley at Hill 30

LTC Shanley assembled 206 men.  On 10 June there were 58 KIA and 82 WIA. 

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