Battle to Control Carentan During World War II
With his battalion being shredded by the German defenders of Carentan, Lt. Col. Robert Cole ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge.
By John C. McManus
General Omar Bradley knew he had to have Carentan. The crossroads town of some 4,000 people sat astride the N-13 highway as well as the Cherbourg–Paris railroad, which meant that in June 1944 it was also positioned between the American landing beaches at Utah and Omaha. Taking it, though, would be no simple affair.
The ancient community had been built on low ground amid a series of rivers and marshes that wove ribbons around and through it. To improve irrigation in the area, canals had also been built. Napoleon Bonaparte had once flooded the surrounding area in an effort to turn Carentan into a fortified island. In 1944 the Germans did the same thing. Any attacker coming from the north had only a handful of dry approaches. Once there, they would then have to contend with Major Friedrich von der Heydte and his crack 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment. The Bavarian-born paratroop commander had explicit orders from Field Marshal Erwin Rommel himself to defend Carentan to the last man.
Seizing this key objective would be the job of the 101st Airborne Division. After destroying or driving off their German counterparts, the "Screaming Eagles" were to link up with the 29th Infantry Division, which was attacking westward over the Vire River. This joining of hands among VII and V corps soldiers would connect the two American beaches, making possible a concerted push for Cherbourg, and eventually St.-Lô. Once St.-Lô was in American hands, the Cotentin Peninsula would be secured and the breakout into the interior of France could begin.
Major General Maxwell Taylor, the 101st Airborne Division commander, planned to take Carentan with a pincer movement, crossing the Douve River in two places. In the east, the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR) would cross at Brevands and push south. Part of the regiment would move southeast and link up with the 29th Division's 175th Infantry Regiment west of the Vire, near Isigny. The rest of the regiment would circle around Carentan from the southeast. Meanwhile, the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), with Lt. Col. Robert Cole's 3rd Battalion in the lead, was to cross over a series of four bridges and then swing southwest of the town to seize Hill 30, the commanding ground that controlled movement in and out of Carentan. At Hill 30, Cole's men were to link up with the 327th. Following behind Cole would be the 502nd's other two battalions and Colonel Robert F. Sink's 506th PIR. Once the encirclement was complete, Taylor would then advance into the town itself.
Taylor's plan seemed excellent. A pincer movement made great sense on a map, but there was a problem: only one northern approach to Carentan -- the four bridges that spanned the N-13. The flat, open ground on either side of what was little more than a raised causeway meant that Cole's battalion would be advancing out in the open with nearly no cover. The situation was less than ideal, but there was no other way to cross the river and advance to the objective from the north.
In an effort to mitigate some of the hazards, the attack would commence shortly after midnight on June 10, but fire from an 88mm gun in the town had prevented the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion from building a span over the bridge. When Cole's battalion reached the crossing, its troopers found the engineers pinned down on either side of the road. While the assembled paratroopers waited, Lieutenant Ralph Gehauf took a patrol across the water in boats. He had flown over Carentan in an observation plane that day and it looked undefended, but he figured that was too good to be true.
Gehauf's patrol paddled across the Douve River and proceeded single file down the causeway. At the fourth bridge, the Americans discovered a "Belgian Gate." Built of iron and concrete, the obstacle spanned the road. Germans had placed one at bridge No. 2 and another at bridge No. 4. The one at the second bridge had been destroyed by the retreating Germans, but the one at bridge No. 4 now stopped Gehauf's men in their tracks. Only by arduously prying at the obstruction could the engineers force an opening large enough for one man at a time to get through.
Beyond the gate, the Americans then came under enemy mortar and machine gun fire. Gehauf sent two runners back to Cole with a message to bring his mortars forward, but the runners passed along the wrong message. They told Cole not to go forward because the opposition was too heavy. Just then, Cole also got the word from regimental headquarters to postpone his attack. Disgusted, he and his men hiked back to Les Quesnils and caught a couple hours of fitful sleep.
Throughout the morning of June 10 Cole and his men waited for orders to attack. All he had been told was that he was to receive artillery support sometime in the afternoon. By noon, he was becoming impatient. He took Gehauf and returned to bridge No. 2, where they found that the engineers had still done nothing to repair it. Fed up and unwilling to wait any longer, Cole grabbed a rope and, with the help of his G Company commander and two other men, built a rickety footbridge from planks and other material left by the engineers.
Finally, Cole's battalion began crossing the bridge. Gehauf's intelligence section led the way, followed by I Company, then G and H, with the battalion's headquarters group at the tail of the column. Slowly and cautiously, each man negotiated his way across -- some of them by the ropes only when the planks eventually gave way.