Tucked away in the marshy country of the Manche, just 3 ½ miles from an east facing beach, is the village of Saint-Marie-du-Mont. The Mont in question is the slightest hill, raising Notre-Dame church at the heart of the village above occasional floods.
It was not a village anyone thought about very much, until June 1944. Now people visit from across the world. That eastern beach is now known as Utah and Saint-Marie-du-Mont was the first community to be liberated on D-Day. A liberation that did not go to plan.
The village before D-Day
In 1944 the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont was occupied by sixty enemy soldiers of the 191 Artillery-Regiment (91. Infanterie Division). The Germans used the church tower as an observation post and on a clear day they could see all the way to the sea. Far away from an expected invasion near Calais, they could not know the village was at the southern edge of D-Day’s ‘drop zone c’.
After heavy coastal bombardment by Allies just after midnight on 6 June 1944, the first American Paratroopers were dropped in dark early hours over occupied Normandy. Highly trained, they had the most dangerous mission of all; landing armed but unprotected into enemy territory.
Plans were for troops of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 3rd Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division to land in ‘zone c’. Here behind Utah beach they were responsible for clearing a route for thousands of soldiers arriving by sea from England. It was a near impossible task. A thick fog bank and heavy flak from coastal guns forced pilots away from their targets and left paratroopers in unknown territory, some facing enemy fire while still in the air.
Just two thirds of troops designated for zone c were accurately dropped. A number found themselves landing in and around Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and quickly fighting for their lives with the rather surprised enemy.
The Battle for Brécourt Manor Normandy
Between Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and the sea stood the Brécourt manor farm and in its fields No.6 Battery of the 90th Artillery regiment, with four 105mm Howitzers. The guns were firing onto causeway ‘exit 2’ at Utah Beach which led to the village, causing appalling damage and injury while disrupting the disembarkation of men and supplies.
His superior lost in the initial attack, 1st Lt. Winters took charge of E ‘Easy’ company. He was ordered to take a group of his men to Brécourt and neutralise what was thought to be just a Howitzer and machine gun nest. Around 8.30am he gathered a team of 12 men from ‘Easy’ and other companies.
Their reconnaissance revealed four Howitzers in a line hidden by hedgerow, linked by trenches and covered by machine gun MG42 ‘nests’. Winter’s soldiers would be up against a 50 man platoon of elite German troops defending the guns and gun crews.
Lt. Winters strategically placed his men around the German encampment; two 30 calibre machine guns with two men to each, one man up a tree, others on the ground. Men crept towards the first machine gun nest as their comrades began firing to distract the enemy. Soon close, they threw in grenades. As machine guns were knocked out, the big guns were next. Once the Germans realised they were under attack they responded vigorously. A small group of reinforcements arrived, but the US soldiers were still hugely outnumbered. It was a full scale battle, but thanks to Lt. Winter’s clear thinking the Germans were out manoeuvred.
Brécourt was a remarkable success for the Americans. Just four US soldiers were lost and two wounded. Lt. Winters and his men had killed 15 enemy, wounded many more and taken the rest prisoners.
Lt. Winters ordered the four Howitzers disabled to ensure a safer landing for thousands arriving at Utah Beach. In the Battery he found a map detailing all German defences in the Utah Beach area.
For his action Lt. Winters was presented with the Distinguished Service Cross and 13 of his men received awards for their bravery that day. The strategy Lt Winters successfully used, for a small force to overwhelm a much larger one, is still taught in military schools today.
The Allies knew their intelligence was imperfect and that troops would be facing unknown levels of resistance in Normandy. For the paratroopers landing around zone C, it was soon clear Brécourt was not the only unexpected Battery to neutralise. To the west of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, with firepower enough to reach the coast, was the Holdy Battery.
One of the main objectives of D-Day was to clear the way for an army of thousands and cut off the Cotentin region ‘arm’ (topped by the major port of Cherbourg) as quickly as possible. The Holdy Battery created a very unwanted challenge and for many parachutists destined to be dropped in ‘zone c’ that challenge would prove deadly.
Unknowingly a parachute ‘stick’, a line of Paras, was dropped right on top of the Holdy Battery. It became a suicide mission. Troops hanging vulnerable below parachutes could only shoot wildly as enemy ground forces took aim. While some were killed, others landed into hell. In the distance paras heard screams through the night of comrades taken prisoner at Holdy.
At dawn the 506th led by Captain Lloyd E. Patch and Charley Company commanded by Captain Knut H. Raudstein of the 1st Battalion of the 506th PIR, reinforced by a dozen Paratroopers of the 502nd PIR, stormed the Holdy Battery.
Inside 50 Germans took the full force as a bazooka shot blew up a stockpile of ammunition and four howitzers were taken after a quick, violent battle. Inside the Battery US troops with little or no experience of battle discovered the lifeless young bodies of several horribly mutilated American soldiers.
Once the Battery was in US hands and protected by the 502nd, Captain Patch and the rest of his men headed for Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.
The village centre and church
US Paras had been landing in and around the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont since the early hours of 6 June. One young man, Ambrose Allie of the 3rd Battalion 501st, landed on a roof and after unbuckling his harness slid down a drainpipe to the ground.
Several German soldiers who had been hiding in the trees rushed out and pushed him against a wall. As they got ready to shoot, a hail of US bullets came at them from the church tower. Some were killed, others fled, but Ambrose was saved.
Years later when asked why he decided to be a paratrooper — all of them were volunteers — Ambrose said simply, “Extra money … we got more money than the infantry. I didn’t know what I was getting into … we were on the front lines of everything”.
Sergeant David ‘Buck’ Rogers and Major Isaac Cole had fought their way to take prime position at the top of the church steeple. But by mid-morning the church tower was under artillery fire from the Holdy Battery. It was ‘friendly’ fire from the US troops at Holdy who think the steeple is still occupied by the Germans. The tower would be taken by both sides over the next few hours.
One Para landed near the centre of the village and took up a position in the recess behind the village waterpump, to one side of the square. His back to a thick wall, he took full advantage of his protected position to kill several of the enemy.
There were skirmishes across the village until early afternoon when Sherman tanks of the 70th Tank Battalion and troops from the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 8th Infantry Regiment (4th Infantry Division) start arriving from Utah Beach along ‘Exit 1’ and ‘Exit 2’. With their help Sainte-Marie-du-Mont was finally liberated.
But the village was not completely clear of enemy soldiers. Around 6pm the village priest heard a sneeze in his apparently empty church. It came from the confessional box. Quickly fetching an American officer they investigated and discovered two terrified German soldiers, who are quickly taken prisoner.
For the rest of the battle of Normandy, several thousand American soldiers would march through the little village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.
This tidy Manche village has not forgotten the bravery of the young men who came to liberate them many years ago. All around Sainte-Marie-du-Mont wall plaques tell the story of liberation and recall brave individuals. If you visit, look up at the church tower to see where D-Day damage has been restored. Inside the church lobby pride of place is given to a photo of the first communion after D-Day and before/after pictures explain the bombardment and restoration. The church walls are still pockmarked with bullets. They will never forget.
Full description of the attack on the Brecourt manor, with step by step diagrams of the assault.
Sainte-Marie-du-Mont was just the beginning, read more about the remarkable war of Lt. Winters.
Watch Band of Brothers, perhaps one of the best depictions of DDay ever made. Part two covers the liberation of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont better than we could ever hope to.