Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Carentan, fought as part of the larger Battle of Normandy. This was the second time that American paratroopers would meet their German counterpart – the 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division – in combat. German Fallschirmjäger units were assigned to the Luftwaffe, unlike American paratrooper units, which were assigned to the Army. The German units assigned to the defense of Carentan were comprised of the 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division and two Ostbattalions, commanded by Major von Heydte. Should they be forced to retreat from the city, they were to leave nothing behind that would be of value to the enemy.
Carentan was the site of a crossroads, which was of vital importance to the Wehrmacht. The paved roads which passed through the city provided high-speed avenues of approach to the beaches. This was critical for the movement of Panzer divisions for reinforcement. Utah and Omaha beaches have already been expanded, creating a large defensive area which was able to easily repulse German counter-attacks.
As American forces expanded their lodgment past the beaches, there was one obstacle in the way – Carentan. This arduous task was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division by General Bradley. American paratrooper divisions were only meant for sustained combat for a period of up to three days, which is important to keep in mind. The paratroopers had been in contact with the enemy since the evening of June 5th, much longer than three days. As a result, they received a resupply prior to their assault on Carentan. On June 8th, The 101st Airborne had taken the town of Saint Côme-du-Mont, which was defended by the same units that were now in Carentan. These units had taken heavy casualties in the fighting leading up to their defense of Carentan, requiring their reinforcement.
The plan to capture the city called for the use of a Double Envelopment- the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment to the South and the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment to the North. H Company, of the 3rd Battalion, carried out one of the more dramatic attacks of the operation. As the lead American element entered a large open field, well-concealed German machine guns destroyed them.
The commander, Lt. Col. Robert G. Cole, requested artillery fire on the German positions, which failed to silence the defenders’ weapons. Afterwards, Cole requested a smoke barrage prior to H Company making its way across the open area of the farm. Once the smoke had billowed sufficiently provide concealment, LTC Cole signaled and led H Company in a surprise bayonet charge. This charge finally overwhelmed the enemy in brutal close quarters battle, forcing their retreat. At the beginning, only 20 men joined the bayonet charge, though soon after over 50 more joined the fray. For his actions that day, LTC Cole would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Battle of Carentan was a pivotal engagement, which resulted in the stabilization of the Allied front, and control of the Crossroads of Carentan – as well as the port in the city.