US 82nd and 101st Airborne Drop In - Jump Or Die!

Trip Start Apr 16, 2011
Trip End May 03, 2011

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Cottage Outside of Carentan

Flag of France  , Basse-Normandie,
Sunday, April 17, 2011

In response to request from a fine American friend who lives in Eugene, Oregon, I decided to start my first week off with a visit to Amfreville, an otherwise forgotten village except for several days of a June definitely not forgotten. The goal was to track down the site around where one of Bill's relatives landed in the early morning hours of D-Day, 1944 and report back by way of e-mail as to what I found. Amfreville was 'ground zero' for this task.

Amfreville is a little village is northwest of Carentan and southwest of Ste-Mere-Eglise. It can be found by turning south off the N 13 motorway onto the D 15 and following the signage. The is bocage or hedgerow country which means winding roads and looking upward from the road into the dense thickets rising above the trackway. Amfreville is one of those innumerable French countryside hamlets/villages of solid stone cottages, few conveniences and a large church with a sizable cemetery dating back to the time of William the Conquerer.

Amfreville was little known until the night of June 5 - 6 when elements of the 507th Parachute Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division dropped into the vicinity of this sleepy little burg. Unfortunately, for the commander of the the 2nd battalion of the 507th, Lt Col Timmes, his unit landed smack in the middle of an active, competent and very committed force of the German Army. Things did not go particularly well for the paratroopers. It was a bit of a mismatch, initially, as the lightly armed Americans, while keen, well trained and proficient, were simply outgunned. Infantry against armour usually does not turn out well for the former. By the time elements of the US 90th Division moved off Utah Beach and brought their supporting artillery and armour into this sector on June 11, the 507th PIR was in sad repair. The troopers had impeded German attempts to interfere with the seaborne invasion but the cost was great.

On the edge of Amfreville resides a memorial park paying homage to the 507th Regiment. The park was dedicated in 2002. Its dominant feature is a 5 metre monument representing a paratrooper falling from the sky on the invasion night. Leading up to the monument is a series of stone based plaques or stelae presenting what happened during these days in early June and featuring maps for those of us who are visual learners. These stelae are often referred to as the Timmes' orchard. The whole park is quite respectful and is tastefully done. It is well worth a visit. Stay awhile and walk about he manicured grounds. You may well be surprised with the variety and nationality of visitors who just "drop in" on a memorial which is a bit off the beaten path.

Approximately 2 kilometres down the D 126 roadway from Amfreville is the Memorial des Parachutistes at La Fiere bridge spanning Le Merderet. The memorial is situated on the ridge overlooking the Merderet River and recognizes the achievement of the 507th's sister regiment of the 82nd Airborne, the 508th, from June 6 - 9, 1944. The job of the 508th was to seize and hold La Fiere bridge and the raised causeway across the flooded plain and valley of the Merderet. This was a vital crossing point for German forces wishing to sweep across this area into Ste-Mere-Eglise in order to throw the invasion forces back into the Atlantic. For four days, the 508th troopers resisted the grenadiers of the German 91st Infantry Division and their armoured support units. Much of the 508th was decimated. A series of plaques recognizes the 336 paratroopers who died in the battle of Normandy and the 825 troopers who were wounded or just plain disappeared.

What makes this memorial even more impressive is the imposing statue of "Iron Mike" situated on the ridge overlooking the river and the bridge. Iron Mike is a hard-nosed looking, grizzled and feisty paratrooper who is a replica of the one at the infantry training centre in Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. Impressive would be an understatement as one gazes up into the blue sky of a statue staring down defiantly.

The countryside around this area is extremely picturesque and full of colour. Numerous bridges, rivers, canals and villages with impressive (but seemingly vacant) churches dot the landscape. The traditional houses are made from stone and often have the barns attached. Newer houses are of varied style and seem very well built. Gardens are well attended with flowers of multiple variety. The grounds are well maintained. Keeping in mind that this is first and foremost a farming area, this is the part of France where a motorist can truly enjoy the functionality of "les bocages" or hedgerows. As I drove about I could almost picture the dueling armies contesting territory, field by field in 1944. It must have been a living hell no matter what side a combatant was on. For those soldiers still living, their accounts of day-to-day survival makes one who did not have to partake of the experience feel so fortunate.

Driving through les bocage countryside means taking one's foot off the accelerator since the hedgerows make for blind spots at the narrow intersections. I tried to remember this each day and, as the first week drifted into the next, finally started to get the hang of how to avoid crashing into farm implements, stone walls and bicycle riders. When dashing about the area south of Ste-Mere-Eglise, slow down.

-This is a stunning area of northwest France in terms of rural countryside and scenic beauty.
-This is a place where anyone with an interest in almost anything quaint can literally spend days and days poking about.
-Monuments and sign markers dot the landscape, recognizing the contributions of American and other Allied forces during 1944 June. The same cannot be said for the efforts put in by the German Army in defending this part of occupied France, although the sacrifices of the Wehrmacht were considerable. It is cruel but true that the victors get to write much of the history and the resulting perspectives.
-Take your time. Really, really take your time! Meander about. Enjoy the bread/pastry shops in the tiny villages, partake of the refreshing and potent calvados, drop into a sleepy cafe and enjoy a coffee, watch the industrious locals go about their business and accept the fact that tomorrow will arrive just a tad slower. All this might do your soul a wee bit of good!
-Lastly, even if you have a GPS, try to purchase the 1:25,000 (1cm=250 metres) Carte Topographique Serie Bleue map #1211E which portrays (in fantastic detail) the Valognes St-Sauveur-Le-Vicomte area described above. This may contains "everything".

Some Initial References:
-"D-Day 1944: Voices From Normandy". Robin Neillands & Roderick de Normann. ISBN: 1-59360-012-7
-"Overlord: D-Day And The Battle For Normandy". Max Hastings

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