The mortal ferocity of the four-day battle for control of the small stone bridge over the Merderet River at La Fière in Normandy is testament to the bridge’s strategic importance in the D-Day invasion of June 1944. Without control of the bridge and its vital causeway, American forces coming from Utah Beach would not have been able to force their way inland.
Fought largely by paratroopers and glidermen from the 82nd Airborne Division, the battle to secure the bridge at La Fière is described as “probably the bloodiest small unit struggle in the experience of American arms.” Victory at La Fière cost more than 250 American lives, and yet the fateful engagement’s story is largely untold.
This bridge, and another downstream at Pointe du Chef, both a few miles west of St. Mère-Église, proved to be troublesome but necessary objectives. With the Germans having intentionally flooded all the adjacent ground, these two bridges were the only exits from the Utah beachhead. As long as the Germans controlled them, the Americans would be bottled up.
La Fière Bridge was taken by American paratroopers in the morning, but almost immediately lost again to a German counterattack. The German 1057 and 91 Air Landing Regiments were squeezing in on 82 Airborne’s positions from three sides.
Assistant divisional commander Brigadier General James Gavin was busy trying to supply enough men to hold one or both of these Merderet crossings. But he lacked the manpower to hold the bridgehead.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Charles J Timmes’ 2 Battalion, 507 PIR, was holding an orchard halfway between La Fière Bridge and Amfreville after being repulsed from that town shortly after their landing.
In a three company attempt to retake the bridge at noon, A Company under Captain FV Schwarzwalder rushed the bridge and causeway, then continued on to reinforce Timmes. But they could not secure their position all the way back to the bridge and became cut off as well. Lieutenant John Marr was in this group:
“We spent D-Day night and D plus 1 (day and) night in a perimeter defense, backed up against the water in what is now Timmes’ Orchard, which is very near Amfreville and that was a place that was called the Gray Castle.”
"It was an old French castle, and that happened to be the 91st German Division command post. We patrolled out … and of course we got repulsed by automatic weapons fire and some mortar fire on D plus 1. And (on) D plus 2, Timmes sent me on a patrol at about 8:00 in the morning to go to the Gray Castle behind some tall trees.”
“I went back and I reported to Timmes that nobody was going to go into that castle today through the fire that they were doing as we approached through the wooded area. And so then he said, ‘Well, why don’t you go across to the northeast and see what you see … if you can locate any friendly troops over there.”
“So I took Carter, my runner, and we went out a road running to the north of Timmes’ Orchard to the water’s edge. And we found out there was a submerged cobblestone road headed toward the railroad section house, which was on the far side of the water, about 1,200 yards away. So we just started following that road out there, broad daylight, and the Germans never took notice of us at all, never fired on us the entire trip.”
"The head of the family that occupied the section house offered to take us up the river in his boat, which he guided with a long pole.
"He poled us up the river to the far side and to the treed area where the 325th Glider Infantry had landed and assembled on D plus 1.”
“One of the battalion commanders of the regiment put us in a jeep and headed up the road to deliver us to the division command post so that we could tell our story. And on the way to the division command post, we met (General) Ridgway coming our direction in his jeep and I briefed General Ridgway as to what we were doing over there.”
"We had no communication with the division during those three days that we were in there in Timmes’ Orchard area.”
“So Ridgway told the battalion commander to take us on to the division command post, which he did. We went out into the woods and took a much-needed nap. And along toward evening one of the 82nd headquarters people came and got us out of the woods and said, ‘Okay we got a plan, and we need your help.”
The plan was for Marr to lead 1 Battalion, 325 Glider Infantry, down the railroad and across the swamp on the sunken road he had discovered.
“Somewhere around… probably 9:30 or 10:00 by the time it was dark enough, the battalion and their vehicles went down the road, crossed over the railroad, went into Timmes’ Orchard and the battalion commander met with Timmes and made a battle plan to attack the Germans from the rear, on the western approach of the causeway.”
The glider battalion commander wanted a paratrooper who knew the area to accompany each of his companies. Marr went out with C Company to attack the churchyard overlooking the causeway. The Germans at the west end put up white sheets and began surrender talks while they maneuvered their weapons for enfilading fire.
The glider troops were caught out in the open in fields.
“The enfilading fire took its toll,” says Marr. “People were out in an oat fields. And so there was a tremendous exchange of fire in there, and as daylight broke, the attack failed, but not before a soldier named DeGlopper, Charles DeGlopper, had gone on a rampage with his Browning automatic rifle. And he took out a lot of the defenders, and kept going until they finally killed him.”
"He was the only guy to win the Medal of Honor in the Normandy operation with the 82nd Division.”
“Now then, what happened next was, I looked up toward the churchyard, and against the berm were two soldiers from C Company, and they were the wiremen who were laying the field wire along with the company as it advanced. So, I called over to where they were, and I said, ‘Okay, we need to, we need to get us a withdrawal thing here’. I decided that what we had to do was to crawl through that oats field, back toward the way we came, guided by the wire that they had laid up during the darkness hours.”
“And so we started crawling, a little at a time, so that we would not be making big waves in the oats field to attract the Germans.”
"We did that all the way down this field, which was about 300 yards long, and then we started up a slope on the other side, and came back to the juncture of the hedgerow where we took an alternate course earlier in the night.”
“What I did not know at that particular time was that the division had a backup plan to attack the Germans on the west side of the causeway if the night attack had failed.”
"The attack started at 10:00 (on June 9) but it was preceded by artillery fire from the 82nd Division Artillery and the 90th Division Artillery.”
Encouraged by 82 Airborne Division leadership and backed up by Captain Bob Rae’s company from 507 PIR, elements of three companies of 325 Glider Infantry Regiment crossed La Fière Bridge and established a bridgehead on the west side, despite intense fire from German infantry, artillery and tanks.
They secured their position and, as enemy fire began to wilt, linked up with Timmes and the 327 Glider Infantry Regiment to the north, and Captain Charles G Shettle’s outpost of 508 PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment) men on Hill 30 to the south.
The last of the important D-Day bridgehead missions of the airborne troops were finally accomplished, paving the way for the infantry to move into the far reaches of the Cotentin Peninsula.