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INTERACTIVE: SCREAMING EAGLES ATTACK CARENTAN, 1944

You are U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole, commander of 3d Battalion, 502d Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division. Less than a week ago, on the night of June 5-6, 1944, your battalion parachuted into Normandy, France, as part of the Allied airborne drops conducted behind German lines to support the D-Day invasion. On June 8, your paratroopers moved to a location about two miles northwest of Carentan, where they guarded the right flank of 101st Division’s initial advances to seize the strategically located city.

Capturing Carentan is vital, since as long as the Germans maintain control of the city they can block the consolidation of

the two American invasion beaches, Utah and Omaha. (See Combat! in the May 2014 issue of ACG.) Until these beaches are linked up, the success of the Normandy invasion remains at risk and the Allied forces are vulnerable to German counterattacks.

Yesterday, June 10, your 400-man battalion was brought forward to join 101st Division’s multipronged attack on Carentan by advancing southeast across a narrow, mile-long causeway and then moving to seize a toehold in the northwest section of the city. After dark, you led the battalion’s attack into the teeth of enemy mortar and machine-gun fire. Casualties were heavy since the marshy ground flanking the causeway restricted your advance to a narrow strip of dry land.

Now, just before dawn on June 11, you and your remaining 200 paratroopers have crossed the causeway but are pinned down at the edge of a wide, open field near German fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) defending from a farmhouse and hedgerow. Enemy machine-gun fire rains down on your men from the farmhouse’s upper window, while machine-gun and small arms fire pours forth from the hedgerow. Moreover, mortars support the two German positions.

Meanwhile, your battalion has no heavy weapons and your paratroopers are armed mostly with M1 rifles. Although you can radio for artillery support (high explosive and smoke rounds), the guns are only 75 mm howitzers, not the 105 mm and 155 mm ones that could more effectively blast the German positions.

As you lie on the ground considering your options, your battalion executive officer crawls next you. “Colonel,” the major says, “staying pinned down here in the open is suicide. Once it’s daylight, the Germans will slaughter us. Don’t you think we’d better pull back across the causeway as quickly as possible?”

WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, LIEUTENANT COLONEL COLE?

ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION

“Vertical insertion” – dropping paratroopers virtually anywhere on the battlefield that an aircraft can reach, particularly behind enemy lines – is the great advantage of airborne units. Yet the inherent weight and load capacity restrictions of troop transport planes and gliders mean that airborne units must fight as “light infantry,” using only small arms (rifles, pistols and some submachine guns), grenades, bazookas, light machine guns, 60 mm mortars and 75 mm short-range howitzers. Unless the paratroopers can join up with regular infantry, artillery and armored units, they are at a disadvantage when engaging in sustained combat against enemy forces backed by tanks, artillery and heavy weapons.

Your current tactical situation emphasizes the difficulties light infantry forces face when fighting against conventional forces. The Germans occupy strong defensive positions in the farmhouse and hedgerow, and the intervening open terrain gives them clear fields of fire. Your battalion has no tanks or heavy artillery to blast apart the enemy defenses, and your supporting 75 mm guns lack the “punch” to do the job. However, the guns can lay down a smoke barrage to obscure your force from enemy observation.

POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION

You agree with the major’s assessment that remaining in place is suicide. You see only two viable courses of action:

The first option is to call for artillery to lay down a smoke screen to hamper the Germans’ ability to fire effectively and then to withdraw your paratroopers as rapidly as possible across the causeway. While this might save many of your men, it also will mean abandoning the battalion’s mission of seizing a toehold in northwest Carentan.

The alternative is to rally your paratroopers and lead them in an attack to close with and destroy the enemy after calling for artillery to lay down a smoke screen to help conceal them as they race across the open ground. This plan – in effect a bayonet charge against a well-emplaced enemy – is highly risky, yet it gives your battalion at least a chance to seize a toehold in Carentan’s northwest outskirts.

COLE’S ORDERS

Turning to your executive officer, you order, “Major, get on the radio right now and call in a smoke barrage on the open field and enemy positions. Tell the artillery to give us 10 minutes of smoke rounds and then to shift to high explosive rounds targeting the farmhouse and hedgerow.

“If we try to withdraw across the causeway, the Germans’ mortars and machine guns likely will cut us to pieces, just like they did last night. Although a smoke screen might initially help us, the time it would take the men to get back across the causeway would give the German gunners plenty of opportunities to target them.

“And since we can’t stay here, we’re going to attack! Pass the word along the line to ‘fix bayonets’ and be prepared to run like hell across the open ground when I give the command to charge!”

The first smoke rounds soon whistle overhead and begin landing on their targets. As the artillery shifts from smoke to high explosive, you unholster your M1911 .45-caliber pistol, raise it above your head and shout, “Charge!” You then urge your paratroopers forward.

 Colonel (Ret.) John Antal is the author of the must-read book “7 Leadership Lessons of the American Revolution: The Founding Fathers, Liberty and the Struggle for Independence” (Casemate, 2013).

On October 4, 1944, Cole’s heroism was recognized with the Medal of Honor, but it was awarded posthumously since Cole was killed in action in Holland on September 18 during Operation Market Garden.

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