The Merderet River, near the town of Sainte-Mère- Église in Normandy, France, does not at first appear a significant obstacle on military maps. The north-to-south running stream is only yards wide and quite shallow. But a floodplain extends hundreds of yards from either bank, which can be turned into an impassable marsh by opening tidal floodgates from the Atlantic Ocean. As the Allied invasion of Europe loomed in May 1944, that’s exactly what German defenders did.
The U.S. VII Corps was to undertake two critical tasks after its June 6 landing on Utah Beach: The first was to move inland quickly, the second to prevent German reinforcements from cutting off the beachhead. The key to accomplishing both tasks was to take and hold the only two Merderet bridges—at Chef-du-Pont, southwest of Sainte-Mère-Église, and La Fière, two miles west of town. The original stone bridge at La Fière lay close to the east bank of the river. From the bridge, an unpaved road ran along the top of a narrow elevated causeway, crossing some 500 yards of the Merderet floodplain to a small group of buildings on the west bank at Cauquigny.
The 82nd Airborne Division was tasked with Mission Boston—the seizure of both spans and establishment of bridgeheads on the Merderet. The best way to capture a bridge is to take both ends simultaneously, so the plan called for the 507th and 508th Parachute Infantry Regiments (PIRs) to jump into drop zones (DZs) west of the Merderet, just outside the flooded area. The 505th PIR was to drop on the east bank, between the river and Sainte Mère-Église, capture the town, secure those bridgeheads and then link up with the 507th and 508th. But early on June 6, low cloud cover and heavy German anti-aircraft fire caused the C-47s carrying the 507th and 508th to veer off course, scattering the paratroopers across the French countryside, with many landing east of the river.
Fortunately, the 505th made a fairly tight drop, with half the regiment landing within a mile of its DZ. The 3rd Battalion of the 505th (3/505th) secured Sainte-Mère-Église by 0430, while the 1/505th moved to capture Manoir de La Fière, a group of stone farm buildings overlooking the bridge’s east end. About the time the paratroopers secured the Manoir, an element of the 507th occupied the buildings at Cauquigny. At that point, the 82nd held both ends of the causeway.
The Germans reacted quickly. At 1730 on June 6, they attacked with a company from the 91st Air Landing Division’s 1057th Grenadier Regiment, reinforced with tanks from the 100th Panzer Training and Replacement Battalion. The Germans pushed the small American force out of Cauquigny and then attacked across the causeway toward La Fière. In the fierce firefight that followed, the Americans stopped the advance and knocked out several of the German tanks, but by midnight the Germans had secured the causeway’s west end.
The Germans attacked again on June 7, this time with artillery and mortar support. The paratroopers at La Fière held on grimly all that day. Meanwhile, the 82nd’s 325th Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR) landed early on the 7th, and later that day its 1st Battalion waded across the inundated floodplain north of La Fière and attempted to flank the Germans at Cauquigny. But a German counterattack pinned down the glidermen, and the defenders at Cauquigny held tight.
When the 1/325th GIR’s attack failed, 82nd commander Maj. Gen. Matthew Ridgway ordered his assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. James Gavin, to launch a frontal assault straight down the causeway. Gavin designated the 3/325th GIR as the spearhead, with a makeshift company from the 507th PIR in reserve. The Americans attacked at 1030 on June 9, supported by the 155mm howitzers of the 90th Infantry Division’s 345th Field Artillery Battalion. The lead elements of the 3/325th made it across the causeway and reached Cauquigny, but the attack faltered as casualties mounted. Gavin committed the small reserve of 507th paratroopers, under Captain Robert Rae. That last desperate push tipped the balance, and by the end of the day, elements of the 90th were marching over the causeway into the Cotentin Peninsula.
The battle for La Fière causeway— among the fiercest small-unit actions of the Normandy Campaign—cost the 82nd more than 500 casualties. But Mission Boston helped ensure the success of the VII Corps landings.
Today, the buildings at Manoir de la Fière and Cauquigny remain much as they were in 1944. The bridge and causeway are also much the same, except the road is now paved and the dense vegetation that lined both sides of the causeway in 1944 is gone. And the Merderet? It still overruns its banks every spring, turning the floodplain into a huge, marshy lake.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.