By Flint Whitlock

The night of June 5, 1944, was pretty much like every other night in Sainte-Mère-Église since the Germans had occupied Normandy and the Cotentin Peninsula in the summer of 1940: dark, quiet, chilly, and mostly boring.

While there had been innumerable overflights by Allied aircraft (probably taking reconnaissance photos) and the occasional aerial bombing, Normandy was still considered good duty for anyone who had had his fill of war on the Eastern Front and was recovering from wounds psychological and physical.

Here in Normandy there was plenty to eat and drink (especially Calvados, the strong brandy made from apples), scenery that hadn’t been mostly destroyed by heavy fighting, and French people who seemed to, if not exactly warmly welcome, at least be resigned to and tolerate the presence of foreign soldiers on their soil.

When not on actual watch, looking for the first signs of an invasion that might or might not come to this location, the soldiers in Normandy had busied themselves by following Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s orders to so strongly fortify the coast that the Allied invaders would not stand a chance, that they would, as Rommel had put it, be driven back into the sea.

This night, with the peninsula cloaked in darkness, and the farmers and villagers fast asleep beneath the cloud-obscured moon and the German soldiers—who were on watch in their observation bunkers straining with the help of strong French coffee to keep their eyelids open and scan the black horizon or sound asleep in their barracks or making love to their French mistresses—had no idea what was about to hit them.

If the Allies Could Control Sainte-Mère-Église, They Could Control the Cotentin

A glance at a map of northwest France reveals a basic truth: there are no large cities in the arc between Cherbourg and Caen; only Carentan, Montebourg, Bayeux, and Valognes can be regarded as sizable. A spiderweb of roads connect one town and village and hamlet to another. One town at the center of a web of roads is Sainte-Mère-Église. But the roads—mostly narrow farm roads suitable for bringing produce to market or for driving herds of slow-moving cows from the barn to the fields and back again—also made it hard to move large formations of military vehicles and large numbers of troops.

For centuries—ever since the Vikings or Normans first set foot here, giving the region its name of Normandie—the area has been pastoral and bucolic, with time measured by seasons rather than by the clock. The sturdy homes, shops, and churches are built solidly of stone—a whitish-grayish-yellowish limestone native to the region, capable of fending off the strong winds that blow in fiercely from the North Atlantic and sometimes rattle the shutters and windowpanes. Although treated to the same warm currents that can give southern England a semi-tropical feel (there are, after all, palm trees growing along the English Channel), the winds can sometimes be bitter, and the cold can penetrate through multiple layers of fabric like a gunshot.

The people, too, like their buildings, are a sturdy lot. Hard-working like any agrarian populace, the dour Normans typically rise at (or before dawn), put in a full day’s worth of physical work, eat a hearty dinner topped off with a glass or two of Calvados, and retire at sunset.

Aerial photo of Sainte-Mère-Église after its capture. Note American military vehicles lining the main street.
Aerial photo of Sainte-Mère-Église after its capture. Note American military vehicles lining the main street.

The stolid citizens of Normandy were not happy, of course, when, in June 1940, the gray-uniformed Germans marched in and took over, but they accepted their fate the way they accepted most everything that came their way. For the most part, they did not go out of their way to welcome the occupiers, nor did they collaborate with them. They merely tolerated them and went about their usual business of growing the apples that went into the making of Calvados, pulling fish from the Channel, and pasturing their cows, extracting the milk to make into cheese.

It was Sainte-Mère-Église, roughly halfway between Montebourg and Carantan, that had caught the eye of American military planners as early as 1942. Control Sainte-Mère-Église and you control the Cotentin, the planners saw. No fewer than five roads pass through it, plus it was only seven miles from the westernmost amphibious landing beach known as Utah. Drop an airborne division or two, along with their glider-infantry regiments, into the area and you stood a good chance of preventing German reinforcements from Cherbourg in the north and Brittany in the west from slamming into the troops coming ashore at Utah. The western end of the 60-mile-long beachhead that ran from La Madeleine to Ouistreham would thus be secure and the seaborne troops could move inland after overcoming local German opposition. Yes, Sainte-Mère-Église would definitely have to be taken in the early hours of D-Day.

Alexandre Renaud’s Dilemma

In the days before D-Day, Alexandre Renaud was a man with a dilemma. Besides his full-time job as the local pharmacist, the World War I veteran was also the mayor of Sainte-Mère-Église and, as such, he was expected by the occupiers to cooperate with them—and by his constituents to resist. Whenever the Germans gave him an order to do something, such as provide tools, transportation, and laborers to assist in the building of some defensive work, and he could find no one willing to perform the work, punishments would follow.

In May 1944 the Germans were demanding all sorts of things. It was obvious that the local Germans were expecting an invasion and that Sainte-Mère-Église would likely be caught up in it. The roads through the town were filled with trucks towing artillery pieces and carrying troops in all directions. In the fields cordoned off by hedgerows, holes were being dug and large poles were being planted—Rommelspargel (Rommel’s Asparagus) some wag called them—designed to discourage glider landings. Trenches were being dug, and anti-aircraft guns emplaced.

When Renaud spoke clandestinely with townspeople, everyone seemed to have an opinion: the Allies—if and when they attack—will cross at the Pas de Calais, Cherbourg, Le Havre, Dieppe, Boulogne, Dunquerque. Brittany will be the target. No, it will be the Cotentin. Ridiculous—the Allies will feint at Normandy but land on the Belgian coast. Few thought that Sainte-Mère-Église was in any real danger unless Allied bombers decided to target the anti-aircraft batteries that were being installed around the town. After all, air attacks had struck at the bridges at Beuzeville la Bastille and Les Moitiers en Bauptois. Someone else pointed out that leaflets were recently dropped over the area hinting at paratroop landings and showing illustrations of Allied tanks and jeeps and what British and American paratrooper uniforms looked like, and giving instructions on what to do in the event of an invasion. The Allies are probably dropping them all over France, someone else pointed out, just to keep the Germans guessing.

Renaud noted that the digging of trenches around Sainte-Mère-Église was almost completed, but that the Germans didn’t seem to be in any rush. “With the means of punishment at its disposal,” he said, “[the German command] could have made the work go five times as fast, and could have demanded that it should be done by June 1st.”

Their faces displaying a variety of emotions, these paratroopers from the 101st Airborne prepare to take off in a C-47 “Skytrain” on D-Day.
Their faces displaying a variety of emotions, these paratroopers from the 101st Airborne prepare to take off in a C-47 “Skytrain” on D-Day.

Throughout May, the presence of German troops increased. Renaud said, “We have seen encamped in our fields infantry, artillerymen, Aryan Germans, and also Georgians and Mongols with Asiatic features … commanded by German officers. In the latter part of May, the artillery units quarter in Gambosville [less than a mile south of Sainte-Mère -Eglise]. The officers come to see me at the Town Hall. They need spades, picks and saws immediately. The town is to be secured, and the work has to be finished in five days.

“I reply that there are no more spades or saws in the neighborhood and that they will have to canvass all the houses in order to find a few tools. They phone the Feldcommandantur at Saint Lô to get instructions about what punitive measures to take. He gives an evasive answer. Discouraged, they finally go to a hardware store where, after threatening to loot everything, they manage to obtain a few tools. Guns are then installed at all the town approaches; on the Carentan road, on the La Fière road, before Capdelaine, on the Ravenoville road.