R.I.P. Lieutenant Colonel Robert George Cole March 19, 1915 – September 18, 1944.
The battle that opened up the town.
The acclaimed HBO series Band of Brothers dedicates an entire episode to the fierce Battle of Carentan; however, it doesn’t show the bloody struggle of the 101st Airborne just to get there in the first place. Today we are going to take a look at the events that led up to American troops entering the town.
Carentan, a town of around 4,000 people in 1944, was a strategic location. It straddled the Cherbourg–Paris railroad and highways leading to Caen, Bayeux and Saint-Lô. Furthermore, it lay between the Utah and Omaha beachhead, so the two American sectors would only be able to link up after securing the town.
The nearest unit was the 101st Airborne, which was still reeling from the numerous misdrops and heavy casualties of the night leading up to D-Day. The operation set the Screaming Eagles against their German counterparts, the elite 2nd FallschirmjägerDivision, who were guarding the town along with two battalions of conscripted and volunteer Eastern European troops.
General Maxwell Taylor decided on a pincer attack with the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment attacking the town from the east and the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment coming in from the northwest and capturing the German-controlled high ground on the Carentan’s southwest side. There was, however, a problem: the Germans had flooded the plains to the northwest of town and the only dry route was a single exposed causeway that crossed four bridges. The push down the causeway fell to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole’s 3rdBattalion.
They moved out shortly after midnight on June 10, but quickly came to a halt. The second bridge was down and the engineer battalion working on it was pinned down by 88mm flak fire from Carentan. Unable to progress, Cole sent out a patrol in a boat to recon the next stretch of the road. The patrol discovered that while the final bridge was up, it was blocked by a steel-and-concrete barrier called a Belgian Gate. They managed to pry it slightly open but the gap was only 18 inches wide, only enough to allow through one man at a time. As soon as they were done, the patrol came under mortar attack and retreated.
The 3rd Battalion tried to advance again at around noon but the engineers still hadn’t fixed the second bridge. Growing impatient, Cole took three men and built a makeshift footbridge himself from planks, ropes and other supplies at hand. Intermittent enemy fire intensified as the battalion advanced, and eventually they were completely pinned down by withering fire from flak guns, mortar, machine guns and snipers between the footbridge and the last bridge with the barrier. Unable to advance, all they could do was squat or lie down on the slopes of the causeway. They couldn’t even dig in, as the ground was too hard.
Over the afternoon and evening, the causeway earned its nickname: Purple Heart Lane. Two-thirds of the battalion suffered casualties, with one particular company losing 62 of its 85 men. The enemy fire only let up once darkness fell over Normandy. At midnight, two Stuka dive-bombers attacked the men, strafing down the causeway and dropping their bombs, killing even more.
At 4 a.m. Cole’s men moved out again, squeezing past the Belgian Gate one by one. Most of the enemy fire the day before seemed to come from a cluster of four farm buildings ahead and to the right of the road and from the hedgerows beyond, so the scouts headed that way.
Suddenly, a fusillade of fire erupted, mowing down the first couple of men and pinning the rest of the battalion. Cole radioed for artillery support but the incoming shells failed to silence or even weaken the enemy fire. Desperate, Cole asked for a smoke barrage and steeled himself for a bayonet charge against the farmhouses. Due to his orders being misunderstood, however, only Cole and 20 men who were in is immediate vicinity got up and rushed forward on his whistle signal. Soon, he was joined by another 40 or so under the command of his executive officer. Unaware of the order but seeing the charge, the rest of the battalion soon followed on their own initiative in small groups.
The fierce assault took the Germans by surprise and they quickly retreated into the hedgerows behind the houses. The paratroopers followed, but the bocage terrain restricted visibility and they found themselves in deadly quarters once more, unable to see the enemy. Combat was so close that the two forces sometimes occupied opposite sides of the same hedgerow.
At noon, a two-hour truce was agreed on to remove casualties, and the Fallschirmjägerused the opportunity to resupply themselves and attack with renewed vigor. The final German counterattack of the day seriously threatened to overrun the farmhouses which, by now, were occupied by Cole’s troops. In dire straits once more, Cole had his artillery officer call down fire support so close that several American soldiers were killed by the explosions. However, the heavy barrage did the trick. Five minutes of unrelenting strikes completely overwhelmed the Germans, forcing them to flee. The way to attack Carentan itself was open.
For his actions, Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole was awarded the Medal of Honor, but the recognition came too late. He was killed in action on September 18, 1944, before receiving the award, shot dead by a sniper during Operation Market Garden.
You can learn more about the operations that led to the liberation of Normandy and eventually the rest of the Europe by following the Allied forces from the landing beaches through France, Belgium and Germany on our various World War II Tours through Western Europe.