Battle of Graignes


Battle of Graignes

Shortly after 2:00 am on D-Day, twelve planeloads of paratroopers from the 3rd Battalion 507th PIR were scattered throughout the marshes south of Carentan. They were supposed to have been dropped eighteen miles to the northwest at drop zone “T” near Amfreville, but instead they ended-up in the vicinity of the village of Graignes. Theirs was the worst misdrop of any airborne unit on June 6, 1944. After sunrise, several small groups of these men slogged their way out of the marsh, gravitating toward the small agrarian community whose XIIth century Roman Catholic church was silhouetted against the rising sun. Because the troopers were deep behind enemy lines and far from their drop zone, the decision was made to remain where they had landed and defend Graignes. The episode that would unfold in this obscure little village over the course of the next five days stands as one of the most dramatic and tragic of the entire Normandy campaign.

By 10:00 am on D-Day, twenty-five paratroopers under the command of 507th Capt.Leroy D. Brummitt had gathered in the village. Considering what they had been through, the small group of troopers was surprisingly well armed. In addition to their personal weapons, the men had five M1919A4 .30-cal. machine guns and two 81mm mortars. As a precaution, Capt. Brummitt put out perimeter security to serve as an early warning in the event that the enemy approached the village. Two hours later, more 3rd Battalion/507th men arrived led by Major Charles D. Johnson. After discussing the situation with Capt. Brummitt, Major Johnson took control of the 507th men assembled in the village. He felt that, moving the force toward the American airborne units fighting to the north was an impractical idea because the 82nd and 101st Division drop zones were just too far away. He therefore decided that the best course of action would be to keep the force in Graignes. Capt. Brummitt disagreed and argued that the force should attempt to reach the regiment’s objective area to the north. Major Johnson felt that the troopers should stay put and organize a defensive perimeter and await a link-up with ground forces coming across the landing beaches. As the ranking officer present, Johnson’s decision was final: Graignes would be defended.

As the Americans went to work preparing defensive positions, the village became a hive of activity. Soldiers started digging in around the town’s perimeter, cutting fields of fire, installing communications and otherwise making ready to receive a counterattack. The mortar platoon dug in around the cemetery and sent a detachment to occupy the church belfry as an observation post. From that vantage point, the observer enjoyed an unobstructed view of the network of roads and trails leading to the village from the west and southwest. The main road leading uphill to the church was covered also by riflemen located strategically along its flanks as well as a large number of anti-tank mines. In short, all routes into Graignes were covered by rifles, machine guns, mines and mortars. While these defenses were being prepared, Major Johnson established his Command Post at the boys’ school. Graignes had become the Alamo of Normandy.

Throughout this digging-in process, troopers continued to arrive in Graignes. At approximately 5:30 pm on D-Day, a large group of Headquarters Company personnel entered the village with 1st Lt. Elmer F. Farnham, 1st Lt. Lowell C. Maxwell and twenty-four-year-old 1st Lt. Frank Naughton. Naughton had joined the U.S. Army in August 1941 and was among the first officers to join the 507th when it was born in July 1942. Normandy was his twenty-sixth parachute jump and Graignes was to be the first combat he would experience in three wars. Right behind Lt. Naughton’s group was a group of troopers from B Company/501st PIR of the 101st Airborne Div. being led by Capt. Loyal K. Bogart. Bogart had been wounded twice during the jump and when he reported in at Graignes, he insisted that he was still capable of helping and asked for something to do. Maj. Johnson responded by placing him in charge of the central switchboard at the command post and the remaining B Company/501st men were given a sector on the line. That night, more men entered the village, and by the end of the following day (D+1), the group had grown in size to 182 (12 officers and 170 enlisted).

On the morning of June 6th, M. Alphonse Voydie awoke to find American paratroopers in the field behind his house. When he was informed that more paratroopers had assembled in Graignes at the church, he quickly rushed to the scene. As the village’s mayor, he felt that it was his responsibility to establish contact with the Americans. By the time that Voydie got to the church on D-Day, Maj. Johnson had already begun the process of preparing defenses around the village. Johnson and Voydie met and discussed the situation with Sgt. Benton J. Broussard, a francophone Cajun from Acadia Parish, Louisiana, serving as the translator. (Broussard is often mistakenly referred to as "French-Canadian". See National Archives and Record Administration http://www.wwiimemorial.com/registry/wardept/pframe.asp?HonoreeID=1053014 ) At first, Maj. Johnson requested information about the general layout of the area as well as German troop movements. Without hesitating, Voydie and several other villagers told him everything they could. Because his men were going to need the ammunition and heavy weapons they contained, Johnson also asked about having use of a boat to retrieve the equipment bundles that had landed in the marshes around the village. Finally, Johnson asked about the food situation. Since the misdropped troopers would almost certainly not be re-supplied any time soon, Johnson was genuinely concerned about how he was going to feed everyone. Voydie wanted to help the paratroopers, but he realized that coming up with enough to feed 182 hungry men several times a day was not something that he could manage alone. He recognized that such an effort, as well as the effort to recover the equipment bundles, would require the cooperation and assistance of the entire Graignes community.

For that reason, Voydie called a town meeting for the next day, June 7th. During that meeting, which was held in the XIIth century church, Voydie appealed to the citizens of Graignes to place all the resources of the village at the disposal of the Americans. His impassioned plea was successful because at the meeting’s conclusion, there was a unanimous decision to help the paratroopers. This decision was not entered into lightly though, as it carried grave implications. They all knew that if the Germans caught them assisting the Americans, the punishment would be swift and harsh. With a sober appreciation for the consequences, the people of Graignes elected to help the American paratroopers in their midst.After the meeting, Voydie mobilized the women of the village in an effort to procure, prepare and distribute food for the Americans. Since the paratroopers would soon exhaust the supply of light rations they had carried with them to Normandy, something had to be done quickly. The proprietor of the village café-grocery, 50-year-old Madame Germaine Boursier, was therefore recruited to organize an effort to provide meals to the paratroopers. Her assistance to the Americans actually began during the pre-dawn hours of June 6th when several paratroopers landed in the marsh near her home. She took the cold, drenched men into her home and offered them food from her café. From that point forward, Madame Boursier set the standard for aiding her liberators. Under her direction, the women of Graignes began cooking on a round the clock basis so they could serve two meals each day. Using her café as the base of operations, Madame Boursier even supervised and coordinated the transportation of meals out to the soldiers occupying the many dispersed observation positions guarding the approaches to the village. “Madame Boursier was our Mess Sergeant,” Frank Naughton remembered.

Mayor Voydie also had to deal with the issue of the equipment bundles in the marshes around the village. The paratroopers could not conduct a thorough search of these inundated areas without exposing themselves to enemy observation and possibly enemy fire. The civilians however, could move around in the marsh without attracting German suspicions. So teams of men, women and even children were soon hauling wagonloads of valuable salvaged equipment back to the Graignes perimeter. They recovered much-needed machine guns and mortars – weapons that would make the positions around the village far more defensible. They also recovered large quantities of ammunition that they thereafter delivered into the hands of the American defenders. According to 1st Lt. “Pip” Reed, “…we certainly had more ammunition than we thought we could ever use.”But even before Alphonse Voydie called the meeting that organized this effort, some recovery activity had already begun. Marthe and Odette Rigault had begun the day before. At the time of the invasion, the two sisters were living on their parents’ farm in
Le Port St. Pierre , just three kilometers north of Graignes. Even though Marthe was only twelve years old and Odette was only nineteen, both girls went out into the marsh with their father Gustave to retrieve American equipment on D-Day. While Gustave concentrated on locating equipment bundles, the girls recovered the silken reserve chutes that littered the area. What they recovered, they stored temporarily in a barn on the farm. When Gustave received word that the mayor had called a meeting for the next day, he wasted no time and set out for Graignes. Not long after M. Rigault departed, a paratrooper came back to the family farm to retrieve the ammunition and equipment being stored in their barn. Odette was there and described what happened next.He asked my mother if we could transport the ammunition that was in our barn. So naturally my mother said, "Well yes, we'll do it." And I said, "I want to go." I called for our horse and cart and the American soldiers loaded up the cart, and I left with my parents' horse to transport the ammunition 4½ kilometers to the church with all the ammunition, my cart full of it.

Odette used sacks of feed and fertilizer and mounds of hay to conceal the contraband cargo that she was hauling to town. Frank Naughton described what she did: I remember this young lady bringing in weapons concealed under a load of hay. She left right under the Germans’ eyes, and she drove that into our perimeter.

In the afternoon on Saturday, June 10th, a mechanized patrol approached a defensive position that was manned by some of 1st Lt. Murn’s B Company/501st men. They let the patrol get close, then opened fire killing four of the enemy. That night, outposts reported hearing a great deal of activity in the same vicinity and contact was made with the Germans several times. In one of those firefights, the paratroopers ambushed a convoy, killing one enemy soldier. When the troopers searched the dead German’s pockets, they discovered some documents that revealed him to be assigned to a reconnaissance battalion of an armored division – an ominous sign of what the Americans were up against. Knowing that such a German force was out there in the hedgerows to the west of Graignes sent a wave of nervousness through the Americans. As a consequence, that night was spent on a full alert with officers conducting almost constant inspections of the perimeter. Prior to that night, the paratroopers at Graignes had been confident that American units to the north would get through to them before the enemy could launch any kind of serious attack against their perimeter. However, the crescendo of enemy activity around the village throughout the 8th, 9th and 10th seemed to indicate that they could not expect relief to get there in time. To the American paratroopers and the French civilians in Graignes, it appeared that the moment of truth was drawing near.

There was no sign of the enemy and all was quiet the next morning (June 11th) - the first Sunday since the invasion began. That being the case, Major Johnson gave permission for some of the men to attend Mass. Marthe and Odette went to Mass that morning as well. They arrived just as the parish priest, Father Albert Leblastier, began the liturgy right on time at 10:00. It would be the last service over which he would officiate. At about the same time, Captain Brummitt heard firing south of the village, rushed to the scene and quickly determined that a large German force was approaching Graignes from that direction. He reinforced the southern flank and prepared to receive the weight of a direct attack. He would not have to wait long.Meanwhile back in the church, the firing rudely interrupted Father Leblastier, who was ten minutes into Mass. At first he continued, but then half way through the service, a woman burst into the church yelling, “The Germans are coming! Save yourselves!" A German patrol had indeed managed to penetrate to within two hundred meters of the church, causing a panic among the assembled parishioners and soldiers. Marthe remembered that, “Everybody started to run away but they started shooting, so we had to stay inside the church.” During the gun battle, all of the villagers assembled for Mass had to huddle inside the nave of the church just to stay out of the way of the flying bullets. Marthe and Odette sought shelter by hiding behind the stone altar. “We couldn't get out - if the Germans had gotten into the church, we would have all been shot to death,” Odette remembered.

The assault, which lasted only ten minutes, had been an uncoordinated, piecemeal effort during which the paratroopers inflicted heavy casualties on the attacking force. All of the work that the paratroopers put into preparing fields of fire to cover avenues of approach had paid off, and the Germans had sustained staggering casualties. From the belfry of the church, trucks could be seen moving “from collecting point to collecting point” picking up dead German soldiers. As soon as the fight was over, Major Johnson ordered all available personnel to man the defensive line around the village. He correctly recognized that the morning attack had only been a probing action and that another assault would soon follow. Although firepower had repulsed them in round one, the Germans did not give up and round two was about to begin. At about 2:00 pm, the Germans commenced a punishing mortar bombardment of Graignes. This preparatory fire was swiftly followed by a second infantry assault against the flanks of the defensive line around the village. This time the attackers moved so swiftly that the perimeter was almost breached at one point. However, Capt. Brummitt quickly shifted forces to meet the threat, and the line held. Once again, the paratroopers’ supporting fires were decisive in holding off defeat as mortar fire inflicted heavy losses and scores of enemy infantry were caught in the crossfire of the multiple machine guns defending the village center. During this second attack though, the paratroopers and the citizens of Graignes began to suffer their first casualties. The church sanctuary was then transformed into an aid station as the wounded were rushed there to receive medical attention from Capt. Sophian. Father Leblastier and Father Louis Lebarbanchon, a Franciscan priest temporarily assigned to Graignes, provided comfort to the wounded as well as several villagers. Alongside the two priests, the rectory’s two housekeepers, eighty-year-old Eugenie DuJardin and Madeleine Pezeril, also did what they could for the wounded.

An uneasy quiet fell over Graignes following the second attack. During this lull, Major Johnson pulled his outposts back to the defensive line in the village and assessed his situation. He found that, after the morning’s two major assaults, ammunition was beginning to run low. The remaining small arms ammunition and mortar rounds were then redistributed among the defenders to provide each position with an even supply. Then, an unnerving sound was heard rising from the maze of hedgerows surrounding Graignes. What was clearly the sound of heavy vehicular movement announced that the Germans were bringing in reinforcements. Since the observed evidence indicated that Graignes was about to be the target of a major attack, Major Johnson sent all of the civilians away. After almost nine hours of confinement in the church during the day’s fighting, Marthe and Odette were both “ready to leave.” Marthe remembered that, “At 7 o’clock pm Major Johnson told us that we should go home because they did not have enough ammunition for the night and the night was coming.” According to Odette, “He told us that we had to try to get out if we could.” Marthe and Odette then slipped out of the village and returned safely to Le Port St. Pierre. In Graignes, the signs were getting more and more ominous with each passing hour. Through his binoculars, 1st Lt. “Pip” Reed could see two German 88mm guns being set-up on a farm located just a few kilometers away on the heights of nearby Thieuville. At about 7:00 pm, the 88s opened fire on Graignes and incoming rounds quickly swept across the boys’ school and the town square. As shells landed all around the church, “Pip” Reed looked up at the belfry just in time to see it take a direct hit. At the moment of impact, Lt. Naughton was on the field phone with Lt. Farnham in the belfry and the line just went dead. The enemy shell ripped through the observation post, killing Farnham and his assistant observer. But Farnham was not the only officer to lose his life to the 88s. When the bombardment began, Maj. Johnson was at the bedside of Lt. Maxwell, who had become violently ill since arriving in Normandy. While the two men were talking, an 88mm round tore into the command post and exploded, killing both men instantly.

The artillery barrage proved to be the beginning of the final assault against the Americans at Graignes. After a thorough “softening up” of the target by the mortars and the 88s, German infantry moved in for the coup de grace. It was immediately obvious that this assault force was at least twice as large as the assault force from the afternoon battle. With the observation post in the belfry destroyed, it was no longer possible for the troopers to employ their mortars against the approaching enemy with any degree of effective accuracy. The mortar crewmen then cranked the elevation of their tubes to the maximum and made a last desperate attempt to stop the German infantrymen that were already closing ranks with the defensive perimeter in the village itself. As darkness settled over Graignes, the Germans continued their relentless drive and, before long, it was clear that the paratroopers would not be able to hold on much longer.

By the time the Germans made the final thrust into Graignes that night, the defenders had been reduced to a few isolated pockets of resistance spread out around the village. In many cases, men were beginning to run out of ammunition. As that happened, the enemy was quick to exploit the situation by overrunning the outer perimeter and moving into the streets of the center of the village. Those points of the line that were not overrun were cut off from communication with the command post and the aid station. With the Germans swarming over the center of the village, the American tactical situation in Graignes fell apart at the seams once and for all. The defenders had done everything in their power to hold out, but they were simply too disadvantaged by the overwhelming numerical superiority of the enemy. With Major Johnson dead, command of the force at Graignes devolved to Capt. Brummitt – who ordered the men to pair off and try to make it to either Carentan or Ste.-Mère-Église. With that, paratroopers began slipping away from the village and into the night.

After the Americans evacuated and the Germans captured the village, something terrible happened. Elements of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division had conducted the final assault on Graignes. When the 17th attacked, it was with a regimental sized force of approximately 2,000. The odds were literally ten to one in the Germans’ favor. Despite those odds though, the 182 paratroopers defending Graignes inflicted an estimated five hundred killed and seven hundred wounded on the Germans during the course of the fighting on the 10th and 11th. The stubborn and determined American defense that gave the 17th such high losses brought on a vicious and brutal reprisal.

At the end of the June 11th battle, the 17th SS stormed the church and found Capt. Sophian’s aid station. They promptly forced the Captain and all of the wounded outside where they were made to line-up against a wall. The men were then divided into two groups and marched away from the church. One group (nine troopers) was marched off to the south and the other group (five troopers) was marched down to the edge of a shallow pond behind Madame Boursier’s café. At the edge of the pond, the SS bayoneted the wounded men and threw them into the water one on top of the other. The other group of 507th paratroopers was forced to march four kilometers to the south to a field near the village of Le Mesnil Angot. There, the nine wounded men were forced to dig a pit. As soon as the pit was complete, the SS shot each one of them in the back of the head and dumped their bodies in the pit one on top of the other.

Sadly, the murder of the paratroopers was only the beginning of the atrocity at Graignes. While one group of the Germans led the Americans off to execution, other Germans began systematically rounding-up French civilians suspected of assisting them. At about the same time, a group of SS men proceeded to the church rectory seeking revenge. They knew that the church’s belfry had been used throughout the battle as an observation point. They knew that the accurate and devastating mortar fire that had been controlled by the observers in that belfry had killed and wounded hundreds of their comrades. Consequently, they sought to make an example out of the people at the church whose interaction with the Americans had permitted those casualties to happen. The Germans burst into the rectory, dragged Father Leblastier and Father Lebarbanchon into the courtyard and shot them both to death. The Germans then discovered Madeleine Pezeril and eighty-year-old Eugenie DuJardin. Overwhelmed with fear, the two ladies had been cowering in their quarters ever since the beginning of the final assault. The Germans shot and killed both women in their beds. Meanwhile, a total of forty-four villagers had been rounded up and were under interrogation by the Germans as suspected collaborators. They were threatened with execution if they did not turn in the names of any and all villagers who had actively assisted the Americans, but not a single one of them turned in a single name. In fact, none of them revealed the prominent role that Alphonse Voydie had played in the Graignes drama. Had the Germans known that Voydie had been the catalyst of organization that he was, they would surely have executed him too. The villagers’ refusal to cooperate only exacerbated the Germans’ fury. Many of the detained citizens were immediately sent south to nearby Le-Haut-Vernay where they were forced to help remove the hundreds of Germans who had been killed or wounded in the day’s fighting. This lasted practically the entire night. Then the next morning (June 12th) the Germans began ransacking every house in the village. During their searches, furniture was overturned and rifled through and valuables were plundered. Many of the villagers that had fled the previous night’s attack attempted to return to their homes that morning only to be turned away on the outskirts of town. Machine guns that had been set up at several strategic approaches presented an uninviting sight to the exhausted villagers.

On Tuesday the 13th, the Germans burned the village. They poured gasoline over the bodies of Father Leblastier, Father Lebarbanchon, Eugenie DuJardin and Madeleine Pezeril and then set them on fire. The ensuing blaze was allowed to burn out of control, destroying 66 homes, the boys’ school, Mme. Boursier’s café and the XIIth century church. Another 159 homes and other buildings were damaged either as a result of that fire or the fighting. Before the June 11th battle and the German retaliation that followed, the village of Graignes had consisted of just over two hundred dispersed homes and other structures. Afterward, only two houses survived unscathed.

On Monday morning (June 12th), Odette Rigault ventured out from the family farm for the first time since the Germans overran Graignes. She had not gone very far when she saw a tall paratrooper coming toward her. That soldier was Lt. Frank Naughton. Like so many other 507th men, he and his men had evacuated Graignes in the closing moments of the battle and then had spent the entire night wondering through the marsh. Although she did not speak any English, Odette nevertheless attempted to warn Lt. Naughton that the Germans were everywhere. She then led him to the barn where her family had stored the ammunition on D-Day. Naughton left with a few others later in the morning. Throughout the day, 507th troopers continued to emerge from the marsh and converge on the Rigault farm. These men had been there on D-Day and returned hoping that the family would help them again. Without hesitation, the Rigaults threw their support behind the mission of protecting the 507th men. Before long, the family had a barn full of troopers – 21 in all – that had to be fed each day. Marthe and Odette assumed the responsibility and began a daily routine of surreptitiously delivering meals to the barn.For the men cooped-up in the barn, the days passed with frustrating slowness. They had to be very careful not to make any noise, so they could not move around much and they could not even speak in normal tones. The Rigaults and the Americans were hoping that a breakthrough would occur and that Allied forces from the north would move into the area around Le Port St. Pierre and Graignes. As long as such a possibility existed, there was no need for the Americans to risk venturing from their hiding place in the barn. The fact that the 101st Airborne captured Carentan on the 12th hinted that such a breakthrough might happen, so everyone waited and hoped for the best. Disappointingly, Tuesday the 13th brought no news of an advance from Carentan. When the situation remained unchanged on Wednesday the 14th as well, it began to sink in that a breakthrough might be days, if not weeks away. The Rigaults and the twenty-one paratroopers therefore reached the conclusion that the best thing to do would be for the Americans to attempt to reach Carentan. Since the area was swarming with German patrols, the only safe method of transporting the paratroopers would be at night by boat via the shallow canals that crisscrossed the marshy inundated area north of Le Port St. Pierre. M. Rigault recruited 15-year-old Joseph Folliot to take the men using a 24-foot construction barge. At 10:00 pm on June 15th, Joseph and his boatload of paratroopers left on the treacherous journey up the canals to Carentan. Two hours later, Joseph pulled over to the bank and said, “We’re OK now, get off here and follow the path for about one hundred meters and you will be in American territory.” The paratroopers were indebted to Joseph and attempted to give him their invasion currency as a gesture of appreciation, but Joseph would accept nothing. By then most of the Graignes defenders had already made it out. Lt. Naughton with a few men left the Rigault farm during the day on June 12th and merged with a larger group being led by Capt. Brummitt. They arrived in Carentan late that night. A group being led by Lt. “Pip” Reed completed the exhausting trek to Carentan on the 12th as well. Other troopers, some alone and some in pairs, continued to filter in on the 13th and 14th. The 21 men hidden by the Rigault family and taken to Carentan by Joseph Folliot on the night of the 15th/16th was the last group from Graignes to make it back to U.S. lines. Miraculously, 150 troopers out of the original 182 made it out alive.

The 507th remained in the fight in Normandy until July 15th when it returned to England. The regiment then went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and was a part of Operation Varsity – the airborne assault across the Rhine River. In September 1945, the 507th returned to the United States and was disbanded. With the war over, the men who had survived Graignes went on to pursue careers and start families, but the village and the French civilians that helped them were not totally forgotten. Forty years after D-Day, Frank Naughton returned to Graignes and was reunited with Marthe and Odette. That reunion was especially meaningful because the sisters had never known the fate of any of the paratroopers they had gone to such lengths to help. It was only in 1984 that they learned they had saved the life of every man that had been hidden in their barn. Naughton returned from that trip determined to see to it that the people of Graignes received some sort of official recognition from the U.S. government for what they had done. During the two years that followed, Naughton and “Pip” Reed composed a report recommending several citizens of Graignes for awards. This report was presented to the Secretary of the Army in February 1986 and was swiftly approved. On July 6, 1986, a ceremony was held in the ruins of the XIIth century Roman Catholic church during which eleven villagers were presented with the Award for Distinguished Civilian Service for their role in assisting the men of 3rd Battalion/507th. Six of those awards were posthumous."'

Sources

G H Bennett Destination Normandy: Three American Regiments on D-Day, Praeger, Wesport (Conn), 2006.

D-Day:Down to Earth - The Return of the 507th, Jump Cut Productions DVD, 2005.

Gary N. Fox,Graignes: The Franco-American Memorial, Gray Printing Co, Fostoria (Ohio), 1990.

Martin K.A. Morgan, Down to Earth: The 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Normandy, Schiffer, Atglen (PA), 2004.


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