History in St. Mere Eglise


You can read about a thing, see a film about a thing or hear someone describe a thing but even if you’ve done all that, the thing itself will never be what you expect when you actually lay your own eyes on it. That’s the feeling I had today after spending most of the day in the airborne museum in St. Mere Eglise, the tiny Normandy village that improbably became the first town liberated from Hitler’s grasp in World War II. The place was contested for several days, but the initial action was over in several hours.

I spent four hours shooting a video about the museum with a focus on what the museum itself highlights: the unique role of the Waco CG4A combat glider. It’s curious that the glider merits such notice at St. Mere Eglise. When the museum was first established in the early 1960s, the building housing the Waco was the first one erected. Since then, two others have been added, one for the C-47 and one for a more immersive display about Operation Neptune, the overall name for the airborne operations in Normandy. (Overlord applies to the entire invasion.)

In military parlance, parachute infantry operations are considered “vertical envelopment.” All this firepower descends almost instantaneously from the sky; it’s not here one minute, it’s everywhere the next. That accurately describes the actions of the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions which, between them, inserted abut 13,000 troops in the space of about 90 minutes. The vast majority of those arrived by parachute. Only a small number arrived via glider for the initial assault. Because of worries about obstructed glider landing zones, Eisenhower’s air officer, Trayford Leigh-Mallory, talked both divisions into using only 52 gliders each for the initial night assault in missions named Detroit and Chicago. They brought in more equipment than troops, giving the paratroopers light artillery and vehicles to support assaults and resist counterattacks. Later in the day, many more gliders arrived, landing in daylight when their odds of survivable landings were better. Some of the glider troops came ashore with the amphibious landings on nearby Utah Beach.

For as much as I’ve read about the Normandy landings, grasping the scale of it almost defies comprehension. For one thing, the distances are much greater than I understood. From the easternmost beach, Sword, the westernmost Utah Beach is a distance of 50 miles. On a modern four-lane road, it takes most of an hour to drive it. And while the amphibious landings were spread out across a long section of coast, the airborne landings were intensely concentrated in a few square miles. After dawn on June 6, 1944, the countryside around St. Mere Eglise was literally draped in parachutes.

The town was strategic, by the way, because it controlled the road net coming up from Utah Beach, where the 4th division landed. The airborne troops were supposed to secure those roads against German counterattacks. They did. They also profoundly impacted the local population in ways that resonate yet today, two generations hence. St. Mere Eglise is throughly steeped in the lore of Overload and there is nothing mythical about it. It’s real and feels recent enough to have happened last year, not 73 years ago this month. Everywhere you look there are tributes and commemorations to the airborne divisions. On the grounds of the museum is a whimsical metal sculpture of a paratrooper descending called “The Day They Came.” It even recalls Pvt. John Steele’s celebrated snag on the belfry of the church just off the town square. And yes, a paratrooper mannequin and the parachute are still up there overlooking the place de l’eglise.

When we were touring the glider building, where a Waco CG4A is housed, Valerie heard a woman mention to her husband that the airplane on display was almost as big as the real thing. “It is the real thing,” he was heard to explain. And it’s not just the glider itself that’s displayed, but all the vast range of equipment the U.S. Army thought would be necessary to support glider-borne infantry, a lot of which I’d never seen before. In one of the displays in the C-47 building was an example of the Rebecca-Eureka electronic homing system the pathfinders were supposed to use to guide the main assault waves. It worked poorly because of lost bits and pieces and because the lead aircraft who were supposed to use it were either shot down, off course or out of position. Seventy percent of the paratroops landed on other than their planned drop zones.

All wars are contests of industrial production and this was especially the hallmark of World War II. Vast quantities of materiel were delivered to Europe and promptly lost or destroyed. Most of the paratroopers lost some equipment during the drops; some lost all of their equipment. Estimates vary, but some say 60 percent of equipment was lost. But they keep finding it around St. Mere Eglise. One of the displays is devoted entirely to excavated equipment lost by the 82nd and 101st; rusted bayonets, helmet liners, rifles, medical kits, corroded ration cans, ammunition. If the airborne divisions had it, they lost it. In his famous book on D-day, The Longest Day, Cornelius Ryan located Robert Murphy, a pathfinder from the 82nd. That was the scene in the film in which the old woman heading for her outhouse is shushed by a trooper who just landed. Murphy said in his excitement to get moving, he cut away and lost 300 rounds of ammunition. He’s remembered in effigy in one of the displays.

The glider itself, which is what I had come to shoot, is both well displayed and exceptionally well explained. The posters offer excellent detail on the entire glider strategy and operation and include photos I’d never seen before. You can actually walk in and through the glider, a rarity in any kind of aviation museum. On display and explained are the weapons the glider troops had, the vehicles and all the associated equipment. If you’ve seen The Longest Day, you may recall the Ruperts, the dummy parachutists the Brits dropped as a diversion. I just saw the film again last week and now realize the filmmakers took serious license. The real ones, as displayed at St. Mere Eglise, aren’t the lifelike rubber dummies in the film, but a crude, half-size burlap cutout of a man with a barely discernible head.

We finished the day at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. We arrived just as the evening colors were being struck and taps was playing. Is there a person alive who would not be affected by this? I certainly was. I think every American should visit this site and especially every American president. All of us should have a firsthand understanding of why those crosses are there and we should contemplate what we might do to avoid putting more of them there.