The battle of Carentan (9-13 June 1944) saw the 101st Airborne capture the key town at the base of the Cotentin peninsula, finally establishing a link between the two American beachheads and helping to ensure the success of the Overlord landings.
Once the initial beachheads had been secured on D-Day, the next task was to link them all up. On 7 June Eisenhower ordered Bradley to focus on linking up the Utah and Omaha beachheads. Bradley gave the 101st Airborne the task of taking Carentan, in the western side of the gap, and the 29th Division the job of capturing Isigny, in the eastern side of the gap.
The 29th Division had the easier task. The attack was to be carried out by the 175th Infantry, with the 116th and 115th Infantry providing flank protection. The attack would be supported by most of the 747th tank Battalion and by naval gunfire. The attack began on the evening of 7 June. The first serious resistance was met three miles to the west of la Cambe, when seven tanks were knocked out. However the division was able to keep moving and reached Isigny late on 8 June. There was no organised resistance, and the town had been secured by the morning of 9 June.
Carentan was a harder target. The 101st Airborne would have to attack across the flat valleys of the Douve and Merderet rivers, which were filled with canals, drainage ditches and flooded fields. One major causeway crossed the wetlands, but this was easily blocked. It would take five days for the airborne to capture and secure the town.
On the German side Carentan was defended by the 6th Parachute Regiment under Major Friedrich-August Freiherr von der Heydte. However by the time the American attack began he only had two of his battalions at Carentan, one having been sent north earlier in the battle and cut off or lost. He would also gain the survivors of the 3rd Battalion, 1058th Regiment after the fall of Saint-Come-de Mont. Rommel believed that Carentan was vital to his plans, but at first all he could do was reinforce von der Heydte with two Ost battalions and the surviving defenders of Isigny. Late on 9 June he decided to commit the II Parachute Corps, which was moving up from Brittany, to reinforce Carentan and the gap between the beachheads. The 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was ordered to move to a position south-west of Carentan, ready to counterattack. As with most other German units attempting to move to Normandy, the 17th was greatly delayed by air attacks, and only began to arrive in small numbers late on 11 June.
The 101st’s first task was to capture Saint-Come-de-Mont, a small town on slightly higher ground on the north-western bank of the Douve. A first attempt to capture the town, on 7 June, failed, so a larger attack was carried out on 8 June. By the end of the day the town had fallen, although many of its defenders escaped either to the west or by swimming across the Douve to Carentan.
The 101st then began to prepare for the attack on Carentan. It would involve three regiments, with a fourth in reserve. The 502nd Parachute Infantry was on the right, the 506th Parachute Infantry in the centre (on the main road from Saint-Come-de Mont to Carentan) and the 327th Glider Infantry on the left. The plan was for the 327th to cross the Douve near the coast close to Brevands, and attempt to outflank the town from north-east. Part of the regiment would push east to link up with the 29th Division, but most would attack Carentan from the east. On the right the 502nd Parachute Infantry was to cross the Douve using a causeway to the north-west of Carentan (modern route D974), advance around the western flank of the city, and capture Hill 30. This causeway included four bridges over various waterways, one of which had been destroyed by the Germans. The attack along the causeway was originally timetabled for the evening of 9-10 June, but the broken bridge delayed it until the afternoon of 10 June.
The 327th Glider Infantry had crossed the Douve by the morning of 10 June. One company that had been sent towards Auville-sur-le Vey (about half way between Isigny and Carentan) met up with some troops from the 175th Infantry (29th Division), which had been sent forward to capture a bridge at Auville after the fall of Isigny. They had taken Auville after a fierce battle on 9 June, and engineers had replaced the bridge, which had already been destroyed. On 10 June most of the 327th was used to attack Carentan from the north-east. Its first target was the Vire-Taute Canal, which runs north-south just to the east of the city. By the end of the day the 327th had cleared the Germans off the east bank of the canal.
In the middle of the afternoon of 10 June the 502nd finally began its attack along the causeway. For much of the time the men could only advance in single file. It took three hours for the leading troops to cross the first three bridges, but they then came under heavy fire. The fourth bridge was partly blocked, and after six men managed to get across the attempt to push on was cancelled. The Americans brought Mortars forward to try and break the stalemate, but spent the rest of the day under fire along the narrow causeway.
On the morning of 11 June the leading troops from the 502nd came under fire from the German defenders of a farmhouse to the west of the causeway. An artillery bombardment failed to shift the Germans, so the leading 3rd Battalion charged the position, overrunning it. The 1st Battalion was then ordered forward to try and take advantage of this success, but neither unit was able to make any more progress. Instead the two battalions took up a defensive position and spent the rest of the day fighting off German counterattacks. On the night of 11-12 June the 2nd Battalion took over the line, before the 506th Infantry took over from the 502nd.
To the east Col Joseph Harper of the 327th decided not to attack the main bridge over the Vire-Taute Canal, and instead outflank it to the north, suing a partly dismantled footbridge to get across the canal, then advance into Carentan from the north-east, before advancing into the city along the Bassin a Flot (the port of Carentan, which ran north-east from the town centre). Three companies were able to get across the bridge, but were pinned down by German fire after advancing a few hundred yards towards the town.
Late on 11 June both sides made new plans for 12 June. The Americans decided to commit three regiments to the attack, all under the command of Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. The 506th was to replace the 502nd to the west of the town, and take Hill 30. The 327th would continue to attack from the Bassin a Flot. Finally the 501st would follow the 327th across the river, and attack around its left flank, heading south, then west around the southern side of Carentan. The hope was that the 501st and 506th would meet up around Hill 30. On the German side von der Heydte decided to pull his men out of Carentan and form a new defensive line to the south-west of the town.
As a result, the American attacks early on 12 June all made rapid progress. Hill 30 was soon taken, and the 506th was then able to push into the town centre. The same was true for the 327th, and the two units met up in the town centre by 0730. The 501st also made rapid progress, and linked up with the 506th at about the same time.
The Americans then decided to try and push south-west, using the 501st and 506th to push the Germans further away from Carentan, but this attack ran into the new German defensive positions, and made very little progress. An attempt to secure the area to the east and south-east of Carentan also ran into unexpected resistance. However these attacks also uncovered evidence that stronger German forces were moving into the area, and Bradley decided to send reinforcements to the area between Carentan and Isigny. A battalion of tanks and a battalion of armoured infantry from the 2nd Armoured Division moved towards Montmartin, ready to defend Carentan against any attack from the southeast.
The Germans had originally planned to counterattack on 12 June, using the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. However part of the attacking force was delayed by air attack, so the attack didn’t begin until 0630 on 13 June. Both the 501st and 506th Parachute Infantry were pushed back from their original positions to the south west of Carentan, and in places the Germans got to within 500 yards of Carentan. However the 502nd Parachute Infantry and the force from the 2nd Armoured Division arrived during the morning. By the afternoon the Americans were able to go back onto the attack, and by the end of the day the American front line was actually further from the town than it had been at the start! To the east a secure link was maintained with the 29th Division.
With Carentan firmly in American hands, the two beachheads were finally connected. It took several more days for the link to be expanded and made more secure, but any hope the Germans had of keeping the Americans pinned down close to their original beachheads was now over. American attention now turned to the conquest of the Cotentin and the capture of Cherbourg on their right flank and the advance towards Saint Lo in the south.