The Most Important Bridge in the Omaha Sector on D-Day?

If you visit Normandy today and you drive west from Pointe du Hoc along the coast road towards Grandcamp-Maisy, you will pass over a small bridge in the valley on the outskirts of the town.

Known during the war as Grandcamp-les-Bains the town had been a holiday destination for Parisians wanting to take a break from the big city. It had a thriving tourist business in the 1930’s as well as a busy oyster and seafood market.

The small harbour in the town was suitable for the local fishing fleet and pleasure craft, but it was not significant enough for the German occupying troops who just kept a minimal Kriegsmarine (Naval) presence in the port. Their primary purpose was to monitor the daily comings and goings of any vessels from the sea.

Jean Marion was the wartime resistance chief was also the town mayor at that time. After the war he stated: “On the 6th of June there were only 20 Kriegsmarine men who had a couple of light guns and a line of trenches. The Villa Mathieu was their headquarters in Grandcamp in 1944.


Defensive Position

Despite the apparent lack of defences in the town the German commanders were aware that an attack in the area could come along the coastline and not necessarily directly from the sea.  To counter that they built a defensive position in a hamlet called Pont du Hable just east of Grandcamp, using the high ground either side of a small natural valley.

Read More: Point du Hoc – The Lost Battlefield

If an attacking force was to land on Grandcamp beach or force its way into the harbour, it could potentially launch a ground assault on Pointe du Hoc from the west flank. Equally an attack coming from the Vierville beach area via Pointe du Hoc could advance towards the town of Grandcamp and the batteries at Maisy from the east.

Their solution was to place a number of tobruks housing MG34 / 42 machine guns and mortar positions in the valley between Grandcamp and Pointe du Hoc. They also built two 75mm concrete casemented field guns which they turned to face out to sea.

This Allied intelligence map dated May 1944 shows the flooded area in pink extending inland. The single bridge on the coast road was the one at Pont du Hable.
This Allied intelligence map dated May 1944 shows the flooded area in pink extending inland. The single bridge on the coast road was the one at Pont du Hable.

A set of sluice gates were already in place in the valley at the waters edge and they were permanently closed up to generate a build up of water which slowly flooded the surrounding area and created a vast natural obstacle. 

Similar techniques were used behind Utah Beach and they were encountered by the US Airborne forces. The area could not be crossed by vehicles without using a bridge and the only alternative was to travel miles inland on dirt tracks to higher ground.

Read More: Teller Mines Tankers’ Nightmare

The Rangers D-Day objectives lay on either side of the valley. The beach at Vierville-sur-Mer to the gun battery at Pointe du Hoc to the east – and the gun batteries at Maisy and the evening rendezvous point near Osmanville on the D-Day Phase Line to the west.

Ranger Lee Brown of HQ Company 5th Btn.
Ranger Lee Brown of HQ Company 5th Btn.

The bridge had to be captured and crossed as quickly as possible or every piece of armour moving west along the coast road would be halted. From January 1944 onwards the flooded area and the bridge was a constant objective in the Rangers D-Day orders.   

Order No 5 – Rangers D-Day

Reconnoiter St. Pierre-Grandcamp road and report condition of the road through flooded area, prepared enemy defences covering road and prepared enemy defences and enemy movements in Grandcamp. (Taken from Field Order No 35 FORCE “O” – 1st inf. Division for D-Day).

Read More: Mauser C96 a Significant Design Achievement

The orders may have been clear but the implementation was not going to be so straightforward. On June 6th following the landings the Rangers were split into two groups. 1 group landed at Pointe du Hoc and the other group landed on Omaha Beach.

The field in front of the Vierville-sur-Mer church. 5th Ranger Jack Burke: “I spent the night of 6 June dug into a small foxhole in the field in front of Vierville church.”
The field in front of the Vierville-sur-Mer church. 5th Ranger Jack Burke: “I spent the night of 6 June dug into a small foxhole in the field in front of Vierville church.” Image Credit: Edward Heseltine

The majority of the Rangers leaving the Beach were held back by orders temporarily halting their advance towards Pointe du Hoc. Ranger Jack Burke from A Co. 5th Btn and his comrades were ordered to dig trenches into the field in front of the Vierville church.

Read More: CCKW 2 1/2-ton Truck – The Allies’ Backbone of WWII

The Rangers were ordered to dig in on D-Day evening to prevent a potential German counter attack from the West.  The Germans had been seen just beyond the tree line on the right so the Rangers had to be ready.

Colonel Canham of the 116th Infantry Division ordered the Rangers to guard this right flank because ay that point in time Canham did not have sufficient men ashore from the beach to guarantee the safety of the landings – should the Germans counter-attack in force. 

Lt. Colonel Rudder

At the same time Lt. Colonel Rudder ordered his Rangers to guard the road behind Pointe du Hoc which meant that both Ranger forces were not going to capture the Pont du Hable bridge on D-Day. 

The delays continued for both groups for 2 days, but that did not mean the Pont du Hable defenders were left unscathed. The navy engaged the above ground 75mm gun emplacements early on June 6th, leaving them shattered and completely useless.  

Read More: Stick Grenade, the Rethinking of Grenade Design

Despite the Navy shelling the low lying tobruks and trenches were undamaged and presented a formidable obstacle.  Ranger Lee Brown was with HQ Company 5th Rangers and he remembers reaching the valley on the 8th of June ahead of the main force which was mopping up at Pointe du Hoc.

Looking across the valley he could see the church in Grandcamp through his binoculars and there was movement in the church tower. An officer nearby used his radio to order a salvo of naval fire against the church. After that they were sure that the artillery spotters would not continue to direct fire from the Maisy batteries onto the advancing Rangers.

One of the Pont du Hable tobruks. Set at ground level the defenders would shelter and be almost invisible to incoming troops.
One of the Pont du Hable tobruks. Set at ground level the defenders would shelter and be almost invisible to incoming troops. Image Credit: Edward Heseltine

Lee Brown: ‘We approached the open land in front of Grandcamp and came under sniper fire from Grandcamp church. I watched a lieutenant nearby calling it in and then him saying, ‘It’s on its way’… and then I saw the steeple top blowing in one shot.’ 

Read More: Karabiner 98k Sniper Rifle, 132,000 Were Produced

The Germans in the tobruk’s in front of them had not given up and they were still covering the bridge from the western side. The high ground was impossible to clear without heavy loss of life. Crossing the open area to reach the bridge would have been suicide.

American Forces in Action Series published by the US War Department on the 20 September 1945 recorded the action for the bridge.

“Movement toward Grandcamp started at once. Enemy strong points west of the valley had extensive fields of fire from higher ground. The enemy had failed to destroy the bridge, but the 5th Rangers were checked at this crossing by machine-gun and mortar fire, and lacked heavy weapons to deal with the enemy resistance. The British cruiser Glasgow rendered assistance on the German strong points, expending 113 rounds. Tanks of Company C, 743rd Tank Battalion, led across the bridge, losing one vehicle to a mine.”

German Army units had specialist engineers who were issued equipment for blowing bridges and clearing roads. Rather than the standard infantry kit their packs contained various sized blocks of explosives and they were trained in all the techniques necessary to destroy bridges. The advancing force had no way of knowing if the bridge was rigged to blow before they crossed it.

Grandcamp-Maisy was a crucial component of the Atlantic Wall, the extensive defense system built by the Germans along Europe’s western coast to thwart potential Allied invasions. Image Credit: Edward Heseltine

Medal of Honour

With 116th Infantry alongside the Rangers and the tanks crossed and engaged the entrenched Germans.  The positions were taken individually and often only cleared by the sheer bravery of the men involved.  

When you pass the large “Silver Lady” statue today you might miss the small German tobruk with a modest memorial on the top. The tobruk was the site of a single handed attack by T/Sgt Peregory of the 116th Infantry. An action for which he received the US Army’s highest medal The Medal of Honour.

Citation: On 8 June 1944, the 3rd Battalion of the 116th Infantry was advancing on the strongly held German defenses at Grandcamp-Maisy, France, when the leading elements were suddenly halted by decimating machine gun fire from a firmly entrenched enemy force on the high ground overlooking the town. After numerous attempts to neutralize the enemy position by supporting artillery and tank fire had proved ineffective, T/Sgt. Peregory, on his own initiative, advanced up the hill under withering fire, and worked his way to the crest where he discovered an entrenchment leading to the main enemy fortifications 200 yards away. Without hesitating, he leaped into the trench and moved toward the emplacement. Encountering a squad of enemy riflemen, he fearlessly attacked them with hand grenades and bayonet, killed 8 and forced 3 to surrender. Continuing along the trench, he single-handedly forced the surrender of 32 more riflemen, captured the machine gunners, and opened the way for the leading elements of the battalion to advance and secure its objective. The extraordinary gallantry and aggressiveness displayed by T/Sgt. Peregory are exemplary of the highest tradition of the armed forces.

The next morning on the 9th of June the Rangers and other elements of the Omaha Task Force attacked and neutralised the batteries at Maisy.  They stopped that position continuing to fire on the landings and prevented further casualties.

5th Ranger HQ Company veteran standing inside a bunker during a return trip to Maisy Battery.
5th Ranger HQ Company veteran standing inside a bunker during a return trip to Maisy Battery. Image Credit: Edward Heseltine

Read More: German S-mine was Shrouded in Secrecy

If German engineers had blown the bridge at Pont du Hable the death toll during the Omaha landings could have been considerably higher. The objectives on the western flank of the Omaha Sector would have taken many more days to clear.

We may never know if the German infantrymen at Pont du Hable had been instructed to destroy the bridge in the event of an attack, but it was an opportunity missed by them.

If you are passing the “Silver Lady” and driving over the tiny bridge then spare a thought for the brave men who had to cross it – not knowing if it was going to explode at any moment.