As we lead up to the climax of D-Day, we learn about the early hours of June 6, 1944, and the soldiers who executed a mission so dangerous, they expected death.
Ken Russell was caught in his own nightmare. He was heading straight for the church tower of Sainte-Mère-Église, along with one of his comrades. “I hit first, and a couple of my suspension lines, or maybe more, went around the church steeple.” He slid down the slate roof, which shredded both his clothing and skin until he came to a sudden halt, hanging by the fragile suspension lines, suspended and helpless like a fly in a web.
He reached for his trench knife, cut the parachute risers and tumbled headlong into the street below. He was fortunate not to break a bone.
They now had to capture the town from the German forces—an extremely hazardous operation in any circumstances, but even more difficult at night.
Fellow paratrooper James Eads also found himself in a nightmare. Scarcely had he landed (in a heap of cow manure) when he glimpsed three soldiers running towards him. “I could see the coal-bucket-style helmet and thought, 'Oh hell'.”
But his intensive training kicked in. He reached for his pistol, which was already loaded with a round in the chamber and seven in the clip. “I thumbed back the hammer and started firing.” He was a good shot and the Germans were easy targets. “The third man fell with my eighth round, right at my feet.”
The parachutists dropped into Sainte-Mère-Église had undergone a baptism of fire in the first few minutes of landings, but this was just the beginning. They now had to capture the town from the German forces—an extremely hazardous operation in any circumstances, but even more difficult at night.
One of the first to venture into the town was Ronald Snyder, a plucky 20-year-old sergeant whose unit had spearheaded the invasions of both Sicily and Salerno. This, his third combat jump, had been the worst. He had fallen out of the plane head first and the jolt of the opening chute had sent a violent jerk through his body.
“Vast tracers lit the sky like silver confetti,” he said—an exploding firework display that might have been exhilarating had it not been so uncomfortably close. He was still gaining speed when he hit the ground “and slammed into a cow pasture like a sack of cement."
His intense training now reaped dividends. He picked himself up, brushed off the mud and began looking around for his comrades. He eventually managed to assemble a small group and then led them through the shadows towards the outskirts of Sainte-Mère-Église.
“We moved quickly, filing past the darkened houses that lined the street named Chef-du-Pont. Enemy vehicles were roaring by on the main road ahead and suddenly one truck braked to a stop and troops from the back began firing wildly down the street.”
Snyder split his men into two, ordering one group to cover the truck while he led the others down a connecting street so as to attack from a more secure position. He then shouted the order to shoot, and the men directed all of their fire and drove the Germans out of town in a hail of bullets.
He and his band felt as if they were engaged in a lonely battle for Sainte-Mère-Église, but other parachutists were also converging on the town. Not for nothing were these men known as the elite.
James Eads and and a fellow paratrooper were among those heading for the center of Sainte-Mère-Église, vowing that nothing would stop them from accomplishing their mission. At one point they heard the stomp of hobnailed boots rounding a curve in the road.
Eads reached for his gun and “started firing short bursts at the last man, then the second. All three fell. Our surprise was complete.”
Surprise had always been the key element in the Americans' favour and Eads and his comrade used it to deadly effect in those early morning hours, playing a vicious game of guerrilla warfare. Although the situation on the ground was chaotic, they had but one goal—to wrest the little French town from its German occupiers.
On approaching the main square, Eads noticed one paratrooper “hanging from the spire of the church." This was John Steele, whose D-Day exploits would later be played by the actor Red Buttons in the film The Longest Day.
As the two men crouched in the shadows, a German troop-carrier roared into sight and advanced towards them at top speed. Eads was about to start firing “when I heard my buddy grunt and saw him fall.” He had been hit—fatally so—bringing their two-man spectacular to a deadly close.