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.
Eads was now alone, with 600 rounds of ammunition and a keen will to survive. He had landed just 90 minutes earlier, yet those minutes had already carried him to hell and back. As he sidled across the square looking for comrades, he spied the hiding place of four German soldiers.
He crept up and double-checked that his tommy gun was fully loaded before shooting them all down. He had rapidly learned to appreciate that gun. “It’s just like a garden hose. You aim it in the general direction of your target, hold on the trigger and wave it back and forth.”
Some ammunition was invariably wasted, “but you can’t hardly miss hitting with some of them."
Soon after, Eads teamed up with a few other paratroopers. These beleaguered men now tried to take stock of their situation, but with no working radio it was impossible to get any clarity. Sainte-Mère-Église was in a state of utter confusion, with no one in control and no one knowing what to do next.
But help was at hand. One of the commanders of the 82nd airborne was Lieutenant Colonel Edward “Cannonball” Krause, a veteran survivor of the invasion of Sicily.
Krause had a fearsome reputation among all who served under him. With his cropped hair and crumpled fatigues he looked every inch the professional soldier, yet there was something unsettling about the blank expression and detached gaze.
Edward Krause’s men swept through Sainte-Mère-Église in a blaze of gunfire, achieving their goal of capturing and securing the place in less than an hour.
Few liked him and most feared him. One said he was “a psycho” who would kill anything that stood in his way. Yet he had trained his men to within a whisker of their lives, turning them into a hardened force of elite fighters.
On the previous evening, he had gathered them together at the airbase in southern England and delivered an electrifying call to arms, whipping a tattered American flag from his pocket, as if he were a magician with a box of tricks. “This was the first American flag to fly over Sicily,” he said, “and the first American flag to be raised over Naples. And tomorrow morning, I will be sitting in the Mayor's office in Sainte- Mère-Église and this flag will be flying over that office.” Few doubted that he meant it.
Now—while it was still dark—he gathered a force of 200 paratroopers and prepared to lead them into the town. Unaware that some of his troops were already fighting their way through the streets, he sent an advance guard to scout the way ahead. Among this guard was Bill Tucker, who found the experience nerve-wracking.
“It was suddenly very quiet and I felt very strange. It seemed as if something was moving very close to me and I swung my gun around, but didn’t see anything until I looked above me.” A dead parachutist was hanging from the branches. He had been shot and was “swaying back and forth” like a heavy human pendulum.
Edward Krause’s men swept through Sainte-Mère-Église in a blaze of gunfire, achieving their goal of capturing and securing the place in less than an hour. They took 30 prisoners and killed a handful more. But most of the Germans had already fled.
Krause himself headed straight to the town hall, whipped out the American flag from his haversack and hoisted it on to the flag- pole. He then radioed a message through to Colonel William Ekman, commander of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
“I have secured Sainte-Mère-Église,” he said. This was true enough, but he made it sound as if he had achieved it single-handed. In reality, it was teamwork that enabled the town to be captured so quickly.
Lieutenant Colonel Krause knew that the Germans were certain to launch a counter-attack within hours. He also knew that he must hold the town until reinforcements arrived from Utah Beach. Winning Sainte-Mère-Église was only half the battle. Holding it would prove even more difficult.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Unknown History. In the next episode, we’ll be meeting a small band of hardened fighters who were charged with capturing one of the most formidable German batteries on the Normandy coast.