508 P.I.R. Red Devils

Fury from the sky

The Red Devils in Normandy

Operation Neptune

Operation "Neptune" was an all-important airborne phase of Overlord, the name given to the massive plan for D-Day invasion of Europe. The 82nd Airborne was an integral part of Operation Neptune. Because the 504th PIR ranks had been depleted due to the Italian Campaigns the 507th and the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiments were attached  to the 82nd for this operation. It would be the first combat jump for the 508 PIR.

The 508th was responsible for the Southwest portion of the 82nd Airborne Division sector in Normandy.Their primary targets were bridges over the Douve River, located at Brienville and Beuzeville-la-Bastille. Clouds and heavy anti-aircraft fire caused the formations to break up and many of the planes to stray off course. The confusion was also compounded by the Wehrmacht's presence in the scheduled drop zones. This prevented the pathfinders from marking them and consequently delayed many pilots from flashing the jump lights until they had overshot the drop zones as they frantically searched for the markers. Consequently, both the 507th and 508th troopers were widely scattered over the Normandy countryside. 

Landing in the swamp lands along the river the heavily laden troopers hurriedly scrambled to assemble into fighting units. Because of the confusion they were unable to muster their forces into enough strength to occupy the west bank of the Douve River in force. Instead the troopers assembled along the embankment of the main railroad from Cherbourg to Carentan, both because it was high ground and because it was a recognizable terrain feature. After regrouping into small units, the 508th began executing their daunting task to seize the bridge over the Douve River, at Pont L' Abbe.

 

 
   Troopers of the 508 PIR linking up with the 90th Infantry Division. Notice the parachute scarf helmet camouflage of the two Red Devils! 

 

However, one unit under the command of Lt.Col Thomas J.B.Shanley, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, encountered a large contingent of German infantry (Battalion strength) before reaching the town. The Germans were pushing eastward in this area most of the day under orders to counterattack and wipe out the American insertion west of the Merderet. Lt. Col. Shanley immediately realized that they were vastly out numbered, and withdrew to Hill 30. He ordered his unit to dig in. For two days, he and his men fought off repeated German attempts to overrun the main paratrooper landings and contributed substantially to establishing the Merderet bridgehead. This action has been considered decisive in helping the airborne meet its objectives at Normandy.

Cited for their bravery during this action were Cpl. Ernest T. Roberts, Pvt. Otto K. Zwingman, and Pvt. John A. Lockwood. They observed the formation of a German counterattack by an estimated battalion of infantry with tank support while on outpost duty in a building at Haut Gueutteville. Remaining at their posts these troopers held off the enemy attack for two hours allowing the main body of Lt Col Shanley's force to establish an all-around defense at Hill 30.  


508 troopers taking a rest. This picture was taken around June 13th, 1944.

The 508th continued their ferocious fight as infantrymen for 33 days after landing at Normandy. They had choked off reinforcements for the Axis forces defending the French coast. On 13 July 1944, the Red Devils returned to England after suffering 1,061 casualties out of 2,056 paratroopers of which 307 were Killed-In-Action (KIA). Included among the KIA was Lt.Col Batcheller, Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion. For the remainder of WWII the 508th would remain attached to the 82nd Airborne Division.  

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