We were lucky enough to visit Normandy for holidays this year and one of the unplanned places we visited was Graignes. Aoife picked up the most excellent Major and Mrs Holt’s Definitive Battlefield Guide to the D-Day Normandy Landing Beaches before we went and she happen to read about the Battle of Graignes. I’ve read a good few accounts of this unexpected battle. It is a tale of improvisation, bravery and cruelty.
182 paratroopers (mostly from the 507th PIR, 82nd Airborne Division) gathered in Graignes in the early hours of the 6th June 1944 after they had been dropped about 15km from their planned DZ. Maj. Johnston, the commanding officer, decided that rather than risking the cross country trek to their original objectives the paratroopers would dig in and defend Graignes. They had some medium weapons (five M1919A4 .30-cal. machine guns and two 81 mm mortars), but that thanks to the support and cooperation of the local villagers many of their supplies were retrieved from the surrounding marshy land. The decision to help the paratroopers was not taken lightly as, if caught, the German reprisals would be severe.
The Americans manned their defences, set up outposts and sent out patrols. They also set up an observation post in the steeple of the 11th century Norman church that dominated the village. This gave a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, as Graignes was already on a raised spot of land, from which to direct the defence of the village. All the while the locals fed and housed the paratroopers. Things were quiet for the first few days until on the 10th June the Americans clashed with a number of German mechanised patrols, killing several Germans. Ominously the paratroopers discovered papers on one of those soldiers indicating he was part of a reconnaissance battalion of an SS armoured division.
On Sunday the 11th June the Germans commenced a significant assault with between 2000-4000 soldiers. The initial attacks were held off with few losses to the Americans and heavy losses to the German attackers. An aid station was set up in the church by Capt. Sophian, with support of the church’s priests and caretakers. The American ammunition was beginning to run low however and had to divided out as evenly as possible to the defenders. Later in the evening the Germans moved two 88s into positions on the outskirts of the town to support the attack, well out of range of the American mortars. A major German mortar and artillery bombardment hit Graignes, destroying the church steeple (and the observers within), the American command post and killing Maj. Johnston. The Germans began to attack again, but this time the defences began to crumble. Limited ammunition and a much larger enemy force meant that Graignes could not be held. The Americans began to fall back with orders to form up into small groups and make their way to Carentan.
The German’s, who were from the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen, had lost upwards of 700 men and their reprisals were vicious when they seized the town. Capt. Sophian and those at the aid station (helpers and wounded) were executed. Almost all of Graignes, including the church, was burnt to the ground.
The strategic of the delaying action at Graignes can’t be known for certain, but it is believed the 17th SS were on their way to Carentan when they were stalled at Graignes. This delay gave the 101st troops at Carentan a chance to hold that important link town at the Battle of Blood Gulch (about which I’ve run campaigns before).
Graignes is a still a small village. The church was never rebuilt, however a memorial to the American and civilian dead that incorporates a reconstructed steeple was built on the site. The site of the church offers a commanding view of the surrounding, mostly flat, countryside. This gave the Americans advanced warning of any German movement.I’ll write up some simple campaign rules for The Battle of Graignes in my next post.
Until next time,