Jumping into Normandy

Holding the La Fiere Bridge

Artillery Fire Mission

No Audio

After La Fiere

Devising New Combat Methods

Conclusion

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Elmo E. Bell retired from the US Army as a full Colonel. His Mississippi National Guard retired grade is Brigadier General. At the start of the Normandy operation, his unit [Annotators note: Company C, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division] departed from an airfield in Great Britain. They had been briefed and knew of the conditions in Normandy and where the drop zone was located. Sometime during the flight, they received antiaircraft fire from the right side of the aircraft and they were not aware that Germans had occupied the mid Channel Islands. This confused them because they thought that they were approaching Normandy and had turned north and were flying parallel to the coast rather than to the drop zone. Sometime later as they approached Normandy, the jump master was watching the door and as soon as he could see land, he ordered the troops to stand up and hook up. While they were in the process of doing that, the plane was hit and the engine on the right side was knocked out causing the plane to wing over sharply. Only a few of the troopers had hooked their static lines up and the others were in the process of doing so. Everyone was dumped onto the floor and there was a mad scramble to get to the door and get out of the crippled plane. The plane was listing to the right and nobody could climb the incline in the floor to get to the door. Bell was the number two man in the stick and was able to get to the door first but when he got there he saw that they were at treetop level and were too low to jump out. Sergeant Zeitner was the jumpmaster and was in the tail of the plane. He got to the door and they locked arms to keep the others back. Everyone had one thought in mind and that was to get out of that crippled plane. Bell kept yelling that they were too low and the men began to push harder. He realized that no and low sounded like go and the men were trying hard to do that. The pilot soon got control of the plane and immediately released the equipment bundles and possibly jettisoned the excess fuel. He was able to restart the engine, but there was a tremendous vibration, with the propellers being bent. Bell thought that the vibration would rip the engine loose. The roar drowned out all other sounds and the first sergeant leaned over and shouted in Bell’s ear to watch the ground and let him know if they gained enough altitude to drop. There was intermittent cloud cover, but Bell could see the ground and visualized a football field with a one of the goalposts on the ground and the other at the plane. He could see after a while that they were gaining altitude and he thought that they were still too low to jump, but he wanted to let the jumpmaster know that they were gaining altitude. Bell leaned over to tell him and the jumpmaster jumped. Realizing that he had set off the jumpmaster’s premature jump, Bell followed him and then thought to himself that the rest of the stick was going to follow him. He had just compounded a small problem, but they landed safely. The jumpmaster said later that he did not realize that Bell did not intend for him to jump, but that the timing was perfect in that as the parachute popped open, his butt hit the ground. Nobody in the stick was hurt and they all landed extremely close together. There is no record of the plane after Normandy and there is every reason to believe that it did not make it back across the channel. This was sad to hear as the pilot did a superb job of regaining control of the plane. Remarkably, after being hit and traveling another 22 miles with the pilot having to stay in formation and maneuver with the lost engine, they were right on the drop zone. They rolled up the stick [Annotators note: gathered the men] and were ready to go. Many of the planes were hit, mostly with small arms fire and 20mm cannons [Annotators note: 2cm Flak 30 or Flak 38 Flakvierling antiaircraft gun] which were used a lot. He thinks 20mm or 40mm cannon shot is what hit his engine and bent the props. They normally assembled on the equipment bundles. There were bays on the bottom on the planes that carried equipment bundles with battery operated lights that were bright colored. There was a set of toggle switches by the door for each equipment bundle. They would tape a pencil across so that they would all work together and they would designate a man in the middle of the stick to flip the switch to release all of the bundles. That way when all of the men landed on the ground, they could move toward the center to gather on the equipment bundles. This served several purposes. It enabled them to quickly assemble and have everyone there to share the burden of carrying the additional equipment within the bundles. On the Normandy jump, the bundles were dropped earlier so it did not work for them, but they were so low jumping that there was no chance to separate and it was a matter of minutes before they assembled.

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[Annotators Note: Elmo Bell served in the army as a sergeant in Company C, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division and jumped into Normandy in the early morning hours of 6 June 1944.]After they assembled, they immediately started off toward Ste Mere Eglise. When they reached the river they realized that it was flooded. The commander of Company C then decided that they needed to reinforce Battery A [Annotators note: Company A] to defend that bridge. Short of the bridge there was a German strongpoint. The woods that Bell and his fellow paratroopers were in separated them from the Germans by 500 or 600 yards. There was flat bare ground between them that the Germans had covered with automatic weapons so that any paratrooper that showed himself out of the woods got picked off. His company commander went forward to see what the problem was and he was hit by machinegun fire. He was shot through the middle of the chest and the bullet came out between his shoulder blades in his back. They did not think that he would live out the rest of that hour. They found a cart, loaded him aboard the cart and five men headed toward the beach [Annotators note: Utah Beach] with him. At this time, they had no idea what the situation was at the beach, but they did know that Captain Stefanich’s survival depended upon adequate medical treatment and the only source of that was on the hospital ships out in the bay. Bell did not know until months later that the five men were successful in getting the captain to the beach and succeeded in getting him aboard a ship. He survived to make the jump into Holland for Operation Market Garden. After the captain was shot, Bell and his fellow members of the company were still held up by the German strong point so he climbed a tree and had a good view of the German strongpoint. He climbed down and gathered two or three mortars and placed them near the tree so that he could climb the tree and give corrections and adjustments when firing on the strongpoint. When they fired for effect on the strongpoint, the Germans dropped their weapons and came out with white flags. Bell gave the command to cease fire but the lieutenant countermanded the order. He argued with the lieutenant and told him to climb the tree and see that the Germans were surrendering. When the mortars started to fire again, the Germans jumped back in their holes and began firing again. Bell was perturbed because by the time they finally took the strongpoint, they had 10 or 15 men killed that were not necessary. When he criticized the lieutenant, he told Bell that they had no choice because they knew that they did not know how much resistance they would have getting to the bridge and did not have any way to control prisoners once they were captured. Bell argued that the 10 or 15 men killed could have guarded the prisoners and lived to fight another day. As they approached the bridge, they began to draw sporadic fire from the built up area on the Ste Mere Eglise side of the river and the up current side of the bridge [Annotators note: the La Fiere Bridge]. This was called the manor, which consisted of a large two story stone house with numerous outbuildings behind a wall. They occupied positions along the river and there were still 25 or 30 Germans in the manor, but the primary concern for Bell and his fellow Company C members was the bridge. Company A had already arrived and had occupied positions along the river bank so that later arrivals of men would occupy the river in greater depth. Later on that day, they could see a floodplain across the river and there was water on both sides of the causeway. The causeway extended about 600 yards and then the road gradually turned back to the left and disappeared around a curve into some timber. They could hear tracked and wheeled vehicles coming from the area of the curve. Bell and his outfit rushed over to set up a defense and sometime around noon, three tanks pulled into sight, followed by about a battalion of German infantry. They came toward the bridge and had 10 or 12 American paratroopers that had been captured that were marching ahead of the tanks with their hands behind their heads. The tank commander of the lead tank carried a submachine gun and was directing the paratroopers to pick up the mines and throw them off of the road. The Germans came closer and still a shot had not yet been fired. Bell had a mortar on the foot of the bridge and a shell in hand waiting for the command to drop the shell in, but it never came. When the lead tank got to the bridge, Bell was afraid that no one had assumed command and that no one was going to give the command to fire. He was ready to start the show by dropping the mortar round. About this time, there was a 57mm antitank gun back down the road that Bell did not even know was there that fired a shot that knocked the tread off of the tank and the tank immediately turned sideways across the bridge. The second tank was close behind and used the first as a shield. It was following so closely behind the first tank that it climbed up on the rear of the tank that had the tread knocked off. Bazooka gunners were dug in beneath the bridge that fired into the belly of the tank. The third tank started back down the road and the infantry ran for cover realizing that the bridge was blocked. The 57mm antitank gun was hitting the tank backing down the road. These were light tanks, French Renault tanks. Even the small tank had enough armor on the front that the 57mm gun would not knock it out and he backed down all the way to the curve in the road. Rifle fire was popping on the front of the tank. Sometime after the Germans had withdrawn out of sight, a motorcycle with a sidecar pulled up near the bridge with an officer in it who was holding a white flag and a megaphone. He asked for a truce for 30 or 40 minutes to recover the dead and wounded and it was granted. A number of trucks then came down the causeway and loaded up the dead and wounded. Bell was surprised because there was no ambulance. The Germans would pick up a soldier by the feet and arms and toss them up in the back of the truck. There were several people who tried to count the number of bodies and the count ended up somewhere around 200. If they were all dead, that would account for the handling because they did not handle any of them as if they were wounded and just threw them in a truck. That was the end of the first German counterattack. Bell and his fellow paratroopers stayed in their position and were constantly battered by artillery and mortar fire. They had many casualties from mortar and artillery fire because they could not move and could only hunker down in a foxhole and take it.

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Sergeant Elmo Bell and the men of Company C, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division repelled all three German counterattacks on the east end of the La Fiere bridge. The Americans held the bridge until the amphibious forces arrived from the landing beaches and the bridge became open. After the first German counter attack, Bell realized that his unit was short on mortar ammunition. He figured that there was leftover ammunition at the drop zone that had not been recovered from the dropped bundles of equipment. He told Lieutenant Johnson that he was going back to the drop zone to look for mortar ammunition. Lieutenant Johnson told Bell to take a radio operator with him as his radio had been damaged in the landing. Bell and his radio operator went back to the drop zone, but found no ammunition. On the way back, the radio operator was killed by German artillery or mortar fire. Bell made his way back to the bridge, but as he approached, he saw a group of paratroopers that marched parallel to him. One of the troopers shouted at Bell and instructed him to approach the group. As Bell got close, he realized that the trooper was Colonel Mark Alexander [Annotator's Note: Lieutenant Colonel Alexander assumed command of 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division on D plus 1]. Colonel Alexander asked Bell where he was headed and Bell informed him that he was returning to the bridge. The colonel asked if he had been to the bridge, which, obviously, Bell had, and then inquired about the details of the fighting there and Bell described it. When Bell came closer to Alexander, the colonel recognized him and apologized for the ambiguous questions and explained that the group of troopers with him consisted of men he had found sitting in a ditch from the 506th or 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment [Annotators Note: Bell could not remember which]. Alexander was taking the troopers to the bridge in order to get them into combat and asked if Bell would lead the way back. Alexander knew that Bell was a mortar squad leader and asked if he knew anything about artillery. There was a French 75mm gun with close to 100 rounds of ammunition back behind a hill, but had no sight or fire control equipment. Alexander asked if the gun could be of any use, and Bell informed him that the Germans had an assembly area across the river that the gun could fire on if it was positioned up on a hill as to see the German position directly. Bell, however, refused to fire the gun if he could not see where the shells landed. Alexander then ordered his men to position the gun up on the hill and gather up the ammunition. Once the gun was in place, Bell zeroed it in on a patch of woods in which the Germans were assembling and began firing rounds in a checkerboard pattern across the German assembly area. He fired every round of ammunition available, and the trails of black some which rose from the area indicated to Bell that the artillery barrage had some affect. Upon returning to the bridge, Bell found numerous dead American troopers who had manned a 57mm antitank gun in during the first German counter attack at La Fiere.

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[Annotator's Note: due to a technical problem, audio for this segment was lost].

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Elmo Bell fought out of Normandy and all the way across France. All maneuver elements of the army were assigned a section of the line for the advance across France and Bell's unit was given its own section. The American line moved as one all the way across France. While in the hedgerow country of Normandy, it was not difficult for foot soldiers like the paratroopers to keep up with the mechanized units on their flanks. Once the American advance burst out of the hedgerow country, however, it became increasingly difficult for foot soldier to keep pace with the mechanized units. When the rainy season hit, the entire advance bogged down as the mechanized units were confined to travel on paved roads, air support was ineffective, and sighting targets for mortar and artillery crews became increasingly difficult. As the Germans assumed a defensive posture, the American advance all but halted completely. When the weather finally broke, it took a mighty push from the Americans to kick start the advance again. Bell was wounded on 7 July 1944, the day that the advance renewed. [Annotator's Note: interviewer realized technical mistake earlier and directs Bell to retell a previous incident] In Normandy at the crossing at La Fiere, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander [Annotator's Note: Mark Alexander commanded 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment] ordered Bell to man a 57 mm antitank gun at the edge of the bridge. The gun had been vital to the Americans' defense of the bridge against a German counter attack and had damaged an enemy tank during that battle, but at the cost of many American casualties. After that first counter attack, the role of the 57mm antitank gun was relatively minor. Bell used his mortar, however, to great effect in harassing the German retreat across the causeway. Since the causeway was so narrow, the retreating Germans were packed into a continuous mass of humanity and Bell dropped mortar rounds directly into that area until he had only 20 or so mortar rounds remaining. He then ceased fire despite the numerous Germans remaining on the causeway in order to preserve ammunition for another inevitable German counterattack. Bell's mortar fire on the bridge, however, resulted in the wholesale slaughter of the retreating Germans. Bell never witnessed any instances when American troops tried to cross the causeway in the face of enemy fire as the American mission was defensive. They were to defend the end of the causeway on the St. Mere Eglise side of the river. The German counterattack on La Fiere consisted of almost an entire battalion which followed the lead German tanks, but the lead tanks were light tanks to lead an assault on a fortified causeway and were less capable than some of the heavier tanks that the Germans had at their disposal. The Germans were unaware that the causeway at La Fiere was one of only two ways across the flooded Merderet River, and had they known that, they more than likely would have made a stronger push to recapture the crossing at La Fiere. By the time the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment pushed across the bridge, the pressure from the Germans had largely subsided and Bell's unit had been pulled back. After the beachhead was established, Bell's involvement at the La Fiere crossing was over.

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Elmo Bell's 1st Battalion commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Alexander, was always worried about the business of the entire regiment and was very interested in everything. Before D Day, Bell was a mortar team commander, but thought that the field manual methods for mortars and artillery practiced by the US Army were extremely clumsy and totally bogus. Bell discarded the army issued mortar aiming posts in favor of an aiming system for the mortars that he devised himself. Since mortar ammunition was always in short supply in combat, since ammunition was air dropped, Bell did away with mortar aiming posts all together in order to conserve the rounds wasted in determining the range of the target, a practice that was adopted by mortar crews all along the line. In a traditional mortar crew, four men carried all of the necessary material to operate and fire the mortar. Bell figured that the crews could function with less equipment and Colonel Alexander instructed Bell to try his new method. Alexander authorized the ammunition for the practice and Bell did away with difficult range cards for each round of ammunition, did away with the sight, and eventually began to fire the mortar using only the tube and used fewer rounds to lock on target without all the excess equipment. Colonel Alexander was impressed and, on his orders, Bell eventually taught all the other mortar squad leaders in the regiment his new program. Alexander was a thorough leader and did whatever was needed to get the job done, including allowing his men to devise improved combat tactics and then teaching those tactics to all the men in his command. When the paratroopers were introduced to the recoilless rifle, a light weight antitank, bazooka like weapon, Colonel Alexander ordered Bell to demonstrate how to fire it. Once the weapon became jeep mounted, however, the paratroopers were never issued any. [Annotator's Note: interviewer and Bell discuss the restoration of C47 aircraft during a brief dialogue at the end of segment.]

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One of Elmo Bell's superiors [Annotator's Note: he does not specify who] doubted the effectiveness of the pathfinder troops to light and mark the drop zones for the paratroopers since the drop zones were often crawling with Germans who would be alerted by a low flying plane. The troopers were instructed, when in doubt of their location, to drop near and head towards fires, since the French resistance was to light fires at strategic locations for the troopers to use. Many pilots used the fires as targets for the drop, but the fires then illuminated the troopers and their parachutes as they descended from night sky which led to many troopers being killed in the air. In Bell's view, however, the pathfinder troops who dropped ahead of the main airborne invasion did an excellent job lighting the drop zones and setting up the transmitters which the planes used to zero in on the drop zone's location. Bell expresses that most all of the commanding officers involved in the battle for the causeway at La Fiere deserve commendation for their actions. In one example in particular, however, Bell accidentally ran into General Gavin [Annotator's Note: Major General James M. Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division] and knocked him off his feet as Bell was sprinting for the chow line. The general easily forgave the mishap after some conversation and told Bell that if he ran like hell, he still might make it near the front of the chow line. Regarding the German counter attacks at La Fiere, Bell clearly remembered the first and most violent German counter attack, but his memory has blurred the two later attacks, which made it difficult to differentiate them and explain their particular events in the interview. As an enlisted soldier, Bell had a very limited knowledge of the overall situation in the war. Enlisted soldiers generally understood the situations of their companies, battalions, and, sometimes, their entire regiment, but they had limited knowledge of the entire war situation. After the war, Bell consumed the military history of the war as much as he could in order to fit the pieces of his personal experience into the greater framework of various battles. Despite learning much of the greater history of the war second hand, Bell limits his responses in the interview primarily to his personal experiences during the war, which is hard to do after having read so much secondary material on the war. [Annotator's Note: for the remainder of the interview, Bell shows the interviewer his collection of awards, trophies, medals, photographs, and war memorabilia.]

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