Seventy-five years ago, thousands of American and British paratroops were waiting on the go-ahead to begin the airborne assault on Normandy during World War II. The airborne assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe was expected to be a very bloody affair for the airborne troops which were expected to suffer grievous casualties in the opening days of the invasion.
The airborne troops would fare much better than expected but the Normandy hedgerows proved to be a terrible obstacle and the troops ended up in the line much longer than anticipated as the days after the invasion proved to be bloodier than was originally expected.
On Saturday, as part of the on-going 75th-anniversary celebration for the invasion to free the French people from Nazi rule, some 135 American Special Forces troops jumped into Normandy. Soldiers from the 10th Special Forces Group jumped into the area surrounding Mont Saint-Michel from aircraft flown by the 352nd Special Operations Wing and the 86th Airlift Wing.
The town nearby Avaranches was one of the keys to the allied breakout from Normandy during Operation Cobra in late July 1944. The town turned out to greet the Special Forces troops who then laid a wreath at the monument dedicated to General George S. Patton Jr. and then had a ceremonial toast with the mayor.
The Special Forces troops were celebrating the and recalling the Jedburgh teams of OSS (Office of Strategic Services) which are the direct forefathers of both the Army Special Forces Groups and CIA. Jedburgh teams or “Jeds” as they were known back then, consisted of three-man teams dropped behind enemy lines to train, equip and advise local resistance groups.
It is fitting that the Special Operations community used the backdrop of Mont Saint-Michel to jump into Normandy. Back in 1944, one Special Operations trooper captured the abbey and town by himself.
In the summer of 1940, the Germans overran France and they took the abbey the day before the French government capitulated. They put up observers in the spire of the abbey which dominated the surrounding area. German troops were billeted in the town and they trained nearby for what was supposed to be “Operation Sea Lion”, the invasion of Britain.
But after the Battle of Britain, Operation Sea Lion was canceled and the Germans then changed their focus on holding onto their territory. They began to place fortifications all along the coast. In the area nearby they put up “Rommel asparagus” long poles with mines attached to the top to disable landing craft if they tried to pull up on the beach. Because of this, they banned fishing anywhere close to the coastline, putting more bad tidings upon the French citizens.
After D-Day, the Germans were fighting all along the Normandy coastline. And as the Allies finally began to push the Germans back after 6-7 weeks of intense fighting, they were streaming into the town as they retreated.
As Operation Cobra, was getting underway, troops streaming into the continent were part of Patton’s 3rd Army. They were the fresh troops who would become operational and do the open field running for the American Army once they punched a hole in the German lines.
On July 30, the newly arrived 4th Armored Division struck a critical blow, capturing the town of Avranches, effectively cutting off any retreat for German troops to the east and south of there. The American 6th Armored Division pushed westward toward Pontorson which was pinning the Germans along the coast.
Patton knew Pontorson well, having gone there with his wife before the first world war. He mentioned the town in his diary. On August 1, Third Army became operational and the breakout commenced with tremendous speed. Patton’s troops broke into the enemy rear and began to rout the Germans as they overran Brittany and pushed westward.
But a lonely private would make a big contribution to the effort. Private Freeman Brougher of the 72nd Psychological Operations Bn. was in a jeep with two war correspondents, one American and one British.
They raced down the open roads and were approaching the abbey when they stopped to ask directions from a French civilian. At first, the man was distrustful but once he realized that Brougher was not one of the hated Germans but an American soldier that all changed. The French people were delirious with joy. And the word quickly spread.
“They sprang from nowhere,” one of the war correspondents remembered. “No sooner did the magic words go around, ‘Les Americans,’ than folks came running from every direction.” By the time they reached the abbey, The small jeep had added two priests, three women, a fireman, and several other local citizens.
The Germans inside the abbey were exhausted and had nowhere to run, they surrendered to the lone private. The jubilant Frenchmen then took Brougher to the mayor’s house where he toasted with champagne, decked out in flowers and carried on the crowd’s shoulders where he was asked to sign the Town’s Golden Book, which records the list of the local nobility. Soon other Americans would arrive and Brougher would happily load up some prisoners on his jeep and get back into the war.
Brougher survived the war and would return to his life in Pennsylvania. He married and had two children and would return with them to Mont Saint-Michel in 1987 to show his family where his service took him and to revisit with the French people. His two children said he was called the “savior of Mont Saint-Michel.” Brougher passed away in 2003.
More can found on the freeing of Mont-Saint Michel here:
Photos: DVIDs, US Army