Seventy-seven years ago today, an hour before the first light of day, 6 June 1944, the first four Americans to land on a French beach paddled towards a pair of islands situated just a few miles off of Utah beach, called Îles Saint-Marcouf. The small reconnaissance team had been delivered to the disembarkation point by landing craft, out of sight and hearing distance of any alert German sentries guarding the island fortifications. Armed only with knives, when they were about 100 yards from shore, they slipped into the water and punctured holes in their black inflatable rubber rafts, which slipped under the waves. The men swam the rest of the way to the larger of the two islands.
Allied intelligence believed the Germans were using Îles Saint-Marcouf, at a minimum, as an observation post for a heavy artillery battery several miles to the west on the Cotentin peninsula. The Crisbecq battery, also often called the Marcouf battery, was located in the village of Crisbecq, commune of Marcouf. Aerial photographs revealed three big artillery pieces. The guns had a range of 19 miles (30 kilometers), meaning that every ship and landing craft assigned to Utah, as well as Utah beach itself, were under threat. Less certain, the islands might also be equipped with smaller, concealed artillery, or the Germans might control electrically-detonated underwater mines – placing vessels at even greater risk.
Fortresses had been built on Îles Saint-Marcouf more than a century before, by order of Napoleon Bonaparte. A moat surrounding the fortress on the larger of the two islands was dug out of stone, and filled with sea water. It was an easy place to defend against a landing force. The Germans made it even more so: the surrounding waters were laced with anti-ship mines, and the beaches filled with s-mines, or schrapnellmine. American GI’s called them ‘bouncing Bettys’ because when triggered they sprung up into the air to waist-height before exploding, sending shrapnel horizontally in every direction.
The four Americans proceeded cautiously on the beach, poking the sand with their combat knives, searching out the landmines. Once passed the beach, they proceeded stealthily into the defenses but encountered not a single defender. The scouts signalled to waiting landingcraft to bring the rest of their detachment ashore. A thorough search confirmed that the Germans had abandoned the islands some time ago. By the time all 132 men were ashore, it was 0530 hours and the first hint of dawn appeared in the moody sky. The main beach landings – Utah, Omaha, Juno, Sword, and Gold – would commence at 0630 hours.
German sentries at the Crisbecq battery were awake and alert at 0530 hours. The invasion armada was now evident, and observers at Crisbecq were the first to spot and report the Allied fleet to headquarters. The general staff had been receiving hundreds of reports of enemy aircraft and paratroops for more than five hours now. The report from Crisbecq battery confirmed that the long-awaited invasion was finally here.
In addition to the invasion fleet, Crisbecq artillery observers could also see soldiers were already on Îles Saint-Marcouf. The battery opened up on both large warships and the Americans on Îles Saint-Marcouf. Two Americans on the islands were killed, and another seventeen were wounded. Casualties were attributed to a combination of artillery and schrapnellmine.
The detachment that seized Îles Saint-Marcouf on D-Day were from the 4th Cavalry Reconnaissance Regiment, 4th and 24th squadrons, led by Lieutenant Colonel Edward C. Dunn. The four men who volunteered for the dangerous advance reconnaissance mission were Sergeant John W. Zanders, Corporal Harvey S. Olson, Private Thomas C. Killeran, and Private Melvin F. Kenzie. Olsen was awarded the Silver Star and promoted to Sergeant for his actions that day.
The 4th Cavalry Reconnaissance Regiment were the eyes and ears of the 4th Infantry Division, which landed on Utah Beach that morning. First organized in 1855, the unit served gallantly in the Civil War. In the European campaign, they saw combat across France, including Utah Beach, the Battle of Cherbourg, and the Battle of the Bulge.
“D-Day’s Forgotten First Landing” (9:05):
Question Of The Night: Which event or part of Operation Overlord or the Normandy campaign do you deem most important or noteworthy?