Tag: France

1LT Jimmie Monteith Omaha Beach 6 June 1944

I’ve spent a lot of time around Omaha Beach in Normandy. It is a very special place for me as it is for many others. Every time I walk up the cliffs, I see the area where the 1st Infantry fought their way up. The 16th Infantry Regiment sector saw especially intense fighting under the gaze of the “wiederstandneste.” These were heavily fortified, concrete strong points that were connected by trenches and had interlocking fields of fire. They brought death and destruction to any unit who could not take them out. The planning for D-Day was meticulous and required, but the only thing that took that day for the Allies was determined junior leaders who took the mission as their personal mission to deliver that day. There were many valiant men that day, but none more so than 1LT Jimmie Monteith. Below is his Medal of Honor citation.

Jimmie Monteith Omaha Beach

Jimmie Monteith at Omaha Beach Cemetery

Jimmie W. Monteith Jr’s cross at Omaha Beach Cemetery

Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Army, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division.

Place and date: Near Colleville-sur-Mer, France, 6 June 1944.

Entered service at: Richmond, Va.

Born: 1 July 1917, Low Moor, Va.

G.O. No.: 20, 29 March 1945.


For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, near Colleville-sur-Mer, France. 1st Lt. Monteith landed with the initial assault waves on the coast of France under heavy enemy fire. Without regard to his own personal safety he continually moved up and down the beach reorganizing men for further assault. He then led the assault over a narrow protective ledge and across the flat, exposed terrain to the comparative safety of a cliff. Retracing his steps across the field to the beach, he moved over to where 2 tanks were buttoned up and blind under violent enemy artillery and machinegun fire. Completely exposed to the intense fire, 1st Lt. Monteith led the tanks on foot through a minefield and into firing positions. Under his direction several enemy positions were destroyed. He then rejoined his company and under his leadership his men captured an advantageous position on the hill. Supervising the defense of his newly won position against repeated vicious counterattacks, he continued to ignore his own personal safety, repeatedly crossing the 200 or 300 yards of open terrain under heavy fire to strengthen links in his defensive chain. When the enemy succeeded in completely surrounding 1st Lt. Monteith and his unit and while leading the fight out of the situation, 1st Lt. Monteith was killed by enemy fire. The courage, gallantry, and intrepid leadership displayed by 1st Lt. Monteith is worthy of emulation.

Jimmie Monteith Omaha Beach Motorcycle Ride Recommendation

Take the ferry from Portsmouth, England to Ouistreham, France then follow the following beach route to the US Cemetery at Omaha Beach.

Blucher Defeats Napoleon at Battle of Laon 9-10 March 1814

Map Credit:By Gregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon on the run

After defeat in Russia in 1812, Napoleon was being chased by the European Allies across central Europe and into France by early 1814. The Prussian and Russian forces were led by the Prussian Marshal Blucher and were threatening Paris by early 1814. Napoleon was fighting for his very survival.

After several battles on the trot, some won, some lost, Blucher occupied the town of Laon. Laon was strategically important because it was a major communications crossroads near Paris. Holding Laon would give Blucher the logistical base to attack into Paris. Napoleon obviously felt it could not remain held by the enemy. Laon was also a tactical stronghold due to its placement on a plateau with steep slopes for defense.

The Battle of Laon

On the first day of the battle (9th), both sides fought skirmishes for the small towns around Laon. Both sides missed opportunities for exploitation, but the sun set on the Allies holding the town. On the second day (10th), Napoleon decided to try the ploy that had worked at Craonne a few days earlier. Napoleon sent Marshal Auguste Marmont to deliver the flank attack. Blucher saw what was happening and threw a decisive counter-attack at Marmont and nearly annihilated his forces were it not for an exceptional defense by a small number of the Old Guard. The battle continued, but Napoleon could not dislodge Blucher from Laon and decided to retire.

The loss at the Battle of Laon was not the end of Napoleon in France, but Blucher and the Allies were tightening the ring around Paris and the Battle of Laon would provide an important link.

Battle of Laon Motorcycle Ride Recommendation

Check out the wooded circular route on the “D” roads south of Laon. If you are looking for more rides in the area, try the Battle of Neuve Chapelle ride to the north of the Battle of Laon.

Battle of Neuve Chapelle 10-13 March 1915

By early 1915, the lines in northern France had become static and the trench warfare that WWI is known for had commenced. Many soldiers and officers found themselves not only green, but found their senior leadership green in the tactics of the trench as well. New ideas had to be considered and new tactics developed to break the enemy lines for any offensive to succeed. The British First Army, under the command of the often maligned General Douglas Haig, was given the task of taking the immediate German positions, Neuve Chapelle and finally Aubers ridge. The First Army was made up of British, Canadian, and Indian troops.

Although the battle is not often associated with the major battles of the First World War, it is highly significant in the analysis of the planning, technology, and tactical advances of the time. The battle exhibited major breakthroughs in four key areas.

  • The German lines were mapped extensively by aerial reconnaissance by a British air arm that was in its infancy. This allowed;
  • Detailed maps to be distributed to the ground forces which contained phase lines and timed intervals for movements which were co-ordinated with;
  • Air support in the attack and;
  • Heavy artillery preparation of targets in advance with the lifting and shifting of fires in time with infantry movements. More rounds were sent skyward in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle than in all of the Boer War.
Battle of Neuve Chapelle

These innovations paid off at first with Haig taking the immediate objective of the German line salient and then the village of Neuve Chapelle. However, the attack bogged down soon thereafter, well before reaching the final objective of the Aubers ridge. A competent German counter-attack was partly the cause, but unforced errors also came into play. There were several tactical explanations for the halt that are common to many battlefields;

  • Poor weather on the second day limited aerial observation and support which contributed to;
  • Poor communications that kept the leadership from knowing where things were progressing properly and where they weren’t which led to;
  • Bad tactical intelligence that led some areas to be allotted more troops than needed and others less than needed which led to;
  • The fog of war where things tend to freeze on the senior decision level, but local fighting goes on, but is uncoordinated with the larger picture.

The battle was a limited tactical win for the British, but at a heavy cost of approximately 12,000 casualties. In the longer term Neuve Chapelle became the professional template for a new set of tactics that would become prevalent for the rest of the war.

Map credit – New York Times “Current History”. The European War, Vol. 2 No. 2, May 1915.
Downloaded from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15479

Motorcycle Ride Recommendation

This is a great ride when you are going somewhere else in France. It is only 60 miles from Calais and can be seen on the way to the south of France, Paris or Belgium with only a minor detour. From Calais, head to Neuve Chapelle, then take the following circular ride of the area. This is not a spectacularly scenic ride, but you get to ride along the British front line from Neuve Chapelle to Fleurbaix (with a British Cemetary in Fauquissart), then see the Aubers ridge objective, then down to the pivot point in the line at La Bassee.

U.S. Army Rangers Destroy German Artillery at Pointe du Hoc on D-Day 6 June 1944

In between Omaha and Utah beaches in Normandy lies a promontory called Pointe du Hoc. Prior to D-Day on 6 June 1944, the Germans had six 155mm artillery pieces that could effectively fire on either Omaha or Utah beaches. Pointe du Hoc (typo’ed as Pointe du Hoe on many D-Day documents and maps) was target number one for the Americans to neutralize.

Feeling the pointe was unassailable from the sea, the Germans focussed most of the defenses facing rearward. The Americans, knowing this, sent their elite infantrymen, Companies D, E & F of the 2nd Ranger Batallion, to scale the seaside 100 foot vertical walls of the pointe in an attempt to surprise the Germans.

The pointe was subjected to an unprecedented aerial and naval bombardment prior to the invasion. You can see the effects of this in the giant craters that still exist here today. The firing lifted just before the Rangers were to land at 06:30. This is where things begian to go wrong.

At approximately 06:20, the Rangers’ landing craft were heading for the wrong pointe (Pointe de la Percee, a similar pointe) 2 miles closer to Omaha beach. The Ranger leader, Lieutenant-Colonel James Rudder, noticed the error and corrected the flotilla. However, to correct, the Rangers had to run parallel to the coast and against a strong tide. Swells engulfed several boats, including a supply boat. This meant they were 40 minutes late, short of men, food and ammunition. The delay meant the Germans had begun to re-occupy the pointe after the aerial and naval bombardment had lifted.

The Rangers landed at the base of the cliffs at approximately 07:10. Using grappling hooks and ladders, the first elements were up in 10 minutes. The Germans killed and wounded 15 by firing down on the Rangers and dropping grenades on them, but supporting naval fire suppressed them enough to allow the Rangers to get on top of the pointe.

The next problem came when the Rangers realized that the guns they had come for were not there. However, being trained to never dally around, the Rangers began to move toward their next objective which was to get to the main road (today’s D514) and set up a blocking position. Some Rangers had to fight from trench to trench to move forward, but others had a clear run to the road. Once at the road, elements from the 3 companies that had landed on the pointe set up blocking positions on the road and began immediate patrolling of the area. A CP element and an element trapped by snipers and an anti-aircraft position on the western side remained on the pointe.

Back at the road, the patrols were out. During 2 of these patrols, the missing German guns were found hidden in an orchard. One of the patrols with two Ranger sergeants moved to the south of their positions along a farm track and hedge row. At the end of the track, they found the heavily camouflaged guns in the orchard. They could hear their German crews being briefed and formed up in the distance. The Rangers destroyed the guns with thermite grenades. They quickly made their way back to the highway and sent a messenger to report to the CP back at the pointe.

After landing late in the face of determined opposition and not initially finding the guns, the Rangers had accomplished their mission in approximately 2 hours. Colonel Rudder sent the message that still inspires soldiers today; “mission accomplished – need ammunition and reinforcements – many casualties.”
Rudder thought that his scheduled relief would arrive at any minute, but only a single platoon had made it through. The near disaster at Omaha Beach was preventing the mass of the Rangers’ organic reinforcements from reaching Pointe du Hoc. Rudder and his decimated force were alone. Over the next 2 days, there were 5 German counter-attacks. The Rangers, initially strung out over a mile from pointe to the road, were forced back inside a 200 meter perimeter. They fought for their lives on low ammunition and little food to avoid being pushed off the cliffs and into the sea. In the end, the 190 man strong Ranger force was down to 90 that could defend the position. On D+2, the relief force arrived. The Rangers had taken 70% casualties, but a near mythical founding chapter of an elite force had been written.

In my current life it is hard to imagine the amount of personal sacrifice required for such an undertaking as Pointe du Hoc. This is one of the reasons I ride to these historic battlefields. I may never have to do what these Rangers did, but I have a responsibility for keeping the institutional memory alive. An excellent description of the action can be found at the US Army’s Center for Military History.

Not far from Pointe du Hoc is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It is well worth the visit and the new interpretive center there is superb.

Operation Cobra, the American Breakout of the Normandy Beachhead

On the 24th of July 1944, the German forces around St Lo, in Normandy, did not have a clue about the hell that was about to be unleashed upon them. Their dispositions looked like this:
German positions prior to Operation Cobra
To the west of St Lo, you can see the area that the Americans chose to breakout from the close hedgerow fighting that had so favoured the Germans for the months of June and July 1944.
Operation Cobra Map

The Allies delivered a devastating aerial bombardment on the German front lines in the area on 25 July 1944. The line did not immediately give way. This was due to the American infantry not pushing quickly at first. Who could blame them? They had just spent 2 months fighting in the hedgerows and had learned to be cautious. Additionally, the lingering shock of the bombardment, which also killed and wounded several hundred Americans was still wearing off.
However, the American Commander on the ground, General J. Lawton Collins, saw no need to delay and committed his exploitation forces on the morning of the 26th. This was risky, because if the Germans had managed to slow down the attack further, it would have meant an American traffic jam right on the front lines. Luckily, they couldn’t and the Americans pushed right through and found the German line disintegrating like it had not done for the Americans before in Normandy.
Thus began the great race from the beachheads to the German frontier that occurred over the next 2 months, including the liberation of Paris and most of the rest of France.

I rode through the breakout zone in 2008. The ride from Gavray to Avranches is an especially nice twisty rode

Ride Recommendation

Check out the Terre Liberte’ route of Cobra- La Percee (the Breakout). Here’s a Google map of part of the D7 route that I rode.

Charles I of Spain Becomes the Holy Roman Emperor 28 June 1519

On 28 June 1519, Charles I of Spain became Charles V, The Holy Roman Emperor. His kingdom spanned the Iberian peninsula to Italy and north into Germany and the low countries. There are some great roads in his former empire and I’ve been fortunate enough to ride many of them. The mountain roads of the Pyrenees between Spain and France are especially nice and quiet; the Alps between Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria are legendary; the heavily forested areas of the Ardennes in southwestern Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg are the scenes of much of the 20th century’s history. All are full of great roads, food, and hospitality. Go!

Charles V was also credited with one of my favorite quotes,

I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.

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