H-Diplo Review Essay 459 - Bourque on Rabe, The Lost Paratroopers of Normandy

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H-Diplo REVIEW ESSAY 459

9 November 2022

Stephen G. Rabe, The Lost Paratroopers of Normandy: A Story of Resistance, Courage, and Solidarity in a French Village. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. ISBN: 978-1-009-20637-2

https://hdiplo.org/to/E459
Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Thomas Maddux | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Stephen A. Bourque, Professor Emeritus, School of Advanced Military Studies

Twenty-five miles southwest of the Normandy American military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer are the remains of the small village of Graignes. It is far from the attractions of the invasion beaches and monuments that attract tens of thousands of American tourists searching for a connection with the legendary ‘Longest Day.’ The remains are devoid of the massive bunkers that punctuate the beach. There are no significant monuments. It does not have a cafe and only has enough parking for one bus. The visitor must open the gate to the old cemetery and take a short walk to the village’s ruined church, located on a hill that dominates the marshes of the La Taute valley. Inside its open-air remains are plaques and memorials to American paratroopers and the village’s citizens who perished there the second week of June 1944. It is a somber place, seldom disturbed by outsiders.

The story's outline is reasonably well-known to those who study the invasion. Since 2000, Toni and Valmai Holt have included a detailed description of the location and event in their famous battlefield travel guide.[1] Author and distinguished tour guide Martin Morgan has improved on the Holts’s book and expanded the understanding of the events at Graignes.[2] 

On June 6, 1944, paratroopers from Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 507 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division landed in the swamps and fields southwest of Carentan, far from their intended drop zone. In the distance, a church on a hill was the most noticeable landmark, and small groups of soldiers separately headed in its direction. About 150 paratroopers spent most of that day recovering and preparing for operations. The American arrival took the villagers of Graignes by surprise. Meeting in the church, the citizens agreed to help the paratroopers in any way they could. By June 10, the German army knew the town was in the hands of the Americans, and by June 12, after a determined assault, the 37th Regiment, 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division captured the village. Although many Americans escaped and French civilians hid in the countryside, the German soldiers took their revenge on the survivors. On the wall in the back of the ruined church is a plaque with the names of fifty Americans and thirty-two French men and women who perished in the battle. The SS soldiers slaughtered many who were wounded or medics, and without weapons. Surprisingly, over 100 defenders escaped this fate, making their way back to American lines and rejoining the fight.

But the story was not complete for Stephen G. Rabe, professor emeritus from the University Texas-Dallas, where he has taught for more than forty years. A diplomatic historian with a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut, he has a distinguished publication record in diplomacy and international relations. But, in the back of his mind were always questions about his father's experience during the war, especially in Graignes.[3] As a child, he had listened to former Staff Sergeant Rene Emil Rabe discuss the battle with his comrades at unit reunions. Now, free from the demands of a full-time university professorship, he had the opportunity to use his academic skills to provide a definitive account of this small unit's experience.  

As an experienced historian, Rabe ensures the reader has a glimpse into his thesis early in the manuscript. At “…Graingnes, non-elite actors, the paratroopers and the village’s, made choices that affected the conduct of US foreign and military policy, the liberation of France, and the defeat of Germany” (11). The French civilians, especially the women and children, actively participated in the village’s defense and resisted the Germans. From a military perspective, the fight mattered. The 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division was supposed to counterattack against the 101st Airborne Division in Carentan, but having to reduce the American enclave at Graingnes delayed their arrival. This delay allowed the 101st paratroopers to hold the critical city and for Combat Command A from the 2nd Armored Division to defeat the German effort.

Rabe organizes his book chronologically and walks the reader from the formation of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and its training in the United States and in Northern Ireland. Reflecting on his background as a scholar of international relations, he includes detailed explanations of events in France and Normandy. Rabe explores the creation, organization, and training of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division. He describes in detail the interactions of the American soldiers and French inhabitants as they waited for the inevitable German attack and experienced the assault. He follows with a chapter that examines the three groups after the battle: the Americans who escaped and rejoined their unit; the French men and women who were forced by the Germans to flee their destroyed village and seek to restore their lives after the tide of war passed them by; and the German SS soldiers who had to face the ever-growing power of the advancing US Army. Most interesting for this reader is the story of the aftermath. How did the survivors from both nations remember their experiences and rediscover their connections? Rabe is most adept at portraying this part of the story within the context of modern post-traumatic stress disorder scholarship, seeking to explain why so few veterans sought to tell their stories.

Unlike the timing of Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, few of the American paratroopers were alive when Rabe was ready to write.[4] However, because of his childhood connection to the families, he accumulated over thirty interviews, letters, and unpublished manuscripts from participants or their families in France and the United States. His extensive bibliography lists a wide array of unique sources, such as diaries, letters, and personal essays, which he was able to gather to support his narrative. Finally, as an academically trained historian, he consulted all the official records and secondary sources that are appropriate to the story. While the bibliography is brief, his citations are extensive and worth reading for anyone who is interested in this phase of the war.

Most importantly, this is a book about people. It is full of stories and anecdotes illuminating the experiences of the individual soldiers and French men and women who participated in this short but intense battle. These include prominent players, such as Captain David Brummitt, who supervised the defenses; Major Charles Johnson, who commanded the unit and decided to stay and defend the village; and Alphonse Voydie, Granger’s mayor, who made the final decision to help the Americans. But Rabe dives deep and gives voice to the ordinary soldiers and townspeople who stood up to make a difference, including Germaine Boursier, who supervised feeding the paratroopers; Captain Abraham Sophian, the battalion surgeon; and Albert Le Blastier, the parish priest, who was also murdered by the German soldiers. In addition, his discussions of the Rigault family provide the reader a window into the French experience during and after the battle. In the end, this is a story about the human experience, and Rabe is superb at bringing out the nature of the individual participants. His selection of photographs, which are most unique, contribute to his narrative.

Rabe brings this story to life and provides enough detail that all readers, no matter their understanding of the military or the Second World War, will find interesting. It should have a unique attraction to those interested in post-battle trauma among soldiers and civilians. I highly recommend it to professional historians, military buffs, and general readers.

 

Stephen A. Bourque is Professor Emeritus of military history at the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His most recent publications include D-Day 1944: The deadly failure of Allied heavy bombing on June 6 (Osprey 2022), and Au-delà des plages: La guerre des Alliés contre la France (Humensis, 2019; Winner of the 2020 grand prize for literature from the l’Aeroclub de France); and Beyond the Beach: The Allied Air War Against France, 1944. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018. He is currently completing a biography of Major General Raymond O. Barton.

 

 

[1] Tonie Holt and Valmai  Holt, Major & Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide to the Normandy Landing Beaches (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Leo Cooper, 2000), 89-91.

[2] Martin K. A. Morgan, Down to Earth: The 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Normandy (Schiffer Military, 2004); Martin K. A. Morgan, "Battle of Graignes: A HQ Company’s Heroic Last Stand in Normandy: One of D-Day’s lesser known battles was also one of its fiercest," Warfare History Network,  Spring 2014, https://doi.org/20140301, https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/article/battle-of-graignes-an-hq-companys-heroic-last-stand-in-normandy/.

 

[3] For more on this see Stephen G. Rabe, “From Normandy to Berlin to Buenos Aires to Helsinki,” ed. Diane Labrosse, Learning the Scholar’s Craft: Reflections of Historians and International Relations Scholars, H-Diplo, 19 October 2021; https://hdiplo.org/to/E378.

[4] Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).