Operation Overlord – the codename for the invasion of Normandy – was the single biggest gamble the Allies took throughout the course of the Second World War. If it failed, Dwight Eisenhower would have been forced to step down as the supreme Allied Commander, Winston Churchill (who opposed the plan) would have found his power diminished (and quite possibly could have been voted out of office), and the Allies would have been looking at a possible stalemate with the Germans.
That could have lead to peace talks to appease civilian populations that were weary of war. Although the Russians were still charging hard at Germany from the East, with no second front to worry about, the Germans may have been able to hold them off, and Hitler could very well have stayed in power. Literally, the entire fate of the free world was riding on this plan.
Looking back now, it might seem that the success of Overlord was almost inevitable, because it fits the narrative that the forces of good would of course defeat the forces of evil. The reality though, was much different, and victory was anything but a certainty. In the end, there were several factors that aided the Allies: massive air superiority, a brilliant deception that kept the Germans guessing as to where the actual invasion would take place and the individual heroism of countless soldiers in all facets of the operation.
All of the soldiers involved in the invasion of Normandy were heroes, but there is one soldier who I would like to highlight for his particular valor, and his name was Robert Cole.
Robert George Cole was born into a military life in 1915. His father was an army doctor and held the rank of Colonel, and Robert was born at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio Texas. He joined the army at the age of 19, and a year later was accepted into West Point. After graduating, Cole moved into a new branch that was being developed: the army airborne.
The airborne troops were a new concept, and were intended to be an elite corps who could deploy in almost any situation and environment – but primarily, they would be able to drop behind enemy lines in advance of a major offensive. While the Germans had employed airborne troops regularly since the start of WWII – most notably in their invasion of Crete in 1941 – the Americans had never used these types of troops in combat. So Cole trained with his men, waiting for the opportunity to see action, and after three years, they got their chance with the invasion of Normandy.
Cole was part of the 101st Airborne Division that, along with the men of the 82nd Airborne and totaling just over 13,000 men, were tasked with dropping into France during the night before the landings at Normandy began.
Facing the enemy for the first time is one thing, but facing them in the dark and behind enemy lines is another thing entirely, but this is exactly what Cole and the rest of the airborne troops had been training for. The drops did not go as planned. Winds and heavy anti-aircraft fire had hampered the transport planes during the drops, leaving the U.S. men scattered over the French countryside – sometimes miles from their objectives, and sometimes without proper weapons.
Cole was no exception, but by nightfall, he was able to rally around 75 men to him, and they were able to secure a key objective at Saint-Martin-de Varreville, allowing the men on Utah beach move inland and gain a stronger foothold.
Though the initial landings at Normandy were a success, the overall position of the Allies was still precarious in the days that followed the invasion. If they couldn’t link up, the Germans would be able to isolate them and drive them back into the English Channel.
The town of Carentan (the French town that lay between two allied landing sites) became a critical objective for the Allies. If captured, it would allow the troops from Utah and Omaha beaches to link up, giving them such a strong position, that it would almost impossible for the Germans to drive them back into the sea. On June 10th, Lt. Colonel Cole and his 400 men were given the job of opening up the road to Carentan.
The road to Carentan from Saint Come-du-Mont (known as N13), is really more of a causeway, with four bridges. It isn’t long – just a little over 2.5 miles, but on June 10th 1944, it was one of the deadliest patches of road one could ever find. The Germans knew how important it was to prevent the Allies from taking Carentan – in fact Hitler had given orders to the troops defending this position to fight until death. Those troops, as fate would have it, were Fallschirmjager – German airborne troops, some of the finest soldiers in the German army.
Cole and his men began their assault on the morning of June 10th and found the going very tough – almost suicidal. The Germans had excellent cover from the hedges lining the road, while the Americans had pretty much no cover at all. The fighting was so bloody, that this road would be christened “Purple Heart Lane”. Inch, by bloody inch, the Americans fought their way down that deadly road.
Just after midnight, they finally reached the final bridge – but the Germans had placed an obstacle on the bridge that bottlenecked the entire way over the bridge – meaning only one man at a time could make it through.
After enduring a long night of intense attacks from the Germans, Cole and his remaining men (about 250) were finally able to get across the bridge and put themselves in position to attack the Germans.
As dawn broke on the morning of June 11th, Cole knew he had few options to break through the enemy lines and clear the way to Carentan. He radioed in for a smoke screen, and at 6:15 he ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge the Germans. Legend has it that before giving the order, the Texan stood in full view of the enemy and said something to the effect that they were going to teach the Germans a lesson on how to fight a war.
Now, a bayonet charge in the Second World War was almost unheard of. Modern technology had made this kind of attack a form of suicide. But Lt. Colonel Cole knew there was only one way to take out the Germans, so at 6:15 he blew his whistle and led his men in what has become known as “Cole’s Charge.” Cole led the way firing his pistol, and then picked up a rifle from a fallen comrade along the way.
Accounts vary about how many men were left to make that charge – somewhere around 250 men – and only 130 made it through unscathed. But thanks to Cole’s daring charge, and the unbelievable heroism of all the soldiers there, the Americans finally drove the Germans from their defensive position, and they were able to continue their advance onto Carentan.
Just on the edge of town, Cole and his remaining men faced a vicious counter attack and were unable to advance into the town. Carentan was taken the following day from other troops in the 101st (led in part by Captain Winters of Easy Company – shown brilliantly in the outstanding HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers”).
For his heroism that day, Robert Cole was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but sadly he wouldn’t live to receive it.
In September of that year, Cole was part of another huge airborne operation – known as Market Garden. It was supposed get the Allies into Germany and end the war before Christmas. It did not, and the war continued on until the following April.
Cole was part of an advance unit and while on the radio coordinating attacks with air support, he was asked to re-position a marker identifying where Allied troops were positioned. Cole stood up to get a better sense of what needed to be done, and was immediately shot and killed by a German sniper.
Two weeks later, his wife and child were presented his Medal of Honor on the parade grounds at Fort Sam Houston, which he had come to call home after growing up there as a child. Cole would never see the final victory for which he had trained and fought so hard for, but it was through his actions and leadership – particularly during those critical days of the invasion of Normandy, that he helped make that final victory a reality, and for that he will always be one of America’s greatest heroes.