Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Speirs

an “officer with a reputation”

In a military career spanning 22 years, Speirs has been lauded as a hero, embroiled in controversy and celebrated in both print and TV. This website looks at the real man behind the reputation.

Lieutenant Colonel RONALD C. SPEIRS

Normandy

Deployment date: 5th June, 1944.

Just two years after entering active duty for the US Army, Ronald Speirs would find himself participating in what became one of the most significant operations in recent military history: Operation Neptune. Neptune was the assault phase of Operation Overlord which would later be better known as the D-Day landings.

In September 1943, Speirs arrived in the UK with the 101st Airborne Division for further training, as World War II raged on in Europe. Less than a year later, on the night of 5th June, 1944, 2nd Lieutenant Ronald C Speirs boarded a C-47 troop carrier aircraft as part of an operation which would mark the turning point in the entire conflict.

Overlord - Allied Invasion Force

Overlord – Allied Invasion Force

The build up to this moment had taken over a year, and the largest amphibious invasion force ever assembled prepared to leave the south coast of England, bound for the beaches of Normandy. Yet just as the moment arrived, the Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D Eisenhower postponed the invasion for 24 hours due to bad weather. The plan now, was for the paratroopers to land in France in the pre-dawn hours of June 6th.

Speirs,-Ronald-Charles,-1944,-England

© 2013 Lt Col Ronald Speirs

Ronald was acting as jumpmaster for his “stick” of paratroopers – a stick being a group of between 14-18 paratroopers assigned to a specific plane. These men were 2nd Platoon members of Dog Company and were known as Stick #62 of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 101st Airborne Division. They would jump from aircraft #42-10843 into battle.

General Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers prior D-Day

Eisenhower addresses paratroopers prior D-Day

 

D-Day - The Invasion of Normandy

D-Day – The Invasion of Normandy

General D. Eisenhower speaks to 101st Airborne Division Paratroopers board C-47’s – D Day invasion of Normandy

The planes took off from Upottery Air Field, near Honiton in East Devon. Once all the aircraft were airborne, they shaped into V formation flying patterns, before beginning their journey at low altitude across the Channel, towards Normandy.

On approach to the Normandy coast, they encountered unexpected low cloud cover which prevented them from seeing the other aircraft in their formations. This caused the pilots to use evasive manoeuvres to avoid mid-air collisions and, once clear of the cloud cover, many aircraft found themselves alone. They now began to encounter intense enemy anti-aircraft fire. The unanticipated cloud cover and anti-aircraft fire caused the aircraft to scatter wildly and resulted in only about fifteen percent of the planes carrying 2nd Battalion dropping their sticks near their assigned drop zones.1

Lieutenant Ronald Speirs landed approximately 4 miles northwest of Drop Zone C – his stick’s intended target. He and most of the rest of Dog Company were grouped near highway D15, about one mile northeast of Ste Marie Eglise. Speirs quickly found two members of his stick – Art (Jumbo) DiMarzio and an unnamed Sergeant.  The small group began to make their way towards the coast and Highway D14, which would take them towards their objective.

What happens next is unclear, and the source of the first controversy about Ronald Speirs. It appears the group came across some German Prisoners of War and by the time Speirs and his men left, all the German POWs had been shot dead. No-one knows exactly what happened and why, but there are many theories – you can read more about these in the section entitled Controversies.

The Brecourt Manor Assault

After meeting up with many other members of 2nd Battalion, Lieutenant Speirs and his Platoon made their way southeast along Highway D14, heading for Ste Marie-du-Mont and the lower two causeways. The group included paratroopers from many different battalions and regiments and was led by the 2nd Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Robert L Strayer.

By around 7am on the morning of June 6th, as the group neared the village of Le Grand Chemin, they found themselves under fire from enemy machine guns and artillery. It was coming from an unknown artillery battery of four 105mm howitzers supported by multiple machine gun emplacements. Easy Company was ordered to attack and destroy this target.

During the attack, a request made for more ammunition and troopers resulted in reinforcements led by 2nd Lieutenant Speirs and four other members of Dog Company. When they arrived they found only one remaining cannon to be attacked and secured.

Speirs immediately jumped from the security of the trench and attacked across open ground, with his Dog Company men following. Firing his Tommy gun as he charged, he jumped into the last emplacement. Two Germans leapt from the trench and started running toward the rear. Noticing a grenade left by one of the retreating Germans, Speirs quickly pushed it under some mud just as it exploded. The explosion mangled his boot but left him un-injured and he remained combat effective. Speirs has been credited with single-handedly attacking and securing the last 105mm Howitzer of the battery at Brecourt Manor.2

Paratroopers in a French village, Normandy

Paratroopers in a French village, Normandy

Paratroopers pass through a village churchyard, Normandy

Paratroopers pass through a village churchyard, Normandy

US 101st Airborne Division soldiers invade St. Marcouf, France

This action on the morning of D-Day by the members of Easy and Dog Companies would become known as the Brecourt Manor Assault. It is credited with making a large impact on the minimal casualties suffered by the 4th Infantry Division which was landing on Utah Beach. Three of the four 105mm cannons had been firing on Utah Beach – the westernmost of the Allied landing beaches during Operation Overlord.

The fourth cannon had been positioned to defend the other three, and this fourth cannon, had been directed towards the route the US paratroopers had taken as they headed towards Ste Marie-du-Mont and would have attacked them as they made their way down Highway D14.

Later that morning, following the action at Brecourt Manor, Dog Company were able to reach their objective, near Ste Marie-du-Mont. There, they were ordered to take positions near Brucheville at the inland end of Causeway #1. They were to lie in ambush for the retreating Germans who were being driven back by the advancing 4th Infantry Division.

Ste. Marie-du-Mont

Ste. Marcouf

Paratroopers pass through Ste. Marie-du-Mont enroute to Carentan

Paratroopers pass through Ste. Marie-du-Mont enroute to Carentan

Ste. Marie-du-Mont

Ste. Marie-du-Mont

It’s here that the second great controversy surrounding Ronald Speirs was played out. According to a fellow Dog Company member, Art DiMazio, Speirs shot a platoon sergeant dead to avoid the risk of death or serious injury to the rest of the platoon. DiMazio’s eyewitness account does much to explain the context of Speirs’ actions and can be found in the section entitled Controversies.

After securing the causeways, the 101st Airborne were tasked with protecting the southern flank of the 4th Infantry Division as they turned north and began their journey towards to Cherbourg.

St. Come-du-Mont

The night of 6th June found Speirs and the 2nd Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Strayer and gathered at the 506th PIR command post at Hiesville along with members of 1st Battalion. Colonel Robert F Sink, commander of the 506th, gave orders that the following day (D+1), the two battalions were to secure the village of St Come-du-Mont in preparation for the attack on Carentan. This would begin at 0430 hours.

The plan of attack in place, both battalions moved southeast to Vierville where Colonel Sink then split the two battalions. He ordered 2nd Battalion cross-country through fields and 1st Battalion to stay near the road (route D913) where both were told to clear the enemy from their designated area while continuing to move south. The advance by both battalions was slow as the Germans were positioned in many houses and hedgerows along both routes.

At the village of Beaumont, Colonel Sink detached Speirs’ Dog Company from 2nd Battalion and attached it to 1st Battalion. The fighting was becoming more savage and 1st Battalion received help from six Sherman tanks. Encountering fierce fighting for most of the day, Dog Company finally made it to their objective – the crossroads south of St. Come-du-Mont – before being driven back by the Germans.

Falling back to Beaumont for the night, the two Battalions regrouped in preparation for the final assault on St Come-du-Mont the next day (D+2). Lieutenant Speirs’ Dog Company would remain with 1st Battalion and attack St Come-du-Mont from the east while the rest of 2nd Battalion would attack from the north.

Due intense fatigue caused by the fierce fighting the day before and with only one hour’s rest overnight, Speirs’ men stayed on the road bypassing St Come-du-Mont and found themselves heading towards the objective of the previous day – the crossroads south of the village. They repelled enemy attacks numerous times.

After the last of the German counter-attacks was beaten back, the Germans abandoned St Come-du-Mont. The Germans, members of the elite 6th Fallschirmjager Regiment (paratroopers) left via the uncovered western flank of the town and re-grouped to the south in Carentan.3

 

Battle for Carentan

Battle for Carentan

The Battle for Carentan

Now in defensive positions occupying the high ground north of the city of Carentan, the 101st Airborne was given the mission of capturing Carentan to consolidate the beachheads of Omaha and Utah.4 The plan was to encircle Carentan with the 506 PIR closing around from the west. Speirs later wrote, “The importance of the attack can be measured by the presence of Lt General Courtney H. Hodges while the division order was issued.”5 At 2200 hours on 11th June, Colonel Sink ordered 1st and 2nd Battalion to moved out immediately leaving 3rd Battalion in reserve.6

As Speirs led his men, he later noted, “The 2nd platoon of D Company, on the evening of 11th June, had been through six days of violent fighting, after a parachute drop which scattered the platoon over a large area. The platoon was very low in strength because of the many casualties suffered and the men missing from the parachute drop.”7 His own assistant platoon leader had been wounded and evacuated and the strength of the platoon was only 14 men. Speirs wrote, “During the long night airplane flight into Normandy and the six days fighting which followed, the platoon had only one full night of sleep, and the men were physically and mentally affected.”8

Moving in columns of companies with D Company in the rear, 2nd battalion moved slowly down the causeway in single file across the four bridges which span the Douve river and canals. Leaving the road, the battalion then moved across country keeping to the west of the town.9

Several times the companies lost contact with each other and progress was slow and uncertain. Speirs wrote “the slow movement caused the tired men to doze off to sleep when the column stopped, and the officers had to wake men up and urge them forward.”10

At 0100 hours, 2nd battalion stopped astride the Baupte Road and D Company sent out security to the right and left along the road.11 Meanwhile, company commanders were called to the Command Post at 0230 where Speirs noted, “there was much discussion”12 and received their orders for the attack – which would commence at 0600 hours the next day.13

The move into Carentan began with the companies of 2nd battalion moving in a straight line down the main road with D company in the rear.14 Speirs wrote, “There was quite a bit of long-range machine gun fire coming down the road.”15 and “the battalion was being fired on from the houses east of the road to Carentan.”16

Speirs further states, “by 0830 hours the battalion sector was quiet, although firing could still be heard towards the centre of Carentan. D Company was ordered to move into the city and did so, stopping just across the railroad at the intersection of the two main roads from the northwest and southwest.”17

Attack west from Carentan

That afternoon new orders stated that the 506 PIR would attack west from the town of Carentan, its objective – the village of Baupte.18 Four phase lines for the plan of attack had been designated, but listening to the plan with “amazement”19 Speirs – with two of his sergeants and other platoon leaders “felt the company would be fortunate to reach the first.”20 But Speirs noted “the attack was necessary”21 because a “Germen counterattack could pin the Division in the city with the enemy in control of the high ground to the southwest”22

As part of the plan of attack Speirs and his 2nd platoon were to clear the village of Pommenauque of enemy.23 Enroute they met a French civilian who said there were “1000 Germans”24 which Speirs wrote “was unhappy news to battered D Company but the Company pressed on.”25 In any event, no Germans were found and the platoon moved out of the village to rejoin the company. Speirs noted that “by infiltrating the men in rushes across the open fields, the platoon reached the shelter of the railroad embankment with no casualties.”26

Speirs’ 2nd platoon now moved up the railroad falling behind 3rd platoon, who had made contact with the enemy and were pinned down by heavy machine gun and rife fire – but as Speirs noted “no progress was made.” 27That evening D Company was issued orders to pull back along the railroad and rejoin the battalion to consolidate for the night.28

Once back with the Battalion, Speirs and a company captain made a reconnaissance of the D Company area and decided to put outposts at the junction of the hedgerows as a security precaution and to allow the rest of the men to sleep.29As night crept in, Speirs noticed a squad of soldiers running along the road and initially thought them a friendly patrol – only to realise they were Germans passing the company’s flank and headed for the battalion reserve line. Speirs ran to warn the battalion30 and the patrol was successfully driven off.

Company commanders received their orders at 2300 hours that the attack towards Baupte would resume at dawn – 13th June – and it was decided Speirs’ 2nd platoon would be given the mission of capturing a house where a German patrol had been seen.31Speirs “briefed his men and then tried to get some sleep without too much success, even though extremely tired.”32

German Counter Attack on Carentan

Starting their mission, Speirs lined his men along the hedgerow facing down a gentle slope at the bottom of which was an orchard though which the house – subject to an earlier bombardment of heavy fire which had set the roof ablaze – could be seen.33Speirs noted “the platoon looked anxiously toward the house.”34

Crossing the hedgerow “as skirmishers” 35Speirs and his men moved though the trees just as a heavy mortar and artillery concentration landed and one of Speirs’ riflemen was struck and wounded, while back up the road the same barrage killed a radio operator and wounded another man.36

Vaulting a stone wall which surround the house, Speirs and his platoon found themselves in an empty court yard. Looking back up the hill Speirs saw German soldiers running along the hedgerow they had just left. 37 Quickly mounting a machine gun which fired through a gate in the stone wall and firing the automatic rifle “heavy fire was rained on this threat.” 38The enemy returned fire, but the stone wall protected the platoon.

Sending four riflemen to other parts of the wall which faced open fields towards the enemy held west, a sudden shower of grenades rained down from the left where the view was obscured by the hedgerow and orchard. The rifleman was killed and Speirs struck by small fragments. Moments later a machine gun began firing from the hill at the platoon machine gunner who was killed and the machine gun rendered useless.39

In the immediate vicinity, positioned on the road – another D Company platoon was coming under fierce pressure which resulted in the battalion executive officer issuing an order for D Company to fall back.40 Elsewhere, F Company was thrown back by a savage tank-infantry attack which drove them back to the battalion reserve line where E Company had deployed along the road. The battalion command post house was now on the front line and had been converted into an aid station to accommodate the casualties that now poured in.41

Meanwhile, Speirs and his 2nd Platoon, still in the courtyard of the house they had been tasked to capture – were cut off, isolated, and running low on ammunition.42

The attack of the 506 PIR at dawn exactly coincided with the attack of the 17 SS Panzer Grenadiers and the 6th Parachute Regiment and “the attack stopped the American regiment in its tracks.”43

Taking cover behind the stone walls of the courtyard, Speirs and his men avoided “flat trajectory fire”44but hand grenades striking inside the courtyard hit one of the riflemen just as enemy soldiers burst out of the trees in front of 2nd Platoon. Speirs later wrote, “they were paratroopers.”45 Mounting a successful defence with aimed rifle fire, 2nd Platoon eliminated the Germans before they could reach the walls.

Recognising there was “no protection against grenades in the courtyard” 46coupled with the fact that the burning house was “throwing out suffocating heat and smoke”47 Speirs made the decision to withdraw. Moving down a ditch in single file – 2nd platoon was able to rejoin the battalion line.48

Back in the battalion area, Speirs noted that “the situation had not improved.”49 F Company had fallen back again and D Company was now filling in the gap between E and F Companies.50

Relief by 2nd Armored Division

Colonel Sink was well aware of the precarious situation of the battalion and had asked for aid which resulted in the 2nd Battalion of the 502 PIR being rushed to the area.51However, unbeknownst to him – more help was on the way. At 1400 hours the Sherman tanks of the 2nd Armored Division rumbled through the battalion lines, accompanied by armored infantrymen.52Speirs wrote “that was a beautiful sight to the battered 2nd Battalion.”53

The tank-infantry team was able to move forward all the way to Baupte, the original objective of the 506 PIR. The 2nd Battalion, along with the rest of the regiment, was relieved and moved into division reserve in Carentan.54

After taking control of Carentan, the 101st Airborne was relieved from the front lines by the 83rd Infantry Division. They were sent to bivouac at Tollevast near Cherbourg until they could be sent back to England. They moved to Utah Beach on 10thJuly and returned to England on LSTs (Landing Ship, Tanks) between 11th– 13th July, 1944.

According to Speirs’ military records, an SOG report shows he was wounded in June and spent 9 days in hospital. He received his first bronze star for wounds sustained during the period 6th – 13th June, 1944.

The full monograph Speirs wrote – which formed part of the Advanced Infantry Officers Course (1948 – 1949), Fort Benning, Georgia, entitled, ‘ The Operations of the 2D Platoon D Company, 506th Parachute Infantry (101st Airborne Division) in the vicinity of Carentan, France 11th – 13th June 1944 (Normandy Campaign) – can be found in the Reports section of the website.

 

  1. Rendezvous with Destiny, by Rapport & Norwood – pg 99
  2. Band of Brothers by S Ambrose – Pg 78-83.
  3. Rendezvous with Destiny by Rapport & Norwood – pg 137-159

The Battle of Carentan
Source material: The Operations of the 2d Platoon, D Company by Captain Speirs
Reference:
4, page 6
5,6, page 7
7,8, page 10
9,10,11,12, page 14
13,14,15,16 page 15
16, page 17

Attack west from Carentan
Source material: The Operations of the 2d Platoon, D Company by Captain Speirs
Reference:
18,19,20,21 page 16
22,23,24,25,26 page 17
27 page 18
28,29 page 19
30, page 20
31,32 page 21

German Counter Attack on Carentan
Source material: The Operations of the 2d Platoon, D Company by Captain Speirs
Reference:
33,34,35,36,37,38, page 22
39, page 23
40,41,43 page 23
44,45,46,47 page 24
48,49,50 page 25

Relief by 2nd Armored Division
Source material: The Operations of the 2d Platoon, D Company by Captain Speirs
Reference:
51, page 25
52,53,54 page 26