The responsibility of securing the western flank of the D-Day invasion was the task of the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. It would be the biggest drop onto enemy occupied territory in history. 13,000 men left England in a colossal sky train of nearly 500 transport planes. This is the market town of Saint Mere Eglise and was at the heart of the whole operation. It’s located on a strategic crossroads and was the main route in and out of American landing beaches of Utah and Omaha. It’s capture was vital to the whole plan. Nowadays it’s almost impossible to imagine what happened around this church during the early hours of D-Day.
The planes came over Cherbourg at 150mph. Those towing gliders released them while the rest went into a sharp descent to drop the paratroopers at the near suicidal height of 300 feet. They were scattered across the fields and farms and the men in the gliders fared little better. Dozens of the flimsy aircraft disintegrated on landing causing horrendous injuries and loss of life to those inside. Many of the parachutes failed to open. Others did open but the men landed in fields that had been deliberately flooded and never made it out of the mud. Dropping behind element lines was just about as bad as it gets in terms of risk and the Allied commanders had secretly planned for 80% losses among the ranks of the Airborne divisions.
Moments before the 101st left the airfields of southern England, the Dwight Eisenhower was heard to say “It’s hard a to look a man in the face when you fear you are sending him to his death” The story of Sainte Mere Eglise is known around the world as the town where that dummy paratrooper is hanging from the church roof. It looks like a joke, but it’s far from that. It’s been there since the making of ‘The Longest Day’ the epic Hollywood blockbuster that told the story of D-Day.
Following the drop a vicious hand to hand fight took place here in the square and a church, of all places, was at the centre of the battle. Churches, for lots of us, conjure up images of Christenings, weddings and Carol Services not really desperate struggles for survival. Actually, the church for centuries has been in the middle of a battlefield. From its early beginnings after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the first Christians have found themselves persecuted and slaughtered. In so many situations, the Christian church has provided a place of peace, hope and safety to those caught up in the whirlwind of war.
So what about the dummy paratrooper up there on the roof, what’s it all about? It commemorates the experience of one of those Airborne paratroopers, a man called John Steele. He came down above the square and go caught on the steeple of the church. Actually the dummy is on the wrong side, but that’s Hollywood for you. Steele was wounded in the foot by a piece of shrapnel as his chute opened and he began his short descent towards this church. Struggling to get his bearings in the danger and the darkness the glow from a burning building was his navigation aid.
Disorientated in the smoke, he crashed onto the church roof and was unable to cut himself free. He hung there, paralysed with terror, helpless as a puppet and completely at the mercy of the Germans. The hours passed by and he played dead and prayed as he watched in horror the slaughter in the square below. Finally, two snipers positioned in the bell tower, spotted him. They cut the lines of his parachute and he was taken prisoner along with 6 other Americans. Four days later, he escaped by sneaking through a window and as was evacuated back to England to the same airfield he had taken off from. Quite a week.
Among those who jumped into combat that night were the men of Easy Company from the 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. They were immortalised in the TV series, Band of Brothers. They carried these words on their combat jackets “We Stand Alone Together” it’s a rough translation of the old Cherokee word ‘Currahee’ the name given to a mountain back home in Georgia where they trained together for battle. ‘Band of Brothers’ three words that seem to resonate with a lot of guys. It speaks of a shared journey, together in adversity, the spirit of a warrior, the heart of a lion and safety in numbers. You may not know but there’s a Band of Brothers in the Bible. A bunch of roughnecks far more familiar with manual labour than sitting in church on a Sunday.
A group of men handpicked by Jesus and called together into a purpose that was bigger than any of them. Grafted into a divine mission to lift the fallen, fight for the oppressed, free the prisoners, befriend the rejected, love the lonely and fill the earth with the Good News of a God who has relentlessly loved this world and the people in it. When the 101st Airborne Divisions jumped on D-Day they carried equipment weighing 70lbs. Tragically, for some of them, that was why they drowned in the flooded fields. Amongst the standard equipment of food rations, ammunition, water, maps and morphine, was one of these. It was called a cricket because it looked and sounded like one.
Most of those assault troops figured it was better suited to a kid’s toy box than the kit bag of an elite paratrooper assigned to a combat unit. In the pitch darkness of the Normandy countryside each man needed a way of identifying the other men. One click would be responded to by two clicks. Simple enough if it wasn’t for a tragic coincidence. The two click sound of the Airborne cricket matched perfectly the sound of the standard issue German assault rifle being cocked ready to fire. The soldier who made the one click signal stood up in response to the two click reply believing it was another paratrooper only to be shot dead by a soldier defending the towns around the Drop Zone.
According to tradition, the early Christians who lived through the horrific persecution by the Roman Empire in the first few centuries after Christ had a way of marking safe houses and distinguishing between friend and foe. The simple outline of a fish was how they did it. When a Christians met a stranger on the road, they would draw one arc of the simple outline shape in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both of them knew they were in good company.
The Christian life is a lot more like a battlefield than a rose garden. When you become a follower of Jesus you embark on the adventure of a lifetime but it isn’t always easy. Jesus said that trouble will come our way. I’m not a Christian because I get warm feelings in my heart in churches, ones with paratroopers hanging off the roof or ones without. I’m a Christian because Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.
“As I lay there I thought of the awfulness of it all. We are made in God's image, but we are were trying to kill each other.”