Friday, November 15, 2013

Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force-June 15, 1944


General Eisenhower announces that Allied forces will be withdrawn from the Normandy beachhead beginning today due to the heavy allied losses and defeats. With the British and Canadian beachheads already evacuated, the small American beachhead has been under constant counter-attack and bombardment by German Panzer Forces. Remaining troops will be withdrawn as soon as possible. General Eisenhower has submitted his resignation to the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff....

Although this press release is of course fictitious it very possibly could have come true if not for the courage of one British Airborne soldier, his PIAT, and one PIAT round.

It was the morning of June 6th 1944. D Company, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, along with attached troops had landed by glider and had seized and held the vital bridges over the Caen Canal and the Orne River, along with a vital crossroads known as the “T-junction”.

Although well equipped their sole means of repelling German Armored advances was the dreaded PIAT. The PIAT was a short-range infantry anti-tank weapon. It had numerous shortcomings one of which was the inability to reload quickly. PIAT gunners had a saying, “hit it with the first shot because you won’t get a second.”

The commanding officer, Major John Howard, knew that they would likely face a German counter-attack and hoped he and his men would not have to fight Panzers with only PIAT’s and small arms.

Major Howard started receiving reports of German armor approaching his position. They were moving the vital “T-junction” which served as the main arterial road from Benouville to Le port, and then on to Caen and the invasion beaches. Approaching the British positions were 6 Tanks, a force of German infantry that outnumbered the British 4 to 1, and a battery of 88′s.

In his defensive position was Sgt. “Wagger” Thornton, who had the one remaining operable PIAT and two PIAT rounds. The “Ox and Bucks” held their fire so as to not reveal their positions, hoping to lure the leading German MK IV tank into the killing zone. Sgt. Thornton coolly waited until the tank was well within range and fired. The PIAT round struck the front of the tank almost dead center, penetrated the interior, and set off all of the ammunition inside. The German forces withdrew reporting that the British troops had heavy anti-tank guns set up at the Bridge. The German tank then sat in the middle of the “T-junction” blocking movement for any other heavy vehicles, effectively preventing the use of this vital road for any German counter-attacks.

What if Sargeant Thornton had missed? Surely the superior numbers and armor would have overwhelmed the lightly-armed British Airborne forces. The rest of 6th Airborne Division would have been hard pressed to stop a determined German attack. The paratroops were scattered and at the time of Sgt. Thornton’s action were just starting to form into effective fighting units.

Colonel Von Luck, commander of the German 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, stated that if he had had use of the “T-junction” and bridges he could have supported the attack on the British beach-heads by the 21st Panzer Division. Such an attack would have succeeded if the Germans had sufficient troops, which the 125th would have provided. Of course if the German 21st Panzer Division had succeeded in penetrating to the British and Canadian beach-heads the landing would have become a debacle and likely a second “Dieppe”. If the Commonwealth landings had failed we can also argue that the bulk of the German armored force, which was used to defend the Caen region from the British and Canadians, would have then been free to encircle the American beachheads and similarly annihilate them. Something else to consider is the enormous casualties endured by the British and Canadian forces in Normandy facing the German panzers. This was due to the fact that the Allies even in 1944 did not have a tank capable of consistently defeating the front-line German tanks. With the bulk of the German armor now facing the Americans and with criminally poor anti-tank weapons the Americans would have been decimated like the Canadians were later around Caen.


  1. While he was certainly brave, I dunno if the Brit Thornton and his piat can be credited with saving the entire invasion from annihilation. Remember, the allies had almost complete air superiority by that time, and just about anytime german armor moved out of cover it was getting shredded by thunderbolts and typhoons. My two cents...

    1. It's like fighting Gettysburg for the billionth time with all the "ifs." :)