Robert M. Murphy’s No Better Place to Die provides readers with an honest portrayal of small-unit combat during the opening days of the Normandy campaign. The action centers around the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment’s (PIR) D-Day mission to seize and hold the La Fiere bridge, over the Merderet River in the vicinity of Ste. Maire Eglise, France. Murphy participated in the initial airborne assault as a pathfinder responsible for establishing a drop zone for the regiment and subsequently as a member of A Company, 505th PIR in the action around La Fiere. Despite Murphy’s own participation in the action, he does an excellent job placing the battle in the larger context of the 82nd Airborne Division’s role in the invasion. He takes pains to discuss the perspectives of American airborne regiments in the fight to take and hold the La Fiere bridge.
The book begins with a discussion of the 82ndAirborne’s mission to seize key terrain behind Utah beach to make room for American amphibious forces to move inland after the seaborne invasion and prevent a German counterattack on the beachhead. He goes on to discuss the D-Day mission of each of the 82nd’s regiments and explains how a series of poorly executed drops caused the paratroopers to land widely scattered, throwing the detailed plan into confusion. He does recount with quiet pride how his own regiment conducted the only nearly flawless drop of the night, allowing the 505th to quickly mass combat power and achieve its initial objectives. Murphy’s company achieved its D-Day objective of seizing a bridge near La Fiere causeway over the Merderet River. The German flooded the river, making the bridge only the first objective needed to hold the river crossing. Murphy goes on the explain how American forces from multiple regiments assembled in the vicinity of the bridge, along with the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, Major General Mathew Ridgway, and his principal assistant Brigadier General Jim Gavin.
Murphy excels at describing the sights and sounds of the battle as a result of his own experiences. He makes it easy for the reader to understand the tactics of fire and maneuver employed by the paratroopers as well as how the German defenders made skillful use of terrain to conceal their positions. It is axiomatic that battle is chaos and most combatants have only the most restricted view of what is happening around them. Murphy overcomes this confusion in his narrative by extensively citing sources that discuss the perspectives of other paratroopers of his own unit, as well as those that deal with other regiments that fought in the vicinity of La Fiere. Murphy’s great pride in being a member of the 505th PIR is evident as he discusses his unit’s combat performance, however not at the expense of other units. He does not denigrate the fighting qualities of the 505th’s sister regiments, but he does take pains to correct what he perceives as any inconsistencies regarding the 505th. When one 508th PIR trooper recollected that the 505th hung back during the assault on a German defensive position in the vicinity of La Fiere bridge, Murphy defends his regiment and points out that the 505thhad been fighting to take the position for hours prior to the arrival of the 508th.
Murphy goes on the describe the concerted actions of the parachute infantry, reinforced by the 325th Glider Infantry to defend La Fiere bridge against German counterattacks while also making multiple attempts to cross the much longer causeway over the Merdert River to defeat or destroy German forces massed around the village of Cauquigny, and take the additional objectives of Amfreville. He provides the point of view of the German defenders as well as the American forces and highlights the aggressive leadership of Generals Gavin and Ridgway. In this manner, Murphy gives the reader an overall view of the fierce fighting to take the causeway.
The book is very well illustrated with black and white pictures of the terrain around the causeway, period photos of the combatants, and plentiful maps that do an excellent job of providing a visual representation of how the battle played out. Murphy provides footnotes with supplemental details and an excellent set of appendices that contain additional historical documentation regarding the history of the 505th PIR.
No Better Place to Die is an excellent memoir of a combat paratrooper, a great description of small unit tactics against a fixed position, and an inspiring story of leadership. I highly recommend it to serious students of the 82nd Airborne Divisions and the Normandy campaign, as well as readers with a more general interest in World War Two.
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