1st Lt. Jimmie Monteith was a young 26 year old Virginian who landed on Omaha Beach in one of the initial assaults on D-Day June 6, 1944. Without regard for his personal safety he led his men with courage and gallantry under intense enemy fire and vicious counter attacks. Military historian Casey Brower tells Monteith’s story about his intrepid leadership and bravery above and beyond the call of duty.
“This Man Was Good”: Lt. Jimmie Monteith and Opening the Cabourg Draw on D-Day
By Casey Brower
June 6, 1944 was a day marked by extraordinary valor however only four men received the Medal of Honor for their actions on D-Day. One of them was a 26-year old lieutenant from Virginia named Jimmie W. Monteith, Jr., L Company, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, in recognition for his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty” in operations to open the Cabourg draw, the easternmost of the exits off Omaha Beach.
As a young Armor lieutenant in 1969 I was a platoon leader in the 4thArmored Division’s 2nd Battalion of the 37th Armor, stationed outside of Nuremberg, Germany. I was mindful of the storied history of the 37th Armor in the breakout and pursuit across France and the relief of Bastogne. “Thunderbolt 6,” Colonel Creighton Abrams’ command Sherman tank stationed outside our headquarters, provided a constant reminder. Occupied by Monteith’s 16th Infantry Regiment after Nazi Germany’s surrender, our barracks had been named to honor him.
Those with whom I served in the 37th Armor were proud of this legacy but occupied by duties on the Cold War European frontlines, with many expecting our next assignment would be to combat in Vietnam. After Vietnam service, the Army selected me for graduate studies in preparation for teaching history at West Point. Over time as a military historian I truly gained an appreciation for the remarkable Monteith. Let me share his story with you.
Born in Low Moor, Virginia in 1917 and raised in Richmond, the 6’2”, red-headed and fun-loving Monteith attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute, hoping to follow his father’s path and study mechanical engineering. The distractions of college life proved too much for Monteith, who was an inattentive student and gave up his studies. In a later letter to his family, he confessed that he regretted his “educational failure” and especially the “disappointment” he caused his father. It was “one of things I would change if I had it to do over.” But apparently harsh experience had been a good teacher. After all, he wrote, “my, shall we say, informal education has been good” and “I have seen a lot of this thing they call life.” And he would soon be seeing a lot more.
Drafted in 1941, he found the challenges of army life motivating, and earned a commission as an infantry officer at Fort Benning in June 1942. Initially posted to the 30th Infantry Division, he later transferred to the 1st Infantry Division, “The Big Red One.” The young lieutenant was assigned as a platoon leader in L Company, 16th Infantry Regiment and participated in the invasion of Sicily and the subsequent hard fighting against the Herman Goering Panzer Division, earning a reputation for bravery and tactical competence and receiving a field promotion to first lieutenant in September 1943.
When General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed the Supreme Commander for OVERLORD in December 1943, he quickly ensured that the 1st Infantry Division would play a central role in the D-Day assault. The assessment of historian John McManus that Ike and the American high command perceived the Big Red One as “the first string, tempestuous perhaps but talented and dedicated, a go-to outfit” is surely on target. Ike would call the 16th Infantry Regiment his “Praetorian Guard.” “I would not have started the invasion without you,” he told the 16th’s soldiers.
The Big Red One spent seven months in Dorset in southwest England training for the Omaha Beach assault, honing individual and unit combat skills, and stepping up the level and tempo of preparations for what would be its third combat amphibious assault. Monteith’s correspondence reveals pride and confidence in the readiness of his unit, his soldiers, and his own leadership skills. “I would not change [my duty position] if I were given the chance,” he wrote. “As for the 1st Division, every time I look at the shoulder insignia (the red one) I get a thrill—there is no better fighting unit in the world. . . .There is a great feel of satisfaction one gets within oneself.”
Crescent-shaped and flanked by imposing cliffs east and west, Omaha Beach stretched four and a half miles, watched over by bluffs that dominated the beach area and mostly crested at an inland plateau. The eastern end faced a more gradual slope and a less sharply defined ridge. Five draws offered rudimentary vehicular exits off the beaches onto the plateau and to the villages beyond: Cabourg, Colleville-sur-Mer, St. Laurent-sur-Mer, and Vierville-sur-Mer. Bristling German defenses had been emplaced to deny these beach exits and thus any lodgment to the allied invasion. The success of Operation Overlord depended on opening these exits.
Two Regimental Combat Teams were task-organized around the 29th Infantry Division’s 116th Infantry Regiment in the west and the 1st Infantry Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment in the east to lead the Omaha Beach assault elements. Their boundary had been drawn at Omaha’s mid-point between the Les Moulins and Ruquet Valley exits. The 16th’s 3rd Battalion—I, K, L and M companies—were to assault Fox Green (see map). They had the mission of opening the Colleville draw and then pivoting eastward through Cabourg and Le Grand Hameau to Huppain to establish contact with the Second British Army. The 3rd Battalion would be the easternmost unit in the Omaha Beach assault, with I Company and L Company first landing abreast, to be quickly reinforced by K and M Companies arriving in column. H-Hour was established at 0630 hours.
The plan went badly from the beginning. Strong easterly currents, difficult seas, smoke and mists, and other frictions of war pushed almost the entire Omaha Beach assault force inexorably eastward, scattering the carefully orchestrated landing plan and badly disrupting unit integrity.
The 3rd Battalion’s landing proved to be a tardy and piecemeal affair. I Company got disoriented, first attempting to land 6000 yards east near Port-en-Bessin in the British sector before finally backtracking and arriving at Fox Red at 0800 hours. A hasty attempt by K Company to fill-in was also delayed. Only Monteith’s L Company landed relatively intact, although arriving thirty minutes late and alone on Fox Red, a thousand yards east of its designated landing spot.
Five of company commander Captain John Armellino’s six assault landing craft made it to the beach. Soldiers then picked their way through the German obstacle belt, crossed two hundred yards of rocky beach in the face of heavy direct and indirect fires, and sought temporary shelter in a cliff area on the edge of the beach. About 125 men of the 200-man company made the cliffs. Quite remarkably, disparate elements of the 29th Infantry Division’s E Company, 116th Infantry Regiment, landed with them some 3500 yards east of their own planned landing beach, and joined them for the fight.
The Cabourg draw had not figured prominently in the calculations of the OVERLORD planners; indeed, it was the least useful of the five exits from Omaha Beach with only an irregular dirt path tracing its way to the plateau above. Controlled by the formidable German resistance nest WN-60 that anchored the eastern edge of the Omaha Beach defenses and even vulnerable to fires from the largely westward-oriented WN-61, the Cabourg draw was infested with multiple strands of barbed wire and minefields, all observed and covered by fires. WN-60’s dominating position 130 feet above the beach presented a devilish array of concrete emplacements, mortar, machine gun and tank turret-mounted Tobruks, a 75-millimeter antitank gun and a 20-millimeter flak gun. Trenches connected all and linked them to observation posts and inland artillery. It was occupied by forty German soldiers, who possessed a commanding view of the full length of Omaha Beach.
The lee of the cliffs on Fox Red beneath WN-60 provided only illusory cover for L Company, as the rising tide and pre-registered German mortar fires created clear urgency to move. Resisting the tendency of soldiers under fire to go to ground and stay there, L Company’s leaders resolved to attack up the draw. To the west of the cliffs was a six-foot embankment leading into the draw but blocked by barbed wire and minefields. While the draw was under close German observation and fires, its uneven terrain and hedgerows offered some cover and concealment for advancing forces. Two “deep-wading” Shermans from A Company, 741st Tank Battalion were also on Fox Red. Captain Armellino was seriously wounded when he attempted to cross the fire-swept beach to coordinate their fires in support of the assault.
Leading by example, Lieutenant Jimmie Monteith, the leader of the second boat section at the front of the L Company attack, then plunged, in the words of one of his men, “right through the thick of the fire to the tanks and got them into action.” Returning through the bracing fire to his men, he organized the breaching of the barbed wire with a Bangalore torpedo and safely negotiated his men through the minefields. The section soon was engaged in a fierce fight with German defenders of WN-60 to their left. In the face of heavy fire, Monteith returned to the two tanks and led them through the mined area, positioning their main gun and machine gun fire to destroy the German machine guns and pillboxes holding up the advance.
On the right flank of Monteith’s section, other L Company boat sections were also advancing aggressively up the draw and engaging in numerous small, fierce firefights dictated by the terrain. After 0800 hours, follow-on elements from I and K Company were organized by the charismatic Captain Kimball Richmond and they too pushed up the draw, brushing aside German pockets of resistance. Supported by accurate fires from the destroyer USS Doyle and the battalion’s organic mortars from the beach, Richmond’s force established contact with L Company, now positioned at a trail junction about six hundred yards inland and to the rear of WN-60. By late morning, the 3rd Battalion had greatly neutralized WN-60’s direct fires on the beaches, established an inland lodgment, and was in business with patrols scouting toward Le Grand Hameau and Cabourg.
As midday began, a series of German counterattacks struck Monteith’s section in the hedgerow area east of the trail junction. Moving around in the hedgerows and employing automatic weapons with great skill, the Germans surrounded Monteith’s men and called for their surrender. In response, one of his sergeants reported, his lieutenant moved to the sound of the voices and fired a rifle grenade at one of the machine guns. “He stood in full view at 40 yards, and the first shot fell short. The full fire of the gun was turned upon him, but he held his position and fired the second grenade to knock out the position.”
After a short lull, more machine gun fire pummeled their position. Establishing a squad of riflemen to provide suppressing fire, Monteith maneuvered himself into position to destroy the gun with hand grenades. He then crossed a field two hundred yards behind their position to engage another machine gun with rifle grenades, either killing the crew or forcing it to abandon the gun. When enemy fires reheated again in the east, the indefatigable infantry lieutenant turned back across the field towards the sound of the guns and his men but died in a hail of well-aimed machine gun fire.
Lieutenant Monteith would not have been surprised to learn that his boat section and L Company would continue to successfully repulse the German counterattacks of the afternoon of 6 June, inflicting many casualties. He would have appreciated that through L Company’s initiatives, WN-60’s threat to the beaches had been neutralized. He also would have been proud that with Captain Richmond’s leadership elements of the battalion had expanded L Company’s lodgment east to Le Grand Hameau. Indeed, as D-Day ended, the easternmost flank of Omaha Beach was secure.
“The battlefield is cold,” wrote S.L.A. Marshall about the isolation of combat. “It is the lonesomest place which men share together.” In battle, danger paralyzes. Soldiers seek reassurance by bunching up and taking cover. Inaction and passivity are the norm—and effective leadership in combat is thus a highly emulative activity. Leaders like Lieutenant Jimmie Monteith understood that the power of example was most influential in such situations and that the willingness of leaders to accept risk and sacrifice was often necessary to stimulate their soldiers to do the same. Such leaders conferred a sense of protection on their soldiers. Leaders who took care of their soldiers, who met their tactical needs through their own competence and skills and who led from the front sustained “the mysterious fraternity” that is the cohesion of combat units. Such was the story of Lieutenant Jimmie Monteith during his desperate battle on the isolated eastern corner of Omaha Beach.
For their actions on D-Day, the Army awarded 153 Distinguished Service Crosses, its second highest award for valor, to servicemen on Omaha Beach alone. For recommendations for awards for such extraordinary courage, units had to assemble especially detailed supporting evidence that included as much eye-witness testimony as possible. Packets were reviewed by higher headquarters before consideration by an evaluation board of three senior officers. As Omaha Beach historian Joseph Balkoski has reported, some Medal of Honor recommendations were downgraded to DSC’s by the officer evaluation board. It is very clear that the Army took the Medal of Honor’s stated requirement for gallantry at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty very seriously.
Lieutenant Monteith’s Medal of Honor recommendation packet seemed destined for this experience. In November 1944, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, appended a note on Monteith’s award packet and passed it to Eisenhower for decision, noting that the V Corps commander, the First Army Commander, and the 12thArmy Group Commander, all recommended the Distinguished Service Cross. “I concur with them,” he wrote.
Eisenhower quickly answered: “Bedell: You are mistaken. Bradley recommends the Medal of Honor [for Lieutenant Monteith], and I must say the thing looks like a Medal of Honor for me. This man was good.”
Lieutenant Jimmie W. Monteith, Jr. is buried in the peaceful American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach. Inscribed with the gold lettering that honors Medal of Honor winners, his white marble headstone stands democratically among other heroes in Section I, Row 20, Grave 12.
Note on Sources: For this essay I relied especially upon the riveting and brilliant history of the 1st Infantry Division on D-Day, The Dead and Those About to Die. D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach by John McManus (2015) and the amazing, must-be-read Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Joseph Balkoski (2004). I also found perceptive insights into Monteith’s life before D-Day in Clara B. Cox’s article, “Jimmie Monteith: An American Hero,” Virginia Tech Magazine (Summer 2009).
About Charles Brower, Ph.D.
A graduate of West Point, Brigadier General Charles (Casey) Brower, USA, Ret. received a Master of Arts degree in American History and a Doctorate in diplomatic and strategic history from the University of Pennsylvania. Among assignments over his Army career he served in Germany, Vietnam, and as Army Aide to President Ronald Reagan. He has taught history and strategy at West Point, the Naval War College, and the Virginia Military Institute and has led groups to Normandy and other European battlefields for over three decades. Casey has published books and articles on American history and World War II. He is the former Deputy Superintendent for Academics and Dean of the Faculty and Professor Emeritus of International Studies and Political Science at VMI.