The purpose of the midnight airborne operations (Operation Neptune) which preceded the early morning amphibious landings of D-Day (Operation Overlord) was to capture key towns, access roads and bridges, so that infantry forces could progress further inland with minimal German resistance or counterattack. The 82nd and 101st American Airborne Divisions were tasked with securing and protecting the right flank of the allied landing forces of Utah Beach. Heavy cloud cover and intense German anti-aircraft fire caused the majority of the paratroopers to miss their intended drop zones, many not able to locate their units until days later. Sainte-Mère-Eglise was one of a number of towns strategically targeted for capture that morning, because it was on a major route that the Germans would have used for a counterattack. In fact, it was the first town liberated on D-Day, at approximately 5am.
A dramatic situation occurred in the center of the town, as 82nd Airborne paratroopers who missed their dropped zone just west of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, landed around the town’s main square and church. A bucket brigade of French locals was putting out a house fire on the east side of the church, the fire itself illuminating the area sufficiently for German and Austrian ground troops to shoot at and bayonet landing paratroopers. One soldier, John Steele of the 505th PIR, caught his parachute on the spire of the church and dangled for a couple of hours pretending to be dead. The Germans took him prisoner after which he escaped to rejoin his division. The event was recreated in The Longest Day.