The objective for the American 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions was Omaha beach, a long, gently curving stretch of coastline. Approaching from the sea, the beach ended on the right with massive cliffs. Four miles further round to the west was the Pointe du Hoc promontory. This was where a battalion of Rangers had to scale a sheer cliff to silence a German battery.
The main strip of beach rose gently to a bank of shingle up against a low sea wall. Beyond the sea wall was a short stretch of marshy grassland and just above that stood a steep sandy bluff covered in seagrass. These bluffs, ranging from 100 to 150 feet in height, dominated the whole bay. Along this low escarpment from left to right lay three villages, Colleville-sur-Mer, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer. The heights were accessible through five steeply rising valleys, or ‘draws’. These offered the only places where vehicles could be driven off the beach, and the entrances to the openings were covered by German strongpoints and gun emplacements. This was why Captain Scott-Bowden had warned General Bradley that Omaha was a formidable position to attack.
General Leonard T. Gerow, the commander of V Corps, had wanted to begin the operation at low tide, under cover of darkness. Rommel had ordered the construction of the most fearsome system of underwater obstacles against landing craft, with mined stakes, hedgehogs made out of steel girders and rectangular constructions known as ‘Belgian gates’. Gerow argued that combat engineers and naval demolition teams should have time to clear channels to the beach at low tide without being under direct fire. He was supported by his most senior subordinates and Admiral John L. Hall, who commanded the task force. But Eisenhower, Montgomery and Bradley all insisted on an attack at 06.30 hours, half an hour after dawn. The assault would be preceded by a massive aerial and naval bombardment. The invasion commanders believed that this combination would achieve tactical surprise and overwhelm the defenders. In any case, they could not risk the assault on one beach starting several hours before the others.
Gerow’s original plan was to assault Omaha with two divisions, the 1st Division on the left and the 29th Division on the right, under his command. Bradley, however, had much greater confidence in the 1st Division, the ‘Big Red One’, and in its outstanding commander, General Clarence R. Huebner. Their experience and combat effectiveness from opposed landings in the Mediterranean were unequalled. So Bradley made Huebner the commander and simply attached the 116th Regimental Combat Team from the 29th Division.
Bradley felt that ‘Gee’ Gerow, who had not yet commanded a large formation in battle, had been given command of the corps only because of his friendship with Eisenhower. Gerow, however, feared that the bombing and naval bombardment might not work, and he remained unconvinced even after Eisenhower assured him that ‘the greatest firepower ever assembled on the face of the earth’ would be supporting him. Events were to prove Gerow right. He shared his concerns before the invasion with the military analyst Basil Liddell Hart ‘about whether the importance of the unexpected was sufficiently considered in our planning’.
The first landing craft carrying the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division and the 16th Infantry of the 1st Division had set off from their mother ships at 05.20 hours. They had over an hour’s journey in heavy seas to land on the beach at H-Hour. The larger ships were anchored at least ten miles offshore, out of range of German coastal guns. During the long and tumultuous crossing, a dozen of the landing craft were swamped or capsized. Fifteen minutes later, two companies of the 741st Tank Battalion, which were to support the 1st Infantry Division, launched their DD Shermans 5,000 yards out from the shore.
Captain Scott-Bowden, as Bradley had promised in January, was back in an assault pilotage role with Sergeant Ogden-Smith. Scott-Bowden’s pilot boat had a crew of three, a US Navy lieutenant, a coxswain and a Mexican-American sailor manning a quadruple pom-pom gun. The lieutenant on Scott-Bowden’s craft suddenly drew his attention to the fact that the LCTs had stopped at 5,000 yards out to launch their tanks. Scott-Bowden was horrified. ‘It’s far too rough,’ he said. ‘They should go right in.’ He later described the decision to launch the 741st Tank Battalion’s Shermans at that distance as ‘absolutely insane’.
Twenty-seven of their tanks out of thirty-two foundered and sank. Only two reached the beach through the water. Three more could not be launched because the ramp jammed, so the landing craft took them all the way in to the beach. Altogether thirty-three tank crewmen drowned. The rest were rescued later. Those of the 743rd Tank Battalion who reached the shore owed their survival to the fact that both army and navy officers decided to take the rest of them all the way in. Major General Percy Hobart, the mastermind behind the amphibious tank, told Liddell Hart ten days later that ‘the Americans bungled their use’. But whether the DD tank was the right answer to the problem of infantry support on the restricted space of Omaha remains a matter for debate.
When still some way offshore, Scott-Bowden and the crew became aware of the 329 heavy American bombers coming in from behind them. To their dismay they saw that the bombs were falling well beyond the top of the ridge. None hit the beach or the German positions guarding the beach exits. ‘That’s a fat lot of use,’ Scott-Bowden said angrily to the lieutenant. ‘All it’s done is wake them up.’ In the thirty minutes preceding H-Hour, the Liberators and Fortresses of the Eighth Air Force dropped 13,000 bombs, but none fell on Omaha beach.
The US Army Air Corps had made wildly optimistic claims about their ‘precision bombing’. Unfortunately Montgomery, who grabbed at any opportunity which might save the lives of his ground troops, accepted the idea without question and abandoned the British doctrine of night landings. Both he and Bradley seemed oblivious to the fact that the heavy bombing formations remained incapable of dropping the majority of their load within a five-mile radius of their target.
The bomber formations appeared at 06.05 hours. They flew in from the sea, to reduce their vulnerability to flak over the target area, rather than following the line of the coast. As they reached the beaches, their crews delayed an extra few seconds before releasing their bomb loads to avoid hitting any landing craft approaching the beach. As a result all the ground commanders’ over-optimistic hopes that the attack would destroy barbed-wire entanglements, minefields and some of the defensive positions were utterly dashed. ‘The Air Corps might just as well have stayed home in bed for all the good that their bombing concentration did,’ one officer in the 1st Division observed angrily later. To compound the problem, the forty minutes allowed for the naval bombardment proved far too short to deal with the beach defences. Montgomery and Bradley’s plan had achieved neither local surprise nor overwhelming force.
The Germans had hardly needed waking up, even before the naval bombardment started at 05.50 hours. All the batteries along that stretch of the coast were already preparing for gunnery practice. The local Feldkommandantur had instructed the Préfet of Calvados to warn all fishing boats to avoid the area early on that morning of 6 June. The French inhabitants of Vierville-sur-Mer, however, had certainly been jolted awake by naval gunfire straddling the village. One shell destroyed the bakery, killing an employee and the baker’s baby. But although a number of houses were destroyed - the mayor’s wife was relieved to find her false teeth in the ruins of their house - casualties remained miraculously light. To their huge relief, the bombers flying inland missed Vierville entirely. Other villages and farms were not so fortunate.
In a bunker designated as Widerstandsnest 73 near the Vierville-sur-Mer exit, an Obergefreiter of the 716th Infanterie-Division was shaken by the sight which dawn revealed. ‘The invasion fleet was like a gigantic town on the sea,’ he wrote afterwards. And the naval bombardment was ‘like an earthquake’. Another soldier manning a machine-gun position in a ‘Tobrouk’ near the Colleville exit had also been shaken at dawn by the sight of the fleet ‘stretching in front of our coast as far as the eye could see’. During the thunder of the naval bombardment, he found himself praying desperately out loud. But as soon as the landing craft could be sighted approaching the beach, he heard cries of ‘Sie kommen!’ from comrades in nearby positions and knew that they too had survived the shelling. He loaded his MG 42, the rapid-fire German machine gun, and waited.
The German ability to recover rapidly was impressive. At 06.26 hours, the 352nd Infanterie-Division’s headquarters heard that, although the ‘heavy bombardment’ had buried some of the 716th Infanterie-Division’s guns under rubble, ‘three of them have been set free again and re-emplaced’. One of the myths of Omaha is that the German defenders were equipped with the formidable 88 mm gun. The 716th may have had two somewhere along the coast, but even this is uncertain. Most of the German artillery at Omaha consisted of far less accurate Czech 100 mm guns.
Another misunderstanding arose in post-war years over the forces that the Americans faced at Omaha. Allied intelligence had underestimated German strength in the sector, but not to the degree which many historians have since implied. SHAEF intelligence had long known of the low-quality 716th Infanterie-Division, which included three Ost battalions made up from Red Army prisoners. This static defence formation was responsible for the forty miles of coast from the Vire estuary to the River Orne. It is true that SHAEF headquarters had assumed unwisely that the more powerful 352nd Infanterie-Division would still be in the area of Saint-Lô, half a day’s march to the south. Yet only two of its integral infantry battalions and a light-artillery battalion were positioned close to Omaha, certainly not the whole division, as many historical works have stated.
The rest of Generalmajor Dietrich Kraiss’s division was spread in depth over 250 square miles between the mouth of the River Vire and Arromanches. If Oberstleutnant Meyer’s battlegroup, representing nearly half of Kraiss’s infantry strength, had not been sent off in the night to investigate the ‘exploding puppets’ dropped south of Carentan during Operation Titanic, then the German defence at Omaha might indeed have been formidable.8 That diversion and Kraiss’s ill-chosen deployment of his forces truly saved the Allies from disaster in this central sector of the whole invasion. None of this, of course, diminishes the still-formidable defensive positions which the 1st and 29th Divisions at Omaha were about to face.
The first wave of troops in their landing craft had been deeply impressed by the heavy guns of the battleships. Many compared the huge shells roaring over their heads to ‘freight cars’. At a given moment, the landing craft, which had been circling offshore to await H-Hour, then headed in towards the beach. The absence of fire at that stage aroused hopes that the navy and air force had done their work as planned. The infantrymen were so tightly wedged that few could see much over the helmets in front of them and the tall landing ramp at the front. One or two, however, noticed dead fish floating on the water, killed by the rocket fire which had fallen short. The assault craft were still ‘bucking like an unbroken horse’, so many just shut their eyes against the queasy sensation of motion sickness. By then the landing craft ‘reeked of vomit’.
Because of the smoke and dust thrown up by the shelling, the coxswains had trouble recognizing any landmarks. One landing craft with men of the 1st Division beached near Port-en-Bessin, over ten miles down the coast. Many of the landing craft were manned by Royal Navy crews. Several misleading accounts have suggested that they were young, inexperienced and frightened, and in a couple of cases were ordered at gunpoint to take the craft in closer. More reliable sources from eye-witnesses have in fact testified to their skill and courage. A number of them had worked with the Americans in amphibious operations in the Mediterranean.
‘Soon we became conscious of pinking noises near us,’ wrote a US Navy lieutenant, ‘and when a couple of men toppled to the deck, we became conscious of the fact that we were being fired at with real bullets, by a very much alive enemy.’ Some officers still hoped to inspire their soldiers. ‘Make it look good, men,’ one shouted as their landing craft jammed on a sandbar just short of the beach. ‘This is the first time American troops have been here in 25 years!’
When the ramps were dropped, the German machine-gunners concentrated their fire on the opening. In all too many cases, the landing craft had come to a halt on a sandbar short of the beach. The water appeared shallow, but ahead there were deep runnels. The more experienced coxswains, both from the US Coast Guard and the Royal Navy, knew how to cut their engine at just the right moment and allow the backwash to carry the landing craft over a sandbar. Those that did managed to land right on the beach.
‘As the ramp went down we were getting direct fire right into our craft,’ wrote a soldier in the 116th on the western part of Omaha. ‘My three squad leaders in front and others were hit. Some men climbed over the side. Two sailors got hit. I got off in water only ankle deep. I tried to run but the water suddenly was up to my hips. I crawled to hide behind the steel beach obstacle. Bullets hit off of it and through my pack missing me. Others hit more of my men.’
The craft were still bucking with the waves, and ‘if you slipped under the metal ramp you would be killed as it crashed down’. In some places men leaped off and found the water over their heads. Many did not know how to swim at all. In desperation, the majority who fell into deep water dropped their weapons and wriggled out of their equipment to survive. Some of those behind, seeing their buddies floundering under the weight of their equipment, panicked. ‘Many were hit in the water, good swimmers or not,’ wrote the same soldier. ‘Screams for help came from men hit and drowning under ponderous loads ... There were dead men floating in the water and there were live men acting dead, letting the tide take them in.’
One soldier, who jumped into five feet of water, found that ‘bullets were splashing right in front of my nose, on both sides and everywhere. Right then and there I thought of every sin I’d committed and never prayed so hard in my life.’ A member of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry, watched the fate of a devout non-com, Sergeant ‘Pilgrim’ Robertson. He ‘had a gaping wound in the upper right corner of his forehead. He was walking crazily in the water without his helmet. Then I saw him get down on his knees and start praying with his rosary beads. At this moment the Germans cut him in half with their deadly crossfire.’
The prospect of crossing the stretch of beach in front of them seemed impossible. Any idea of trying to run through the shallows, carrying heavy equipment and in sodden clothes and boots, seemed like a bad dream in which limbs felt leaden and numb. Overburdened soldiers stood little chance. One had 750 rounds of machine-gun ammunition as well as his own equipment. Not surprisingly, many men afterwards estimated that their casualties would have been halved if the first wave had attacked carrying less weight.
There were cries in all directions: ‘I’m hit! I’m hit!’ A soldier from the 1st Infantry Division who had jumped into water up to his neck waded in slowly. He felt so exhausted that he lay down in a foot of water to rest. ‘Everything seemed like slow motion, the way the men moved under all their equipment. Overloaded we didn’t have a chance. I was so tired I could hardly drag myself along.’ Only nine men out of thirty-one in his platoon survived.
Machine-gun fire criss-crossed the beach and, ‘as it hit the wet sand, it made a “sip sip” sound like someone sucking on their teeth’. One soldier saw a fellow GI running from right to left, trying to get across. An enemy gunner shot him as he stumbled. ‘He screamed for a medic. An aid man moved quickly to help him and he was also shot. The medic lay next to the GI and both of them were screaming until they died a few minutes later.’ Some continued to shelter behind the beach obstacles as bullets clanged off them, but others realized that their only hope was to make it to the shelter of the sea wall. Company A of the 116th Regiment, landing opposite the heavily defended Vierville draw at the western end of Omaha, suffered the worst casualties.
While the German machine-gunners turned the foreshore and surf into a killing zone, their artillery fired at the landing craft. As the V Corps report later acknowledged, the concave curve of the beach allowed the Germans both ‘frontal and enfilade’ fire. A staff sergeant in the 1st Division on the eastern side of Omaha saw a direct hit on the neighbouring assault boat. Several of the men on board were blown ‘fifty or sixty feet in the air’. Few of the first tanks to land survived for long, but their burning hulls at least provided something to shelter behind.
Under heavy fire, men of the Navy combat demolition units started on their task. ‘We went to work,’ wrote one, ‘laying plastic explosive bags on the various obstacles, running from one to the other and connecting the group with primacord, an instantly exploding fuse. Some of the obstacles had GIs sheltering behind them. We told them to move forward or they would be blown up with it. As the tide rose, we raced from one to another.’ They cleared a 100-foot gap for the following landing craft to come in, but the rising tide forced them out of the water. ‘Only three out of sixteen gaps were cleared that morning.’ With water beginning to cover the mined obstacles, the coxswains in the succeeding waves had an even more dangerous task. General Gerow’s worst fears had been proved right.
With many of their officers and non-coms among the first casualties, soldiers recovering from the shock of their reception realized that they had to get across the beach, if only to survive. A soldier from Minnesota in the 1st Division wrote home later describing how he had dashed forward in thirty-yard sprints: ‘I’ve never in all my life prayed so much.’ He looked back at the remnants of his squad. ‘It was awful. People dying all over the place - the wounded unable to move and being drowned by the incoming tide and boats burning madly as succeeding waves tried to get in . . . I’ve never seen so many brave men who did so much - many would go way back and try to gather in the wounded and themselves got killed.’ Those who had made it were not even able to help with covering fire. ‘At least 80% of our weapons did not work because of sand and sea water.’ In their desire to be able to fire back as soon as they landed, most soldiers had made the mistake of stripping the waterproof covering from their gun before reaching the shore. Almost all the radios failed to work as a result of sea water, and this contributed greatly to the chaos.
The better organized ran in squad columns to minimize their exposure to the arc of machine-gun fire. A lieutenant in the 121st Combat Engineer Battalion ran back with a sergeant to fetch a man with a shattered leg. It was difficult to drag him, so the sergeant picked him up. He was then mortally wounded and the lieutenant was hit in the shoulder. Other soldiers ran out and pulled them up to the relative shelter of the low sea wall. The first combat engineers to arrive had to act as infantry. They had lost almost all their demolition stores on landing. Enemy fire was far too intense to do anything until armoured bulldozers arrived.
As the follow-up wave approached, survivors from the first wave watched with a sick sensation from the bank of stones under the sea wall. ‘Some men were crying, others were cursing,’ recalled a young officer in the 116th Infantry. ‘I felt more like a spectator than an actual participant in this operation.’ He had a dry mouth from fear yet still wanted a cigarette. As the ramps dropped and the machine guns opened fire, wrote a sergeant from Wisconsin, ‘men were tumbling just like corn cobs off of a conveyor belt’. A few men at the back of the craft tried to seek shelter and several in the water tried to climb back on to escape. Shells exploding in the water made ‘large geysers’.
An officer in that second wave recorded that, at 300 yards off the beach, there was too much smoke to see what was happening, but they could hear all the firing. They too had assumed that Allied air power had done its job. ‘Some of our boys said: “The 29th is on the ball: they are really going to town”. But when they reached the beach, they realised that it was the Germans who were firing.’
Another officer in the 116th Infantry said that in some ways it felt like just one more landing exercise, ‘another miserable two day job with a hot shower at the end’. Unsure whether they had come to the right beach, his company commander said to the naval officer of their landing craft, ‘Take us on in, there’s a fight there anyway.’ But as they came closer, they recognized the draw by the hamlet of Les Moulins and knew they were hitting the right beach. ‘We kept the men’s heads down so that they would not see it and lose heart. The tanks were still at the water’s edge, some still firing and some were on fire. Men from the assault companies were taking shelter around these tanks and in the water. The majority of these were wounded and many dead were floating in with the tide.’
Captain McGrath of the 116th Infantry, when he arrived at 07.45 hours, saw that the tide was coming in very fast and that the base of the sea wall was crowded with men. He and other officers attempted to get them moving. ‘We talked to them and tried to get them to follow us. None of them however would come along. Many of them seemed to be paralyzed by fear.’ A ranger saw a lieutenant from the 116th Infantry stand up and turn his back to the firing. He ‘yelled down at the troops that were huddled up against the seawall, cowering, frightened, doing nothing and accomplishing nothing, “You guys think you’re soldiers?!” He did everything he could, trying to organize the troops of the 116th [sheltering behind] the seawall, but to no avail.’ An artillery officer, Captain Richard Bush, who had landed ahead of the 111th Field Artillery, described the soldiers he saw: ‘They were beat up and shocked. Many of them had forgotten that they had firearms to use.’ Battalion and company officers ordered their men to clean their weapons and told those without them to collect them from the dead. Some of the wounded were also put to work making weapons serviceable.
Captain Hall, an assistant surgeon with the 1st Division, observed the different reactions of men under extreme stress: ‘I saw a man coming to the boat in a “Fugue” state - screaming and yelling, waving his arms. He had thrown all his equipment away . . . Many were hit in the water and the wounded were drowned by the rising tide. I yelled to some and urged them to crawl in and some of them did. Many did not seem to be functioning at all mentally. Just sitting and sprawling around. [They] could move their limbs, but would not answer or do anything. Several officers started to go and get them, but [more senior] officers yelled at them to come back.’ A few of the wounded clasped on to the end of a beached landing craft as the water rose. ‘They toppled off one by one and drowned. [I] saw one with a chest wound and water eventually covered his face . . . One boy waded casually up the sand - strolling. Some one yelled to him to get down as a burst of machinegun fire made a circle of sand bursts all around him, but he came in safely.’ But a young engineer driven crazy by terror ‘started running up and down the beach’ until ‘a bullet killed him’.
The doctor, who was wounded by the time he reached the bank of shingle, wrote that they ‘lay on wet pebbles, shaking with cold and fear’. With astonished admiration, he watched one of his medical orderlies: ‘Corporal A. E. Jones, who was always puny - 105 lbs and 5’ 5” high - was the last one to expect anything spectacular of. In all this fire when one would hardly have a chance to go down the beach and back to live, he went out six times and brought men in.’ On one occasion, he went to examine one of the wounded, came back to Captain Hall to describe the wound and asked what he should do.
The infantry were not the only ones to be traumatized. Landing on the Fox Green sector of the beach, one tank commander, a sergeant, suffered a nervous breakdown and ordered the crew to abandon the tank. A private took command. The sergeant disappeared into a foxhole and cowered there the whole day. A major later asked the private why he had not shot him. Another Sherman, hit on landing and immobilized, continued to fire at targets until the rising tide forced the crew to abandon the tank. German artillery concentrated its fire on the Shermans, especially tanks with dozer blades. No fewer than twenty-one of the 743rd Tank Battalion’s fifty-one Shermans were knocked out. Those tanks that ran out of ammunition moved up and down the beach in relays to give shelter to infantrymen crossing the killing ground. ‘What saved us were the tanks,’ a private in the 1st Division acknowledged.
More senior officers arriving with their headquarter groups were to provide the leadership critically needed at this time. Much of the chaos, as the V Corps report later put it, came from landing craft coming in at the wrong place and breaking up units as a result. Some sectors of the beach ‘were crowded, others not occupied’. The command group of the 116th Infantry under Colonel Charles Canham and Brigadier General Norman D. Cota, the deputy commander of the 29th Division, swam and waded ashore on Dog White beach soon after 07.30 hours. They sheltered behind a tank, then ran to the sea wall.
Cota, who had shared Gerow’s doubts about the excessive reliance on the bombardment, was well aware of the potential disaster they faced. He had seen waves swamp the DUKW amphibious trucks carrying the 105 mm howitzers of the 111th Field Artillery Battalion. Eleven out of thirteen foundered, most of them when still circling in the rendezvous area. The 1st Division’s artillery had fared no better. Cannon Company of the 16th Infantry lost all six of its 105 mm howitzers in DUKWs. The 7th Field Artillery Battalion did not manage to land any guns, most of them also sunk in DUKWs.
Closer in, the obstacles had still not been cleared. The engineers of the 146th Special Underwater Demolition Battalion had been landed over a mile east of their appointed landing place, mainly because of the cross-current. Cota and Canham held a hurried discussion. Not only battalions, but even companies and platoons had been broken up in the landings. What they needed to do was to force the men, once they had cleaned their weapons, to start breaking through the wire and minefields on to the bluffs behind to attack the German positions.
At 08.00 hours, while Cota searched for a point to break through the wire towards the Les Moulins draw, a terrible scene took place. Just as a large landing craft, the LCIL 91, approached the beach, an artillery shell exploded on board, apparently hitting the fuel tank of a soldier carrying a flame-thrower. ‘He was catapulted clear of the deck, completely clearing the starboard bulkhead, and plunging into the water. Burning fuel from the flame-thrower covered the foredeck and superstructure of the ship . . . The LCIL, which was the 116th’s alternative headquarters, continued to burn for more than 18 hours, during which her stores of 20 mm ammunition for the Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns continually exploded.’ Ten minutes later the LCIL 92 suffered a similar fate. Many badly burned engineers had to be dragged under heavy fire up to the lee of the sea wall.
Cota decided to carry out a reconnaissanceto the right, while Canham went to the left to find an exit from the beach. Shortly afterwards, Canham was shot through the right wrist, but he just had it bandaged and carried on. One of his soldiers spotted ‘Old Hatchetface’ with his ‘right arm in a sling and clutching a .45 Colt in his bony left hand’. Canham, ‘tall and thin, with wire-rim glasses and a pencil thin mustache’, was the southerner who had warned his men that two-thirds of them would be killed. He was shouting for officers to get their men off the beach. ‘Get these men the hell off this beach! Go kill some goddamned Krauts!’ A lieutenant colonel sheltering from the mortar barrage shouted back, ‘Colonel, you’d better take cover or you’re going to get killed!’ ‘Get your ass out of there!’ Canham screamed back. ‘And get these men off this goddamned beach.’
On the eastern side of Omaha, Colonel George Taylor, the commander of the 1st Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment, acted in the same manner. The 1st Division’s lack of armoured support after the disaster launching the 741st Tank Battalion too far out makes their achievement even more impressive. Captain Hall, the wounded doctor, watched as Taylor moved from one officer to another. ‘We’ve got to get off the beach before they put the 88s on us,’ he told them. ‘If we’ve got to get killed, we might as well kill some Germans.’ With Colonel Taylor was a British naval officer with a big beard who, ‘sitting on his haunches and smoking, just looked bored’. Taylor also made the famous remark to his men: ‘The only people on this beach are the dead and those that are going to die - now let’s get the hell out of here!’
In fact the first breakthrough on Omaha had already taken place when part of the 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry landed between Saint-Laurent and Colleville. They crossed the beach with only two casualties. At 07.35 hours, the German 352nd Infanterie-Division had reported to General Marcks’s headquarters, ‘North-east of Colleville enemy forces of 100 to 200 men have penetrated our lines.’ The Germans were clearly concerned. One battalion of ‘Task Force Meyer’ was told to deal with the breakthrough near Colleville, but according to its divisional headquarters, it could not be expected to arrive ‘within one and a half hours’. In fact Allied air attacks prevented it from arriving until late afternoon.
Generalmajor Kraiss, however, soon saw that he could not divert any more forces to Omaha. As the American official history pointed out, the British 50th Division, which was landing on Gold beach some miles to the east, provided ‘the gravest immediate threat for the Germans’. Even though their H-Hour had been fixed an hour later than the American assault, ‘the British assault cracked through the coast defenses in some places during the first few hours’. The left flank of the 352nd Division was completely exposed and the bulk of Meyer’s Kampfgruppe was redirected towards Crépon to face the British. Meyer himself was killed later that day fighting the British at Bazenville. Only ninety of his men out of nearly 3,000 rejoined the division.
While one company of the 2nd Rangers had landed with disastrous losses alongside Company A of the 116th at the western end of Omaha, the rest of the battalion had as its main objective the battery on the Pointe du Hoc, much further round the headland. But these Rangers too were to be plagued by bad luck.
Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder, the commanding officer of the 2nd Rangers, when heading for the Pointe du Hoc, realized that the Royal Navy coxswain was taking them in much too far to the east, almost on to Omaha beach. Half an hour was then lost beating against the current round to the Pointe du Hoc. Once the boats were in position under the cliff, rocket-fired grappling irons invented by British commando forces were used. Many fell short, partly because the ropes were heavy from sea water, but several took hold and the first men began to scale the cliff. Some London fire brigade ladders were also used. The Germans could not believe that the grappling irons were coming up from the landing craft under the cliff. The 352nd Infanterie-Division headquarters were informed that ‘from warships on the high sea the enemy is firing special shells at the cliffs from which a rope ladder is falling out’.
The German garrison on the cliff top tried to fire down at their attackers and drop grenades on them, but close support from the destroyers USS Satterlee and HMS Talybont forced them to keep their heads down in the early stage. The Satterlee remained with the Rangers all day, ready to support them. The bravery and skill of the first Rangers climbing the cliff enabled them to seize a foothold at the top. They were soon reinforced by others. To their surprise, they found that there were no large guns mounted in the battery. The guns were lying a little way inland and were soon dealt with.
Rudder’s radio operator tried to send off the success signal ‘Praise the Lord’, but the radios were not working due to sea water. In any case it was too late. The delay in getting to their objective meant that the 5th Battalion of the Rangers, which had been waiting offshore ready to come in to reinforce them, assumed that the attack had failed. As a result they resorted to their alternative plan and landed on Omaha in support of the 116th Infantry, where Brigadier General Cota soon sent them forward to attack the bluffs.
The battalion of the German 916th Grenadier-Regiment on the Pointe du Hoc took even longer to communicate. The 352nd Infanterie-Division heard only at 08.19 hours that the Rangers had succeeded in scaling the cliffs. The fighting was to continue all that day and most of the next, as the 916th counter-attacked Rudder’s force again and again. The Rangers ran out of ammunition and armed themselves with German weapons taken from those they had killed. This was to prove a dangerous measure when a relief force eventually arrived.
Not far from the first large landing craft, which was still ablaze, Cota chose a section of the sea wall with a mound five yards beyond. He told a soldier with a Browning automatic rifle to keep German heads down on the bluff above. He then supervised the placing of Bangalore torpedoes under the barbed-wire entanglement. Cota had also told Lieutenant Colonel Max Snyder of the 5th Rangers to blow similar gaps, advance inland and then swing round westwards to attack the German fortifications at Pointe et Raz de la Percée.
With the wire blown and smoke from the seagrass set on fire by naval shells, Cota decided the time had come to make a rush across the stretch of marshy grassland which led to the base of the bluff. The first soldier through the wire, however, was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire. ‘Medico!’ he yelled. ‘Medico I’m hit. Help me!’ He moaned and cried for a few minutes. ‘Finally he died after sobbing “Mama”, several times.’ The other men were so shaken that Cota led the way to get them moving. Soon a single file of riflemen from the 116th were through to the bluff and making their way to the top. The smoke from the burning grass was so thick that those who had not thrown away their gas masks put them on.
At 08.30 hours Cota returned to join Canham at his improvised command post under the bluff. Attention turned to an American soldier marching five German prisoners in front of him, their hands above their heads. But a burst of German machine-gun fire from above killed the first two prisoners. The others knelt pleading in the direction of the machine-gun nest not to fire at them, but another prisoner was hit full in the chest.
The Germans, suddenly realizing that most American soldiers were sheltering out of sight under the sea wall, began to use their mortars to target them. Exploding rounds sent pebbles flying like grapeshot. A mortar bomb landed by Canham’s group, killing two men next to Cota and blasting his radio operator twenty feet up the hill. They moved the command post rapidly, but still had no contact with the 1st Division on the left. Communications had collapsed. To compound the problem of radios wrecked by sea water, German riflemen had targeted the heavily burdened signallers as they lumbered up the beach with their ninety-pound packs.
Lack of contact with the shore disturbed General Gerow as he waited for news on the bridge of the command ship, the USS Ancon, ten miles offshore. He was already alarmed by the sight of the choppy seas tossing landing craft around and sinking several of them. Confused reports were coming in, mainly from the crews of landing craft returning to collect their next load. At 09.15 hours he received a message from the control vessel off the Easy Red sector of Omaha. ‘Boats and vehicles piled on beach. Troops dug in on beach. Enemy holds fire until craft beaches.’ Gerow also heard that the engineers were unable to clear paths through the minefields and that ‘enemy snipers and machineguns appear to concentrate fire on officers and non-commissioned officers’.
Gerow informed Bradley aboard the USS Augusta of the position. They were deeply worried. Bradley even began to consider the possibility of abandoning Omaha and switching following waves either to Utah beach or to the British sector. The situation on many parts of Omaha, especially round the Vierville exit, was indeed horrific. Yet despite the impression of universal chaos, some troops were landing almost unopposed and breaking through to the ridge with comparatively few casualties, as the 1st Division had already shown near Colleville. Even in the 29th Division’s second wave, C Company of the 116th had experienced a relatively easy landing at 07.10 hours, 1,000 yards to the left of their objective. Having lost only twenty out of 194 men crossing to the sea wall, they too were helped when climbing the bluff by smoke from the seagrass set alight during the naval bombardment.
Major S. V. Bingham, the Texan commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry, reported that from his batch of landing craft ‘everyone got ashore safely’ on Dog Red. One of his officers observed that ‘enemy fire was not as bad as I had imagined it would be’. One of Bingham’s companies which landed further down the beach, however, suffered heavily. Bingham led about fifty men across the sea wall and wire towards a three-storey house below the bluff surrounded by trenches. ‘No one had weapons which would function,’ he reported, so they dropped into the trenches to clean them. They cleared the house, even though the staircase had been destroyed by the shelling. Once it was secure, Bingham led his men straight up the bluff to their front. They pushed inland another 400 yards, then turned west towards Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, but encountered a German strongpoint in a farmhouse on the edge of the village. Captain Cawthorn, in battalion headquarters, was shouting an order when a piece of shrapnel hit him. It entered one cheek and went out the other without damaging his jaws, purely because his mouth was open at the moment of impact. An officer who arrived soon afterwards noted that ‘he spouted blood as he talked but did not seem to mind’.
The scenes of chaos on the beach and offshore had hardly improved by 09.30 hours. ‘It was just one big mass of junk, of men and materials,’ an officer reported later. There were burnt-out and still-burning vehicles, corpses, and discarded equipment scattered in all directions. Bodies continued to wash up, rolling like logs in the surf, parallel with the water’s edge. One soldier said, ‘They looked like Madame Tussaud’s. Like wax. None of it seemed real.’ The water’s edge was blocked in places by damaged and destroyed landing craft. Further out, the chaos was even greater. Colonel Benjamin B. Talley, Gerow’s assistant chief of staff, reported that the landing craft were milling around offshore like ‘a stampeded herd of cattle’. The navy could not decide which craft should go in and which should be held back. But although many unsuitable vehicles had been landed, the tank reinforcements were at last starting to make a difference, even though a number of them threw a track when manoeuvring on the beach. Replacing the track in the open under mortar and machine-gun fire required extraordinary courage.
The course of the battle against the emplacements gradually turned against the defenders. In one case combat engineers managed to place a truck loaded with TNT beside a pillbox. ‘They lit the fuse and blew it up. Going in, they found German bodies all untouched by the explosives, blood pouring out of their noses and mouths. They had been killed by concussion.’ The most effective weapons were the guns of the destroyers, eight American and three British, which sailed in parallel to the shore and dangerously close to bombard German positions. Their guns became so hot that teams of sailors had to play hoses on them to cool them down. Many soldiers on Omaha later believed, with a good deal of truth, that these front-line destroyers saved the day. Most infantry officers afterwards felt that the naval support would have been much more effective if destroyers close in had targeted strongpoints from the start, rather than battleships firing blind from a great distance.
Tanks also played an important part. One German survivor of the 2nd Battalion of the 726th Grenadier Regiment remembered the farewell message from one bunker as Shermans attacked - ‘Lebt wohl, Kameraden! ’ - ‘Farewell, comrades!’ - then the connection was broken. He also claimed that ‘the survivors of the “resistance nest” were brutally executed in defiance of the Geneva Convention, except for 66 prisoners, of whom half were wounded’.
Although there is no confirmation of this incident in any of the American accounts, there were cases of illegal killings, mainly prompted by the violence of repressed fear and a desire for revenge after so many fellow soldiers had been killed. ‘There was a German, I don’t know what his rank was, who was dying,’ wrote a reporter with the Baltimore Sun who came across this scene late in the day. ‘He was completely unconscious at the time but I remember a bunch of GIs standing around watching this guy and finally one guy just picked up his carbine and put a bullet in his head and said, “That’ll take care of the bastard”, and of course it did.’
Some American soldiers became convinced that Frenchmen and even women had taken part in the fighting on the German side. One of the rangers at Pointe du Hoc reported just after the battle, ‘We came across civilians who were shooting at us with German rifles and serving as artillery observers. We shot them.’ American soldiers also shot German prisoners of war who moved in an unexpected way, because in their nervous state they half expected some trick. But there were also moments of humanity. A signaller with the 5th Rangers who was ordered to take all the papers off prisoners separated the family photos they carried and slipped them back into their pockets. The German prisoners murmured, ‘Danke schön.’ Another ranger, escorting prisoners of war back to the beach, stumbled and fell into a large shell hole. Three of the prisoners jumped in after him. His instinctive thought was that they were about to kill him. But they helped him up, dusted him down, picked up his rifle and returned it to him. Clearly they did not want to go back to their unit to continue fighting.
At 10.46 hours, Colonel Talley radioed back to the USS Ancon, ‘Things look better.’ But the landing system was still in a hopeless mess. There was a huge backlog, and often the wrong sort of vehicle or equipment arrived when far more necessary loads were held back. Many officers reported afterwards that until the beach was secured only infantry, tanks and armoured bulldozers should have gone in.
Brigadier General Cota was understandably impatient. He went up on to the bluff to see how the riflemen he had sent ahead were advancing. He found them on the flat stretch above, pinned down by machine-gun fire. Cota, with his .45 Colt automatic in his hand, moved among the men and said, ‘OK, now let’s see what you’re made of.’ He led them in a charge, having instructed them to fire on the move at hedgerows and houses. They reached a small road 300 yards inland. One officer came across ‘a dead German, who had been killed with a half-smoked cigar still clutched in his teeth’. Almost every soldier seemed to remember the sight of their first dead German. A ranger was ‘struck by the gray, waxy appearance’ of the first one he saw. One soldier in the 1st Division even remembered the name of his first corpse: ‘His helmet was off and I could see Schlitz printed [inside].’
The mixed group of men from the 29th Division and some of the 5th Ranger Battalion - with ‘one helmetless Ranger proudly carrying a captured MG42’ - worked their way westwards along both sides of this lane to Vierville-sur-Mer. There they found themselves above the Vierville exit. They were held up once more by machine-gun fire, so Cota again caught up with the front of the file and sent out a flanking group to force the Germans to withdraw.
It was around this time that C Company of the 116th appeared, having made their own way up after a comparatively easy landing thanks to the smoke from burning seagrass. As they turned along the escarpment towards Vierville, they met Brigadier General Cota, ‘who was calmly twirling his pistol on his finger’. ‘Where the hell have you been, boys?’ he asked. They were ordered to join the advance to the west of Vierville.
Colonel Canham also appeared, having led another group up the bluff. Canham and Cota conferred and decided that these groups from the 1st Battalion of the 116th should push on with the Rangers to Pointe et Raz de la Percée. This mixed force became known as Cota’s ‘bastard brigade’. Men from the 116th said of the Rangers that ‘individually they were the best fighting men we’ve ever worked with, but you couldn’t get them together to work as a team’.
More and more groups of men made it up on to the bluff, but they had to contend with real as well as fake minefields. They tried to put their feet down on exactly the same places as the man in front. It concentrated the mind to encounter casualties along the way. A soldier in the 29th Division recorded how, as he climbed the hill through the seagrass, he came across a lieutenant with his leg blown off at the knee. ‘Those jagged sharp bones sticking out from his knee were as white as could be. He said to me, “Soldier, be careful of these mines!”’ This extraordinary sang-froid was not unique. A soldier in the 115th climbing the bluff came across a man lying down: ‘As I drew near him I noticed why. He had stepped on a mine and it had blown off half of his right foot. He was arranged fairly comfortably and was smoking a cigarette. He warned almost everyone who came by about a mine that was embedded in the ground about a yard from him.’
Although Cota’s ‘bastard brigade’ and other troops were inland by midday, no tanks had yet appeared up the Vierville draw from the beach. A US Navy warship had been bombarding the exit: ‘Smoke, dust from the shattered concrete and the acrid tang of cordite from the exploded shells hung low.’ Soon after 12.30 hours, when the shelling stopped, Cota led a patrol down the draw from above, taking the surrender of various dispirited Germans on the way. They also heard from French civilians in Vierville, whom they found drinking milk in a store, that 400 Germans had abandoned the village when the naval guns opened fire. At the bottom there was an anti-tank wall and a small minefield. One of the German prisoners was forced to go through first, then everyone followed in his exact footsteps. Out on the promenade, they could see the bodies across the beach, the shot-up tanks and men still sheltering in the lee of seaside villas. Cota told their officers to get them moving and the engineers to blow the anti-tank wall.
Further down the beach he found more men cowering in the lee of the bluff. There was an abandoned tank with dozer blades nearby. He shouted at the soldiers that he had just come down the draw from above: ‘There’s nothing but a few riflemen on the cliff, and they’re being cleaned up. Hasn’t anyone got guts enough to drive it?’ He finally found a man to take it down to the Vierville exit with its supply of urgently needed TNT. Cota carried on towards the next beach exit near Les Moulins, where his own headquarters staff had gathered. He issued a stream of orders.
Cota continued his eastward progression to find Brigadier General Weyman, the deputy commander of the 1st Division. Weyman cannot have looked very military, for he was huddled in a blanket after all his clothes had been soaked on landing. It was confirmed that the 116th would continue clearing the area to the west of Vierville towards Grandcamp and the 115th Regiment, the 29th Division’s follow-up combat team, which had begun landing on Fox Green beach at 11.00 hours, would advance inland towards Longueville. Cota returned to his own command post. He was clearly not pleased by some of the sights: ‘Some of the 6th Engineer Special Brigade troops who had dug themselves shallow trenches as protection from the artillery, were calmly eating K rations, while around them were bodies of the dead and dying.’ But nobody could fault the medics, who were carrying back men wounded by anti-personnel mines on the bluff above.
The build-up of forces soon accelerated. By 12.30 hours the Americans had landed 18,772 men on Omaha. Half an hour later, a company from the 1st Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment, supported by men from the 29th Division’s 116th Infantry, began to attack Colleville-sur-Mer. A couple of accounts state that many of the Germans in Colleville were drunk, some finding it hilarious to shout orders in English. The Americans fought their way in, but then found themselves bombarded by their own naval guns and suffered eight casualties. The cordite fumes became so intense that all of G Company, including the aid men attending the wounded, had to carry on in gas masks. Yellow signal flares failed to stop the fire, but eventually the warship ceased its bombardment. Not until some time afterwards did the headquarters of the German 352nd Infanterie-Division discover that the Americans had surrounded the village, having received a message that the ‘wounded can no longer be sent back’.
The 1st Division’s 18th Infantry came through, bypassing Colleville while the fighting there still continued. The 29th Division’s 115th Infantry had also pushed inland and attacked Saint-Laurent. A short time later, at 14.15 hours, the first German prisoners from the 352nd Infanterie-Division were identified from their paybooks. ‘I could not believe my eyes,’ wrote the intelligence officer soon after the battle, shaken that they had not been informed of its presence.
Once most of the observed fire on the beach had been eliminated, the armoured bulldozers managed to clear patches to speed the arrival of more troops and vehicles. Burnt-out tanks were hauled or pushed aside; even damaged landing craft were towed out of the way. One engineer with the 1st Division said that the smell of burnt flesh made it hard to eat for several days afterwards. The demolition teams continued to blow the German beach obstacles. For items which might have been booby-trapped, they used grappling hooks on long ropes. Enemy artillery rounds were still coming in - the German artillery would continue to ‘walk’ its fire up and down the beach - but many of the explosions which looked like shellbursts were mines or obstacles being blown by clearance teams.
The medical teams were also working at frenetic speed. Many of the wounded, especially those suffering from shock, were doubly vulnerable to the cold. Soldiers were sent to salvage blankets from a wrecked landing craft and gather extra field dressings from the dead. Medics could often do little more than administer morphine and patch up flesh wounds, such as those in the buttocks caused by mortar fragments. Some of the wounded were beyond hope. ‘I saw one young soldier, pale, crying and in obvious pain,’ wrote a captain in the 60th Medical Battalion, ‘with his intestines out under his uniform. There was nothing I could do except inject morphine and comfort him. He soon died.’
Doctors treated those suffering from combat trauma with Nembutal to knock them out. Plasma bags on drips were attached to those who had lost a lot of blood, a condition indicated by their hands going blue. Yet even with blankets and plasma, many were to die from shock and exposure during the night. Casualties of all sorts could now be sent back on empty landing craft to the ships, but the wounded on the more deserted stretches had a long time to wait. In the chaos of landing some sectors still lacked medical teams. The 1st Division’s medical battalion had been so hard hit on landing that it had to concentrate on its own casualties first. Soldiers wounded in the minefields up on the bluffs had the longest wait of all, since engineers had to clear paths to get to them. Many lay there all through the night until they could be reached in daylight.
The wounded were taken out to the ships such as the Samuel Chase and the Bayfield or to LSTs, which had been prepared as temporary hospital ships for the return journey. From the landing craft, they were lifted by net litters on derricks. On board there was ‘organized confusion’ as doctors carried out triage. One wounded soldier suddenly realized that his right leg was missing. The aid men had to hold him down as he yelled, ‘What am I going to do? My leg! I’m a farmer.’
Those who were going to die received morphine and plasma, and were then ‘left alone to whatever fate would befall them’. Sailors carried the dead on litters to the ship’s refrigerator, a solution which was not popular with the cooks. They were even more appalled when one of the surgeons began carrying out operations in their galley. The Bayfield had only one experienced army surgeon on board, assisted by navy surgeons unused to the work. Most of the medical orderlies had also never seen battle wounds before. One of them, faced with a ranger who had received terrible head wounds, did not realize that the man’s brains were held in only by his helmet. When he removed the helmet, the brains started to fall out. He ‘tried to push the brain back into the skull with very little success’. A doctor tried to reassure the horrified orderly that the man would have died anyway.
At 17.21 hours, Colonel Talley radioed the USS Ancon to say that the beach would permit ‘wheeled and tracked vehicular traffic’ over most of the area below the high-water mark. The relief for General Gerow was considerable. Gerow, determined to establish his corps headquarters on French soil before nightfall, went ashore. He crossed the beach in an armoured bulldozer sent by Colonel Talley to fetch him, and reached the corps command post at 20.30 hours. It was still within 500 yards of the front line.
Major General Charles H. Gerhardt, the diminutive martinet who commanded the 29th Division, had landed a little earlier. He set up his own headquarters, sitting on a box of C-Rations as he examined the map. Both generals had a great deal to reflect upon: their next moves and the casualties of that day. More than 2,000 men were reported killed, missing or wounded, and these figures are still not clear.9 During his interviews with survivors, the official historian, Forrest C. Pogue, found they ‘assumed that everyone else had been killed or captured. This kind of fog of war was responsible for terribly exaggerated casualty estimates, although those at their worst were still well under the pre-D-Day fears.’ The only certain fact is that 3,000 French civilians died in the first twenty-four hours of the invasion, double the total number of American dead.
Even though Allied casualties on D-Day were far lighter than the planners’ estimates, that did not in any way reduce the shock of the first wave’s slaughter at Omaha. Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment, a National Guard outfit, became a symbol of the sacrifice, albeit an unrepresentative one. One of the survivors of that company met Brigadier General Cota the next morning. Cota asked him what unit he was from. When he told him, Cota just shook his head in sadness. ‘He knew better than I that Company A was practically ... well, it was out of action.’ Around 100 men out of 215 had been killed and many more wounded.10
Omaha became an American legend, but a crueller truth lay ahead in the fighting to come. The average losses per division on both sides in Normandy were to exceed those for Soviet and German divisions during an equivalent period on the eastern front.11