Military history

The American beaches

Many of the defenders of Utah beach, the most westerly of the Allied landing zones just above the elbow of the Cotentin peninsula, were still helplessly stunned by the bombardment or demoralized by the spectacle before them as the first landing craft closed in. In strongpoint W 5, at the very centre of the sea wall where the 4th Division was approaching, the men of 3 Company, 919th Regiment, had lain shaking, hands pressed to their ears as 360 Marauder medium bombers attacked their positions, followed by a naval bombardment which poured down explosives around them with remarkable accuracy, destroying all the position’s 50 mm guns, its 75 mm anti-tank gun and many of its bunkers. An elderly mess orderly ran out as the shelling died down, shouting desperately to his commanding officer: ‘Everything’s wrecked! Everything’s wrecked! We’ve got to surrender!’1 The company commander, a 23-year-old veteran named Lieutenant Arthur Jahnke, who had won the Knight’s Cross in Russia before his wounds caused him to be posted to France, pulled his garrison back into their positions. But he understood, with a sense of desperation, that he was now compelled to defend his sector of beach with only a single 88 mm gun, an old Renault tank turret dug into the sands, and a handful of machine-guns and mortars. Above all, he was shocked to gaze out at the vast armada offshore and perceive that they were attacking at low water. Every gun, every bunker had been sited to match Rommel’s certain anticipation that ‘the Amies’ would come with the high tide.

Yet now the Germans in W 5 and its adjoining positions were bewildered to see armour, Sherman tanks, rising directly from the sea and opening fire upon them. In the Renault turret, Lance-Corporal Friedrich peered through his pebble spectacles and began firing long machine-gun bursts in the direction of the waterline. A few minutes later, a direct hit from an American 75 mm tank gun destroyed his weapon and shattered his leg. W 5’s 88 mm gun, damaged in the bombing, fired one round before jamming permanently. Jahnke’s other positions remained in action for only a few minutes before tank fire began to focus upon them. A sudden explosion buried him in sand. He collapsed into unconsciousness, and awoke to find himself staring up the rifle barrel of an American soldier. Together with the survivors of his company, he was herded away towards imprisonment, suffering the final misery, a few moments later, of being wounded by a belated shell from the German battery inland which had been supporting his position.

Although the current off Utah swept the American landing craft 2,000 yards south of the area designated by the plan, in every other respect VII Corps’ operations conformed more nearly to the timetable than those of any other Allied formation that day. 28 of the 32 amphibious DD tanks launched reached the sands. At 6.30 a.m., the three regimental combat teams of 4th Division began to come ashore under very light enemy fire. The Germans had thought it most unlikely that Allied troops would land immediately in front of the wide flooded areas beyond the beach. The navigational error caused by the current had brought the men of 4th Division into the most lightly defended sector of the entire Normandy front. As the forward infantry mopped up beach defences, the engineers began to blow up beach obstacles under only sporadic artillery fire. Vehicles and follow-up units poured in as the Americans discovered one undefended beach exit across the inundations, and the 101st Airborne secured four others at the western end. Most of the lone defending regiment of the German 709th Division surrendered as soon as the Americans came to close quarters with them.

Private Lindley Higgins waded through three feet of water to the shore in a manner that made his own invasion seem more farcical than lethal. He and other men of the 12th Regiment could hear only distant firing, but suddenly they were ordered to lie down among the organized chaos of vehicles and stores on the sand: ‘They’re sending in artillery!’ somebody shouted. As he hit the ground, Higgins felt himself being squeezed in half by an agonizing pressure at his waist. He yelled: ‘Aid man!’ Then he saw that he had accidentally hit the release of his life jacket, which was inflating. Furious and embarrassed, he pulled his bayonet off his rifle and hacked the life jacket into submission. Then, in long straggling files, his company began to move inland.

Almost all the Americans’ difficulties on Utah that day began as they left the beach. The units dispatched northwards to secure the area where the 4th Division would have landed, but for the diversion caused by the current, ran into strong resistance. When 12th Regiment and other forces striking inland clambered over the high, sandy bank looking out over the sea and began to plunge through the flat, flooded fields behind the dunes, their movement became agonizingly slow.

Captain John McGirr of the 65th Armored Field Artillery was under orders to advance with the leading elements inland, and commence acting with the 101st Airborne as a forward observer at the earliest opportunity. But he found himself lying behind the sea wall for more than two hours while waiting for his infantry unit to move off; the monotony was relieved only by a fire in an ammunition truck hit by a stray shell which he helped to fight. The guns of his battery were already coming ashore before McGirr was off the beach.

To Higgins and his companions of Company L, struggling under their impossibly heavy loads of weapons and equipment, the swamps seemed endless. Shorter men found themselves stumbling into concealed ditches that almost drowned them, and from which they had to be painfully extracted. They waded between the white tapes laid ahead of them by the engineers, rifles held high above their heads to keep dry. Higgins was carrying an entire carton of Lucky Strikes in his invasion jacket, but by evening the only smoke he managed to salvage was in the pack in his helmet. They came upon a crashed glider with a jeep still trapped inside it, which the company commander ordered them to retrieve. They hacked at the fuselage until the jeep was almost free, when suddenly a senior officer appeared and furiously ordered them to leave the vehicle and continue their advance.

All along the line, time was already slipping. The chronic problem was to maintain momentum. Yet the landing of 23,000 men on Utah, at a cost of only 197 casualties on the first day, was an almost miraculous piece of good fortune and good judgement. It seemed all the more so in contrast with the events that were unfolding that morning a few miles to the east. While the 4th Division was streaming ashore with fewer casualties than in their last exercise on Slapton Sands, on Omaha beach, where two-thirds of the entire American D-Day effort was concentrated, the 1st and 29th Divisions were enduring ten times as many losses as the 4th’s, and very many times their fear and confusion.

Lieutenant Jahnke’s company had been stunned and disorganized by the Utah bombardment, but the Germans manning the defences around Vierville and St Laurent had escaped almost totally unscathed. Attacking blind through cloud, the Liberator heavy bombing inevitably lacked precision. In their anxiety to avoid the risk of bombing short onto the approaching invasion fleet, the Allied aircraft poured hundreds of tons of high explosive onto the fields behind the forward defences. Here too, the Germans were defending the strongest natural positions facing the entire assault – hills and cliffs rising steeply up to 200 feet from the beach and the sea wall above it. Brigadier Williams’s worst fears were confirmed. In addition to the regiment of the 716th Division defending the Omaha sector, there were strong elements of the much more formidable 352nd. The Americans below the bluffs faced by far the greatest concentration of German fire on the entire invasion front.

A little after 7.00 a.m., a 21-year-old farm boy from Metzingen named Lance-Corporal Hein Severloh had borrowed the binoculars of his battery commander, Lieutenant Frerking. He peered in fascination over the thick concrete parapet at the spectacle unfolding out to sea: ‘The big one is still hove to, not moving . . . More ships coming up now . . .’2 Severloh was one of the forward observation team of 1 Battery, 352 Artillery Regiment. When the alert was called, he and the others had driven hastily to the coast from their billets in the battery position at Houteville. Now the gunners were reporting by field telephone, having suffered no hits from the bombing, ‘perhaps they weren’t really after us . . .’ Severloh began his running commentary again: ‘The big one’s moving inshore . . . Landing craft on our left, off Vierville, making for the beach.’ Sergeant Krone said: ‘They must be crazy. Are they going to swim ashore? Right under our muzzles?’ He was one of the 19 men of the 726th Grenadiers sharing position WN 62 – Wilderstandsnesten, ‘resistance nest’, 62 – with the gunner OP. The telephone buzzed from regimental HQ with an order to withhold fire until the enemy touched the shore. Severloh laid aside the glasses and took up his own position at an MG 42. Frerking began telephoning fire orders to his guns: ‘Target Dora, all guns, range Four Eight Five Zero, basic direction Twenty Plus, impact fuse,’ Now there was a long, violent pause, as the naval bombardment plastering the sand and scrub around the pillboxes reached a crescendo, deafening even men behind five feet of concrete. Yet although the blasts filled the bunkers with dust, shook fragments of masonry from the ceilings, fired the scrub along the hillside at intervals above the 6,000 yards of beach where the Americans were to land, the naval shelling did no more than the bombing to reduce the fighting power of the defences. These had been constructed to be almost immune to direct fire from the sea. Now, 47 minutes after it began, the bombardment lifted as a black smoke signal curled into the sky from the command ship. There was a brief moment of silence. The grey shoals of landing craft bumped through the four-foot waves breaking onto the shore. There was only one casualty thus far in WN 62 – an NCO wounded by a shrapnel splinter tearing through a firing slit. Then the first boat dropped its ramp a few yards short of the beach and the overburdened Americans within it began to pour forward, splashing into the surf. The Germans in WN 62 and every position along the Omaha front opened fire, their machine-guns traversing steadily to and fro across the waterline, arcs of fire interlocking, occasional ricochets shrieking off the steel of the beach obstacles. Frerking called into his handset: ‘Target Dora – Fire!’

There is no more demanding task for infantry than to press home an attack across open ground under heavy fire, amid heavy casualties. The American assault on Omaha beach came as close as the experience of any western Allied soldiers in the Second World War to the kind of headlong encounters between flesh and fire that were a dreadful commonplace in the battles of 30 years before, and which were so grimly familiar on the eastern front. V Corps’ plan for Omaha eschewed tactical subtleties, the use of British specialized armour, and any attempt to seize the five vital beach exits by manoeuvre. Instead, General Gerow committed his men to hurling themselves frontally against the most strongly defended areas in the assault zone. This was an act of hubris compounded by the collapse, amidst the rough weather, of all the elaborate timetables for the landing.

Whipped by a 10-knot north-westerly wind, the seas swamped at least 10 LCVPs during the run-in, drowning many of their infantry. The attempt to land artillery from amphibious DUKWs failed disastrously, and in all 26 guns from elements of five regiments were lost. The supporting rocket ships opened fire at extreme range from the shore, and most of their projectiles fell short, some landing among the assault craft. Under the impact of the waves, the flimsy canvas walls on most of the amphibious DD tanks collapsed immediately. A special kind of sacrificial heroism was demanded of the DD crews that morning when, by a serious error of judgement, 32 were launched 6,000 yards from the beach. Each one, as it dropped off the ramp of the landing craft, plunged like a stone to the bottom of the sea, leaving pitifully few survivors struggling in the swell. Yet the following crews drove on into the water undeterred by ghastly example. One commander – a certain Sergeant Sertell – insisted upon launching even after his canvas screen had been gashed open before he left the craft. Just five of this wave of DDs reached the shore. The infantry were thus called upon to storm the beach without the benefit of vital supporting armour which was intended to shoot open the way ashore. Those tanks which reached Omaha did so behind, rather than ahead of, the leading wave of eight companies – 1,450 men in 36 landing craft.

Most of the young Americans plunging into the surf had been crouched in their landing craft for some three hours, having been transferred from the transports 12 miles out from the beach rather than the seven miles the British decided upon. Many had quickly thrown up their breakfasts, and then crouched miserably in the bucketing boats, drenched in spray, paddling in vomit, as darkness gave way to the first light of dawn. Each man was grotesquely heavily loaded with gas mask, grenades, half-pound blocks of TNT, pole or satchel charges, two bandoliers of rifle ammunition, rations and waterbottle – 68 pounds in total. Now, in an instant, they were compelled to rouse themselves from the cramped, crowded stagnation of the landing craft and stumble forward into the hail of machine-gun and mortar fire from the German defences, which killed and wounded many before they even reached dry ground. Others, still groggy with seasickness, their clothes and equipment stiff and matted with salt, desperately sought cover among the beach obstacles or lay paralysed amid the harvest of wreckage that quickly gathered on the shoreline. Early in the assault the beach was clogged with grounded and damaged landing craft, some hulks being swept broadside onto the German obstacles to create a logjam which the next wave could not pass. A flamethrower operator on one vessel suffered a direct hit on his weapon: the explosion catapulted his dying body into the sea, spewing blazing fuel over the decks. The landing craft caught fire and burnt for the next 18 hours, amid constant detonations from its 20 mm Oerlikon ammunition.

The plan demanded that 270 specially-trained demolition men would follow the lead infantry onto the beach and immediately begin to blow the German obstacles, clearing the way for the great rolling succession of follow-up units before the tide covered the mines. 25,000 more men and 4,000 vehicles were due on Omaha with the second tide of the day. In the event, under the intense fire, which killed or wounded more than 40 per cent of the engineers, and the chaos of soldiers wounded or terrified behind the steel hedgehogs, only a handful of obstacles were exploded that morning. The path to the beach was forced open principally by the hulls of landing craft that rammed obstacles by accident or intent, often triggering the mines and adding more hulks to the debris on the waterline. Of 16 armoured bulldozers sent ashore, only six arrived and three of these were quickly destroyed. Among the infantry, command quickly approached collapse. Three-quarters of the 116th Regiment’s radio sets were destroyed or rendered unworkable, and the unit’s forward headquarters was effectively wiped out by a direct hit. Many men were confused to discover that they had been landed far from the sector for which they had been briefed and trained. Americans lay prone in the shallow water seeking cover, or dragged themselves painfully up the sand with wounds suffered before they were even out of the landing craft. Hundreds huddled beneath the sea wall at the head of the beach, seizing the only shelter Omaha offered that day, although some companies’ survivors took 45 minutes to struggle even that far from the waterline. Hundreds of men were already dying or dead – there would be more than 2,000 casualties on the beach that day.

Among the living, an overwhelming paralysis set in. Much of what takes place on every battlefield is decided by example, men being driven to act in noble or ignoble fashion by the behaviour of those around them. On Omaha that morning, the inexperience of many American junior leaders made itself felt. The confused nature of the landings, with men landing by half-platoons often many yards from the boats carrying their own officers and comrades, destroyed unit cohesion. To the great majority of infantrymen looking for an example to follow out of the apparent collapse of purpose on Omaha that morning, it seemed most prudent merely to seek what shelter they could, and cling to it.

Aboard the cruiser Augusta offshore, General Bradley watched the events unfolding on the beaches frustrated by the paucity of communications. A steel command cabin had been built for him on deck, 20 feet by 10, the walls dominated by Michelin motoring maps of France, a few pin-ups and large-scale maps of Normandy. A row of clerks sat at typewriters along one wall, while Bradley and his personal staff clustered around the big plotting table in the centre. Much of that morning, however, the general was on the bridge, standing beside the Task Force commander, Admiral Kirk, watching through binoculars the distant smoke shrouding the shore, his ears plugged with cotton to muffle the blast of the Augusta’s guns, his nose swathed in plaster over an embarrassing boil that had been troubling him for days. Photographers were kept away from First Army’s commander on 6 June.

The day had begun with a series of minor alarms: the sight of the swell that they knew at once would imperil the DD tanks; the report of 15 E-boats putting out from Cherbourg, sinking the Norwegian destroyer Svenner before they were put to flight: ‘As the morning lengthened,’ Bradley wrote, ‘my worries deepened over the alarming and fragmentary reports we picked up on the navy net. From those messages we could piece together only an incoherent account of sinkings, swampings, heavy enemy fire and chaos on the beaches. Though we could see it dimly through the haze and hear the echo of its guns, the battle belonged that morning to the thin, wet line of khaki that dragged itself ashore on the Channel coast of France.’3 By mid-morning the apparent collapse of the landing plan, both on and offshore, had plunged V Corps’ staff into the deepest dismay. Colonel Benjamin Talley, cruising in a DUKW a few hundred yards from the beach to report directly to Gerow, told of LCTs milling around the smoke-shrouded sands ‘like a stampeding herd of cattle’. Bradley ‘gained the impression that our forces had suffered an irreversible catastrophe’.4A situation was unfolding that came nearer than any that day to matching the terrible fears of Churchill, Brooke and Eisenhower.

Ranger Mike Rehm of C Company, 5th Battalion, landed in Dog Green sector shortly after H-Hour with 10 men, two of whom were killed and three wounded in the first hundred yards between the sea and the base of the hill. Rehm huddled for shelter behind a knocked-out DD tank, finding himself beside a Ranger whom he did not recognize, smoking a cigar. Suddenly they discovered that the tank was not knocked out, for its engine sprang into life and it began to move. The two men ran hastily towards the sea wall. After a few paces Rehm glanced around and saw that his companion lay covered in blood from the waist down. He reached the wall alone. There he lay through the two hours which followed, amidst a huddle of infantry and other Rangers representing almost every unit on the beach that morning.

A, B and C Companies of 2nd Ranger Battalion had lain offshore awaiting a signal from their commanding officer, Colonel Rudder, to land and advance through the positions of the landing force on Pointe du Hoc, if this successfully gained its objectives. But even after delaying 15 minutes beyond the appointed radio rendezvous, the men tossing in the boats had heard nothing. They were obliged to assume that the Pointe du Hoc landing had failed. They were ordered in to the western flank of Omaha beach. One LCA struck a mine as it approached, blowing off the door of the craft, killing the seaman manning it and stunning the Ranger platoon commander. His 34 men floundered out of the sinking vessel and struck out for the shore. The next platoon commander, Lieutenant Brice, waded onto the beach and turned to shout ‘Let’s go!’ to his men before falling dead in front of them. Meanwhile, A Company’s craft had grounded 75 yards offshore, and many of its men died in the water under machine-gun fire. When Gerard Rotthof’s mother heard that her son was to become a radioman, she said: ‘Well at least he won’t have to carry a rifle any more.’ But now Rotthof lay trapped on the beach beneath the weight of his 60-pound SCR 284 set, wounded by mortar fragments in the face and back. He received the last rites twice, but somehow survived terrible internal injuries. Only 35 men of A Company and 27 from B of the 2nd Rangers reached the sea wall, out of 130 who launched from the transports before dawn.

200 yards out from the beach, Lieutenant Sid Salomon and 1 Platoon of C Company still supposed that the whole thing looked a pushover: not a single shell or small-arms round had come close to them. Then the ramp dropped and they were exposed to the full fury of the defences. An immensely tall 31-year-old graduate of New York University who enlisted in March 1942, Salomon had ordered his men to go all-out for the cliff base, under no circumstances pausing for a casualty. Yet within seconds one of his sergeants, Oliver Reed, was hit and fell beneath the ramp. Salomon could not stop himself from seizing the wounded man and dragging him through the waist-high water to the beach. Some of the platoon overtook him as he floundered, and now he passed four already dead from a mortar burst. He himself fell hit in the shoulder. Convinced that he was finished, he called to his platoon sergeant, Bob Kennedy. Reaching into his field jacket, he said: ‘I’m dead. Take the maps.’ But then a machine-gun began to kick up sand in front of them, and Salomon found that he was not only alive, but could run. At the base of the cliff he counted nine survivors of his platoon, out of 30 who left the landing craft. His old sergeant, who had left the platoon on promotion, insisted upon joining them for the assault. Salomon had placed him last out of the boat to give him the best chance of making it. But Sergeant Goales was already among the dead. All told, some two-thirds of the company were casualties.

It was a tribute to the quality of the Rangers that despite losses on a scale that stopped many infantry units in their tracks on Omaha that morning, the survivors of C Company pressed on to climb the cliffs west of the beach with bayonets and toggle ropes, clearing German positions one by one in a succession of fierce close-quarter actions with tommy guns and phosphorus grenades. Sergeant Julius Belcher charged headlong against one pillbox, tossed in a grenade and then shot down the garrison as they staggered out of the entrance. In their own area, they found later that they had killed some 60 Germans on 6 June. Yet they lacked the strength and the heavy weapons to press on westwards towards Pointe du Hoc. Towards the end of morning, Salomon stood in a captured German position, gazing down on the chaos below. ‘I was of the opinion that the invasion had been a failure,’ he said laconically.5 He reflected that it was going to be a long swim home.

Corporal Bill Preston’s DD crew of the 743rd Tank Battalion watched five of their unit’s Shermans sink on launching offshore before it became obvious to the officer commanding their group of eight LCTs that the conditions were impossible. The remainder of the tanks were brought to within 250 yards of the beach before leaving the craft, very late. They glimpsed the cliffs shrouded in thick clouds of smoke as they ran in, then they were crawling out of the water among huddles of isolated infantrymen under intense small-arms fire. The tank commander, a Minnesotan farmer named Ted Geske, pressed the button to collapse their canvas screens, but nothing happened. He clambered out of the turret to do the job manually. At that moment, the waterproofing fell, and Geske was left cursing at his own vulnerability, perched on the hull in the midst of the battlefield. They saw that their tank was well to the right of its objective. They could see dead engineers floating beyond the beach obstacles, where so many wounded men also died as the tide came in over them. They later discovered to their dismay that they had run over one man, for they found his clothing jammed in their tracks. Then they saw the neighbouring platoon of Shermans brew up briskly one by one as an anti-tank gun caught them. Their battalion commander was hit in the shoulder as he stood on the sand, seeking to direct a tankdozer to clear a path for the armour through one of the beach exits.

It was obvious that something was very wrong. 21 of the unit’s 51 tanks were destroyed on Omaha, and the neighbouring battalion fared even worse. Preston’s crew simply took up position just above the high-water mark, and began to fire at such German positions as they could identify. These were not very many, for the tank fired only about a third of its ammunition before dusk. The 743rd remained on the beach for the next 12 hours.

Some unhappy men ended up on Omaha who should never have been there at all under such circumstances. Sergeant Andy Hertz, the Boston-bred son of a Dutch Jewish father and British mother, had been building airfields in England for almost two years with the 922nd Aviation Engineer Regiment when, somewhat to their bewilderment, he and his unit were issued with carbines, mines, bazookas and combat equipment, and loaded onto invasion transports to build airstrips in France. Aboard his liberty ship offshore, Hertz was in the galley listening to radio reports of the fall of Rome when the engineers were piped on deck. They saw the burning shore before them. A landing craft came alongside. Its skipper asked if the ship could provide any coffee, and announced that he could take in 90 men. A Ranger commanding officer sharing the ship with them declined to send his men ashore at that moment. The major responsible for the engineers shouted that they would go. Lacking assault training, they found the most frightening experience of the morning to be the descent of the scrambling nets into the pitching craft. Then, as they pulled away from the side, they saw their major waving farewell from the upper deck. He had decided to leave Hertz and the others to explore Omaha alone that day, and they never saw him again. An hour or so later, they struggled through five feet of water to the beach.

Few men or vehicles seemed to be moving. Hertz met a very frightened young 18-year-old from the 29th Division who said that he was the only survivor of his squad. The man in front of Hertz, Sergeant Valducci, suddenly fell down, screaming: ‘I’m shot!’ A beachmaster ran to the group and demanded: ‘Who are you people?’ Engineers, they said. ‘Sounds good,’ he replied, ‘we’ve got wire to clear here. You got bangalores?’ No, they said. They were aviation engineers. ‘Who the hell sent you in?’ They shrugged: ‘Some sonofabitch.’ And so they joined the clusters of stranded Americans on Omaha, lying behind such shelter as they could find through the hours that followed.6

Leading Aircraftsman Norman Phillips was one of a party of 158 British RAF personnel who were landed on Omaha: ‘We could see a shambles ahead of us on the beach – burning tanks, jeeps, abandoned vehicles, a terrific crossfire.’7 The captain of their LCT ordered them to offload anyway. The first vehicles found themselves driving into eight feet of water. The men struggled to the shore and formed a human chain to assist the non-swimmers. They landed on a sandspit crowded with wounded soldiers who lacked any medical attention. The British officers organized their men into salvage parties to rescue all the equipment that they could, but most had lost everything. Two RAF men were seized and taken prisoner by nervous Americans who could not identify their uniforms. By nightfall, the air force party had lost eight killed, 35 wounded, and 28 of their 35 vehicles. It was 33 days before they were issued with fresh clothing, 108 days before their lost arms and ammunition were replaced.

The reports that reached V Corps and General Bradley from Omaha that morning were not merely gloomy, but at times almost panic-stricken. Bradley’s personal aide and Admiral Kirk’s gunnery officer cruised close inshore aboard a PT boat and returned soaked and grim. Bradley considered halting all landings on the eastern beach and diverting the follow-up waves to Utah. A monstrous traffic jam had developed off the beach. By a serious flaw in the timetable, soft-skinned vehicles were beginning to arrive to offload in the middle of the battle. Among many naval crews who displayed exemplary courage, there were others whose lack of experience and determination magnified the confusion. The sailors manning a huge rhino raft loaded with vehicles simply abandoned it, 700 yards out, and the drivers and cargo drifted out of control until the rising tide brought them ashore. The Rangers had developed an early scepticism about naval efficiency when the officer in charge of one of their landing craft rammed a breakwater before getting out of his English harbour, and the skipper of another spent the cross-Channel voyage prostrate with seasickness. Now, one group of Rangers found themselves left to bring their landing craft in to the beach unaided. Its crew simply took to their dinghy and deserted them. In contrast to these episodes, the sailors manning two LCTs with immense courage rammed the beach obstacles head-on, and remained in position using every gun to support the infantry in their plight.

Lieutenant-Colonel John Williamson, commanding the 2nd/18th Infantry of the 1st Division, led his men into their LCVPs soon after 8.00 a.m., more than an hour late. When some craft began to swamp as they circled waiting for word that the beach was clear, the crews of others sought to begin rescue operations. After some forceful urging from Williamson, the craft began their run-in. They approached the shore not in an orderly wave, line abreast, but in a column, a queue, jostling for position on the sands. ‘The beach was loaded with men, tanks, DUKWs,’ said Williamson. ‘I was surprised that nobody had moved off.’ Major Frank Colacicco, executive officer of the 3rd/18th, stood among his men on the deck of an LCI, watching the spectacle ashore in utter bewilderment: ‘It was like a theatre. We could see it all, we knew that something was knocking the tanks out, but we kept asking, “Why don’t they clear the beach? Why aren’t our people getting off?” ’ When at last their own turn came to approach the sands, Colacicco’s LCI struck an obstacle whose mine blew up. Some men were hurled into the water by the blast, others found themselves struggling in the surf moments later as the craft settled. At last someone on the beach got a lifeline out to them, and the soaking men dragged themselves ashore. The major was told that Brigadier Wyman, the assistant divisional commander, wanted to see him. He reached the command post after being knocked off his feet by a mortar blast. He was told to take over the objectives of the 1st/16th, and returned to his men lying below the sea wall to point out to them, unanswerably: ‘We can’t stay here.’ Slowly they began to work up the hillside, crawling over the immobile figures of men of the 116th Infantry: ‘They were too green to know that the closer you are to the enemy, the better off you will be.’ Colacicco tore a strip off one man he saw firing apparently recklessly along the hillside: ‘Just settle down,’ said the major soothingly. ’That’s our men over there.’ ‘But sir, they have overcoats on,’ insisted the soldier. Indeed they were German riflemen.

Yet although the defenders possessed the capability to maul the American landing on Omaha seriously, to impede and to disorganize it, they lacked the power to halt it absolutely. Despite the near-total destruction of the first wave of invaders landing on the western flank below Vierville, despite the casualties and the terror inflicted upon thousands of green troops, a great many men survived to reach the sea wall alive – enough, finally, to swamp the vastly outnumbered German defenders. General Marcks’s LXXXIV Corps reserve, the 915th Regiment, had set off in pursuit of the mythical paratroop force of Allied dummies at 4.00 a.m. on 6 June. It was hours after the seaborne landing before the 915th could be reached by dispatch rider, regrouped, and brought back from the Carentan–Isigny area on foot and by commandeered vehicle. The defenders thus lacked any force capable of mounting a co-ordinated counter-attack either against the attackers of Omaha, or against the British threat to Bayeux, further east. At Omaha, the Americans found themselves facing Germans of the 352nd Division as well as the 716th – eight battalions instead of four. The defenders possessed the strength and determination to fight doggedly from fixed positions. But where the Americans, inch by inch, gained ground, they were able to keep it. The toeholds prised out of the heights above the beach that day by a few brave men of the Rangers, the 1st and 29th Divisions could never normally have been held against the quick local counter-attacks at which the German army excelled. But such movements did not develop. Like a trickling stream slipping between pebbles, a handful of courageous leaders and small groups of men found their wayaround the German strongpoints covering the beach exits, and forced a path for the American army off Omaha beach. The Corps plan for the attack was a failure. But the men on the hillside, spurred by their own desperation, found their own means to gain the high ground.

The principal problem in almost every attack on every battlefield is to maintain momentum. Every instinct, especially among inexperienced soldiers, is to take cover under fire. Instinct is reinforced when the bodies of others who have failed to do so lie all around. It requires a considerable act of will to persuade limbs to act which have suddenly acquired an immobility of their own. Inexperienced troops find it notoriously difficult to assess the extent of resistance and risk. On some occasions this can be to their advantage – or rather, that of their commanders – because it leads them to perform acts that more seasoned soldiers would not be so foolhardy as to attempt. But on Omaha the 29th Division, in its first experience of combat, deprived in the first hours of many of its officers, dismayed by its losses and confused by its predicament, became dangerously paralysed. The veteran 1st Division, on its left, performed significantly better – indeed, most Americans later agreed that without ‘The Big Red One’ the battle would have been lost.

It was individuals, not divisions, who determined the outcome of the day. It is arguable that as early as mid-morning, when Bradley and Gerow were still receiving deeply gloomy reports from Omaha, the real situation was much more encouraging than the view of the beach from the ships led the commanders to believe. Barely two hours after H-Hour, when the formidable network of German wire and machine-guns was still blocking all movement up the five valleys offering vehicle access from the beach, small groups of Americans had already reached the high ground to threaten the German flanks. The survivors of the 2nd Rangers’ A and B Companies reached the sea wall at 7.45 a.m., and immediately began to work up the heights. Staff Sergeant William Courtney and Private First Class William Braher of A Company’s 1 Platoon were probably the first Americans to reach the top of the cliff, around 8.30 a.m. When the Rangers gained the summit, they were too few in number to achieve a decisive success, although they sent word to a company of the 116th Infantry below to follow them up, and one boat section did so. But in the next two hours, a succession of similar small-scale actions took place all along the Omaha front, driving vital wedges into the German defences. 23 men of E Company, 2/16th Infantry, under Lieutenant John Spalding gained the hill and began to attack the German strongpoint which covered the east side of the St Laurent exit from the rear. After two hours of dogged fighting within the network of pillboxes and communicating trenches, the Americans cornered an officer and 20 men and forced their surrender.

Brigadier-General Norman Cota and his 29th Division command group reached the beach at 7.30 a.m. with the 116th Regiment’s headquarters. The general began to move among the bewildered tangle of infantrymen, Rangers, naval beach maintenance parties and gunner forward observers. He saw one man who attempted to move up the hill shot down. The soldier lay in front of the American positions crying: ‘Medico, I’m hit!’ repeatedly for several minutes. Then he moaned ‘Mama’ and cried for a few moments before he died. Two of the headquarters group were killed within three feet of Cota when he established his first command post, while his signaller was hurled 20 feet up the bluff by blast. But the fiery, inexhaustible brigadier began pushing officers, urging men, seeking routes by which to break the bloody deadlock by the sea wall.

Mike Rehm of the 5th Rangers had been huddled beneath the shingle bank for two hours or more with a group of men when Cota appeared. In one of his legendary encounters of the day, the general demanded to know who they were. Rangers, he was told. ‘Then, godammit, if you’re Rangers get up and lead the way!’ exploded Cota.8 The men began to thrust four-foot lengths of bangalore torpedo beneath the wire ahead, locking them together until they could blow a gap. In front, the entire hillside was wreathed in smoke from the blazing undergrowth. Coughing and choking, the Rangers realized that they could not run through it, but at last they pulled on their gas masks and groped forward. Some 35 men reached the metalled road at the top of the hill. Covered by 60 mm mortars firing at such short range that the tubes were almost vertical, they began to work slowly westwards. There were now Americans behind some of the most dangerous German positions covering the beach.

By 11.00 a.m., Vierville was in American hands. When Cota himself reached a house on the edge of the village, he found 70 men sheltering against the wall who shouted ‘Sniper! Sniper!’ as he approached. The brigadier impatiently ordered them to clear the way. They closed in on the German, who threw a stick grenade down the hill towards them before being killed seconds later. Cota began to move back down the draw towards the beach. He met one of his own staff officers, Major William Bretton, clutching a briefcase and looking exceedingly angry. ‘Dammit, I can’t get these people to move,’ complained Bretton. Cota called a young infantry captain and told him to get his men going off the beach. Hesitantly, they began to obey. Then Cota spotted an abandoned bulldozer loaded with TNT, desperately needed to blow obstacles down the beach. He shouted to the men lying around it for a volunteer to drive the explosives to the engineers. At last a red-headed soldier stood up and said, ‘I’ll do it,’ and climbed on the vehicle. Yard by yard, the beach was unsticking.9 At 1.30 p.m., Gerow signalled to Bradley: ‘Troops formerly pinned down on beaches . . . advancing up heights behind beaches.’

The German strongpoints were being knocked out either by superbly vigorous gunfire from the destroyers steaming as close as 800 yards offshore, or by determined action from Rangers or infantry. Hein Severloh’s battery had long since been reduced to firing single rounds in place of salvoes, for several weeks earlier half its ammunition reserve had been moved further inland as an intended precautionary measure against a direct hit. Now the gunners had no means of bringing shells forward and the only truck driver who attempted to do so was blown up on the journey by an Allied aircraft attack. By noon, Severloh himself had fired 12,000 rounds from his machine-gun, and was reduced to shooting tracer. This was helpful to his aim, for the gun’s sights had been shot off by a stray bullet, but deadly in revealing his position to American spotters. WN 59 and 61 – the neighbouring ‘resistance nests’ – had fallen silent. WN 62 had no field of fire on its west side, where the invaders were already working up to the rear. When their battery had fired all its ammunition, the gunners blew up their pieces and retreated southwards on their horsedrawn limbers. Severloh and the men in the strongpoint decided that enough was enough. They ran crouching from the entrance and began to work their way up the hill towards the rear, and safety. Only Severloh and one signaller escaped alive.

All that afternoon, Brigadier Cota moved relentlessly up and down the hillside, urging on the men clambering in sluggish files through the minefields and over the bodies of the dead. There were still perilously few heavy weapons on the higher ground to support the infantry now beginning to fight through the first hedges and fields of the bocage. When he found a group of Rangers claiming to be pinned down beyond Vierville, Cota himself walked ahead of them across the open ground to demonstrate that a man could move and survive. Many soldiers who attempted to set this sort of example on 6 June and in the weeks that followed were killed instantly. But Cota lived and the Rangers moved forward. Although persistent shellfire was still falling on the beach behind them, most of the Germans defending the hillside were dead or captured, and their gunnery OPs had been destroyed, removing the batteries’ vital eyes. Medical corpsmen were moving among the wounded, looking out for those who had died so that they might give their blankets to men who were still living, but shivering. One of Cota’s staff marvelled at the spectacle of a group of engineers sitting on the sand eating their K rations, apparently oblivious of the dead and wounded all around them. A dog, which had evidently been the pet of one of the German strongpoints, fell upon men of the 1st Division moving up the bluff with impressive enthusiasm, and had to be driven off with carbine fire. At 4.30 p.m., a staff officer of the 29th Division noted in his diary: ‘Prayed for the fourth time today, asking God – “Why do these things have to be visited upon men?”’ Brigadier Cota and his aide saw a soldier who appeared to be frozen with terror, praying on his knees in the scrub above the beach. But when they reached him, they saw that he was dead.10

On the high ground, Lieutenant-Colonel Williamson and the 2nd/18th had advanced to within a mile of their designated D-Day objectives. Like every American soldier above Omaha that day, he and his men were cursing the hedges of the bocage, which provided such perfect cover for snipers and were already inflicting interminable delays upon advancing units. Men sought cover whenever firing sounded nearby. Crossing a gap, the young soldier in front of Williamson was shot. The colonel put a Browning automatic rifle on top of the hedge and raked the area with fire. They moved onwards a little way without further casualties, then took up positions for the night just short of Colville. The Omaha beachhead had been secured. The Germans lacked the power and mobility to reverse the verdict of the afternoon. By nightfall, the Americans controlled a perimeter up to a mile deep beyond Omaha, while the 4th Division on Utah had linked up with General Maxwell Taylor and his men of the 82nd Airborne Division west of the causeways from the beach. Gerow of V Corps had not planned to establish his headquarters ashore until the following day. But Bradley, conscious of the urgent need to get a grip on the situation from the beach, told him to get his corps staff offloaded immediately. All the plans for a rapid supply build-up were to be sacrificed to the need to get more men onto the ground. 90 amphibious DUKWs, preloaded with ammunition, provided the vital minimum supply to sustain the forces ashore overnight. Some landing-craft crews, utterly exhausted, dropped their anchors when darkness fell. Naval officers in launches hastened among them, urging the crews back into motion. That night Montgomery discussed with Dempsey the possibility of landing all further troops planned for Omaha on the British beaches. The suggestion was never pursued, but in view of the immensely dangerous gulf that such a change of plan would have exposed in the middle of the Allied line, it is a measure of the alarm surrounding the Omaha situation that it was ever discussed.

While the Utah landing had gone as nearly in accordance with planning as any commander could have expected, on Omaha the failures and errors of judgement by the staff had only been redeemed by the men on the sand. Many officers, including Brigadier Cota, believed that the American landings would have proved far easier had they been made in darkness, a possibility rejected by the navy and air force, who insisted upon the need for daylight to make best use of their bombardment power. Had elite infantry such as the Rangers led the way ashore before dawn, it is indeed likely that they would have been able to get off the beach and work in among the German positions with or without the bombardment. The events of D-Day emphasized the limited ability of high explosives to destroy strong defensive positions. But the follow-up waves and armour would have suffered immense problems attempting to get ashore under heavy fire before dawn. The timing of the landing was probably sound, although the troops could have profited immensely from continuing support fire until the moment they reached the beach, and from better gunnery forward observation thereafter. American naval reports spoke of the frustration of ships cruising silently offshore, unable to fire because of lack of identified targets.11

The Americans refused to employ British-designed specialized armour – tanks throwing flame and explosive charges, and flail mineclearers. These would certainly have made a significant impact on Omaha. But they were not a magic formula for success. Given the formidable weight of German firepower concentrated against the five critical beach exits, it is likely that much of the specialized armour would have been knocked out on the beach in the same fashion as so many gun Shermans, merely contributing to the logjam of wreckage that did so much to hamper movement of vehicles and landing craft.

Chester Wilmot and others have seized upon the example of Omaha to demonstrate the supposed shortcomings of the American soldier.12 In the weeks that followed, some American commanders, including Bradley, were to be seriously worried by the performance of some infantry units. On D-Day, there proved to be sufficient outstanding individual American soldiers and enough elite units such as the Rangers and Airborne to gain the day. Casualties on each of the Allied beaches, including Omaha, were almost exactly in proportion to the weight of unsuppressed enemy fire that the invaders met. The Americans suffered 4,649 casualties among their seaborne landing force to put ashore 55,000 men on D-Day. If the American line at midnight on 6 June was still tenuous, and fell some distance short of its planned objectives, V and VII Corps had achieved their vital strategic purposes merely by establishing themselves ashore.

It was on the British front on D-Day, where so much rested upon fast and ruthless progress inland from the beaches, that far more dramatic strategic hopes were at stake.

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