“Omaha Beach was a nightmare. Even now it brings pain to recall what happened there on June 6, 1944. I have returned many times to honor the valiant men who died on that beach. They should never be forgotten. Nor should those who lived to carry the day by the slimmest of margins. Every man who set foot on Omaha Beach that day was a hero.”
– General Omar Bradley, “A General’s Life”, 1983
On today’s date, June 6 in 1944 -70 years ago – the forces the Western Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy in Nazi-occupied France. This was the largest amphibious operation in military history with 160,000 men hitting the beach that morning starting at 6:30 a.m. The landings were preceded by airborne attacks through the early morning hours of June 6 by 24,000 Allied paratroopers. There were 5,000 ships supporting the invasion with naval bombardment as well as carrying the troops and supplies. The enemy were the forces of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany who had occupied France since 1940, imposing untold brutality. The Allied forces were the armies of the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, the Free French, as well as ships and contingents of many of the countries which had been overrun by the Nazis. This was quite literally democracy and freedom versus the forces of tyranny, and as would become apparent as the invading allies moved inland and uncovered the murderous death camps, the forces of darkness and evil.
These are basic facts of the operation that day, called “D Day”. But this battle (code named “Operation Overlord“)… this one day… was such a huge and complex undertaking that entire books, movies and TV documentaries have been devoted to it.. This one engagement would decide whether the Nazi tyranny could be overthrown, or whether it would last indefinitely. Every part of this story would qualify for a separate posting of it’s own. But for our purposes here I shall choose one particular facet of the story and focus on that. And as the worst of the fighting — the bloodiest, yet as General Bradley (commander of the U.S. forces in Normandy) tells us above the most heroic part of the story came at Omaha Beach, that is where I shall focus, attempting to relate what it was like to be there.
Omaha Beach – A Killing Field
Omaha Beach was so bloody is because of its topography and its position in the Allied attack zone: right in the middle of it – a fifty mile (80 kilometer) stretch of the of northwestern France’s Normandy peninsula, divided into Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah Beach (click on the above map to enlarge). The British, Canadian, and Free French were assigned the Sword, Juno and Gold beaches, the Americans were assigned Omaha and Utah Beaches. Failure to take it could endanger the entire operation by leaving the Allied forces divided. The German commander, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, a intelligent officer (to say the least) saw that this area would be the key to any Allied assault, and had put up the strongest defences in Normandy here. Omaha was overlooked by tall cliffs (easily visible in the middle of the above photograph) from which the Germans could blanket the whole beach with machine gun fire. The beach leading up from the water was filled with obstacles and mines. Part of the beach was called “shingles” – a line of small stones which offered a very small amount of protection from the machine gun fire. These were lined with barbed wire which made it impassable without exposure to the machine guns. And staying by the shingles too long left the troops exposed to German mortar fire. And with high cliffs enclosing it, Omaha could not be gone around.
“A hurricane of enemy machine gun fire…”
As if the above was not enough, the German forces defending Omaha were not the soft, half-loyal Russian and Polish conscripts that Allied intelligence had reported, but the crack, battle-hardened 352’nd Division. Their artillery made it nearly impossible for the men to be taken close to the beach. Thus from the moment they left their landing craft, the American infantry was in high water under heavy fire. As General Bradley sorrowfully recorded: “All men instantly came under a hurricane of enemy machine gun, mortar and artillery fire. Dozens died or fell wounded, many drowning in the sea. There was no cover. The men lay in the sand or shallow water, unable to return fire, or crouched behind stranded landing craft. For several hours, the beach and the water just beyond was a bloody chaos.”
Bradley gives “unstinting praise” to the ships of the U.S. navy, whose destroyers repeatedly risked running aground by steaming in close enough to the beach to give the Army troops cover with their big naval guns. But Omaha was still nearly impassable. Nearly entire regiments were wiped out within a few minutes, leaving many survivors disoriented. Sgt. Thomas Valance of the 116’th Regiment recalled that after being severely wounded, he “… staggered up against the seawall and sort of collapsed there, and as a matter of fact spent the whole day in that same position. Essentially my part in the invasion ended by having been wiped out as most of my company was. The bodies of my buddies were washing ashore and I was the one live body in amongst so many of my friends, all of whom were dead, in many cases severely blown to pieces.”
Private John Mc Phee of the 16’th regiment recalled being exhausted by all of the heavy equipment he had to carry: “Our life expectancy was about zero. We were burdened down with too much weight. We were just pack mules. I was very young in excellent shape. I could walk for miles, endure a great deal of physical hardship, but I was so seasick I thought I would die. In fact, I wished I had. I was totally exhausted.” Pvt. Mc Phee was hit three times, and luckily for him was dragged to safety by his buddies and evacuated.
Dealing With Chaos and Moving Off the Beach
With so many higher ranking many officers being wounded or killed it was frequently left to Captains and lower ranking officers to organize the chaos from different parts of units being thrown together in the chaos of battle and find some way of moving off the very slim sliver of beach they were holding onto and moving up the cliffs. Lieutenant John Spaulding of the 16’th regiment’s E Company lead one such movement, climbing one of the many bluffs looking down on the beach: “We still could see no one to the right and there was no one up to us on the left… we didn’t know what had become of the rest of E Company. Back in the water boats were in flames. I saw a tank ashore, knocked out. After a couple of looks back, we decided we wouldn’t look back anymore.” Spaulding lead his men through a minefield with the help of Sergeant Fred Bisco, who yelled “Lieutenant, watch out for the damn mines… but we lost no men coming through them, although H Company coming along the same trail a few hours later lost several men. The Lord was with us and we had an angel on each shoulder on that trip.”
Captain Joseph T. Dawson was leading a company of men through a similar minefield situation when he met up with Spaulding’s group. They were proceeding “… up to the crest of the ridge which overlooked the beach. We got about halfway up when we met the remnants of a platoon from E Company, commanded by Lt. Spaulding. This was the only group — somewhere less than twenty men — we encountered who had gotten off the beach.” The group then organized an attack: “Above me, right on top of the ridge, the Germans had a line of defences with an excellent field of fire. I kept the men behind and along with my communications sergeant and his assistant, worked our way up to the crest of the ridge. Just before the crest was a sharp perpendicular drop, and we were able to get up the crest without being seen by the enemy. I could now hear the Germans talking in the machine gun nest immediately above me. I then threw two grenades, which were successful in eliminating the enemy and silencing the machine gun which had been holding up our approach.”
General Eisenhower Pays Tribute
Overall the Allies suffered 12,000 casualties (men killed or wounded) in operations that took place on June 6, 1944. These included operations of airborne troops, naval vessels, and medical corpsmen operating on the beach, whose heroic contributions to the victory won that day we simply didn’t have room to include in this posting, as extended as it is. In an interview with Walter Cronkite on the 20’th Anniversary of D Day in 1964 Dwight D. Eisenhower the Supreme Allied Commander who gave the order to go ahead with the invasion on June 6 said:
“It’s a wonderful thing to remember what those fellows twenty years ago were fighting for and sacrificing for, what they did to preserve our way of life. Not to conquer any territory, not for any ambitions of our own. But to make sure that Hitler could not destroy freedom in the world. I think it’s overwhelming. To think of the lives that were given for that principle, paying a terrible price on this beach alone on that one day… But they did it so that the world could be free. It just shows what free men will do rather than be slaves.”
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by Omar N. Bradley & Clay Blair, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1983
by Stephen E. Ambrose, Touchstone Books, New York, 1995.
edited by Jon E. Lewis, Carroll & Graf Publ. Inc., New York, 1998.