The weather reports received by SHAEF on the evening of June 4th, 1944 were not good. Rain and high winds were blowing in off the Atlantic, and seas were marginally too high to permit a landing on June 5th. Predictions for June 6th were mixed. Eisenhower decided to call off a June 5th invasion. Paratroopers, all dressed up with no place to go, unloaded from planes at their home landing strips. Nervous seasick troops did not even enjoy that small luxury. Most remained at sea in their British anchorages as Eisenhower set the small hours of June 6th as time for the final decision about whether it might just clear enough to go at dawn. The early June invasion window afforded by favorable tides and a full moon had come, but now it looked as if bad weather was going to close it.
As geography would have it, the prevailing winds blew for west to east. The Allies had the foresight to station weather ships in the mid-Atlantic and could wire much more detailed information to SHAEF meteorologists about upcoming conditions than their German counterparts enjoyed. As the Allied commanders struggled with indecision about whether to invade, the Germans, with only the information from their troop positions on the French coast to go on, concluded that a several-day storm was upon them. They decided no invasion could come in the next three days. On June 5th, several generals, including Erwin Rommel, went back to Germany for personal time or conferences. Rommel looked forward to celebrating his wife’s birthday. When Eisenhower received the reports from his meteorologists in the early morning of June 6th, a very modest improvement was predicted. Conditions would be far from optimal, but might be just good enough to go. The Allied commanders now weighed the risks. They were divided, but leaned towards invading immediately for fear of loosing surprise about the landing sites. In the end, Eisenhower had to make the final decision himself. He struggled with it, but he chose to take the risk of invading right away. And his choice paid off. Because the Allies had better weather data, their invasion would catch the German commanders far away from their posts.
|Ike and his commanders in an early planning meeting for the invasion. These men advised Eisenhower when it was time to make the decision to invade in the face of bad weather.|
Codes were sent activating the French Resistance, requesting them to attack prearranged targets not easily knocked out from the air. The Americans and British had been supporting the French Resistance with supplies and OSS advisers for three years. Now was the time to make their contribution count most. On the ground, secretly ensconced behind enemy lines, the French Resistance could sabotage facilities that were too hard to hit, or too easily repaired for air attack to suppress at this critical time.
The first Allied soldiers to touch French soil were the paratroopers. One thousand air transports carrying the three divisions of airborne units initiated drops east of Caen to secure the eastern flank of the planned invasions by sea and on the western flank in the Cotentin Peninsula behind Utah Beach. The airborne units were expected to obstruct access to the beaches to any reinforcements the Germans might send to the invasion sites. They were to seize strategic bridges and towns on the main roads to the beaches. Some had orders to destroy strategic heavy gun emplacements that could rake the beaches and disrupt the landings. It was also hoped that the sudden presence of so many Allied troops behind German lines would sow confusion among the defenders, and obscure for as long as possible the exact Allied points of attack.
|Parachutists dropping in daylight. This photo is not from the Normandy assault itself, which took place in darkness, but they jumped from identical Dakota transports.|
The hope placed on paratroopers, however, proved to be unrealistic for many reasons. First, being lightly armed, the troops would have to hang on where they landed until support (armor and artillery) could struggle up to them from the beaches. Second, high winds, inexperienced pilots and enemy fire meant that many were killed on entry and many of those who landed alive were badly scattered. This was less true for the British 6th Airborne Division on the east. These troops were mostly dropped on target and had secured their objectives within an hour of landing. The US 101st Airborne Division, on the other hand, was scattered in a 10 by 25 mile ellipse all over the Cotentin Peninsula. Clouds obscured the moon and pilots couldn’t identify the landing areas. Some troops were dropped into the sea where they promptly sank and drowned. Some were dropped too low and hit the ground before their parachutes were opened. The US 82nd Airborne Division also landed dangerously, being dispersed around the town of St. Mere Èglise, which was already garrisoned by the Germans. Some troops there were shot as they descended or jumped from burning transports hit by anti-aircraft fire. Their night became a screaming confusion of German tracers converging on descending troops and fire exchanged with Germans on the ground before they had even touched down. The messy situation at St Mere Èglise would take hours to resolve before the Americans could secure the village. They were so scattered and intermingled with troops from the other airborne division, they would have to overcome great disorganization to achieve their initial objectives. It was made even more difficult, because the Germans had flooded low lying areas behind Utah Beach, and a number of paratroopers drowned in the shallow waters, and these proved a significant obstacle to concentrating the scattered paratroopers. Despite all these formidable obstacles, the Americans also achieved their objectives.
At the first signs of gray dawn, Allied tactical air forces 14,000 plane-strong started to bombard the battle area. With the paratroopers already on the ground and the troops about to hit the beach, it was time for air attack to soften up the landing zones and try to disrupt enemy troop concentrations behind the beaches so they could not reinforce the critical points of attack. Thousands of flights would be conducted on June 6. The initial bombardments looked spectacular from offshore, but were largely ineffective at damaging the German defenses. Most bombs fell too far inland to help the beach landings much. The Germans were too well dug in, and Allied intelligence and bombers too imprecise to do much more than confuse the Germans. However before the shore bombardment started and the first troops reached the beaches, the sum of Allied deceptions -- the tactical air strikes, the parachute drops, and the disruption of German communications and the specific attempts at deception -- all meant no concerted German effort would get made against the Allied beaches during the crucial initial 24 hours. The Germans would fail to get any units into the battle area on June 6 that had not already been stationed there prior to the Allied landings.
|Higgin's Boats lining up for the D-Day assault next to an attack transport.|
A fleet of 7,000 ships proceeded to the five main landing zones. There were battleships and cruisers to perform shore bombardment, minesweepers to clear naval mines that might block the beaches. There were destroyers and patrol craft to protect the troop transports and amphibious assault ships from German patrol boats and submarines that might lurk in the area. And there were thousands of landing craft to carry the invading troops and their heavy equipment from the troop transports to the beaches themselves. Finally, there were transports full of equipment and supplies to support the landing armies once they were ashore. The fleet that assaulted Normandy on June 6, 1944 remains the largest fleet ever assembled.
|Naval bombardment as seen from the bridge of a heavy cruiser. Shooting was easy. Hitting fortified positions effectively was another matter.|
The Allied shore bombardments were not initially very effective, but as the day wore on, noteworthy gun duels would happen between some German forts and Allied ships. The Allies naval bombardment would eventually win all of these. The Germans had more success attacking the landing craft. In some places, they were able to destroy all the tanks before they could reach the beaches. They hit many landing craft on route to the beaches. In other places their heavy fire forced landing craft to stop short and disgorge their troops in water too deep for them, drowning entire platoons. But the huge fleet was completely effective in three key areas. No German submarines or patrol craft interfered with the June 6 landings, no ships were lost to German air attack, and by the time the day was over each landing had secured the immediate beaches and had advanced somewhat inland. Only a tiny percentage of the Allied warships was sunk. While all of the beach landings had failed to penetrate as deeply into the Normandy countryside as had been hoped for by the original plan, the Germans utterly failed to prevent any of the five landings.
The beach landings would occur at 5 sites, ranging along 50 miles of the Normandy coast from directly in front of Caen to the base of the Cotentin Peninsula. Each was code named; from east to west they were Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah. Because of the tides, the troops went in from west to east. The Commonwealth forces took the eastern three beaches, with the British taking the lead at Sword and Gold, and the Canadians at Juno. Free French units landed with the British at Sword. The Americans landed at Utah and Omaha.
|Utah Beach invasions sites and advances inland, June 6 1944|
At Utah, the US 4th Infantry Division caught two lucky breaks. Because of delays and stronger currents, they missed their target beaches and wound up two miles further to the west than planned. The beaches on which they actually landed were more lightly defended than the original targets. Their second break was that the troops they faced were primarily Ost battalions; Russian and Polish recruits to the German Army who sometimes fought poorly compared to German veterans. While landing on the wrong beaches caused plenty of confusion and delay, troops were moving inland in good order by noon, and lead elements of the 4th Division linked up with scattered elements of the American parachute divisions later that day. The Utah landing force would lose only 12 men killed on the beach, and only 200 casualties during the first day’s fighting.
Omaha Beach was next. This is the site of our tour this morning, and the experiences of these troops were completely the opposite. This is the main site we visited, and it will be described last.
|Gold Beach today at Arromanches, with some parts of the Mulberry still in place. We viewed the beach from the village at the upper left.|
Next came Gold Beach, between the tiny fortified villages of Arromanches and La Riviere. The British 50th Infantry Division at Gold and the Canadian 3rd division at Sword landed immediately adjacent to each other, and were spared the problem of linking up with each other once ashore. The British did have the problem of trying to find the US forces landing 3 miles away on their right flank. The flail tanks and armored bulldozers of Hobart’s Funnies proved instrumental in clearing safe lanes through the obstacles and minefields on the beaches, and the German strong points were overcome in the first hours. The water was too rough here for the Dual Drive Tanks designed to swim ashore under their own power, but the beaches were cleared so quickly that they were landed conventionally and were supporting the British advance six miles beyond the coast by mid-day. By the day’s end, units of the 50th Division would advance to the outskirts of Bayeux, the first town to be liberated. They were searching for the Americans on the left, but no link up would be managed with the Americans landing at Omaha until June 9. The Gold Beach force suffered 400 casualties despite the need to take fortified villages; a serious price to be sure, but far beneath the planners’ most conservative estimates.
|Juno Beach from the air, taken during the landings.|
The Canadians landed at Juno Beach at the same time the British were arriving at Gold Beach. Juno was more heavily defended by a single German static division. Although these were fortress troops with little ability to maneuver, they fought well. Nonetheless, the Canadian 3rd Division overcame the beach defenses in the first hour and was able to advance inland almost 10 miles before pulling back some units because they could not be properly supported in the event of a German counter-attack. Casualties were heavy: 2000, including 600 dead. They were the only troops to have attained the first day objectives set by SHAEF, although these positions could not be secured because adequate forces could not be moved up before nightfall.
|British Tommies return to the continent at Sword Beach.|
On the extreme east, the British 3rd Infantry Division, augmented by tanks and Free French units, assaulted an area of beach between the villages of Ouistreham and St. Aubin-sur-Mer. Their immediate objectives were to secure bridges over the Orne River on their East, and to attack south and seize the city of Caen, and to link up with the Canadians on their right. In practice, these objectives proved wildly optimistic. The city was garrisoned by the 21st Panzer Division, which had upwards of 160 tanks and assault guns -- essentially tanks with no turrets. Again, the initial confusion of the Germans and the effective use of specialized tanks designed for combat engineering carried the day. Here was the only place where the Allies had to face German armor on the first day, and although the British managed to destroy about 50 German tanks, they only reached the outskirts of the city by nightfall. Elements of the 21st Panzer Division advanced from Caen to the coast between the Sword and Gold beachheads. They believed that the German hold on this coast was secure, and rather than risk what might be further paratroop assaults to their rear, they pulled back to Caen by nightfall. Had this division taken a more careful look – or been less afraid of a threat that turned out to be mistaken – they might have used their armored forces to crush the vulnerable beachheads. The performance of this one division suggests that the Germans’ pre-invasion debate (and the Allies fears) about stationing panzers on the beaches was misplaced. Perhaps even three or four more divisions would have failed to crush the Overlord assault. But 21st Panzer provided a stiff defense of Caen in the coming weeks. By the evening of June 6, the Sword beach force had suffered over 2,500 casualties, but it would be a month before they captured Caen, their first day objective!
|The West Point Map of US operations at Omaha, June 6, 1944. This was chosen for the inset at the bottom that shows the relative heights of the seawall and bluffs at Omaha.|
As severe as the British test was on Sword, it would pale in comparison with the American ordeal in store at Omaha beach. There, American’s found themselves short of tanks that could have provided assistance to their landing troops. They had felt confident that they could decline the British offer of specialized tanks, but probably regretted it when many of the conventional tanks they had sent to the beaches were destroyed before they reached the shore. Omaha Beach, we found, was about 3 miles of relatively level sand framed by grassy hills that were perhaps 150 feet high. The assaulting troops had to get off the exposed beach as quickly as possible and climb the hills that lead to the plateau that comprised the Norman countryside, but those hills were steep, well-fortified and manned by veteran German infantry.
|A contemporary aerial view of the Omaha Beach landing site. In the upper left are the landing beaches. On the extreme right are the Pointe du Hoc cliffs the rangers had to scale.|
The initial American assault conducted by the US 1st and 29th Infantry divisions went in at 6:30 AM and was decimated. The rough seas scrambled the landings, and units arrived at the wrong beaches. The pre-invasion bombardment was ineffective. Many landing craft were hit by artillery before they reached the shore. Where the craft landed, the Germans held their fire until the ramps descended, and then opened up. In some units, no one came to shore without having been injured before they left the craft. When survivors struggled to the shore, there were no craters to hide in, and the initial waves of men found the beach heavily mined. Troops tried to hide in the water behind the German obstacles and eventually struggled to the sea wall. With no way to retreat, they simply huddled as best they could as successive waves of troops came in. The dead soldiers’ bodies added to the wreckage and confusion. Allied gunfire, meant to cover the landing men, was not effective at neutralizing the German fire, because the ships were ordered to stay too far out to sea to protect against the danger of running aground in shallow waters. The beaches began to clog up with the refuse of shattered units and dead men. By mid-morning the US Corps commander, Omar Bradley considered abandoning the Omaha Beach assault all together.
|A famous contemporary photo of troops wading ashore during the first wave.|
|A German machine gun position at Omaha Beach as depicted by Steven Spielberg in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.|
As the morning wore on, the Americans began to improvise. The lighter naval units defied orders and approached to within 1000 yards of the beach, improving their ability to pinpoint fire that could knock out German positions. Most of the units that comprised the first and second waves of the assault lost over 40% of their manpower from casualties and scattering. Although that kind of loss severely degrades a unit’s effectiveness, individual soldiers began to take the initiative to get off the beach. They faced daunting obstacles: barbed wire, mines, and German pillboxes housing heavy automatic weapons defending all the draws that led up the hills off the beach. But they salvaged the engineering equipment from the corpses and jetsam on the beach and, with naval gunfire support, began to take out the pillboxes and infiltrate behind them. By noon, exhausted ad hoc units had cleared two of the draws off the beach, which was still jammed with the jumble of newly arriving units amidst the un-cleared wreckage of the morning’s battle. Combat engineers would take heavy casualties under fire building the roads off of the beachhead through which the afternoon’s reinforcements would advance. At Omaha Beach, just as it is depicted in the movie Saving Private Ryan, the survivors of shattered units came together to improvise their way off the beach when all the plans had failed, and only bravery, individual creativity and perseverance could salvage the job. Moving from open ground up through hills hiding armed enemy soldiers is one of the most daunting challenges foot soldiers face. In the Civil War, at Marye’s Heights in Fredricksburg, the Union soldiers, possessed of courage, creativity and perseverance never got up the hill. But against automatic weapons and fortified positions, the American combat infantry got off the utterly exposed beach and into the Norman countryside against all the odds.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer sits at the top of the same 150 foot bluff those American’s fought their way up on June 6, 1944. It is not the resting place for most of the 2,000 dead Americans that came ashore in the rough gray hours of that morning. That evening, burial details started to gather up the bodies and bury them under the bluffs, between the roads the engineers had cleared up from the beach. These would be heavily trafficked in coming days as additional units arrived. It did not take long for the commanders to realize how demoralizing it could be to have these men march past those grim reminders of the risks of the campaign ahead. So the bodies were moved and reburied elsewhere, well before the present cemetery was established. So those resting today at the main cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer were mostly killed after that bloody June 6th invasion.
Now the cemeteries at Normandy are green and peaceful places, filled as they are with all those who died in the horrors of organized violence through out the ensuing liberation of France and the Low Countries, and the invasion and final defeat of Germany. Nearly 10,000 American war dead are buried here in view of the location of that original bloody assault. It is a beautiful place, even on an entirely gray day where the sea of the English Channel and the sky readily merge in an indistinct horizon. The day of our visit was not the clear day upon which you might imagine that you can make out the distant shore of southern England. Many of those two thousand dead have long since been repatriated to the US at the discretion of their families. Those that remain are mixed among the dead of the many other campaigns that comprised the Allied Western Front from June of 1944 though May of 1945. The Normandy Campaign alone would cost the Allies 120,000 casualties, and the Germans perhaps as many as 450,000.
The Cemetery is territory of the United States, having been donated for this purpose by France so Americans who died for France’s liberation could be buried on 'American' soil. It is operated by an American concession and a charity provides all visitors with a flower that can be placed on one soldier’s grave. My companions from the tour bus fan out to select a grave for their flower, and all conversation becomes hushed. Perhaps it is fear of death, or reverence for the dead, awe at their sacrifices, or shame and relief that we have not had to give that last measure of devotion our country required of them that lowers our voices. If you have seen the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, as the elderly Ryan visits the grave of Captain Miller, you will recognize the orderly rows of crosses and the very occasional Star of David. They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and apparently not in cemeteries either, for each grave is marked with one symbol or the other, and all the unknown soldiers are marked with a cross. We selected an unknown grave to decorate with our flower, imagining that no family would know to visit a lost soul and that his sacrifice must be all the greater to have surrendered not only life, but identity, in the battle.
|Matt Damon salutes Captain Miller at the conclusion of Saving Private Ryan.|
|The 43rd President of The United States visits Normandy American Cemetery on the occasion of the|
65th anniversary of D-Day.
That desperate struggle on June 6 was only the beginning of the Normandy Campaign. But it proved to be far tougher going than the Allied planners had expected. Ancient hedge rows of the bocage surrounded the small French farms of this section of Normandy, and these provided natural fortifications that were impenetrable for Allied tanks. Centuries of growth created sunken roads, making for countless opportunities for ambush. The build up of soil made natural embankments too thick for ordinary tanks to bulldoze their way through. The foliage provided natural cover and excellent concealment for snipers. The Normandy battle quickly devolved into a battle of attrition as the Germans gradually fed their reserve formations into the battle. These naturally arrived first at the eastern edge of the Allied lines, nearest Juno, Gold, and Sword beaches, so going was slowest for the Commonwealth forces there. It would take three major operations and four weeks before the British and Canadians had liberated Caen. As the Germans were pressured in the fight for Caen, the western side of their lines became weaker. It would take the Americans a week of fighting to cut off the Cotentin peninsula and isolate Cherbourg. When the port city finally fell on June 27th, the Germans had wrecked it so badly that it took the American engineers two weeks to clear the harbor. By the time it was fully functional, the Allied armies would already be driving for the German border.
|French hedgerows; the bocage, from the air.|
The Allied build up was greatly facilitated by the use of Mulberries, or temporary man-made harbors, constructed at Arromanches and at Omaha Beach. On June 19st, (the next invasion opportunity if Eisenhower had not given the go ahead on June 6th) a 100-year storm blew in from the Atlantic and wrecked the American Mulberry. The remains of the surviving temporary port can still be seen when we visit the museums and commemorative plaques at Arromanches. On the beach, you can see Sherman tanks and British 25-pounder field guns, souvenir shops and concessions. If you look out in the water, you might see the hulks of the Liberty ships that were filled with concrete and sunk to make the Mulberry breakwaters. And you might imagine how the Mulberries themselves became temporary docks on which to unload the endless stream of ships supplying the Allied build up. Everything the Allies needed had to be shipped through these makeshift facilities. When the June 19st storm came, and interrupted supply for three days, both the British and Americans had unloaded 9,000 tons of troops and supplies daily through these makeshift port facilities.
|Patton's forces breakthrough at St. Lo and nearly pocket the Germans at Falaise, and end the Normandy Campaign. By the end of summer, almost all of France had been liberated.|
Almost all of the Allied combat formations had truck transport, and were far more mobile than German static divisions, which scarcely moved at all, and German ‘leg’ infantry which had to march on foot. If the Allies achieved a breakout from Normandy and caught German formations beyond the natural fortifications of the bocage, the German Army was in danger of disintegrating, unable to disengage from faster enemies. After 8 weeks of slogging attrition warfare, the Americans achieved exactly that breakout, on the weaker western side of the German front at the village of St Lo. Following a German armored counterattack which Allied intelligence had pinpointed and was soundly defeated, the American mobile formations assigned the General George Patton made skillful use of these natural mobility advantages to nearly surround and isolate two German armies. Despite a skillful withdrawal, by August 25th, the Germans lost 50,000 prisoners and several thousand vehicles, and their forces completely disintegrated south of the Seine. By this time, the German commander, Erwin Rommel, had been seriously wounded when his staff car was strafed by Allied aircraft, and he was out of the war. On October 14, 1944, Rommel was coerced into taking cyanide by agents of the Hitler government in the mistaken belief that he was involved in the July 20th bomb plot against Hitler’s life, itself a product of the accumulation of serious military reverses like the defeat in Normandy.
The Normandy Campaign resulted in an Allied strategic victory. The Allies would face only isolated resistance until they reached the border of France and Germany and the Low Countries. On June 22, the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, their massive summer offensive. By August 14th they pocketed and destroyed an entire army group, resulting in the destruction of about 25% of the German Eastern Front forces and the loss of about 400,000 men. On August 19th, the Paris Resistance rose and began to seize many parts of the city. On August 24th Free French Forces entered an intact Paris despite Hitler’s orders that it be burned to the ground. That Paris was not burned is a fascinating story in and of itself, and probably worth a post of its own later in our trip!
However the most compelling story of the invasion isn’t the saving of Paris from being burned to the ground, or the brilliant technical innovations of Mulberries or Hobart’s Funnies. It isn’t even Eisenhower’s decision to go for it on June 6th or the German’s decisive disorganization at the moment of the attack that lost them the chance to crush the invasion. It was something simple – and for the Germans, there were several hours at Omaha Beach where the German commander had the troops at his disposal and could have caused thousands of shattered, exhausted and demoralized Americans to surrender with a modest attack by troops on hand, had he not thought the invasion already a failure! He did not require tanks, merely the clarity and resolve to act with the forces at hand. Instead they went to a sector that wasn’t even seriously threatened and accomplished nothing. There would have been no Saving Private Ryan to film if 200 German infantry had made a concerted attempt to clear Omaha beach at 10AM June 6.
The history of D-Day is full of a thousand amazing accounts of dramatic, desperate and improbable events: a man who helplessly watches street fighting below suspended from a church steeple tangled in the rigging of his parachute. A paratrooper drowns landing directly into a well. An American paratroop commander overloads his glider with protective plating and falls out of the sky like a rock. German commanders are too afraid to release the Panzer reserves to assault the beaches without Hitler’s orders, but also too afraid to wake Hitler to get them. A soldier draws his weapon on a frightened sailor commanding his Higgins boat so that his comrades will not be dropped in water too deep for them despite withering German fire.
All of these stories are amazing. There is nowhere near time to visit them all. Instead, I stand for 15 minutes at the top of one of the fortified gullies disorganized American GI’s had to claw their way up in the face of fierce machine gun fire from German pillboxes on the late morning of June 6, 1944. I am looking down at the peaceful beach now cleared of obstacles, and marvel the accomplishment of those shattered frightened Americans. For many their first taste of battle looked like a bloody confused defeat. They have lost their friends and their commanding officers, often their entire units. Their situation looks far worse than anything they had imagined in training, or in their previous combat experience. They have nowhere to run and are being killed where they hide. Yet still they reassemble their wits, shake off their shock, fear and fatigue, and find a way to get up that impossible hill.
|Omaha Beach today, viewed from the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Colleville-sur-Mer.|