D-Day part three: The beaches of Normandy
Published 7:37 am Thursday, June 6, 2019
Read D-Day part one here: Planning
Read D-Day part two here: Airborne assault
On the morning of June 6, 1944, 75 years ago today, German troops stationed at defensive positions on the coast of Normandy reported naval ships in the English Channel. Roughly 30 minutes later, the defenders found themselves seeking cover as salvos from the Allied warships dropped all around them. For several minutes the guns fired, kicking up dirt and dust and inflicting damage on their defenses.
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The naval attack was then followed by a wave of B-24 Liberators conducting a bombing run on their positions, inflicting more damage. German radiomen reported taking heavy fire as in the distance, hundreds of landing craft, known as “Higgins Boats,” approached the beaches. Inside were Allied troops ready to storm the Atlantic Wall. German officers sounded the alarms and men scrambled to man their remaining defenses. Artillery and mortar teams prepared to fire upon the landing crafts while machine gunners readied themselves to cut down any enemy troops that made it ashore.
The long anticipated Allied invasion, which they thought would come at the Pas de Calais, was underway.
Allied planners had divided the Normandy beaches into five landing areas: from west to east, Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
The Americans would storm the beaches at Utah and Omaha. Their objective was to break through and move northwest up the Cotentin Peninsula and capture the port city of Cherbourg. British and Canadian forces would attack Gold, Juno and Sword. From there, they would concentrate their efforts to capture the key communications center of Caen.
The beaches were defended by the Atlantic Wall, a fortification of large coastal guns, artillery, mortars, mines and batteries, as well as bunkers containing thousands of German troops. The Allies would attack at low tide as a means to avoid the metal underwater obstacles, capable of tearing the bottom out of landing crafts at high tide, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had placed near the water.
The plan was to have bombers and naval fire soften the defenses before the initial landings.
The landings at Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches went relatively smooth. The initial bombardments of the German fortifications had worked in damaging much of the defenses.
At Utah Beach, the American Fourth Infantry Division encountered resistance from second-rate troops, many of whom quickly surrendered. Aided by paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division, who destroyed a German battery at Brécourt Manor near Le Grand Chemin, the Fourth Infantry was able to break through and begin moving inland. Their progress, however, proved slower than expected.
The British 50th and Third Infantry Divisions and the Canadian Third Infantry Division, landing at Gold, Sword and Juno Beaches, respectively, also encountered light resistance. The Canadians pushed further inland than any of the other Allied troops. But the British and Canadians failed in their objective to capture Caen when they were counterattacked by the German 21st Panzer Division. The counterattack slowed them down enough to allow the Germans to establish strong defensive positions to the north of the city. One of the divisions manning the defenses was the 12th SS Panzer Division, consisting of fanatical teens from the Hitler Youth led by battle-hardened veterans of the war on the Eastern Front. The 12th fiercely fought the Canadians and threatened to drive them back into the Channel, but naval fire forced the Germans to fall back.
While the other beach landings met light resistance, every conceivable problem that could go wrong happened at Omaha Beach.
The beach was relatively narrow, overlooked by a heavily fortified bluff. Below that was a sea wall and an anti-tank ditch that blocked the five exits from the beach that led to the top of the bluff.
Prior to the arrival of the main force, members of the Sixth Naval Beach Battalion landed at Omaha with the task of breaking through the metal obstacles to make room for tanks, as well as set up medical aid for the incoming troops. They landed under murderous enemy fire as many of the naval guns had overshot their targets, leaving the fortifications intact.
On the west end of the beach, 200 men of the Second Ranger Battalion scaled the sheer 100-foot cliffs of Pointe-du-Hoc with the mission of destroying a battery of 155-mm guns capable of firing on the beach. Those that made it to the top discovered the battery had been moved inland. Despite this, the rangers found the battery and destroyed it. Of the 200 men that attacked Pointe-du-Hoc, 150 were killed or wounded.
Mass confusion set in as the main force arrived at Omaha. High winds and choppy seas blew many of the landing craft off course, forcing them to disembark troops in different sectors of the beach. Heavy enemy fire prompted coxswains to unload troops too far out in the Channel. Many men drowned as they were weighed down by their gear in the rising tide.
Those of the First and 29th Infantry Divisions that made it ashore found themselves in the midst of a hellish battle, massing heavy casualties under intense fire. Company A of the 16th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division, suffered 95 percent casualties in less than 10 minutes. The second wave of troops found themselves wading through bloody water surrounded by dead bodies, pinned down on the beach with little cover. Only two of the 20 tanks slated to go ashore at Omaha made it; the rest sunk in the Channel.
Failure at Omaha seemed imminent, but several hours later the Americans broke through. The heavy casualties and delay resulted in the least penetration into Normandy by any of the Allied troops on D-Day.
Of the approximately 4,000 Allied deaths on D-Day, roughly 2,500 lost their lives at Omaha Beach.
Over 100,000 Allied troops arrived in Normandy June 6-7, but the success of the invasion was far from certain. The Allies still needed to capture Cherbourg and Caen as quickly as possible before the Germans could bolster their strength in Normandy. The biggest question remained as to what the Germans would do next. Would they believe the attack was only a distraction against what they believed to be the actual invasion at Pas de Calais? Or would they realize Normandy was the target all along?