70 years ago today, Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of occupied Europe, was under way as Operation Neptune, the seaborne element of the assault on the Normandy coastline, unfolded. In the next part of GAR’s extensive D-Day anniversary coverage, Elliott Marsh reflects on the American landings at Omaha and Utah Beaches, and Pointe du Hoc, where some of the bloodiest combat of the war was fought.
With Allied forces in western Europe concentrated solely in the UK, the only way a successful, full-scale invasion of occupied Europe could be launched was by sea. Germany was well aware of this, with Hitler instigating the development of the Atlantic Wall (as referred to by Nazi propagandists) running from the Franco-Spanish border in the Bay of Biscay to the North Cape in Norway, before Field Marshal Rommel was assigned to strengthen the coastal defences in anticipation of an Allied invasion.
This complex construction of defensive measures included large numbers of coastal gun batteries, pillboxes, machine gun nests, barbed wire, anti-tank and landing craft defences (including Dragon’s Teeth and ‘Czech Hedgehogs’) and millions of mines; the land to the rear of the Normandy beachhead had also been flooded by the Germans for several miles inland to counter an assault by airborne infantry. The defences not only aimed to halt an invasion, but they would delay the Allied advance beyond the beaches and give the German Army sufficient time to launch a counter offensive. Rommel recognised that the might of the Allies could only be defeated on the beaches; once inland, the British, Americans and Canadians could establish a coastal foothold and would be able to reinforce and resupply at will.
Rommel campaigned for his six Panzer tank divisions to be based along the French coast at a range from the beaches that would ensure they could be called upon to destroy the Allies on the coast, pushing the forces back into the sea before they could mass. Rommel’s strategy was strongly opposed by his immediate Superior, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, who was reluctant to commit the Panzers to the coast before an invasion area was identified. This argument led to Hitler’s direct intervention and the eventual placement of the Panzer reserves under his direct control; only he could give the order for the Panzer divisions to be utilised, save for one division in Normandy, which remained under Rommel’s command. Thus, come D-Day, only the 21st Panzer Division was present in Normandy, and even then it was not at full strength.
Regardless, the Allied invasion forces would need to overcome the Atlantic Wall defences on D-Day in order to push inland and, in places, Rommel’s objective to drive the enemy back into the sea would come very close to succeeding.
Come the morning of 6 June 1944, and whilst Allied airborne infantry was engaging German forces inland in Normandy, the seaborne forces of the 21st Army Group were sat in the English Channel awaiting H-Hour, the assault on the Normandy beachhead. The V and VII Corps of the US First Army were tasked with storming beaches and breaching the Atlantic Wall along the western flank of Normandy, codenamed Utah and Omaha, with the objective being to link the beachheads to prevent destruction by German counter attack in isolation. To the east along the Calvados coastline, British and Canadian divisions would assault the beaches codenamed Sword, Gold and Juno. The battle for the Normandy beachhead, and the freedom of all occupied Europe, was about to begin…
Utah Beach was the most westerly point of the Allied invasion of Normandy, situated northwest of the River Vire estuary, close to Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. The beachhead at Utah stretched some three miles between Pouppeville and La Madeleine, giving the Allies a foothold to the west of the estuary, perfect for an offensive along the western banks of the Douve River and into the Cotentin Peninsula. Utah also put the Allied forces within 60 kilometres of the port at Cherbourg, an essential target for establishing a bridgehead to the UK.
The American 4th Infantry Division (with a strength of more than 20,000 men) was tasked with taking and holding Utah Beach, the final plan being to invade in four waves on 6 June 1944. The first wave was made up of 20 Higgins landing craft, capable of carrying a 30-strong infantry team. This wave was to split, with 10 landing craft each breaching the coastal defences on Tare Green Beach and Uncle Red Beach, separated by 1,000 yards, at 0630. The second wave consisted of 32 Higgins landing craft, filled with infantry, combat engineers and naval demolition teams to clear the underwater obstacles placed along Utah as part of Rommel’s Atlantic Wall.
15 minutes later, a third wave of eight more landing craft carrying Duplex Drive (DD) amphibious tanks was due to land to provide the infantry with armour support, and almost immediately after, the fourth and final wave would deposit combat engineers tasked with beach clearance between the high- and low-water marks, to make way for resupply and armour. The American forces would be coming face to face with the German 709th Static Infantry Division.
Preceding this invasion force were heavy aerial and naval bombardments at 0300 and 0500, with USS Nevada training her 14-inch guns on the German artillery batteries defending Utah Beach whilst USS Arkansas fired on the battery at Les Moulins, with both vessels supported by the Allied naval fleet. The naval forces, comprised of several destroyers and battleships, and more than a dozen cruisers, may have failed to knock out German coastal defences, but were instrumental in clearing swathes of mines which would otherwise have hindered the push inland. The US Ninth Air Force’s medium bomber force also had better success at Utah than equivalent US forces at Omaha, and their ordnance fell far closer to the intended targets – though this did not offer too great a tactical advantage to the invaders. Subsequent inaccurate rocket attacks by landing craft also failed to silence German defences to any significant degree.
The first wave to arrive at Utah Beach carried the 8th Regimental Combat Team, led by Brigadier-General Roosevelt (assistant division commander of the 4th Infantry Division) , the son of late American President Theodore Roosevelt. The Brigadier-General was 57 years old and suffered from arthritis, but still insisted on being with his men in the first assault on Utah. He was the only General to land on the beaches in Operation Neptune’s first wave, and he did so knowing that his son, Captain Quentin Roosevelt, was about to disembark at Omaha Beach at the same time.
As the first wave approached the beach, USS Corry, an escorting destroyer, hit a mine and sank and shortly thereafter, German artillery sunk a patrol boat guiding the landing craft to Utah. This loss did, however, ultimately work in the Americans’ favour, for the first wave instead landed some 2,000 yards from its intended disembarkation point, avoiding one of Utah’s most heavily defended stretches at the original landing zone.
Roosevelt and his men landed with minimal casualties, supported soon after by 28 of the 32 DD tanks (four of which had been sunk when their landing craft struck a mine), their arrival delayed by strong seas and a heavy current. Assessing the scene, propped up by his walking stick, Roosevelt ordered the subsequent waves to rally to this new landing zone, declaring, “We’ll start the war from here!” – a move which confused the German defenders, who shelled an empty beach further down the coast whilst American forces landed unhindered by heavy artillery – and greeting each wave personally. Roosevelt’s leadership on D-Day saw him awarded a Medal of Honour; an award he sadly did not live to receive. Roosevelt died of a heart attack two months later. His actions on D-Day may have saved thousands of lives, and help ensure the successful capture of Utah Beach.
Facing less resistance from the Germans than anticipated (Utah Beach itself being cleared of German defenders in around one hour), the seaborne forces fought close battles with German riflemen and machine gunners, pushing inland at midday and eventually linking up with paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division. The flooded marshlands along the coastline hindered progress and denied the 12th and 22nd Infantry Regiments from reaching their D-Day objective, instead joining with the 502nd Parachute Infantry to hold the northern flank of Utah Beach. To the south, the 8th Infantry Regiment fought as far as Les Forges, some four miles inland, but German resistance prevented a link up with the 82nd Airborne Division in St. Mére-Eglise.
Whilst the forces at Utah were unable to break through and join with those at Omaha Beach, the Utah invasion had been nothing but a success. On 6 June, the 4th Infantry Division disembarked 23,250 men onto Utah Beach, and more than 1,500 vehicles, at a cost of around 200 casualties, many of which were caused by capsizing landing craft or drowning in the artificial marshland. Morale was generally high amongst the troops, and engineers were able to clear the entire beach of obstacles throughout the day to enable the disembarkation of armour and troops along the Utah beachhead. P-38 Lightnings, P=47 Thunderbolts and Spitfires patrolled the air overhead, whilst ground attack aircraft hunted for targets inland, creating a blanket of protection against Luftwaffe attack over the beaches.
As midnight came and went, and the troops entered D + 1, they braced themselves for the gruelling fight that lay ahead. Utah Beach may not have been the slaughter many had feared, but there was a long road ahead to fulfil even the immediate objectives. Some considered the invasion of Utah to have been an anticlimax. For the American forces several miles to the east at Omaha Beach, anything less than a bloodbath would have been welcome.
The American 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions were tasked with taking Omaha Beach, linking the 4th Division at Utah Beach with the British and Canadian forces in the east to form one almost continuous beachhead. The Allies anticipated little German resistance at Omaha, and the American Infantry Divisions were tasked with liberating an 18 mile by six mile area, stretching from the Vire estuary at Isigny to the Bayeux region, by 2400.
German defences came from the 716th Static Infantry Division, which defended Omaha Beach, and the Allies were confident that this unit could be destroyed early in the battle to enable the American troops to hastily move inland. What the Allies were unaware of was the reinforcement of the 716th by elements of the 352nd Infantry Division, whose troops had dug in along the 170ft cliff top overlooking Omaha, enjoying the benefits of both an elevated and protected firing position.
The geography along this beach gave the Germans numerous positions for enfilading fire, and defences – including a shingle sea wall longitudinally segmenting the beach – would hold up the Allied advance, putting troops and armour in the firing line. Equally, there were only five small exit points along the bluff at Omaha for troops to advance from the sands, which were heavily defended and put the Germans at a massive tactical advantage.
It had been envisaged that a large scale Allied bombardment by 329 B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators at 0605 would largely incapacitate Omaha’s coastal defences, but the reality was that the bomb loads missed their targets by a wide margin – bomb release had been delayed by a few seconds to reduce the risk of friendly fire, meaning that they struck too far south to have any effect. Bombing within 30 minutes of H – hour also infringed on the naval bombardment, which had little time to create any significant damage to the mines, barbed wire and other heavily defended German positions along the bluff.
As at Utah, the assault began at 0630, with 1st Division’s 16th Regimental Combat Team and 29th Division’s 116th Regimental Combat Team’s landing craft arriving amidst the surf. From the offset, the invasion at Omaha began to fall apart; DD tanks were either unable to launch or sunk offshore due to the surf, with only five making it onto the beach. The majority of the 105mm guns were also lost at sea, along with all but six armoured tankdozers. The landing craft carrying troops to the beach suffered severe casualties as well, with several capsizing before they could reach the shore and others destroyed – and their infantry drowned – by the underwater obstacles installed along the coastline, the potency of the Atlantic Wall much in evidence. Others were wiped out by artillery fire, in some cases losing their entire 31-man team.
The troops who did manage to disembark did so under intense machine gun fire from heavily concealed German positions; they found the beach’s defences largely unmolested, and were immediately pinned down by gunfire and artillery, with MG42 gunners concentrating their fire on the landing craft head-on as the ramps lowered. Those who weren’t immediately killed dived over the sides of the craft, some drowning in deep water (in many cases, pulled under by their weighty gear), others gathering themselves up and finding some small semblance of cover behind the intact beach defences. It was a barbaric first salvo, as the Americans offloaded onto the beach into machine gun fire like lambs to the slaughter, the majority leaden with soaked clothing and equipment which left them unable to move beyond a slow trudge through heavily protracted fire and artillery.
Combat engineers worked under fire to rig explosive charges to the obstacles along the beach, their orders being to clear 16 holes for landing craft and other vessels to funnel down at high tide. Only three of the 16 holes were blown and subsequent waves arriving at Omaha faced a perilous final journey before disembarkation, with mines and other anti-landing craft defences now submerged and out of sight. Soldiers who were still capable of fighting found in many cases that their weapons had jammed in the water and sand; radios were rendered useless in the surf and the true horror of the unfolding slaughter could not be conveyed to the Allied fleet. Surviving infantry tried to push up the beach to the shingle sea wall, whilst recovering weapons and ammo from casualties, treating the wounded and linking up with other pinned down units. The bravery and sacrifice at “Bloody Omaha” that day is legendary.
In the confusion, all semblance of order was lost as units were spread thin and mixed together under the shadow of the German guns. Casualties rapidly mounted, and General Omar Bradley, observing the battle from USS Augusta, prepared to make the call to cease the landings at Omaha and withdraw all forces. But it was the sheer fire power and grit of the Allied forces which drove the invasion forward, as destroyers came perilously close to running aground so as to fire on the German emplacements at close range. As the Allied armour fought back, Colonel George Taylor, commander of the 16th Infantry, famously addressed his troops saying, “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are about to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here!”
Infantry began steadily fighting their way up the beach, at terrible cost, and by 0830 the first troops – a mixture of the 116th Infantry and Rangers from the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions – had broken through at the top of the bluff at Les Moulins. Simultaneously, others fought their way south at St Laurent and by midday, General Taylor had repositioned most of the 16th Infantry atop the bluff, and began moving troops towards Colleville, one mile inland from Omaha.
The second wave did not arrive until later in the morning, suffering the same problems as the first, leading the further severe casualties. Western Omaha was hit by the remainder of the 116th Infantry, who secured Vierville after an hours’ fighting. By the afternoon, the Americans were beginning to push inland and reinforce their positions along the beachhead, albeit at a terrible cost. Subsequent beach landings continued to suffer serious losses, and the artillery floundered in the Channel, unable to push towards the shore in poor weather.
Without artillery and armour to support the infantry, the American advance at Omaha Beach was slow and brutal, securing only a small beachhead which was by no means safe from a powerful German counter attack. By nightfall, the Omaha objectives were far from having been met, and the Americans held a precarious foothold along the coastline from Vierville to west of Colleville; certainly the smallest advance inland, but the bloodiest, on D-Day.
For many who had landed at Omaha, 7 June 1944 dawned with foreboding and uncertainty, for the battle could easily still go ill without sufficient reinforcement, advance and the benefit of tanks and armour. Thousands of men had been killed, and many thousands more wounded, for a small – but essential – gain in the grander scheme of Operation Overlord.
Pointe du Hoc
Whilst a single company from the 2nd Ranger Battalion landed on the western flank of Omaha Beach, the remainder of the Rangers had been assigned a key objective on 6 June: to disable the battery at Pointe du Hoc, three miles west of Omaha Beach, to put the six well defended 105mm guns that would fire upon the American forces landing on the beaches to the east out of action. Destroying the guns was essential to the success of the Omaha landings, and neither naval nor airborne bombardment could guarantee their disablement.
Led by Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder, the first wave of three Ranger companies landed under the sheer cliffs at Pointe du Hoc and fired grappling irons over the clifftop, as well as erecting London Fire Brigade ladders, enabling the infantry to vertically scale the cliffs within five minutes. A fourth Ranger company would capture Pointe de la Percée, the eastern flank of Pointe du Hoc, and the remaining two companies and the 5th Ranger Battalion would constitute the second wave of the assault.
Whilst the German garrison fought back with grenades and machine gun fire, the destroyers USS Satterlee and HMS Talybont provided close naval support to the operation and forced the Germans into cover. The first wave of Rangers overcame the German troops in the casements and found that the battery they had been tasked to destroy was, in fact, located some way inland, and the guns were quickly destroyed; the French Resistance had been unable to warn the Allies that the battery had been moved in sufficient time.
Mission accomplished, Rudder’s radio operator signalled to the fleet that the objective had been met, but it was too late; the 5th Ranger Battalion’s reinforcements had already assumed that the mission had been a failure, with the total loss of the 2nd Rangers, and instead landed further down the coast to support the infantry at Omaha Beach. At Pointe du Hoc, the Rangers were pinned down in the pockmarked landscape by repeated fire throughout the day as the Germans launched several counter attacks, all of which were fought back. Such was the intensity of the conflict that the Rangers ran out of ammunition, and resorted to using captured German weapons to defend their position. The Rangers held Pointe du Hoc against tremendous odds until they were finally relieved on 8 June. The force had suffered terribly, with more than 130 casualties over 6 and 7 June. In honour of the Rangers’ service in assisting with the Normandy invasion, the French Government transferred the area of Pointe du Hoc to the American Battle Monuments Commission in January 1979.
Whilst the advance from Utah Beach had been the most successful and least costly of the invasion, it was arguably the least vital of the beaches in Montgomery’s plans. Despite the push inland, the banks of the Meredet River were unsecured and St. Mére-Eglise, and the 82nd Airborne, had not been reached. At Omaha and Pointe du Hoc, American forces fought to the brink and stood upon the edge of a knife, the comparatively tiny foothold cut off from other British and American troops by 10 and five miles on either side. More brutal, prolonged bloodshed, however, was yet to come, once the Allied pressed further into Normandy and took the war from the beaches into the countryside.
Thousands of men lay dead, countless more wounded, but the Atlantic Wall had been breached at Utah and Omaha. Further east, the British and Canadians were fighting their own desperate battles, as Huw Hopkins takes up the action…
Canada contributed significantly to the beach landings, indeed, Juno beach was allocated to the Canadian 3rd Division, specifically the section of coast between Graye-sur-Mer and St-Aubin-sur-Mer. This was deemed necessary to flank the British on their drive towards Caen with specific aims to capture the German airfield West of Caen at Carpiquet and reach the Caen-Bayeux road by nightfall on June 6.
The initial wave put 2,400 men and 76 tanks ashore against no more than 400 defending German troops in two battalions of the German 716th Infantry Division. Ahead of the infantry the 22nd Dragoons and 5th and 6th Assault Regiment Royal Engineers landed to clear beach obstacles and came up against heavy resistance. One natural obstacle was a wave cut platform, rocks offshore, which became exposed at low tide but as the Canadians landing was slightly delayed, the tide was higher and so this became less of a problem, although it did mean landing among the defences. As such, 70 out of the 300 plus landing craft fell victim to them in some way.
The town of Courseulles, central in the Juno landings, was fiercely defended until it was taken late on in the afternoon and heavy casualties were suffered whilst men advanced up the beach towards both Bernières and St-Aubin. The Anglo-Canadian front were ordered to halt at 2100 and by that time The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada had succeeded in pushing further inland than any other force on D-Day.
Like the Americans, the British also had two beaches to land on – these being Gold and Sword. Events at Gold went surprisingly smoothly, with three beach exits being cleared within an hour of the first troops landing. In addition, two regiments of amphibious DD tanks of the 79th Armoured Division came ashore with the 50th Division, these included Hobart’s Funnies, a number of tanks that were modified to carry out very specific roles. Only 400 casualties were suffered, fairing best out of the Canadian and British beaches, and the British broke through the German defences.
The bridgehead between Arromanches and Ver-sur-Mer was vital for the deployment of the floating Mulberry Harbour which would see the reinforcements and equipment landed which was needed for the breakout from the bridgeheads. With the beach secure, the 47th Royal Marine Commandos could also make their advance towards Port-en-Bessin situated between Gold and Omaha, which they dug in a short distance away from come nightfall, with heavy fighting ahead of them until the town fell on June 8.
Sword was the eastern most beach of the landings, stretching 8km from Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to Ouistreham and lay just 15km away from Caen, the ultimate goal of the assaulting British 3rd Infantry Division as laid out by Montgomery. The 1st and elements of the 4th Special Service Brigade would link up with paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division where they held the bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal, which they did successfully, taking Ouistreham on their way.
Sword saw one of the only Luftwaffe attacks of the beaches on June 6 when a pair of Focke Wulf Fw-190s from JG 26, piloted by ‘Pips’ Priller and is wingman Heinz Wodarczyk, flew a daring low level strafing mission down the beach.
A German strongpoint codenamed ‘Hillman’ held up the 1st Suffolk battalion assisted by the 13th/18th Hussars’ tanks, which caused the advance to the East to form a bottleneck. In addition the only armoured counter attack during the entire landings only hampered things further, being carried out by the 21st Panzer Division, which halted the advance inland towards Caen until air support in the way of P-47 Thunderbolts dealt with the tanks. With both of these things to contend with, the advance to Caen only got within three miles of the town. With the force unable to even reach Caen on June 6, it can be surmised that Monty’s plan to capture the town entirely was rather too ambitious and the fight that lay ahead for Caen would be a drawn out and bitter one.
By the end of the day the invasion that had been planned so meticulously for so long had gained a foothold on occupied Europe. Overall the casualties soared to 12,000 plus, it was not free, what they did, and many more would fall in the coming days, weeks and months until the end of the war. But that was exactly what D-Day led to ultimately, it was the beginning of the end for the Nazi Regime and the oppression they bore down on occupied Europe. What D-Day and OVERLORD paved the way for was simple yet such fundamental values to human existence such as freedom and liberty.
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