6 June 1944. D-Day. The Germans knew the Allies would come, they just didn’t know where or when. 12 months in the planning and subject to numerous changes right up until the last minute, the ultimate objective was a co-ordinated landing along an 80km section of the Normandy coast. Divided into 5 sectors, US forces were allocated to those code named Omaha and Utah, the British to Sword and Gold, and the Canadians to Juno.
At Omaha Beach, the battle plan seemed simple, albeit perilous. Aerial bombing would destroy the bulk of the German beach defences before dawn. At first light, infantry would be delivered directly onto the beach via amphibious tanks and landing craft supported by two regular tank battalions. They would secure the beach within 2 hours, engineers would clear and mark lanes through the beach defences, larger craft would then land massive numbers of troops ready to move inland.
Almost nothing went to plan. The bombing was well off-target due to limited visibility so the German defences remained solid. Boats approaching the beach were confronted with several lines of defensive structures armed with mines, and shelling and machine gun fire from the bluffs above the beach. In the first wave of the attack 27 of the 29 tanks were swamped in rough seas, and 7 of the 9 infantry companies were not landed at their target site. Tidal conditions and the intact defences meant troops had to disembark too far out. Soldiers debilitated with seasickness after 3 days waiting offshore in rough seas and carrying heavy kit struggled to even reach the beach. Wading through neck deep water at no more than walking pace, they were easy targets.
Bodies piled up on the narrow beach. Those still alive were stuck between the sea and a shingle bank beyond which rose the bluff topped with German machine gun nests and artillery. There was nowhere to go. The situation was so crammed, the top brass considered not landing the subsequent waves of soldiers at all.
A few tracks led from the beach back into the dunes between the bluffs. The plan was to capture these so vehicles and troops could advance inland but this proved impossible. Ultimately, survivors of several regiments grouped together and attacked directly up the bluffs under heavy fire and, against all odds, captured sufficient ground to enable the landings to continue and the beach head secured. The cost was enormous. Casualties were the highest of any of the five beaches. The objectives to be achieved in two hours took the entire day. 2,400 US troops had perished and many others were wounded. Only 100 of the planned 2,400 tons of supplies planned to be landed had made it.
Today Omaha is a quiet beach. A few families paddling in the shallows. A few visitors paying their respects. On the section we visited, a plaque in the water is the only sign of what happened here.
Inland from Omaha Beach is the Normandy American Cemetery, on the site of the first temporary American cemetery on European soil in WWII. It’s a vast site, 172.5 acres, with the graves of 9,386 American dead, mostly from the D Day landing and subsequent Normandy campaign.
A Wall of the Missing has the names of 1,557 who perished and were never found.
A statue entitled Spirit of American Youth depicting a young man rising out of the water is intended as a reminder that most of the dead here were young men.
One exception to that is Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jnr. The son of President Theodore Roosevelt Snr, Ted Jnr survived the D Day landings only to die of a heart attack a month later. On the day of his death he had been selected for promotion to two star general. More on him later.
Alongside him is the grave of his brother Quentin, a pilot who was shot down over France in WWI and buried near where he died. When Ted Jnr was buried at Normandy, Quentin’s remains were exhumed and buried beside him, so the brothers lie together.
They are not the only ones. Sadly, there are 55 pairs of brothers buried at the Normandy cemetery. 33 of them are in side by side graves. What grief for the parents. It’s difficult to read in this photo, but the below is one of the pairs, brothers Robert and Jennings Ervin from North Carolina.
The next landing zone along from Omaha Beach was Utah Beach. Things could not have been more different.
Strong currents had swept away many of the defensive structures designed to prevent landings. Like at Omaha, the troops were not landed where they were supposed to be, but by pure luck they ended up in a less heavily defended place.
Ted Roosevelt Jr, at age 54 and needing a cane to walk, had insisted on leading his men ashore. He was the only general on D Day to land by sea in the first wave with his troops, the oldest man in the invasion, and the only one with a son who also landed on the beaches that day.
Upon realising they were not in the intended location he insisted on scouting the area himself. He determined it was actually a better one and famously declared “we start the war from right here”.
The 4th Infantry Division landed 21,000 troops at a cost of only 197 men, although 700 others from tank, engineering and other units perished when the vessels carrying them were sunk under German fire before they reached shore.
Utah Beach is a major D Day site for visitors, with a museum and several memorials.
Between Omaha and Utah beaches is Pointe Du Hoc, a strategic peninsula reinforced, the Allies believed, with five artillery guns protected by reinforced concrete casements. Like these ones we saw at Longues-Sur-Mere, which are the only such installations in Normandy which still remain whole to this day.
US Rangers landed on the beach, tasked with scaling the 35 metre high cliffs and disabling the guns. The arrival was a disaster. Of 10 landing craft carrying troops, one sank with all but one life lost. Another was swamped. An amphibious truck carrying one of the 30 metre ladders to be used in scaling the cliffs was sunk by the Germans. Others made it but the ladders proved too short. A follow up force of rangers was incorrectly landed at Omaha instead of at the point.
There was nowhere to go but up.
Supported by artillery fire from British ships offshore, the rangers managed to scale the cliffs without the ladders. The fastest ascended in an incredible 6 minutes. After pushing the German gunners out and liberating the site they discovered to their amazement that the gun emplacements were empty. The guns had been removed so the site could be reconfigured but the work wasn’t finished yet.
The Rangers moved inland, fighting resistance as they went. At the end of their 2 day mission only 90 were fit to remain in combat.
Much of the site has been preserved, including original bomb craters and the remnants of the gun emplacements.
The site now has a museum and a memorial on the cliff top.
Inland from Utah Beach lay fields on land reclaimed from marshes and irrigated from locks holding back water. The Germans had ordered the water released, flooding the fields to make them impassable. On the night preceding D Day, airborne divisions were parachuted in. Their mission was to support the troops to be landed at Utah Beach by securing the nearby town of Sainte Mere Eglise and local access points.
Visibility was poor and the drops were a debacle. Many men landed in the flooded fields and drowned under the weight of their gear or became easy targets for the Germans as they could neither move fast nor drop to the ground for protection.
Near the small town of Angoville au Plain, airborne medic Robert Wright reached earth only to find that he was separated from his crew and had no idea where he was. Finding a local church, he hung out medical signs and waited. He was soon receiving injured men in alarming numbers. He was joined by another medic, Kenneth Moore.
Later a German commander came and, seeing the medical insignia, asked if they would tend some of his wounded also. They agreed.
Later still, the local mayor arrived with a young boy whose parents and siblings had been killed when their house was bombed. The boy had injuries and Wright cared for him for some days until his grandmother was located in another town and the boy was taken to her.
Many years after the war, Wright returned to Normandy on a trip with a group of other veterans. Driving through the countryside he saw the church, although he had long forgotten its name. The group stopped. The locals gathered. Wright recounted his experiences there. Someone asked him to wait, disappeared and reappeared some time later with a man. It was the boy Wright had tended to that night, who had returned to live in the village as an adult after being raised by his grandmother.
The church pews still bear blood stains from its time as a medical ward. Two stained glass windows have been installed celebrating the medics and the parachutists.
A memorial by the church honours the medics “for humane and life saving care rendered to 80 combatants and a child in this church in June 1944”.
While Wright and Moore were tending the wounded from the fields, another drama was unfolding in Sainte Mere Eglise itself.
Under curfew orders, the town would ordinarily have been locked up tight for the night. Unfortunately a house fire had brought the townsfolk and many German troops out to form a human bucket chain from the well in the town square. Suddenly, paratroopers started to fall from the sky. The Germans quickly accessed their weapons and many were killed before they landed.
Not so, Lieutenant John Steele. Luckily for him, he was not shot in the air. Unluckily, he came down directly over the Sainte Eglise church. His parachute became tangled in the bell tower and he was stranded, hanging down the roof. One foot had been injured in flak fire. He pretended to be dead for two hours before a German soldier in the bellfry detected that he was not. Cutting himself free to avoid being shot, Steele fell to the ground. The Germans captured him and took him to a nearby farm with a plan to interrogate him but four hours later he escaped out a window and hobbled back to town to join his unit in taking the village.
The locals consider him quite a celebrity. A model of him permanently hangs from the church tower and a re-enactment of his roof landing is done annually on June 6.
West of Sainte Mere Eglise, paratroopers had the task of securing a crossroads and bridge to prevent German reinforcements reaching the town. Despite the shambolic drops, paratroopers reached La Fiere Bridge. A fierce battle lasting three days and involving horrendous casualties unfolded. At one point, the company was running low on ammunition and in danger of being overrun. Machine gunner Sergeant Billy Owen and Pathfinder Bob Murphy at the front line near the bridge observed other troops dropping back. Murphy ran back to the foxhole of the commander, Lieutenant John ‘Red Dog’ Dolan to ask if they should withdraw. Legend has it that Dolan did not speak but wrote a note and handed it to him. Murphy ran back to Owen with the note, which simply read “I know of no better place to die. We stay”. The battle continued, was ultimately successful, and all three survived.
The unit lost many in what has been described by American military historian S L A Marshall as “probably the bloodiest small unit struggle in the experience of American arms”. A memorial nicknamed Iron Mike styled on a similar one at Fort Benning in the US honours those men.
If these stories sound like a movie plot, it may be because you’ve seen the 1961 cinema hit, The Longest Day. With some theatrical licence, the movie includes all these events. If you haven’t seen the movie, well, hand on heart there are much better WWII movies around. But for hammy 60s acting and a glimpse of some later-to-be-famous actors, it’s a classic.
We visited these sites with Overlord Tours based in Bayeux. They run a range of half, full day and multi day tours both general and specialised. We did their ‘Omaha Beach/Utah Beach’ full day tour. Great guide and lots of information and activity. Highly recommend it.