June 6th, 1944
We are not here to play, to dream, to drift.
We have hard work to do and loads to lift.
Shun not the struggle,
face it: 'tis God's gift.
"Now that it's all over, it seems to me a pure miracle we ever took the beach at all." Ernie Pile
"It wasn't a miracle." "It was the American Infantry that took that beach." Stephen Ambrose
Maps of the Battle
D-Day began at 0100 hours on the 6th June, when the 82nd and 101st Airborne division were dropped into France, The drop went badly and the troops landed scattered over a wide area, losing most of their heavy equipment in the process. The scattered American troops were engaged in wide spread battles all over the Cotentin Peninsula, and this created confusion at German headquarters as reports flooded in. So many telephone line had been cut by the French resistance that the incoming reports failed to give a cohesive picture.
As the Americans were landing, the British 6th Airborne began to land east of Caen. One of the leading formations of gliders was under the command of Major John Howard who was tasked with capturing two intact bridges - one over the Orne river and the other over the canal at Benouville-Pegasus Bridge. The British landed in the right place and overwhelmed the German defenders.
The Rest of the British 6th Airborne, dropped to the east of the Orne and a firm defense perimeter was established. Engineers demolished fields of Rommel's asparagus, enabling the gliders to land with vehicles, light artillery and other weapons.
At 0300 hours, fleets of bombers dropped thousands of tons of bombs on the coastal defenses.
At 0500 Hours, The Guns of the warships signaled the arrival of the invasion fleet.
Although the advance units of the 21st Panzer Division were in the area, their commander was absent in Paris. In the general confusion, no orders were issued for the division to attack until much later in the morning, by which time the chance to wipe out the fragile bridgehead that the British had established had been lost.
A Coastal defense battery at Merville, One of those that threatened the whole operation was tasked to Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Osway. The Preliminary bombing of the battery had missed and the gliders landed off target, Osway managed to gather only 150 men to attack the battery and they lacked the explosives and heavy weapons. They stormed the battery, casualties were high but the guns were disabled on time.
Although the Allied fleet was spotted by German radar off Normandy, no general alert was issued to the shore defenses and the warships lined up for their approach to the beaches. Converted ships lowered Landing Craft, Assault (LCAs) into the sea and the heavily laden troops swarmed aboard. The Various vessels lined up in a precise order and destroyers guarded each of the fleets flanks against enemy ships, submarines and aircraft.
In the lead came the LCS(M)s, (Landing craft support, Medium) with forward artillery spotters to direct gunfire onto targets along the beach defenses. Behind them came the amphibious tanks, Then the LCTs (Landing Craft, Tank) loaded with specialist amour and then by infantry in the LCAs. Accompanying the assault waves were special landing craft armed with anti-aircraft guns to deter enemy planes, rocket-firing craft to saturate defenses and even 25 ponder (Light) artillery. Self-Propelled guns brought up the rear firing during their approach.
The Troops landed at 0600 hours, 6th June 1944. The Liberation of France commenced.
The beaches were assigned thus:
- British 3rd Infantry Division landing at Sword Beach 0725 hours near Ouiistreham.
- Canadian 3rd Infantry Division landing at Juno beach 0735 hours near Courseulles.
- US 1st Infantry Division landing at Omaha beach, 0630 hours near Vierville-Sur-Mer.
- US 2nd Ranger Battalion landing at Omaha beach, 0630 hours near Pointe Du Hoc
- US 4th Infantry Division landing at Utah beach, 0630 hours near Le Madeleine.
In early morning, Utah beach was totally obscured by smoke from the bombardment, the weather was grim, with low scudding clouds and a strong offshore breeze. 30,000 men and 3,500 vehicles were assembled offshore waiting for dawn.
The landing was spearheaded by two squadrons off Duplex-Drive tanks which successfully launched three kilometers offshore in sheltered water. As they waded ashore they dropped their rubber 'skirts', and opened fire on the surprised Germans. Behind them the first waves of the US 4th Infantry Division were landed at low tide, well below the beach obstacles. Although the soldiers had to cross more than 500 meters to reach the dunes, return fire was only sporadic. As they and the tanks cleared out the enemy bunkers, teams of engineers landed and started to create paths through the obstacles before the rising tide could cover them.
The original landing was quickly reinforced as tanks and artillery arrived together with another regiment of infantry. The infantry soon began to move off across the causeways over flooded lagoon, and by 1300 hours, had linked up with the US 101st Airborne Division. By Nightfall a solid bridgehead had been established and was being held against uncoordinated German attacks.
By far the worst problem was the congestion on the beach, owing to restricted exits. As succeeding waves of infantry and armor landed, they had to be moved off as quickly as possible into the firing line to make room for the supplies and heavy equipment that followed.
Omaha beach is about five kilometers in length and is overlooked by high cliffs. The only exits are up the steep ravines at each end that lead to villages of solidly built stone houses. Along the beach runs a concrete sea-wall about three meters high, on top of which one can still see concrete emplacements that housed 88mm guns. In theory it was a perfect defensive position, but originally it had been held only by German troops from a weak static division.
The assault regiments from the US 1st Infantry Division had a long approach - nearly sixteen kilometers through the storm-lashed seas - and had to attack without the promised armored support. One of the two battalions of DD tanks that were scheduled to be launched about six kilometers offshore considered it too risky. Of the twenty-nine tanks from the other unit, some sank and others were swamped by water pouring over their skirts. Only two reached the beach intact.
Low clouds obscured the bombers' targets and smoke made it difficult to spot for their shots, with the result the defenses were intact and wide -awake as the first wave of landing craft came into view through the haze. The vessels were met by a barrage of shells, mortar bombs and machine-gun fire. Two of the first six craft on one beach were sunk, while others ran aground on an offshore sandbank, forcing the men to wade through water up to their shoulders. Many soldiers were shot and many drowned. Small groups of wet, desperate men huddled behind the cover of the sea-wall. On some sectors, other small units did manage to get off the beach but all pretense of cohesion had been abandoned. As successive waves of men and equipment poured into the bullet and shell ridden atmosphere of Omaha beach, it was clogged by vehicles that were unable to move. So bad were conditions that at 0915 hours, General Bradley seriously considered abandoning the landing and rerouting the remaining men through a British beach.
It was sheer courage and the basic survival instincts on the part of the individuals and small groups of men saved the day. Colonel Tayler, the commander of the US 16th Infantry Regiment is reported to have said: 'Tow kinds of men are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die - now let's get the hell out of here.' By early afternoon, more tanks had been landed on to the beach, but the exits were still only open to men on foot, who had to pick their way through the extensive minefields in single file. By nightfall the US 1st Infantry Division had gained a tenuous hold on the road that ran inland behind the beach and vehicles were starting to move through the exits. The fact that the Big Red One (the nickname for the US 1st Infantry Division) was not defeated demonstrates the bravery of American troops in Normandy, and indeed the Allied troops throughout the entire operation.
Immediately following their landing on Omaha beach a team of US Rangers - soldiers specially trained for close-range fighting - attacked the heavy coastal battery at the Pointe de Hoc. Situated on top of high cliffs, and splitting the area between Omaha and Utah beaches, the big German guns at the Pointe were well positioned to fire at both beaches. The Rangers had to scale the cliffs, while the Germans threw grenades and fired at them from above. Those who made it to the top engaged in bitter hand-to-hand fighting around the strongpoint, only to discover the guns had been moved from the bunkers to a spot further inland. Constantly counter-attacked, the 130 men managed to hold the position through the night.
Gold Beach was the most westerly beach assigned to the British assault force, extended between the coastal villages of Asnelles and La Riviere. It was the responsibility of the 50th Northumbrian Division and the 8th Armored Brigade. Attached to them was 47 Royal Marine Commando whose job was to seize Arromanches as a base for the Mulberry harbor.
The weather at the launch site was appalling and it was decided not to launch the DD tanks out to sea, but rather to land them directly behind the infantry. The first waves managed to clear the beach obstacles, but the stiff wind buffeting the tide meant they became obscured more quickly than expected. Successive waves of landing craft had to pick a passage through them and many vessels were damaged in the process. The battle of Gold Beach, however, was won by the specialist armor that landed ahead of the infantry to deal with the defenses. By the afternoon the British troops were already marching inland towards Bayeux, and Arromanches had been secured.
Near the small fishing port of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Juno Beach was assigned to the men of the Canadian 3rd Division, who were thirsting to avenge their losses at Dieppe in 1942. The main problem at Juno was the presence of offshore reefs, which meant that the assault wave would have to land when the rising tide had already covered most of the obstacles.
Since the engineers were unable to clear the paths through the underwater obstacles, many of the first landing craft were blown up by mines. In spite of the aerial bombardment, there were enough Germans holed up in the houses along the sea front to fire on to the beaches as the Canadians dashed for cover. The arrival of specialist armor was delayed in many sectors. This delay hindered the clearing of the beach exits, which in turn led to congestion on the beaches. As wave after wave of vehicles and tanks were landed, they had to pick their way through the wrecked landing craft along the high-tide mark.
The North Shore Regiment had a hard fight at Saint-Aubin where they had to pry the Germans out of the underground passages of a strongpoint. Yet other units backed by tanks pressed inland and by evening a solid bridgehead - linking the Canadians with the British XXX Corps from Gold Beach - had been established.
Sword Beach as the most easterly of the British beaches and was to be assaulted by the 3rd Division and its supporting units, including a force of French Commandos serving with Lord Lovat's 1st Commando Brigade. The Commandos were to clear a way through the town of Ouistreham and then meet the hard-pressed troops of the British 6th Airborne Division at the Orne bridgehead. At Ouistreham the assaulting troops were faced by a solid line of sea-front villas-even a casino that the Germans had turned into a fortress.
After a massive preliminary bombardment, the heaviest on any of the beaches that day, the DD tanks were launched. In spite of the heavy seas, most of them reached shore, closely followed by the LCTs loaded with the specialist armored vehicles. On their heels came the infantry, who managed to clear the shore line and then stormed the houses one by one. Soon the first groups of grey-clad German prisoners were stumbling back towards the shore. As the tide rose, the strip of beach became so congested that further landing had to be halted until the specialist armour and the engineers could clear the exits.
The Commandos made short work of the fortified casino and quickly cleared the town of Ouistreham. Lord Lovat and his men broke out into the open country and began their march towards the bridges over the Orne and the canal. They faced light opposition, but became entangled at the bridgehead in the battle between the 6th Airborne and the 21st Panzer Division.
By midday Hitler's Atlantic Wall had been breached, although the Allies' toehold was still precarious, especially at Omaha Beach. The landing of the follow-up units on the various beaches was severely hampered by both weather and the lack of exits for such heavy traffic. Enemy interference from the sea had been negligible and the Luftwaffe failed to put in an appearance. What German sorties were made were mainly to the north, where valuable flying hours were consumed in hunting for the non-existent deception convoys.
As a direct result of their entangled chain of command, the Germans lost the initiative at the vital moment. Rommel, who might have been able to galvanize the troops, did not return from Germany until late in the afternoon of D-Day. Von Runstedt remained convinced that the landings in Normandy were a diversion and that the main assault would come later in the Calais area, a view shared by the Wehrmacht high command. Although there were two armored divisions within striking distance of Normandy, Panzer Lehr Division and the 12th SS (Schutzstaffel or elite corps) Panzer Division Hitler Jugend, neither could be moved without the permission of Hitler, who was fast asleep at his villa in Berchtesgaden in southeastern Bavaria. It was midday before he became aware of the situation and reluctantly gave permission for the two division to move. When they did so in the late afternoon, they were harried by the Allied fighter-bombers.
The one formation that was readily available, the 21st Panzer, commanded by Major-General Feuchtinger, was largely paralyzed by having first received no orders, then contrary ones. Feuchtinger was not in Normandy on the night of 5th June. Aware of the British 6th Airborne bridgehead, Feuchtinger had decided to mount a general assault, only to be told to concentrate his tanks on the other side of the Orne. It was not until late afternoon that his forces were in a position to check the belated British advance from Sword Beach trying to arrive from Caen. A few German tanks did reach the coast in the gap between Sword and Juno beaches, but not in sufficient numbers to cause serious disruption. By the end of the day, the 21st Panzer had lost a quarter of its armored strength but was still deployed to bar the way into Caen.
By the evening of D-Day, the Allies had managed to land 130,000 soldiers across the beaches and another 22,000 dropped by air. Although few of the actual D-Day objectives had been accomplished, the landing was an incredible achievement with the entire assault force suffering only 8,000 casualties. The British 3rd Division had failed to take Caen and the Canadians had been unable to capture the airfield at Carpiquet. The Americans at Utah beach had pushed several miles inland to link up with the hard-pressed airborne divisions, But Omaha beach was still causing concern with a bridgehead less than a kilometer deep. Before any attempt could be made on Cherbourg and thereby cut off the German Army on the Contentin Peninsula, the road and bridges at Carentan had to be captured and the two American bridgeheads united a solid front.