6 June 1944

Posted: Wednesday, June 06, 2012 by Travis Cody in
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Today is the 68th commemoration of the Allied invasion of the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944.  I've written before about these events.
  • In 2008 I wrote about US Army E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division
  • In 2009 I wrote about the diversity of the combined Allied effort
  • In 2010 I wrote about US Army 2nd Raider Battalion
  • In 2011 I wrote about the British 6th Airborne Division
This year, I want to sketch the Omaha Beach assault by elements of 1st and 29th Divisions of US Army V Corps supported by 5th Ranger Battalion and 5th Engineer Special Brigade.

The invasion came nearest to failure on Omaha Beach.

The 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, was assigned the eastern section of the beach.  The western section fell to the 29th Infantry Division, as yet untested in combat.  The Rangers were also assigned to the west.  Securing this beachhead would link the British at Gold Beach to the US VII Corps at Utah Beach.  Failure at this point would leave flanks exposed to counter attack, as well as cut off any possibility of moving inland and linking up with the airborne element of the assault.

The first challenge for the assaulting forces was to get landing craft close enough to the beach to offload personnel, tanks, and other equipment.  The approach to the beach was mined.  Then the landing craft faced a tidal slope that caused water levels to severely fluctuate during high and low tide.  Many craft floundered and sank.  Others pulled up shorter than they realized, with troops climbing over the side and trying to follow sandbars toward shore.  Many drowned in water over their heads.  Craft that did make the beach often landed in the wrong place, and all were subjected to withering machine gun fire as soon as landing ramps dropped.

The next challenge was the 270 yard killing zone between the water's edge and the berm.  Belgian Gates dominated the approaches to shore, each fitted with mines.  Littering the beach were steel hedgehogs and tetrahedrons with more anti-personnel mines.  Beyond these were stakes dug into the sand, called Teller poles, each with an anti-tank mine fixed to the front and pointed at the onrushing invaders.  Finally, there were mines embedded on the slopes of the forward berm and the bluffs to the sides.  The defenses were situated along natural draws which would drive troops into funnels, subjecting them to pointed cross fires from which there was little or no cover.

Should troops survive the approach to the beach and manage to get through the obstacles on shore, a laundry list of armament awaited them at strategic strong points.
  • 7,800 infantry troops from the German 352nd Infantry Division, 726th Grenadier Regiment, and 916th Grenadier Regiment
  • 8 artillery bunkers
  • 35 pillboxes
  • 4 artillery pieces
  • 6 mortar pits
  • 18 anti-tank guns
  • 45 rocker launcher sites
  • 85 machine gun sites
  • 6 tank turrets
The initial wave floundered and casualties were heavy.  Companies were decimated and disorganized as officers and senior enlisted men were killed or wounded.  Engineer teams landed in the wrong places, and so their work to clear beach obstacles was delayed or simply couldn't be done until they salvaged more equipment.

The second wave was larger, but encountered many of the same obstacles as the first.  In addition, since the first wave couldn't get off the beach, each succeeding wave of troops began to stack up off shore or directly on the beach.  Getting up to the seawall and out of the line of fire became the goal of every man on the beach.

Of course, we know that the Americans did eventually secure Omaha Beach and move inland, as the Allies did on every invasion beach.  How did they finally manage it at Omaha?  By assaulting the bluffs and by using Bangalore torpedoes at the base of seawalls.  By acts of audacity and stunning heroism.  And, sometimes, just by making the decision not to give up.

Brigadier General Norman Cota (1893-1971) assistant division commander of the 29th Division, landed on the beach with a reasonably intact division.  He rallied his troops, organized his engineers in a daring assault on the seawall, and encouraged the Rangers to lead the way through the breach.  He told his men, "...we are being killed on the beaches.  Let us go inland and be killed."  General Cota led from the front, at great personal risk.

It took such inspiration and encouragement, and sometimes outright bullying to get soldiers to do the job under the deadly intense enemy machine gun and artillery fire.  Colonel George Taylor (1899-1969) of the 1st Division famously said, "Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die - now let's get the hell out of here!"

Once the soldiers got started, there was no stopping them.

That's just a very brief sketch of what went on during the early part of the invasion, and only at Omaha Beach.  Entire books have been written about what happened just on the first day.  The Americans suffered over 3,000 wounded, killed, or missing that first day on Omaha, and the Allies suffered more than 12,000 casualties along the breadth of the invasion just on that longest day.  And it was still a very tenuous beachhead. 

Four Medals of Honor were awarded for actions on 6 June 1944.  For additional information, including personal stories, please click here.


It is also my grandfather's 88th birthday today.  He lied about his age in 1940 so he could go to see as a Merchant Marine.  Happy Birthday Grandpa!

8 comments:

  1. Akelamalu says:

    Grat post Trav. Happy Birthday to your Granddad, God Bless Him. x

  1. Jean says:

    Happy birthday Grandpa!

    So many brave men lost their lives on that beach. I know that our dramatic reenactments were nowhere near the blood, noise, confusion, and danger that those men encountered that fateful day. May we never forget the sacrifice they made.

    Seriously, you need to get together with my hubby and talk military history.

    I also wish I could take you to the National D-Day memorial in Bedford, VA. It is so moving!

  1. What an amazing story was D Day. What an amazing time. I'm glad I'm not living in those days.

  1. Great posting and a BIG TIME HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOUR GRANDPA!!!

  1. Ivanhoe says:

    Did I see Czech Hedgehogs? Cool! One day, I will make it to France, to Paris and the beaches - to pay my respects.
    Happy B-day to Grandpa!

  1. Ditto to the post from yesterday..great lesson

  1. TopChamp says:

    It's the personal stories - the quotes and the veteran accounts - that make the most impact on me. I can't help but feel respect for the people with the guts to put themselves in the firing line like this.

    I also have been struck lately by how far people got on foot walking to battle - I saw a path across the Scottish/English border that was used in raids prior to 1700 - people walking hundreds of miles over hills to fight for territory.

    Happy Birthday Grandpa!