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Part 2, The Allies Return

A DAY AT THE BEACH

Landing crafts plowed through the waves. Apart from the noise of the engines driving the vessels, the rolling sounds of the sea and the distant droning of Allied aircraft in the clouds above, a deathly stillness had fallen over the men.

 

No one exchanged a word, their faces tense with anxiety of waiting and the probability of death. The salt spray splashed against their faces. Their helmets glistened like dull glass. In spite of it being a cold morning, a layer of sweat stood out on their foreheads, or maybe it was the spray. Each was sunk into his own world of memories and worries. Vomit intermingled with salt water sloshed around their feet and a permeating odor of stench hung in the air.

 

In the distance ahead, men could hear the detonations of bombs and the ack-ack of anti-aircraft fire. Behind them came the reassuring crump of the naval guns, followed by the whines of shells as they flew overhead, battleship to corvette anchored in phalanx behind the lines of tiny landing craft. Salvo after salvo left the guns to embed themselves in the Norman landscape.

 

As the crafts drew near, the men in landing crafts became galvanized. Months of drilling took over as if on reflex. Officers barked out orders, and the crews of the lead LCTs (landing Craft, Tanks) fired smoke signals. As abruptly as it had begun, the naval bombardment stopped, prompting an eerie silence broken only by the crashing of the waves on the beaches almost 300 m (320 yards) away. Then at 6.31 am British time, a minute behind schedule, the first ten craft off “Utah” beach lowered their ramps and first 300 invaders leapt into the cold channel waters and waded towards the low, undulating shoreline. As they hit the beach, gunfire came up to greet them. It was D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Daylight dispelled German confusion about the goings-on the night before. As they caught sight of the Allied fleet in the distance, some of them instinctively knew that this was  invasion.  

 

Shortly before H-Hour, the appointed time for the landings to take place, allied bombers struck at the German command station in Caen, as fighter-bombers strafed military installations and barracks in the city. Then, right before the landings, the navy took over. Flares and flashes lit up the coast as the pre-planned naval bombardment began at 5 am.

The spectacle of the invasion fleet, now belching fire and metal on the Germans, was astounding. The seascape between Vierville-sur-Mer in the west and Merville in the east was crammed with thousands of Allied vessels. All of the heavy fire emanated from the fleet’s heavyweights, the battleships and the cruisers. Only the fleet’s 75 destroyers remained silent as they followed orders not to fire until 40 minutes before the first wave of Allied troops head towards the beaches.

Map of the Uhat Beach sector

“The [ships] came, rank after relentless rank, ten lanes wide, twenty miles across, five thousand ships of every description,” wrote a journalist that morning. “Coast Guard cutters, buoy-layers and motor launches” and “a formidable array of 702 warships.”

Already, at 4.30 am, 132 troops of the 4th and 24th Cavalry Squadrons had assailed the island of St Marcouf, just off the Cotentin peninsula, two hours before the main landings along the coastline. Their mission was to clear enemy minefields and German observation points. They found the mines but no Germans.

Amid the naval barrage, an alarm blared. Three German torpedo boats had emerged from a smoke screen. A torpedo smashed into the Free Norwegian destroyer, Svenner which wallowed and went under. Seventy-four destroyers remained. The German boats vanished into the smoke towards Le Havre.

Meanwhile, overhead, hundreds of US Eighth Air Force B-17 Flying Fortresses and other bombers streamed towards the coastline. For over half an hour before the assault forces reaching the beach, some 1,365 American bombers began dumping 2,796 tons of bombs on targets spread along the coast, adding to the destruction caused by British bombers the night before. When the bombardment lifted long minutes later, 4,000 barges and landing craft began separating themselves from the fleet and heading for the coastline. Within them, heavily armed but anxious Allied troops waited to reach the sable sand of France.

Landing Table Utah Beach

Graphic showing the in which order the leading American assault units landed at Utah" beach. ©Akhil Kadidal

Teddy Roosevelt Jr

Theodore Roosevelt Jr, deputy commander of the US 4th Infantry Division.

It 6 am when the first allied landing crafts carrying the US 4th Infantry Division left their parent ships and headed towards “Utah Beach.” On the way something went wrong – a patrol craft, PC1261, detailed to lead two LCCs (Landing Craft Control) to “Utah,” hit a mine and blew up.

A mine also badly dislodged the American plan to send a force of 32 Sherman "swimming" tanks from the 70th Tank Battalion ahead of the infantry. The leading landing craft LCT539 with four Shermans hit a mine and blew up. Confusion set in within the other LCTs. The Shermans were finally launched at a range of between 1,500 and 3,000 yards out to sea. One floundered on the way in, and by the time the rest came in ashore, they were 20 minutes late and the infantry force was ahead of them.

Meantime, as the infantry-carrying landing craft reached to within 300 and 700 yards from the beach, 17 Landing Craft (Rockets), positioned 3,000 yards away fired off a barrage of 1,064 five-inch rockets. The rockets came screaming in on the German positions along the beach.

 

In the midst of this maelstrom, the assault force unwittingly drifted in an offshore current and landed two kilometers (1¼ miles) further south. It was a blessing in disguise. The beach that they had landed on was the most lightly defended sector in the whole of Normandy. The assistant commander of the division, the 57-year old arthritis-afflicted Brig-General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. – son of the former American president Teddy Roosevelt, and cousin of the current president – who had pleaded to go ashore with his men, realized what a gift this was.

“We will start the war from right here,” he announced.

The first wave of infantry, split into twenty 32-man assault teams from the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 8th Infantry Regiment, was already on the beach as of 6.30 am, trading fire with German forces across the breach.

 

One GI, Private Harper Coleman of H Company, 2nd Battalion remembered: “Before we reached the shore something came through the side of our craft and tore out a hole in one side and out the other, tore a good piece out of my backpack. The history books say we landed some distance to the left than we were supposed and that this was one of the easier landings. I don’t know of this was good or bad. It did not seem good at the time. We went into the water somewhat more than waist deep and a good distance from dry land. When we came on shore, we had a greeter, how he got there I do not know other than he was in one of the first landing craft. But Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt was standing waving his cane and giving out instructions as only he could. If we were afraid of the enemy, we more afraid of him and could not stop on the beach had we wanted to.”

Another GI on the beach was Sergeant Jerome D Salinger (later famous as J D) who had come in with the Divisional Intelligence Corps Detachment in the second wave at 6.45 am. Salinger and the others in his unit found themselves under the comparative higher fire that the initial troops at had faced.

 

As he had waded through the water, Salinger spared a thought for pages of a story he had written stuffed into his rucksack. These pages would later go into his magnum opus, The Catcher in the Rye.

Salinger in Normandy

Probably no exaggeration to say that the name "Holden Caulfield" is somewhere in that notebook.

Sergeant J D Salinger writes on a table in France.

Soon, the 70th Tank Battalion came ashore, joined by 37 self-propelled M7 priests. Together, they began pummeling the German positions. German artillery fire began tearing into the beachhead. A shore battery began focusing its fire on the US destroyer Corry. Soon, Corry was keeling over, smashed by 8-inch shells. She went down in 30-foot shallows.

 

At WN5, a German strongpoint, the 3rd Company of the 919th Grenadier Regiment was in a state of shock after the Allied bombardment. Their commander, Lt Arthur Jahnke, sent to a runner asking for the 122mm battery of the 1261st Artillery Regiment at St. Martin-de-Varreville to hit the Americans. But no bombardment came. Little did Jahnke know that the battery had been overrun by "Iron Mike's" paratroopers.

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US troops and wading Shermans of 'C' Company, 70th Tank Battalion come ashore as part of the third wave. PA Archive 

He watched in horror as Americans closed to the distance to his forward positions. Just then, a partly buried French Renault tank manned by Germans opened fire. The incoming GIs scattered for cover. Most of the Americans of the first wave were already under the cover the beach wall, but the fire hurtled into the second wave coming ashore. Attempts to get a single 88mm gun which had been damaged by bombs were less than successful. After fire one shell which hit and disabled a Sherman DD, the gun refused work. In any case, more American naval fire landed on the defenders. Those that were not killed outright were too dazed to fight.

The rest of the assault was remarkable simple. For the loss of 197 men killed (including 60 at sea), the Americans poured inland. Jahnke and the survivors of his company were taken prisoner. Sporadic German artillery fire from inland batteries would continue for the next few hours.

 

Roosevelt Jr. would return to the beachhead repeatedly over the course of the new few hours to lead men through the seawall without regard for his own safety. Six days later, he was dead of a heart attack. He was buried at Ste-Mère-Église.

 

Washington saw his actions as a primary example of courage and clear thinking in a time of crisis. He was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.

Utah Beach ethnic Georgian

A captured ethnic Georgian from the German 795th Ost Battalion is questioned by a US Army captain at “Utah” Beach. At the time, American troops believed the man was a Japanese solider in German uniform. After the war, a myth grew that his name was “Yang Kyoungjong,” a Korean national inducted into the Russian Red Army, and in turn, captured by the German Army in 1942. US Office of Public and International Affairs

Overlord Map

German commanders began to rush back to the front. At Picauville, members of the headquarters company of the 3rd Battalion, 505th PIR, approached a farmhouse to ask a Frenchman to show them where they were. At that a moment, a German Mercedes Phaeton staff car hove into view on the road to Ste-Mère-Église. A paratrooper, First Lt Malcolm Brannen, stepped into the middle of the road to stop the vehicle. However, the driver accelerated. Brannen dove out of the way.

As the car dashed past, his troops, who had been taking cover behind a stone wall, stood up and opened fire. The car went careening into a wall. The driver went flying out. He was miraculously unhurt. Another man, an officer, had been similarly ejected during the crash. Badly hurt, he crawled towards his Luger pistol which had fallen a few feet away.

The German locked eyes with Brannen. He “looked at me as I stood… fifteen feet to his right and as he inched closer and closer to his weapon, he pleaded to me in German and also in English, ‘Don’t kill, don’t kill.’ I thought, ‘I’m not a cold-hearted killer, I’m human—but if he gets that Luger, it is either him or me or one or more of my men.’ So, I shot.”

The German, Major Joachim Bartuzat, was hit in the forehead and died instantly. “The blood spurted from his forehead about six feet high and, like water in a fountain when it is shut off, it gradually subsided,” Brannen later said.

 

One of the paratroopers who nosed inside the vehicle saw a third man slumped over the passenger seat, dead. It was Lt-General Wilhelm Falley, commander of the German 91st Airlanding Division, who was rushing back from the war games at Rennes.

Another German commander, Lt-General Karl von Schleiben of the 709th Division was luckier. He would reach his headquarters at Valognes on the afternoon of June 6.

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TOP The first German general to die in Normandy, Lt-General Wilhelm Falley.

ABOVE Lt Brannen of the 505th PIR.

Omaha Beach painting Fox Green Beach

OMAHA BEACH

A contemporary watercolor by US Navy combat artist Dwight Shepler, showing USS Emmons (DD-457) bombarding Fox Green on "Omaha" beach on 6 June 1944. US Navy Art Collection, Washington, D C

Meanwhile, the Allied air support swept overhead the D-Day beaches – 171 British and USAAF combat squadrons. Fifteen squadrons provided shipping cover, 54 provided beach cover, 33 undertook bomber escort and offensive fighter sweeps, another 33 struck at targets inland from the landing area, and 36 provided direct air support to invading forces. Despite the massed air attacks, the seaborne forces discovered that the German defenses were largely intact when they came ashore.

This was particularly true at “Omaha” Beach. When it came to assault areas, the “Omaha” sector was the longest stretch of beach in Normandy, running for over 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the coastal town Port-en-Bessin to the mouth of the Vire River.

This part of the coast was dominated by ragged, rocky ledges and outcrops, coupled with towering bluffs dominated the seawall. At the villages of Colleville-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer, bluffs towered as much as 100 meters high. A third of the area also backed by fearsome three meter-high (10 ft) sea walls. The Germans had also constructed formidable defensive posts all along the embankments and cliffs. The beach was heavily mined and there were 12 strongpoints or wiederstandsnest (resistance nests) as the German called them.

The waters were beautiful but treacherous. Here the Bay of the Seine is exposed to northly and easterly winds, and the moderately strong offshore currents are further complicated by eddies and rip tides that have the formation of sandbars and runnels running parallel to the beach, all of which are exposed at low tide. This would create complications for landing craft.

The beach itself had a gradient of 1:8 before it ended at a wave-torn beach wall beyond which was a marshy shelf occupying the ground between the beach and the base of the towering escarpments. There were also five wooded ravines (or draws) which could potentially give troops cover to travel up the escarpment on tracks cut through, but these were covered by German guns, manned by troops of two German infantry divisions, the 352nd and the 716th, part of General Erich Marck’s LXXXIV Corps.

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A composite of oblique air recon photos taken in 1943 of the "Omaha" beach sector. Click the image or use the button to download the 25mb high-resolution file. US National Archives

Aerial RG18 Mosaic of Normandy 2 (NARA)_

US Army Air Force aerial image of the "Omaha" beach sector, taken sometime after June 13. Click the image or use the button to download the 19mb high-resolution image. US National Archives

The defending troops consisted of three battalions from the 352nd Infantry Division whose weapons were positioned to give enfilading fire. Over 60 artillery guns would support them on D-Day. In response, the American ground assault forces was a mix of veterans and rookies. Of the 11 US army divisions in Britain, only four had any combat experience. Of them, the 1st Infantry Division, otherwise known as the “Big Red One” had the most. It had fought in Tunisia and  Sicily. If any unit could crack the daunting landscape of Omaha, it would be the Big Red One, Bradley decided.

Aiding the Allies was that fact that the Atlantic Wall at "Omaha" was incomplete. But where strongpoints existed, the Germans had brought in a preponderance of force, ranging from at least 85 machineguns to at least two 88mm guns. Six fixed tank turrets also dotted the sector. At WN60, automatic flamethrowers were installed.

“Had a less experienced division than the 1st Division stumbled into this crack resistance, it might have easily been thrown back into the channel,” Bradley would say later.

The second assault force, the 29th Infantry Division, an old National Guard unit which traditionally recruited from Maryland and Virginia, had not seen battle but had trained heavily. Calling itself the “Blue and Gray Division” the unit was under Maj-General Charles Gerhardt, whom the troops knew as “Uncle Charlie.” When it came to the actual landing, the division’s 116th Regimental Combat Team (RCT) would be led in by Brigadier General Norman “Dutch” Cota, the assistant divisional commander.

The assault was scheduled for 6.30 am. But from the beginning, things began to go wrong. At 6 am, 480 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers had plastered the area beyond the beachhead with 1,285 tons of bombs. The idea was to hit 13 targets. However, much of the bombers’ deadly cargo fell three miles inland. Even an Allied secret weapon, the swimming Sherman tank, failed in the 1st Division’s sector of Omaha.

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The Anzio landings had shown that if a tank is present near an infantry position, no matter how little or how great damage it does to enemy forces, its greatest value is that it prompts even green troops to hold their ground. Consequently, the British had tinkered with the idea of an amphibious tank since 1941. The first examples, heavy, slow Churchill tanks modified for seaborne operations had seen action during the ill-fated Dieppe Raid of 1942. But as much as the British had toiled towards a sailable tank, it was the Hungarian refugee inventor Nicholas Straussler who ultimately perfected the idea.

 

His breakthrough innovation was a nine-foot-high, airtight but collapsible canvas shroud, which was inflated with compressed air and propped up by 36 supporting pillars. The basic physics was sound. It is possible to float any sized vehicle, no matter what the tonnage, as long as the shroud wrapping is high enough. However, the higher the shroud, the more unstable the vessel is at sea.

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Panel showing how the Sherman DD tank operated. These images were taken in 1945 on the Rhine river. US Army

When the shroud plus other modification such as a prow, deck and propellers were added to a run-off-the mill Sherman tank, the offshoot was the Sherman "DD (Duplex Drive)” tank.

Two 18-inch propellers gave the tank a maximum speed of five to four knots at sea. Each tank had a directional compass, a periscope which allowed the commander to see over the shroud and a bilge pump that could eject 15 gallons of water per minute. Each of the five crewmen had one Davis Lung, a submarine escape device, which nevertheless did little to assuage the crews from a morbid terror of sinking.

It took the tank 28 minutes to traverse 4,000 yards of calm sea. Since the shroud was high, the tank commander had to stand on a makeshift deck erected at the back of the tank, which would allow him to use the periscope to peek over the shroud, while relaying instructions to the driver. Once ashore, the driver fired an electrical charge which discarded the canvas screen and floating apparatus, making the tank fit for terrestrial combat.

To an unknowing enemy, DDs with their shrouds up looked like harmless canvas boats. A landed Sherman DD therefore had significant shock value. Said Lt-Colonel J S Upham of the 743rd Tank Battalion which was to go in with the 29th Division at “Omaha”: “The DD tank when afloat looks very much like a canvas duck boat… It was realized that if their existence could be kept secret, the Germans would be surprised when confronted with blazing tanks instead of innocent canvas boats.”

The tank employment plan for the Dog and Easy Green beaches were for the 743rd’s B and C Companies to be landed 1,000 yards from the shoreline, which would allow the tanks to come ashore at 6.25 am. They were to then blast German pillboxes and other defensive points. The last company, “A” which had Shermans outfitted with long funnels to allow them to wade up to shore was to blast the shore while still on ship. They were to land at 6.30 am.

This is not what happened to the tanks of the 741st Tank Battalion which was to support the 16th Infantry Regiment on the eastern half of “Omaha.” As the LCTs carrying the American tank chugged towards the coast, a fierce argument erupted between two senior tank commanders and the US Naval officers who commanded the LCTs. The tank officers wanted to launch their tanks from 5,000 yards of the shoreline, while the naval men argued that it was better to get in closer because of rough seas.

During pre-invasion trials, British, Canadian and American tankers had conducted extensive trials with the Sherman DDs in lakes within Britain. The trials had shown the tanks could reach the shore even if they were launched from 7,000 yards out. Officially, some 30,000 DD launchings had been made before D-Day, during which just one man had apparently died. But one tanker, Lt Stuart Hills of the British Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry noted that “on April 4 six tanks of the 4th/7th RDG ‘drowned’ with the loss of six men in a very heavy swell off Poole.” Hills, the commander of another Sherman DD in the British sector that morning, had also noted that the going was rough for Sherman DDs if the waters were rough. And the sea was frothing now.

Overruling the concerns of the naval officer whom they outranked, the tank commanders of the 741st pushed their unit into the sea. One infantry officer in a nearby LCA, Captain Bill Friedman of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment saw what happened next. The Shermans sank like stones. “It was terrible to watch,” he said.

Some of the tankers escaped their doomed vessels and could be seen clinging to small dinghies but there was no time to pick them up. Only five of the 32 Shermans launched made it to the beach. When two Shermans from the neighboring 743rd Battalion suffered the same fate, the naval lieutenant commanding the landing ships ordered his LCTs to deposit the tanks right onto the beach.

 The infantry meantime, would arrive at “Omaha” at 6.30. Among them was the war photographer Robert Capa, who had decided the accompany the troops into the fray. While some men worried about being killed, Capa’s biggest quandary the day before been which unit to go with: either Lt-Colonel Robert Taylor’s Regimental Headquarters or the one of the 2nd Battalion's assault companies.

“On the one hand, the objectives of Company B looked interesting and to go along with them seemed to be a pretty safe bet. Then again, I used to know Company E very well and the story I had got with them in Sicily was one of the best during the war. I was about choose between Companies B and E when Colonel Taylor…tipped me off that regimental HQ would follow close the behind the first waves of infantry. If I went with him, I wouldn’t miss the action and I’d be a little safer.” While Capa would say after the war that he had decided to gamble and go in with the first wave – with E Company, post-war evidence suggests he went in with Colonel Taylor.

Aboard the troopship USS Henrico, Capa had taken dozens of photos as the hours counted down to H-Hour: GIs playing cards, writing letters, planners poring over their maps. One of the troops was a 32-year-old Corporal from Brooklyn named Sam Fuller who had been a journalist, a screenwriter and a pulp novelist before the war interrupted his life. Now, he was lying on a large box of ammunition, contemplating events to come, dread written all over his face.

By dawn, Capa was aboard the USS Samuel Chase, another troopship where the men had erupted into activity. Fuller unearthed a condom and put it over the muzzle of his Garand rifle to prevent sea water from seeping

 

Daybreak was an experience few had expected: The dim vision of the Norman coast on the near horizon and the noise, from the assault boats gunning their engines, to the throbbing roars of bomber engines in the sky and the shouting of the men. Then the bullhorns blaring “keep in line, keep in line! Don’t forget the Big Red One is leading the way.”

Landing Craft Omaha Beach

LCVPs from the USS Samuel Chase with troops from the 16th Infantry Regiment head towards towards the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach on D-Day. The area in the background is the stretch of bluff between WN64 and WN62. After the war, the Normandy American Cemetery would be established on top of the plateau seen here. US National Archives

Men look at the Omaha beach assault area

Photo by Robert Capa showing the men aboard the US Coast Guard vessel, USS Samuel Chase as it lay at Weymouth before D-Day, referring to a model of the section of the Normandy coast that had been codenamed Omaha Beach. International Center of Photography & Magnum Photos

War correspondent Robert Capa

There is no denying that Robert Capa was a brave man. He had spent an inordinate amount of time in hostile situations, but on D-Day, his penchant for invention appears to have overtaken any sense of objectivity. In his memoires, Slightly Out of Focus, he wrote: "I am a gambler. I decided to go in with Company E in the first wave [on D-Day]." In reality he likely went in with the 10th wave. He also appears not to have taken many photos during the assault because he did not spend much time on the beach - notwithstanding claims that many of his photographs were destroyed by an inept darkroom assistant.

Fuller commanded respect in Hollywood as a director, but I find his films pulpy, including his magnum opus, "The Big Red One" But his 1982 film "White Dog" was outstanding as was his cameo in Wim Wenders' '97 film "The End of Violence." 

Robert Capa's photograph of Sam Fuller (in foreground). Capa could not have possibly dreamed that this young corporal from Brooklyn would amass a titanic reputation as a director in Hollywood and Europe after the war.