Caught By Suprise
Ike gambles on a break in the storm: OK, Let's Go. German defenders are slow to react, except in one place: Omaha Beach. The weather for D-Day - low clouds, high seas - was rotten, barely one click to the right of unacceptable. Which meant it was perfect. You see, the Germans had let their guard down. The wind and rain convinced them that the Allies would stay home that day.
In fact, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had already put the landings off a day, until Tuesday, June 6. If bad weather lingered that day, ships would start to run out of fuel, and the invasion would start to fall apart.
The paratroopers went first, three divisions, to nail down the flanks. In the east, British paratroopers planned to grab key bridges, all to block any German tanks rolling in from the east. Soldiers of the 6th Airborne Division, wearing their Winged Pegasus shoulder patches, grabbed one such bridge and held it against heavy odds until after noon of D-Day. To this day, the span bears the name Pegasus Bridge.
In the marshy west, on the other flank, U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions planned to jump inland. Their aim was to seize the highand-dry causeways leading from the beaches, plus other dry ground. Otherwise, the Germans could flood it, cutting off the forces landing on Utah Beach. The paratroopers also aimed to keep the Germans from sealing off the neck of the Cotentin Peninsula.
As usual, the plan was tidier than the reality. Low clouds scattered the American planes, whose pilots scattered the paratroopers. Some drowned in the swamps; others roamed around, hopelessly lost. Very few formed up on the ground as intact units.
But messiness has its uses. The Germans thought it was all part of a careful plan to blanket the entire Cotentin with paratroopers. The Germans chased ghosts and shadows all night. Although the paratroopers found things equally confusing, by dawn, enough of them held enough of the right ground. They made things relatively easy for the soldiers landing on Utah Beach.
At four of the five invasion beaches, the assault went according to plan, or as close to it as these affairs ever get. True, the Germans at Juno Beach had turned seaside houses into ugly little fortresses. But once the Canadians hacked through that line of houses, the going was easy, or as easy as it ever gets, because the land behind the beaches is relatively flat.
The British and Canadians had less faith than the Americans in sheer momentum. The British laid on a much longer naval bombardment than the Americans, and they brought their troopships in closer. That was risky business, but it spared British and Canadian soldiers the long, choppy ride that made so many Americans miserably seasick before they got one foot ashore.
The British had fretted at length about casualties from mines and obstacles. So when they crossed to Normandy, they took along an oddball menagerie of armored vehicles designed to swim in the surf, or cross ditches, or esplode mines, or perform other chores. The Americans found these vehicles eccentric - "the Funnies," everybody called them - and had politely declined to accept anything but some swimming tanks. That was probably a mistake, because a few to the Funnies would have come in handy on Omaha Beach.
Mostly, the biggest problems on the Canadian and British beaches were high waves and traffic jams. One of warfare's sorry rules holds that everything takes longer than you thought, and the British were taking forever to move inland. Some of it was the inevitable confusion. But a big part was the emotional inertia.
For months these combat veterans had heard what a hell they would face on the beach. Now they were there, alive and untouched. Many felt that simply surviving, they'd done their day's work. Why stroll about and draw fire? So the British and Canadians stopped short of their D-Day goal, the city of Caen. The Germans in Caen would give the British a bloody six weeks in which to rue their dawdling.
Far to the west, on Utah Beach, the GIs of the 4th Infantry Division landed without much fuss. The day's casualties came to slightly more than 200 - fewer than the 4th had suffered in April, when German torpedo boats flung torpedoes at a maneuver off the English coast.
On D-Day, the terrain helped a lot. Unlike Omaha Beach, Utah Beach has no high ground as a backdrop. That spared the GIs at Utah from anything like the rain of fire that came down from the bluffs at Omaha. Also, because of the high waves, the Navy launched the swimming tanks for Utah from only two miles offshore, instead of from four miles out, as planned. Twenty-eight made it ashore - a big boost.
Many of the bombers assigned to plaster Utah Beach were medium, twin-engine jobs. They flew lower - and thus bombed a lot more accurately - than the heavier bombers assigned to Omaha Beach. Even so, much at Utah went wrong, as things always do.
For instance, wind, waves and bad navigation dropped most of the GIs far from their assigned landing spots. They wouldn't know until later that at the assigned spots, German soldiers waited in strength. Where the GIs stood, few Germans blocked the way. Some officers asked the 4th's assistant commander, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., whether he wanted everybody to move to the assigned spots. Roosevelt studied his map, shook his head no and said, "We'll-start the war from right here."
The Germans had nowhere near enough concrete and cannons to erect a true "Fortress Europe." But their killing zone at Omaha matched their propaganda. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison would later call Omaha "the best imitation of hell for an invading force that American troops had encountered anywhere. Even the Japanese defenses of Iwo Jima, Tarawa and Peleliu are not to be compared."
The Army originally planned to use only green divisions like the 29th Infantry, a National Guard outfit, saving the seasoned soldiers for the follow-up wave. But in the end, nobody dared trust everything to rookie warriors. So the Army turned again to the lst Infantry Division, "The Big Red One," already a veteran of assault landings in North Africa and Sicily. For a third time, the Big Red One would have to stare into hell.
The hell started with the ride in - 111/2 cold, wet and seasick miles. The Navy wanted to keep the troopships out of range of German guns, but the choppy ride to the beach in the small landing craft was an awful way to go to war. To support the infantry and combat engineers, 32 swimming tanks started waddling through the whitecaps. All but five sank like cinder blocks. Many of the barges hauling in artillery pieces also foundered. The GIs had only the guns aboard the warships to call on.
Clouds blinded the heavy bombers. Mostly, the bombs fell far inland, killing only dairy cattle. (Normandy's fat dairy cows would suffer terribly that summer; photos from the campaign invariably include dead Holsteins, their legs jutting skyward.) For the soldiers, death began at the low-water mark. The Germans had assumed the Allies would land at high tide, to cut down the amount of open beach that the soldiers would have to cross. To disrupt a high-tide landing, the Germans had planted obstacles starting at the low-water mark, all to blow up landing craft, or tear out their guts.
When Allied planes spotted the low-water obstacles in February, planners swallowed hard and decided to land the soldiers at the low end of a rising tide. That would make backing the landing craft off an easier chore; more important, it would expose the obstacles. But dropping the GIs that far out forced them to cross 200 to 300 yards of open sand, under fire from the Germans on the bluffs.
Those who made it could shelter behind a strand of stones called shingle, or at least behind those stretches not under mortar fire. The shingle gave, but it also took away, it blocked the way for vehicles, at least until bulldozers could plow it away
Next, the GIs had to work their way through the barbed wire and mines of the shelf, a strip of dry-sand beach about 200 yards wide. All the time, the Germans on the bluff were shooting at them. Worse, the Germans had placed some machine guns along the bottom of the bluff. These guns fired laterally, down the length of the beach, with their bullets never rising more than a man's height above the ground.
Most bullets land in a pattern like water splashing from a slightly elevated garden hose; this pattern is called "plunging fire." and it's deadly for people caught in the cone. German fire from the blufftops, up to 170 feet above the beach, was plunging fire. But the fire from those beach-level machine guns - the stream of bullets that never rose above a man's height - was of a type called "grazing fire." It's deadlier, because nothing can cross a line of grazing fire without being hit.
The GIs called in naval gunfire and dug deeper. Many felt too numb to move. The German fire simply chopped apart Company A of the 29th Division's 116th Infantry. (Company A included 35 men from Bedford, Va., population 3,800; on that dreadful day, Bedford lost 20 of its 35 sons.)
By mid-morning, things looked so grim that Omar Bradley began to think about the unthinkable: a withdrawal. Nobody had drawn plans for a withdrawal, and the confusion of trying to back off the beach under fire would have been fatal, as Bradley later confessed.
The original plan for Omaha Beach had called for the GIs to seize five "draws," or pathways off the beach for tanks and trucks. But the value of the pathways was equally obvious to the Germans, who poured most of their concrete bunkers alongside the draws. After a few hours of death and futility, everybody realized that the draws were death-traps, at least in a frontal assault. The GIs would have to go around the draws, climbing the steep sides of the bluffs.
Although the bluffs seem uniformly sloped, when seen close up, the land actually wrinkles and folds. To a soldier with pluck, the ground offers just enough cover and concealment on the way to the top. One or two or three at a time, those soldiers found their courage and crawled up onto the bluffs. They drew strength from leaders like Col. George A. Taylor, who told his men, "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!" They did. By afternoon, at a cost of 2,200 casualties, the GIs had carried the bluffs - and the day.
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