American armed forces were held in camps all along the south coast of England. With training over, all men and equipment were gathered around the designated port areas. Some were embarked early as the first wave, others waiting ready to board ship.
Troops destined for Omaha Beach assembled mainly in Weymouth, Portland and Poole, just west of the main British assembly area in Southampton Water. The Utah Beach landing force departed from the Brixham, Dartmouth and Salcombe area of South Devon.
On D-Day 6th June 34,250 American troops landed on Omaha Beach. The two Assault Units were 1st & 29th Divisions. In addition there was to be support from the 2nd Ranger Battalion as well as DD (Duplex Drive) Sherman Tanks which had the ability to motor over water using a flotation jacket and propeller drive. To the GIs, “DD” was naturally “Donald Duck”.
The 1st Division, famously known as “the Big Red One”, was a seasoned & trained formation which had seen action since 1943, whereas the 29th was a National Guard Unit without any combat experience.
After assembling south of the Isle of Wight, troop ships of all sizes and types made their way along ‘the spout’ which was a cleared and protected route aiming directly for the Normandy coastline. Sea conditions were quite rough in the aftermath of the storm which had only just abated sufficiently for Eisenhower to give the go-ahead.
The landings on OMAHA & UTAH were scheduled to take place first. This was to ensure arrival at low tide so defence obstructions could be seen openly, rather than hidden underwater during the rising tide. Being furthest West, these American landings beaches had a slightly earlier tide. Ships and transports made the crossing during the night.
Troops were issued with tablets to combat sea-sickness but most complained these wore off too quickly or were ineffective. All the ships were heavily overcrowded, with heavy equipment, machinery and vehicles of all kinds packed on deck. On the LSIs (Landing Ship Infantry) the small Landing Craft were held on swinging davits like lifeboats, ready to be loaded and lowered during the approach.
There were no bunks or sleeping quarters and the troops tried to find space wherever they could to get some sleep. Most spent those last hours in fitful rest or just anxious conversation.
Few of the enlisted men had much idea what was ahead of them, but the blunt content of late briefings had left them in no doubt that many of them were not expected to survive the coming day’s events.
There was much letter writing. Chaplains worked hard to offer reassurances, listening to fears expressed, mainly fears of letting the side down and worries of how loved ones at home would manage. No doubt Christians and Jews alike made peace with their God as the dawn broke.
On most of the ships crossing, everyone was awakened at 02.30. A breakfast meal was distributed, including coffee and doughnuts. By 0400 the first wave had reached its point of disembarkation and those who had crossed below, gathered on deck for final preparations. As the sky lightened, what an awe inspiring sight met them. Most reported a change of mood as spirits raised ready for the assault.
On many ships, commanding officers addressed their men with stirring speeches. As the time for words came to a close and the moment for action was imminent, every man heard the prepared address from the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower:
“As we got nearer, shells were exploding in the water and as the ramp came down just short of the shoreline, machine gun fire cut them to pieces. Most of them never got more than a few yards from the ramp.”
“On the way towards the beach we lost two boats which were simply swamped by the high waves. The coxswains of the four remaining boats became disoriented; this was mainly due to the loss of the patrol boat which was supposed to ensure we were on the correct course for our assigned area. Also, the beach was covered in haze and smoke from the earlier heavy bombardment; this combination made identification of landmarks impossible.
“As we neared shore the strong current forced our boats off course, taking us about two miles to the West. By the time we re-traced our proper course we saw that the two rifle companies which were supposed to land on our right flank at ‘Easy Red’ had actually landed on our beach which was identified as ‘Fox Green’. Their landing craft had the beach fouled, so we were unable to land. After circling around off the beach like sitting ducks, we finally made our run in. By this time the Germans had the beach under heavy fire.”
Stretching nearly 6 miles, of the five landing beaches Omaha was the longest and turned out to be most costly in casualties. The beach itself is dominated by high ground providing defenders with ideal topography where they’d constructed concrete bunkers containing heavy machine guns and artillery pieces.
Once troops came ashore it became clear that bombardment had been ineffective and defences remained largely undamaged. Although undermanned, German defenders included skilled veterans of the Russian Front.
The “DD” tanks had been released 3 miles from shore and couldn’t stay afloat in the heavy swell. Of the 32 tanks attached to the 1st Division, only 2 of them landed ashore. This left infantry fatally exposed on the open beach without armoured support.
32 tanks attached to the 1st Division, only 2 of them landed.
This left infantry fatally exposed on the open beach without armoured support.
“As the first men jumped, they crumpled and flopped into the water. Then order was lost. It seemed to the men that the only way to get ashore was to dive head first in and swim clear of the fire that was striking the boats. But, as they hit the water, their heavy equipment dragged them down and soon they were struggling to keep afloat. Some were hit in the water and wounded. Some drowned then and there… but some moved safely through the bullet fire to the sand and then, finding they could not hold there, went back in to the water and used it as cover, only their heads sticking out.
“Those who survived kept moving with the tide, sheltering at times behind underwater obstacles and in this way they finally made their landings. Within ten minutes of the ramps being lowered, Company A had become inert, leaderless and almost incapable of action. Every officer and Sergeant had been killed or wounded. It became a struggle for survival and rescue.
“The men in the water pushed wounded men ashore, and those who had reached the sands crawled back into the water pulling others to land to save them from drowning, in many cases only to see the rescued men wounded again or to be hit themselves. Within twenty minutes of striking the beach Company A had ceased to be an assault company and had become a forlorn little rescue party bent upon survival and saving lives.”
Official Unit Report, Company A, 116th Infantry, 29th Division
“Even before we hit the beach, our four boats suffered many casualties in those last few yards of approach. The command party craft struck a mine and was set aflame by concentrated machine gun fire. Two other boats received direct artillery hits or struck mines, it was impossible to tell. The fourth boat was hung up on one of the beach obstacles and it too was under heavy machine gun fire. The situation was just about as bad as it could get and we were taking lots of casualties.
“When my boat was hit I was knocked unconscious. It was explained to me later that two men from my boat dragged me ashore and placed me up against the face of a small embankment at the foot of the hill. I remained at this location until that night when the wounded were evacuated to England. All day long on 6th June I had a front row seat, observing all the organized and disorganized which was occurring not only on the beach, but also on the water. If only I’d had a tape recorder or a movie camera. It certainly was the longest day!”
Those troops who had survived the initial landing found themselves pinned down on the beaches unable to find a way forward and taking heavy casualties from artillery, mortar and machine gun fire. It was always Rommel’s plan to overcome the Invasion at the water’s edge, and at OMAHA the assault became stuck on the beach under withering fire.
Further west, it was around 0330 as ships began unloading troops into landing craft. Still in darkness, there were serious difficulties disembarking men into the smaller craft which were pitching wildly in a swell of six feet. Jumping into a suddenly rising boat, there were dangers of broken legs and worse. Some missed completely and were crushed to death between ship and LCI (Landing Craft Infantry). The run in was at least 10 miles; a hellish journey in a rough sea, with more sickness as men were cramped together, standing in full kit. The LCIs and LCVIs (with vehicles) were designed with a flat bottom to allow them into the shallows, so they were wholly unsuitable for a rough English Channel.
Those who could bend down used helmets to bale out water in order to stay afloat.
The American battleships: Texas, Arkansas and Nevada supported the western invasion.
At 0550, as they opened fire with broadsides, troops on their way to shore felt the percussion of the explosions and the air suction as the huge 14” shells passed overhead. Looking out to sea, the broadsides were so dramatic, with flaming barrels, that some thought the battleships themselves were exploding.
In similarity to OMAHA, the earlier aerial bombing had missed its targets along the coastline so defences remained intact. By a stroke of good fortune the haze and smoke, along with the guidance boat being sunk by shellfire on the final approach to shore, led to the main landing on UTAH being about two miles from the designated position. This was less heavily defended and the first wave ashore crossed the beach virtually unopposed. Initial uncertainty was overcome by the initiative & leadership of Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, at 57 the oldest combatant at D-Day. Seeing troops and tanks successfully landing at the wrong place, he is said to have announced:
“We’ll start the war from here!”
So – after all the months of careful planning, a lucky error was exploited to the full.
Over at OMAHA, the landings were completely bogged down and serious consideration was given to calling in Navy assistance to evacuate. Defending troops used the high ground to command the wide beach and kept it swept with deadly, heavy fire. The GIs ran for cover; from the sea it appeared there was little movement on the beach. The time was only 0800. By this time most American soldiers were sheltering out of sight under the sea wall. Infantry were supported by warships as they boldly moved towards the shore to better target beach defences and help the break-out.
On the eastern side of the beach, the Commander of the 16th Infantry Regiment, Colonel George Taylor, amongst other commanders like Brigadier General Norman Cota, realised that a way through to the higher ground must be found.
“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!”
Company G, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, led the way off beach sector Easy Red, up a mine field to the bluffs beyond. Using bangalore torpedoes to good effect, they blasted a way through the barb wire defences making an escape from the beach.
They left behind at least 3,000 casualties including 1,200 killed.
As a route was cleared through to the higher ground, it became easier for men to land and forces began to build up. By 1230 the Americans had landed nearly 20,000 men on Omaha. Heavy vehicles and tanks were now making their way ashore.
Apart from the loss of life and lack of progress, the serious strategic concern at OMAHA was the danger of allowing a salient of enemy strength between GOLD & OMAHA.
As troops broke through and began to move off the beach, commanders could breathe a sigh of relief.