D day the battle for nor.., p.11
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.11

           Antony Beevor
 

  The grey dawn began to reveal to the German defenders the huge fleet lyingoffshore. The headquarters of the 352nd Infanterie-Divisionbegan to receive frantic calls on the field telephones. At 05.37 hours the 726th Grenadier-Regiment reported, ‘Off Asnelles [Gold beach] numerous landing craft with their bow towards the coast are disembarking. Naval units begin to deliver fire on beaches from their broadsides.’ A few minutes later the divisional commander called his superior, General Marcks, the commander of LXXXIV Corps. He suggested that ‘in the light of new developments’ he should bring back the task force of three battalions commanded by Oberstleutnant Meyer which had been sent to investigate the ‘Explosivpuppen’. Marcks agreed. At 05.52 hours, the 352nd Infanterie-Division’s artillery regiment reported, ‘60 to 80 fast landing craft approaching near Colleville [Omaha beach]. Naval units on high seas too far off for our own artillery.’

  As soldiers on the landing craft started to see the coast more clearly, the last phase of the bombardment began with rocket ships. These were specially adapted tank landing craft, with 1,000 racks welded to the open deck. Each rack was armed with three-foot fused rockets with another 1,000 below deck in reserve. The rockets created a terrifying sound when fired in salvoes. One soldier in the Hampshires, approaching Gold beach, indicated the torrent of shells and rockets and shouted to a neighbour, ‘Fancy having that lot on your breakfast plate.’ One Royal Navy officer in command of a rocket ship had frozen in horrified disbelief when he had opened his secret orders. His allotted target at the mouth of the River Dives was the elegant seaside resort of Cabourg. As a Francophile and a devoted Proustian, he was appalled. Cabourg was Marcel Proust’s ‘Balbec’, the setting for A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs.

  The fearsome sight of the rocket salvoes raised the spirits of soldiers going in, but those on assault craft approaching Omaha were unable to see that the rockets ‘missed the target entirely. All the rounds fell short and in the water.’

  Just as the first waves went in, General Eisenhower contemplated the good news from Leigh-Mallory about the far lighter losses than expected on the airborne operation. Ramsay’s headquarters staff were also deeply relieved at the way the naval operation had gone. They could still hardly believe their luck, that the minesweeper force had escaped unscathed seemed like a miracle. Eisenhower wrote a quick report for General George C. Marshall back in Washington, then prepared a communiqué with his staff. The Germans, however, made the first announcement, but to the pleasant surprise of SHAEF headquarters it stated that the landings had taken place in the Pas-de-Calais. Plan Fortitude and the deception activities in the eastern Channel seemed to have worked.

  It was six months to the day since Roosevelt had turned to Eisenhower in the staff car on Tunis airfield and said, ‘Well, Ike, you are going to command Overlord.’ But the ‘longest day’, as Rommel was to call it, had only just begun. Extremely worrying news soon came in from Eisenhower’s great friend General Gerow, the commander of V Corps, which was assaulting Omaha beach.

  7

  Omaha

  The objective for the American 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions was Omaha beach, a long, gently curving stretch of coastline. Approaching from the sea, the beach ended on the right with massive cliffs. Four miles further round to the west was the Pointe du Hoc promontory. This was where a battalion of Rangers had to scale a sheer cliff to silence a German battery.

  The main strip of beach rose gently to a bank of shingle up against a low sea wall. Beyond the sea wall was a short stretch of marshy grassland and just above that stood a steep sandy bluff covered in seagrass. These bluffs, ranging from 100 to 150 feet in height, dominated the whole bay. Along this low escarpment from left to right lay three villages,Colleville-sur-Mer, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer. The heights were accessible through five steeply rising valleys, or ‘draws’. These offered the only places where vehicles could be driven off the beach, and the entrances to the openings were covered by German strongpoints and gun emplacements. This was why Captain Scott-Bowden had warned General Bradley that Omaha was a formidable position to attack.

  General Leonard T. Gerow, the commander of V Corps, had wanted to begin the operation at low tide, under cover of darkness. Rommel had ordered the construction of the most fearsome system of underwater obstacles against landing craft, with mined stakes, hedgehogs made out of steel girders and rectangular constructions known as ‘Belgian gates’. Gerow argued that combat engineers and naval demolition teams should have time to clear channels to the beach at low tide without being under direct fire. He was supported by his most senior subordinates and Admiral John L. Hall, who commanded the task force. But Eisenhower, Montgomery and Bradley all insisted on an attack at 06.30 hours, half an hour after dawn. The assault would be preceded by a massive aerial and naval bombardment. The invasion commanders believed that this combination would achieve tactical surprise and overwhelm the defenders. In any case, they could not risk the assault on one beach starting several hours before the others.

  Gerow’s original plan was to assault Omaha with two divisions, the 1st Division on the left and the 29th Division on the right, under his command. Bradley, however, had much greater confidence in the 1st Division, the ‘Big Red One’, and in its outstanding commander, General Clarence R. Huebner. Their experience and combat effectiveness from opposed landings in the Mediterranean were unequalled. So Bradley made Huebner the commander and simply attached the 116th Regimental Combat Team from the 29th Division.

  Bradley felt that ‘Gee’ Gerow, who had not yet commanded a large formation in battle, had been given command of the corps only because of his friendship with Eisenhower. Gerow, however, feared that the bombing and naval bombardment might not work, and he remained unconvinced even after Eisenhower assured him that ‘the greatest firepower ever assembled on the face of the earth’ would be supporting him. Events were to prove Gerow right. He shared his concerns before the invasion with the military analyst Basil Liddell Hart ‘about whether the importance of the unexpected was sufficiently considered in our planning’.

  The first landing craft carrying the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division and the 16th Infantry of the 1st Division had set off from their mother ships at 05.20 hours. They had over an hour’s journey in heavy seas to land on the beach at H-Hour. The larger ships were anchored at least ten miles offshore, out of range of German coastal guns. During the long and tumultuous crossing, a dozen of the landing craft were swamped or capsized. Fifteen minutes later, two companies of the 741st Tank Battalion, which were to support the 1st Infantry Division, launched their DD Shermans 5,000 yards out from the shore.

  Captain Scott-Bowden, as Bradley had promised in January, was back in an assault pilotage role with Sergeant Ogden-Smith. Scott-Bowden’s pilot boat had a crew of three, a US Navy lieutenant, a coxswain and a Mexican-American sailor manning a quadruple pom-pom gun. The lieutenant on Scott-Bowden’s craft suddenly drew his attention to the fact that the LCTs had stopped at 5,000 yards out to launch their tanks. Scott-Bowden was horrified. ‘It’s far too rough,’ he said. ‘They should go right in.’ He later described the decision to launch the 741st Tank Battalion’s Shermans at that distance as ‘absolutely insane’.

  Twenty-seven of their tanks out of thirty-two foundered and sank. Only two reached the beach through the water. Three more could not be launched because the ramp jammed, so the landing craft took them all the way in to the beach. Altogether thirty-three tank crewmen drowned. The rest were rescued later. Those of the 743rd Tank Battalion who reached the shore owed their survival to the fact that both army and navy officers decided to take the rest of them all the way in. Major General Percy Hobart, the mastermind behind the amphibious tank, told Liddell Hart ten days later that ‘the Americans bungled their use’. But whether the DD tank was the right answer to the problem of infantry support on the restricted space of Omaha remains a matter for debate.

  When still some way offshore, Scott-Bowden and the crew became awa
re of the 329 heavy American bombers coming in from behind them. To their dismay they saw that the bombs were falling well beyond the top of the ridge. None hit the beach or the German positions guarding the beach exits. ‘That’s a fat lot of use,’ Scott-Bowden said angrily to the lieutenant. ‘All it’s done is wake them up.’ In the thirty minutes preceding H-Hour, the Liberators and Fortresses of the Eighth Air Force dropped 13,000 bombs, but none fell on Omaha beach.

  The US Army Air Corps had made wildly optimistic claims about their ‘precision bombing’. Unfortunately Montgomery, who grabbed at any opportunity which might save the lives of his ground troops, accepted the idea without question and abandoned the British doctrine of night landings. Both he and Bradley seemed oblivious to the fact that the heavy bombing formations remained incapable of dropping the majority of their load within a five-mile radius of their target.

  The bomber formations appeared at 06.05 hours. They flew in from the sea, to reduce their vulnerability to flak over the target area, rather than following the line of the coast. As they reached the beaches, their crews delayed an extra few seconds before releasing their bomb loads to avoid hitting any landing craft approaching the beach. As a result all the ground commanders’ over-optimistic hopes that the attack would destroy barbed-wire entanglements, minefields and some of the defensive positions were utterly dashed. ‘The Air Corps might just as well have stayed home in bed for all the good that their bombing concentration did,’ one officer in the 1st Division observed angrily later. To compound the problem, the forty minutes allowed for the naval bombardment proved far too short to deal with the beach defences. Montgomery and Bradley’s plan had achieved neither local surprise nor overwhelming force.

  The Germans had hardly needed waking up, even before the naval bombardment started at 05.50 hours. All the batteries along that stretch of the coast were already preparing for gunnery practice. The local Feldkommandantur had instructed the Préfet of Calvados to warn all fishing boats to avoid the area early on that morning of 6 June. The French inhabitants of Vierville-sur-Mer, however, had certainly been jolted awake by naval gunfire straddling the village. One shell destroyed the bakery, killing an employee and the baker’s baby. But although a number of houses were destroyed - the mayor’s wife was relieved to find her false teeth in the ruins of their house - casualties remained miraculously light. To their huge relief, the bombers flying inland missed Vierville entirely. Other villages and farms were not so fortunate.

  In a bunker designated as Widerstandsnest 73 near the Vierville-sur-Mer exit, an Obergefreiter of the 716th Infanterie-Division was shaken by the sight which dawn revealed. ‘The invasion fleet was like a gigantic town on the sea,’ he wrote afterwards. And the naval bombardment was ‘like an earthquake’. Another soldier manning a machine-gun position in a ‘Tobrouk’ near the Colleville exit had also been shaken at dawn by the sight of the fleet ‘stretching in front of our coast as far as the eye could see’. During the thunder of the naval bombardment, he found himself praying desperately out loud. But as soon as the landing craft could be sighted approaching the beach, he heard cries of ‘Sie kommen!’ from comrades in nearby positions and knew that they too had survived the shelling. He loaded his MG 42, the rapid-fire German machine gun, and waited.

  The German ability to recover rapidly was impressive. At 06.26 hours, the 352nd Infanterie-Division’s headquarters heard that, although the ‘heavy bombardment’ had buried some of the 716th Infanterie-Division’s guns under rubble, ‘three of them have been set free again and re-emplaced’. One of the myths of Omaha is that the German defenders were equipped with the formidable 88 mm gun. The 716th may have had two somewhere along the coast, but even this is uncertain. Most of the German artillery at Omaha consisted of far less accurate Czech 100 mm guns.

  Another misunderstanding arose in post-war years over the forces that the Americans faced at Omaha. Allied intelligence had underestimated German strength in the sector, but not to the degree which many historians have since implied. SHAEF intelligence had long known of the low-quality 716th Infanterie-Division, which included three Ost battalions made up from Red Army prisoners. This static defence formation was responsible for the forty miles of coast from the Vire estuary to the River Orne. It is true that SHAEF headquarters had assumed unwisely that the more powerful 352nd Infanterie-Division would still be in the area of Saint-Lô, half a day’s march to the south. Yet only two of its integral infantry battalions and a light-artillery battalion were positioned close to Omaha, certainly not the whole division, as many historical works have stated.

  The rest of Generalmajor Dietrich Kraiss’s division was spread in depth over 250 square miles between the mouth of the River Vire and Arromanches. If Oberstleutnant Meyer’s battlegroup, representing nearly half of Kraiss’s infantry strength, had not been sent off in the night to investigate the ‘exploding puppets’ dropped south of Carentan during Operation Titanic, then the German defence at Omaha might indeed have been formidable.8 That diversion and Kraiss’s ill-chosen deployment of his forces truly saved the Allies from disaster in this central sector of the whole invasion. None of this, of course, diminishes the still-formidable defensive positionswhich the 1st and 29th Divisions at Omaha were about to face.

  Thefirst waveoftroopsin theirlandingcraft had been deeply impressed by the heavy guns of the battleships. Many compared the huge shells roaring over their heads to ‘freight cars’. At a given moment, the landing craft, which had been circling offshore to await H-Hour, then headed in towards the beach. The absence of fire at that stage aroused hopes that the navy and air force had done their work as planned. The infantrymen were so tightly wedged that few could see much over the helmets in front of them and the tall landing ramp at the front. One or two, however, noticed dead fish floating on the water, killed by the rocket fire which had fallen short. The assault craft were still ‘bucking like an unbroken horse’, so many just shut their eyes against the queasy sensationof motionsickness.By thenthelanding craft‘reekedof vomit’.

  Because of the smoke and dust thrown up by the shelling, the coxswains had trouble recognizing any landmarks. One landing craft with men of the 1st Division beached near Port-en-Bessin, over ten miles down the coast. Many of the landing craft were manned by Royal Navy crews. Several misleading accounts have suggested that they were young, inexperienced and frightened, and in a couple of cases were ordered at gunpoint to take the craft in closer. More reliable sources from eye-witnesses have in fact testified to their skill and courage. A number of them had worked with the Americans in amphibious operations in the Mediterranean.

  ‘Soon we became conscious of pinking noises near us,’ wrote a US Navy lieutenant, ‘and when a couple of men toppled to the deck, we became conscious of the fact that we were being fired at with real bullets, by a very much alive enemy.’ Some officers still hoped to inspire their soldiers. ‘Make it look good, men,’ one shouted as their landing craft jammed on a sandbar just short of the beach. ‘This is the first time American troops have been here in 25 years!’

  When the ramps were dropped, the German machine-gunners concentrated their fire on the opening. In all too many cases, the landing craft had come to a halt on a sandbar short of the beach. The water appeared shallow, but ahead there were deep runnels. The more experienced coxswains, both from the US Coast Guard and the Royal Navy, knew how to cut their engine at just the right moment and allow the backwash to carry the landing craft over a sandbar. Those that did managed to land right on the beach.

  ‘As the ramp went down we were getting direct fire right into our craft,’ wrote a soldier in the 116th on the western part of Omaha. ‘My three squad leaders in front and others were hit. Some men climbed over the side. Two sailors got hit. I got off in water only ankle deep. I tried to run but the water suddenly was up to my hips. I crawled to hide behind the steel beach obstacle. Bullets hit off of it and through my pack missing me. Others hit more of my men.’

  The craft were still bucking with the wa
ves, and ‘if you slipped under the metal ramp you would be killed as it crashed down’. In some places men leaped off and found the water over their heads. Many did not know how to swim at all. In desperation, the majority who fell into deep water dropped their weapons and wriggled out of their equipment to survive. Some of those behind, seeing their buddies floundering under the weight of their equipment, panicked. ‘Many were hit in the water, good swimmers or not,’ wrote the same soldier. ‘Screams for help came from men hit and drowning under ponderous loads ... There were dead men floating in the water and there were live men acting dead, letting the tide take them in.’

  One soldier, who jumped into five feet of water, found that ‘bullets were splashing right in front of my nose, on both sides and everywhere. Right then and there I thought of every sin I’d committed and never prayed so hard in my life.’ A member of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry, watched the fate of a devout non-com, Sergeant ‘Pilgrim’ Robertson. He ‘had a gaping wound in the upper right corner of his forehead. He was walking crazily in the water without his helmet. Then I saw him get down on his knees and start praying with his rosary beads. At this moment the Germans cut him in half with their deadly crossfire.’

  The prospect of crossing the stretch of beach in front of them seemed impossible. Any idea of trying to run through the shallows, carrying heavy equipment and in sodden clothes and boots, seemed like a bad dream in which limbs felt leaden and numb. Overburdened soldiers stood little chance. One had 750 rounds of machine-gun ammunition as well as his own equipment. Not surprisingly, many men afterwards estimated that their casualties would have been halved if the first wave had attacked carrying less weight.

 
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