D day the battle for nor.., p.12
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.12

           Antony Beevor
 

  There were cries in all directions: ‘I’m hit! I’m hit!’ A soldier from the 1st Infantry Division who had jumped into water up to his neck waded in slowly. He felt so exhausted that he lay down in a foot of water to rest. ‘Everything seemed like slow motion, the way the men moved under all their equipment. Overloaded we didn’t have a chance. I was so tired I could hardly drag myself along.’ Only nine men out of thirty-one in his platoon survived.

  Machine-gun fire criss-crossed the beach and, ‘as it hit the wet sand, it made a “sip sip” sound like someone sucking on their teeth’. One soldier saw a fellow GI running from right to left, trying to get across. An enemy gunner shot him as he stumbled. ‘He screamed for a medic. An aid man moved quickly to help him and he was also shot. The medic lay next to the GI and both of them were screaming until they died a few minutes later.’ Some continued to shelter behind the beach obstacles as bullets clanged off them, but others realized that their only hope was to make it to the shelter of the sea wall. Company A of the 116th Regiment, landing opposite the heavily defended Vierville draw at the western end of Omaha, suffered the worst casualties.

  While the German machine-gunners turned the foreshore and surf into a killing zone, their artillery fired at the landing craft. As the V Corps report later acknowledged, the concave curve of the beach allowed the Germans both ‘frontal and enfilade’ fire. A staff sergeant in the 1st Division on the eastern side of Omaha saw a direct hit on the neighbouring assault boat. Several of the men on board were blown ‘fifty or sixty feet in the air’. Few of the first tanks to land survived for long, but their burning hulls at least provided something to shelter behind.

  Under heavy fire, men of the Navy combat demolition units started on their task. ‘We went to work,’ wrote one, ‘laying plastic explosive bags on the various obstacles, running from one to the other and connecting the group with primacord, an instantly exploding fuse. Some of the obstacles had GIs sheltering behind them. We told them to move forward or they would be blown up with it. As the tide rose, we raced from one to another.’ They cleared a 100-foot gap for the following landing craft to come in, but the rising tide forced them out of the water. ‘Only three out of sixteen gaps were cleared that morning.’ With water beginning to cover the mined obstacles, the coxswains in the succeeding waves had an even more dangerous task. General Gerow’s worst fears had been proved right.

  With many of their officers and non-coms among the first casualties, soldiers recovering from the shock of their reception realized that they had to get across the beach, if only to survive. A soldier from Minnesota in the 1st Division wrote home later describing how he had dashed forward in thirty-yard sprints: ‘I’ve never in all my life prayed so much.’ He looked back at the remnants of his squad. ‘It was awful. People dying all over the place - the wounded unable to move and being drowned by the incoming tide and boats burning madly as succeeding waves tried to get in . . . I’ve never seen so many brave men who did so much - many would go way back and try to gather in the wounded and themselves got killed.’ Those who had made it were not even able to help with covering fire. ‘At least 80% of our weapons did not work because of sand and sea water.’ In their desire to be able to fire back as soon as they landed, most soldiers had made the mistake of stripping the waterproof covering from their gun before reaching the shore. Almost all the radios failed to work as a result of sea water, and this contributed greatly to the chaos.

  The better organized ran in squad columns to minimize their exposure to the arc of machine-gun fire. A lieutenant in the 121st Combat Engineer Battalion ran back with a sergeant to fetch a man with a shattered leg. It was difficult to drag him, so the sergeant picked him up. He was then mortally wounded and the lieutenant was hit in the shoulder. Other soldiers ran out and pulled them up to the relative shelter of the low sea wall. The first combat engineers to arrive had to act as infantry. They had lost almost all their demolition stores on landing. Enemy fire was far too intense to do anything until armoured bulldozers arrived.

  As the follow-up wave approached, survivors from the first wave watched with a sick sensation from the bank of stones under the sea wall. ‘Some men were crying, others were cursing,’ recalled a young officer in the 116th Infantry. ‘I felt more like a spectator than an actual participant in this operation.’ He had a dry mouth from fear yet still wanted a cigarette. As the ramps dropped and the machine guns opened fire, wrote a sergeant from Wisconsin, ‘men were tumbling just like corn cobs off of a conveyor belt’. A few men at the back of the craft tried to seek shelter and several in the water tried to climb back on to escape. Shells exploding in the water made ‘large geysers’.

  An officer in that second wave recorded that, at 300 yards off the beach, there was too much smoke to see what was happening, but they could hear all the firing. They too had assumed that Allied air power had done its job. ‘Some of our boys said: “The 29th is on the ball: they are really going to town”. But when they reached the beach, they realised that it was the Germans who were firing.’

  Another officer in the 116th Infantry said that in some ways it felt like just one more landing exercise, ‘another miserable two day job with a hot shower at the end’. Unsure whether they had come to the right beach, his company commander said to the naval officer of their landing craft, ‘Take us on in, there’s a fight there anyway.’ But as they came closer, they recognized the draw by the hamlet of Les Moulins and knew they were hitting the right beach. ‘We kept the men’s heads down so that they would not see it and lose heart. The tanks were still at the water’s edge, some still firing and some were on fire. Men from the assault companies were taking shelter around these tanks and in the water. The majority of these were wounded and many dead were floating in with the tide.’

  Captain McGrath of the 116th Infantry, when he arrived at 07.45 hours, saw that the tide was coming in very fast and that the base of the sea wall was crowded with men. He and other officers attempted to get them moving. ‘We talked to them and tried to get them to follow us. None of them however would come along. Many of them seemed to be paralyzed by fear.’ A ranger saw a lieutenant from the 116th Infantry stand up and turn his back to the firing. He ‘yelled down at the troops that were huddled up against the seawall, cowering, frightened, doing nothing and accomplishing nothing, “You guys think you’re soldiers?!” He did everything he could, trying to organize the troops of the 116th [sheltering behind] the seawall, but to no avail.’ An artillery officer, Captain Richard Bush, who had landed ahead of the 111th Field Artillery, described the soldiers he saw: ‘They were beat up and shocked. Many of them had forgotten that they had firearms to use.’ Battalion and company officers ordered their men to clean their weapons and told those without them to collect them from the dead. Some of the wounded were also put to work making weapons serviceable.

  Captain Hall, an assistant surgeon with the 1st Division, observed the different reactions of men under extreme stress: ‘I saw a man coming to the boat in a “Fugue” state - screaming and yelling, waving his arms. He had thrown all his equipment away . . . Many were hit in the water and the wounded were drowned by the rising tide. I yelled to some and urged them to crawl in and some of them did. Many did not seemto befunctioning atall mentally.Just sittingand sprawlingaround. [They] could move their limbs, but would not answer or do anything. Several officers started to go and get them, but [more senior] officers yelled at them to come back.’ A few of the wounded clasped on to the end of a beached landing craft as the water rose.‘Theytoppledoff oneby one and drowned. [I] saw one with a chest wound and water eventually covered his face . . . One boy waded casually up the sand - strolling. Some one yelled to him to get down as a burst of machinegun fire made a circle of sand bursts all around him, but he came in safely.’ But a young engineer driven crazy by terror ‘started running up and down the beach’ until ‘a bullet killed him’.

  The doctor, who was wounded by the time he reached the bank of shingle, wrote that they ‘lay on wet
pebbles, shaking with cold and fear’. With astonished admiration, he watched one of his medical orderlies: ‘Corporal A. E. Jones, who was always puny - 105 lbs and 5’ 5” high - was the last one to expect anything spectacular of. In all this fire when one would hardly have a chance to go down the beach and back to live, he went out six times and brought men in.’ On one occasion, he went to examine one of the wounded, came back to Captain Hall to describe the wound and asked what he should do.

  The infantry were not the only ones to be traumatized. Landing on the Fox Green sector of the beach, one tank commander, a sergeant, suffered a nervous breakdown and ordered the crew to abandon the tank. A private took command. The sergeant disappeared into a foxhole and cowered there the whole day. A major later asked the private why he had not shot him. Another Sherman, hit on landing and immobilized, continued to fire at targets until the rising tide forced the crew to abandon the tank. German artillery concentrated its fire on the Shermans, especially tanks with dozer blades.Nofewerthantwenty-one of the 743rd Tank Battalion’s fifty-one Shermans were knocked out. Those tanks that ran out of ammunition moved up and down the beach in relays to give shelter to infantrymen crossing the killing ground. ‘What saved us were the tanks,’ a private in the 1st Division acknowledged.

  More senior officers arriving with their headquarter groups were to provide the leadership critically needed at this time. Much of the chaos, as the V Corps report later put it, came from landing craft coming in at the wrong place and breaking up units as a result. Some sectors of the beach ‘were crowded, others not occupied’. The command group of the 116th Infantry under Colonel Charles Canham and Brigadier General Norman D. Cota, the deputy commander of the 29th Division, swam and waded ashore on Dog White beach soon after 07.30 hours. They sheltered behind a tank, then ran to the sea wall.

  Cota, who had shared Gerow’s doubts about the excessive reliance on the bombardment, was well aware of the potential disaster they faced. He had seen waves swamp the DUKW amphibious trucks carrying the 105 mm howitzers of the 111th Field Artillery Battalion. Eleven out of thirteen foundered, most of them when still circling in the rendezvous area. The 1st Division’s artillery had fared no better. Cannon Company of the 16th Infantry lost all six of its 105 mm howitzers in DUKWs. The 7th Field Artillery Battalion did not manage to land any guns, most of them also sunk in DUKWs.

  Closer in, the obstacles had still not been cleared. The engineers of the 146th Special Underwater Demolition Battalion had been landed over a mile east of their appointed landing place, mainly because of the cross-current. Cota and Canham held a hurried discussion. Not only battalions, but even companies and platoons had been broken up in the landings. What they needed to do was to force the men, once they had cleaned their weapons, to start breaking through the wire and minefields on to the bluffs behind to attack the German positions.

  At 08.00 hours, while Cota searched for a point to break through the wire towards the Les Moulins draw, a terrible scene took place. Just as a large landing craft, the LCIL 91, approached the beach, an artillery shell exploded on board, apparently hitting the fuel tank of a soldier carrying a flame-thrower. ‘He was catapulted clear of the deck, completely clearing the starboard bulkhead, and plunging into the water. Burning fuel from the flame-thrower covered the foredeck and superstructure of the ship . . . The LCIL, which was the 116th’s alternative headquarters, continued to burn for more than 18 hours, during which her stores of 20 mm ammunition for the Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns continually exploded.’ Ten minutes later the LCIL 92 suffered a similar fate. Many badly burned engineers had to be dragged under heavy fire up to the lee of the sea wall.

  Cota decided to carry out a reconnaissanceto the right, while Canham went to the left to find an exit from the beach. Shortly afterwards, Canham was shot through the right wrist, but he just had it bandaged and carried on. One of his soldiers spotted ‘Old Hatchetface’ with his ‘right arm in a sling and clutching a .45 Colt in his bony left hand’. Canham, ‘tall and thin, with wire-rim glasses and a pencil thin mustache’, was the southerner who had warned his men that two-thirds of them would be killed. He was shouting for officers to get their men off the beach. ‘Get these men the hell off this beach! Go kill some goddamned Krauts!’ A lieutenant colonel sheltering from the mortar barrage shouted back, ‘Colonel, you’d better take cover or you’re going to get killed!’ ‘Get your ass out of there!’ Canham screamed back. ‘And get these men off this goddamned beach.’

  On the eastern side of Omaha, Colonel George Taylor, the commander of the 1st Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment, acted in the same manner. The 1st Division’s lack of armoured support after the disaster launching the 741st Tank Battalion too far out makes their achievement even more impressive. Captain Hall, the wounded doctor, watched as Taylor moved from one officer to another. ‘We’ve got to get off the beach before they put the 88s on us,’ he told them. ‘If we’ve got to get killed, we might as well kill some Germans.’ With Colonel Taylor was a British naval officer with a big beard who, ‘sitting on his haunches and smoking, just looked bored’. Taylor also made the famous remark to his men: ‘The only people on this beach are the dead and those that are going to die - now let’s get the hell out of here!’

  In fact the first breakthrough on Omaha had already taken place when part of the 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry landed between Saint-Laurent and Colleville. They crossed the beach with only two casualties. At 07.35 hours, the German 352nd Infanterie-Division had reported to General Marcks’s headquarters, ‘North-east of Colleville enemy forces of 100 to 200 men have penetrated our lines.’ The Germans were clearly concerned. One battalion of ‘Task Force Meyer’ was told to deal with the breakthrough near Colleville, but according to its divisional headquarters, it could not be expected to arrive ‘within one and a half hours’. In fact Allied air attacks prevented it from arriving until late afternoon.

  Generalmajor Kraiss, however, soon saw that he could not divert any more forces to Omaha. As the American official history pointed out, the British 50th Division, which was landing on Gold beach some miles to the east, provided ‘the gravest immediate threat for the Germans’. Even though their H-Hour had been fixed an hour later than the American assault, ‘the British assault cracked through the coast defenses in some places during the first few hours’. The left flank of the 352nd Division was completely exposed and the bulk of Meyer’s Kampfgruppe was redirected towards Crépon to face the British. Meyer himself was killed later that day fighting the British at Bazenville. Only ninety of his men out of nearly 3,000 rejoined the division.

  While one company of the 2nd Rangers had landed with disastrous losses alongside Company A of the 116th at the western end of Omaha, the rest of the battalion had as its main objective the battery on the Pointe du Hoc, much further round the headland. But these Rangers too were to be plagued by bad luck.

  Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder, the commanding officer of the 2nd Rangers, when heading for the Pointe du Hoc, realized that the Royal Navy coxswain was taking them in much too far to the east, almost on to Omaha beach. Half an hour was then lost beating against the current round to the Pointe du Hoc. Once the boats were in position under the cliff, rocket-fired grappling irons invented by British commando forces were used. Many fell short, partly because the ropes were heavy from sea water, but several took hold and the first men began to scale the cliff. Some London fire brigade ladders were also used. The Germans could not believe that the grappling irons were coming up from the landing craft under the cliff. The 352nd Infanterie-Division headquarters were informed that ‘from warships on the high sea the enemy is firing special shells at the cliffs from which a rope ladder is falling out’.

  The German garrison on the cliff top tried to fire down at their attackers and drop grenades on them, but close support from the destroyers USS Satterlee and HMS Talybont forced them to keep their heads down in the early stage. The Satterlee remained with the Rangers all day, ready to support them. The bravery and
skill of the first Rangers climbing the cliff enabled them to seize a foothold at the top. They were soon reinforced by others. To their surprise, they found that there were no large guns mounted in the battery. The guns were lying a little way inland and were soon dealt with.

  Rudder’s radio operator tried to send off the success signal ‘Praise the Lord’, but the radios were not working due to sea water. In any case it was too late. The delay in getting to their objective meant that the 5th Battalion of the Rangers, which had been waiting offshore ready to come in to reinforce them, assumed that the attack had failed. As a result they resorted to their alternative plan and landed on Omaha in support of the 116th Infantry, where Brigadier General Cota soon sent them forward to attack the bluffs.

  The battalion of the German 916th Grenadier-Regiment on the Pointe du Hoc took even longer to communicate. The 352nd Infanterie-Division heard only at 08.19 hours that the Rangers had succeeded in scaling the cliffs. The fighting was to continue all that day and most of the next, as the 916th counter-attacked Rudder’s force again and again. The Rangers ran out of ammunition and armed themselves with German weapons taken from those they had killed. This was to prove a dangerous measure when a relief force eventually arrived.

  Not far from the first large landing craft, which was still ablaze, Cota chose a section of the sea wall with a mound five yards beyond. He told a soldier with a Browning automatic rifle to keep German heads down on the bluff above. He then supervised the placing of Bangalore torpedoes under the barbed-wire entanglement. Cota had also told Lieutenant Colonel Max Snyder of the 5th Rangers to blow similar gaps, advance inland and then swing round westwards to attack the German fortifications at Pointe et Raz de la Percée.

 

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