D day the battle for nor.., p.13
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.13

           Antony Beevor
 

  With the wire blown and smoke from the seagrass set on fire by naval shells, Cota decided the time had come to make a rush across the stretch of marshy grassland which led to the base of the bluff. The first soldier through the wire, however, was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire. ‘Medico!’ he yelled. ‘Medico I’m hit. Help me!’ He moaned and cried for a few minutes. ‘Finally he died after sobbing “Mama”, several times.’ The other men were so shaken that Cota led the way to get them moving. Soon a single file of riflemen from the 116th were through to the bluff and making their way to the top. The smoke from the burning grass was so thick that those who had not thrown away their gas masks put them on.

  At 08.30 hours Cota returned to join Canham at his improvised command post under the bluff. Attention turned to an American soldier marching five German prisoners in front of him, their hands above their heads. But a burst of German machine-gun fire from above killed the first two prisoners. The others knelt pleading in the direction of the machine-gun nest not to fire at them, but another prisoner was hit full in the chest.

  The Germans, suddenly realizing that most American soldiers were sheltering out of sight under the sea wall, began to use their mortars to target them. Exploding rounds sent pebbles flying like grapeshot. A mortar bomb landed by Canham’s group, killing two men next to Cota and blasting his radio operator twenty feet up the hill. They moved the command post rapidly, but still had no contact with the 1st Division on the left. Communications had collapsed. To compound the problem of radios wrecked by sea water, German riflemen had targeted the heavily burdened signallers as they lumbered up the beach with their ninety-pound packs.

  Lack of contact with the shore disturbed General Gerow as he waited for news on the bridge of the command ship, the USS Ancon, ten miles offshore. He was already alarmed by the sight of the choppy seas tossing landing craft around and sinking several of them. Confused reports were coming in, mainly from the crews of landing craft returning to collect their next load. At 09.15 hours he received a message from the control vessel off the Easy Red sector of Omaha. ‘Boats and vehicles piled on beach. Troops dug in on beach. Enemy holds fire until craft beaches.’ Gerow also heard that the engineers were unable to clear paths through the minefields and that ‘enemy snipers and machineguns appear to concentrate fire on officers and non-commissioned officers’.

  Gerow informed Bradley aboard the USS Augusta of the position. They were deeply worried. Bradley even began to consider the possibility of abandoning Omaha and switching following waves either to Utah beach or to the British sector. The situation on many parts of Omaha, especially round the Vierville exit, was indeed horrific. Yet despite the impression of universal chaos, some troops were landing almost unopposed and breaking through to the ridge with comparatively few casualties, as the 1st Division had already shown near Colleville. Even in the 29th Division’s second wave, C Company of the 116th had experienced a relatively easy landing at 07.10 hours, 1,000 yards to the left of their objective. Having lost only twenty out of 194 men crossing to the sea wall, they too were helped when climbing the bluff by smoke from the seagrass set alight during the naval bombardment.

  Major S. V. Bingham, the Texan commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry, reported that from his batch of landing craft ‘everyone got ashore safely’ on Dog Red. One of his officers observed that ‘enemy fire was not as bad as I had imagined it would be’. One of Bingham’s companies which landed further down the beach, however, suffered heavily. Bingham led about fifty men across the sea wall and wire towards a three-storey house below the bluff surrounded by trenches. ‘No one had weapons which would function,’ he reported, so they dropped into the trenches to clean them. They cleared the house, even though the staircase had been destroyed by the shelling. Once it was secure, Bingham led his men straight up the bluff to their front. They pushed inland another 400 yards, then turned west towards Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, but encountered a German strongpoint in a farmhouse on the edge of the village. Captain Cawthorn, in battalion headquarters, was shouting an order when a piece of shrapnel hit him. It entered one cheek and went out the other without damaging his jaws, purely because his mouth was open at the moment of impact. An officer who arrived soon afterwards noted that ‘he spouted blood as he talked but did not seem to mind’.

  The scenes of chaos on the beach and offshore had hardly improved by 09.30 hours. ‘It was just one big mass of junk, of men and materials,’ an officer reported later. There were burnt-out and still-burning vehicles, corpses, and discarded equipment scattered in all directions. Bodies continued to wash up, rolling like logs in the surf, parallel with the water’s edge. One soldier said, ‘They looked like Madame Tussaud’s. Like wax. None of it seemed real.’ The water’s edge was blocked in places by damaged and destroyed landing craft. Further out, the chaos was even greater. Colonel Benjamin B. Talley, Gerow’s assistant chief of staff, reported that the landing craft were milling around offshore like ‘a stampeded herd of cattle’. The navy could not decide which craft should go in and which should be held back. But although many unsuitable vehicles had been landed, the tank reinforcements were at last starting to make a difference, even though a number of them threw a track when manoeuvring on the beach. Replacing the track in the open under mortar and machine-gun fire required extraordinary courage.

  The course of the battle against the emplacements gradually turned against the defenders. In one case combat engineers managed to place a truck loaded with TNT beside a pillbox. ‘They lit the fuse and blew it up. Going in, they found German bodies all untouched by the explosives, blood pouring out of their noses and mouths. They had been killed by concussion.’ The most effective weapons were the guns of the destroyers, eight American and three British, which sailed in parallel to the shore and dangerously close to bombard German positions. Their guns became so hot that teams of sailors had to play hoses on them to cool them down. Many soldiers on Omaha later believed, with a good deal of truth, that these front-line destroyers saved the day. Most infantry officers afterwards felt that the naval support would have been much more effective if destroyers close in had targeted strongpoints from the start, rather than battleships firing blind from a great distance.

  Tanks also played an important part. One German survivor of the 2nd Battalion of the 726th Grenadier Regiment remembered the farewell message from one bunker as Shermans attacked - ‘Lebt wohl, Kameraden! ’ - ‘Farewell, comrades!’ - then the connection was broken. He also claimed that ‘the survivors of the “resistance nest” were brutally executed in defiance of the Geneva Convention, except for 66 prisoners, of whom half were wounded’.

  Although there is no confirmation of this incident in any of the American accounts, there were cases of illegal killings, mainly prompted by the violence of repressed fear and a desire for revenge after so many fellow soldiers had been killed. ‘There was a German, I don’t know what his rank was, who was dying,’ wrote a reporter with the Baltimore Sun who came across this scene late in the day. ‘He was completely unconscious at the time but I remember a bunch of GIs standing around watching this guy and finally one guy just picked up his carbine and put a bullet in his head and said, “That’ll take care of the bastard”, and of course it did.’

  Some American soldiers became convinced that Frenchmen and even women had taken part in the fighting on the German side. One of the rangers at Pointe du Hoc reported just after the battle, ‘We came across civilians who were shooting at us with German rifles and serving as artillery observers. We shot them.’ American soldiers also shot German prisoners of war who moved in an unexpected way, because in their nervous state they half expected some trick. But there were also moments of humanity. A signaller with the 5th Rangers who was ordered to take all the papers off prisoners separated the family photos they carried and slipped them back into their pockets. The German prisonersmurmured, ‘Dankeschön.’Anotherranger, escortingprisoners of war back to the beach, stumbled and fell into a large shell hole. Three o
f the prisoners jumped in after him. His instinctive thought was that they were about to kill him. But they helped him up, dusted him down, picked up his rifle and returned it to him. Clearly they did not want to go back to their unit to continue fighting.

  At 10.46 hours, Colonel Talley radioed back to the USS Ancon, ‘Things look better.’ But the landing system was still in a hopeless mess. There was a huge backlog, and often the wrong sort of vehicle or equipment arrived when far more necessary loads were held back. Many officers reported afterwards that until the beach was secured only infantry, tanks and armoured bulldozers should have gone in.

  Brigadier General Cota was understandably impatient. He went up ontothe bluff toseehow the riflemen he had sent aheadwereadvancing. He found them on the flat stretch above, pinned down by machine-gun fire. Cota, with his .45 Colt automatic in his hand, moved among the men and said, ‘OK, now let’s see what you’re made of.’ He led them in a charge, having instructed them to fire on the move at hedgerows and houses. They reached a small road 300 yards inland. One officer came across ‘a dead German, who had been killed with a half-smoked cigar still clutched in his teeth’. Almost every soldier seemed to remember the sight of their first dead German. A ranger was ‘struck by the gray, waxy appearance’ of the first one he saw. One soldier in the 1st Division even remembered the name of his first corpse: ‘His helmet was off and I could see Schlitz printed [inside].’

  The mixed group of men from the 29th Division and some of the 5th Ranger Battalion - with ‘one helmetless Ranger proudly carrying a captured MG42’ - worked their way westwards along both sides of this lane to Vierville-sur-Mer. There they found themselves above the Vierville exit. They were held up once more by machine-gun fire, so Cota again caught up with the front of the file and sent out a flanking group to force the Germans to withdraw.

  It was around this time that C Company of the 116th appeared, having made their own way up after a comparatively easy landing thanks to the smoke from burning seagrass. As they turned along the escarpment towards Vierville, they met Brigadier General Cota, ‘who was calmly twirling his pistol on his finger’. ‘Where the hell have you been, boys?’ he asked. They were ordered to join the advance to the west of Vierville.

  Colonel Canham also appeared, having led another group up the bluff. Canham and Cota conferred and decided that these groups from the 1st Battalion of the 116th should push on with the Rangers to Pointe et Raz de la Percée. This mixed force became known as Cota’s ‘bastard brigade’. Men from the 116th said of the Rangers that ‘individually they were the best fighting men we’ve ever worked with, but you couldn’t get them together to work as a team’.

  More and more groups of men made it up on to the bluff, but they had to contend with real as well as fake minefields. They tried to put their feet down on exactly the same places as the man in front. It concentrated the mind to encounter casualties along the way. A soldier in the 29th Division recorded how, as he climbed the hill through the seagrass, he came across a lieutenant with his leg blown off at the knee. ‘Those jagged sharp bones sticking out from his knee were as white as could be. He said to me, “Soldier, be careful of these mines!”’ This extraordinary sang-froid was not unique. A soldier in the 115th climbing the bluff came across a man lying down: ‘As I drew near him I noticed why. He had stepped on a mine and it had blown off half of his right foot. He was arranged fairly comfortably and was smoking a cigarette. He warned almost everyone who came by about a mine that was embedded in the ground about a yard from him.’

  Although Cota’s ‘bastard brigade’ and other troops were inland by midday, no tanks had yet appeared up the Vierville draw from the beach. A US Navy warship had been bombarding the exit: ‘Smoke, dust from the shattered concrete and the acrid tang of cordite from the exploded shells hung low.’ Soon after 12.30 hours, when the shelling stopped, Cota led a patrol down the draw from above, taking the surrender of various dispirited Germans on the way. They also heard from French civilians in Vierville, whom they found drinking milk in a store, that 400 Germans had abandoned the village when the naval guns opened fire. At the bottom there was an anti-tank wall and a small minefield. One of the German prisoners was forced to go through first, then everyone followed in his exact footsteps. Out on the promenade, they could see the bodies across the beach, the shot-up tanks and men still sheltering in the lee of seaside villas. Cota told their officers to get them moving and the engineers to blow the anti-tank wall.

  Further down the beach he found more men cowering in the lee of the bluff. There was an abandoned tank with dozer blades nearby. He shouted at the soldiers that he had just come down the draw from above: ‘There’s nothing but a few riflemen on the cliff, and they’re being cleaned up. Hasn’t anyone got guts enough to drive it?’ He finally found a man to take it down to the Vierville exit with its supply of urgently needed TNT. Cota carried on towards the next beach exit near Les Moulins, where his own headquarters staff had gathered. He issued a stream of orders.

  Cota continued his eastward progression to find Brigadier General Weyman, the deputy commander of the 1st Division. Weyman cannot have looked very military, for he was huddled in a blanket after all his clothes had been soaked on landing. It was confirmed that the 116th would continue clearing the area to the west of Vierville towards Grandcamp and the 115th Regiment, the 29th Division’s follow-up combat team, which had begun landing on Fox Green beach at 11.00 hours, would advance inland towards Longueville. Cota returned to his own command post. He was clearly not pleased by some of the sights: ‘Some of the 6th Engineer Special Brigade troops who had dug themselves shallow trenches as protection from the artillery, were calmly eating K rations, while around them were bodies of the dead and dying.’ But nobody could fault the medics, who were carrying back men wounded by anti-personnel mines on the bluff above.

  The build-up of forces soon accelerated. By 12.30 hours the Americans had landed 18,772 men on Omaha. Half an hour later, a company from the 1st Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment, supported by men from the 29th Division’s 116th Infantry, began to attack Colleville-sur-Mer. A couple of accounts state that many of the Germans in Colleville were drunk, some finding it hilarious to shout orders in English. The Americans fought their way in, but then found themselves bombarded by their own naval guns and suffered eight casualties. The cordite fumes became so intense that all of G Company, including the aid men attending the wounded, had to carry on in gas masks. Yellow signal flares failed to stop the fire, but eventually the warship ceased its bombardment. Not until some time afterwards did the headquarters of the German 352nd Infanterie-Division discover that the Americans had surrounded the village, having received a message that the ‘wounded can no longer be sent back’.

  The 1st Division’s 18th Infantry came through, bypassing Colleville while the fighting there still continued. The 29th Division’s 115th Infantry had also pushed inland and attacked Saint-Laurent. A short time later, at 14.15 hours, the first German prisoners from the 352nd Infanterie-Division were identified from their paybooks. ‘I could not believe my eyes,’ wrote the intelligence officer soon after the battle, shaken that they had not been informed of its presence.

  Once most of the observed fire on the beach had been eliminated, the armoured bulldozers managed to clear patches to speed the arrival of more troops and vehicles. Burnt-out tanks were hauled or pushed aside; even damaged landing craft were towed out of the way. One engineer with the 1st Division said that the smell of burnt flesh made it hard to eat for several days afterwards. The demolition teams continued to blow the German beach obstacles. For items which might have been booby-trapped, they used grappling hooks on long ropes. Enemy artillery rounds were still coming in - the German artillery would continue to ‘walk’ its fire up and down the beach - but many of the explosions which looked like shellbursts were mines or obstacles being blown by clearance teams.

  The medical teams were also working at frenetic speed. Many of the wounded, especially those suffering fro
m shock, were doubly vulnerable to the cold. Soldiers were sent to salvage blankets from a wrecked landing craft and gather extra field dressings from the dead. Medics could often do little more than administer morphine and patch up flesh wounds, such as those in the buttocks caused by mortar fragments. Some of the wounded were beyond hope. ‘I saw one young soldier, pale, crying and in obvious pain,’ wrote a captain in the 60th Medical Battalion, ‘with his intestines out under his uniform. There was nothing I could do except inject morphine and comfort him. He soon died.’

  Doctors treated those suffering from combat trauma with Nembutal to knock them out. Plasma bags on drips were attached to those who had lost a lot of blood, a condition indicated by their hands going blue. Yet even with blankets and plasma, many were to die from shock and exposure during the night. Casualties of all sorts could now be sent back on empty landing craft to the ships, but the wounded on the more deserted stretches had a long time to wait. In the chaos of landing some sectors still lacked medical teams. The 1st Division’s medical battalion had been so hard hit on landing that it had to concentrate on its own casualties first. Soldiers wounded in the minefields up on the bluffs had the longest wait of all, since engineers had to clear paths to get to them. Many lay there all through the night until they could be reached in daylight.

  The wounded were taken out to the ships such as the Samuel Chase and the Bayfield or to LSTs, which had been prepared as temporary hospital ships for the return journey. From the landing craft, they were lifted by net litters on derricks. On board there was ‘organized confusion’ as doctors carried out triage. One wounded soldier suddenly realized that his right leg was missing. The aid men had to hold him down as he yelled, ‘What am I going to do? My leg! I’m a farmer.’

  Those who were going to die received morphine and plasma, and were then ‘left alone to whatever fate would befall them’. Sailors carried the dead on litters to the ship’s refrigerator, a solution which was not popular with the cooks. They were even more appalled when one of the surgeons began carrying out operations in their galley. The Bayfield had only one experienced army surgeon on board, assisted by navy surgeons unused to the work. Most of the medical orderlies had also never seen battle wounds before. One of them, faced with a ranger who had received terrible head wounds, did not realize that the man’s brains were held in only by his helmet. When he removed the helmet, the brains started to fall out. He ‘tried to push the brain back into the skull with very little success’. A doctor tried to reassure the horrified orderly that the man would have died anyway.

 
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