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World War Two: Carnage at Omaha Beach
Rommel and the Wall
Strengthening the Wall
In the spring of 1944, extra divisions of German troops were assigned to Western France in order to reinforce Hitler's defences along the Atlantic Wall. Most of these units were moved from the Russian campaign. With these additional tanks, artillery and troops, Adolf Hitler was confident he could destroy any Allied invasion.
Hitler's forces defending the Atlantic Wall in France consisted of soldiers who were over the age of 30, training divisions with underage boys and unfit men from service companies. In addition to these were prisoners of war who had volunteered for service along the French coast. The Italian campaign was also being fiercely contested inflicting heavy casualties on both the Axis and Allied armies.
The German command was being shared between Field Marshall Albert Kesselring in the south and General Field Marshall Erwin Rommel in the north. A staggering 32 Italian divisions had already been captured by Rommel after they attempted to join the Allied forces after the surrender of the Italian government. Hitler knew the extent of Rommel's Italian and North African experiences with Allied battle tactics and he gave him the orders to inspect and fortify the German coastal defences, reporting personally on it's progress.
With the Desert Fox now in France, Kesselring was given command of all the German armies in Italy. The Pas De Calais area in the Normandy region was where Rommel felt needed strengthening and informed Hitler of this in his reports. The Pas De Calais defences were built using slave labour and prisoners of war. The Allies bombarded this area in an attempt to fool the Germans into thinking that this was where the expected Allied invasion would take place.
The Germans were convinced of this as it was the closest part of France to England, and it would give the Allies the best conditions for a seaborne attack.
Field Marshall Gert Von Runstedt, at the age of 68, was brought out of retirement by Hitler to assume the role of Commander In Chief West. Although Rommel was in most circumstances independent in the actions he had to make, he and Johan Von Blaskowitz, the general in charge of Army Group B, were to report to Von Runstedt.
The increase of 12 divisions by the start of June brought formidable reinforcement to Western Europe and had brought the total number of divisions to 58. Rommel commanded 30 divisions to combat any Allied landing and a reserve of 10 Panzer and PanzerGrenadier divisions. Any replacements brought in were to consist of a core of battle-hardened troops. From his experiences in the North African campaign, Rommel believed that the best method to repel an Allied attack was at the beaches, and within 48 hours, the landings must be thwarted. Von Runstedt however, disagreed with Rommel, believing the most effective method would be to halt and destroy any invaders once they had moved inland.
The commanders of the Panzer divisions agreed with Von Runstedt and planned to hold back their Panzer and PanzerGrenadier divisions in deep reserve. Once they had determined the enemies' strength, only then would they commit to battle, unleashing their maximum firepower that would stop and annihilate any attacking force.
In March 1944, Hitler comprimised toward Rommel and gave him command of 3 Panzer divisions. The 2nd, 17th and 21st Panzer and PanzerGrenadier divisions were to be held in mobile reserve. But Rommel knew from experience that the ability to position these divisions at speed would be severely comprimised due to the slow process of orders through the chain of the German High Command.
So Rommel pressed on with the fortifications along the channel coast and machine guns and artillery were put in place at regular intervals up and down the Atlantic Wall. Anti-personnel mines were laid out in strips 200 feet apart and a carpet of destruction lay in wait for the Allies as they reached the beach. Logs and iron rails were dug deep into the beach, hidden by the high tides. Any amphibious craft would have to navigate through minefields and beach obstacles, a potential nightmare for craft carrying infantry and tanks.
The headlands overlooking Omaha beach were now lined with a series of machine guns, mortars and automatic weapons, all with a direct sight of the landing areas. Both light and heavy artillery were placed in bunkers, pill-boxes and along the cliffs. All exits and beachheads off Omaha beach were all covered.
The German 7th Army had 3 divisions, the 234th, the 709th and the 716th were all dug in along the Normandy coast. Allied intelligence however, had failed to spot the battle-hardened 352nd Division, tactically positioned along the cliffs directly overlooking Omaha beach. This would prove to be a costly and fatal error.
The Long Wait
On the 4th June 1944, the English Channel was under a blanket of stormy weather and rain and fog covered the French coast. The D-Day invasion was put on a 24 hour stand-down and the report to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, indicated that a period of finer weather was forecast for the 5th and 6th of June. The decision to invade had to be made or the next period of good weather wouldn't be until the 19th June. Thousands of troops and supplies were on the move throughout the south of England, more troops were packed into ships, some of which were already at sea. Any further delay could jeopardise the success of the Allied invasion.
0415hrs, 5th June
General Eisenhower gives the invasion the long-awaited green light and Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe, has begun.
Since May 1st, the original date for the operation, 30 divisions of troops and supplies have sat waiting at ports along the English south coast. Also sat waiting were a makeshift line of concrete piers known as Mulberry's, ready to be shipped to Omaha beach. When these were placed in position they would provide deep water unloading facilities for supply and troop transports. Out at sea were almost 5,000 ships ready for the invasion. Over 700 of these were classed as warships and would act as cover for the landing craft carrying the infantry.
The D-Day Landings
"A Great and Noble Undertaking"
On their way to the Normandy coast were battleships, destroyers and cruisers which would be supporting the first wave of landings. Early in the morning on the 6th June, the weather at dawn was unsettled and there was a low tide. The Germans were in a relaxed mood due to the changeable weather and conditions for a seaborne invasion were not looking at all good.
The Germans however were off-guard as, because of the weather, Rommel had travelled to Berlin to attend his wife's birthday celebrations. Also 7 staff officers left the coast to attend a map reading exercise in Rennes. A 7th Army alert scheduled for the 5th of June had also been cancelled.
The first wave of assault troops consisting of the 29th and 1st Infantry divisions were crammed into landing craft and attack transporters. The stench of deisel fuel, sweat and vomit hung in the air. As the troop ships approached Omaha, the men climbed into the landing craft. The troops were well drilled and confidence was high as they felt the covering naval firepower would enable them to reach their objectives.
Day of Days by Dave Harris Art
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The landing craft gradually steered through the raging tides and approached the beach. However, the Germans were well prepared, what the Omaha beach assault troops never expected, was the deadly artillery fire that pummelled the landing craft. Explosions and shrapnel littered the beach. Ferocious machine gun fire ricocheted off the landing craft as their ramps came down. Rommel's anti-personnel mines greeted the infantry as they stepped onto the beach. Within minutes, the beach was covered in dead or wounded men.
Omaha beach was a far from ideal landing zone, the beach rose steadily up to a high plateau ideally situated to overlook the beach, and where strategic defensive positions could be taken up by it's defenders. There were also only four roads leading off the beach, leading to four villages, Coleville, St.Laurent, Vierville and Le Moulin. Omaha must be taken in order to complete a successful invasion, it was a critical position between the American designated Utah beach and the British designated Gold beach.
From the overlooking cliffs, the Germans continued a barrage of unyielding artillery fire onto Omaha. Mortars, machine guns and artillery devastated the landing sectors codenamed Charlie, Dog Green, Dog White, Dog Red, Easy Green, Easy Red, Fox Green and Fox Red all along the full length of Omaha.
Around 10 miles off-shore the second wave prepared to board their landing craft, but they were soon swamped by the rough seas and the men tried frantically to bail out over the side. A total of 10 boats were lost to the seas along with all the men inside. Many boats were destroyed by German artillery fire before they even managed to reach the beachheads.
The men of the 11th and 7th field battalions, lost in the early hours of D-Day, were now becoming visible as the shroud of smoke that had enveloped them began to clear. Every single one of them, wiped out.
At the Easy Red sector, German guns tracked the landing craft of the next wave of infantry as they moved to within 100 yards of the shore. Once they pulled up on shore and the ramps came down, the men were raked by machine gun and mortar fire and 80 men were killed in an instant. Later casualty reports would show that as many men died by drowning as were killed by enemy fire.
At Charlie sector, two boats carrying the troops of Able Company found themselves pinned down by concentrated gunfire. Shock and fear had frozen many of the survivors of the first wave in their tracks. There were many still standing in the water having not even set foot on the beach yet.They were dragged ashore, wounded and exhausted, and those who attempted to hide behind beach obstacles were found by German snipers. Anyone who tried to advance was cut down by the relentless firing and the dead marked the Americans advance.
In the advance on Dog Green sector, a boatload of 32 men of Able Company was overlooked, no one saw the boat sink and half the bodies were later washed up on the beach, the sea had claimed the rest. The 27th Divisions' casualty list continued to grow and a complete unit of 17 medical staff were wiped out by direct artillery fire.
Scaling Pointe Du Hoc
At 0730 hours, a variety of units' survivors had managed to come together at the base of the sea wall below the cliffs defended by the Germans. Whilst they were out of the line of fire, they were able to have their wounds tended to, but this would be just a sort respite. By 0745 hours, survivors of the 116th Infantry had linked up with the 2nd Ranger Battalion. Their task was to scale the formidable cliff known as the Pointe Du Hoc and once at the top, destroy the six 155mm Howitzer guns that were though to be positioned there. The German artillery's full range of fire covered both Omaha and Utah beaches, and the incoming landing craft stood no chance of survival.
The barrage of fire from the battleships Texas and Arkansas forced the Germans to take cover. The 2nd Ranger Battalion led by Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder, fired rocket propelled grappling hooks from their landing craft as they neared the shore, giving them time to scale the cliff with ropes and ladders.
From the protection of just a barbed wire fence bordering the cliff, the German defenders, lobbed grenades and fired machine guns, but the Rangers determinedly reached the top of the cliff. However, it was to prove an ultimately wasted exercise as the German guns thought to be at the top of the cliff, were not even there...they had been moved the day before.
Colonel Rudder and his men quickly set up a defensive perimeter and were called upon to repel a heavy German counter-attack. After two days of fighting, a Ranger Support Unit came to their aid and despite heavy losses, they had managed to hold on to Pointe Du Hoc. Rudder would later receive the Distinguished Service Cross for his and his units' actions.
The Raging Battle
Meanwhile, heavy German artillery fire was taking a severe toll on men and machinery. Demolition teams and their equipment were being landed in the wrong sectors as they were disorientated by the heavy seas. Out of 16 bulldozers sent to Omaha, only 3 could be used and one of these was being used as a barricade from German small arms fire. Many brave men tried to penetrate Rommel's defensive line, but within an hour, half of the combat engineers had been killed or wounded.
Bhouys and poles to mark cleared beach areas were either lost or were not in place. Only one of the six gaps blown into the Omaha beach obstacles was safe for incoming landing craft to use. The Omaha plan for D-Day had been to land the first wave of men from the 29th and 1st Infantry, tank and artillery regiments at 0630 hours. The tide that morning was rising at around four feet every hour and had covered most of Rommel's beach obstacles. Any attempts to clear them was impossible.
The smoke from naval artillery fire mixed with the morning fog and covered the markers for the landing craft to steer towards. Fire from the Omaha cliffs tracked the craft as they approached inland, infantrymen who had landed in the wrong areas could not find their units in order to regroup. Occasionally naval gunfire would manage to hit enemy batterys, but as soon as the bombardment halted to avoid hitting Allied troops, the German firing would increase again on the incoming troops.
The most vital job of the first wave was to destroy enemy emplacements defending the roads leading away from the beach to the coastal highways. With very few heavy weapons, no artillery support and no chance of any tank protection, the fight leading to Vierville, Le Moulin, St. Laurent and Coleville would be an intense battle.
Making Steady Inroads
With the Germans controlling the higher ground, American troops were hit by direct fire from the Omaha cliffs, the planned invasion was rapidly heading for defeat. At the path leading to Le Moulin, joint units of the 116th Infantry and Ranger battalions began to fight their way up the road. B Company of the 116th Infantry left the safety of the sea wall to move up the hillside under cover of smoke to find good defensive positions.
Faced with machine gun fire and grenade attacks, they managed to force their way to the top of the hill. Pinned down by the relentless enemy fire, they dug in and held their positions. At the Dog White sector General Coder's 116th Command Group was amassed at the sea wall. Meanwhile, a series of independent advances, units of around 20 to 25 men, moved their way up the beaches east of Le Moulin and battled their way up to the high ground.
After overcoming strong resistence, they moved forward to St. Laurent their assigned rendezvous point at the top of the Omaha cliffs. Company 6 of the 16th Infantry were able to organise mortar and rifle covering fire from the beach, enabling men to blow gaps in the wired emplacements on the hillside beyond the embankments. Two groups of men then managed to make their way across the open areas and up the slopes of the cliffs held by the Germans. The infantrymen attacked a few yards apart moving steadily through the minefields, the dead marked their advance.
The coastal cliffs were a maze of trenches and pillboxes, but the troops of the German 914th Division were caught off-guard by Allied naval bombardment onto their positions. The Germans fought a 2 hour battle, but it was a losing battle, against men of the 16th Regiment, and most of them were killed, finally those that were left, surrendered.
At 0900 hours, armoured vehicles and naval bombardment gave the 3rd Battalion of the 16th Infantry enough covering fire to make a direct assault on the German strongholds protecting the Coleville path. After driving forwards and taking some casualties, the battalion managed to overpower the Germans.
At 1000 hours, infantry units began landing in battalion columns in protected areas. It looked to these soldiers as though little headway had been made since the early hours. The high ground was still under German control and American troops were still pinned down behind embankments and wrecked vehicles. Destroyed tanks were piled up on Omaha beach and this new wave of troops would soon be up against battle-hardened Germans of the Russian campaign.
Half an hour later, landing craft numbers 30 and 544 were powering through the waves and past the obstacles of the Coleville beaches. In firing persistently at the enemy defences that protected the approaches and ramming through beach blockades, they supported the troops fighting their way up the beaches. Two additional destroyers approached the beach of the Le Moulin area, and they began a shootout with the German artillery on the clifftop.
As they moved in, the accurate fire from the destroyers' guns silenced the German Howitzers. Meanwhile, combat engineers assigned to the 37th and 146th Battalions, managed to bulldoze two paths through the St. Laurent exits, neutralising the anti-tank ditch and clearing the minefields that protected the approaches to the cliffs.
Two landing craft then came in and evaded the German shellfire, as the last man made it off the boat, it took a direct hit, the boat exploded and the coxswain was killed. Whilst the German guns momentarily halted, a number of American troops were able to sprint across the beach and up through the Le. Moulin exit.
Entering the Boccage
In the cover of a nearby hedgerow, German reinforcements engaged with the American troops in a small arms dual. With little regard for his own safety, the platoon sergeant outflanked the Germans and shot them all dead. With this first success, the men could move on to Vierville along the coast road.
The heavy guns of the 116th Battalion struck direct hits on the enemy gun emplacements and pillboxes, silencing the German guns. This enabled more and more reinforcements to safely come ashore and steady inroads were now being achieved in most sectors of the beaches. The naval and artillery bombardment was now paying off and this meant a road could now be opened up, with troops and vehicles beginning to move off the beaches and advancing inland.
But the soldiers who had reached the top of the cliffs were still being held up by stubborn german resistence. Enemy units were constantly attacking the hedgerows and the American squads lacked tank and heavy artillery support. This went on for hours along with uncoordinated fighting back on Omaha beach.
The Vierville, Coleville and St. Laurent roadways had to be cleared, so the 116th Regiment, along with the 5th Ranger Battalion, fought a desperate battle, finally reaching the coast road. Their task was to join up and reinforce the Rangers who were pinned down at Pointe Du Hoc by advancing enemy troops. German units concealed in the Boccage hedgerows blocked their path. Unable to overpower the Germans, they had to retreat to Vierville, which was now secure in American hands.
Under constant attack by enemy fire, the Pointe Du Hoc Rangers had to dig in until relief came. A second attempt by the 116th Regiment and 5th Ranger Battalions to reach Pointe Du Hoc was now underway, but they had received reports that a sizeable German force was advancing towards Omaha beach, and so once again they had to retreat in order to protect the critical roadway to Vierville...the Point Du Hoc Rangers' time was running out.
Eight hours in to the D-Day landings, General Omar Bradley, Commander of the 5th Corps, onboard the cruiser U.S.S. Augusta, was now seriously considering a total withdrawal from Omaha and redirecting his men to land on Utah beach instead. Stubborn German resistence had cost the Americans dear, with many dead or wounded.
Beach obstacles and stalled vehicles gave them very little in the way of protection from German snipers and machine gun fire. By 1200 hours, reports from Omaha suggested that a successful invasion was far from complete, but then the courage of a relatively few men, turned the tide.
Infantrymen charged the enemy positions while others blew holes in the remaining beach barriers. Under persistent fire, they were able to reach the top of the cliffs. Many troops died in this heroic last stand, but by nightfall, all german positions had been destroyed and the invasion forces had advanced a mile and a half inland. reinforcements and supplies were now landing on Omaha in droves.
The Cost of Success
Erwin Rommel had been correct, had he been in France at the time of the invasion and been supplied with the additional Panzer divisions he had asked for, he could probably have defeated the forces at Omaha and perhaps even at the rest of the beaches. Rommel had argued for those extra divisions to be under his direct command, insisting that the Allies must be halted at the beaches.
Eisenhower had gone with the decision to attack on the 6th June, although the weather had been a major factor in the slow, costly advance of the initial wave of troops in the early hours, it had also caught the Germans off-guard.
More than 2,000 men were either killed or wounded at Omaha beach, today, on the cliffs above Omaha, lie the remains of all the men who died there, along with all of the 9,386 men who were killed in Normandy.
A further 1,557 men whose bodies were never found, have their names engraved on a nearby memorial. This quiet French countryside is their final resting place, and the men who fell there, did not die in vain.
They gave their lives in a fight against tyranny, fear and hatred, and they and the actions they took that day and after, should never be forgotten.