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Ten years ago I attended the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day and reported the event in the August 1994 issue of The American Spectator. The following is a slightly abridged version of the original.---Yale Kramer
EASY RED, FOX GREEN: THE MEANING OF OMAHA BEACH Omaha Beach, Normandy, June 4-6, 1994
The weather, the weather—leaden, low-lying nimbus clouds, with sharp, cold winds whipping in from the channel, and periods of slashing rain—dominates the preparations for the main events of D-Day as it dominated the main event fifty years ago. It’s as if the gods of war want to reproach and remind the light-hearted here—the French, mostly, and the young—of what it was like then, when three thousand Americans fell on this beach.
The battle that raged on this narrow strip of sand and pebbles—barely ten yards wide at high tide—was one of the most terrible of the American war. It ranks with Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, and Tarawa in ferocity and bloodiness. Although briefer than those great struggles—it lasted only eight or nine hours—it too was one of those in which two armies of men clash, each knowing from the outset that there can be no retreat, that only their wills can determine the outcome.
For the men who fought that day, the Battle of Omaha Beach became a spiritual struggle and perhaps that is why we accord it a special place in our memory. Spiritual, not in the large sense in which Eisenhower thought of Operation Overlord as a crusade to annihilate the evil of Nazism, but in a more personal sense. The spirit that came from every man that day, alive, wounded, dying, or dead—from every dog-face, every noncom, every ninety-day wonder, every field officer; from their fear, their desperation, their grit—was what eventually won this four-mile strip of beach.
You can sense this when you talk to the old men who were here then. They seem to be the only source of authenticity and perspective in the sea of media and officialdom that has overtaken the commemorations. They wander through the quiet symmetrical beauty of the American Cemetery on this cold and rainy day, passing the many crosses that say “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God,” searching for a lost friend, or perhaps something of themselves from fifty years ago. Each one of their stories is a mixture of loss, fear, pride, and, often, humor. And most of them know that, although they will never be back to this place, they have never been away from it.
In a sense, the relatively brief battle of Omaha Beach, significantly more critical than the fighting that went on at the other four assault beaches, foreshadowed the titanic struggle for the rest of Normandy. Except for Stalingrad, the Battle of Normandy—Overlord—was the most decisive of the war in Europe. After Normandy there was no chance whatever for the Germans to win or stalemate the war. In fact, although it was not recognized at the time, the defeat of the Germans in Normandy, six weeks after D-Day, broke the back of the Wehrmacht. They had lost 400,000 men and most of their dreaded Panzer Divisions. It was the last great struggle of the Germans in the West. By September 4, the Allies were at the Belgian-German border.
Looking up from the waterline on the windswept beach it is easy to see that this was not a good place for an amphibious assault. At both ends of the beach there is high ground with commanding views of the entire curving anchorage. The entire beach was subject to sweeping artillery fire from these points. To make matters worse, there was no cover or place of concealment for several hundred yards from the low-water line where the men landed to the sea wall at the top of the beach. The sea wall, twelve feet high in places, provided some cover to those in its immediate shadow, but it and the dense barbed wire all over it provided a formidable obstacle to the men and especially the tanks and vehicles that made it ashore. Those attackers who breached the sea wall found themselves on a shelf of grassy sand and marsh that sloped up sharply to a plateau 150 feet above the beach. This slope, now overgrown with a tangle of wild vegetation, was covered with mines and barbed wire, and completely exposed to raking machine gun fire from pillboxes.
To make matters worse, there were only five exits along the entire length of beach—all of them heavily fortified. One was a paved road, the other four mere cart tracks barely six feet wide. If the Allies had had any other choice they certainly would not have selected Omaha as a landing site. But it was the only workable link between Utah to the west (which wasn’t as heavily fortified or adversely laid out) and the British assault beaches to the east. The rest of the coast was made up of rocky reefs and sheer cliffs.
Geography and Erwin Rommel were destiny for those men on Omaha that day. By the end of 1941 Hitler controlled the entire western coast of Europe from Norway to Spain, and he had decided “to make this front impregnable against every enemy.” He devised an awesome scheme—a wall made of concrete, steel, guns, and three hundred thousand men—to fulfill his vow and made it come true, using round-the-clock slave labor. There were 15,000 reinforced concrete defense posts, many of them designed by Hitler himself. And, naturally, defenses were strongest at points closest to England—the Pas de Calais and the area from Le Havre to the Netherlands.
By June 1944, Rommel, who had taken over the defense of the Western front, realized that the only hope of stopping an Allied invasion was at the water’s edge. By then he had barricaded the shoreline from Cherbourg to Calais with half a million assorted anti-invasion obstacles and more than four million mines. “In the short time left before the great offensive starts,” Rommel wrote to his commanders that spring, “we must succeed in bringing all defenses to such a standard that they will hold up against the strongest attacks. The enemy must be annihilated before he reaches our main battlefield. We must stop him in the water.”
On Omaha Beach Rommel almost succeeded. The first assault waves onto the beach at H hour (6:30 a.m.) were to be made by two regiments of the proud First Infantry Division—the “Big Red One,” a rare American division with significant combat experience—and two regiments from the less experienced Twenty-Ninth Division. These four regiments, about thirteen or fourteen thousand men altogether, made up the assault force for Omaha Beach. The beach had been divided into 5 sectors—Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, and George—and each of those had been further divided into red and green sectors. As luck would have it, the high winds and strong currents made a mess of carefully laid plans to match up each regiment with the particular sector where it had been rehearsed to perform a specific tactical mission. The landing craft were carried to sections of the beach that were totally unfamiliar to the men—disorienting and confusing them in the gray breaking light of dawn.
Most of the men landing on Omaha did not realize that they were outclassed as an army. Allied and Hollywood propaganda notwithstanding, military historians today acknowledge that the German army was the outstanding fighting force of the Second World War and that it could be defeated only against overwhelmingly favorable conditions. Its soldiers and officers had had far more disciplined training for war than ours—and five more years of experience. Rommel’s Omaha defenses were among the most powerful encountered by Americans in the entire war. They included eight reinforced concrete bunkers, almost impervious to bombardment from the sea. These emplacements held high-velocity guns 75mm or lager—large enough to destroy a tank or wreak havoc on a landing craft. There were thirty-five pillboxes with various types of artillery and automatic weapons, six mortar pits, thirty-five rocket-launching sites, and eighty-five machine gun nests. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Two or three miles inland a highly experienced artillery regiment had established a defensive position. The official history of the 16th Regiment—the first to hit the beach that morning—dryly states:
“Range cards found in defensive positions contained evidence of detailed preparations for invasion. The enemy even had information detailing differences between an LST [Landing Ship/Tank] 5 and an LST 6. Their field of fire…zeroed in on the beaches was the culmination of…infinite painstaking to insure infliction of the greatest possible damage on an invading force.”
Omar Bradley, the respected field general who that day was responsible for the American assault forces, had been told by his intelligence people that the German defenders of Omaha comprised units of the 716th Infantry Division, a defensive outfit, unequipped to counterattack, and low in morale. Half of this unit was manned by poorly trained Polish and Russian conscripts and inexperienced teenaged troops. The Americans were expecting no more than 1,000 troops to be manning the defenses at Omaha and, although their fire-power and defensive installations were formidable, the odds seemed good for the thirteen thousand men who were to make up the first several assault waves. What the Americans did not know was that weeks earlier Rommel had ordered the 352nd Infantry Division into the area. This move was routinely reported to Allied Intelligence by the French Resistance via the usual method: carrier pigeon. The procedure was to dispatch each message twice, just in case German soldiers armed with shotguns killed one of the birds. This time the pigeon hunters got both birds.
When Bradley heard, late in the morning, that the beaches were being defended by the 716th and the 352nd, he was stunned. The 352nd, unlike most German divisions in France, was made up of three grenadier regiments of tough, skilled, disciplined veterans of the Russian front. Nor did Bradley know that the Germans manning the defenses along Omaha had escaped almost unscathed from the air and naval bombardment that preceded H-Hour. Attacking blind through a heavy overcast, the Liberator bombers, in their anxiety to avoid bombing onto the approaching assault troops, had dropped hundreds of tons of high explosive onto the fields behind the formidable beach defenses.
The 47-minute naval bombardment that had preceded the first assault waves was also largely ineffective. From 6,000 yards offshore it was difficult to fire accurately through the mist, dust, and smoke. The naval shelling did no more than the bombing to reduce the fighting power of the defenses that had been constructed to be almost immune from direct fire from the sea.
The first elements of the 16th and 116th Regiments coming ashore faced by far the greatest concentration of German fire on the entire invasion front. As the first landing craft dropped their ramps just short of the beach and the Americans loaded down with 75 or 100 pounds of equipment began to jump into the surf, the Germans opened fire from every position along Omaha, their machine guns raking back and forth across the waterline. Many soldiers were even dropped off prematurely into water over their heads by naval personnel anxious to beat a hasty retreat from the German artillery.
Max Hastings, one of the leading historians of Overlord, states:
“There is no more demanding task for infantry than to press home an attack across open ground under heavy fire, amid heavy casualties…. V Corps’ plan for Omaha eschewed tactical subtleties…and any attempt to seize the five vital beach exits by manoeuvre. Instead, [Omaha commander] General Gerow committed his men to hurling themselves frontally against the most strongly defended areas in the assault zone. This was an act of hubris.”
The planned support for the men—armored vehicles, tanks, and heavy artillery to take out the strong points—had, in the meantime, foundered in ten-knot winds and in four-to-eight-foot seas that left the men soaking wet and severely seasick. By the time they reached the beaches, most had thrown up their breakfasts and were numb from crouching in the cramped and crowded landing craft during the three-hour trip to shore.
In this state they stumbled forward into a torrent of fire, seeking whatever shelter they could find among the mined beach obstacles, or falling down and playing dead on the exposed beach. It took some of them thirty or forty minutes to inch themselves across the exposed beach to the sea wall at the head of the beach that provided some small degree of protection from the machine gun fire but not from the mortar fire.
Stephen Ambrose, in his history of the cross-channel invasion, collected a large number of eye-witness accounts, one of which conveys the horror of the experience:
“Sgt. Thomas Valance survived, barely. ‘As we came down the ramp, we were in water about knee-high and started to do what we were trained to do, that is, move forward and then crouch and fire. One problem was we didn’t quite know what to fire at. I saw some tracers coming from a concrete emplacement which, to me, looked mammoth. I never anticipated any gun emplacements being that big. I shot at it but there was no way I was going to knock out a German concrete emplacement with a .30-caliber rifle.’
“The tide was coming in, rapidly, and the men around Valance were getting hit. He found it difficult to stand on his feet—like most infantrymen, he was badly overloaded, soaking wet, exhausted, trying to struggle through wet sand and avoid the obstacles with mines attached to them. ‘I abandoned my equipment, which was dragging me down into the water.
“’It became evident rather quickly that we weren’t going to accomplish much. I remember floundering in the water with my hands up in the air, trying to get my balance, when I was first shot through the palm of my hand, then through the knuckle.’…
“Valance was hit again, in the left thigh by a bullet that broke his hipbone. He took two additional flesh wounds. His pack was hit twice, and the chin strap on his helmet was severed by a bullet. He crawled up the beach ‘and staggered up against the seawall and sort of collapsed there and, as a matter of fact, spent the whole day in that same position. Essentially, my part in the invasion had ended by having been wiped out as most of my company was. The bodies of my buddies were washing ashore and I was the one live body in amongst so many of my friends, all of whom were dead, in many cases very severely blown to pieces.’” [From D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, by Stephen E. Ambrose.]
By 8 a.m. it was clear that a catastrophe was unfolding. The first several assault waves had been decimated, and almost all of the tanks and artillery pieces had been lost. The men who had not been killed outright or seriously wounded huddled terrified and demoralized in the lee of the sea wall as the tide rolled in behind them. The beach was so narrow in places that only seven or eight yards separated the crowd of men and the sea. The men were virtually leaderless because many of their officers had been killed on arrival or had become separated from their boat sections. Individual units had not only been landed far from where they were supposed to be but had dispersed all over the beach. And the heavy but fragile mobile radios, the only link to the high command out at sea, were either lost in the surf or damaged and inoperable.
Among the thousands of men crouched on that beach in the early morning of D-Day a serious paralysis had set in. To the Germans looking down over the beach from the western fortifications built into the cliffs at Raz de la Percee, it looked as though the defenders had achieved Rommel’s objective of stopping the invasion at the water’s edge. And indeed they radioed this news to Army Group B, Rommel’s headquarters. It was told that a great many tanks and vehicles could be seen burning and destroyed, and hundreds of wounded and dead could be seen lying on the sand.
Aboard the cruiser Augusta, General Bradley watched the disaster unfold. He later wrote,
“As the morning lengthened, my worries deepened over the alarming and fragmentary reports we picked up on the navy net. From those messages we could piece together only an incoherent account of sinkings, swampings, heavy enemy fire and chaos on the beaches. Though we could see it dimly through the haze and hear the echo of its guns, the battle belonged that morning to the thin, wet line of khaki that dragged itself ashore on the Channel coast of France.”
By mid-morning Bradley “gained the impression that our forces had suffered an irreversible catastrophe.” At that time he seriously considered stopping the landings on Omaha and diverting the follow-up waves to Utah.
If that had happened, and Rommel had been able to push the Americans back into the sea, he might have rolled up the entire invasion by splitting the isolated American army at Utah Beach from the British Second Army and strangling them each separately. But that did not happen.
It was clear that events had overtaken the elaborate plans to capture Omaha. Whatever happened was now out of the hands of General Bradley, commander of all of the American Forces on D-Day; out of the hands of General Gerow, commander of the forces on Omaha Beach, the Fifth Corps, and his two divisional commanders General Huebner, of the First Division, and General Gerhardt, of the Twenty-ninth. These were the men who had made the plans but they did not have to carry them out. They remained twelve miles out to sea, waiting for reports to come in.
For the twelve thousand surviving troops, virtually cut off from each other and their sources of information and supplies, and facing a combat-hardened enemy twice as strong as expected, without supporting tanks or artillery, disorganized and demoralized—their fate and fate of Omaha Beach was now in their own hands.
It was individuals, not divisions, who determined the outcome that day. Disciplined training and experience are enormously helpful to the combat soldier in overcoming his terror in battle. When these are absent or minimal, as they were that morning, the fighting man must depend on his own personal motivations—his sense of honor, of duty, of loyalty to his comrades—and the leadership of those around him.
Among the tired, wet, scared groups of men huddled behind the sea wall waiting to be bombarded to death piecemeal by the enemies’ mortars and artillery, a small number of leaders—officers, noncoms, and privates—began to emerge, and by example, exhortation, and bullying began to move the men up that slope, strewn with barbed wire and sown with mines, inch by inch. They were men like Staff Sergeant William Courtney and Private First Class William Braher of A Company’s Fifth Ranger Battalion, who were probably the first Americans to reach the top of the cliff on the extreme western flank, around 8:30 a.m. when they gained the summit, they sent word to a company of the 116th Infantry below to follow them up, and a handful of men did so.
The 116th was new to combat, and having mislanded in front of a very heavily defended section of the beach, it lost most of its officers and so had become confused and dangerously demoralized. That is until General Norman Cota arrived at the western end of the beach and began prodding and rousing his men, leading from the front—a posture he was famous for—and exposing himself to enemy fire.
This was the situation everywhere along Omaha that morning, especially among the men who had never been in combat before. Every instinct told them to stay put and keep under cover. On the eastern flank of the beachhead, the men of the 16th Regiment of the 1st Division were pinned down by the strong defenses in front of one of the main exits from the beach—one of the tactical objectives of the Regiment. It was Sgt. Philip Streczyk of Company E who charged across the mine field and, using a Bangalore torpedo, made the first breach in the enemy wire. Almost immediately he was followed by Lt. John Spaulding leading a remnant of E Company up the slope to attack the strong point guarding the western side of beach exit—four concrete shelters, two pillboxes, five machine guns. The small force was eventually successful in wiping out this strong point and went on to attack the eastern strong point guarding the exit. The official history of the 16th Regiment describes what Lt. Spaulding and his band of men did:
“At first this particular strong point was practically impossible to destroy, for, in addition to the extremely stubborn resistance encountered, the strong point with its maze of underground shelter trenches and dugouts was virtually ‘untouchable.’ However, following a barrage of hand grenades, the [men] closed with the enemy, destroyed many of them and captured and officer and 20 Germans…. Of the 183 men who had landed, 100 were dead, wounded or missing in action…. However, one avenue of escape from the beach was now open, perilous though it was…. It was this small path which for forty-eight hours was the main personnel exit of the entire V Corps.”
Individual men—a succession of individual men, on their own, or leading small groups of ten or twenty, not under orders or according to some master plan, but out of a sense of desperation, or responsibility to their comrades, or honor, or pride, or all of them mixed together—began driving vital wedges into the German defenses all along the Omaha front. By mid-afternoon the Americans had overrun even the strongest of the German positions on Omaha.
We have a tendency to think that our postmodern wards can be won with machines operated by technicians at a computer console—no flesh and bone at stake. This was the view that the Allied generals had in WWII—the model that said substitute steel for flesh whenever possible. They were surprised to find that that formula did not work. Sooner or later, men had to close with men, disarm them or kill them and occupy the ground they held. Ruthless human action is required in battle. Plans won’t do it. Explosives won’t do it. Only desperate human endeavor can prevail in the end. It is difficult to keep such stern notions in mind amidst the festivities of this weekend. The further you get away from the beaches the more it seems like a circus-come-to-town atmosphere. There are huge crowds in many town squares milling around, waving little American flags and shouting and cheering every bus that passes whether it contains old Vets or not. For about three dollars you can buy one of the “authentique” crickets that the American paratroopers used to identify each other in the darkness of early morning. There are stands that sell 50th Anniversary T-shirts for ten or twenty dollars, and other stands that sell those wonderfully smelling grilled spicy sausages—merguez—covered with browned onions on a toasted bun.
Every young Frenchman in Normandy and his girlfriend seem to be masquerading this weekend as GIs—1944 style helmets, leggings—the works. Some clever entrepreneur has cornered the market on surplus U.S. jeeps with all the standard Army insignia and is renting them. You wouldn’t know it isn’t standard Army until you see the scruffy looking French kids and their pretty girlfriends driving in them. The signs all over the region remind you that the close relationship between patriotism and profit has not been suspended for D-Day. There are signs that announce “Senior Golf” at the Omaha Beach Golf Course, and signs that say “Welcome to our Liberators—Wine and Cheese Our Specialty.” (You wonder whether, back in 1940, the signs didn’t say “Welcome to Our Captors—Wine and Cheese Our Specialty.”)
The several thousand servicemen-and–women who participated and helped support the events of the commemoration are smart-looking, respectful, and infinitely polite—sirring and mamming you at every encounter. One corporal, asked what he thought about what was going on, answered drily, “Good. It’s good.” Then with a wisdom beyond his years and a smile he couldn’t quite hide, he added, “Except they keep movin’ the vets further and further back.”
It was true. At all of the formal events including the main one at the American Cemetery at which Clinton spoke—except for a handful of selected vets used for media purposes to be available for presidential handshakes—the best seats were assigned to the Big Fish and their wives. And what was left—a football field away—was given to those our president had come to honor and thank so movingly. It reminds you of that great old Bill Mauldin cartoon of 1944—the one in which two officers are looking at a mountain sunset and one says to the other, “Beautiful view. Is there one for the enlisted men?”
I suppose it was best summed up by a handsome elderly lady from Seattle. A young marine had just asked her husband—one of the first to land on Utah Beach—to move away from where he was taking a picture. The veteran asked him why and the marine replied, “I’m sorry, sir, but the President will be coming by here.” At that moment you could hear a little gasp of indignation from the handsome lady. “Since when,” she muttered with undisguised contempt, “does the President come before a vet. I think they’ve got their priorities a little mixed up.” But the marine had moved on to another old soldier.
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