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 Along the Atlantic Wall: Rommel's Last Battle

The Attack
by Jeremy Gypton
 

The airborne drops and glider assaults were first, and the American drops were nowhere near as organized as hoped. Having flown a difficult course from England, once German flak gunners opened fire on the C-47’s the formations broke apart and troops were scattered over a huge area, mostly far off from their designated drop zones, and often times mixed with other units. British drops on the far eastern flank of the operational area (north of Caen), on the other hand, were extremely accurate, owing to different flight paths and lighter ground fire.

Despite this seemingly fatal setback for the Americans, soldiers organized themselves into small groups and took the initiative to tackle their missions. For some soldiers, dropped too far from their objective to reach in a reasonable amount of time on foot, targets of opportunity were found. Ordered, “that if they could not do anything else, they could at least cut communication lines,”(38) American paratroopers went about spreading whatever havoc and damage they could, well inland of the German coastal defenses. Some primary objectives were taken, to include several key bridges and crossroads. Overall, the Airborne had done an excellent job, regardless of whether the original missions were all completed. German headquarters and units across the region were thoroughly confused as to the size of the airdrops and their targets; the confusion caused during the drops themselves had impacted the Germans far more than it had the Allies.

Just before dawn on Omaha beach, Major Werner Pluskat, of the 352nd Artillery Regiment, was readying his troops for the invasion they now knew was coming. Units across the region became aware of the attack either by communication from friendly units, interaction with Allied airborne troops, or by hearing the explosions from bombs being dropped along the coast. Pluskat, looking out into the English Channel from his bunker, “stepped back with amazement when [he] saw that the horizon was literally filling with ships of all kinds” then saw “planes approach from the sea and [bomb] the beaches,” and finally before dawn watched as “the bombardment from the sea began.”(39)

The landings took place at five separate beaches, running from the base of the Cotentin peninsula to north of Caen, west to east: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The first two would be taken by the Americans, the others by the British and Canadians.

Opposition at Utah was light, due mostly to the fact that the Americans had landed some 2 kilometers from their original objective, and ended up facing a weaker sector of the beach. Their main objectives were to secure “the main Carentan to Cherbourg road as the first stage towards isolating the Cotentin Peninsula”(40) and to link up with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, west and southwest of the beach. Suffering fewer than 200 casualties that day, they were able to begin moving inland by noon.

Balancing the seeming ease of the landings at Utah were those at “Bloody Omaha,” which saw some 3000 Americans fall on 6 June. A combination of high bluffs, a long run toward shore in landing craft (some eleven miles), and a German unit that was thought to be elsewhere resulted in extremely high casualty rates in the first assault waves. Only one regiment, from a “static” division, was expected to be defending the beach. In fact, two veteran regiments from the 352nd Division were also positioned along Omaha. Due to rough seas, armored vehicles fitted with flotation skirts were swamped and sank. Soldiers, dropped hundreds of yards from the beach and weighted down with cumbersome equipment, drowned before reaching shore. Trapped at the bottom of high sea cliffs, and under withering fire from three times as many Germans as had been expected, the American 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions seemed stalled. The success or failure of the landings at Omaha were not known for some hours, and in fact Allied commanders had considered pulling off the beach early in the assault. Success at Omaha was essential to the invasion, as a gap in the middle of the Allied beachhead could prove fatal; the armies would be unable to link up, and a unified front against the Germans would be impossible. Eventually though, small groups of men began making their way off the beach and thus opening gaps for armor and more troops to move through. By day’s end, Omaha would be secured.

The British 50th (Infantry) Division, assaulting Gold, was moving inland by mid-day, and by nightfall had reached their primary objective, the small town of Bayeux. Elements of this division would link up with American units from Omaha by 8 June.

The Canadians, attacking Juno, made “the greatest gains on D-Day…[advancing]…over sixteen kilometers inland and [reaching] the Caen-Bayeux road”40 by nightfall. British landings at Sword were not as successful, failing to capture Caen. The town Ouistreham was liberated, but heavy resistance from the 21st SS Panzer Division and the 716th Static Division prevented the British from making decisive gains. Units along the western flank at Sword were, however, able to link up with their Canadian counterparts at Juno.


Footnotes

(38). Ambrose, 217.

(39). Russell Miller, Nothing Less Than Victory, (New York: William Morrow and Company Inc, 1993), 282.

(40). David Evans, A Guide to the Beaches and Battlefields of Normandy, (London: Michael Joseph, 1994), 31.


Written by Jeremy Gypton
Copyright © 2002 Jeremy Gypton

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