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The Meaning of D-Day

Omaha Beach
By Brian Williams

The US 1st Army, V Corps had the mission of securing the beachhead between Port-en-Bessin and the Vire River and to advance towards St. Lo. The Corps was to arrive in 4 stages with the 1st Division (with the 29th attached) leading the landings with about 34,000 men in the morning, followed by another 25,000 men after noon. The 1st Division was a veteran unit which had served through the campaigns of North Africa and Sicily.  While for the most part, Normandy would be the 29th Division's first experience in combat.  Two American Regimental Combat Teams (RCTs) of four rifle companies each, were tasked with the initial landing (the US 29th 116th RCT and the US 1st 16th RCT), followed by the remainder of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions.  Fire support included naval gunfire from the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers offshore, heavy bombing by B-24 Liberators, the 741st and 743rd DD (dual-drive amphibious) tank battalions, several battalions of engineers and naval demolition personnel, and several howitzer battalions.

The beach at Omaha Beach sector was about 7,000 yards long with a gentle slope that forms a crescent with bluffs located at each end. The tidal range averaged about 300 yards between the low and high water mark. At the high water mark, the ocean ends at a shingle that reaches up to several feet high. On the western part of the sector, the shingle had piled against a seawall which ranged in height anywhere between 4 to 12 feet. Behind the sea wall was a paved beach road from Exit D-1 to Exit D-3. At the middle of the beach, approximately 200 yards stands between the seawall and the bluffs. Near Exit D-1 stood a small number of villas and at Exit D-3 stood the small village of les Moulins. At four points along the beach were small draws (or valleys) which were thought to offer protected exits off the beach (these were actually heavily defended).  At Exit D-1 (the exit to Vierville), the draw had a paved road. The draws offered the only way for armor to reach the high ground. Inland from the beach stood the three farming villages of St. Laurent, Colleville, and Vierville with the hedgerow country beginning immediately behind the beaches. 

The immediate objective of the Omaha landings was to secure a beachhead between Port-en-Bessin and the Vire river and then to advance southwards towards St. Lo.  Another objective of the V Corps was link with the VII Corps to the east (via the small town of Isigny).  Isigny was a small town where the highway from Paris to Cherbourg crossed the Aure river. This highway, as did most that were located near the beach, ran east to west. The Corps was also to advance beyond the Aure river and towards the Cerisy Forest area to the south.

Enemy Defenses
32 fortified areas were located between the Vire River and Port-en-Bessin. Especially fortified were the Vire Estuary, Grandcamp, and Port-en-Bessin. In all, 12 strongpoints were able to direct fire on Omaha beach. Obstacles of three sorts were existent on Omaha Beach. These consisted of gate-like structures (approximately 10 feet high and strapped with mines) placed about 250 yards from the high-water line. Next, about 200 yards from shore, heavy logs were driven into the beach floor at an angle with mines strapped to the ends and along the logs. These were followed by the 5 ½ tall metal hedgehogs that were buried in the sand. There were no mines in the tidal sand, so if the troops could reach the shingle, they could reach relative safety (although enfilade fire made this position precarious at best). Beyond the shingle, the Germans had placed mines (in most cases these were marked) and barbed wire. In spots where the sea wall was above the shingle, the barbed wire was placed on its top.

The gentle crescent curve of the shoreline allowed for excellent fields of fire against any landing troops. Since the Germans had prepared their defenses for quite some time, they were able to train their guns accurately onto the beach.  Most of the strong points protecting Omaha beach were located near the entrance of the draws and contained machine guns as the main armament as well as light artillery pieces.  In addition, in this sector, there were 8 concrete casements and 35 pillboxes which contained gun sizes up to 88mm guns.

No coastal batteries or heavy guns were present in the Omaha sector, although 6 155-mm howitzers were believed to be located at Point du Hoc. The defenses in this sector were designed to be almost entirely on the beach or just behind it with almost no defensive positions beyond this point. For the German defenders, it was expected that defensive reserves would be rushed to counter any landings.

The 716th Infantry Division occupied a 50-mile sector between the Orne River and the Vire Estuary. It was considered a static unit and thought to be composed of over 50% foreign troops (Russians and Poles). Reinforcements were expected to come from the 352nd Infantry Division which was thought to be stationed in and around St. Lo. The 352nd was a veteran unit of the Russian front and was expected to provide the main opposition to the V Corps. The Allies had expected the German Air Force to mount an all-out offensive against the D-Day landings and they were believed to be able to mount 1,500 sorties that day. The German navy was not expected to conduct any appreciable attempts at hampering the invasion force.
Pre-Landing Bombardment
Omaha Beach was to be bombarded by air and naval guns one half-hour before landings. As part of the entire program, so as not to give away the true locations of the landings, the entire coast had consistently been bombed. 
The USS Texas and Arkansas 14-inch and 12-inch guns were to fire from 18,000 yards off shore at pillboxes, casements, and the battery at Pointe du Hoc. 3 cruisers and 8 destroyers also would be able to approach nearer and support the landings. After the landings, the bombardment would move inland or be directed by naval shore fire control parties who accompanied the landings.
The Approach
Enemy guns had been sited to cover every part of the beach; nevertheless, there were sectors where units landed which met very little opposition. Furthermore, of the nearly 200 craft carrying the assault infantry to shore in the first 2 hours, only about 10 are known to have been hit by artillery before debarking their troops, none were sunk by this fire, and in only a few cases were the casualties serious. Larger craft, particularly LCI's, appear to have been a favored target by the Germans and appear to have incurred more damage.  More startling to the assaulting troops was the fact that the beach had not been hit by the air bombardment.  The reason for this turned out to be due to overcast -- the pilots did not want to endanger the landing troops by releasing their bombs too close.
The Landings
The sectors of Omaha beach were given the codenames of Charlie, Dog, Easy, and Fox (west to east).  The first wave of landings, scheduled for 0630 at dawn, was to consist of 96 tanks, the Special Engineer Task Force, and eight companies of assault infantry.  

The Special Engineer Task Force was comprised of both Army and Navy demolition specialists whose mission was to clear paths through the obstacles in preparation for the remainder of the landing force. The accompanying tanks and assault infantry were to provide covering fire. 
Along the beach, a strong current flowed parallel to the coast from west to east at speeds as strong as 5 miles per hour. This caused nearly every team to land further to the east than anticipated. In some cases, in addition to landing in the wrong areas, the teams of engineers landed where no tanks or infantry were able to provide protective fire. The teams, of course, were laden with equipment and explosives. They were often dropped in deep water and weighted down which made them especially dangerous targets. And, since the landings were launched at the beginning of low tide, they found that the tide was already beginning to cover some of the obstacles. But, despite so much lost equipment and a 41 percent casualty rate, the engineers were able to blow six gaps in the obstacles, although many of these could not be properly marked and thus, became useless during high tide.

The infantry landed at the same time and most ran aground well before their intended landing points. As they approached, they could hear the bullets hitting the ramps that had yet to be lowered. Many were weakened from seasickness and once reaching shore, had to cover another 200 yards of open beach until reaching the seawall.

29th Infantry Division (116th RCT)

Dog Green was located directly in front of enemy positions guarding the Vierville draw. Company A of the 116th was due to land on this sector with Company C of the 2nd Rangers on its right flank. Several LCAs were hit and others had devastating fire brought upon them. Some reached the beach only to find there was no cover for them to hide behind and many returned to the water and the nearest obstacles.  The enemy positions on the bluffs above were able to inflict heavy casualties.  Fifteen minutes after landing, Company A was out of action for the day. Estimates of its casualties range as high as 66%. A Ranger company of 64 men (in two LCA's) landed shortly after near the Vierville draw. An antitank gun hit one LCA and a dozen men were killed while a machine gun opened up on the second LCA as the men debarked. When the Rangers reached the base of the cliff, they had lost 35 men.
To the east of the Les Moulins draw, small grass fires had been started and obscured the landings in this area. The units landing in this area met relatively less resistance. Company G of the 116th RCT landed east of Dog Red instead of Dog White and was able to reach the shingle with little loss due to the smoke. But, they were significantly off their intended landing areas and were unsure of what to do next.
At Easy Green, another section of Company G encountered heavier fire and one team lost 14 men before they reached the shingle, but overall were intact. Company F landed according to plan astride the Les Moulins (D-3) draw and ran directly into the heavily fortified position. But, because they were downwind of the grass fires, they escaped the disastrous fate that befell Company A.   But, some sections encountered heavy fire from the Germans and encountered over 50% casualties.

Only two boats managed to land on Easy Red (between E-1 and E-3). These men encountered very light resistance. Further to the east, only about ½ reached the shingle. After the first ½ hour, only about a hundred men and only 4 DD tanks were on Easy Red Beach.

Company E was supposed to land at Easy Green, but drifted nearly a mile to the east and found itself 3/4 of a mile east from the nearest 29th Division unit.  To make matters worse, men were scattered over two sectors.  Two LCVPs were able to make land without any incidences and deliver their men right on the beach, while the other four boats took heavy fire.

The 29th Infantry had sustained heavy casualties and the first-wave seemed to have failed from onlookers who were able to witness it.  Also, only two gaps had been made through the obstacles and the tide was rising quickly.  This meant that reinforcements would that much more difficult.

1st Infantry Division (16th RCT)
Only 2 boats of out of 12 landed where they were supposed to.  At Fox Green, all units that were supposed to land on this sector landed to the east.  Instead, sections of Company E and Company F (who were supposed to land in Easy Red), along with sections from 116th Company E (who had drifted from the west) landed in this sector.  Unfortunately, they landed astride a heavily defended area with almost no cover available (there was no sea wall available). 

A large section of the landing sector at Easy Red was situated between two stongpoints (WN 64 and WN 62).  The Engineers here were able to open 4 gaps through the approach.  This was important because on all of Omaha Beach, only 6 gaps total would be opened.  The 37th and 149th Engineer Combat Battalions worked furiously to get these obstacles cleared, while Company E, 16th RCT was able to take WN 64 from the rear.  Two destroyers had been instrumental in neutralizing strongpoints between Les Moulins to Fox Red and at least 5 destroyers had moved in to support the landing troops.  The USS Frankford was especially effective against the strongpoints covering the E-1 and by 1000 hours, it was secured.  Following the first landings, the 18th RCT was to land at 0930, but was delayed due to congestion on the beach and strong currents.  They lost 28 landing craft to underwater obstacles, but overall landed in much better condition than the 16th RCT.  The 18th RCT found pillbox west of the E-1 draw still active, but with the continuation cooperation of the destroyers, they were able to neutralize it.  The Engineers were also to move to clearing the inland obstacles.  This later became the main route off Omaha beach on D-Day.  

Fox Beach on the other hand fared much worse. Company E of the 16th RCT and company E of the 116th RCT landed on the western section of Fox Green and most were caught in the machine gun crossfire as the ramps lowered. Company F of 16th RCT was scattered from E-3 to over a thousand yards to the east. About 1/3 were casualties before the could make it to the shingle.

Nearly all units drifted east of their intended targets. Others that did not land on time, were delayed. Dog White and Easy Red had almost no troops on its beaches.

Subsequent Landings
The 2nd wave started landing at 0700 and found much of the same situation. Very little progress had been made since the first landings and very little had been done to silence the enemy defenses. Companies had landed so far from their intended targets and were so intermixed, that organization was very poor. In the cases where the landings took place directly in front of the enemy strongpoints, casualties were extremely high - especially among officers and NCO's.

As subsequent personnel and equipment landed, they found the beach more and more crowded. The shingle was nearly completely occupied and those coming in had to remain on the open beach. In most cases, the different units on the beaches were on their own to make their way off the beaches. Despite the chaotic situation and the large casualties, the units managed to slowly make their way off the beach and up to the bluffs. Nearly every unit had landed at the wrong areas and was forced to adapt to the current situation. Groups of men of 20 or 30 slowly worked their way through the beach defenses. Notably, the teams bypassed the draws and assaulted directly over the bluffs. This was probably due to landing in the wrong areas and the forced improvisation that was needed to penetrate inland, and the well-placed enemy positions guarding the draws. Unfortunately, this meant that the routes to be used by the armor and vehicles were not open. 

By 0730, General Cota of the 116th command group had landed at Dog White along with Colonel Canham.  They found most of the 29ers huddled behind the seawall - unable to move.  Knowing that the position was vulnerable to German artillery, they split up to gather men and find a way off the beach.  

The landings at Omaha Beach had incurred significant casualties and in fact, the enemy defenses were stronger than expected. Very little progress had been made in the push to the interior and this caused significant backups on the beach. Of the 2,400 tons that were planned to arrive on the beach on D-Day, only 100 tons were delivered. Operations on the 7th and 8th of June would be spent deepening the bridgehead.

Understandingly, casualties were high among those first units, which landed on Omaha Beach. Casualties for V Corps that day were about 3,000 (killed, wounded, and missing) with the 16th and 116th sustaining about 1,000 casualties each.

German response
The Germans were found to be unable to launch any significant counterattacks. The 352nd itself was so stretched that the best it could hope for was to hold onto the ground it held. In many places, if the Germans had been able to put together a coordinated counterattack, the Americans would've been in a serious predicament. But, it appears the unit was intent on stubborn defense, in anticipation of reinforcements from the rear. It had significantly delayed the schedule at Omaha, but unless the delay was followed up with a swift counterattack, it would be meaningless.

By evening on D-Day, General Gerhardt landed, set up his command post near the Vierville exit, and waited to take over command of the 29th Division. Pointe du Hoc was still isolated and known to have sustained heavy casualties. 1st Battalion of the 116th, along with the 5th Ranger battalion, companies A, B, and C of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, and several tanks moved west along the Grandcamp highway towards Pointe du Hoc. It just failed to reach the Rangers at Point du Hoc by the end of June 7th due to stiff enemy resistance.

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