Naval and Air Bombardment
The Fate of the Tanks
The landing on Omaha Beach was the hardest fought and most costly of the D-Day landings, and the one that came closest to failure. A combination of a strong defensive position, rough seas, the loss of most of the supporting tanks and artillery, a too-short naval bombardment and an ineffective aerial bombardment saw the first wave of American troops pinned down on the water's edge, and although by the end of the day the landing was secure the Omaha beachhead was still less than a mile deep.
Omaha Beach was the only possible landing place between Utah Beach, essential for the attack on Cherbourg, and the British and Canadian beaches to the east. If that had not been the case, then it would never have been chosen as one of the invasion beaches, for it was a naturally strong defensive position. A shallow beach was protected by sandbanks that meant many of the American landing craft would beach well short of dry land. In 1944 the beach rose gently up to a shingle bank ten feet high in places that made a perfect anti-tank barrier. Behind the shingle was a steep escarpment, while both ends of the beach were overlooked by rocky headlands. Five narrow ravines or draws leading up from the beach to the plateau behind the escarpment were the only possible routes off the beach for vehicles.
Above the escarpment was a narrow plateau, which ran between the coast and the Aure river, which runs parallel to the sea. Three small stone-built villages connected by a minor road line the plateau, with Vierville-sur-Mer in the west, St Laurent-sur-Mer in the centre and Colleville-sur-Mer in the east. The five draws each led up to one of these villages, turning them into natural strong-points.
The Americans divided the beach was divided into four sectors – from west to east those were Charlie, Dog, Easy and Fox. Dog was divided into three sub-sections: Dog Green, Dog White and Dog Red and East into two: Easy Green and Easy Red. In the original American plan a company from the second Rangers was to land on Charlie beach, and attempt to support the Rangers further up the coast at Pointe du Hoc. The four companies of the 116th Regimental Combat Team were to land on Dog Green, Dog White, Dog Red and Easy Green and the four companies of the 16th Regimental Combat Team were to land in pairs on Easy Red and Fox Green.
The five exists from the beach were given identifying codes. Exit D-1 was between Charlie and Dog Green, and led to Vierville-sur-Mer. Exit D-3 was next, between Dog Red and Easy Green, and led to Mont les Moulins. Exit E-1 was in the centre of Easy Red, and led to St. Laurent. E-3, in the centre of Fox Green and F-1 at its eastern end, led to Colleville-sur-Mer.
A great deal of confusion has been caused by misreading of the American official history – Gordon A. Harrison's Cross-Channel Attack – which states that General Huebner's troops 'hit on the front of a full attack infantry division'. Harrison was simply pointing out that the 352nd Division had been moved into the area and had command of all of the troops on Omaha Beach, but many later authors misinterpreted this statement. In fact Harrison goes on to give some quite detailed accounts of the fate of the individual battalions of the 352nd, which were spread out from Le Hamel on Gold Beach out to the Carentan canal, and places part of the 916th Regiment on Omaha Beach.
The 352nd Infantry Division was split into three regiments each of two battalions. On D-Day the 1st Battalion, 916th Grenadier Regiment, was on Gold Beach. The 914th Grenadier Regiment was spread out to the west of Omaha beach. The 915th Grenadier Regiment and the division's 352nd Fusilier Battalion began the day at St Lô, where they made up the divisional reserve (Kampfgruppe Meyer). This left the 2nd Battalion, 916th Grenadier Regiment on Omaha Beach, where it was supported by two battalions from the 726th Grenadier Regiment, part of the 716th Static Infantry Division. During D-Day one battalion from the 915th joined the fighting from reserve, but the 915th became distracted by the Ranger force at Pointe du Hoc, and wasted a chance to make an important contribution on the beach. All three battalions came under the overall command of Major General Dietrich Kraiss, the commander of the 352nd Division and a veteran of the eastern front.
The Germans had built a strong but thin line of defences on Omaha beach, taking advantage of the cliffs at both ends and the escarpment. Strong-points were built onto and into the bluffs, many designed to fire along the beach, making them difficult to see and damage from the sea. Fourteen major strongpoints were built, one on each side of the five draws, two on the headland to the east and three covering the upper ends of the draws. The Americans were also worried by the powerful gun battery at Pointe du Hoc, sending a detachment of Rangers to attack this battery on D-Day.
Naval and Air Bombardment
Neither the aerial or naval bombardments of Omaha Beach lived up to expectations. The massive aerial attack suffered because poor visibility made the bomber crews wary of dropping their bombs too soon and hitting the incoming assault crews. As a result most of the bombs fell behind the German defences. Not only did this leave the bunkers intact, it also meant that the beach was lacking the bomb craters that had been expected to act as cover for the infantry.
The naval bombardment was limited by its short duration. General Bradley dismissed most advice he received from veterans of amphibious landings in the Pacific. The bombardment was to start at dawn (05.45am) and only lasted for forty minutes, until 06.25am. Many naval commanders felt that the landings should have been delayed for longer to allow for a longer, and possibly more destructive, naval bombardment.
The final part of the naval bombardment was performed by nine LCT(R)s (Landing Craft, Tank (Rocket), which between them launched 9,000 rockets at the beach, but this time the attack was made from too far out, and the rockets fell short, into the sea below the low-tide mark. As the first waves of infantry approached the beach the German defences were largely intact.
Two divisions – the 1st Infantry Division ('The Big Red One') and the 29th Infantry Division – were to land on Omaha beach on D-Day, with half of each division carrying out the assault. General Leonard Gerow's 1st Infantry Division was to command with the assault. The first wave was to consist of the 16th RCT from 1st Infantry Division with 741st Tank Battalion on the left and the 116th RCT from the 29th Division with the 743rd Tank Battalion on the right. A second wave of infantry was to be provided by the 18th RCT of the 1st Division and the 115th RCT of the 29th.
The gun battery on Pointe du Hoc was to be attacked by the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions. The attack was to be supported by sixteen Gap Assault Teams from the Special Engineer Task Force, with the task of blowing gaps in the beach obstructions.
The Fate of the Tanks
The two tank battalions fared very differently on D-Day. The 743rd Tank Battalion, actually reached the beach largely intact, largely because the naval commander of the eight landing craft carrying their DD tanks realised that the sea was far too rough to release the tanks 5,000 yards out to sea. With the agreement of the tank commander he took his landing craft right into the beach, and so at 6.29 the first tanks landed on Dog Green and Dog Red beaches. Some losses were still suffered – the LCT carrying the company commander was sunk just offshore and four other tanks were disabled before reaching the beach, but 40 of the 48 tanks allocated to the western end of Omaha beach arrived safely.
On the eastern flank the situation was far worse. The DD tanks were released out at sea, apparently at the insistence of the tank commanders, although the senior naval officer has also been criticised for not taking over and insisting on moving closer to shore. The tanks may have been launched further out than planned, but this was irrelevant, for most of them sank soon after being launched, with the loss of 33 men. Two tanks successfully swam their way to shore, where they were joined by three more from LCT-600 which had been landed directly on Easy Red beach. Company A, which was following with 16 M4A1 tanks equipped with wading equipment lost three tanks on the way in, and so only 18 of the 48 tanks allocated to the eastern beaches arrived intact.
The two regiment's artillery suffered equally as badly. Many of the guns were lost when the DUKWs being used to transport them to shore foundered in the heavy seas.
Just as on Utah beach the prevailing tides and currents pushed the attacking Americans left, so most units landed to the left of their original targets. Three companies ended up on Fox Green, with another concentrate just to their left at the eastern end of Easy Red. Unlike on Utah this had disastrous results, for it brought the Americans under the German guns defending exits E-3 and F-1.
All along the beach the first wave was held at the water line. A Company, 1st Battalion, 116th Regiment, was almost completely destroyed on Dog Green, but the follow-up troops achieved some of the first breakthroughs. Two small parties from the next company to the east managed to clamber up to Vierville, leaving the beach fortifications intact. The next company to come in also found this gap, and by 10.00am the Americans had a foothold in Vierville.
Further east two companies from the 116th Regiment landed around the Les Moulins exits, where smoke shielded them from the worst of the German fire. Elements from these companies were able to reach Les Moulins, but once again the German beach defences were left intact. This would soon cause a new crisis, as the next waves of artillery and vehicles attempted to land under fire, filling the beach with wrecked equipment.
At the eastern end of the beach three of the four companies from the 16th Regiment landed on Fox Green, where they suffered terrible casualties at the hands of the intact German guns defending the approaches to Colleville.
Only at the extreme eastern end of the beach did events go better. Here two battalions from the 16th Regiment were able to climb up the fifth and final draw and reach the top of the escarpment, but their task was to work their way east along the cliff tops to join up with the British to the east.
By 9.30am the pattern for the morning was established. The Americans held a narrow strip of beach, while small parties were behind the German lines. The beach had become dangerously congested, and for some time no more equipment was landed. It was at this stage that the Navy played a direct part in the battle. A series of destroyers, starting with USS McCook at about 8.30, came close to the shore and attacked the German strong points with their 5in guns. The intensity and danger of the naval bombardment steadily increased across the morning,
For most of the morning the American foothold on Omaha beach was very fragile, and it was fortunate that the Germans were unable to find any significant reinforcements. General Kraiss was more concerned with the British armour to the east, which at one point threatened to break through his lines, and sent his main reserves east to deal with this threat.
For some time during the morning both the Germans and Americans were convinced that the attack was failing, but in fact the situation was finally improving. The 115th and 18th Regimental Combat Teams reached the beaches, and helped to secure the American beachhead. Slowly key German defensive positions fell into Allied hands, and at 12.25 General Gerow on USS Ancon was finally informed that American troops had been seen advancing up the slopes. East Red beach was now relatively safe, allowing reinforcements to land.
The five draws all fell in the American hands by the end of the day, and the focus of the battle moved away from the prepared German defences on the coast to the three villages. By the end of the day the eastern part of the beachhead was one mile deep, although most of the 34,000 troops landed that day were still on or close to the beach. The three German battalions defending Omaha Beach had suffered heavy casualties, and their commander reported that they would only be able to resist properly for another day before they would need substantial reinforcements.
The key question at Omaha Beach is with such a strong defensive position how did the Germans fail? The answer lies partly in the failing of the German deployment in Normandy, partly with the American infantry and partly with the Allied destroyer flotilla off shore.
The German defences at Omaha Beach were hard but brittle – they had little or no defensive in depth, so if the Americans could reach the top of the bluffs at any point then the entire line of defences would be compromised. The Germans were also too impressed with their own initial success, and for some time believed that they had won the battle on Omaha Beach. Reinforcements that could have secured a German victory and left Utah beach dangerously isolated were thus sent elsewhere, and when the crisis finally came at Omaha no more reserves were available.
Most first-hand American accounts of the fighting emphasis the role played by the NCOs and junior officers who inspired their men to cross the deadly beach zone and fight their way up the bluffs.
The Americans were also in the unusual position of being able to reinforce an amphibious landing more easily than the Germans could reinforce the defenders. At the start of the day the Germans had perhaps 5-6,000 men at Omaha Beach, while by the end of the day the Americans had been able to land 34,000 men.
A final crucial factor in the Allied victory was the contribution of the destroyer flotilla. On occasions coming within 1,000 yards of the shore they provided invaluable artillery support for the beleaguered infantry.
The exact number of American casualties on Omaha Beach is unknown. The V Corps history gave figures of 694 dead, 331 missing and 1,349 wounded, a total of 2,374, the highest suffered on any of the D-Day beaches, and most later sources give a higher figure for the dead. A very high proportion of these casualties were suffered by the first attack wave, and it is this image of the battle that has stayed in the memory (most notably as the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan). Even so, the entire D-Day landings succeeded at a much lower cost than anyone had expected, even on Omaha Beach.
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