Utah Beach, 6 June 1944

The landings on Utah Beach were the most westerly and perhaps the easiest of the D-Day landings, due in part to the actions of the American airborne divisions operating inland from the beach and partly to a strong tide which swept the landing craft a kilometre to the south of their intended landing point (Operation Overlord).

Utah Beach was located on the eastern coast of the Cotentin peninsula. It was the landing area for General J. Lawton Collin's US VII Corps, and had been selected as an invasion beach after the scale of the initial landings was increased from three to five divisions.

US troops crossing the Sea Wall at Utah Beach
US troops crossing the Sea Wall at Utah Beach

A large area inland from the beach had been flooded by the Germans, and was crossed by a limited number of causeways, which in theory would have been easy to defend. Despite this natural disadvantage the Allied believed that the landing at Utah Beach was essential for the long-term success of the invasion, for it led to the most direct routes to the port of Cherbourg, at the tip of the Cotentin peninsula. Before the invasion the Allied believed that they would need a major port to ensure that enough supplies and reinforcements could reach the front. Fortunately this was not the case, for by the time the Americans finally captured Cherbourg the port had been comprehensively destroyed.

The landing at Utah Beach was planned in great detail. First to land, at 6.30am, would be 32 DD tanks in eight LCTs. They would be followed closely by the 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry, in twenty Higgins boats, each carrying a 30 man assault team. Ten were to land on Tare Green Beach opposite the German strong point at Les-Dunes-de-Varreville, with the other ten further to the south on Uncle Red Beach. The second wave of infantry would follow 5 minutes later and was to consist of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, along with combat engineers and naval demolition teams, all carried in 32 Higgins boats. The third wave was to include a number of bulldozer and regular Sherman tanks and the fourth wave, 2 minutes later, was to include detachments from the 237th and 299th Engineer Combat Battalions.

The solution to the large-scale flooding was to drop the 101st Airborne Division at the inland end of the causeways, with orders to capture them and prevent the Germans from organising any counterattacks or using the exits from the causeways to hold up the American advance. Despite some inaccurate drops, the scattered 101st successfully achieved this objective, and the two forces were able to link up fully on D-Day+1.

Utah Beach on D-Day
Utah Beach on D-Day

Perhaps unsurprisingly the elaborate timing didn't quite work out, with the four waves becoming mixed up and the entire attack went in about one kilometre to the south of the intended landing point. The confusion was caused by the only effective German naval weapon of D-Day – their minefields – which claimed three of the four control craft (LCCs) allocated to Utah beach. In the confusion this caused, one of the eight LCTs in the first wave was lost and only the quick thinking of Lts. Howard Vander Beek and Sims Gauthier on LCC 60 prevented a disaster. They took command of the remaining tank-carrying LCTs and led them towards the nearest beach. The prevailing tidal currents, running from north-to-south, meant that this beach was about half a kilometre to the south of the official beaches. Vander Beek and Gauthier also decided to take their LCTs much closer to the shore than planned – three kilometres rather than the original five. As a result 28 of the 32 DD tanks safely reached the beach.

The tanks were beaten to the beach by the first wave of infantry in their Higgins boats, which proved to be too fast to linger behind the slow moving DD tanks. As a result General Theodore Roosevelt Jr, the former President's eldest son, was one of the first American troops to land on the Normandy beaches, accompanying E Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry, 4th Division.

The new landing area was not as well defended as the original target. The German fixed fortifications at exit 3 (Les-Dunes-de-Varreville) were still largely intact, while those at exit 2 (La Madeleine) had been badly damaged by B-26 Marauders and the area was defended by one of the weaker German units – the 919th Regiment, 709th Division. The original landing area had been chosen to avoid a sand bar in front of exit 2, which did cause some problems on the way in, but not as much as the Navy had feared.

The majority of the German defenders at exit 2 were too stunned by the aerial and naval bombardment and by the unexpected appearance of the DD Tanks to offer any resistance. By the end of the day the Americans had suffered less than 250 casualties on Utah Beach, and had captured all of their objectives.

D-Day beachheads at midnight, 6-7 June 1944
D-Day beachheads at
midnight, 6-7 June 1944

The American commanders on the beach – Roosevelt and Colonel Van Fleet, CO of the 8th Infantry Regiment – had a choice of two options: either move up the beach to the correct landing area; or to attack inland from their current location. They chose the second option, Roosevelt become famous for allegedly saying 'We'll start the war from right here'.

Over the next few hours the American engineers blasted a way through the fixed defences, and at 11.10, only four and a half hours after the first landings, the troops on the beach joined up with the 101st Airborne on the western side of the flooded area behind the beach. By the end of the day the Americans had advanced up to five miles from their initial landing point, and had captured many of their D-Day objectives. 23,000 men and 1,700 vehicles had been landed on the beach and this part of the Allied beachhead was secure.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (8 May 2009), Utah Beach, 6 June 1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_utah_beach.html

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