Friday, February 24, 2012

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach is the code name for one of the five sectors of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France in the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, during World War II. The beach is located on the coast of Normandy, France, facing the English Channel, and is 5 miles (8 km) long, from east of Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes to west of Vierville-sur-Mer on the right bank of the Douve River estuary. Landings here were necessary in order to link up the British landings to the east at Gold Beach with the American landing to the west at Utah Beach, thus providing a continuous lodgement on the Normandy coast of the Bay of the Seine. Taking Omaha was to be the responsibility of United States Army troops, with sea transport provided by the U.S. Navy and elements of the Royal Navy.

On D-Day, the untested 29th Infantry Division, joined by nine companies of U.S. Army Rangers redirected from Pointe du Hoc, were to assault the western half of the beach. The battle-hardened 1st Infantry Division was given the eastern half. The initial assault waves, consisting of tanks, infantry, and combat engineer forces, were carefully planned to reduce the coastal defenses and allow the larger ships of the follow-up waves to land.

The primary objective at Omaha was to secure a beachhead of some five miles (eight kilometres) depth, between Port-en-Bessin and the Vire River, linking with the British landings at Gold Beach to the east, and reaching the area of Isigny to the west to link up with VII Corps landing at Utah Beach. Opposing the landings was the German 352nd Infantry Division, a large portion of whom were teenagers, though they were supplemented by veterans who had fought on the Eastern Front. The 352nd had never had any battalion or regimental training. Of the 12,020 men of the division, only 6,800 were experienced combat troops, detailed to defend a 53 km front. The Germans were largely deployed in strongpoints along the coast—the German strategy was based on defeating any seaborne assault at the water line. Nevertheless, Allied calculations indicated that Omaha's defenses were three times as strong as those they had encountered during the Battle of Kwajalein and its defenders were four times as many.

Very little went as planned during the landing at Omaha Beach. Difficulties in navigation caused the majority of landing craft to miss their targets throughout the day. The defenses were unexpectedly strong, and inflicted heavy casualties on landing US troops. Under heavy fire, the engineers struggled to clear the beach obstacles; later landings bunched up around the few channels that were cleared. Weakened by the casualties taken just in landing, the surviving assault troops could not clear the heavily defended exits off the beach. This caused further problems and consequent delays for later landings. Small penetrations were eventually achieved by groups of survivors making improvised assaults, scaling the bluffs between the most heavily defended points. By the end of the day, two small isolated footholds had been won, which were subsequently exploited against weaker defenses further inland, thus achieving the original D-Day objectives over the following days.

Despite these preparations, very little went according to plan. Ten landing craft were swamped by the rough seas before they reached the beach and several others stayed afloat only because their passengers bailed water with their helmets. Seasickness was prevalent among the troops waiting offshore. On the 16th RCT front, the landing boats passed struggling men in life preservers and on rafts, survivors of the DD tanks which had sunk. Navigation of the assault craft was made difficult by the smoke and mist obscuring the landmarks they were to use in guiding themselves in, while a heavy current pushed them continually eastward.

As the boats approached within a few hundred yards of the shore, they came under increasingly heavy fire from automatic weapons and artillery. The force discovered only then the ineffectiveness of the pre-landing bombardment. Delayed by the weather and attempting to avoid the landing craft as they ran in, the bombers had laid their ordnance too far inland, having no real effect on the coastal defenses.

Tank landings

Because sea conditions were too rough, the decision was made for the 116th RCT to carry the DD tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion all the way to the beach. Coming in opposite the heavily defended Vierville draw, Company B of the 743rd Tank Battalion lost all but one of its officers and half its DD tanks. However, the other two companies landed to the left of B/743 without initial loss. On the 16th RCT front, the two DD tanks that had survived the swim ashore were joined by three others that were landed directly onto the beach because of their LCT's damaged ramp. The remaining tank company managed to land 14 of its 16 tanks (although three of these were quickly knocked out).

The key geographical features that had influenced the landings also influenced the next phase of the battle: the draws, the natural exits off the beaches, were the main targets in the initial assault plan. However, the strongly concentrated defenses around these draws meant that the troops landing near them quickly wound up in no shape to carry a further assault. Only in the areas between the draws, at the bluffs, were units able to land in greater strength. Defenses were also weaker away from the draws, thus, most advances were made there.

The other key aspect of the next few hours was leadership. The original plan was in tatters, with so many units mis-landed, disorganized and scattered. Most commanders had fallen or were absent, and there were few ways to communicate, other than shouted commands. In places, small groups of men, sometimes scratched together from different companies, in some cases from different divisions, were "...inspired, encouraged or bullied..." out of the relative safety of the shingle, starting the grueling task of reducing the defenses atop the bluffs.

Assaulting the bluffs

Survivors of C company 2nd Rangers in the first wave landed on Dog Green around 06:45; by 07:30, they had scaled the cliffs near Dog White and the Vierville draw. They were joined later by a mis-landed section from B/116, and this group spent the better part of the day tying up and eventually taking WN-73, which defended draw D-1 at Vierville.

At 07:50, C/116 led the charge off of Dog White, between WN-68 and WN-70, by forcing gaps in the wire with a Bangalore torpedo and wire cutters. 20 minutes later, the 5th Rangers joined the advance, and blew more openings. The command party established themselves at the top of the bluff, and elements of G/116 and H/116 joined them, having earlier moved laterally along the beach, and now the narrow front had widened to the east. Before 09:00, small parties from F/116 and B/116 reached the crests just east of Dog White. The right flank of this penetration was covered by the survivors of the 2nd Rangers’ A and B companies, who had independently fought their way to the top between 08:00 and 08:30. They took WN-70 (already heavily damaged by naval shells), and joined the 5th Rangers for the move inland. By 09:00 more than 600 American troops, in groups ranging from company sized to just a few men, had reached the top of the bluff opposite Dog White and were advancing inland.

The 3rd battalion 116th RCT forced its way across the flats and up the bluff between WN-66 (which defended the D-3 draw at Les Moulins), and WN-65 (defending the E-1 draw). They advanced in small groups, supported by the heavy weapons of M/116, who were held at the base of the bluff. Progress was slowed by mines on the slopes of the bluff, but elements of all three rifle companies, as well as a stray section of G/116, had gained the top by 09:00, causing the defenders at WN-62 to mistakenly report that both WN-65 and WN-66 had been taken.

Between 07:30 and 08:30 elements of G/16, E/16, and E/116 came together and climbed the bluffs at Easy Red, between WN-64 (defending the E-1 draw) and WN-62 (the E-3 draw). At 09:05, German observers reported that WN-61 was lost, and that only one machine gun was still firing from WN-62. 150 men, mostly from G/16, having reached the top hampered more by minefields than by enemy fire, continued south to attack the WN-63 command post on the edge of Colleville. Meanwhile E/16, led by Second Lieutenant John M. Spalding, turned westward along the top of the bluffs, engaging in a two hour battle for WN-64. His small group of just three men had effectively neutralized this point by mid-morning, taking 21 prisoners—just in time to prevent them from attacking freshly landing troops. On the beach below, the 16th RCT commander, Colonel George Taylor had landed at 08:15. With the words "Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die - now let's get the hell out of here!" he organized groups of men regardless of their unit, putting them under the command of the nearest non-commissioned officer and sending them through the area opened up by G/16. By 09:30, the regimental command post was set up just below the bluff crest, and the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 16th RCT were being sent inland as they reached the crest.

On Fox Green, at the eastern end of Omaha, four sections of L/16 had survived their landing intact and were now leading elements of I/16, K/16 and E/116 up the slopes. With supporting fire from the heavy weapons of M/16, tanks and destroyers, this force eliminated WN-60, which defended the draw at F-1; by 09:00, the 3rd battalion 16th RCT was moving inland.

Following the penetrations inland, confused hard-fought individual actions pushed the foothold out barely a mile and a half (2.5 km) deep in the Colleville area to the east, less than that west of St. Laurent, and an isolated penetration in the Vierville area. Pockets of enemy resistance still fought on behind the American front line, and the whole beachhead remained under artillery fire. At 21:00 the landing of the 26th RCT completed the planned landing of infantry, but losses in equipment were high, including 26 artillery pieces, over 50 tanks, about 50 landing craft and 10 larger vessels. Of the 2,400 tons of supplies scheduled to be landed on D-Day, only 100 tons actually landed. Casualties for V Corps were estimated at 3,000 killed, wounded and missing. The heaviest casualties were taken by the infantry, tanks and engineers in the first landings. The 16th and 116th RCT's lost about 1,000 men each. Only five tanks of the 741st tank battalion were ready for action the next day. The German 352nd division suffered 1,200 killed, wounded and missing; about 20% of its strength. Its deployment at the beach caused such problems that Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. First Army, at one stage considered evacuating Omaha, while Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery considered the possibility of diverting V Corps forces through Gold Beach.

The foothold gained on D-Day at Omaha Beach, itself two isolated pockets, was the most tenuous across all the D-Day beaches. With the original objective yet to be achieved, the priority for the allies was to link up all the Normandy beachheads. During the course of June 7, while still under random shellfire, the beach was prepared as a supply area. Surplus cargo ships were deliberately sunk to form an artificial breakwater and, while still less than planned, 1,429 tons of stores were landed that day.

With the beach assault phase completed the RCTs reorganized into infantry regiments and battalions and over the course of the next two days achieved the original D-Day objectives. On the 1st divisional front the 18th Infantry Regiment blocked an attempt by two companies from the 916th and 726th Grenadiers to break out of WN-63 and Colleville, both of which were subsequently taken by the 16th Infantry Regiment which also moved on Port-en-Bessin. The main advance was made by the 18th Infantry Regiment, with the 3rd battalion of the 26th Infantry Regiment attached, south and south eastwards. The heaviest opposition was encountered at Formigny where troops of the 2nd battalion 915th Grenadiers had reinforced the headquarters troops of 2nd battalion 916th Grenadiers. Attempts by 3/26 and B/18 with support from the tanks of B/745 were held off and the town did not fall until the morning of June 8. The threat of an armored counter attack kept the 18th Infantry Regiment on the defensive for the rest of June 8. The 26th Infantry Regiment's three battalions, having been attached to the 16th, 18th and 115th Regiments the previous day, spent June 8 reassembling before pushing eastwards, forcing the 1st battalion of the German 726th Grenadiers to spend the night extricating itself from the pocket thus forming between Bayeux and Port-en-Bessin. By the morning of June 9 the 1st Division had established contact with the British XXX Corps, thus linking Omaha with Gold Beach.

On the 29th divisional front two battalions of the 116th Infantry Regiment cleared the last defenders from the bluffs while the remaining 116th battalion joined the Rangers in their move west along the coast. This force relieved the 2nd Ranger companies who were holding Pointe du Hoc on June 8 and subsequently forced the German 914th Grenadiers and the 439th Ost-Battalion to withdraw from the Grandcamp area which lay further to the west. Early on June 7 WN-69 defending St. Laurent was abandoned and the 115th Infantry Regiment was therefore able to push inland to the south west, reaching the Formigny area on the June 7 and the original D-Day phase line the following day. The third regiment of 29th Division; the 175th, started landing on June 7. By the morning of June 9 this regiment had taken Isigny and on the evening of the following day forward patrols established contact with the 101st Airborne Division, thus linking Omaha with Utah Beach.

In the meantime, the original defender at Omaha, the 352nd Division, was being steadily reduced. By the morning of June 9 the division was reported as having been "...reduced to 'small groups'..." while the 726th Grenadier Regiment had "...practically disappeared." By June 11 the effectiveness of the 352nd was regarded as "very slight", and by June 14 the German corps command was reporting the 352nd as completely used up and needing to be removed from the line.

Once the beachhead had been secured Omaha Beach became the location of one of the two Mulberry harbors, prefabricated artificial harbors towed in pieces across the English Channel and assembled just off shore. Construction of 'Mulberry A' at Omaha began the day after D-Day with the scuttling of ships to form a breakwater. By D+10 the harbor became operational when the first pier was completed; LST 342 docking and unloading 78 vehicles in 38 minutes. Three days later the worst storm to hit Normandy in 40 years began to blow, raging for three days and not abating until the night of June 22. The harbor was so completely wrecked that the decision was taken not to repair it; supplies being subsequently landed directly on the beach until fixed port facilities were captured. In the few days that the harbor was operational 11,000 troops, 2,000 vehicles and 9,000 tons of equipment and supplies were brought ashore. Over the 100 days following D-Day more than 1,000,000 tons of supplies, 100,000 vehicles and 600,000 men were landed, and 93,000 casualties were evacuated, via Omaha Beach.

Today at Omaha jagged remains of the harbor can be seen at low tide. The shingle bank is no longer there, cleared by engineers in the days following D-Day to facilitate the landing of supplies. The beachfront is more built up and the beach road extended, villages have grown and merged, but the geography of the beach remains as it was and the remains of the coastal defenses can still be visited. At the top of the bluff overlooking Omaha near Colleville is the American cemetery.

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