D-DAY INVASION / June 6, 1944 : THE INVASION OF NORMANDY : THE BATTLE
Pvt. Robert Murphy looked down. In the moonlight, through the open door, he could see the coastline. The C-47 banked to the left. Over the engine noise, his commanding officer shouted: “Hook up!”
At 300 feet, the pilot hit the green light and yelled: “Let’s go!” Murphy, face blackened, carrying his Thompson submachine gun, 300 rounds of ammunition, a six-inch boot knife, a switchblade and a 40-pound radar, was the third man out the door.
He bent forward, tucked his knees up to his chest and folded his arms over them. His parachute snapped open and jerked. In seconds, he hit the ground. He tumbled and rolled. He reached into his boot, pulled out the trench knife and cut himself out of his straps. Accidentally, he also sliced off his ammunition pouch. But he had a full magazine in the gun.
He was in the corner of a field. He thought he saw someone under a tree. He kept one hand on his gun. He put his other hand to his lips to signal silence. It was 1:10 a.m., 50 years ago June 6. D-day had begun.
If there was someone under the tree, whoever it was did not shoot, did not make a sound. Murphy, a pathfinder with the 82nd Airborne, and scores like him set up radar beacons and signal lights to guide hundreds of C-47s carrying thousands of paratroopers into the fields of Normandy. During the next 24 hours, 175,000 soldiers, drawn mostly from the United States, Britain, Canada and France, along with 50,000 battle vehicles of all kinds, invaded Nazi-occupied France.
Most of them landed under fire on five beaches along the Normandy coast. France, along with much of the rest of Europe, had fallen under Adolf Hitler’s shadow during the darkest months of World War II. The Allied invaders, bearing the arms, the hopes and the prayers of freedom, were carried across the English Channel by more than 5,300 vessels and nearly 11,000 aircraft.
It was the most powerful armada ever assembled, and it conducted the greatest amphibious assault in human history. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it “the most difficult operation ever to take place.” It would be the pivotal battle of the war, and Hitler knew it. “The destruction of the enemy’s landing,” he told his commanders in Europe, “is the sole decisive factor in the whole conduct of the war.”
The Allied assault succeeded, and France was liberated. The Anglo-American offensive overran Germany’s industrial heartland; and, for freedom, the war in Europe was won.
The D-day assault was important for an additional reason.
“It was an open question,” says Stephen E. Ambrose, an eminent historian of D-day, “whether a democracy could produce young soldiers capable of fighting effectively. Hitler was certain the answer was no. Totalitarian fanaticism and discipline would always conquer democratic liberalism and softness.” But the Allied forces showed remarkably superior courage, steadiness under fire, competence and willingness to take the initiative.
“On D-day,” Ambrose says, “the soldiers of democracy showed that they could outfight and outthink the soldiers of totalitarianism.”
This is the story of that triumph. It is based upon interviews by The Times with veterans of D-day on both sides of the fighting, upon interviews, letters, oral histories and other documents at American and British government repositories and in the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans. It is also based upon published accounts of the assault, including “The Longest Day,” a classic by war correspondent Cornelius Ryan; “Six Armies in Normandy,” an authoritative account by British military scholar John Keegan, and “D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II,” a new history by Ambrose.
Most of all, it is a story about the soldiers who won, many of them very young men, and how they fought and the terrible cost of their victory. “To them,” Ambrose says, “we owe our freedom.”
CAT AND MOUSE
The Allies had resolved that a cross-channel attack was necessary to free Europe from the Nazis. The Soviets, who had turned back the Germans in the east, were demanding a second front. And Hitler expected one.
Where to attack was a matter of debate. The sands at Pas-de-Calais looked ideal. Calais was the French shore closest to England, and it offered the straightest route from London to Germany’s industrial Rhine-Ruhr region and then on to Berlin.
It was at Calais, however, that the Germans had built the strongest part of their main defense of Fortress Europe, a steel-reinforced concrete barrier called the Atlantic Wall. At Calais, the wall bristled with guns and was supported by the heaviest concentration of German armor anywhere in Europe. Pas-de-Calais was out.
Instead, Allied planners chose the Normandy coast. It had Caen, a port to bring in men and supplies. Nearby was an airport. Routes from the beach could take armor inland. Moreover, the capture of Caen would cut off the Cotentin Peninsula and position the Allies to threaten the Germans holding Paris. There were guns along this part of the Atlantic Wall as well, but behind it was only one division of Panzer tanks. The Allies could feint toward Calais and then might be able to surprise the Germans at Normandy instead.
So it was that Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces, agreed to invade on five Normandy beach areas, code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The Allies gave the entire assault a code name. They called it Overlord.
They mounted an elaborate effort to fool the Germans into thinking that any attack on Normandy was a feint and that the real assault would come at Calais, maybe even elsewhere: perhaps the Biscay coast, maybe Scandinavia, perhaps Marseilles. They sent aging British officers to Scotland to create radio messages in easily broken cipher that spoke of invading Norway. But Eisenhower dispatched Lt. Gen. George S. Patton to Dover, opposite Calais. Hitler believed Patton to be the best Allied commander. Eventually Eisenhower would bring him to France for the breakout attack across Europe. For now, however, he made Patton part of his most elaborate ruse. He gave him inflatable rubber tanks and plywood-and-canvas landing craft. From the air, they looked real, and Patton let German planes photograph them at will.
The British had arrested virtually every German spy in the United Kingdom and had made them part of the Allied cause. To their spymasters in Germany, they reported extensive troop movements in Scotland. They told about Patton’s arrival at Dover and spoke of a vast order of battle, shrewdly combining real and fantasy troops in actual and imaginary camps.
All the while, the Allies developed their real plans in strictly enforced secrecy. One of Eisenhower’s classmates from West Point talked about Overlord at a cocktail party and offered to take bets that D-day would come before June 15. Eisenhower demoted him from major general to colonel and sent him home.
The deceptions and the secrecy worked. Because the British had broken German encryption, Allied intelligence could understand German war radio. It provided clear evidence that German generals had come to expect feints in Biscay, the south of France--and in Normandy. There might be an actual attack in Norway, they thought. But, more important, they began preparing for the main D-day invasion at Pas-de-Calais.
THE ALLIED BUILDUP
In the winter and spring of 1944, thousands of Allied troops trained throughout Britain. First Lt. Jack Isaacs, 21, saw mountains of supplies lining the roadsides, some of it in half-moon-shaped prefabricated shelters made of corrugated metal, called Quonset huts. By April, the men were engaged in D-day dress rehearsals. It was dangerous. Planes collided, killing paratroopers. Live ammunition went astray, killing infantrymen. On the night of April 27-28, German torpedo boats slipped in among Allied naval craft training at Slapton Sands. The Germans sank two landing ships and damaged six others. There were more than 1,000 casualties, among them 749 dead.
Some of the men sensed they were making history. Beyond that, there was an appetite for adventure, even hell-raising. Pfc. Alfred Alvarez, 20, for instance, appreciated a good time. He wanted to free all the girls in Paris. Lt. Isaacs’ commander taught his men some French phrases. “Je me suis perdu (I am lost).” First Lt. Malvin Walker, 23, learned, “ Je suis Americain (I am an American).” He heard some of the men practicing, “ Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (Do you want to sleep with me)?”
But mostly, D-day training was a deadly serious undertaking. In addition to their K rations and grenades, the men were issued books of Scripture. They were small enough to be tucked into their shirt pockets. Chaplains held Catholic, Protestant and Jewish services.
Pvt. Milton Villarreal, 19, went to Mass, confessed his sins and took Communion. He prayed to Our Lady of Guadalupe. He thought of her often and took courage from her image, which he visualized firmly in his mind.
At the last Mass that Staff Sgt. Charles Klein, 20, would attend before the invasion, Father Joe Lacy, a chubby Irishman, told his congregation: “I want you men to do all your praying here and now. When we hit the beaches, if I see any man praying when he should be fighting, if he’s within the reach of my boot, he’ll get the toe of my boot. I’ll do the praying when we go in. You do the fighting.”
In May, the entire Allied Expeditionary Force descended upon southern England, nearly 2 million strong, with half a million vehicles. Some of those vehicles were conventional, others were not. Sherman tanks. Floating “deuce-and-a-halfs,” 2 1/2-ton trucks with propellers, called DUKWs, or “Ducks.” Standard landing craft. Plywood cigar boxes 36 feet long with square metal bows, called Higgins boats for the Louisiana man who made them.
Briefings began, and the number of people who knew the secrets of Overlord started to grow. Still the Allied invasion plan did not leak. Staff Sgt. Lowry Brooks, 23, was assigned to the briefing room for the 1st Battalion in the 29th Division. On the wall was a map of the Normandy coast. The invasion routes were drawn on a celluloid overlay. It was marked for specific beaches. Objectives were circled. The map was plotted with down-to-the-minute instructions for the attack. The briefings went on for two weeks. Brooks was not allowed to leave the room. His meals were brought to him, and a guard stood at the door.
Allied planes had bottled up the Luftwaffe in Germany. John Keegan, the military scholar, says that the Allies had such air superiority that their planes ultimately would paralyze much of Germany’s armor as well. Still, German reconnaissance planes occasionally sneaked through. “It is one of the great mysteries of World War II,” historian Ambrose says, “that although the Germans saw the buildup in southern England . . . they completely failed to draw the right conclusions.” Just as puzzling, Ambrose says, is why the Germans did not send submarines in the wake of the torpedo boats that did such damage at Slapton Sands.
Part of the solution to these mysteries, Keegan says, is that Allied aircraft permitted the German spy planes to see only what the Allies wanted them to see. Another part of the answer lay with the Nazi high command back in Germany and among the German generals in occupied France. Often they found themselves hamstrung. Despite Hitler’s bombast about the military superiority of totalitarian discipline (“One people! One state! One leader!”), his insecurities and his distrust of those around him prompted him to proceed by what Manfred Rommel, son of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, calls “divide and rule.” At times, these divisions caused paralysis.
He put his senior field marshal, Gerd von Rundstedt, in charge. Von Rundstedt was 69 and short of energy and supplies. Apart from the fortifications at Pas-de-Calais, not much wall-building had been done. Hitler’s chief of operations suggested that Rommel be given tactical command. Characteristically, Hitler bisected the authority. Von Rundstedt would retain overall tactical control, but Rommel would take charge of the principal defense: the wall. Never was it clear, Ambrose says, whether Rommel or Von Rundstedt would direct the upcoming battle for Europe.
Rommel grew obsessed with the wall and ways to reinforce it. He mined the channel. He booby-trapped its tidal flats with obstacles, including mined logs driven into the sand at an angle pointing toward the sea. These and similar logs in farm fields, designed to impale gliders, came to be called “Rommel’s asparagus.” He ended training and put all of his troops to work building and reinforcing the wall and his obstacles. Robert Vogt, 19, a private in the German infantry, worked in shifts 24 hours a day planting Rommel’s asparagus.
He heard Rommel say: “You must stop them here on the first day. If you don’t stop them here, it’s over.”
But even Rommel guessed wrong about where the Allied invasion would come. Worse, he got tangled in a dispute over whether the tanks in Germany’s panzer divisions ought to be dug in behind the wall or should be concentrated farther inland, where they would be safe from the heavy guns on Allied ships and would retain their mobility, their main strength. Von Rundstedt and two other generals favored the latter. But Rommel wanted the tanks at the wall. Allied planes, he said, would limit their mobility wherever they were, and the only chance to repel the invasion was at the shore.
Again Hitler split the difference. He turned three panzer divisions over to Rommel, who moved them as close to the coast as he could. But der Fuehrer declared that the other panzers would be left inland and that he would control them himself. Hitler was at his Alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden. This meant that the tanks could be committed to battle only on orders from someone 600 miles away.
Rommel also guessed wrong about when the invaders would come. He predicted that any assault would come at high tide, which offered the shortest beach to cross.
From the outset, however, Eisenhower planned to invade on a rising tide. That would permit his landing craft to run onto the beach, then to float free so they could be used again.
On June 1, Rommel analyzed the tide tables. The English Channel did not seem suitable for an invasion until possibly the middle of the month. On June 2, he hunted deer. The next day, he went to Paris to buy shoes. They were gray suede, says Cornelius Ryan, the war correspondent, and hand-tooled: size 5 1/2. They were for his wife. On June 4, with the shoes in a box beside him, Rommel and a driver left their headquarters at a chateau at La Roche-Guyon in France. They drove home to Germany. Rommel wanted to see Hitler and to ask for two more panzer divisions. He also wanted control of all the tanks.
It was drizzling, the beginning of a storm. Surely this made an invasion impossible. “The most urgent problem,” Rommel wrote in his diary, “is to win the Fuehrer over.”
But just as much, Erwin Rommel wanted to be with his wife.
June 6 was her birthday.
His first inkling of the Allied invasion came at 7:30 in the morning, when the telephone rang at his country house at Herrlingen. He canceled his meeting with Hitler and set out by car for Normandy, because Allied air superiority made it too risky to fly.
As Rommel drove toward Normandy, Maj. Hans von Luck, 32, commander of a panzer regiment east of Caen, climbed a hill behind his headquarters and saw the Allied armada coming.
“It is enormous,” he thought. “They will succeed.”
‘OK,’ IKE SAID, ‘LET’S GO’
Across the channel, Dwight Eisenhower had no question about who was in charge. He was.
Allied planners had picked May 1 for D-day. He moved it to the first suitable day in June, to take advantage of an extra month’s production of landing craft. Which day would depend upon the tides and the moon and the weather. Eisenhower wanted to cross at night, to maintain surprise; under a half-moon, to provide at least some light for the fleet; with a rising tide, to keep his Higgins boats from getting stuck on the sand, and at first light, to give his troops a full day to gain a foothold. This meant June 5, 6 or 7, or June 19 or 20. He chose June 5.
Loading began on May 31. There were 2,727 transports from 12 countries. As the troops marched onto their ships, each received an order. It was from the supreme commander himself. “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade,” Eisenhower wrote. “The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”
The same drizzle that had reassured Rommel when he left his headquarters for home fell upon these Allied soldiers. It was cold when the ships moved out. Waves came up. Men began bailing with their helmets. The channel turned choppy. Men vomited. Some of it was nerves, but most of it was the pounding sea. First Lt. Sidney Salomon, 30, an American, crossed on the HMS Prince Charles, a channel ferry converted to a landing ship. Its chief engineer put a tot of Scotch into Salomon’s tea. Salomon was not a Scotch drinker, but it tasted good.
As the vessels formed into convoys, the drizzle became a heavy rain. At 4 a.m on June 4, Eisenhower and his commanders met to consider the situation. In the mess room at Southwick House, a command post in Portsmouth, on the south shore of Britain, a weather briefer told them that the storm would continue on June 5, sending clouds down to at least 500 feet in some places and all the way down to the coastline in others. Eisenhower told his commanders that the invasion would succeed only with air superiority, and that these clouds might cancel this advantage. Did anyone disagree?
There was no dissent. At 6 a.m., Eisenhower put the armada on hold until June 6.
Ships turned in mid-channel. For some, there was no time to go all the way back to England and then return. They circled off the Isle of Wight.
The rain fell. Waves rolled over the ships, particularly the smaller craft.
At 9:30 p.m. that same day, Eisenhower convened his commanders again at Southwick House. Rain still rattled against the French windows.
Now, however, the weather briefer predicted a break in the storm.
Around the mess-room table, commanders of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force cheered.
But, the briefer added, some scattered clouds would continue to hang over the Normandy coast. Conditions still would be risky for fighters and bombers.
Eisenhower paced, Ambrose says, with his head down, his chin on his chest, his hands clasped behind his back. He asked one of his commanders for an opinion. Then he nodded, paced some more and stopped. He asked for another opinion. He nodded, paced and stopped again. Another opinion. His commanders were split. It was up to him.
He paced, chin tucked again on his chest. “The question is,” he said, “just how long can you hang this operation on the end of a limb and let it hang there?”
He paced. The only sound was the rain on the windows.
“I am quite positive,” he said, finally, “that the order must be given.”
D-day would be June 6.
Convoys re-formed. Eisenhower had long ago declined to live in Southwick House. He had moved instead into a van-like trailer closer to the shore to be near his men. He rode back to his quarters in the rain, picked up one of his favorite paperback Westerns and read himself to sleep.
At 3:30 a.m., he awakened for another weather briefing. The wind shook his trailer. It was driving the rain sideways. By now, the storm should have been letting up. Eisenhower rode through a mile of mud, Ambrose says, back to Southwick House. It was still not too late to call it all off and to try again June 19.
The weather briefer was more sure than ever that the storm would break. But there was a new worry. He said the good weather would last for only one day. This meant that Allied troops on the second day of the attack might not make it ashore.
Eisenhower began pacing again, Ambrose says. Again he asked for opinions. Once more, his command was divided.
He knew that putting off the invasion for two more weeks was certain to increase chances that the Germans would learn about the plans.
Eisenhower said later that he paced for about 45 seconds. Others said it took him as long as five minutes.
Then, Ambrose says, he turned to his commanders and said, quietly: “OK, let’s go.”
AIRDROP TO CHAOS
The pathfinders went first.
They parachuted into Normandy to mark landing zones for 13,000 American and 7,000 British paratroopers, the most massive night drop ever. Their mission was to secure the routes to the beaches and disrupt any German counterattack.
It took more than 800 C-47s to fly all the Americans across. They were members of the 101st and the 82nd Airborne divisions. The aircraft, in full flight, stretched all the way from Britain, nine planes wide, cruising with their wingtips only 100 feet apart. As they reached Normandy, they found that some scattered clouds, true to forecast, still were lingering over the coast. Pilots lost their visibility. In radio silence, with only tiny blue lights on the aircraft ahead to guide them, they separated to avoid colliding. Some descended; others climbed; some veered to the left, others to the right. All flew off course. The Germans opened fire.
Only one of 18 American pathfinder teams landed where it should have. Pvt. Robert Murphy, 18, was part of that team. He assembled his radar. He waited for the sound of more planes, then looked up. Never before had he seen so many parachutes. Nearly 1,800 men were falling in his drop zone, but it looked more like 5,000, maybe 10,000.
Some of the paratroopers were shot in the air. Others fell into trees. One tumbled into a pile of manure. Many landed in a flood that Rommel had created for them. He had opened the locks on the Merderet River at high tide. Water covered the surrounding farm fields. Somehow, Allied reconnaissance had missed it. The water was no more than four feet deep, but that was enough. Sgt. Robert Williams, 21, with the 101st, fell into it up to his chest. Between 50 and 100 feet away, in the dark, he could hear gurgling.
Men were drowning.
First Lt. Jack Isaacs, who was a platoon leader in the 82nd, fell through an antiaircraft barrage without a scratch. It lighted the sky around him with green, red and yellow streams of fire. He landed near some cows in a pasture seven miles from his target, the village of Ste.-Mere-Eglise. He had no idea where his men were. He located a stranger from another unit. Together they found a paratrooper speared by a stalk of “Rommel’s asparagus.” Isaacs gave him a shot of morphine.
With his assent, Isaacs plunged the man’s rifle bayonet-first into the ground and put his helmet on the upturned rifle butt--a universal sign of surrender.
Isaacs rounded up 35 other men--only one from his platoon, the rest strangers--and prepared to set out for Ste.-Mere-Eglise. He turned to take a last look at the paratrooper impaled on the asparagus and saw a German soldier approach him from a hedgerow. The German shot him. Isaacs’ men wheeled and fired. The German fell.
Pvt. Ken Russell, 17, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, fell into Ste.-Mere-Eglise itself. He was in shock.
He had dropped through machine-gun fire and antiaircraft flak. He could feel shells hitting his parachute. The shells missed him. But one hit a grenade on the hip of a paratrooper to his right.
The trooper was blown apart. All that was left was his parachute. Russell watched it float, empty, to the ground.
Now Russell was in trouble.
Below him was the steeple of the church in Ste.-Mere-Eglise, and it was coming up fast.
He hit it.
His parachute lines wrapped around the steeple. Russell slid down the slate roof. He stopped. He was on the very edge of the roof, hanging by his risers.
He looked up and saw the canopy of Pvt. John Steele’s parachute settle over the steeple itself. A bullet, Cornelius Ryan says, had hit Steele in the foot.
Steele hung from the steeple.
The bell was clanging, calling out the residents of Ste.-Mere-Eglise to a bucket brigade. A firebomb had struck a house across the square, Ryan says. It was blazing fiercely.
By now, Russell had been hit too. A bullet had cut a small valley through his hand.
With the bell clanging and villagers shouting and Germans running through the streets, Russell fumbled his trench knife out of his boot. He cut his chute’s lines and plunged to the ground.
He looked up. He thought Steele was dead.
That, Ryan says, was precisely what John Steele had in mind. He wanted to look dead.
Swinging under the eaves of the steeple, Steele heard all the shouting and screaming below, Ryan says, and saw Germans and Americans firing at each other in the square.
On the roof, just a few yards away, a German machine gun was shooting at everything in sight.
Steele figured his only hope was to play dead.
He did, for two hours, until, during the height of the battle for Ste.-Mere-Eglise, Germans climbed up onto the roof of the church, cut him down and took him captive.
Lt. Col. Edward Krause, a battalion commander in the 82nd, led the Allied attack. He drove the German garrison in the village into retreat. He occupied buildings and set up roadblocks. He cut telephone lines and established gun posts.
A gunner in one of those posts had a feeling he was not alone. He wheeled around and saw a pair of boots swaying back and forth.
The machine gunner looked up.
Hanging in a tree, looming over him, was a dead paratrooper.
There were others hanging in the trees, where they had landed and then been shot dead. In twos and threes, fellow paratroopers entered the village square. They looked up, Ryan says, and they felt a surge of anger.
Krause reached the square. He said only three words: “Oh, my God.”
Then, Ryan says, Krause pulled an American flag from his pocket, old and worn, the flag his regiment had raised over Naples, Italy. He walked to the town hall and ran up the colors.
Ste.-Mere-Eglise was the first French village to be liberated by the Americans.
Behind the paratroopers came the gliders. They were fragile craft, made of plywood and canvas. Towed across the channel by propeller-driven aircraft, the gliders carried entire platoons of support troops, as well as jeeps, antitank guns and small bulldozers.
They were turned loose to land in the fields. But they hit hedgerows. Reconnaissance also had missed the fact that hedgerows between Norman farms were large. The glider pilots were expecting English-style hedgerows, low enough for fox hunters to jump. Instead, these were shrubs and saplings, five to eight feet tall, planted in dirt embankments and so dense they seemed solid.
If a glider pilot approached a farm field high enough to clear the leading hedgerow, he could not get his glider down fast enough to avoid the hedgerow at the far end. If he tried to pull up and over the end hedgerow, he would stall and crash.
The Norman hedgerows took a heavier toll than “Rommel’s asparagus.”
By 4:30 a.m., all Allied paratroopers and their glider-borne support troops were on the ground. Almost to a man, however, they had been scattered so far from their drop sites that they had no idea where they were.
Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, commander of the 101st, for instance, landed by himself. Lost, he wandered for 20 minutes before encountering his first trooper, a private. In the darkness, Taylor clicked twice on a toy cricket, issued to each man in training. The private returned a single click. It signaled that he was an American. Both men were so relieved, they hugged each other. Together they stumbled on until they had gathered together another general, a colonel, 18 other officers and 40 men. “Never,” Taylor cracked, “have so few been led by so many.”
As they drew closer to Ste.-Marie-du-Mont, they could see its church steeple, and Taylor knew for the first time where they were. He moved his band of men east toward the village of Pouppeville and an exit from the beach. As they neared Pouppeville, they ran into gunfire. Sixty Germans held the town. They were firing from second-story windows. It took Taylor nearly three hours to drive them out. He suffered 18 casualties, inflicted 25 and captured 40 Germans.
Townspeople rushed out with wine, cognac and long loaves of white bread. One or two Americans got a little drunk. Officers chewed them out. Taylor took possession of the top of the beach exit. It would be only a matter of time before his men would see the U.S. 4th Division coming inland.
It was led by a tank. Taylor’s men could not tell for sure whether the tank was friendly. Taylor’s men fired. A hatch opened, and a tanker waved an orange banner, signaling that he was American. Capt. George L. Mabry, an infantry officer in the 8th Regiment, walked around the side of the tank. Taylor shook his hand.
Tech/5 George Koskimaki, 22, a radio operator, watched as one of Taylor’s men walked up to the tank and kissed it.
Before the end of the day, the 101st Airborne would open the way for the 4th Division, drive a German battalion out of Ste.-Marie-du-Mont and destroy German batteries at Bretcourt Manor and Holdy. But the victories came at a steep price. Many of the men of the 101st were missing. Of 6,600 who had jumped, only 2,500 were assembled into fighting units.
In some cases, men of the 101st and the 82nd were so jumbled together by the chaotic jump that it took a week to sort them out. At midmorning, men in the 82nd were still trying to find one another. Worse, they had landed on both sides of the Merderet River. Thanks to Rommel’s flood, it was more like a lake. There were only two ways to cross. One was a causeway and bridge at La Fiere. The other was a causeway and bridge at Chef-du-Pont.
Gen. James Gavin, the assistant division commander, put together 300 men, took them to La Fiere and Chef-du-Pont and captured the causeways. The Germans counterattacked. Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, commander of the 82nd, feared that his division might be destroyed before it, like the 101st, could connect with the 4th Infantry Division moving inland.
After nightfall, the 4th arrived. It found the causeway at Chef-du-Pont secure in Allied hands.
DAWN AND THE FLEET
Never before had so many planes flown in anger.
On D-day, the Allies launched 3,467 heavy bombers, 1,645 medium bombers and 5,409 fighters. German antiaircraft destroyed 113, but not one was shot down by the Luftwaffe. The Germans flew 250 sorties during the invasion. The Allies flew more than 14,000.
The Americans and British dropped more bombs on Normandy in two hours than they had on Hamburg, the most heavily bombed city in Germany, during all of 1943. But they were not entirely successful. At Utah Beach, the B-26s destroyed much of the Atlantic Wall before the Germans could fire a shot. At Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, however, many of the bombs from the B-17s and the B-24s missed the wall and fell on the French countryside. The clouds were partly to blame. But so was the fact that some bomber crews flinched. Only 1,000 yards separated their targets and the first wave of Allied landing craft. To avoid hitting fellow Americans, the crews held on to their bombs for too long.
From the air, the incoming ships were a sight that pilots never forgot. Minesweepers by the score were headed for the sand. Behind them were landing craft by the hundreds, trailing a churn of white water. The Germans, historian Ambrose says, heard nothing and saw nothing. At 3:09 a.m., their radar finally picked up the fleet. They sent out some torpedo boats and two armed trawlers. But the German vessels were like gnats against a hurricane. They sank only one ship, the Norwegian destroyer Svenner.
At 5:20 a.m., it grew light. Fifteen minutes later, German shore batteries opened fire. The Allied battleships replied, Ambrose says, like Zeus hurling thunderbolts. With great, belching flames and thundering concussions, they fired shells that looked as big as jeeps to the soldiers in the Higgins boats, who watched them scream overhead.
Rommel’s mines began to take a toll. One exploded under a landing craft, and it sank in four minutes. Others were crippled, some disabled. One mine claimed a destroyer, the Corry. Thirteen of 294 men aboard were killed and 33 were injured.
By 6 a.m., all of the landing craft had launched their skirted, amphibious tanks. Higgins boats passed among the tanks in the water, heading for shore. The battleships and the cruisers raised a wall of sound so immense it could be felt.
When the warships lifted their fire, the landing craft carrying tanks opened up. Fourteen thousand rockets whistled over the heads of the men in the Higgins boats as they neared the sand.
Finally, the tanks themselves began to fire.
Wind rolled back the smoke. H-hour was at hand.
‘WE’LL START THE WAR HERE’
At 6:30 a.m., the 4th Division infantry hit Utah Beach, on the west flank of the invasion.
Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, 56, whose father had been the 26th President of the United States, was in the first boat.
The division commander had been reluctant to bring him; it was Roosevelt’s fourth assault landing, his heart was bad and he walked with a cane. But he was well known and well liked by the men for his trademark .45-caliber pistol, his enthusiasm and his voice, which was a few decibels louder than the bellow of a rutting elk.
He was not supposed to have gone in first. The plan was for 32 amphibious tanks to launch, swim to the sand and clear the way. But they were late. Higgins boats carried E Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Infantry Regiment past the tanks in the water, and the men of E Company landed first. Roosevelt was with them, and it was a good thing.
Because of wind, waves, tide, smoke and the loss of all but one control craft to mines, everyone landed out of sequence and in the wrong place.
The men stormed a seawall and climbed to the top of some dunes. What they saw looked like nothing in their briefings. Roosevelt strode up, wearing a wool-knit hat. The general hated helmets. He ignored fire from German trenches in the dunes. Leaning on his cane, he studied the company commander’s maps.
By now two tanks had landed. German 88-millimeter guns were pounding the beach, and the tanks had begun firing back. Cane in hand, Roosevelt walked back through the fire, ducked into a shell hole behind the tanks and told Col. James Van Fleet, commander of the 8th Regiment, that his men were a mile south of where they should have been.
They faced a crucial decision. Should they try to shift more than a mile to the north and follow their original orders? Or should they attack where they were?
Some men say Roosevelt declared: “We’ll start the war from right here!”
It made him a legend.
But, in an unpublished memoir, quoted by Ambrose, Van Fleet says that, in fact, he was the one who decided.
“ ‘Go straight ahead,’ I ordered. ‘We’ve caught the enemy at a weak point, so let’s take advantage of it.’ ”
It matters little, Ambrose says, who decided or what was spoken. Far more important, he says, is that the decision was made without opposition or time-wasting argument--and that it was right. The decision and how it came to be made, he says, demonstrated the flexibility and initiative that were so distinctive of the American command.
Engineers and demolition teams followed the first wave. They set their charges around Rommel’s obstacles.
“Fire in the hole!” they shouted, like dynamiters in a mine.
They blew the obstacles apart.
Within an hour, Ambrose says, the demolition teams had cleared eight 50-yard gaps in Rommel’s beach obstacles. More Higgins boats arrived. The boats unloaded more infantry, and the demolition teams on the sand were forced forward. They ran into Bouncing Bettys--mines that jumped and exploded groin-high. The men screamed, Ambrose says. Some were blown apart. Others ran back to the beach, blood flowing.
Still more tanks arrived. They rolled through openings in the seawall and drove along a beach road that turned inland toward Pouppeville. As reserves began piling up on the sand, the 4th Division advanced onto the fields behind it.
The men turned a farmhouse into a medical aid station. They put two wounded Germans in one room and three wounded Americans in another. One was a redheaded captain named Tom Neely. He had been hit in the stomach by machine-gun fire, triggered accidentally by an American soldier.
The Rev. William Boice, 27, a Protestant chaplain, spent the night trying to comfort Neely, who told him about his wife and his 6-year-old son.
“Why me, chaplain?” Neely asked.
Boice had no good answer.
At 3 a.m., Neely died.
Boice prayed for him. He prayed for the other Americans, and he prayed for the Germans.
By the end of the day, the Americans had put more than 20,000 troops and 1,700 vehicles ashore at Utah Beach.
It had fallen to the Allies.
ASSAULT ON POINTE-DU-HOC
Between Utah Beach on the west flank and Omaha Beach in the center of the invasion stood a promontory on a cliff. The French called it Pointe-du-Hoc.
On this promontory, intelligence agents said, were massive German fortifications and a battery of 155-millimeter cannons large enough to deliver unspeakable horror to both beaches.
Allied ships bombarded Pointe-du-Hoc, Ambrose says, with 10 kilotons of explosives, cumulatively equal to the destructive force of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. But the gun emplacement still stood.
An elite American force, the Army Rangers, was sent to silence the guns.
They were led by Lt. Col. James Rudder, 34, whose landing craft was steered in the wrong direction by a British coxswain. Rudder turned it, but the error cost his flotilla 30 to 40 minutes and gave the Germans at Pointe-du-Hoc time to rally.
They fired mortars and machine guns as the Rangers approached. The U.S. destroyer Satterlee and the Royal Navy’s destroyer Talybont shot back, but the Germans on the high ground hardly winced.
From their boats, the Rangers fired rockets carrying grappling hooks to the top of the cliff. Some of the hooks had plain, inch-thick ropes attached. Others had toggle ropes, with wooden rungs tied every two feet. Still others were fastened to rope ladders.
Sgt. William (L-Rod) Petty, 23, watched as the first of the hooks fell short.
The next one made it. Then others.
Machine-gun bullets from the cliff hit scores of men, including 1st Sgt. Leonard Lomell, 24. As his boat beached and he jumped into the water, a volley tore through the muscle on his right side. It spun him partway around.
The bullets burned.
“I’ve got to get up there,” he said to himself. “I’ve got to get those guns.”
Bleeding, he stumbled through shell and bomb craters to the water’s edge.
L-Rod Petty fell into one of the holes. Water covered him. He took two steps and came up.
“Get under the cliff!” he yelled.
It was 100 feet high, on the far side of a 30-foot shingle of rocks. Some were small, others the size of pumpkins. The shingle began at the water’s edge. There was little sand. Under the cliff was a pile of wet clay. It had fallen from shell craters during the bombardment. To 1st Sgt. James Eikner, 30, the face of the cliff looked like the face of the moon.
Eikner knew that the quickest way to get away from machine-gun fire was to charge. With a load of mortars in his arms, he ran for the pile of clay.
So did L-Rod Petty. Bullets ricocheted off the rocks around his feet.
Behind him rolled trucks outfitted with fire ladders. Only one could get traction on the clay. It extended its ladder, Ambrose says, and Sgt. William Stivison climbed up carrying a machine gun. As the ladder swayed, Stivison fired a short burst every time he passed the top of the cliff. But the truck slipped badly, and the fire ladder had to be lowered.
From the cliff top, Germans were dropping grenades. Jim Eikner set up his mortars.
“Faces in, butts out!” he yelled. He shot straight up the face of the cliff.
The Germans pulled back.
L-Rod Petty grabbed a rope. He climbed 40 feet and began to fall. “God,” he thought, “they’ve cut my rope!”
But he was falling too slowly.
The grappling hook, he realized, was slipping through the ground on top.
As he dropped, he passed Sgt. Billy McHugh, who was on a rope ladder, going up.
“L-Rod,” McHugh said, “you’re going the wrong way. It’s up, the way you’re supposed to be going, like I am.”
“Comic,” Petty thought.
At the bottom of the cliff, historian Ambrose says, Petty and a captain exchanged some sharp words about climbing before Petty turned to a better rope and made it to the top.
On top, 1st Lt. Ted Lapres, 23, and his men looked around. They, like each of the other Ranger units, had a specific mission. Theirs was to neutralize one of the German observation posts and to knock out one of the big guns. Engaging Germans as they went, but just long enough to knock them out of the way, they advanced toward the battery. They stopped. Lapres was stunned. The guns were not there.
Sgt. Lomell was still bleeding from the machine-gun bullets he had taken in his side. He and his men were assigned to knock out three of the big guns. But when they reached the battery, they too were dumbstruck. The gun positions were huge, but they were empty. Instead of guns, telephone poles were sticking out of the embrasures.
Lomell and Staff Sgt. Jack Kuhn, 24, found a dirt road. It showed a number of tracks.
They followed it.
Lomell moved forward first while Kuhn covered him, and then vice versa. Leapfrogging each other, they came upon an apple orchard. It was surrounded by a hedgerow.
They peered through it.
There, about 50 feet away, hidden in a swale under some apple trees, were the guns. There were five in all. They were covered with camouflage netting and fake leaves.
Germans were milling around not far away--about 75 of them.
Kuhn worked his way into a secluded spot in the hedgerow and hid.
“If one of them even looks this way or starts walking,” Lomell told him, quietly, “I want you to hit them. That’ll clue me, and I’ll come out the other side, and we’ll get back to the other guys.”
Lomell crept around the perimeter.
He had taken Kuhn’s high-temperature, thermite grenade. He also had one of his own.
Figuring any minute to be jumped or shot in the back, he moved in toward the guns from the rear. Their barrels, aimed upward at an angle toward Utah Beach, looked to be six inches across. Lomell stood 5-foot-9. He could not touch the tops of them.
He went to one of the guns. He placed one thermite grenade on its traversing mechanism and pulled the pin. Without any noise or smoke, the grenade melted into the mechanism and welded its gears together.
Then he did the same to the second gun.
He took his submachine gun, slung over his shoulder, wrapped his field jacket around the stock, and quietly smashed the gun sights on all five of the weapons.
He ran back to Kuhn.
“Jack,” he panted, “we have to get out of here, get back to the guys and get the rest of their grenades.”
When they returned, the Germans still had not moved.
Kuhn took his position in the hedgerow.
Lomell crept back to the guns and disabled all of them. He set off thermite grenades in traversing mechanisms, breech blocks and elevation gears. The weapons were ruined.
He returned to Kuhn, who said: “Come on. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Suddenly, there was a huge explosion.
Nearby, other Rangers had found a massive ammunition dump. They had blown it up, and the debris rained down on Kuhn and Lomell.
They ran back to their unit.
“I’m going to get out of here,” Lomell thought to himself, “and with my hide.”
‘WE’RE GOING TO CATCH HELL’
Omaha Beach, at the center of the invasion, would be the most difficult.
A mile out, Bob Slaughter, a 19-year-old sergeant in the 29th Division, shook hands, one by one, with his men.
“See you on the beach,” he said. “Take care. Good luck.”
They loaded from the British transport Empire Javelin onto a landing craft. About 1,000 yards from the sand, the landing craft passed a capsized boat. Men were drowning. “Hey!” they yelled. “Help!”
The landing craft picked up three of them, but Slaughter and his men fought off the rest to keep from overloading and going down themselves. As they neared the sand, they could see a landing craft already on the beach. German bullets raked across it. Sparks flew from the ramp.
“Man,” Slaughter said to the soldier standing next to him, “we’re going to catch it. We’re going to catch hell.”
Three hundred yards out, German artillery and mortars opened up at Slaughter’s boat. Artillery shells splashed geysers into the air. The water rained down on the men, and the British coxswain lost his nerve.
“Step back, mates,” the coxswain said. “I’m going to lower this ramp.”
“No, you’re not!” shouted Willard Norfleet, Slaughter’s platoon sergeant. “You’re going to take it all the way in. We’ve got heavy equipment.”
“But we’ll all be killed!”
“I don’t give a damn!” Norfleet yelled. “You’re going to take us all the way in.”
“No! We’ll all be killed.”
Norfleet pulled out his .45-caliber pistol. He put its muzzle to the coxswain’s head. “You,” he said, quietly, “are going to take us all the way in.”
The coxswain did.
When he finally lowered the ramp, Slaughter was the fifth man off.
It was 6:30 a.m. Bullets flew.
“Get the hell off!” men shouted. “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go, go, go, go!”
Some of the men could not swim. They floundered under 60 pounds of ammunition and gear. Slaughter, 6-foot-5, tried to stand. The water was up to his chest.
A dead man floated past.
Other men were getting shot, bleeding, screaming. Several struggled toward him. They grabbed his jacket and his rifle. He started to go under.
He knocked them away and tried to help them one at a time.
Slaughter and several others made it to the beach. They lay at the edge of the water, in a torrent of machine-gun fire.
Ahead of him, the sand had a lazy curve. Nearly 1,000 feet of it stretched from the waterline where he lay to a sloping shingle of stones.
At the top of the shingle was a seawall. It was made of wood and masonry and stood from three to 12 feet high. Beyond it was a road that ran along the beach, then an antitank ditch six feet deep, then a swamp and finally a bluff about 100 feet high--formidable to climb and far too steep to drive. Four draws led inland, providing natural exits near the French villages of Vierville, St.-Laurent and Colleville.
Folds in the bluff held foxholes, semi-permanent bunkers and concrete emplacements called Tobruks, big enough for a mortar team. They were filled with Germans who could cover the beach with flanking fire and march their bullets and shells at an angle partway up the bluff itself.
Bob Slaughter had to make it across the sand to the seawall, or they would kill him.
“I’m going,” he told Walfred (Fats) Williams, who was his No. 1 machine-gunner. “I’m going across.”
He waited until some of the German guns on the bluff stopped to cool and reload. Then Slaughter fixed his bayonet to the muzzle of his rifle.
He got into a crouch.
He ran--as low as he could and as fast as he could.
Bullets kicked up the sand all around him.
He felt naked.
His helmet, too loose, slapped against his head.
He crossed the sand, stumbled into a water-filled runnel, caught his balance, accidentally fired his rifle, thanked God that he had not hit an American, kept on running and collapsed, shaking, against the seawall.
He looked back: 200 yards. It had taken an eternity. He was panting and weak in the knees. He was scared to death.
Fats Williams came next. Then Salvatore Augeri. Then Leonard McCanless. They huddled against the seawall and watched as others, just as lucky, made it too.
Slaughter took his raincoat out of a large, pouch-like pocket on the back of his jacket. He spread the raincoat behind the seawall. Then he took his rifle apart to clean it. He placed parts of his rifle on the coat to keep them out of the sand. Only then did he notice the bullet holes in his rain coat. Several of them.
He showed the holes to the others. “Look here,” he said. “I’ve been shot at.”
As had happened at Utah, most of the Americans who landed on Omaha arrived in disarray. Only one company in the 29th Division hit the beach where it was supposed to. Like Slaughter and his squad, hundreds of men jumped from their boats cramped, soaked, seasick, exhausted and confused.
One was Pfc. Alfred Alvarez, who wanted to rescue all the girls in Paris. He had heard the bullets ring off the sides of his landing craft. He watched as still more bullets whipped the channel into a froth. He jumped into the water and sank up to his nose.
Alvarez was a radio operator for the 1st Division Artillery. His radio floated. He pushed it ahead of him and peered around it as he staggered up onto the sand.
A bullet pierced a buddy’s helmet. It was only a flesh wound, but a medic ran to help. The medic was shot through the back.
WHEN PLANS FAIL
It was murderous. The first company ashore at Omaha took more than 90% casualties. Units fell apart. Their men intermingled. The beach, Ambrose says, was littered with the dead, the dying and the disorganized.
Eisenhower had a saying, Ambrose recalls: Plans are everything before the battle. But they are useless once it is joined.
The plan had been for amphibious tanks and bulldozers to clear the exit draws from the beach to Vierville and St.-Laurent and Colleville so the infantry could advance upward through them and out into open country. But many of the tanks had sunk. Their crews were huddling on yellow rubber rafts out on the channel. The plan also had called for fire support for the infantry from half-tracks and artillery. But the half-tracks and artillery were in chaos.
The infantry at the seawall were paralyzed with fear. And the Germans were starting to lob mortars over the wall.
At 7:30 a.m., a Higgins boat neared the beach, carrying the assistant commander of the 29th Division, Brig. Gen. Norman (Dutch) Cota. The boat hit an obstacle. The obstacle was mined, but the mine did not go off. The boat hung up, rising and falling with the swell. It drew withering fire from machine guns, mortars and light cannon. The coxswain lowered the ramp. Three men, including a major, were killed instantly. Dutch Cota jumped into the water and reached the sand. He made it to the shingle and then to the seawall.
In an instant, he saw that the Omaha assault plan would not work. The men huddled around him could not advance up the exit draws without tanks or artillery. Like Roosevelt and Van Fleet on Utah Beach, Cota was unafraid to do what Hitler would have removed a commander for trying: something unauthorized.
In the face of the German fire, Cota climbed over the seawall. He dug a Browning automatic rifle into the sand and raked the bluff with fire of his own. He directed some of his men to blow the barbed wire with a Bangalore torpedo, a pipe explosive. He and two other men crawled through the wire, and Cota shouted for more to follow. He ignored the exit draws and headed straight for the bluff.
About the same time, a number of others came to Cota’s conclusion: To hell with the exit draws. By 8 a.m., they too were headed for the bluff instead. Some men crawled over the seawall by themselves. Sergeants led others. Junior officers rounded up leaderless units. One by one, officers and men took charge of themselves and others. This, Ambrose says, was a critical moment. He calls it a pivotal test for democracy and the self-reliance it encourages.
Col. Charles Canham, the commander of Slaughter’s regiment, passed the test. Slaughter saw him coming. To Slaughter, he was a tough son of a bitch: Tall and lanky, he had a thin little mustache like the villain in a movie, but he was one hell of a soldier. Canham came charging up to the seawall, his arm in a sling. He had been shot through the right wrist. He had a .45 in his left hand. “Get your ass out of there!” Canham screamed. He stood in the open, bullets and shells flying. “What are you doing there, laying there like that? Get up! Get across the rest of this goddamn beach!”
Canham was right-handed. He emptied the pistol, left-handed, at some Germans on the bluff. A runner took the pistol, slipped in a new magazine and handed it back. Canham yelled again and fired some more.
One of his battalion commanders, a lieutenant colonel, shouted back at him from the safety of a pillbox that the Germans had abandoned nearby: “Colonel, if you don’t take cover, you’re going to get killed!”
“Colonel,” Canham fumed, “get your goddamn ass out of that goddamn pillbox and get these men off this goddamn beach!”
Slaughter could not believe it.
“Goldarn,” he said to himself, “if that guy can do that, then, hell, I can too.”
Slaughter and others climbed over the wall. Led by men like Canham and Capt. Joe Dawson from the 29th Division, and by men like Capt. Robert Walker, Lt. John Spaulding and Sgt. Perry Bonner from the 1st Division, they went up the bluff.
Before climbing, Bonner permitted himself one last look, from a crest on the beach, back across the sand toward the English Channel. “Like Gettysburg,” he thought to himself. “A slaughter.”
He found a trail up the bluff and shouted to four other soldiers: “We’re going!”
“I’m staying here,” one replied.
“No!” Bonner ordered. “You’re coming with me!”
All four went up behind him.
Finally, GIs on the beach saw two heartening sights: Americans were standing on the top of the bluff, and German prisoners were marching down.
And still Omaha Beach was not secure.
Wreckage littered the sand. The tide was rising. The beach was shrinking. Progress up the bluff was bloody and slow. More troops were arriving. They brought more vehicles.
Omaha developed a traffic jam.
At 8:30 a.m., the Navy suspended all landings.
The order added to the confusion. With nowhere to go, more than 50 incoming landing craft began turning in circles.
THE CRUCIAL MOMENT
This was the moment, historian Ambrose says, that Eisenhower had feared the most. Nearly 5,000 Americans were ashore, cut off from reinforcements, unable to retreat--hostages as much as invaders. It was the moment that Rommel had anticipated the most. The Americans were caught half on the beach and half off, wounded and bewildered.
Offshore, Allied battleships and cruisers were helpless. They were too big to get close enough to give their guns the precision to kill Germans without killing GIs. Even destroyers were under orders to stand down until fire control spotters could make it to shore. Skippers watched in angry frustration as the Germans slaughtered American infantrymen on the sand. Finally, one of them had had enough.
Lt. Cmdr. Ralph Ramey, known in the Navy as Rebel, took it upon himself to charge the beach regardless. Ambrose says that Rebel Ramey steamed his destroyer, the McCook, close enough to see for himself that there were no Americans on a portion of the bluff near the exit draw leading to Vierville. He opened up with his 5-inch guns, blasted one German pillbox off the bluff and blew up another.
It was another victory for American flexibility and initiative. At 9:50 a.m., an admiral shouted into his ship-to-ship radio: “Get on them, men! Get on them! They are raising hell with the men on the beach, and we can’t have any more of that!”
Every destroyer off Omaha responded. Skippers risked running aground to fire point-blank at targets of opportunity on the bluff.
Ramey had fired 975 rounds against the bluff. Other skippers fired 500 rounds, some as many as 1,120. “This destroyer action against shore batteries,” naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison says, “afforded the troops the only artillery support they had during most of D-day.” What the Navy had done, Ambrose says, was to give the men on Omaha a fighting chance.
They took it, and renewed their attack against the German guns dug into the face of the bluff. Still more GIs scrambled past the gun emplacements to the top. As Pfc. Alfred Alvarez climbed with his radio, he found wooden steps hammered into the bluff with signs close by saying: “Achtung! Minen!” or beware of mines. Between the steps were the bodies of Americans who had not heeded the warning.
Alvarez worried that the heavy radio might make him trip and fall on a mine.
It seemed like a nightmare.
But he made it.
On top of the bluff, Gen. Dutch Cota and his men found themselves midway between Vierville and St.-Laurent. No paratroopers had landed behind Omaha to clear its inland approaches. Germans hiding in hedgerows caught Cota’s force in a cross-fire. He divided his men into fire and maneuver teams. The fire teams provided bursts of cover while the maneuver teams rushed forward. The Germans were startled by such aggressiveness. They fled.
Cota turned west toward Vierville. Frenchmen stared in surprise as he and his men moved through town. In a short time, Col. Canham arrived with a company of men.
As they approached, Ambrose says, Cota walked down the main street, twirling a pistol on his index finger like a gunfighter.
“Where the hell have you been, boys?” he asked.
Canham helped clear the bluff so others could come up. Cota took an aide and four riflemen and started down Vierville draw from the top. Germans in a fortification on the east side opened fire. Cota’s riflemen shot back. The Germans, dazed by the naval bombardment, gave up. Ambrose says Cota ordered them to lead the way down the draw through minefields to the beach. The group made it.
Back on the sand, Cota organized demolition teams to dynamite a roadblock at the bottom of the draw. He summoned tank units to advance through the opening. But there were Germans still on the face of the bluffs, and they were sweeping the beach with machine-gun fire.
It took hours, Ambrose says, to fully open Vierville draw.
The assault on the bluff was only one of several notable acts of initiative that saved the invasion. Another came when Gen. Clarence Heubner, commander of the 1st Divison, told his 18th Regiment to go ashore--the Navy be damned, along with its order that had suspended landings.
All morning, the tide at Omaha Beach had been rising. By now Rommel’s obstacles were hidden under water and were particularly dangerous. Skippers had their orders to stay away.
But now regimental officers had orders to go in. They argued fiercely with the skippers.
Finally, a landing craft, carrying tanks, charged at full speed through the obstacles, all guns firing. Another rammed its way through, carrying infantry, all weapons blazing. Other skippers began to yield to the Army’s demands, Ambrose says, and the 18th got ashore--but not without severe losses, compounded when the 155th Regiment of the 29th Division mislanded on top of it.
The landings, however, gave Omaha a welcome infusion of firepower.
It was badly needed. The traffic jam on the beach was taking a pounding from German machine guns, mortars and artillery. With support from the newly arrived regiments, bulldozers began cutting a gap through a line of dunes just east of an exit draw leading up to a plateau between St.-Laurent and Colleville.
By 1 p.m., the draw was open.
Vehicles on the beach started moving at once. Slowly the traffic jam eased. At dusk, with the opening of the Vierville draw, as well, men, tanks, trucks and jeeps began emerging on the flatland above the beach in significant numbers. They reinforced GIs on the plateau, and the Americans started moving inland.
By nightfall, troops from the 29th and 1st divisions were scattered in 18 pockets in and around Vierville, St.-Laurent and Colleville.
They had no continuous line. They had no artillery and few mortars.
But they had dug in. Omaha was secure.
GOLD, JUNO AND SWORD
On the east flank were the beaches of Gold, Juno and Sword. They were targeted by forces from Britain and Canada, joined by a small group of commandos from France.
The British 6th Airborne Division was assigned to seize bridges over the Orne River and the Caen Canal, to destroy a coastal battery at Merville and to delay any German advances from inland.
Sixty pathfinders jumped from light bombers to mark drop zones. The pathfinders landed at 12:20 a.m. June 6. They set up radar beacons and flashing lights. Shortly afterward, glider-borne troops from the 6th Airborne touched down alongside the Benouville Bridge crossing the Caen Canal. Capt. John Tillett, 24, who served as adjutant of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, was aboard.
It was dark. Tillett expected a crash landing.
But he was lucky.
Only one wing and the wheels ripped off when his glider touched down. Tillett knew that any glider landing that let soldiers walk away was a good one.
As Tillett looked for the bridge, he and his men heard tanks. They saw a gun turret. It had a swastika on it.
Tillett and his troops ran, expecting to be cut in half.
Only then did they see that the tanks were British. The swastikas celebrated kills during an earlier campaign.
“Pretty stupid,” Tillett thought.
Tillett and his men joined in a successful assault at Benouville Bridge, later named Pegasus Bridge to honor their insignia and the heroism of British troops, including officers such as Maj. John Howard and Lt. Danny Brotheridge, the first Allied soldier, Stephen Ambrose says, to be killed by enemy fire on D-day.
The 6th Airborne assault on the bridge over the Orne River was successful as well. Staff Sgt. Norman Elton, 24, landed his glider near the village of Ranville. The aircraft carried two jeeps. The only way to unload them was to remove the tail of the plane. Elton and his co-pilot hacked it off with an ax.
It took two hours. All the while, Germans were firing mortars.
Lt. Col. T.B.H. Otway destroyed the German battery at Merville, against huge odds and at an awful price. Half of his 150 men were killed or wounded. As the sun rose, Allied bombers hit the railroad station at Caen and the villages of Ver-sur-Mer and La Riviere. The British cruiser Belfast shelled German installations from the channel. And at 7:35 a.m., British underwater demolition teams and Royal Engineers landed on the sand at Gold beach.
There were no German tanks on the beach and not many troops. When men and vehicles from the 50th Division rushed ashore, there was comparatively little to stop them. The men scaled a seawall, crossed an antitank ditch and found themselves in the villages of La Riviere and Le Hamel.
Now the fighting was street to street. La Riviere held out until 10 a.m. Le Hamel fell at midafternoon. By the end of the day, they had penetrated six miles inland and had positioned themselves to take Arromanches and Bayeux.
At Juno Beach, the fighting was heavier. Royal Marine Capt. Geoffrey Knight was in charge of small craft that took sappers onto the beach early.
They had been assigned to clear obstacles and mines ahead of the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division. As Knight neared the sand, a German shell blew a hole in his boat. He succeeded in landing his flotilla.
Then he straggled ashore, soaking wet.
The Canadian 3rd was a collection of lumberjacks, miners, fishermen and farmers. They were very tough, Ambrose says, but they got to Juno Beach 10 minutes behind schedule. It gave the Germans time to recover from a bombardment by B-17s and the Royal Navy. At 8 a.m. the Germans opened fire. For the Canadians, the chances of being hit were one in two.
Lance Cpl. Harold Little, 22, of Winnipeg landed near the village o
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