Early in the morning of June 6, 1944 something began to happen that changed the world. Over 160,000 Allied Troops, jumping out of planes, or off of ships, landed on the beaches and fields of Normandy, France. By the end of the day many had lost their lives on Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah and Omaha Beaches. The invasion was successful and it was the turning point of World War II. The sacrifices on these beaches will never be forgotten, but those at Omaha Beach paid the highest price in loss of life.
Some accounts suggest that nearly sixty-five per cent of Omaha’s five thousand casualties were lost within the first fifteen minutes of battle. Under heavy fire, and with no place to hide, they struggled towards shore. Many of the wounded drowned in the deep water. Facing almost certain death, it is impossible to imagine the absolute terror they felt.
As the mother ship came within nine miles of the Normandy beaches, the landing crafts began dispatching infantrymen to their beach targets. Leaders gave the nervous infantrymen pep talks over the ship’s public address systems, “Fight to get your troops ashore, fight to save your ships, and if you got any strength left, fight to save yourselves.” Commanders were not sugar-coating what was going to happen. Death was a likely reality.
The Allied Command planned the exact landing locations and a precise timetable. The plan included the specifics for unloading the tanks and cranes. Heavy aerial and ship bombardment would neutralize the German defense. The tides, however, were so choppy and high that many of the landing crafts missed their targets. Many of the tanks intended for Omaha Beach sank in the English Channel attempting to come ashore. Visibility was difficult -- there was a heavy mist of fog that extended out for miles. Many of the men on the incoming rubber boats were suffering from nausea and vomiting. Additionally, another German division reinforced the enemy’s defense on Omaha Beach, and that intelligence came too late.
The engineers had orders to destroy sixteen areas along the coastline eliminating mines and other obstacles, allowing paths for the men to come ashore. They traveled in small rubber boats loaded with explosives; the Nazis saw them and blew many of them up. Engineers had to stop their work, and by 9am only 5 ½ paths were open. Infantrymen had waded in behind them; soldiers took shelter behind the obstacles they were to blow up. Hundreds of men waded in water, shoulder-to-shoulder, and frozen in fear.
At two miles from shore and less than an hour into the invasion, bodies were visibly bobbing up and down in the water. The blood from the dead turned the sea red. Those alive washed ashore along with the dead as the tide came in. Soldiers jumped overboard, even though they were under strict orders to stay with the vessel until landing. A number of the landing craft received direct hits from enemy fire and exploded into flames, sinking fully loaded with men to the bottom of the sea.
As the ramps opened, the men began to make their way to shore. Many found themselves in water over their heads. There were many wounded, floating, struggling to stay afloat, waving their arms and calling for help – all ignored by speeding incoming landing craft. More obstacles in the water created problems for the other vessels and slowed the invasion down. In less than two hours the debris of the invasion – reels of wire, supplies, heavy equipment, canteens, helmets, life preservers, wrecked landing crafts, and of course, the bodies of their comrades began to mount on the beach. For those who made it to the shore alive, getting off the beach was the next deadly problem.
Suggested books by the author are: The Longest Day, by Cornelius Ryan and D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Stephen Ambrose.
In memory of the historic 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the author will present two additional articles soon.