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Omaha Beach

A beach at the foot of a cliff

There was no similarity at all between the two American landing beaches of Utah and Omaha.

On the Cotentin coast the low four-square totally flat hinterland is only varied to the north where hills offer views out to sea. On the other coast there is a continuous line of yellow and brown cliffs, separated from the sea by a narrow coastal band covered with wild grass and dunes, then a beach which uncovers to about 300 yards' distance at low tide.

From the sea Omaha looks as monotonous as Utah but for different reasons. Here it is the uniformity of the cliffs that is striking. The several routes of access, up the cliffs are difficult to differentiate. The villages are hard to identify except by their church towers. Contrary to what the Allied general staff believed, Omaha was defended by the excellent 352nd, a unit which had arrived in mid-March (and not just before the invasion, as is often believed).

In fact the 352nd occupied the western half of the cliffs with one regiment, whilst another was held in reserve at Bayeux with a battalion nearby. The eastern half of the cliff line was held by the 716th. Thus the Americans had to confront two regiments in all, with a third close by in reserve, where they only expected to confront one regiment of poor quality. This error of intelligence was one of the gravest committed on D-Day.

The arrival of the 352nd coincided with heavy activity in placing obstacles on the beach. The inner limit of the beach was shut off by a thick band of pebbles, an anti-tank wall and a deep barbed wire entanglement. Behind, the waste land whose breadth varied from place to place from 150 to 300 yards, was defended by numerous machine-gun nests, trenches, and shelters for 75mm or 88mm guns. Besides these, two little settlements consisting of small holiday villas, had been converted into strongpoints by the Germans. These were Hamel-au-Pretre and Les Moulins, where the houses which limited defensive fields of fire had been razed to the ground. If the numerous aerial reconnaissance sorties had adequately disclosed the beach obstacles, the majority of the bunkers from which the beaches were taken into enfilade had not been detected. According to the Americans the German defences at Omaha were the worst their troops had to meet in this war, worse even than the Japanese ones at Iwo Jima, Tarawa or Peleliu.

Successful but insufficient naval protection

The naval support group approaches Omaha Beach, led by USS Texas, followed by Glasgow, Arkansas and either Montcalm or Georges Leygues
The naval support group approaches Omaha Beach, led by USS Texas, followed by Glasgow, Arkansas and either Montcalm or Georges Leygues
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More photos of the naval action against the batteries defending Omaha beach can be found on the HMS Glasgow page.

From the first hours of 6th June the fleet deployed with no difficulties. These ships consisted of the two veteran American battleships Arkansas and Texas, and three cruisers, HMS Glasgow and the French Georges Leygues and Montcalm. There were also three American destroyers and three small British 'Hunt' class destroyers. The big ships were just over 6 miles off the coast, the destroyers stationed 5,000 yards offshore.

The bombardment commenced at 0550 according to plan. In order to preserve the effects of surprise it was only to last 35mins, rather little time. The Texas opened fire with her 14in guns on the battery at Pointe du Hoc, digging enormous craters and obtaining several direct hits on the casemates, which remained strangely silent. At the same time the destroyer USS Saterlee took on the machine-gun nests which covered the point, whilst HMS Talybont bombarded the radar of Pointe de la Percee at close range; USS Thompson seconded her in taking on the machine-gun nests on this point, and for this task approached the coast to within a mile or so.

Texas' secondary batteries were pounding the western access to Omaha beach, which led to Vierville. The aim was to level the anti-tank wall and destroy the German positions. This was an enormous task for a single ship in so short a time, even if she was helped by a destroyer and an LCG.

At 2,000 yards to the east, the beach access route leading to Saint-Laurent was bombarded by the destroyer USS Carmick, whilst LCT(R) 423 fired her thousand rockets at the hamlet of Les Moulins. This little group of houses received particularly careful treatment as Americans feared it was a real entrenched camp. So the Arkansas expended several powerful broadsides upon it from 0552. HMS Glasgow was treating the wasteland around the settlement in similar manner.

The eastern route off the beach leading to Saint-Laurent is overlooked by a vast meadow, where nowadays the American military cemetery is situated. The defences round here were taken on by the Georges Leygues and the destroyer HMS Tanatside, then by the thousand rockets of LCT(R)447.

The last access route, the furthest east, leading to Colville, was bombarded by three destroyers and three LCT(R)s firing a thousand rockets apiece.

Montcalm, accompanied by an American destroyer, was firing on Port-en-Bessin, then on several other targets further from Omaha Beach, in order to tie down defenders and prevent them intervening in the battle that was to follow.

At 0600 the noise of the naval bombardment was added to by the passage of hundreds of bombers. These were the 480 B24 Liberators of the Eighth US Army Air Force whose 1,285 tons of bombs were intended to pulverise German beach defences. The bombers actually passed over Omaha, but not a bomb fell on its target. Because of the thick weather the aviators had received orders to delay 30sec in releasing their bombs in order not to risk hitting the landing craft then approaching the beaches. The pilots therefore attacked blind, without attempting to sight their targets through clouds which were less thick and continuous than forecast. This bombing failed totally, all it did was to tear up fields and kill livestock inland, without killing a single German.

This failure had serious consequences, because the 35min naval bombardment, despite its successes, was not able to end all German resistance. It did not affect numerous well sighted guns in casemates sited in enfilade, and impossible to see from the sea. They were ready to intervene in the battle, as were many troops who had sheltered from the bombardment in deep bunkers, and who re-appeared when it was over.

The disaster of the amphibious tanks

Omaha Beach, divided into three large sections (Dog, Easy and Fox), extended for just under 4 miles. It was attacked simultaneously by eight battalions belonging to the 29th Division's 116th Infantry Regiment, and the 1st Division's 16th Infantry Regiment. This meant eight companies per regiment in the first assault wave, each with its own objective. H-Hour was fixed, as it was for Utah, at 0630. This was an hour after low tide in order to avoid the majority of obstacles which would be above water at this stage. At 0633 fourteen demolition teams were to land, in order to open breaches. The second wave was not planned to arrive till 0700, then subsequent waves would follow at ten minute intervals until 0930.

Precise timing was important because of the distance the craft had to come (11nm) and also the state of the sea and the number of vessels of all kinds involved. The start line was fixed at about 4,000 yards offshore.

The infantry was to land precisely at 0631, whilst the DD tanks were intended to start their work ashore five minutes earlier. These amphibious Shermans, which were a British development, did not inspire full confidence amongst the American staff. They decided that the tanks should be launched between 6,000 and 1,000 yards from the coast, if conditions were favourable. If conditions were unfavourable their LCTs were to take them right up to the beach, the final decision of what to do being left to the commanders of each landing craft.

In the western sector, given the sea state, it was decided not to launch the tanks. The leading LCTs waited for other vessels of the same kind which were each loaded with two ordinary Shermans and a bulldozer tank, then proceeded to the beach where they arrived at H minus l min precisely. Then twenty-eight DD tanks landed alongside fourteen standard Shermans. Altogether a not negligible total of forty-two tanks landed at the western end of Omaha. The German riposte was not long in coming. In a few minutes two LCTs were ripped apart by shells and several tanks had been set afire.

To the east there were far worse developments. Launched 5,000 yards from the beach, the DD tanks found it difficult to cope with the waves breaking over their pneumatically raised flotation skirts. A good number had gone down even before reaching the departure line. The others continued at all costs, and foundered in their turn. In the end precisely two reached Fox Green Beach under their own power, closely followed by the three carried aboard LCT 600 whose commander had judged it best to continue to shore. Thus only five of the DD Shermans planned to land on the eastern part of Omaha reached their objective.

The first wave pinned down

Losses amongst the LCAs and LCVPs were nowhere near as severe, but the sea state, the current, and enemy fire produced general confusion. Units mostly arrived more or less on time on the beach, but in a great mishmash of such a nature there was hardly any control by the higher command once the first wave had touched down. When the ramps went down the soldiers jumped into water three to four feet deep.

US troops on the way to the assault of Omaha Beach
US troops on the way to the assault of Omaha Beach
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The soldiers who emerged unharmed from the water had to cover 200 to 300 yards of open beach before reaching the very meagre shelter of the anti-tank wall and the pebble bank. The majority of the casualties were sustained at this stage. Very many officers were killed or wounded, which did not help the organising of troops who were already well scattered.

Company A of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry, reached Dog Green, at 0635 aboard six LCAs. One of these hit a submerged obstacle and sank with many men. Another, loaded with Rangers, was hit five times and was lost with all hands. Three LCAs managed to disembark their men behind the shelter of a smashed LCT, but the men could not manage to cross the fire-swept beach and sheltered behind the beach obstacles. As the tide rose so they found they had to move to other shelter, and the Germans did not neglect their opportunities so, by the end of the day, losses had reached 66 per cent.

the afternoon of the landing at Omaha
the afternoon of the landing at Omaha
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To the east three companies, embarked in eighteen landing craft, were lost wherever they tried to land. The men of Company G were suddenly offered the opportunity of being masked by the smoke of a fire in the wasteland, and man-aged to reach the shelter of the anti-tank wall without appalling loss. Companies E and F did not have the same luck and were decimated as they landed, in total confusion. The DD tanks, numerous in this sector, were unable to come to their aid, and were forced to advance, almost alone, towards the exits from the beach.

In the eastern sector, the landings of the 16th Infantry Regiment were even more disordered. The men who reached land opposite the place where the American cemetery is now were hit, one after another. Companies E and F of the second battalion were literally massacred in front of Exit E3, taken from the side by two guns, one 75mm and one 88mm. On Fox Green the situation was even worse, because men could not even shelter behind the anti-tank wall, which did not exist in this sector. All they could do was to obtain some cover behind the pebble bank. Here two German guns took them in enfilade. It was hardly surprising that company E lost its captain and 104 men from a total of 180 during the morning of the 6th.

The hell that was Fox Green is well summed up by the list of survivors of those who reached it from early in the morning: a single, unique DD tank, several standard Shermans, about 400 totally dispersed men and a group of naval engineer troops.

As for companies L and I, they were lost along the beaches. One of them had nearly landed in the vicinity of Port-en-Bessin before reaching Fox Green an hour and a half late.

The situation was even graver because the American troops had failed to establish a continuous front. Instead, two large stretches of beach were completely deserted. Only two out of eight companies had landed where they were supposed to. There was little the others could do, with most of their officers put out of action, except wait for reinforcements in the shelter of the anti-tank wall or the pebble bank.

Despite all their courage the demolition teams could only imperfectly fulfil their role. Two teams were wiped out by direct hits, but the twelve others did excellent work. Unfortunately they did not have the time to mark this effectively. So it was not until the next tide that the cleared channels could be properly used.

Subsequent waves land in an inferno

At 0700, to plan, the second wave of LCAs and LCVPs reached the beach. The current swept them all eastwards, but to an acceptable extent as the troops landed more or less where intended. Once again the troops were swept by very accurate fire, but there was less obvious disorder than half an hour earlier. The arrival of Senior officers from 0730 permitted the beginning of reorganisation. The losses were also not as heavy, because the waves followed each other at ten-minute intervals and the choice of targets offered to the Germans was greater, and therefore more men survived to reach the shelter of the anti-tank wall.

After the eighth wave larger vessels started to arrive, LCIs, LCMs as well as many DUKWs. LCIs 91 and 92 were hit and set on fire at almost the same moment, which caused heavy losses. The two vessels burned on the beach for hours.

At 0800 the situation was even more critical because not a man, a vehicle or a tank had yet been able to leave the beach. An hour later the Navy Beachmaster in charge of the beach signalled to the ships offshore to stop all offloading of vehicles.

At this moment it is clear that Bradley's staff, looking at the situation from out to sea, began to get seriously' worried. The reports which reached them were overwhelming, and the appearance of the beach itself, viewed through binoculars, was very far from encouraging. According to his memoirs, Bradley briefly considered abandoning the Omaha landings and transferring all the troops to Utah, a decision which would have had catastrophic consequences for those troops already landed. Besides, could Utah have absorbed such an extra load? What would have become of the junction with the British?

General Huebner, the commander of the 1st Division, had difficulty in hiding his uneasiness from his men, but Admiral Hall, responsible for the assault on Omaha, reassured his colleagues that landing beaches under enemy fire always looked chaotic.

Omaha shortly after D_day
Omaha shortly after D_day
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This chaos is well described by the commander of LCI Group 28, in the eastern sector of Omaha, Lieutenant Wade, USNR: 'Enemy fire on the beaches was terrific - 105mm, 88mm, 40mm, mortars, machine guns, mines - everything, apparently, .... Very few shells fell to seaward. The enemy would wait until the craft lowered their ramps and then cut loose with everything they had. Someone was lucky to get ashore with an FM set [radio-telephone] and was sending back instructions and ordering the craft in. He was doing a marvellous job. Destroyers were almost on the beach themselves, firing away at pillboxes and strongpoints. Rocket boats and gunboats did not faze the enemy in the least; they were too far underground. The soldiers, the battleships and the destroyers did the good work. It seems a miracle this beach was ever taken.

The situation begins to improve

Early in the afternoon the LCIs which had been steaming in circles for three hours waiting to find gaps between the obstacles, moved forward again. However this also meant that if unloading was not very rapid the LCIs would remain stuck on the beach, offering marvellous targets to the Germans. So it was decided to organise a ferry service of small craft, LCAs and LCVPs, from the larger vessels to the beach. It did not take the enemy long to notice this new arrangement and open fire on it.

At this stage aboard the flagship tension was at its highest, because Force B, which was bringing the reinforcements for Omaha, was now late in arriving.

The first encouraging news about Omaha arrived at 1137; Germans were beginning to surrender indicating a possible reversal of fortunes. Just before midday it became evident that American soldiers had climbed the cliff and a message indicated that the village of Vierville had just been captured by an outflanking movement. At almost the same time the village of Saint-Laurent was reached, though the Germans obstinately held on there till nearly 1600.

Though Vierville was captured the exit from the beach was still under the fire of Germans holed up in a fortified building. At 1300 the great guns of Texas put an end to this. By 1630 all the exits from the eastern part of the beach were in American hands, and progress along the tops of the cliffs could be followed through binoculars.

At 1705 the situation was sufficiently clarified for General Gerhardt, commander of the 29th Division, to leave the escort destroyer Maloy in order to install his HQ ashore.

The engineers went to work with more and more results and by 2000 a fifth exit from the beach had been created by the use of bulldozers. During the afternoon the intensity of the battle had definitely diminished as the last German strongpoints succumbed one after another. Tanks in increasing numbers left the beach for the interior. The divisional artillery alone could not be made available. It had been put aboard DUKWs and mostly lost in the wrecking of the majority of these amphibians, overloaded for such a heavy sea. Only one battery could be got into action on the 6th itself.

Five complete regiments were ashore by nightfall. The Atlantic Wall had been well and truly breached, and the beachhead was about 6 miles deep. It extended from southwest from Vierville to east of Colleville, though there were several islands of German resistance, some even on the beach.

Omaha some days after the landing - seen from the cliffs at low tide. The debris of wrecked LSI, LCVP, LST, LCM are strewn over the beach.
Omaha some days after the landing - seen from the cliffs at low tide. The debris of wrecked LSI, LCVP, LST, LCM are strewn over the beach.
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Why was there such a change?

We have seen that throughout the morning the position of the Americans on Omaha remained almost untenable. Then a little after noon the position was markedly changed. Why?

The first reason was a German error of interpretation. From 0600 the Seventh Army had been aware of an extraordinarily intense naval bombardment between Grandcamp and the mouth of the Orne, but General Dollmann had at first believed it to be a diversion. General Marcks of 84 Armeekorps had not warned him about the landings on the Calvados coast until 0900, and then insisted that the Allies were more threatening on the coast near Caen; that is in the British sector. Whether it was for this reason, or because the reports from his troops made him believe that the Americans could be pinned down indefinitely on Omaha Beach, General Kraiss of the 352nd committed the error of sending his reserve regiment off towards the British beaches, instead of throwing it into battle at Omaha, where it could no doubt have continued to hold the Americans on the beach for many hours more.

Kraiss was in any case hesitant. At 1100, on the basis of more recent information, he ordered one of his reserve battalions to turn around and go to Colleville which was being threatened by the Americans.

At 1335 there was a new and contradictory report. Kraiss believed he could state that the Americans around Colleville had been beaten and the Omaha bridgehead could be considered to have been liquidated!

At the end of the afternoon Kraiss sent off a more alarming signal. His strongpoints had been outflanked by an enemy who had reached the line Colleville-Asnieres.

Finally, at midnight, forced by the urgency of the situation, Kraiss came personally to Marcks' HQ, in order to tell him that his entire division was engaged in battle, that it was suffering heavy losses, and that though it could continue to hold for the next day, it had to be reinforced with the maximum urgency. Marcks replied that he had no reinforcements available at all.

The errors of the German high command were therefore one of the causes of the final American success. Another contributor was the fire of naval guns, notably that of the destroyers, which came close to grounding to help the infantry.

The navy works miracles

Omaha Beach after the landing - note the devastation. LSTs in the background
Omaha Beach after the landing - note the devastation. LSTs in the background
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It was just after 0800 that the destroyers were ordered to fire at will at targets of opportunity at the sole responsibility of their captains. At 0900 the orders were made more precise still. The destroyers were to approach the beach as closely as possible to fire point-blank at the German positions.

The task of the ships was not easy. The shore control parties that worked so well at Utah were in no state to do so at Omaha. Many of the men were killed, and most of the radio sets lost.

For the whole day the destroyers worked wonders in order to help the infantry. Some, like the Carmick, approached to only 900 yards from the beach. At such a short distance the effect of their broadside on machine gun nests and other German pockets of resistance was totally devastating.

During the afternoon the destroyer Emmons received orders for an almost impossible mission from Admiral Bryant. This was to dislodge German observers by destroying the tower of Colleville church without destroying the rest of the building, which dated from the eleventh century. The first eleven shots missed the tower, the twelfth shook it and the thirteenth hit the tower full on, knocking part of it into the cemetery and part onto the nave, which came down with it.

The USS Baldwin was the only ship of Force O to be hit by hostile artillery. At 0820 she was hit by two shells fired by a battery situated to the east of Port-en-Bessin. The two projectiles exploded on impact and did not penetrate the interior of the vessel, so damage was minor and nobody aboard was wounded.

If the destroyers' achievement was extraordinary, compensating for the absence of surviving American tanks on the beach, the heavier ships did not remain idle. Their task was easier than the destroyers' because they had at their disposal teams of Spitfires similar to those over Utah Beach. The Texas, despite her draught, was ordered to close the coast, and then let fly several devastating broadsides, especially on the access route to Vierville.

The two French cruisers distinguished themselves by the accuracy of their fire, though their position, close to Port-en-Bessin, prevented them firing on Omaha Beach itself. The Montcalm fired no less than 174 152mm shells, and the Georges-Leygues even more. Their targets were mostly German batteries, many of them mobile.

When General Gerow established the HQ of V Corps on Omaha Beach at about 2000, the first message he sent to Bradley aboard the Augusta was one of thanks to the navy, without whom the assault would have failed: 'Thank God, the United States Navy was there!'