Normandy At Peace

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I approached “Bloody Omaha” with some trepidation, given the ghosts that must hover over the place. It was here that the German 352d Infantry Division, unbeknownst to the Allies, had been engaged in anti-invasion exercises at the time of the landing. They went after the landing Americans from their thirty-five pillboxes, eighty-five machine-gun posts, and eighteen antitank positions, all of which were in good working order after the bombers that had been sent to destroy them dropped their loads too far inland. Gen. Omar Bradley watched the scene from the cruiser Augusta , far offshore. “As the morning lengthened, my worries deepened . . . ,” he wrote later. From radio messages, he added, “we could piece together only an incoherent account of sinkings, swampings, heavy enemy fire and chaos on the beaches. Though we could see it dimly through the haze and hear the echo of its guns, the battle belonged that morning to the thin, wet line of khaki that dragged itself ashore on the Channel coast of France.”

When we arrived at the beach, it had a strange serenity. The only sounds now came from the rhythmic waves of the surf and a line of Allied flags flapping loudly in the wind. Just a few other people were walking along the flat stretch of sand and gently sloping bluffs, now lit with a hint of late-afternoon sun.

The landscape was much more rugged—and much more animated—at the nearby Pointe du Hoc, a rocky point of land that was once the site of powerful German gun emplacements, which had clear shots at both Omaha and Utah beaches. On D-day the 2d and 5th U.S. Ranger battalions landed just below the point and heroically scaled the cliffs to secure what was left of the guns (the largest of them had been moved to a nearby apple orchard, it turned out). The American 9th Air Force bombers had pounded the location in the months before the invasion, and the place still has the quality of a lunar landscape, with craters big enough for school kids to roll into them, as they did when we were there. It also has some well-preserved bunkers, which we were able to explore.

The next day the weather had improved a bit—at least it wasn’t actively raining—and we started the day at Utah Beach, where hundreds of thousands of men came ashore in the first month after the invasion. We saw Utah at low tide, and it was easy to imagine how effective this beach might be for a landing spot: a broad, flat sweep of sand that was firm enough for a harness racehorse to be training across it when we were there. Again, we didn’t have much other company on the beach, though the large parking lot adjacent to it suggests that it probably gets a crowd at the height of the tourism season.

About ten miles southwest of Utah is the city of Carentan, the site of one of the first Allied field hospitals, where my grandfather worked. In 1944 the city was taken on June 13 by segments of the American 101st Airborne and 2d Armored divisions, which had been frustrated by their slow progress across the swamps and flooded fields that spotted the route inland from Utah. When they finally broke through, Carentan was secured, and the two American beachheads were connected within forty-eight hours. The armored division’s exhilarated major general L. T. Gerow quickly announced that his men had achieved all their objectives. “Gee,” his commanding officer responded, “the objective is Berlin.”

Our objective in Carentan was to find the location of the field hospital, and it proved more difficult than we had anticipated. The place wasn’t indicated on any of our detailed invasion maps, and our inquiries—in faltering French—at the city’s tourism office were met mostly by shrugs. Eventually one woman had a flash of recognition, and she directed us down a back road to a meadow just outside town. A misty rain had begun again, and when we found the appropriate scene, the only activity there was a group of cows grazing lazily in the drizzle. Like the beaches, this scene was distinguished by a sense of melancholy calm.

As we huddled under umbrellas and took pictures, we envisioned with difficulty the commotion that had taken place here fifty-two years earlier. “I had no idea I could do as much work as I have,” Granddad had written on July 8. “I simply cannot keep track of time. It seems as though I do long stretches of night duty & fall in bed exhausted only to be awakened in an hour or so . . . & put to work again. I believe they save the most pitiful case for you to look at about 15 mins. before you are scheduled to quit. Of course there is only one thing to do & that is to go ahead with it.”

Indeed, as Max Hastings writes in his book Overlord , few people appreciate how severe the fighting was in the first weeks following the invasion. It was all but impossible, he says, for an infantryman who had landed on D-day not to have sustained an injury by the end of July. And by the end of August, almost 10 percent of all British soldiers in Normandy had been sent to some hospital as a result of enemy action; by mid-autumn, the figure had dropped to 2.6 percent.

German casualties remained high throughout, and beginning in August, Granddad reported that he was operating on more of the enemy’s men than ours. This was particularly true after the closing of the Falaise Pocket, when fifty-thousand Germans were taken prisoner, and tens of thousands more were killed. On August 30 he voiced the prevailing view both of his colleagues and of the German POWs when he predicted that the war would be over by Christmas. He was wrong, of course.