- Historic Sites
On Omaha Beach
Along this narrow stretch of sand, all the painstaking plans for the Normandy invasion fell apart. One of the men who was lucky enough to make it past the beachhead recalls a day of fear, chaos, grief—and triumph.
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
While rough winds were still shaking the darling buds of May, the battalion gave the Dartmoor camp a last policing and entrucked for the Stonewall Brigade’s assembly area in Dorset. Watching the trucks roll out the camp gate, I thought that we were as ready as an outfit could be.
The next few days were rare, sunny ones that helped dry Dartmoor dampness from bones and bedrolls. In the evenings the 2d’s lanky transportation officer and I found rides to Bournemouth, where we had made friends with an English dowager who organized parties on short notice. The south of England was sealed off; troops were everywhere and every leaf-roofed lane packed with supplies. The air was charged with restrained violence.
I don’t recall questioning a frontal assault on prepared defenses from the Channel’s unstable base.
Parties ended as the 2d moved again to embarkation ports at Poole and Portland. Gradually the realization grew that no matter how many supplies were accumulated, or how brilliant the planning was, the job would come down heaviest upon the infantry. Rather than self-pity or resentment, this engendered in us what was probably an obnoxious arrogance.
Now came the final operations order, which we pounced on as the Book of Revelation. Here it was, on smudged, mimeographed sheets, with headings, subheadings, subsubheadings, and annexes, stating that we would assault the Easy Green, Dog Red, and Dog White subsectors of the beach, which we learned was dubbed “Omaha.” Our three rifle companies would go in abreast, preceded by tanks equipped with flotation devices enabling them to “swim” ashore. Directly behind the rifle companies would come combat engineers to clear beach obstacles, then our heavy weapons, battalion headquarters, and batteries of antiaircraft guns. All was on a split-second schedule, the rifle-company boats to touch down one minute after the tanks. Within thirtv minutes the entire battalion was to be ashore, followed by wave after wave of artillery, engineers, medical units, and amphibious supply trucks. It is unlikely that even under training conditions such a schedule could have been followed; in the actuality, it proved fantasy.
Their defenses seemed impregnable, our attack overwhelming. We felt the odds favored overwhelming.
The veteran 1st Infantry Division commanded the initial assault, and the 116th was attached to it for that phase. Attacking on our left would be 1st Division’s 16th Regiment. The Stonewall Brigade’s principal objectives were two roads that angle up from the beach to the crest of the bluffs, essential for moving heavy equipment inland. The 2d Battalion was to secure the road up to the village of Les Moulins.
The known difficulties were three separate bands of underwater obstacles, ranging from logs angled into the sand with mines attached to their tips, to steel gatelike structures, and giant iron jackstraws. The exit roads were guarded by concrete bunkers, barbed wire, and mines. The bluffs were zigzagged with fire trenches. An estimated eight hundred to one thousand troops manned this sector, some of them Polish or Russian defectors. Their willingness to fight to the death for the Third Reich was considered doubtful. The closest German counterattack force was believed to be an infantry division about twenty miles inland.
To destroy all this, the Allied command had assembled a force of awesome proportions: fleets of bombers and fighter bombers to saturate all known targets (and incidentally to crater the beach with ready-made foxholes), two battleships, three cruisers, eight destroyers, and rocket-launching craft.
In bare recital the defense was impregnable, the weight of our attack overwhelming. We believed the odds to favor the overwhelming. Some of our young greyhounds maintained that they were going to race across the beach so fast that if they hit any barbed wire, they might spring right back into the Channel. The operations officer, a steady and cheerful presence, vowed to keep up the spirits of his boat team by reciting “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” all the way to the beach, timing the final line with the fall of the ramp.