Stars and Stripes June 6, 1964
AT THE OUTSET, it was Operation Overlord. In planning, it was Neptune. In the minds of many, it became "The Great Crusade." In execution, it was D-Day, June 6, 1944.
At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to appoint a joint staff to plan invasion of the Continent. British Lt Gen Frederick E. Morgan was named chief of staff to the supreme allied commander (COSSAC), but the commander was not appointed. At the August Quebec meeting, COSSAC had an invasion concept acceptable to both leaders and their combined Joint Chiefs of Staff. At Tehran in November, Marshal Josef Stalin was promised the second front demanded by the Russians by May 1944.
In January 1944, Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived in London to command the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), which was to plan and execute the invasion. His instructions were to "enter the Continent of Europe and, in conjunction with other Allied nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces."
Eisenhower's deputy was Air Marshal Sir Arthur W. Tedder and his chief of staff, U.S. Maj Gen Walter Bedell Smith. The Allied forces were commanded by British officers — Adm Sir Bertram H. Ramsey for naval, Gen Sir Bernard Montgomery for ground, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory for air.
Original COSSAC plans based on available support and manpower had limited the invasion to a three-division front. Eisenhower asked for a five-division front and it was agreed.
Two areas were considered, Calais and Normandy. The former was rejected due to heavy defense emplacements despite its being the nearest point to England and most direct route to Germany.
The final Overlord plan was to move the assault force southward from England to the shores of France between Cherbourg and LeHavre — the Americans taking the right flank, the British and Canadians the left.
The 60-mile front would extend from Cherbourg on the right to the mouth of the River Orne on the left.
The code names for the beach areas were to remain forever the identify of the terrain — Utah from St. Martin to Ste. Marie; Omaha from Vierville to Hameau; Gold from LeHamel to LaRiviere; Juno from Graye to St. Aubin; and Sword at Lion.
Two things remained to be resolved — the problem of transport of the assault force and equipment, and the date. Transport had been a plague from the earliest planning, there simply did not exist enough landing craft. Production from the United States, of necessity, was being split between the Pacific and European theaters of war. Even through May, the SHAEF staff was counting its landing craft as if simply by counting it might discover another LST.
The date was to be determined by the elements. The assault force needed darkness to conceal its strength and direction. Moonlight was needed for airborne strikes inland of the beaches. About 40 minutes of early daylight was needed for the air bombardment preceding the invasion. And all of this had to be available before low tide, which was necessary for clearing obstacles on the beach which would be concealed during high water.
The original invasion date was Monday, June 5. Loading of the task forces began on May 30, and by June 3 all troops were aboard transports. Some had even sailed when the meteorologists injected the first threat to the operation — bad weather en route and in the landing zones. Postponement would mean at least another two weeks and even then necessary conditions were not assured. Monday was definitely out, but Tuesday had to be weighed on weather data available Sunday. At 4:30 a.m., it was not favorable. At 9:30 p.m. Sunday, June 4, it had improved but was still not very promising.
Eisenhower consulted his staff — Ramsey appeared neutral, his naval forces need not be wary of weather. Leigh-Mallory was skeptical about air operations in the predicted overcast; he was concerned that his heavy and medium bomber operations might be chancy. Montgomery, who was commanding the ground forces, wanted to go.
EISENHOWER asked, "Just how long can you hang this operation on the end of a limb and let it hang there?" A few minutes later, the supreme commander said, "I'm quite positive we must give the order. . . I don't like it, but there it is. ... I don't see how we can possibly do anything else."
The invasion date was set.
Across the channel in France, the German defense force was complacent. The German navy had not been able to send out patrols because of weather, and reasoned that the Allied invasion could not come off in such weather. It had no reports on weather fronts which would indicate a change in conditions in the next 48 hours — there had been no air reconnaissance the first four days of June.
At 10:15 p.m. on June 5, even as the first airborne planes were taking off from England, the headquarters of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, which commanded 60 divisions manning Hitler's Atlantic Wall from the Law Countries to the Bay of Biscay, intercepted coded radio messages which could have betrayed the invasion but were misinterpreted or disbelieved. The 15th German Army immediately went on highest alert but none of the others reacted.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Army Group B was not alerted, and he himself was in Germany. The 7th German Army, in fact, canceled an exercise alert planned the night of June 5. A map exercise was scheduled for June 6 in Rennes, and many field commanders were planning to observe it.
Rommel's Army Group B commanded the defense of the invasion area. Its responsibility stretched from Holland to the Loire. His 15th Army with 19 divisions was concentrated in the rejected Calais area. His 7th Army with nine infantry divisions and one armored division guarded Normandy. The 10 armored divisions committed to the Western Front were dispersed.
Static defense of the Normandy area had been greatly improved since January under Rommel's command — there were fixed guns pointed seaward, field artillery providing beach cover, and the rear villages were heavily fortified. The Germans had 120 radar devices for directing battery fire and detection, but not more than 20 had survived the heavy pre-invasion bombardment, and these were made ineffective by foil strips dropped by Allied aircraft. Rundstedt had .expected the invasion to come across the Dover Straits, and Rommel had agreed with him.
Eisenhower had at his command 20 American divisions and 17 British Empire divisions, including three Canadian, plus one French and one Polish division. He had 5,000 fighter planes, nearly 3,500 bombers and more than 1,500 medium, light and torpedo bombers. He also had 2,300 transport planes and 2,500 gliders.
His sea forces consisted of 233 LSTs capable of landing tanks on the beaches, 835 LCIs, 6 battleships, 22 cruisers, 93 destroyers, 255 minesweepers and 150-odd smaller fighting craft. The total of merchant ships and naval fighting vessels was more than 6,000.
The invasion started just past 1 a.m. on June 6 with the airborne attack. The American 82nd Abn (Maj Gen Matthew B. Ridgway) and 101st Abn (Maj Gen Maxwell Taylor) with 13,000 men jumped in the Ste. Mere-Eglise and Carentan areas to establish a beachhead and secure causeways through which the seaborne forces could escape enemy beach emplacements.
THE British 6th Abn (Maj Gen Richard Gale) landed east of Caen to secure a 25-square-miles area by taking two bridges, which would enable the seaborne forces to progress inland, and destroying another five to prevent armored counterattack.
At 2:30 a.m., the Bayfield, headquarters ship for Task Force U-the U.S. VII Corps (Maj Gen J. Lawton Collins), anchored in the assembly area off Utah beach. At dawn, medium bombers — 293 of them — bombed Utah beach defenses.
At H-hour (6:30 a.m.), the 4th Inf Div and 8th Inf Div made the initial landing. At H plus 85 minutes, the 22nd Inf Div was to join them, and at H plus 4 hours, the 12th Inf Div.
The Utah assault, while not a picnic, went well. Three hours after the initial assault, the beach was cleared of obstacles.
The British and Canadian operations at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches on the left flank of the invasion also progressed well.
It was at Omaha that the hell developed.
The flagship Ancon, with V Corps Maj Gen Leonard T. Gerow aboard, anchored off Omaha at 2:50 a.m. At 5:50, naval bombardment started and lasted through 6:27, but proved ineffectual against the concrete defense emplacements ashore. A force of 400 heavy bombers, using instruments to drop their playload, for the most part overshot by seconds the beach area and dropped their explosives inland.
THE Omaha assault was led by the 1st Inf Div (Maj Gen Clarence R. Huebner) with the 116th Inf Regt on the right flank, the 16th Inf Regt on the left.
Each was to land a two-battalion landing team at H-hour to clear beach defenses and seize a beachhead maintenance line roughly 2 miles inland.
The maintenance line, which followed a high ground ridge parallel to the main coastal road, was to be supported at H-plus-3 hours by the 18th Inf and the 26th Inf at the command of Huebner. The line was to establish the D-Day objective — a coastal strip 5 miles deep astride the Bayeux highway.
The V Corps right flank was to sweep due west, the left flank to the south, from the Omaha landing zone. Omaha was a.7,000-yard crescent beach with bluffs rising to 170 feet merging with cliffs at either end. The bluffs were cut by five draws — one to the Vierville-sur-Mur highway, two at St. Laurent, one at Colleville and the fifth simply a foot trail. The draws were to be opened by H-plus-2 hours.
Fifty minutes before H-hour, the 741st Tank Bn was to land 32 tanks for the 16th Inf. The tanks — M4 medium tanks with canvas "bloomers" which made the. tanks floatable — were offloaded 6,000 yards from the shore, and all but five foundered. Only one of the 111th Field Arty Bn 105mm howitzers reached shore, six of the 7th Field Arty Bn 105s were lost, and only one of the 16th Inf Cannon Co's 105s reached the beach.
The first wave landed at H-hour evenly spaced along the beach. The right wing disintegrated because of mislanding and enemy fire — two companies bunched in front of Les Moulins, and elements of four clustered in the Colleville section. The right flank — Co A of the 116th and Co C, 2nd Ranger Bn — landed in front of the Vierville draw, but one of its craft had foundered. Before reaching the sea wall, Co A lost two-thirds of its men, Co C more than half.
On the eastern part of the 116th Inf zone, a 1,000-yard gap separated two companies on the right flank. Two companies of the 2nd Bn, 116th lost a quarter of their men in 45 minutes while crossing the beach to cover. The third company mislanded in front and just west of Les Moulins, where the bluff was hidden by smoke.
On the left flank, the 16th Inf was also scattered, but its 2nd Bn, landing between the St. Laurent and Colleville exits, got across the beach with only two casualties.
Companies E and F of the 16th landed in front and east of the occupied point — Co E lost half its men.
Only a third of the expected armor support went into action with the assault force between St. Laurent and Colleville.
The chaotic disorganization and heavy losses of the first wave affected the balance of the operation — the beaches could not be neutralized, only three bulldozers of 16 were operative, and one of them immobilized by infantry troops using it as shelter.
The 1st Div had gone against the one sector in Normandy where Rommel had perfected his cordon defense to his own satisfaction and which was further made impassable by the presence of the German 352nd Inf Div which had been there three months, but was not known to be by the Allies.
American D-Day casualties reckoned after the action was put by the 1st Army as being 6,603 — 1,465 killed, 3,184 wounded, 1,928 missing, and 26 captured. Military historians put total Allied casualties the first 24-hours of the invasion at between 10,000 and 12,000.
German losses were never defined, but estimates ranged from 4,000 to 9,000. At the end of June, Rommel reported nearly 250,000 casualties.
THE Allied Expeditionary Force broke out of Normandy within the month. There were bitter battles at St. Lo-d'Ourville before the tanks and infantry moved out of the hedgerows, but the lodgement had been secured on D-Day, and through that lodgement, the AEF moved to its ultimate goal — the thrust into Germany and destruction of German military forces.
The planners at SHAEF must have felt anxiety those first few hours, and only Eisenhower himself knows his own emotions of the moment. Something of those emotions, and of the character of the man who welded together the Allied Expeditionary Force, was revealed weeks afterwards when he discovered in a uniform pocket a prepared statement no one had even thought he might have considered.
It read: "Our landings in the Cherboug-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault is attached to the attempt it is mine alone."