D-Day is considered to be a major turning point in the European theater of World War II. Although the allies were able to successfully take the beaches at Normandy, they incurred a large number of casualties. Omaha Beach was the bloodiest of all the landings, costing the allies approximately 2,500 soldiers (many within the first few hours of the landing). The large number of casualties suggests that the circumstances of Omaha beach were different from those of the other landing sites. What went wrong at Omaha Beach? In order to answer that question, one has to look at not only what didn’t work at Omaha but also what made it different from other landing sites. D-Day was a turning point for the allies and the world, the cost of victory being paid by the men who died on the beaches of Normandy. Omaha Beach’s high number of casualties was due to unusual circumstances that were either unique to or more drastic at Omaha than at any other beach.
The Invasion of Normandy, the largest amphibious invasion in history, and marked the beginning of the end of Hitler’s hold on Europe. The overall purpose of the invasion, codenamed ‘Operation Overlord’, was to establish Allied beachheads at Normandy, in order to gain a foothold on the European Continent. Operation Overlord began on June 6th, 1944 and ended with the liberation of Paris on August 19th, 1944 (History Channel). The first phase of Overlord, known as ‘Operation Neptune’, refers to the landing phase. The night before the landings, gliders and paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines to disrupt enemy communications and supply lines, and to protect and cover the flanks for the morning invasion. On the morning of June 6th, D-Day began with landings at five Normandy beaches (codenamed: Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah and Omaha)[Britannica]. What took place on these beaches, the result of months of careful planning, would come to decide the fate of occupied Europe.
The planning for Operation Overlord had begun in 1943. The idea was to open up a second front in the European theater to relieve some of the pressure that the Germans had on the Russians. Normandy became the selected site for the invasion, although the Allies actively worked to deceive the Germans into believing that they would attack at Pas De Callas, this deception is known as ‘Operation Bodyguard.’ General Dwight D. Eisenhower was selected as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, while British General Bernard Montgomery was placed in command of ground forces (Morgan). Together they would plan the largest military beach landing the world has ever seen. Forty-seven divisions from America, the British Empire, Canada and other allied countries were selected to take part in the invasion (Wikipedia). The plan called for an initial aerial bombardment, followed by a naval bombardment on the Nazi fortifications that lined the beaches. Then modified Sherman tanks, army engineers, and special navy demolition teams would take to the shore to clear the way for the infantry and the landing craft. The Sherman tank had been modified into Amphibious DD tanks able to unload approximately two miles from the shore and float straight onto the beach courtesy of its duplex drive system, and a screen that was erected over the tank to protect it from small waves and keep it afloat (Wikipedia). Allied command told the soldiers that the enemy would be so beaten by the bombardments that they’d be able to swiftly march off the landing craft and take control of the beachhead. Instead, the soldiers who landed on Omaha Beach faced fully intact and operational enemy fortifications, manned by some of the Reich’s best trained soldiers, and two-hundred yards of booby-trapped beach between them and the Germans (History Channel).
After months of meticulous planning, Operation Overlord was ready to commence on June 5th, 1944; there was only one problem – the weather. On June 4th, the day before the operation had been set to begin; Eisenhower and his staff awoke to rain, wind, fog and an angry sea. Only a day earlier, Eisenhower had written in his journal how nervous he was about the weather being right for the invasion.
…the uncertainty of the weather is such that we could never anticipate really perfect weather coincident with proper tidal conditions, that we must go unless there is a real and very serious deterioration in the weather. – Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 3rd, 1944. (Ambrose, 181)
Eisenhower was right to worry about the weather conditions, and he was forced to postpone Operation Overlord due to poor visibility and flying conditions that would restrict both aerial and naval operations. Eisenhower knew that the army would need to have full air superiority over Normandy if the invasion was to be a success. However, he could not truly wait for circumstances to be perfect. If the operation were postponed again on the 6th, the ships at sea would have to refuel and the tidal conditions would not be feasible again until the 19th. This would give the Germans ample time to discover the invasion which would make victory that much more difficult.
The question is just how long can you hang this operation on the end of a limb and let it hang there?” “I’m quite positive the order (to commence) must be given. – Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 4th, 1944 (Ambrose, 188)
Although the weather wasn’t perfect, Eisenhower gave the order to commence D-Day on June 6th, with H-Hour for the first waves of infantry set for 0630. The imperfect weather had a number of repercussions on the mission, particularly on Omaha beach.
The flying conditions on the early morning of June 6th were deficient at best. Lingering clouds and fog made it difficult for pilots to see their targets, and since World War II era bombers were inaccurate a good portion of the time as it was, this did not bode well for the allies. The bombers missed their targets at Omaha beach, which left that portion of the Atlantic Wall fully intact. This meant that the next two waves of naval bombardment, and DD Tanks had to do something about the fortifications if the infantry was going to have any chance at a relatively easy victory.
The naval bombardment at Omaha Beach began at 0537, only 53 minutes prior to H-Hour (www.army.mil). The bombardment was accurate and it successfully hit where it intended. Some of the German fortifications suffered up to thirteen direct hits from Allied vessels. However, the Germans had known what they were doing when they built the Atlantic wall. To the infantry who landed on the beach, it looked as though the ships did nothing but cause smoke, craters, and only minor damage to the Nazi pillboxes. This assessment is inaccurate. While the armada did anything but decimate the Atlantic Wall, the enemy’s guns were designed to cover every section of the beach with gunfire. Many landing craft were able to land without being directly in the sights of enemy fire. Also, out of the 200 or so US landing craft that touched down on the beach, only ten were reported to have been hit by enemy artillery (www.army.mil). This means that although the bunkers looked unscarred, the Navy had done its job, having hit many targets accurately despite the immense smoke and fog of war. However, regarding many of their targets among the larger fortifications above the bluffs, many of the rockets fired fell short of their objectives (Ambrose, 323). The fortifications were still in place, the enemy was still inside, and they had no shortage of guns to fire at the incoming infantry. The naval barrage, among other problems, didn’t last long enough to make much of a difference on the battlefield. This meant that artillery was going to be greatly needed by the first waves of infantry.
Shortly before the infantry, the armor was supposed to land on the beach along with special crews suited for tasks such as demolition, and field marking. The special swimming DD Tanks were, for the most part, unable to successfully reach Omaha beach. Out of 32 DD tanks, only five were able to ‘swim’ ashore. The DD tanks’ screens were only meant to stand up against 1 foot waves, however on D-Day the waves were approximately 3 feet in length. In addition to this, it’s believed that the tanks at Omaha beach were launched too far from the shore to operate correctly, or that the tank operators were moving too far away from the shore in order to combat the waves (Wikipedia). Other vessels carrying regular tanks were sunk offshore, while other tanks that made it to shore were quickly annihilated by enemy fire. In short, far fewer than half the tanks that were planned to be part of the Omaha Beach invasion were present on the battlefield.
This left the infantry up against a virtually undamaged Atlantic Wall. Because D-Day was delayed until June 6th, most of the infantry that landed on Omaha had been waiting aboard constantly rocking ships for approximately two days. In addition to this, the first wave had been waiting aboard their landing craft for up to four hours by the time H-Hour arrived (Ambrose, 325). Many men had gotten seasick in that time. Men were nervous, nauseous, and shaking. It was not uncommon for the floor of a landing vessel to be covered in vomit from all the sick infantrymen. When the landing vessels opened up to the beach, a lot of troops had to stagger out instead of valiantly dash into combat. Other soldiers were dropped farther back from the beach and had to swim or wade onto the beach while trying to hold on to their equipment. When they arrived ashore, many were wet and weighed down by sand, not to mention that because of the wind and waves, no unit landed where it was supposed to. Any sort of plan or organization that the Allies had in mind before they hit they beach had been stopped the instant the Germans opened fire and mowed down the first landing craft.
The months of planning for Operation Overlord almost amounted to very little for the Allies at Omaha Beach. With the failure of the aerial bombings, the ineffectiveness of the naval bombardment, the severe lack of armor on the beach, and the problems caused by the weather, it was up to the infantry to survive and overtake the heavily fortified and obstacle ridden Omaha Beach.
One of the primary reasons the Allies lost more soldiers to Omaha than at any other beach is because of the battlefield itself. The beach itself was right in between two almost-perpendicular cliffs:
… cliffs averaging 100 feet in height tower above a narrow beach as far as Pointe de la Percee. Five miles further east, cliffs reappear at the shore line, and the beach is spoiled by rock ledges which continue as far as Port-en-Bessin. It was on this five-mile, cliffless interval that V Corps planned its assault landings, designating the sector as "Omaha" Beach. That part of the stretch regarded as suitable for landing operations was about 7,000 yards long, on a shore which curves landward in a very slight crescent and is backed with bluffs which merge into the cliffs at either end of the sector. - Historical Division, War Department (http://www.army.mil).
Upon the beaches of Normandy (and across Western Europe) Hitler ordered the build-up of a line of fortresses and military strong points known as the Atlantic Wall. His plan was to stop outside forces, such as Great Britain and the United States, from being able to successfully land an invasion in Western Europe. In early 1944, German General Erwin Rommel was given the task of strengthening the Atlantic Wall. Rommel built up the wall by constructing ‘pillboxes’ along the shore. These fortifications held machine guns, plus anti-tank and anti-air guns, along with some armor (Wikipedia). On Omaha Beach, there were twelve strong points holding artillery, dozens of pillboxes armed with machine guns, and a massive trench system (Ambrose, 321). There were both land and sea mines placed down, tank trenches dug, and various anti-landing craft obstacles. Rommel’s objective was to stop the Allies from even being able to land on Omaha. However, if they accomplished a landing, Rommel was ready and had the gun and artillery emplacements strategically set up so that every inch of the beach could be covered with either “grazing or plunging fire.” (Ambrose, 321)
If the invasion of Normandy was to be successful, Omaha Beach would have to be taken and held. The Allies split the beach up into eight different sectors from East to West: Charlie, Dog Green, Dog White, Dog Red, Easy Green, Easy Red, Fox Green, Fox Red. There was also a separate yet connected mission mounted by the US 2nd Ranger Battalion to take out the gun emplacements on Pointe du Hoc, which was located atop the 100-ft cliff to the west of Omaha Beach (History Channel). Allied Command planned for multiple phases of attack on the enemy’s fortifications. As mentioned earlier, the naval and aerial bombardments were both to varying degrees, unsuccessful, while many of the tanks did little to aid the incoming infantry. Omaha Beach was enclosed due to the cliffs, which left the soldiers with no chance of going around the enemy’s location. That left the waves of infantry with a World War I-like no man’s land to cross in order to defeat the entrenched Germans.
At 0630, H-Hour on D-Day commenced. The ramps when down on the landing crafts, and before the soldiers could set foot off their vessels, the Germans opened fire. Machine gun bullets rained down on the troops, sometimes wiping out entire landing craft. Since the men had landed off-target, they were in pockets along the beach (not spread out all across the eight sections as had been planned). This allowed the German machine gunners to concentrate their fire (Ambrose, 326). Men were forced to bail overboard on many vessels. Some landing craft coxswains got nervous from the heavy enemy fire and dropped their men off in the water. The men in the water were often weighed down by cumbersome equipment and faced the options of dropping their equipment and swimming for the bullet-ridden beach or drowning. When the soldiers arrived at the beach they were forced to duck for cover behind the beach obstacles that the decimated demolition and engineering crews were supposed to destroy. It was difficult for the men to figure out where the gunshots were coming from, and no unit was where it was supposed to be. The men seemed to be all but stranded, huddling behind obstacles, while the Germans – who were 200 yards away – fired mercilessly and ceaselessly.
To many of the survivors it became clear that they couldn’t stay crouched behind the obstacles; they were easy targets so long as they remained on the beach. The battlefield was covered in blood and body parts; men lay dying, dead and wounded all around. Some resorted to prayer, others to madness, others to courage, but by and large, the object became survival. Leadership had become all but absent on the beach, as many of the officers were nowhere near the pockets of infantry that were trying to survive. The object became to get over the shingle. Junior officers and squad leaders played a big role in leading small groups of infantry across the beach by ducking and dodging behind over the shingle and out of the range of the machine guns. However, just because they were out of the machine guns’ range didn’t mean they were safe. The men now faced mortar fire, they also still had a job to do. It was up to small bands of infantry to push past barbed-wire, climb the bluffs and push the Germans out of their pillboxes and trenches, and away from the beaches.
By 0830 vehicles such as jeeps, tanks, and dozers began to unload on the beach. However, the tide continued to rise and the infantry had yet to clear a way to get these vehicles off the beach. General Bradley was considering rerouting infantry to the other beaches and abandoning Omaha. Some of the vehicles began to board back on to ships. It wasn’t until 0950 that the Navy intervened to help the struggling infantry. By that point, only a few platoons had made it over the bluffs. The Navy then provided much needed artillery support when destroyers pulled into very shallow water (multiple ships risked running aground) and opened fire on enemy pillboxes. This would help give the infantry the support they needed to get behind the Germans, push them out, and open the beach. The improvised efforts of the Navy and the Infantry ultimately saved Omaha Beach from a costly defeat.
One very important reason that the Allies took heavy losses at Omaha Beach was the way the beach was set up. Rommel’s modifications to the Atlantic Wall defenses made certain that the beach would be completely covered by German gunfire. Rommel put these modifications in place knowing that the Allies would need to take Omaha if they were to have a decisive victory, and firm foothold on the European continent. Unfortunately, the Allies’ well thought-out plans amounted to next to nothing with the failure of aerial, naval and artillery support. If it wasn’t for the valor, and improvised efforts of the Infantry and the Navy, the Allies would have lost Omaha Beach at a very high cost.
As is the case in many battles, the question of how a victory is achieved is comprised of two parts: why one side won, and why the other side lost. The Allies emerged victorious despite their plan falling apart before H-Hour. The Germans had the entire beach fortified, booby-trapped, and positioned so that every spot on the field would be under fire. In fact the Allies even underestimated the caliber and size of the German forces positioned at Omaha, not to mention that Hitler supposedly controlled the region that was being invaded. It seems almost impossible for the ‘impregnable’ Atlantic Wall to fail. Yet it did, and there’s no short answer for the reasons ‘why.’
The weather preceding D-Day was rainy, windy, foggy and unsuitable for a large-scale amphibious assault. With this in mind, Rommel decided to go to Paris on June 4th, to spend time with his wife on her birthday. Before leaving Rommel remarked,
There’s not going to be an invasion. And if there is, they won’t even get off the beaches! – Erwin Rommel, June 4th, 1944 (Ambrose, 184)
With Rommel’s being away for the weekend left the forces at Normandy without a commander. However, even if Rommel had been present it’s doubtful the outcome would have been all that different.
Rommel’s theory on D-Day was simple: if the Allies were going to be stopped, he believed, it needed to be done on the beaches. Rommel favored a strong counter-attack using tanks while the invading army was not yet fully ashore. Rommel’s stance on defense was to build a giant fortress, and cover the beach in obstacles, making it difficult for the invading troops to even get on the beach. Should the enemy make it onto the beach, it would then be up to the infantry and artillery at the defending fortress to hold the enemy back long enough to muster a massive armored counterstrike. (Ambrose, 116) However this style of armored attack raise problems with the Wehrmacht hierarchy. Since Rommel was not in command of all of Western Europe, it would take the approval of Hitler’s operation staff to move the three tank divisions not directly under Rommel’s command. On D-Day, the Panzer divisions would not be able to cut through the red-tape quick enough to allow them to act before the Allies established a beachhead (Wikipedia).
Another problem the Germans suffered on D-Day was that they stayed in their fortifications and trenches instead of trying to repulse the attackers off the beach. If Rommel is to be believed and the only way to stop the Allies was to prevent them from making a beachhead, then perhaps there should have been some sort of action taken other than the manning of the Atlantic Wall. The problem here lies with inadequate German infantry stationed at the beaches. Only one division, the 352, could be considered an adequate fighting force (these men manned Omaha Beach); the other troops were used primarily to build up the defenses of the Atlantic Wall, and were oftentimes held back from military service on the Eastern front because of medical conditions many were POWs who had agreed to fight for Germany or who had suffered other combat impairments (Wikipedia). The troops that were in the pillboxes on D-Day were told to fire the machine guns, not to counterattack and push back the enemy.
Another theory as to why the Germans lost on D-Day lies with the flaws in Rommel’s defense strategies. Rommel’s plan was to repel the Allies from the beach using a massive tank attack. Were Rommel somehow successful in cutting through red-tape, mobilizing and transporting six divisions of tanks to the Normandy beaches, he still would have lost, and the Atlantic wall still would not have stopped the Allies. While the loss of life and material may have been greater to the Allies, this strategy would have also been the death knell for the Panzer divisions which would be obliterated by the Allied Navy just as the tanks that tried to stop the Allies at Sicily and Salerno (Ambrose, 117).
Perhaps the biggest reason the Germans were unable to repel the Allied Invasion of Normandy was simply the element of surprise. The Allies took painstaking measures to ensure that the Germans would not expect an attack on Normandy on June 5th-6th. Among other things they planted a “ghost army” under General Patton that was seemingly going to invade Pas de Calais, in the non-existant Operation Quicksilver which was a part of the overall Operation Bodyguard. The fact that the Germans didn’t know the Allies were coming until it was too late to mobilize a larger defense is perhaps the defining element in the victory at Omaha and Normandy in general.
The German fortifications at the Atlantic Wall could not stand up to the scale and raw power of Operation Overlord. While it would have been theoretically possible for the Germans to have caused more damage to the Allies, this damage would have come at great cost to them as well. The bottom line is, Germany was caught unprepared for a June invasion at Normandy, and lost total control of Western Europe as a result.
Omaha Beach suffered the highest number of casualties on D-Day. Sword, Juno, Utah and Gold beaches all established beachheads quicker than Omaha while suffering fewer losses. This is because of the terrain and enemy emplacement differences at these beaches, as well as the varying higher success rates of the aerial and naval bombardment phase in addition to the number of tanks and armored vehicles that made it ashore on the other beaches.
On June 6th, 1944 history was made when the Allies successfully invaded Normandy and began the task of removing the Third Reich from Europe and the world. On Omaha Beach, approximately 2,500 soldiers lost their lives while trying to gain a foothold in France. The circumstances of Omaha Beach were unique, distinct from the other landing beaches. It was the most heavily fortified of the five. General Erwin Rommel made it his mission to try and keep the Allies off the beach by placing mines, hedgehogs and other traps aimed at preventing landing crafts from going ashore. Rommel also transformed this section of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall into a deadly barrage of firepower that covered the entire beach. The two massive cliffs that flanked each side of Omaha beach meant that there was no way possible for the soldiers to sneak around their enemy, they would have to go at them head first. The men who landed on the beach that day were scared, seasick soldiers who just three years earlier had been living in perhaps a small town and probably hadn’t even heard of Normandy, or at least cared little about it if they had. They landed on the beach without the aid of aerial bombing, effective naval bombardment, or even a solid wave of tanks, yet managed to take out the impregnable Atlantic Wall and establish a beachhead for the Western Allies. Omaha Beach was nearly abandoned on D-Day, and if it wasn’t for the actions of brave individuals who banded together to survive and fight for their country it would have been lost. The stakes were higher at Omaha Beach because both the Axis and the Allies knew that a successful invasion of Normandy could not be completed without capturing it.
Omaha Beach suffered a higher casualty rate on D-Day because of failure of the bombers to hit their targets, the Navy’s initial inability to effectively bombard fortifications overlooking the beach, the lack of sufficient Armor (such as the DD Tanks) to arrive in the first wave; the position, heavy fortification and caliber of the defending troops, the terrain of Omaha Beach itself, and poor weather and sea conditions. All of these factors contributed to the loss of life at Omaha Beach, and caused it to be unique from the other landing sites.
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Eisenhower Foundation, comp. D-Day; The Normandy Invasion in Retrospect. Kansas: Lawrence, UP of Kansas, 1971.