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Normandy: Omaha Beach (American)

Omaha Beach is between 12-15 miles from the flanking Gold and Utah beaches. It is over four miles long and overlooked by cliffs that, in places, reach nearly 200 feet high. There are only five routes inland and, on D-Day the approaches to each exit were covered by strong German defensive positions with mines, wire and interlocking arcs of fire. The beach obstacles were also substantial. This combination made Omaha the most heavily defended beach on D-Day. It was critically important that the men of the American V Corps landing on Omaha get ashore quickly and link up with the landings at Gold and Utah Beaches. Failure at Omaha would leave the Allies with two widely separated beachheads, too far apart to help each other.

Unknown to Allied intelligence, the German 716th Coastal Defense Division, mostly over aged men, had been relieved at Omaha by the more experienced, higher grade 352nd Infantry Division who were conducting an anti-invasion exercise on D-Day. This piece of unpredictable bad luck would be compounded on D-Day by more ill fortune and operational mistakes. As a result, at Omaha, nothing went right and it would become known as 'Bloody Omaha'. The landings came close to failure.

The plan was to launch the DD tanks first, followed by infantry and engineers to clear the obstacles, then the next wave of assault troops - all within minutes of each other. At 0555, 329 Liberator bombers flew over to bomb the defensive positions - but they were bombing blind through cloud so rather than risk hitting the invasion fleet they added a few seconds to their bombing release point - most of the bombs dropped harmlessly in the fields behind the defences. Then the naval bombardment followed - two battleships, three cruisers and eleven destroyers. The bad weather affected aiming and many shells overshot. In any event most of the defences were designed to withstand naval bombardment with up to 5 feet of concrete on the seaward side.

At sea there was a north westerly breeze at 10 knots - whipping up waves. Many of the 32-ton DD Sherman tanks were launched at 0535 - 4 miles out. With the height of the waves and the low freeboard of the tanks, at least 27 were swamped and sank. Very few made it to the beach. They were followed by the leading waves of infantry who had been in their flat bottomed landing craft for several hours, some were swamped in the way in and of those who made it to the beach, the occupants were seasick, soaked and tired. Because of the bad weather, many craft were out of position; engineers in particular arrived without their supporting infantry. Firepower planned to come from artillery units on the run in failed when a high proportion of landing craft carrying them were swamped or sunk. All this was before the Germans fired a shot.

As the assault craft lowered their ramps the soldiers came under intense enemy fire, many fell before they could even exit the landing craft. Deadly German machine gun fire, mortars and artillery was everywhere. As successive waves of American soldiers landed confusion reigned amidst the carnage of dead and wounded men, burning vehicles, and wrecked landing craft. Each wave of landing troops suffered greatly.

At noon Lt. General Omar Bradley seriously considered evacuating troops as most of the 1st and 29th Infantry were still pinned down under the sea wall on the edge of the beach. In a superb act of bravery that was repeated many times that day by many men, Brigadier General Norman Cota of the 29th and Colonel Taylor walked along the beach and rallied their men. Miraculously they were not hit. One of the most famous quotes to come out of "Bloody Omaha" came from Colonel George Taylor rallying his troops on the beach: "Only two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die. Now let's get the hell out of here"

Gradually men formed up into effective fighting units and started to climb the cliffs and silence the terrible German machine guns. A company of US Army Rangers, who were to reinforce the attack on Pointe du Hoc, were ordered by Cota - "Rangers - Lead the way" – it later became their official motto. Engineers with Bangalore torpedoes (explosive filled tubes) blew a path through the barbed wire and the Rangers slowly worked their way up the cliff, neutralising one bunker after another. By 0900 some Americans were atop the cliffs and were joined by others. Progress was slow and it was not until early evening that the beachhead was finally secure, but it was a toehold nowhere more than a mile and a half deep. Over 34,000 men had been landed but at a cost of over 2,000 casualties.

 

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