No military operation in history has exercised so great a hold on the collective imagination of Americans as the D-Day landings in Normandy, France. Omaha Beach, where thousands of acts of individual valor and initiative transformed an impending disaster into a bloody triumph, is as sacred a piece of ground to Americans as any place on earth, including Gettysburg or Plymouth Rock.
Just two hours after the initial landings at 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, the intensity of fire from well over 100 well-dug-in Wehrmacht machine guns and antitank weapons positioned in the bluffs behind the beach shut down the landings, leaving the early waves of assault troops stranded with little cover and only a handful of Sherman tanks. Most of the specially designed amphibious behemoths, along with other combat vehicles and heavy weapons, had sunk in the rough surf en route to the beach. Many infantry in the first waves drowned, having disembarked from their landing craft in water over their heads. The preliminary naval and air bombardments had utterly failed to reduce the German strongpoints. “I gained the impression,” recalled the American general in command of the landing, “that our forces had suffered an irreversible catastrophe.”
But Omar Bradley was wrong. On their own initiative, a dozen destroyers sallied forth into dangerously shallow waters in front of the beach—so close they took fire from German rifle rounds. Using American tank fire on the beach to spot the location of the main enemy emplacements, the destroyers’ five-inch shells decimated the most formidable German positions within 90 minutes.
The infantry on the beach rallied. Improvised squads and platoons, some led by mere PFCs or corporals, began to move off the beach, sometimes using the corpses of their comrades as cover from the raking fire of the German guns, and cleared all five draws through the bluffs leading to the towns beyond. Much of the combat was hand-to-hand. And desperate. The landings resumed, and the tide of battle shifted to the Americans. By 6 p.m., there was no question the U.S. Army was on Omaha to stay.
Over the course of the “longest day,” 10,000 servicemen—Brits, Frenchmen, Poles, and other allies in addition to Americans, who suffered the lion’s share of the casualties—were killed or wounded. Three thousand alone fell in the near-disaster on Omaha—more than on all the other beaches combined.
The immediate objective of the landings, in military parlance, was “to secure a lodgment” on the beaches strong enough to repel the inevitable German counterattack, and hang on to the beachhead while sufficient combat power was brought to bear from across the channel in order to initiate a major armored thrust to the East to crush Hitler’s formidable war machine.
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