D-Day, 6th June 1944 – Part Six US 1st Infantry and 29th Infantry Divisions at OMAHA Beach

This post is dedicated to the memory of those who died on Tuesday 6 June 1944 in pursuit of freedom. It is through their sacrifice that we enjoy the freedoms we have today.

In this the sixth part of the story of D-Day, 6 June 1944 we concentrate on the actions of the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions at OMAHA Beach. This is their story…

Introduction

OMAHA Beach was the codename given to the left of the two American landing beaches. It was about 6 miles long stretching between the Vire River in the west and the fishing port of Port-en-Bessin in the east. For the western third of the landing area the seawall was 10 ft high and the whole beach was overlooked by cliffs. There were five exits from the beach, a paved road leading up a ravine to the resort village of Vierville-sur-Mer, two dirt roads leading to the villages of Colleville-sur-Mer and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, and two further dirt tracks leading inland.

The Atlantic Wall defences in the OMAHA area had been well prepared and the obstacle-strewn beach, with its gentle slope, gave the defending German troops an excellent field of fire. Large sections of the beach, particularly above the high-water mark, were mined and there were thirteen ‘Widerstandsnesters’ (resistance nests) in the OMAHA area that were supported by an extensive trench system that had numerous well placed fire positions. Defending this well prepared area was the German 352nd Infantry Division, which was the best trained German unit defending the coast in the invasion area.

The seaborne invasion at OMAHA Beach was carried out by the US V Corps commanded by Major General Leonard T Gerow. It assaulted with a reinforced Division up, the US 1st Infantry Division plus the US 116th Infantry Regimental Combat Team from the US 29th Infantry Division, leading. The 116th RCT and the US Rangers intended to reinforce the assault at Pointe du Hoc were to land on the west side of the beach and the 1st Infantry Division was given the eastern approaches. Whilst the US 29th Infantry Division was untested, this was the US 1st Infantry Division’s third amphibious assault of the war having previously taken part in the landings in Africa and Sicily.

The objectives of the OMAHA Beach landings were very ambitious. The US 1st Infantry Division was to capture the three coastal villages of Vierville-sur-Mer, Colleville-sur-Mer and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. It was then to push inland to cut the Bayeux to Isigny road before pushing west to link up with the US Rangers at Pointe-du-Hoc and east to link up with the British from GOLD Beach. The principal objective was therefore to secure the line between the Vire River and Port-en-Bessin before pushing south towards Saint-Lô.

Right from the beginning things began to go wrong. Many of the swimming Sherman DD Tanks intended to give armoured support to the infantry were swamped and sunk before reaching the shore. The weather conditions were far from ideal and the DD tanks were deployed too far out. Consequently only 2 of the 29 tanks intended to support the 116th RCT made it to the beach. The tanks that did make it ashore couldn't get off the beach because of large X-shaped obstacles that the Germans had positioned at the edge of the shingle. The best they could do was fire at the German defensive positions and machine-gun nests that were poised on top of the hill.

The pre-invasion Allied air bombardment of the beach defences was largely ineffective, as most of the bombs fell too far inland. The initial naval bombardment was also ineffective due to the short time allotted to the naval guns, only 40 minutes, and the German defences were largely intact when the first assault waves hit the beach. The assault troops had almost no cover or craters on the 400-yard deep beach at low tide. Carefully planned assault waves turned into chaos as wind, waves, and current scattered most of the landing craft far from their assigned targets.

Tired and seasick troops, weighed down by wet and sand-filled gear, could not run across the open sand. Most could only walk or at best trot across the exposed open spaces of the beach.

The landings at Omaha Beach resulted in heavy Allied casualties. The official record of the 1st Infantry Division stated. "Within 10 minutes of the ramps being lowered, the leading company had become inert, leaderless and almost incapable of action. Every officer and sergeant had been killed or wounded... It had become a struggle for survival and rescue."

Casualties per unit varied widely. Squads landing directly in front of the most fortified German positions were wiped out as the landing craft ramps dropped. Other units, lucky to land between bunkers or on portions of the beach obscured by smoke, made it onto the beach with few losses. Another factor was the skill and courage of landing craft coxswains. Some emptied their boats too far off the beach, after hitting sandbars, and the soldiers had to drop their weapons and equipment or drown in the surf. Other coxswains made every effort to land the troops right on the beach with multiple attempts and risking their craft.

Throughout the landings, the German gunners in their defensive positions poured deadly fire into the ranks of the invading Americans. The bodies of the American dead lay strewn across the beach or floated in the water. The men that survived sought refuge behind the beach obstacles pondering the deadly sprint across the beach to the seawall, which offered some safety at the base of the cliff. Destroyed landing craft and vehicles littered the water's edge and the beach, and by 08.30 hours all landings at OMAHA had ceased.

The commanders offshore considered abandoning the attack at OMAHA and redirecting the invasion forces to UTAH Beach. The commanders on the beach tried to get their men moving, the US 29th Infantry Division’s deputy divisional commander, Brigadier General Norman D Cota, walked openly up and down the beach urging the men forward. Near Colleville-sur-Mer, the US 16th Infantry Regiment from the 1st Infantry Division inched forward. When their commander, Colonel George A. Taylor, landed at 08.15 hrs and found a group of his soldiers bunched up on the beach unable to go forward, he famously said. "There are two kinds of people staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die--now let's get the hell out of here." Colonel Taylor also sent a message to Major General Clarence Huebner, the commander of the US 1st Infantry Division, that there were too many vehicles on the beach and requested that only infantrymen be landed.

General Huebner immediately responded by sending the US 18th Regimental Combat Team ashore. Upon landing they crossed the shingle and barbed wire towards the Colleville-sur-Mer exit where the 16th RCT was in the midst of a fierce battle.

Gradually small groups of surviving infantrymen that had initially been pinned down on the beach sheltering behind the seawall or the edge of the shingle for cover began to create their own exits off the beach. They abandoned the original plan to move up through the defined beach exits in favour of direct action and assaulted up the steep bluffs. They worked their way through the minefields and between the bunkers to achieve the first breakthrough. Several Allied destroyers helped turn the tide of the battle in favour of US infantrymen by making improvised sweeps towards the beach to fire their guns on the German positions at close range. Many of these ships scraped their bottoms in the shallow water as they blasted the German fortifications at point-blank range. Once off the beach the infantrymen began to assault the German trenches and pillboxes from the rear and by 12.00 hrs the German fire had noticeably decreased. One by one the exits off the beach began to open up.

By nightfall the 1st and 29th Divisions held positions around Vierville-sur-Mer, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Colleville-sur-Mer. They had not achieved anything close to their planned D-Day objectives, but they had gained a toehold. The Americans suffered 2,400 casualties at OMAHA on 6 June, but by the end of the D-Day they had landed 34,000 troops. The German 352nd Division lost 20 percent of its strength, with 1,200 casualties, but unlike the Americans it had no reserves coming to continue the fight.

Ian R Gumm
at Willowmead

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