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The D-Day Assault Part 2

The layout of the defenses which the Allied armies had to breach in order to establish their beachheads on French soil had been largely determined by the Germans' experience at the time of the Dieppe raid in 1942. This raid convinced the enemy that any attempt at invasion could, and should, be destroyed on the beaches themselves, and the defense system subsequently constructed on this principle was lacking in depth.

Appreciating that one of our chief initial objectives would be the capture of a port, the enemy had developed heavy frontal defenses during 1943 at all the principal harbors from Den Helder to Brest. As the invasion threat grew, Cherbourg and Le Havre were further strengthened, while heavy guns were installed to block the entrance to the Bay of the Seine. Between the ports stretched a line of concrete defense positions, and coastal and flak batteries, each self-contained, heavily protected against air bombing and lavishly equipped. These positions were usually designed for all-round defense, their frontal approaches were mined, and where possible artificial flooding was used to guard the rear approaches. Fixed heavy and medium guns, intended to bombard approaching shipping, were sited well forward at the rear of the beaches, while divisional artillery of light and medium guns, which were to lay down a barrage on the beaches themselves, were located some two to three miles inland. Behind these defenses, however, there was no secondary defense line to check our invading armies if they should succeed in penetrating beyond the beach areas. The enemy was so confident in the strength of his "wall" that when our landings came upon him he had not the mobile reserves necessary to stem our advance and prevent our establishment of a lodgement area. Therein lay the main factor behind our successes following the debarkations.

The assumption of command in France by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel during the winter of 1943-1944 was marked by a vigorous extension and intensification of the defensive work already in progress, and this continued up to the very day on which our landings took place. While the coastal guns were case mated and the defense posts strengthened with thicker concreting against the threat of air attack, a program was commenced in February 1944 of setting up continuous beds of under-water obstacles against landing craft along the entire length of all possible invasion beaches. It was intended by this means to delay our forces at the vital moment of touchdown, when they were most vulnerable, and thus to put them at the mercy of devastating fire from the enemy positions at the rear of the beaches. These obstacles-including steel "hedgehogs," tetrahedrons, timber stakes, steel "Element C," curved rails and ramps-were developed to cover high- and low-tide contingencies, and most of them had affixed mines or improvised explosive charges. The program was not completed by 6 June, and the obstacles which our men encountered, though presenting considerable difficulties, nevertheless fell short of current German theory. Few mines were laid on the actual beaches, while the mine fields at their exits were often marked and proved less troublesome to our troops than we had feared might be the case.

Despite the massive air and naval bombardments with which we prefaced our attack, the coastal defenses in general were not destroyed prior to the time when our men came ashore. Naval gunfire proved effective in neutralizing the heavier batteries, but failed to put them permanently out of action, thanks to the enormous thickness of the concrete casemates. Air bombing proved equally unable to penetrate the concrete, and after the action no instances were found of damage done by bombs perforating the covering shields. Such of the guns as were silenced had been so reduced by shellfire through the ports. The pre-D-day bombing had, nevertheless, delayed thee completion of the defense works, and the unfinished state of some of the gun emplacements rendered them considerably less formidable than anticipated.

The defenses on the beaches themselves were also not destroyed prior to H-hour as completely as had been hoped. The beach-drenching air attacks, just before the landing, attained their greatest success on Utah beach, where the Ninth Air Force bombed visually below cloud level. But elsewhere patches of cloud forced the aircraft to take extra safety precautions to avoid hitting our own troops, with the result that their bombs sometimes fell too far inland, especially at Omaha beach.

Nevertheless, the air and naval bombardments combined did afford invaluable assistance in insuring the success of our landings, as the enemy himself bore witness. Although the strongly protected fixed coastal batteries were able to withstand the rain of high explosives, the field works behind the beaches were largely destroyed, wire entanglements were broken down, and some of the mine fields were set off. Smoke shells also blinded the defenders and rendered useless many guns which had escaped damage. The enemy's communications network and his radar system were thrown into complete confusion, and during the critical period of the landings the higher command remained in a state of utter ignorance as to the true extent, scope, and objectives of the assault. The German gun crews were driven into their bomb-proof shelters until our forces were close inshore, and the sight which then confronted them was well calculated to cause panic. The terrible drumfire of the heavy naval guns especially impressed the defenders, and the moral effect of this bombardment following a night of hell from the air was perhaps of greater value than its material results. Such return lire as was made from the heavy batteries was directed mainly against the bombarding ships, not the assault forces, and it was generally inaccurate. The close support lire from destroyers, armed landing craft, rocket craft, and craft carrying self-propelled artillery, which blasted the beaches as the infantry came close to shore, was particularly effective.

The men who manned the static beach defenses were found to be a very mixed bag. A large proportion of them were Russians and other non-Germans, but with a Teutonic stiffening, and under German officers. Of the German troops, many companies were found to be composed of men either under 20 or over 45 years of age, and a large proportion were of low medical categories. Their morale was not of the best: the lavishness of the defenses and the concrete protection to their underground living quarters had produced a "Maginot Line complex," and, having gone below when the bombing began, they were not prepared for so prompt a 22 landing when the bombs stopped falling. The field troops who manned the mobile artillery and many of the works between the heavy batteries, on the other hand, were of a different caliber and offered a stout resistance to our landings. By themselves, however, they were powerless to prevent our gaining a foothold

The high seas added enormously to our difficulties in getting ashore. Awkward as these waters would have been at any time, navigation under such conditions as we experienced called for qualities of superlative seamanship. Landing craft were hurled on to the beaches by the waves, and many of the smaller ones were swamped before they could touch down. Others were flung upon and holed by the mined under-water obstacles. Numbers of the troops were swept off their feet while wading through the breakers and were drowned, and those who reached the dry land were often near exhaustion. It was, moreover, not possible on every beach to swim in the amphibious DD tanks upon which we relied to provide fire support for the infantry clearing the beach exits. These were launched at Sword, Utah, and Omaha beaches, and, although late, reached land at the two former; at Omaha, however, all but two or three foundered in the heavy seas. At the remaining beaches the tanks had to be unloaded direct to the shore by the LCT's, which were forced, at considerable risk, to dry out for the purpose. Fortunately the beaches were sufficiently flat and firm to obviate damage to the craft.

Despite these difficulties, the landings proceeded, and on all but one sector the process of securing the beachheads went according to plan. Meanwhile, four and a half hours before the first seaborne troops set foot upon the shore of France at 0630 hours, the air transport commands had commenced dropping the airborne assault forces on either flank of the invasion zone. In this operation, the biggest of its kind ever to date attempted, 1,662 aircraft and 512 gliders of the U.S. IX Troop Carrier Command and 733 aircraft and 355 gliders of 38 and 46 Groups, RAF, participated.

In the British sector, the very accurate work of the Pathfinder force enabled the RAF groups to overcome the difficulties arising from the use of different types of aircraft, carrying various loads at various speeds, and the 6 Airborne Division troops were dropped precisely in the appointed areas east of the Orne River. Thanks to this good start, all the main military tasks were carried out, and at a lower cost than would have been paid in using any other arm of the service. The party charged with the mission of securing the Benouville bridges over the Orne and Caen Canal was particularly successful. Landing exactly as planned, in a compact area of just over one square kilometer, the troops went into action immediately and secured the bridges intact, as required, by 0850 hours. The tactical surprise achieved, coupled with the confusion created by the dropping of explosive dummy parachutists elsewhere, caused the enemy to be slow to react, and it was not until midday that elements of 21st Panzer Division counterattacked. By that time our men had consolidated their positions and the enemy's efforts to dislodge them were in vain. During the day reinforcements were safely landed by gliders, against which the German pole obstructions proved ineffective; the operation went off like an exercise, no opposition was encountered, and by nightfall the division had been fully resupplied and was in possession of all its heavy equipment. This formation continued to hold the flank firmly until our lodgement area had been consolidated and the break-out eastward across France relieved it of its responsibility.

On the western flank, at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, the American airborne forces of the 82d and 101st Divisions were faced with greater initial difficulties. Owing to the cloud and atmospheric conditions, the Pathfinders failed to locate the exact areas fixed for the parachute drops, and the inexperience of some of the pilots led to wide dispersal of troops and supplies. The 6,600 parachute elements of the 101st Division were scattered over an area 25 miles by 15 miles in extent, and 60 percent of their equipment was lost in consequence. Nevertheless, the operation represented an improvement upon those undertaken in Sicily, and the great gallantry with which the troops fought enabled them in general to accomplish their mission successfully. Gliders flown in during the day suffered considerable casualties, but reinforcements were introduced during the night of 6-7 June. While the 101st Division held the exits to Utah beach and struck southward toward Carentan, the 82d Division, despite heavy shelling in the Ste-Mere-Eglise area, also established contact with the troops pushing inland from Utah beach early on 7 June. The element of surprise was as effective in the western as in the eastern sector, and the enemy himself bore witness to the confusion created by the American troops in cutting communications and disorganizing the German defense. The success of the Utah assault could not have been achieved so conspicuously without the work of the airborne forces.

The seaborne assault on the British-Canadian sector was carried out according to plan, and despite the rough approach, substantial beachheads were established on D-day. In the I Corps area, on the left flank, British 3 Division assaulted Sword beach, west of Ouistreham. The initial opposition ashore was only moderate, although light batteries shelled the landing craft as they came in to beach. The obstacles were forced, the DD tanks swam ashore to give fire support, and by 1050 hours the powerful coast defense battery in this sector was taken and elements of the assault forces had advanced to Colleville-sur-Orne. By evening a considerable penetration inland had been made and reinforcements were coming in over the beaches. To the west, the Canadian 3 Division landed on Juno beach, in the region of Courseulles-sur-Mer and Bernieres-sur-Mer. Though met by considerable shelling and mortar fire, the troops succeeded in clearing the beaches by 1000 hours and pushed inland toward Caen.

In the 30 Corps sector, the British 50 Division landed on Gold beach, near Asnelles-sur-Mer. Although strong points on the left flank caused some trouble, the enemy opposition as a whole was found to be less than anticipated, and the defenses at the rear of the beaches were successfully overcome. During the day Arromanches, Meuvaines, and Ryes were occupied and a firm footing was obtained inland.

It was in the St-Laurent-sur-Mer sector, on Omaha beach, where the American V Corps assault was launched, that the greatest difficulties were experienced. Not only were the surf conditions worse than elsewhere, causing heavy losses to amphibious tanks and landing craft among the mined obstacles, but the leading formations- the 116th Infantry of the 29th Division at Vierville-sur-Mer and the 16th Infantry of the 1st Division at Colleville-sur-Mer-had the misfortune to encounter at the beach the additional strength of a German division, the 352d Infantry, which had recently reinforced the coastal garrison. Against the defense offered in this sector, where the air bombing had been largely ineffective, the naval guns were hampered by the configuration of the ground which made observation difficult and were able to make little impression. Exhausted and disorganized at the edge of the pounding breakers, the Americans were at first pinned to the beaches but, despite a murderous fire from the German field guns along the cliffs, with extreme gallantry, they worked their way through the enemy positions. The cost was heavy; before the beaches were cleared some 800 men of the 116th had fallen and a third of the 16th were lost, but by their unflinching courage they turned what might have been a catastrophe into a glorious victory.

The American 4th Division (VII Corps) assault on the Utah beaches just west of the Vire Estuary met with the least opposition of any of our landings. Moreover, an error in navigation turned out to be an asset, since the obstacles were fewer where the troops actually went ashore than on the sector where they had been intended to beach. The enemy had apparently relied upon the Hooding of the rear areas here to check any force which might attempt a landing, and the beaches themselves were only lightly held. Complete surprise was achieved and a foothold was obtained with minimum casualties, although it was here that we had expected our greatest losses. The airborne troops having seized the causeways through the inundated hinterland and prevented the enemy from bringing up reinforcements, the 4th Division struck northwest toward Montebourg, on the road to Cherbourg.


Arrow  The D-Day Assault ... Part 3



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