Breaking Through at Omaha Beach
The determining factor in the battle for Normandy was not some ingenious
and innovative military strategy conceived by high-command officials
and their advisors. Coupled with a good amount of luck, it was the bravery
and will of the men that set foot on those blood-stricken beaches. A
handful of stoic individuals had no choice but to improvise from the
originally practiced tactics since once the first wave of invading troops
landed, all organized deployment of infantry had been shattered. Under
constant fire and with the images of dead soldiers that they had once
commanded in front of them, they somehow turned the tide of the battle
to the Allies' favor and, by doing so, changed the course of the war
and history. They fought fiercely and overcame one of the most formidable
defenses ever assembled.
Reaching the Beaches
The seas were rough, much too rough for the small assault crafts that
scurried them towards the shore. The boats rocked back and forth as
their square hulls but into every wave. Water poured over the gunwales,
soaking the men to the skin, as they huddled together, shivering from
the cold and from the nervous tension. Many of them became seasick.
The engines of the boats produced deafening diesel whines. Shells screamed
by them as the destroyers behind them attempted to pound the coast with
enough force so that the Atlantic Wall behind Omaha Beach would be weakened.
Allied aircraft accompanied the raining shells as they too tried to
dismantle Nazi forces on the beach. The men on the boats could never
expect anyone to survive such a bombardment, after all, the German guns
were even silent.
Then, just as the shore seemed to become slightly more visible, the
German guns opened fire. Artillery and mortar shells crashed down, sending
geysers of sea water streaming into the air. The boats, trying to find
paths around the obstacles, were clear and targets from positions atop
the beachhead. Many boats were destroyed, the others encountered machine
gun fire that rattled against the ramps and the sides of the boats.
Once the boats' bottoms scratched the sand beneath them, the ramps were
lowered. Some ambitious German machine gunners fired directly at the
boats that had just lowered their ramps. Desperate soldiers struggled
to get off the boats and into the water but dead bodies were in their
way. Soldiers lined in columns within the crafts were hit by bullets
that had passed through the bodies of the soldiers in front of them.
Those that made it to the water faired only slightly better.
They plunged into the water to discover that it was neck-high and even
above their heads in some cases. Many were unable to control their submerged
since they were carrying nearly seventy pounds of ammunition and supplies.
Bullets traveled through the water to hit them while they tried to remove
some weight. Some drowned trying to reach the surface of the water.
Not all was lost at disembarkment though. Many men managed to reach
dry land. Still the beaches were not inviting and provided little cover.
The Beaches and the Sea Wall
Obstacles for the amphibious boats and dead bodies provided for some
cover from enemy fire. Staying in the water made death inevitable since
the Germans were spraying the waterline with interlocking arcs of machine
gun fire. The only alternative was to move as far inland as possible:
the sea wall.
It must be taken into account that virtually all of the infantrymen
were dropped far from their designated areas. The strong winds and vicious
weather that had hampered the ships in the English Channel altered the
anticipated current along the beach at Omaha. Most of the men that made
it to the beach were actually displaced. Not only did they have to deal
with the incoming fire, but they also had to somehow re-orient themselves
now that the landmarks they had expected to see were nowhere in sight.
Commanding officers that were lucky enough to reach the beach had to
assume the command of many disorganized groupings of soldiers that had
washed ashore without their commanding officers. Even on the sea wall,
the position was precarious. Even then, they were not adequately covered.
Like the boat and the beach, the sea wall was a dangerous place to be
and the place to go was through the minefields and the barbed wire onward
to attack the German gun stations.
One of the most famous quotes to come out of "Bloody Omaha"
came from Colonel George Taylor: "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" (Goldstein 210).
Fighting and Assuming Control
The outstanding fact about these first two hours of action is that
despite heavy casualties, loss of equipment, disorganization, and all
the other discouraging features of the landings, the assault troops
did not stay pinned down behind the sea wall. At half-a-dozen or more
points on the long stretch, they found the necessary drive to leave
their cover and move out over the open beach flat toward the bluffs.
Prevented by circumstance of mislandings from using carefully rehearsed
tactics, they improvised assault methods to deal with what defenses
they found before them.
Various factors played a part in the success of these advances. Chance
was certainly one; some units happened to be at points where the enemy
defenses were weak, where smoke from grass fires gave concealment, or
where dangerous strongpoints had been partly neutralized by naval fire
or by the tanks. At one or two areas of penetration, destroyers' guns
and tanks were called on for support during the assault and rendered
good service. Combat engineers blew many of the gaps through enemy wire,
helped get across minefields, and took part as infantry in some of the
fighting on and past the bluffs.
But the decisive factor was leadership. Wherever an advance was made,
it depended on the presence of some few individuals, officers and noncommissioned
officers, who inspired, encouraged, or bullied their men forward, often
by making the first forward moves. One interesting story of heroism
was that of Lt. William B. Williams.
Williams led his men off the beach to the protection of the sea wall.
Pinned down by a machine gun and mortar fire, Williams realized that
he and his men had to move or else be gunned down. The lieutenant ordered
his ten men to give him cover fire while he charged the machine gun
nest himself with live grenades in each hand. Before barely advancing
a few steps, he was hit. As he fell, he tossed the grenades but they
fell too far from the nest to do any damage. On the ground and despite
suffering another hit, he was able to crawl forward, pull the pin out
of another grenade, and throw it. This time it fell into the machine
gun pit, killing the crew and silencing the gun. Williams staggered
to his feet to call his men forward when mortar fire fell among them.
Williams crawled to a flanking position to throw his grenade but the
enemy saw him and they attacked him with grenades. He was wounded by
shrapnel and began to bleed profusely but this was not enough to keep
him from inching close enough to wipe out the mortar station with two
more grenades. Williams called his men forward and bequeathed his map
and compass to his sergeant, admitting that he couldn't move. All this
occurred in the morning hours at Omaha; medics did not reach him until
nightfall. Miraculously, he was still alive. For his heroism, Williams
was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. (Shapiro 40-41; http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/100-11.htm)
It was a number of stories like these that shaped that day at Omaha.
Individuals, not divisions, determined the outcome of the day. Many
valiant soldiers were rightfully awarded for their courage under fire
like Lt. Williams. It was their actions that secured the most fiercely
defended portion of the Atlantic Wall, facilitating the transportation
of the forces that would eventually liberate Western Europe.
Goldstein, Richard. America at D-Day. Dell Publishing. New York.
Shapiro, Milton J. D-Day - Omaha Beach. David McKay Company,
Inc. New York. 1980.
(American Forces in Action Series Historical Division, War Department
Facsimile Reprint, 1984, Center of Military History, United States Army,
Hastings, Max. Overlord. Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York.
(to download movie newsreel: Allies strike out from beachhead)