Before D-Day
Home Up D-Day Begins

The Story of D-Day and Omaha Beach


The Situation Leading up to D-Day

The Atlantic Wall

In the days leading up to D-Day, the Germans knew full well the Allies were coming.  The Atlantic Wall was an extensive system of coastal fortifications built by Nazi Germany between 1942 and 1944.  It ranged along the western coast of Europe as a defense against the anticipated Allied invasion of the mainland continent from Great Britain.

Early in 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the famed "Desert Fox" from his days as commander in Africa, was assigned to improve the Wall's defenses.

Rommel believed the existing coastal fortifications were entirely inadequate. He immediately began strengthening them. Under his direction, a string of reinforced concrete pillboxes was built along the beaches, or sometimes slightly inland, to house machine guns, antitank guns and light artillery.

Mines and antitank obstacles were planted on the beaches themselves and underwater obstacles and mines were placed in waters just off shore.

The intent was to destroy the Allied landing craft before they could unload.

By the time of the invasion, the Germans had laid almost six million mines in northern France.  More gun emplacements and minefields extended inland, along roads leading away from the beaches.  In likely landing spots for gliders and parachutists, the Germans emplaced slanted poles with sharpened tops, which the troops called Rommelspargel ("Rommel's asparagus").

Low-lying river basins and delta areas were permanently flooded as well.

Rommel firmly believed that Germany would inevitably be defeated unless the invasion could be stopped at the beach. 

He was determined not to let the Allies get the slightest foothold on the European continent. 

The two big questions in the mind of the Germans were when and where would the British, Canadians and Americans strike?

Amazingly, the Allies pretty much fooled the Germans on both questions.  Through a series of well-planned diversions, the Germans were pretty sure that Calais, just 25 miles away from Dover, was the target.  Normandy was an afterthought.  

By taking a huge risk, Eisenhower also succeeded in fooling the Germans as to when.  In June 1944, a huge storm had been raging along the English Channel all week long.  Now another huge storm was on its way.  Eisenhower was told there was a narrow window between storms if he wanted to gamble on June 6.  On D-Day, the weather conditions were still terrible, but not impossible.  To say 'no' meant being forced to wait another month.  What if the secret of the location leaked out?  Eisenhower gave the go-ahead. 

For the most part his gamble paid off.  The Germans were taken completely by surprise.  For example, Erwin Rommel, the genius behind the formidable Atlantic defenses, had taken the day off to celebrate his wife’s birthday back in Germany.   

In addition, none of the German senior officers were anywhere near the point of attack.  The Germans were so convinced the Allies wouldn't attack due to the weather that many commanders took the weekend off to meet for war games.   Unable to see first-hand what was going on, most of them dismissed the early signs of paratrooper landings near Normandy as nothing more than deception tactics. 

After all, wasn't the invasion supposed to take place in Calais?

One of the remarkable features of D-Day was just how successful the Allies were at duping the Germans into believing the main thrust would come at Calais. The flat-footed response on the part of the German officers throughout the day prevented any possible chance of the much-feared Panzer counter-attack. 

Even after the assault on Normandy began, much of the German high command still believed this attack was just a fake to divert forces away from Calais.

Field Marshall von Rundstedt screamed at his Nazi superiors to allow him to move the vaunted Panzer divisions at his disposal down to Normandy, but he was not permitted to commit the armored reserve for several hours.  Apparently Herr Hitler's permission was needed, but unfortunately Der Führer had taken a sleeping pill and was not to be disturbed.  This screw-up cost the Nazis their best chance to repel the Invasion.  When the tanks were finally released late in the day,
it was much much much too late.

the rough seas did end up costing many lives during the landing.  Unable to control the landing boats due to wind and waves, at the Omaha Beach sector of Normandy many boats landed far off course.  This caused tremendous disorganization and the initial attack was a fiasco.  Furthermore, the rough seas deprived the men the use of any tanks during the horrible first landing at Omaha.   Without the much-needed protection of the tanks, the men were at the mercy of the deadly machine gun fire.  Losing the tanks at sea in the storm crippled the initial attack and cost many lives.

In some ways, the Germans were right - who in their right mind would dream of invading under these conditions?


Why was Normandy Chosen?

The Allies were well aware there were too many miles along the Atlantic seaboard for the Germans to defend every possible landing point with sufficient manpower. 

The Allies knew there would be no such place as an undefended landing point, but if they could at least identify a poorly defended spot, that would be a huge advantage.

A highly unsuccessful raid conducted by English against the French port of Dieppe in 1942 had shown Allies how difficult it would be to take a port intact using a direct attack.  Furthermore, the German defenses at Calais, the most logical target, were overwhelmingly powerful. 

With that in mind, in the time leading up to D-Day, the Allies did everything in their power to divert German attention to places they didn’t want to land such as Calais and simultaneously conceal the location of their eventual target in Normandy. 

Why Normandy?   One of the finest natural ports in France could be found at Cherbourg on the Cotentin Peninsula 20 miles west of the Normandy beaches.   If the Allies could take Cherbourg, a deep water port, then American supplies and troops would have a direct pipeline to the European continent. 

However Normandy was no easy target.  A simple glance at any map of the English Channel reveals that Normandy was at best the fourth or fifth most convenient target after Calais, Dieppe, and Le HavreFurthermore, Rommel was no fool.  He suspected Normandy would be the eventual landing site all along because that is the spot he himself would have chosen.  Unfortunately for Rommel, the German High Command refused to take his warnings seriously.   After all, they had plenty of evidence that Calais was the target...  Why waste valuable resources on Normandy?

A clever trick by the Allies had the Germans convinced the attack would actually take place in Calais about 160 miles to the north of Normandy.  An attack on Calais made perfect sense.  After all, Calais and England were separated by only 25 miles of water.  Conversely Normandy was 100 miles from the nearest point on England, making it a far less attractive landing point.  The perpetual rough seas of the English Channel downgraded distant Normandy to only a remote possibility. 

The Allies went to great lengths to convince the Germans that Calais was their destination.  For example, they constructed a massive airfield right across the English Channel from Calais and filled it with thousands of airplanes… all constructed out of wood and painted steel gray.  There were dummy trucks and dummy tanks too.

Fortunately, no German spy was able to get close enough to decipher the trick.  Aerial reconnaissance photos only showed a gigantic military buildup directly across the water from Calais.  The Germans took the bait and concentrated the bulk of their forces to the north at Calais.  Furthermore the Panzer reinforcement tanks were stationed nearby. 

As it turned out, the deception was invaluable.  The placement of the Panzers near Calais worked greatly to the Allied advantage.  On D-Day the tanks were much too far away to ever reach Normandy in time to be used effectively. 

Erwin Rommel

George Patton as Decoy

There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Allies involved George Patton in their Calais deception as well.  The Allies had confirmed intelligence that the Germans believed Patton would be leading the Allied assault into Nazi-held territory.  That made sense because Patton was the most gifted fighter of all the Generals.  Patton was an unbelievably aggressive leader.  He took bold and quite dangerous chances, but they always seemed to pay off. 

However Patton was not particularly good at politics.  Not only did Patton get along very poorly with his superior officers, he lost his temper one day during the invasion of Sicily.  He slapped a soldier in a hospital because he suspected the man was a malingerer.  Patton verbally abused the helpless man.   Thanks to dozens of witnesses, there was no way to cover up Patton's temper tantrum.  Patton was not only severely reprimanded, he was relieved of his command.  Calling it a "furlough", Eisenhower had a clever idea. 

Since Patton was the general that the German High Command believed would lead the attack, Eisenhower conveniently used Patton's "furlough" as a trick to mislead the Germans as to where the next attack would be.   Patton was paraded around England as the man of the hour.  

From the air, this tank looked quite real

In the months before the June 1944 Normandy invasion, Patton gave public talks as commander of the fictional First U.S. Army Group, supposedly intending to invade France by way of Calais.  This was part of a sophisticated Allied campaign of military disinformation, Operation Fortitude.

In a story recounted by Professor Richard Holmes, an incident took place just three days before D-Day.  During a reception in the London Ritz Hotel, Patton shouted across a crowded room in the direction of paratroop commander General Jim Gavin, "I'll see you in the Pas De Calais, Gavin!", much to the consternation of all those around him.  

Patton's comment was a startling breach of secrecy... except that it was a ploy.  Everyone who was cringing was simply playing their part in the deception.  They were selling the lie to anyone watching.

The ploy appears to have worked.  Reports of overnight troop movements north from Normandy were detected by Bletchley Park code decrypts.  Thanks in large part to their "Calais" distraction, the Allies succeeded in fooling the Germans as to where


On the other hand, the Americans were badly misinformed themselves.  The Americans had been told by the French Resistance that the Normandy sector was seriously undermanned.  According to the French Resistance, Normandy was being defended half by Germans and half by Polish prisoners forced to fight for the Germans at gunpoint.  How hard would it be to defeat defenders who hated the Germans? 

Furthermore, the men were told that a gigantic bombing campaign on the part of the air force and navy on the morning of the D-Day would devastate the German defenses. 

So how tough could Normandy be?   They had the surprise of the weather on their side, they had the surprise of the location on their side, they had an undermanned target to attack, and a brutal bombing campaign would do the rest.  The men were told that they would meet little resistance.  Patton suggested that at most 1 man in 50 would die.  In some places, they might even be able to walk on the beach without a problem.

Unfortunately, no one walked on the beach in the early part of D-Day without being shot at. 

However, Patton almost turned out to be right.  At four of the five sectors where the Allies landed, Patton's prediction of little to mild resistance did prove correct.  For example, at Utah Beach just 20 miles west of Omaha Beach, the battle was over in just an hour with light casualties (200 men).

The Americans knew full well that German strategy called for tank reinforcements to decimate vulnerable soldiers on the beach using a fearsome counter-attack.  The fear was overwhelming.

The only place Patton was wrong was at Bloody Omaha Beach.  And boy was he wrong there.

The Allies knew in advance that Omaha Beach could be a real problem.  It was the largest beach and most easily defended of the five attacked.  Omaha had to be seized because the 9 mile gap between Utah and Omaha Beach (see picture) would have been too wide to hold in case of the likely German counter-offensive.  In addition, Gold Beach on the other side of Omaha Beach would also be vulnerable to Panzer counter-attack.

The Allies feared the counter-attack almost as much as they did the initial defense.  During the day’s fighting, they knew every available German tank unit in the vicinity would be called upon to meet the threat. 

If Omaha wasn't captured, a counter-attack by the vaunted German Panzer division coming through the Utah-Omaha gap could easily ruin the entire invasion.  The Allies were very worried about falling into another German beach trap similar to Dunkirk.   The nightmare of seeing 330,000 troops trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk absolutely haunted the strategists.  Could this horror happen again at Normandy? 

There were two schools of thought in the German High Command.  The strategy preferred by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was to prevent the Allies from getting even the slightest foothold.  Keep them out at sea; murder the enemy on the beach.

The strategy preferred by Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt was to make it hard for the enemy to land and then to blow them back into the sea when they were the most vulnerable.   He knew the German problem was available manpower. 

The Russian Front had created a huge manpower shortage at the Atlantic Wall.  Von Rundstedt argued that they didn't have enough manpower to guard every possible landing point, but they did have the ability to quickly move crack backup units to any point of attack.  Why not overwhelm the defenseless invading force as they sat counting their dead on the beach? 

Omaha Beach had to be taken to prevent the feared Panzer counter-attack. 

General George Patton made a famous D-day speech on June 5th, 1944.

"You men are not all going to die. Only two percent of you here today will die in a major battle. Death must not be feared. Every man is frightened at first in battle. If he says he isn't, he's a goddamn liar. Some men are cowards, yes! But they fight just the same, or get the hell shamed out of them watching men who do fight who are just as scared. The real hero is the man who fights even though he is scared. Some men get over their fright in a minute under fire, some take an hour. For some it takes days. But the real man never lets the fear of death overpower his honor, his sense of duty to this country and his innate manhood."

There is one great thing you men will all be able to say when you go home. You may thank God for it. Thank God, that thirty years from now, when you are sitting around the fireside with your grandson on your knees, and he asks you what you did in the Great War, you won't have to cough and say, and 'I shoveled shit in Louisiana.' No, Sir, you can look him straight in the eye and say, 'Son, your Granddaddy rode with the Great Third Army and a Son-of-a-Goddamned-Bitch named George Patton!"

Note:  As we all know, Omaha Beach became a slaughter of the worst magnitude.  Over 2,000 Americans died at Omaha Beach on D-Day out of 7,800 who participated in the initial assault.  That rounds out to 26%, not 2%.  Patton wasn't much of a statistician, but that was one heck of a speech nonetheless.   He was quite a leader.

Why Did 2,000 Men Die at Omaha Beach?

This is a picture of the German Widerstandsnester (WN), the defensive strong points used to protect the gaps ('draws') between the hills.  The Germans were determined not to let American tanks get through. 

he German Defensive Strategy

In order to truly understand the battle of Omaha Beach, please study the map above.

The 10 mile long beach had hills, bluffs and cliffs overlooking it.  No tank could cross these hills.  The only way the tanks could function was to break through one of the four gaps in the hills.  The entire defensive strategy of the Germans revolved around defending those gaps.   There were four important gaps (aka 'draws') between the hills.

Each gap was named for the nearest town behind it.  There was Colleville (E-3),  Les Moulins (D-3), Vierville (D-1), and St Laurent (Ruquet Valley) (E-1). 

Even if a tank were to land on the beach, the roads through these narrow valleys were the only way American tanks could possibly penetrate into the French countryside.  Rommel decided that was his biggest nightmare, so he placed a strongpoint on both sides of each gap. 

In constructing his "Atlantic Wall", Rommel had one serious handicap... he had more land to cover than he had men.  Consequently Rommel did not spread out his men evenly, but rather concentrated them in strongholds named  "WiderstandsNester".

These "Resistance Nests" were designed mainly to protect the roads that would allow Allied tanks inland.  Studying the picture above, you will see red areas marked with WN62, WN71, etc.  Those "WN"s were the German strong points.

Rommel didn't have enough tanks to devote to every single likely invasion point. 

So he developed an ingenious solution.  Rommel had a crack Panzer "counter-attack" division at his disposal.   It was this overwhelming force that struck fear into the heart of every D-Day strategist. 

Rommel cleverly stationed this unit at the France/Belgium border, a midway point of sorts.  Like a fast free safety in football who rotates to the ball wherever it is thrown, wherever the Allies landed - be it Calais, Le Havre, Brest, Dunkirk, or Normandy - the Panzer tanks could be there in a matter of hours to reinforce the defense.... on one condition! 

The German defense absolutely could not let the Allied tanks break out into the countryside before their Panzer tanks got to the invasion site. 

Therefore, at Normandy, guarding the "Gaps" was Rommel's main priority. 

Rommel relied on putting two strong points at every gap to give his Panzer divisions enough time to rush to any spot where the Allied invasion took place.  Rommel's strong points were powerful indeed.  The most famous strong point was
WN62 This strong point bedeviled the Allied attack all morning long.


Strong point WN62 was important for several reasons.  WN62 guarded an important GAP that led to a village known as Colleville.  Unlike the other three gaps which were easily defended valleys, this particular gap was very wide and not steep at all.  Even if the road was destroyed, there were large fields that would allow tanks far much too much freedom for Rommel's comfort.  This area was especially vulnerable.   Accordingly, Rommel made sure that WN62 was made to be especially powerful. 

Unfortunately the Americans agreed with Rommel.  They saw that "Exit E3" was unusually inviting.  As a result, they made this area a focal point of their attack and walked straight into a trap.  WN62 gained notoriety on D-Day for killing more Americans than any other single spot in the entire war!  1,000 men died here.

WN62 is located very close to the American Cemetery.  The strong point and the cemetery are only 600 yards apart.  This proximity is not a coincidence.  So many men died at this spot thanks to WN62 that the first temporary cemetery was located nearby.  The temporary burial ground eventually became the permanent Memorial site.

Today many of the German WN62 fortifications are still standing.  Many people who visit the Normandy Memorial eventually wander over to inspect the huge concrete "casemates" (the German term for 'bunkers') that are easily noticed from a distance.  After marveling at the thick bunkers, no one can leave the WN62 area unimpressed.  This area was quite formidable.   

WN62 consisted of 8 concrete bunkers.  There were two massive 75 mm cannons housed inside concrete casemates.  These giant casemates were half buried inside the hill for protection.  In addition to the cannons, there were 35 pillboxes with machine guns or artillery, 18 anti-tank guns, six mortar pits, 35 rocket launcher sites and 85 machine gun nests.  The strongpoint had large concrete walls protruding to the seaward side at the front to protect them from an attack directly from the front.  In addition, there were anti-tank ditches and mine fields around the site.  The site had many zig zag trenches which enabled the defenders to move from one position to another with cover from incoming fire.  This was a powerful position indeed.

As you can see from the picture on the right, WN62 had a completely unobstructed view of the beach.  The hill was not very steep.  As previously mentioned, WN62 was credited with killing more men than any other strong point on D-Day.  WN62 was home to the German D-Day superstar Heinrich Severloh, the infamous 'Beast of Omaha'. 

Severloh manned a machine gun in a submerged foxhole at a spot quite likely somewhere in that picture.  He fired on the waves of approaching American GIs with his machine gun and two Karabiner 98k rifles.  He relied on his comrades using trenches to maintain a continuous flow of ammunition to him.  While they re-armed his machine gun, he would pick off more targets with the rifles.  Not a moment was wasted.

Starting at 6 am, by 3 pm, Severloh had fired approximately 12,000 rounds with the machine gun and 400 rounds with the two rifles.  Severloh was credited with killing close to 1,000 men.  Amazingly, Severloh claimed he killed even more than that!  If this is true, by himself this one man put down half the Americans killed in action that day.

Severloh even managed to escape unharmed.  Seeing WN62 was about to fall, he used a trench to sneak off to a nearby village.  He was later caught as he escorted American prisoners to a collection point.  Since no one had any idea what Severloh had done, he was treated just like any other German captive.  It wasn't till years later when he wrote his autobiography that Severloh received his notoriety.  He became an instant national hero.  Severloh's story reflects just how easy it was to kill the defenseless soldiers.

Unfortunately, Omaha Beach was the perfect defensive situation for the Germans.  It was a narrow enclosed battlefield leaving no possible way to flank it because the hills surrounding the beach were virtually perpendicular to the ground.  The beach served as an open killing field, there being no cover for the Allies until they reached the sea wall which was 4 to 12 feet tall.  It is hard to believe, but the assault soldiers had to cross 300 YARDS of open beach just to be able to reach that wall.  Can you even begin to imagine crossing the length of 3 football fields under heavy machine gun fire?

In addition to the favorable terrain, the Germans had thoroughly prepared for the attack.  Rommel made sure that every inch of the beach was covered by guns, mines and explosives.  Rommel had positioned twelve strong points along the beach and throughout the seawall, each holding '88' cannons, '75' cannons, and mortars for the Allies to deal with.  The Germans had also set up dozens of machine gun pillboxes, supported by a complicated trench system which wove throughout the hillside

There were also countless guns positioned at different angles to have plunging fire, grazing fire, and crossing fire from all types of weapons.  This made it even more difficult for the soldiers to make their way to the base of the sea wall, and then up the wall.  General Rommel even went to the trouble of protecting the larger weapons from Allied bombardment by building sturdy concrete walls around them, then burying them under huge mounds of earth.  Some bunkers were so well hidden that only a million to one shot had any hope of damaging these powerful bunkers. 

Furthermore, unbeknownst to the American, the
352, an elite German unit, had been training at Omaha Beach for the past month.  Rather than go up against a defense unit watered down with reluctant Polish prisoners, the Americans were walking into a deadly trap defended by a premier unit of dedicated German soldiers.   

The addition of the 352 meant Omaha was the best defended stretch of beach on the entire coast of Europe.  The Americans never knew what hit them.

This is outlook from Severloh's commanding position


Chapter Two
- D-Day Begins


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