D-Day Begins
Home Up Crippled


Chapter Two - D-Day Begins

Story written by Rick Archer

Slowly but surely, the vast armada crossed the channel from England to Normandy.  There were 9 battleships, 23 cruisers, 104 destroyers, and all sorts of landing ships involved - nearly 5,000 ships in all.  Now the LSTs cautiously made their way to the shore.  Officially named “Landing Ship Tanks”, the men had renamed these awkward vessels “Large Slow Tubs”.   No one felt the slightest bit secure in these floating metal bathtubs. 

The noise overhead was deafening as the boats churned steadily for the shore a mile away.  The assault soldiers in their tin can boats stared at the sky in awe as a gigantic steel umbrella of bombs thundered over their heads.  The entire fleet was casting their metal fury against the German fortifications on the hills of Normandy looming ahead.  In addition, hundreds of planes droned overhead dropping powerful bombs on German defenses below.

And yet there was no response.  The utter silence of the Germans spooked everyone.  What was the meaning of the silence?  Was it possible the Germans weren’t going to fight?  Had the bombing worked?  Was it possible this would be an easy landing?

No one dared believe that.  The fear was palpable.  As the shore drew near, half the men were leaning overboard retching violently from a combination of fear and seasickness.  These cold, miserable, anxious men worried they were in for the fight of their lives.  They had been promised that the formidable bombing display above would render the German defenses ineffective.  However their lives were at stake.  Had the bombing done its job?

At the moment, however, their minds were diverted to a more immediate danger.  Eisenhower had decided to risk the landing despite extremely poor weather conditions.  The closer the LST landing craft got to the shore, the more the huge roiling waves on the coast became a problem. 

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 seemed to hit every wave. Water splashed in the air and poured over the gunwales, soaking the men to the skin.  The men huddled together in shared misery, shivering from the cold and the nervous tension.  Many of the men were full of nausea from seasickness. 

To their dismay, the water was fast becoming a serious problem as their boats filled in the churning seas.   The men had been so preoccupied they had not realized the boats were so waterlogged they were starting to sink. 

Quickly the men began to use their helmets to bail furiously.  Others raced to find pumps.  When those two measures failed, the men began to throw all “unnecessary” equipment overboard.  In reality there was no such thing as ‘unnecessary equipment’, but it wasn’t going to do them any good if they sank.  Everything had to go.

Unfortunately for some of the boats, even these desperate measures were too late.  Landing craft began to sink right and left.  Some men were picked up by other boats, some men were left floating helplessly for hours, and still others were dragged below the water by their heavy equipment. 

These poor men drowned in sight of the beaches without ever firing a shot.

Thanks to these hedgehogs, the GIs were forced to start their march across the beach 300 yards from safety

Now to everyone’s dismay a new danger appeared in the form of submerged sea mines.  As the ships got closer to shore, out of nowhere one craft after another mysteriously exploded, launching bloodied men, equipment, and shattered metal into the air.  The sight was incredibly unnerving for the men watching in the nearby ships. 

Was their boat about to be next? 

Then another danger appeared.  In the thrashing surf, the men could now see lethal jungles of steel and concrete obstacles.  The pronged hedgehogs had been designed by none other than the brilliant German General Erwin Rommel.  These steel spiders were draped with barbed wire and capped with mines.   The effect was to prevent the boats from dropping the men directly on the beach closer to the sea wall. 

The men were worried.  How would their craft ever be able to penetrate these defenses in the water without exploding or being impaled?   As the ships approached, the engineers had only been able to clear five passages. 

This meant all the boats had to cluster together to use one of the five openings to get to shore.  Rather than worry about miles and miles of beach, the Germans had only five openings to worry about.  This left each craft increasingly vulnerable to concentrated fire as they approached. 

On the other side of the steel jungle, the beach was eerily deserted.  After 300 yards of beach, the men could see a sea wall.  Behind the wall, there were huge bluffs rising 100 to 200 feet at anywhere from a 15 to 45 degree angle. 

The bluffs seemed insurmountable.  With machine guns and mortars placed on the ridge in position to shoot down, the men shuddered at the thought of the German gunfire that awaited them. 

Closer and closer the LST boats pressed in.  600 yards.  500 yards.  Still no enemy fire.  The tension was unbearable.  They say no man in a foxhole is an atheist.  The same could be said for the men in these water transports.

As the men huddled in their landing boats, the amazing sight of flashing rockets from the battleships continued to whoosh over their heads to bombard the German defenses on shore.  To the troops, the amazing explosions that shook the bluffs before them gave hope.  To the naked eye, it looked like the Germans were taking quite a pounding. 

It seemed inconceivable that anything on those hills could possibly survive such an onslaught.  The fact that the German guns had stayed completely silent during the approach bolstered their optimism.  The men prayed the fearsome onslaught had indeed quieted the mighty German defenses.

Unfortunately, neither the aerial or naval bombardments of Omaha Beach lived up to expectations. The massive aerial attack suffered due to poor visibility.  Heavy clouds from the storms made the bomber crews wary of dropping their bombs too soon and hitting the incoming assault crews.   Consequently most of the 13,000 bombs landed up to 3 miles inland.

Not only did this leave the concrete bunkers intact, it also meant that the beach was lacking the bomb craters that had been expected to act as cover for the infantry landingNot one lousy bomb created a crater on the beach for the men to hide in. 

The Navy had the same problem.  The Americans gunners off shore were too afraid of hitting their own men in the water to zero in properly.  Consequently most of the shelling flew right over the bluffs and exploded harmlessly well behind the German gunners. 

The naval bombardment took place even as the LSTs headed to shore.  The shelling was limited to a short duration of forty minutes.  Many naval commanders felt that the landings should have been delayed for longer to allow for a longer, and possibly more destructive, naval bombardment.  However General Bradley was concerned that if he spent too much time on bombardment, this would give the German Panzer division enough time to realize this was the long-feared invasion and not a decoy.  Bradley worried this would give them enough time to react with disastrous consequences. 

Pointe du Hoc

Pointe du Hoc was a major headache for the Americans.  Pointe du Hoc was a plateau with a huge cliff under it.  That cliff made Pointe du Hoc practically impregnable.  The Germans went about preparing this high point to house the same sort of guns showcased in the Guns of Navarone.   Once those guns were installed, they could match the guns of any battleship.  The entire landing would be in jeopardy.

Furthermore Pointe du Hoc sat right on the edge of that 9-mile gap the Allies were so worried about.  As long as this bastion stood, the invasion would never be safe from Panzer counter-attack.  Days before the battle even started, Pointe du Hoc was subjected to intense bombing.  Despite being hit by hundreds of bombs, not one bunker was even slightly damaged!  The moonscape at Pointe du Hoc gives eternal testimony to the utter uselessness of the pre-invasion bombing campaign.

The story of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day is very strange.  No story captures the futility of war quite like this one.  Despite the repeated bombardments from the air and by naval guns, the Americans realized their bombing campaign had not succeeded.  Intelligence reports assumed that the fortifications were too strong and would also require attack by ground forces.  They assigned some of their finest men to take out this strongpoint. 

In preparation for D-Day, a Ranger battalion commanded by Lt Colonel James Earl Rudder (who later became president of Texas A&M) trained for the cliff assault under the direction of British Commandos.  The plan called for the three companies of Rangers to be landed by sea at the foot of the cliffs, scale them using ropes, ladders, and grapples under enemy fire, and engage the enemy at the top of the cliff. This was to be carried out before the main landings.

Major Cleveland Lytle was to command three companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion in the assault at Point du Hoc.  During a briefing, Lytle heard that French Resistance sources reported the guns thought to be there had been removed.

Lytle became quite vocal that the dangerous assault would be unnecessary and suicidal. He was relieved of his command at the last minute by Rudder.  Rudder felt that Lytle could not convincingly lead a force with a mission that he did not believe in (Lytle was transferred to the 90th Infantry where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross).

Early in the morning of D-Day despite delays and problems, the Rangers finally reached the base of the cliffs.  As the Rangers scaled the cliffs two Allied destroyers just offshore provided them with fire support.  This ensured that the German defenders above could not fire down on the assaulting troops.

Upon reaching the fortifications, most of the Rangers learned for the first time that the main objective of the assault, the artillery battery, had been indeed been moved out of position just like the French Resistance had told them.

Apparently German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had given the order to move the battery just days earlier.  Removal of the guns had been completed two days earlier on June 4, 1944. 

Unfortunately, the poor weather conditions prior to the invasion limited a final reconnaissance effort which would have revealed the guns' removal.  Bizarre.

Although the guns were gone, the German machine guns were still very much intact.  The Americans endured a bloody battle trying to scale those cliffs for NOTHING.

Once in control of the plateau, the Ranger force was ordered to hold their position.   The costliest part of the battle for the Rangers  at Pointe du Hoc came after the cliff assault.  The Rangers were isolated from other Allied forces and badly outnumbered by the German garrison on the point.  Nevertheless, these brave and determined men fended off several German counterattacks for two days. 

At the end of the 2-day action, the initial Ranger landing force of 225 was reduced to about 90 men who could still fight.   135 men were killed and wounded defending an area that had only questionable military value at this point.

After the battle, several of the leaders responsible for planning the futile air and naval bombardment suggested that Rommel had removed the guns to protect them from the frequent air attacks during the buildup to the invasion.  To them, this proved the bombing campaign had worked after all.  

Unfortunately this claim is unlikely since the Rangers found the guns installed nearby in a brand new battery designed to protect Utah Beach.  The guns were destroyed before they could be used to deter the attack at Utah, so at least some good came out of the strange chapter of Pointe du Hoc. 

Rommel's real reason for moving the guns at the last minute was never learned.

Pointe du Hoc after the intense bombing

Pointe du Hoc was a strange battle indeed 

Scene from "Saving Private Ryan"

Ultimately, the bombing campaign accomplished very little.  Unbeknownst to the Americans, despite the massive weight of the fire, the pounding from the ships and airplanes had completely failed to dislodge the German defenses. 

The Germans were protected in thick concrete bunkers dug deep into the hillside.   Earthen mounds around the bunkers made them practically impervious.  Even a direct hit would be unlikely to completely destroy these powerful fortifications. 

Knowing this, the Germans waited patiently at the back of their bunkers for the shelling to stop.  When the bombs grew quiet, that would be their signal to come forward and begin to fire their machine guns.  Sure enough, when the bombing finally ended, the German defenses were almost totally intact. 

Worst of all, there weren't even craters on the beach to be used for cover.

Bolstered by the false hope given by the bombardment, the men would soon see their worst fears come true.  Sure enough, at 400 yards, the Germans opened fire.  The Americans froze in terror.  All along the four mile stretch of Omaha Beach, the German guns flayed the assault craft at sea.  The bombardment was intense. 

Fortunately at this angle and distance, the machine gun fire was unable to penetrate the armor of the LSTs.  However, the sound of the bullets hitting the boats was terrifying.  As the constant stream of machine gun fire rhythmically hit the sides of the boat rat-a-tat, the men knew full well what would happen to them the moment the ramp went down.  If the men weren’t frightened before, now they were petrified.

Next came the mortar fire.  Unlike the machine gun fire, the angle of these shells made them a threat.  Shells rained down upon the boats.  Some bombs inevitably landed in the middle of the boats, killing dozens of men instantly.  The screams of pain and the agonized cries for help were almost unbearable to listen to.  The fight for Bloody Omaha had already begun and the men were still helplessly stuck in the water. 

German gunners on the cliffs looked directly down at the painfully slow assault craft that pitched unsteadily towards the beach.  The Germans had plenty of time to systemically train at least one gun on each of the initial incoming boats.  They focused their guns at each boat and waited for the ramp to drop.  Most of the troops never had a chance.  The very first craft to hit the beach was sunk almost immediately and twelve men were killed outright.  

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 being hit by bullets that had first passed through the bodies of the dead soldiers in front of them.  Why hadn’t anyone thought of giving these men shields of some sort?

Watching in horror, many of the Americans jumped over the sides of the boat well ahead of time just so they wouldn’t be mowed down when the ramp fell.  However the water was too deep.  They had plunged into the water only to discover that it was neck-high for the tallest men and above their heads in many cases. 

The men were carrying nearly seventy pounds of ammunition and supplies.  These soldiers found to their dismay that they carried so much equipment they were instantly pulled underwater. 

They immediately began a race for survival.  Those who couldn’t shake off their packs fast enough drowned on the spot.  Others died when bullets traveling through the water hit them as they tried to remove some weight. 

Still others got tangled up in the barbed wire.  All their struggles did them no good.  Once they were stuck, they were forced to lie there helplessly waiting for a random bullet to put them out of their misery or the tide to come up and drown them.

All along Omaha Beach the dropping of the ramps was the signal for a murderous concentrated machine-gun fire.  Within moments, hundreds upon hundreds of the first men to land were cut to shreds on the spot.  They never made it more than a few feet from their landing boats before getting hit.  Men fell all along the water’s edge.  

Immediately the sea was littered with floating bodies so thick men were forced to walk on them in their desperate lunge to the beach. 

The few men who weren’t hit clumsily stepped down into water three to six feet deep.  They had but one object in mind – to get through the water, cross two or three hundred yards of obstacle-strewn sand, and reach a concrete sea wall where they might have some sort of protection.  Weighed down by the equipment, unable to run in the deep water and lacking any cover, most of these men were caught in crisscrossing machine gun fire and dropped immediately. 

Less than one third of the initial assault force survived the bloody walk from the boats to the wall.  Many of these men had been hit at least once, twice, three times, but at least they were still alive. 

For the lucky men who actually made it to the beach unharmed, their luck soon ran out.  Without protection, many men died the moment they set foot on the beach.   Ironically it would be their dead bodies that would ultimately serve as needed protection for the following waves of assault teams. 

Men would crawl under dead bodies and wait till the rain of bullets seemed to taper off as the gunner turned his attention elsewhere, then scurry on to the next dead body for safety.  That’s a pretty grim way to survive, but what choice did they have?

The killing was much too easy.  In interviews after the battle, the Germans manning the guns said they could have killed even more men except that their muscles grew too weary from firing to maintain the maximum killing speed.  Thanks to a shortage of trained gunners, after a while the gunners were too exhausted to shoot!

The Germans without machine guns were eager to participate in the turkey shoot.  Many Germans climbed down closer to the beach and picked off the men who had reached the sea wall at close range with rifles.  Others formed sniper nests to pick off the few men who made it past the beach and were attempting to climb the steep hills.

Very few Americans had the pleasure of shooting back.  Private First Class Nelson Noyes was the rare exception.  Staggering under the weight of his bazooka, he was forced to crawl forward.  The bazooka turned out to be a friend; several bullets bounced off the weapon as Noyes staggered onward.  Noyes made it one hundred yards inland and then collapsed from exhaustion. 

After gathering his strength, Noyes got back up and lurched forward.  This time he was hit by small arms fire in the leg.  As he lay on the sand, Noyes saw the two Germans who had fired on him peering down from above to see if he was still alive.  He was annoyed by their seeming disregard for their own safety.  Why should they worry?   No one had shot at them at day.

Placing the bazooka between himself and the Germans for protection, Noyes was able to free up his other weapon.  He propped himself on his elbows and fired his Tommy gun at them.  He brought down both Germans on the spot.

Noyes was one of very few who were able to fight back.  Many were too wounded to mount a counter-attack.   Those who weren’t hurt too badly were either pinned down by machine gun fire or too paralyzed with fear to look up.  They were just sitting there shaking like scared children.  Many men did not even bother to clean their water-soaked weapons.  Now their guns probably didn't even work.  Had the Germans begun hand to hand combat, these pinned-down men were virtually defenseless. 

As the bleeding bodies piled up one on the top of the other, the carnage was difficult for the living to bear.  As they buried their faces in the sand, many men wept openly in fear and in pain.  Frequently as they lay there sobbing, someone's arm or leg or blood spatter would land on top of them.  No one was safe.  A man two feet away might be shot or a dead body would be ripped to pieces by a mortar shell hit, spraying blood and body parts in the air.   The sea was red, the sand was red, even the air seemed red. 

This was Bloody Omaha.

One of the saddest elements of the day was the complete lack of protection for the men.  There was nowhere safe to hide on the beach.  Why not?

The aerial bombardment sent in far ahead of the armada to take out the huge gun emplacements was ineffective.  Rommel had protected his defenses too well.   Hidden deep in thick steel-reinforced bunkers, even a direct hit could be withstood.

The secondary benefit of the bombardment was to create instant foxholes on the beach to use as cover.  No such luck here either.  The bombs dropped from the air were supposed to create holes in the beach for protection.  Thanks to the stormy weather, the bombs were dropped blindly.  They all missed their target.  There wasn't a single hole created on the entire beach.

People have asked why didn't the Allies roll out tanks and armored vehicles first instead of releasing waves of vulnerable human targets from their LSTs, many of whom were killed immediately.  Good question.   They did try, but they failed miserably.

It was never part of the plan to send the assault forces in without cover.  After the bombing campaign, the next part of the plan was to send in the tanks.  The tanks would not only fire on German positions, they would serve as a perfect armored shield against even the heaviest spray of machine gun fire.   Even if the Germans disabled every single tank the Allies put on the beach, these massive steel structures would still provide precious cover.  This would help the men disembark from their landing boats and gather behind these steel barriers on the beach for safety before making a charge.  

Unfortunately, this part of the plan failed miserably.  There were 64 amphibious tanks that were supposed to land on the beach ahead of the men.  The plan was for these DD (Duplex Drive) tanks to be launched two or three miles offshore.  From there the floating tanks were supposed to “swim” their way up to the beach.  

The big question, however, was how well these weird amphibious tanks would perform in the rough seas.   No one knew for sure, but there was a lot of apprehension. 

Previously these tanks had been tested in calm waters, but never in the kind of stormy seas they encountered today at Omaha Beach.  Could these tanks function in these rough conditions?  

It didn't take long to find out.  Sad to say, but these floating tanks became immediate casualties thanks to Eisenhower's risky decision to attack in bad weather.  Just three days earlier, gale force winds had churned the waters into a frenzy.  This was said to be the worst June weather the always uncertain English Channel had seen in the past twenty years.

That is not to criticize Eisenhower, mind you.  As they say, you have to play the hand that's dealt you.  The next window of opportunity based on the tides was more than two weeks away.  Reports showed there was no significant build-up in the Normandy defenses at this moment. The fear that the Nazis would learn the secret of the landing location was nerve-wracking to say the least.  The thought of delaying the attack and giving the frantic German spies more time was a chance no one wanted to take.

After it was over, many say Eisenhower's decision to attack despite the weather was actually very effective because the Germans were definitely caught off guard.   They never expected the attack to come in weather this bad!

However, the decision to attack in bad weather came with a price.  Without those tanks for cover, many of the landing parties were sitting ducks.  At Omaha Beach almost all members of one 197 man company were killed or wounded within ten minutes of landing on the beach. The first wave of assault troops went to shore on landing crafts at 6:30 am.  By nine am, the water was crammed thick with floating human bodies.  

What went wrong?  32 amphibious tanks had been allotted for the assault on Omaha with the other 32 kept in reserve.   The landing barges carrying the tanks managed to reach their position, the ramps were dropped and the 32 tanks were launched into the heaving swells whipped up by the recent storms.  Everyone held their breath.  These weird-looking amphibious vehicles were supported in the water by great balloon-like canvas water wings.   Instantly tragedy overtook the men guiding the tanks to shore.  Under the pounding of the heavy waves, the canvas water wings ripped, supports broke, and the engines were flooded. 

The floating tank initiative was a total unmitigated disaster.  One after another, 27 tanks foundered and sank.  They never came close to the beach.  

Three other tanks had the good fortune of never getting off the landing barge because the ramp jammed.  As it turned out, only two tanks actually functioned properly and made it to shore.  

Back on the ship, the officers in charge saw the calamity and wisely decided not to send the remaining 32 tanks in at all.  Long after they were needed, these tanks were dropped on shore. It was the right decision for the tanks, but it also meant the fighting men would be left completely out in the open.   

Only 2 tanks out of 64 made it to shore ... that's the reason the men had no cover.  The failure to get proper protection was calamitous.  Now the men were doomed.  The moment the ramps opened, the men were met by a murderous hail of bullets with nowhere to hide. 

First the bombing campaign had failed, now the tank tactic failed as well.  How were these men supposed to cross 300 yards of beach without protection?   Totally defenseless, one man after another was ripped to ribbons by murderous German crossfire from the WN strongholds. 

Amazingly, a few men did survive the onslaught.  Slowly but surely, one inch at a time, the men crawled their way onto Bloody Omaha Beach.  Unfortunately, these men didn't have much fight left in them.  They just huddled at the wall in shock.

From the sea, the beach presented an incredible picture of waste and destruction. Dead bodies laid everywhere.  The gruesome failure of the attack was horrifying to the onlookers out on the ships.

The situation was so critical that General Omar Bradley aboard the Augusta began to contemplate the possible evacuation of this troops.  The defenses at Omaha were so daunting that the attack had turned into a suicide mission. 

Perhaps he should divert the men over to Utah Beach or the British beaches where the fighting didn’t seem quite as ferocious.  The only reason Bradley hesitated was retreat would be very difficult.  He feared that many more men would die in the retreat.  

For better or worse, they were trapped on that beach.  They had two choices - stay there and die for sure or move forward and probably die.  Which would it be?

Duplex Drive tanks, nicknamed "Donald Duck tanks"

A sinking Donald Duck tank

One of the most famous D-Day pictures at Omaha

Chapter Three
- Crippled!

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