Omaha Beach, D-Day (June 6, 1944)


On June 6, 1944, the Allies launched the biggest amphibious landing operation the world has ever seen: Operation Neptune. Around 175,000 men stormed the beaches of Normandy, in France, reopening the second front in Europe against Nazi Germany. 50 miles of landing zone was divided into 5 sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. In all 5 sectors, Allied troops, despite the element of surprise, sustained great casualties. However, one of them was more devastating than the others. At Omaha Beach, US soldiers suffered the greatest difficulties in achieving their objective. The price they paid on this beach rightfully earned it the nickname: “Bloody Omaha.” As an assault force for securing Omaha Beach, the US Army engaged 43,000 men of the 5th Corps, organized into 2 regimental combat teams. The first was the 16th Regimental Combat Team, made from the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division. This was the most experienced unit in the entire US Army. The second was the 116th Regimental Combat Team, formed out of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the National Guard 29th Infantry Division. Each team was allotted a tank battalion for fire support. The 741st Tank Battalion supported the 16th RCT, and the 743rd Tank Battalion offered assistance to the 116th RCT. Both groups also included engineering teams, whose task was to breach German obstacles on the beach. As an extra support, 2 Ranger battalions, the 2nd and the 5th, were added, with the task of eliminating the German artillery battery at the nearby Pointe du Hoc village and supporting the western half of the beach. In March 1944, the battle-hardened 352nd Infantry Division replaced the under-strengthed 716th Infantry Division at the bayou sector of the Normandy defenses. The unit consisted of Eastern Front veterans and fresh conscripts. It consisted of 3 regiments: the 914th, 915th, and 916th Grenadier Regiments, reinforced with the 726th Infantry Regiment of the 716th Infantry Division. The strength of the German defense was 7,800 soldiers. These men were organized into 13 strongpoints of “Wiederstandnest,” positioned in such a manner to protect the draws, the gullies that cut through the bluffs, allowing for exit off the beach. Each strong point was able to provide covering fire to the neighboring ones. The assault sectors at Omaha were codenamed by the US Army, from West to East, as “Charlie Dog,” consisting of Green, White, and Red sections: Easy Green and Red sections, and Fox Green section. The plan was for the 116th RCT to landed Dog and Easy Green sectors. And for the 16th RCT on Easy Red and Fox Green. As it turned out as the battle unveiled, the situation on the beach made the plan completely futile. Between 0200 and 0300 hours on the morning of June 6, 1944, the Allied fleet arrived off the coast of Normandy. As they reached the transport area, soldiers embarked transport ships on waves that were up to 6 feet tall. As they were moving towards the coast, they had the expectation that the Air Force and the Navy had already prepared the field for their arrival. The truth was completely different, as both bombers and naval artillery missed their targets because of bad weather. Not a single strong point was destroyed when the first assault wave appeared on Omaha Beach. Infantry couldn’t even count on amphibious Sherman tanks that were supposed to provide covering fire on the beach. Out of the 29 tanks of the 741st Tank Battalion sent in the first wave, only 2 managed to reach the beach. Others sunk to the bottom of the channel, as the high waves were too much for their flotation screens. Bad weather conditions also forced the landing craft to disembark troops further from the beach than planned. In some cases, the soldiers had to jump into water that was over their heads. Those who didn’t drown had to make great efforts to reach the beach, fighting with big waves, while wearing heavy equipment. Most of them were too exhausted to advance through the beach obstacles. To make the situation even worse, assault troops were exposed to German fire, as soon as the ramps on the LCP were dropped. Exposed to fire from deadly MG42 machine guns, 76mm field guns, 50mm mortars, and mounted 50mm guns, many soldiers were killed instantly before they even jumped into the water. This wasn’t the end of it for American assault troops, as low tide and strong wind caused the landing craft to land east of their designated zones. For the 9 companies of the first wave, only 2 landed where they were supposed to. Others were lost as they found themselves on terrain they were not familiar with. With the command structure broken and only with a few tanks to support them, the American soldiers were forced to organize “ad hoc units” and to act on their own. At 0700 hours, the second wave approached the beach. They were expecting to land on clear terrain, but were welcomed in the same manner as the first wave. By 0900 hours, casualties were around 50%. The greatest fighting was around strongpoint WN-62. The first breakthrough was when soldiers of Easy Company of the 16th Infantry managed to find an unprotected gap between the 2 enemy strongpoints. After they reached the bluff, they climbed it and made a lateral attack on the German bunkers. Since soldiers on the beach were lacking heavy firepower, a decision was made to send in destroyers to assist the assault. They approached to a distance of 1000 yards from the beach, risking to run aground, and commence shelling on the German strong points. It was because of this assistance and fire from tanks on the ground that the German defenses began to fade. By noon, many strong points were neutralized and most of them had run out of ammunition. Assault forces managed to make 4 major breaches: 1 on Dog White, 2 on Easy Red, and 1 on Fox Green. By the end of the day, the breaches were widened, allowing for more progress inland. As D-Day was coming to an end, assault forces on Omaha Beach were still in a vulnerable situation, as the beach was still not completely secured. Fortunately, Allied airpower managed to cut off German reinforcements and other sectors had more success, so German forces weren’t able to counter-attack. The 16th and the 116th Regimental Combat Teams managed to put under their control a piece of territory 10,000 yards wide and 2-3,000 yards deep. For this small area, they paid a great price. 2,000-5,000 had been killed, wounded, or missing in action. It was only after 2 days that the initial D-Day task was complete. The beachhead was secured and a connection was made with Gold Sector. Of all 5 beaches, Omaha was the only one where Allied troops were put in danger of a complete defeat. It was because of the improvisation of the men on the beach, that turned an initial disaster, into an eventual victory.