Free Markets, Free People
Originally postedin 2007
It actually started on June 5th. And it almost didn’t start then. The weather had turned bad. A great storm had blown in from the Atlantic. High wind and high seas had forced ships of all kinds back into bays and inlets. Low clouds made it impossible for aircraft to find landmarks. If the weather didn’t break, nothing would happen until at least July.
But the weather did break, and so, it began only a day later than planned.
There must have been about, oh, I don’t know, 15 of us there. Our two great men were there, Monty and Eisenhower. The poor weatherman had to talk first. Eisenhower asked Monty what he felt. ”Sure, I’ll do whatever you say, you know. We’re ready.” Then Eisenhower very calmly said, ”We’ll go.”
150,000 soldiers—American, British, Canadian, French, and many others—embarked on 5,000 ships, began moving towards places known today as St. Lô, Vierville-sur-Mer, Pouppeville, Arromanches, La Rivière-Saint-Sauveur, Pointe-du-hoc, Ouistreham.
The men on those ships, for the most part, didn’t know those names. They had simpler terms for the beaches where they would be spending the day—and for many, the rest of their lives. They called them Juno, Sword, Gold, Omaha, and Utah.
There were soldiers from many nations involved that day, all of whom deserve to be recognized and remembered. But as an American, it is the men from my country that I will write about.
Only about 15% of them had ever seen combat. But by this time, cold, wet, seasick, crammed into airless holds, or huddled on unprotected decks, many of them preferred combat to what they were going through on board ship.
Get us off these ships. I don’t care what’s waiting for us.
As it happened, though, it didn’t begin on the beaches, but in the air. On the night of June 5th, an armada of over 800 C-47 transport planes ferried the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions over the invasion fleet towards France. For them, the weather was still pretty bad. And it was dark.
It was going to be difficult. Everything depended on landing the pathfinders in the right place. Then the pathfinders had to light the dim beacons for the landing zones. The pilots carrying the airborne forces had to see the beacons, then they had to fly precisely, right over the landing zones.
And the Germans. Always the Germans, with searchlights and flares and the 88mm anti-aircraft cannon—the “flak” guns.
Getting everyone down alive, together, and ready to fight was going to be a chancy business. And the airborne troops knew it.
I lined up all the pilots. I says, ”I don’t give a damn what you do, but for one thing. If you’re going to drop us on a hill or if you’re going to drop us on our zone, drop us all in one place.”
But…they didn’t. The airborne forces were scattered. Almost no one landed on their programmed landing zone. Units from the two airborne divisions were scattered and intermixed, forcing officers and NCOs to create scratch units on the spot, with whomever they could find. The 101st Airborne Division commander, Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, found that his new “unit” consisted of himself, his deputy commander, a colonel, several captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels…and three enlisted men. He quipped, “Never have so few been commanded by so many.”
And still they fought. Gen. Taylor soon had gathered a force of 90 officers, clerks, MPs, and a smattering of infantrymen. With them, he liberated the town of Pouppeville. Elsewhere, American soldiers gathered into groups, and struck out for an objective. Even if it wasn’t their objective, it was someone’s, and they were going to take and hold it.
And when they took it from the Germans, the Germans tried to take it back. But the paratroopers held.
It was a terrible day for paratroopers, but they did terrible fighting in there and they really made their presence known.
By this time, the Germans knew something was going on, if not precisely what. Their responses were confused. Their commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had returned to Germany for a brief leave. He wasn’t the only one absent that night. The 21st Panzer Division’s commander, Lt. Gen. Edgar Feuchtinger, was spending the night in Paris with his mistress. Col. Gen. Freiderich Dollman, commander of the 7th Army, and many of his staff officers and commanders, were 90 miles away in Rennes, on a map exercise. Ironically, the scenario for that exercise was countering an airborne landing.
The Germans were surprised, yet subordinate commanders began to take the initiative, seeking out the paratroops and engaging them, trying to determine what was happening. Was it the invasion? A diversion from the expected landings in Calais? What was happening?
Then, as the black night gave way to the cold, gray dawn of June 6th, they began to find out. Looming out of the fog, a vast armada of haze gray ships and landing craft began to move ashore.
At 5:50am, the warships began shelling Utah and Omaha Beaches. In the exchange of fire with German artillery on Utah Beach, one of the landing control ships was sunk. As a result, when the first wave came ashore on Utah beach at 6:30am, they were 2,000 yards south of their designated landing point.
It was a blessing in disguise. There was almost no enemy opposition. Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. made a personal reconnaissance past Utah beach, and found the beach exits almost undefended. He returned to the beach to coordinate the push inland. By the end of the day, 197 Americans were dead around Utah Beach, but the landing force had pushed inland.
At Omaha Beach, the story was much bleaker.
At around 6:30am, 96 tanks, an Army-Navy special Engineer Task Force, and eight companies of assault infantry went ashore, right into the teeth of withering machine-gun fire. Despite heavy bombardment, the German defenses were intact. Because the landing was at low tide, the men had to cross 185 yards of flat, open beach, as the well-protected German gunners cut them down. Tanks were sunk in their landing ships, or blown up at the edge of the water.
Them poor guys, they died like sardines in a can, they did. They never had a chance.
The men from the 29th Division’s 116 Regimental Combat Team (RCT) and the 1st Division’s 16th RCT were pushed off course in their landing craft by strong currents, and landed with machine gun bullets spanging off the gunwhales of their LCT’s. When the bow ramp dropped, men were riddled with bullets before they could even move. Others, jumping off the sides of the ramp, burdened with their equipment, drowned as they landed in water over their heads. Many more died on the beach, at the water’s edge.
You couldn’t lay your hand down without you didn’t touch a body. You had to weave your way over top of the corpses.
The first instinct for many was to crouch behind the steel anti-tank obstacles, to take cover behind the bodies of fallen comrades, to try and scrape shallow trenches with their hands. And yet, they couldn’t. More assault waves were on the way, and the volume of fire was so great that to stay where they were meant certain death. The beach had to be cleared for the incoming waves of infantry, but to move across that open beach also seemed like a death sentence.
He started yelling, ”God damn it, get up. Move in. You’re going to die, anyway. Move in and die.”
And so they did. They crossed that empty expanse of beach to the only cover to be had, a narrow strip of rock shingle at the base of the cliffs, below a short, timber seawall.
Those who made it to the shingle in those first hours…just stopped. Behind them was a carpet of bodes, and a tide that ran red with blood, making the spray from the curling waves a sickly pink. Ahead of them were intact and well-armed German defenders. Those men cowering on the shingle behind the low seawall had seen their units decimated, watched successive waves being slaughtered as they hit the beach. Shocked and disorganized, they stayed beneath the seawall, in the only narrow strip of safety they could find.
Meanwhile, at Point-du-hoc, at 7:00am, the men of the 2nd Ranger battalion came ashore beneath the cliffs. Their mission was to climb the steep cliffs with grappling hooks and ropes, to capture the German heavy artillery threatening the Omaha and Utah landings.
Under heavy fire from the cliffs, they fired back with the small mortars that launched the grappling hooks. With their fellow rangers dying on the beach beside them, they grasped the ropes and climbed. They climbed until German riflemen picked them off. They climbed while they watched their buddies arch in pain, and then fall headlong to the rocky beach below. They climbed as the men above them plummeted into them while falling, threatening to tear their fragile grip from the rope. They climbed and climbed.
And when they got to the top, the Germans were ready for them. But the Rangers were ready, too. So they fought their way through the pillboxes and trenches surrounding the gun emplacements. Pushing through the Germans, killing them to capture the guns.
And when they did, they discovered that the guns weren’t there. The men of the 2nd Ranger battalion had captured empty concrete emplacements, at the cost of half their number.
Back on Omaha Beach, the carnage continued.
Confusion, total confusion. We were just being slaughtered.
And as for the men (Huh. “Men.” Most of them hadn’t yet seen their twentieth summer.) who had survived the holocaust on the beach, and who now hid behind the tiny cover of the shingle? Well, who could have blamed them if they had just quit? Decided that this one taste of violence and death was enough for a lifetime? Decided that they didn’t want to face what must have seemed like inevitable and horrible, painful death?
And yet…they didn’t. Somehow, they gathered whatever courage was left to them, and began to try and figure out how to get off that beach, and move inland.
We were recreating from this mass of twisted bodies a fighting unit again, and it was done by soldiers, not by the officers.
It was C Company of the 116th RCT, accompanied by men from the 5th Ranger Battalion, that began the push. At the top of the seawall was a narrow road, and on the other side of it, protecting a draw, was a mesh of barbed wire. Pvt. Ingram E. Lambert jumped over the wall, crossed the road, and set a Bangalore torpedo in the barbed wire obstacle. He pulled the igniter, but nothing happened. Caught in the open, Pvt. Lambert was cut down by machine gun fire.
His platoon leader, 2d Lt. Stanley M. Schwartz, crossed the road, fixed the igniter, and blew the torpedo. The men of C Company and 5th Rangers began crossing through the gap, some falling to enemy fire. As they left the beach, and assaulted through the draw, others followed. Those men shivering behind the seawall grabbed their rifles, stood up, and began leaving the beach, moving toward the Germans.
Other breaches in the German defenses followed. Company I of the 116th RCT breached the strongpoints defending les Moulins draw. The 1st Section of Company E, 16th RCT, who had come ashore in the first wave, along with elements of two other companies, blew their own gap in the wire, and moved inland. Company G, 16th RCT, needed four Bangalore torpedoes to cut a single lane in the wire and anti-personnel mines that were set up with trip wires.
The breaches were narrow, and tenuous. Follow-on waves still faced murderous fire from the bluffs overlooking the beaches, and there was still confusion as the timetable was set back by the initial fury of German defenses. The 18th RCT was originally scheduled to land at 10:30am, but didn’t get on the beach until 1:00pm. The 118th RCT was delayed even more.
By the end of the day 3393 Americans were dead or missing, 3184 wounded, and 26 captured. But the breaches in the German defenses had been made. The Americans were ashore, and they were moving inland. The “Atlantic Wall” had been broken, but at a heavy cost.
When I was relieved and I walked by, oh God, the guys that died that day — all those beautiful, wonderful friends of mine, the day before, the night before, kidding and joking.
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was the German Army’s Commander in Chief, West. He was a crusty old soldier who disdained the flashy accouterments of rank that a German field marshal usually wore. He was content to attach his batons to the shoulders of his old regimental colonel’s uniform. He was also a realist.
Knowing what D-Day meant, he called the Chief of Operations for the German Armed forces, Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl. “What do you suggest we do now, Herr Feldmarschall?” Jodl asked.
“End the war, you fools! What else can you do?” replied the old warrior.
All quotes taken from the PBS documentary, D-Day.
Yesterday evening I thought about what was occurring at the same time 65 years before in Europe. Young paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions as well as the British 6th Airborne Divison and 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion were headed in for night combat jumps with the mission of securing key bridges and road junctions and setting up blocking positions to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the beaches of Normandy. Of the 17,000 US airborne troops engaged in operation Overlord, 1,003 were KIA, 2,657 were WIA and 4,490 were declared MIA.
At the same time, off that coast, the largest amphibious assault fleet the world had ever seen, drawn from 8 allied navies (6,939 vessels: 1,213 warships, 4,126 transport vessels (landing ships and landing craft), and 736 ancillary craft and 864 merchant vessels), began gathering. 19 and 20 year old young men, who to that point had never seen a shot fired in anger nor fired one themselves, would get their baptism in war on Omaha, Gold, Utah, Swordand Juno beaches. In all 160,000 allied troops would land that day.
At Pointe du Hoc, the US 2nd Ranger Battalion assaulted the massive concrete gun emplacements that commanded the beach landing sites. They had to scale 100 foot cliffs under enemy automatic gunfire to reach them. When they did, the found out the guns had been moved further inland. They pressed their assault, found them and destroyed them and then defended the location for two days until relieved. The operation cost them 60% casualties. Of the 225 rangers who began the operation, only 90 were still able to fight at its end.
On Omaha beach, the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed opposite the veteran German 352nd Infantry Division. They had sited their defensive positions well and built concrete emplacements which were all but immune from bombardment. The initial assault waves of tanks, infantry and engineers took heavy casualties. Of the 16 tanks that landed upon the shores of Omaha Beach only 2 survived the landing. The official record stated that “within 10 minutes of the ramps being lowered, [the leading] company had become inert, leaderless and almost incapable of action. Every officer and sergeant had been killed or wounded [...] It had become a struggle for survival and rescue”. Only a few gaps were blown in the beach obstacles, resulting in problems for subsequent landings.
Leaders considered abandoning Omaha, but the troops that had landed refused to stay trapped in a killing zone. In many cases, led by members of the 5th Ranger Battalion which had been mistakenly landed there, they formed ad hoc groups and infantrymen infiltrated the beach defenses and destroyed them, eventually opening the way for all. Of the 50,000 soldiers that landed, 5,000 became casualties of bloody Omaha.
Canadian forces landed at Juno. The first wave suffered 50% casualties in the ferocious fighting. The Canadians had to fight their way over a sea wall which they successfully did. The 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars) and The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada achieved their 6 June objectives, when they drove over 15 kilometres (9 mi) inland. In fact, they were the only group to reach their D-Day objectives.
By the end of D-Day, 15,000 Canadians had been successfully landed, and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division had penetrated further into France than any other Allied force, despite having faced strong resistance at the water’s edge and later counterattacks on the beachhead by elements of the German 21st and 12th SS Hitlerjugend Panzer divisions on June 7 and June 8.
The Brits landed at Sword and Gold beaches. At Gold the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division landed with heavy casualties, but overcame the obstacles and drove about 10 kilometers off the beach.
Led by amphibious tanks of the 13th and 18th Hussars, the landings on Sword went rather well with elements of the 8th Infantry Brigade driving 8 kilometers off the beach.
And the final beach, Utah, saw the 23,000 troops of the US 4th Infantry Division land. Through a navigation error they landed on the western most part of the beach. That happened to be the most lightly defended as well. Taking full advantage of the situation, the division fought their way off the beach and through the German defenses linking up with the 502nd and 506th Parachute Infantry Regiments of the 101st Airborne Division which had dropped in the night before and secured the inland side of the beach exits.
The liberation of Europe had begun. But it was costly. Of the total 10,000 casualties suffered that day on the beaches by the allies, the US had 6,603 of which 1,465 were killed in action. The Canadians suffered 1,074 casualties (359 KIA) and the British had 2,700.
Men who had never set foot on the continent of Europe before died trying to liberate it that day. Today most of them lie in quiet graveyards near where they fell, the only piece of land ever claimed, as Colin Powell said, was enough to lay them to rest. 65 years ago, as the guns boomed, the shells exploded and desperate and courageous men made life and death decisions on the bloody sands of Normandy beaches, the fate of the world literally hinged on their success.
I think it is important, on this day to remember that. It is also just as important to remember that had the rest of the world taken the threat posed by the evil of Nazi Germany seriously earlier than they did, the possibility exists that such a fateful landing would never have been necessary.
But it was. And to those who made it, liberated Europe and destroyed the evil that was Nazi Germany, they have my undying respect and deserve to have what they did -and why they did it – remembered by all for eternity.