Friday, June 6, 2014

Guest Blog: 70th Anniversary of D-Day

I'm so excited my brother, John, could take time from his busy travel schedule to write this guest blog  about D-Day. It's from his upcoming book about World War II.  If you have a D-Day story about your ancestor, please leave it in the comments section or include a link to your blog post about D-Day.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France.  The cross-channel invasion of German occupied France by American, British and Canadian forces opened the long awaited second front against Hitler’s Nazi regime.  By decisively breaching the much vaunted Atlantic Wall and establishing a beachhead on the continent, the Normandy landings triggered a series of actions that lead eventually and directly to Germany’s defeat.  D-Day must therefore be considered the most important single day of World War II.

With more than 5000 vessels of all types participating and 156,115 troops coming ashore, D-Day was (and still is) the largest sea-borne invasion in history.  Success, however, was not determined by the immense scale of the operation but rather by the initiative and uncommon courage of individuals.

Take for example General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision to launch the invasion in the first place.  The operation was postponed from its originally planned date of 5 June because of poor weather.  Forecasters presented an ever so slight glimmer of hope for a brief break in the weather for 6 June.  Eisenhower had a difficult decision to make.  If the promised fair weather did not appear, or appeared late, he would launch the invasion fleet—and the most complex military operation in history—into the teeth of a gale.  And there was the possibility the initial waves could be put ashore but left vulnerable to a German counter-attack if continued poor weather prevented reinforcements and supplies from being delivered.  Eisenhower made one of the boldest decisions of the war to launch the invasion.

D-Day Airborne troops; photograph courtesy of the National D-Day Museum
in New Orleans, Louisiana

First to land in enemy territory were airborne troops, whose task it was to secure the flanks of the invasion beaches.  Through a combination of factors the airborne drops were badly scattered, making it impossible for the paratroopers to assemble.  Undaunted, small ad-hoc groups gathered together and set off to accomplish tasks originally assigned to much larger formations.  Men from British 6th Airborne Division succeeded in their mission to blow up five bridges over the Dives River, one at Troarn by a group of just 10 men who raced seven miles in a jeep and trailer.  Another group of just 16 men from US 101st Airborne Division cleared the last obstacle of the northernmost exit from Utah Beach, a group of stone buildings housing an enemy barrack.  Similar initiative by men of US 82nd Airborne Division ensured the early capture of the important cross-roads at Ste. Mere Eglise.  A group of 108 men took the town by 0600 when its Germans defenders marched off toward the beach.  After the coup they held onto to the village for the remainder of the day despite several counter-attacks of regimental strength. 

Omaha Beach, of course, truly exemplifies how initiative and courage of the individual won the day at Normandy.  Omaha Beach stretched crescent shaped four miles between the villages of Vierville and Colleville, bookended to the east and west by sheer cliffs some 100 feet high.  The beach itself consisted of a gently sloping tidal flat some 300 yards wide backed by a steep bank of shingle and pebbles.  Protecting the beach was either a line of sand dunes or a seawall, behind which lay a flat grassy strip before the land rose sharply in an escarpment that merged with the cliffs on either end of the beach.  The scrub covered bluffs overlooking the beach were cut by four draws that provided the only beach exits for vehicles via trails leading to the coastal road.  Each trail led to a stone village heavily fortified by the Germans.  Large caliber guns sited at either end of the beach were set to rake invaders with flanking fire and the flat section before the escarpment was thickly sown with mines, barbed wire, and anti-tank trenches.  Strongpoints consisting of pillboxes for machine guns, mortar pits, and casements for anti-tank guns and light artillery had been built to guard the beach entrance to the draws.  Furthermore, the Germans had recently moved up the veteran 352nd Infantry Division to take up positions alongside the static 716th Infantry Division, which had previously defended the sector by itself.  This fact was not recognized in time by American intelligence, so instead of four battalions defending the beach the Americans would actually encounter eight.

Major-General Leonard T. Gerow, who as commander of US V Corps had responsibility for the Omaha operation, planned for 1st Infantry Division to land two regiments in the first wave, one (temporarily attached from 29th Infantry Division) at the western wing near Vierville and the other on the eastern wing near Colleville.  Beach exits were to be seized within two hours to allow traffic to flow off the beach, after which the remainder of both 1st Infantry and 29th Infantry Divisions would come ashore.

Into the Jaws of Death; photograph by Chief Photographer's Mate,
Robert F. Sargent; courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

As the first landing craft approached the beach at 0630 German batteries opened up on the little craft, and a hail of machine gun and mortar fire met the first soldiers to jump into the chest deep water.  The experience of a company landing at Dog Green sector of the beach opposite Vierville was typical of those among the initial wave.  Of their six landing craft one foundered and another was sunk by a direct hit from a German gun.  Within just 10 minutes of beaching the company was so badly mauled it had ceased to function as a cohesive unit; the survivors were still at water’s edge intent only on sheltering themselves from enemy fire when the next wave landed 30 minutes later.  Successive waves became pinned down along the beach in small isolated groups.  Virtually no heavy weapons survived the run-in to provide supporting fire.  Two battalions of amphibious Sherman tanks were intended to swim ashore with the first wave but 27 tanks from one battalion of 32 sank because their fragile canvas hulls gave way during their long run through heavy seas.  All 26 howitzers carried by DUKWs (amphibious 2½ ton trucks) were lost, and only six of 16 armored bulldozers made it ashore, three of which were promptly knocked out by gunfire.  Under the murderous fire demolition teams could clear just six paths through the beach obstacles before high tide, and due to loss of equipment only one path could be adequately marked.  Therefore, the landing craft of the later waves became congested as they carefully picked their way through obstacles and the debris of earlier waves, thus becoming easy targets for German guns.

Aboard their respective headquarter ships Lieutenant-General Omar N. Bradley and Gerow became anxious for news as they watched the congestion on the beach continue to build.  As there was yet no way off the beach vehicles and equipment piled up upon arrival.  Bradley briefly considered abandoning the landing and diverting the follow-up forces to other sectors.  Most men were still pinned down on the beach or huddled behind the sea wall at 0950 when 1st Infantry Division signaled “too many vehicles, send combat troops”.  Major-General Clarence R. Huebner, commander of 1st Infantry Division, ordered another regiment to land promptly at Easy Red sector and instructed the navy to fire on the beachside strongpoints, regardless of the danger to friendly forces.  Eight American and three British destroyers steamed to within 800 yards of shore to lay down fire support.

Gradually the tide of battle began to turn to the American’s favor as the sheer weight of fire and the initiative of individuals broke down the German defense.  Groups of eager soldiers congregated around natural leaders to find ways off the beach and through the barbed wire entanglements and minefields.  Using natural cover of undulations in the terrain or taking advantage of impromptu smokescreens from grass set alight by the bombardment, small groups infiltrated between German strongpoints to take the defenders from the flanks and rear.  Separate groups converged to take Vierville by 1100, another group worked their way up to the crest of the bluff overlooking the Les Moulins draw to advance on St. Laurent, and still another group that landed farther east than planned found an obscure and weakly defended gully at the very eastern end of Omaha beach to skirt round the defenders of the Colleville draw.  Around noon the last German strongpoint along the beach was subdued to free the beach from small arms fire, allowing engineers to go about the task of clearing minefields more efficiently so men and vehicles could exit the beach.  After six hours the battle for the beach was finally won.

The build up of men and supplies after D-Day; photograph courtesy of
the National Archives and Records Administration

The outcome of even the greatest of historical events, such as D-Day, can be determined by the actions of individuals.  As genealogy is essentially the study of individuals, there is the tantalizing possibility that each newly discovered ancestor could be a historical gem of a find.  I would love to hear the D-Day stories of your ancestors.

3 comments:

  1. Love the pictures and stories. Daddy has his own DUKW as well. He had a great story about that with his name on it. I did a small story a few years ago on him for a British Online Newspaper as a Guest for under 500 words. This Blog will make me go now and tighten up his story with more of the things he had back then. Thanks for writing this. So enjoyed!

    http://www.blackpresence.co.uk/african-american-soldier-family/

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    1. Thanks for the link. I loved your post.

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  2. Schalene,

    I want to let you know that two of your blog posts are listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2014/06/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-june-13-2014.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

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