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As soldiers of the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division leaped from their landing craft into the choppy waters off Omaha Beach, many cursed the landing-craft pilots who had deposited them too far away from the invasion beach. German small-arms fire from the bluffs overlooking the approaches raked the surface of the water, while indirect artillery fire splashed amid the landing craft in the English Channel.
On the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, the soldiers who headed for Omaha's 4-mile-wide, crescent-shaped beach faced a 300-yard dash to the base of the bluffs. First the landing craft and soldiers had to make their way through a mixture of German obstacles, some of which protruded above the low tide. Halfway to the bluffs at the end of the tidal flat was a raised shingle ledge of sand and smooth stones. There the Germans had placed thick belts of barbed wire. That shingle was the first spot on the otherwise open beach to offer the troops any cover from the machine-gun fire. There was still another 100 yards to go before they reached the base of the bluffs, however, where more wire and mines awaited. As the GIs struggled across the sand, the Germans poured down a steady stream of fire from their elevated positions.
The bulk of the American infantry was held up at the shingle. Some soldiers dashed back to the water to seek shelter behind the German beach obstacles. Company A of the 29th Division's 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, hit the beach and drew such heavy fire that within 10 minutes it ceased to be an effective fighting force. Much of the unit's equipment was lost in the Channel.
The ferocity of the enemy response was due primarily to the 352nd Infantry Division, one of the few full-strength German divisions in France. Whether the Allied leadership knew of its location along the coast is the subject of debate. Some sources say that its presence was a complete surprise. Others state that Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. First Army and all U.S. ground troops during the landings, was informed of the 352nd's relocation to Normandy, but the information came too late to alter Allied planning.
On December 14, 1941, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Armed Forces High Command), had given orders for the construction of defensive positions along the European coastline. Keitel directed, 'The coastal regions of the Arctic Ocean, North Sea, and Atlantic Ocean controlled by us are ultimately to be built into a new West Wall in order that we can repel with certainty any landing attempts, even if by the strongest enemy forces, with the smallest possible number of permanently assigned field troops.' Essentially, he was calling for a formidable outer rampart to replace the original West Wall (or Siegfried Line) bordering the German hinterland, but until the latter part of 1943 the Atlantic Wall was not much of an invasion obstacle. Bunkers and observation posts were scattered along 2,400 miles of coastline, with the heaviest emplacements around key ports and installations. Even the August 1942 raid on the French port city of Dieppe did little to increase the construction efforts of the German defenders. But by 1943, with a stalemate in Russia and the collapse of Axis dominance around the Mediterranean, German attention was finally focused on the French shores.
The coastal defensive works resembled the West Wall fortifications along the German frontier, except that Atlantic Wall casemates had wider firing embrasures to accommodate heavier guns. Responsibility for construction of the coastal forts fell to Organization Todt–a construction group that was a paramilitary arm of the Nazi regime–along with additional voluntary and forced labor. At one point, 260,000 laborers were employed in the effort. Despite the construction resources pegged for the Atlantic Wall, there were shortages of materiel–thousands of tons of concrete were diverted for building U-boat pens, static V-1 'buzz bomb' launching sites and a V-2 rocket bunker. Because concrete was scarce, many Atlantic Wall emplacements were constructed without all-important reinforced roofs.
The defenders, of necessity, were thinly stretched. General Erich Marcks, the one-legged commander of the German LXXXIV Corps, believed that the east coast of the Cotentin Peninsula was all too accessible to landings. Marcks' corps occupied a sector 400 kilometers wide with five divisions. The 716th Infantry covered 90 kilometers of coast and was backed by the 243rd and 352nd Infantry divisions. The 716th's coastal strongpoints were 600 to 1,000 meters apart, with gaps of up to 3 1/2 kilometers. To the west, the 709th Division covered 220 kilometers of shoreline, while the 319th Division sat isolated on the Channel Islands.
Major General Wilhelm Richter's 716th Infantry Division, made up of replacement units, was designated a static division whose primary purpose was to build and occupy fixed defensive positions in its assigned sector. Its soldiers were mostly non-Germans or older men from the Rhineland and Westphalia. Remarkably, the division managed to complete and man 50 fortified works spread thinly across its front. The 716th's weakest link was the 1,000-man 441st Ost Battalion, made up almost entirely of Eastern European volunteers, deployed in front of Bayeux.
The 352nd, which deployed on the coast northwest of Bayeux alongside the 716th Division on March 19, 1944, was commanded by Maj. Gen. Dietrich Kraiss, who had served as a company commander during World War I and led the 169th Infantry Division during the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.
A battalion from the 716th and the 352nd's entire 915th Infantry Regiment were held in reserve at Bayeux. Kraiss did not like the idea of his troops spending too much time in prepared defenses, and he rotated his regiments from coastal to reserve duty. Those regiments stationed on the coast were run through regular battle drills, the last of which was staged on the eve of the invasion.
During the last months of the Allied preparations to invade Normandy, the 352nd Division was not listed on any British or American rosters of the German order of battle. According to one story, their location stayed secret thanks to an isolated case of marksmanship rather than any elaborate deception. In May, a German soldier had supposedly shot down a carrier pigeon carrying a French Resistance message to London, with the information that the 352nd occupied coastal positions. Other sources say that German soldiers in Normandy shot no less than 27 carrier pigeons during the two months prior to D-Day, but that none of them carried information on the 352nd.
Organizationally, the 352nd was better off than most German divisions in 1944. At that time, as a result of severe personnel losses, German infantry divisions were generally reduced by one infantry battalion per regiment. The 352nd, however, retained its full complement of nine battalions.
The 352nd began its coastal duty by improving the beach obstacles, emplacing mined stakes and timber structures. This involved not only cutting and hauling timber from miles inland but also driving stakes and piles deep in the sand. To fully cover the sector, they needed 10 million mines, but a scant 10,000 were available.
The first band of obstacles–about 250 yards out from the waterline at high tide–consisted of 'Belgian Gates,' reinforced iron frames with iron supports that were built atop rollers. Next came a band of mined stakes and log ramps, meant to tear the bottoms out of landing craft or tip them over. Finally, there was a row of metal obstacles, including hedgehogs, made of iron rails. Although the Germans had attached mines to many of the obstacles, few of them were waterproofed, and corrosion had long since taken a toll on many of the explosive devices.
The soldiers of the 916th and 726th regiments occupied slit trenches, eight concrete bunkers, 35 pillboxes, six mortar pits, 35 Nebelwerfer (multi-barrel rocket launcher) sites and 85 machine-gun nests. The defenses were clustered in strongpoints.
The Allied invasion of Normandy's coast was the result of lengthy and exhaustive planning. Although Pas de Calais was closer both to Britain and the excellent Belgian port of Antwerp, it was more strongly defended than Normandy, which had fewer extensive coastal fortifications and more defensible inland terrain–and required more German troops to reinforce effectively. Furthermore, Normandy could be isolated from the Reich by air interdiction and by destroying the Seine bridges.
Since the Allies clearly held the initiative in selecting the invasion site, the Germans decided to spread their forces thinly along the entire coast, from Scandinavia to the Spanish frontier. The Allies took advantage of the situation, employing a series of raids and expensive deception measures to contribute to the Germans' confusion, most notably the stationing of an entire bogus invasion force, backed by inflatable tanks and trucks, ostensibly poised to invade Calais.
U.S. Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower was made the Allied supreme commander on December 24, 1943. Shortly thereafter, June 1, 1944, was targeted as the invasion date, but the schedule depended on tide and weather conditions. It had already been decided that the assault would be in daylight, to better control the monumental landings and fire support associated with the invasion.
Extensive effort went into the construction of Allied landing craft and training of troops. Soldiers practiced breaching meticulously reproduced obstacles during rehearsals on British shores. The Ninth Air Force intensively photographed German coastal defenses beginning in May 1944. Divers even went ashore on Omaha Beach to secure sand samples and inspect obstacles.
Between February and May 1944, the number of German offshore obstacles increased dramatically, and the Allies decided to schedule the invasion for one hour after low tide to allow the landing craft to maneuver around some of the beach obstacles. The decision to land at low tide proved a surprise to the Germans. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was among many who had predicted that the landings would occur at high tide, in an attempt to pass over the obstacles and land troops closer to the bluffs.
Dependable weather forecasts were crucial to a successful invasion. The Americans and British had superior access to the North Atlantic and were able to identify high-pressure zones sandwiched between barometric lows. If the attack was properly timed, Eisenhower would be able to cloak his forces in obscuring meteorological conditions during their approach to the beaches but have the actual landings take place in clear weather.
During the first week in June the Germans, whose weather predictions were based on sparse information from U-boats and harassed weather teams on Greenland, were apprised of what appeared to be an obvious forecast–bad weather that would make an invasion unlikely. In view of that information, Rommel returned to Germany for his wife's birthday.
Selected for the assault on Omaha Beach were the U.S. 29th and 1st Infantry divisions. The 1st, known as the 'Big Red One,' was a Regular Army division whose distinguished history included combat in World War I. The unit had participated in the Allied landings at Oran, Algeria, and Salerno, Sicily, and also fought in Tunisia. Major General Clarence R. Huebner took command of the division in August 1943. For the D-Day landings, the 1st was reinforced with elements of the 29th Division and supplemented by two Ranger battalions. The 1st Division's 16th Regimental Combat Team (RCT) and the 29th's 116th RCT would lead the first wave of the attack. Later waves would consist of the 115th RCT (29th Division) and 18th RCT (1st Division). Huebner had overall command of the landing force, while the 29th Infantry's deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Norman D. Cota, would coordinate the battle on the western edge of the beachhead.
The 29th Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Charles H. Gerhardt, was originally a National Guard unit, with soldiers from Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. It had fought in the Meuse-Argonne campaign during World War I and was one of the first U.S. divisions shipped to Europe in 1942. The 29th was part of Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow's V Corps. The division consisted of the 115th, 116th and 175th infantry regiments. The 116th RCT was reinforced by an additional 500 men in expectation of high casualties.
German Major Werner Pluskat, the 352nd's artillery officer, awoke on June 6 to the drone of Allied aircraft passing overhead. At about 1 a.m., he called his regimental commander, a Lt. Col. Ocker, and a Major Block, the division Intelligence officer, to find out what was happening. Told that it was probably just an air raid, Pluskat had gone back to sleep when Ocker called back and reported that paratroops were landing.
Pluskat and two of his officers jumped into a Kübelwagen and sped four miles to their command bunker at Ste.-Honorine. Pluskat's cliff-side bunker, as it turned out, was perched on the eastern edge of the sector the Allies had designated as Omaha Beach.
At 2 a.m. General Marcks put his corps and the 21st Panzer Division on alert. Less than 24 hours earlier, Marcks had attended a war game where, as the 'enemy' commander, he played out a seemingly unlikely scenario in which the Allies landed in Normandy. At the corps level, Marcks found himself in a situation much like that of his division commanders–he had no appreciable reserves to press into the coming fight. Allied parachutists were reportedly landing all over Normandy, and many of Marcks' subordinate headquarters reported the sound of machine-gun fire. Lance Corporal Hein Severloh, a forward artillery observer, moved into his position above the dunes of Colleville-sur-Mer when the alarm sounded. Scanning the skies, neither Severloh nor his sergeant could detect anything other than the hum of bombers in the clouds above.
As dawn approached, the inky black sky turned a murky gray. Pluskat scanned the English Channel for the next few hours without receiving a single report from his higher headquarters. Tired from his early vigil, he wondered whether the reported landing of paratroops might have been a false alarm. At about 5 a.m., the Allied invasion fleet suddenly came into view.
Inclement weather had caused Eisenhower to recall the invasion fleet after it sailed on June 4. Twenty-four hours later the fleet steamed into the Channel for a planned landing on June 6. Minesweepers had been clearing the approaches to the beaches since 9:30 on the evening of the 5th. The fleet began to drop anchor some 12 miles off Normandy's coast around 2:30 a.m. on the 6th. So far, none of this activity had been detected by the Germans, whose Luftwaffe was grounded by the weather. Motor torpedo boats and other patrol vessels, which usually kept watch in the Channel, had been recalled by Admiral Theodor Krancke, commander in chief of Naval Group Command West. German radar finally picked up the invasion fleet at 3:09 a.m., and Krancke belatedly dispatched his boats from Le Havre to investigate.
Allied landing craft began to depart from the transports at about 3:30 a.m. for the 12-mile run to shore. Life aboard ship had been miserable for the GIs, some of whom had been at sea since early June 4 and many of whom suffered from seasickness. By 5:30, a good portion of the first wave's 3,000 men had clambered into landing craft in the choppy seas and were on their way to the beaches. The 1st Division's 16th RCT would assault the eastern half of Omaha Beach, divided into Easy Red, Fox Green and Fox Red beaches. The 29th Division's 116th RCT would land at Charlie, Dog Green, Dog White, Dog Red and Easy Green beaches.
General Bradley observed the landings from the heavy cruiser USS Augusta. At 5:30 a.m., Allied Bombarding Force C, including the U.S. battleships Texas and Arkansas, British cruiser Glasgow and Free French cruisers Montcalm and Georges Leygues, began blasting the beaches. Meanwhile, Martin B-26 Marauders, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators began bombing the coastline. The GIs in landing craft cheered them on.
The bomber crews were concerned about hitting incoming waves of Allied troops, and were hindered by the heavy cloud cover. As General Bradley later recalled in his autobiography, 'the 2.5 million pounds of bombs fell inland…killing some French civilians and many cattle, but few Germans.' Moreover, the naval gunfire proved largely ineffective thanks to the dust thrown up by the bombardment and the low clouds.
Major Pluskat's bunker above Omaha Beach survived repeated near misses during the naval and air bombardment. His eardrums throbbing from the din, he somehow managed to find the telephone in the dust and debris. Amazingly, the phone lines were undamaged, and he was able to report the situation to division headquarters. More surprising was that none of Pluskat's guns or their crews were put out of action. Most of the artillery struck positions on the bluffs and petered out before reaching the German batteries three miles inland, but the impact of so many shells set off several concentrations of German land mines on Omaha Beach.
The landing craft were tossed about in the heavy swells, 10 of the boats sinking during their dash to the shore. Worse, 27 out of 32 canvas-enclosed DD (duplex drive) Sherman tanks, which had been specially modified to swim to the beach, foundered before reaching the shore. Three others were unable to get off their barge and had to be landed much later. The Big Red One would have to make do with only two tanks–both of which were waterlogged.
When the assault craft were 400 yards from the beach, German shells began exploding around them. At 6:36 a.m. Company A, 116th RCT, was the first to land. Three landing craft slammed into offshore sandbars. One boat took a direct hit and sank, and another simply disappeared. The water was waist-deep or deeper, and the soldiers came under a murderous cross-fire. Within 10 minutes, Company A lost all its officers and NCOs, and its overall casualties exceeded 75 percent. Company E suffered almost the same fate, largely because the German defenses were concentrated on the area where the first troops landed–above two draws, or ravines, leading inland toward Colleville-sur-Mer and Vierville.
Allied planners were aware that there were a total of five ravines, which they labeled 'exits,' leading from Omaha inland. It seemed likely that these exits–dotted with summer houses and roads or trails that led farther inland–would provide the easiest access to the interior of the Cotentin Peninsula. The Germans had evacuated civilians from the buildings along those routes and used the structures to house troops and create defenses. The exits were further fortified with sea walls and in some cases boasted anti-tank ditches as well.
While troops that landed near the Colleville-sur-Mer and Vierville exits drew heavy fire, the soldiers who landed in front of the St. Laurent exit suffered only two casualties and faced an unoccupied German strongpoint. Smoke from burning buildings and grass along the shore helped screen the invading troops. That weak spot in the German defenses, however, was not immediately exploited by the drenched and exhausted Americans.
Fire from alert German troops compounded the chaos reigning just offshore. Most of the landing craft had dropped their ramps too early, and the equipment-laden troops disappeared in the water as soon as they leaped from the boats. Some bobbed back to the surface, but many others did not. Rifles, helmets, packs and other heavy equipment–as well as the bodies of dead soldiers–settled on the sandy bottom as the Big Red One doggedly continued its assault. Countless pieces of engineering equipment and explosives, meant for use in clearing beach obstacles, sank or scattered.
Units of the 16th RCT crisscrossed each other and landed on beaches assigned to other units because of heavy currents that pushed the entire flotilla eastward. The first wave suffered close to 50 percent casualties. By midmorning, more than 1,000 Americans lay dead or wounded on the sands of Omaha. On Augusta, General Bradley agonized over the chaotic situation: 'Our communications with the forces assaulting Omaha Beach were thin to nonexistent. From the few radio messages that we overheard and the firsthand reports of observers in small craft reconnoitering close to shore, I gained the impression that our forces had suffered an irreversible catastrophe, that there was little hope we could force the beach. Privately, I considered evacuating the beachhead and directing the follow-up troops to Utah Beach or the British beaches.'
German fortifications consisted of numerous small concrete bunkers beneath the sandy bluffs. The steel-reinforced casemates were designed to house field guns, normally 50 or 75mm, and were relatively open but angled to fire across the beach, and thus their crews were not directly exposed to naval gunfire from the Channel.
Farther up the bluffs the Germans had positioned concrete machine-gun pits and infantry emplacements. The undulating terrain on the slopes provided ready-made shallow trenches. In addition, there were trenches and timber-and-earthen bombproofs on top of the bluffs.
Despite slow progress in attaining the bluffs, by 7 a.m. the invasion force had opened six gaps through the German obstacles. General Cota landed at 7:30 a.m. and joined the 116th Regiment. His biggest challenge was to get his men off the beaches. The one clear path was straddled by sand dunes, rocky shingle, a stone and wooden sea wall and rolls of concertina wire. Urged on by Cota, soldiers from Company C and the 5th Ranger Battalion blew gaps in the wire and moved into a draw and on to the base of the bluffs, where they were protected from German fire. By 8:30 a.m. they had captured the German rifle pits at the crest of the cliffs. Their advance inland was then stopped by German flanking fire.
Meanwhile, the 116th's 3rd Battalion worked its way up the Les Moulins exit and moved toward St. Laurent. To the east, the 16th Infantry forced its way up the St. Laurent and Colleville-sur-Mer exits. German strongpoints were positioned on either side of the exits, but they had been built on the lower slopes of the bluffs, so their fire was limited to the beaches. At the intersection of the Les Moulins and St. Laurent exits, soldiers of the 1st and 29th Infantry divisions met just north of the village of St. Laurent. There, the Americans who reached the plateau above the beach faced much less resistance. The Germans in the bunkers and slit trenches found themselves surrounded and fought a confused two-hour battle until their commander and 20 men surrendered.
Near Colleville-sur-Mer, the 16th Infantry inched forward. When the 16th's commander, Colonel George A. Taylor, landed at 8:15 a.m. and found a group of soldiers bunched up on the beach, hesitant to go forward, he announced, 'Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die–now let's get the hell out of here.' Taylor also sent a message to General Huebner that there were too many vehicles on the beach and requested that only infantrymen be landed. Huebner immediately responded by sending the 18th RCT ashore. Upon landing, they crossed the shingle and barbed wire to the Colleville-sur-Mer exit, where the 16th RCT was in the midst of a fierce battle.
Reassured by V Corps reports that forces on Omaha were moving inland, General Bradley approved the landing of additional regiments on Omaha instead of diverting them to some other beach. The U.S. 115th and 18th Infantry regiments came ashore and assumed the follow-up missions of the 116th and 16th RCTs, moving inland toward Colleville-sur-Mer and Vierville.
As the Americans pushed forward, Hein Severloh blasted away at the 16th Infantry from his machine-gun pit. Since the landing started, he had expended 12,000 rounds. Allied gunfire had prevented reinforcement of the positions, and the Germans were running out of men and ammunition. Severloh and others held their ground until noon, when additional Sherman tanks landed on the beach below them.
At 10:30 a.m., engineers from the 37th and 146th Combat Engineer battalions landed, filled the anti-tank ditch at the St. Laurent exit, cleared minefields and bulldozed gaps through the sea wall and dunes. Naval gunfire pounded German fortifications west of the gap. By 11:30 a.m., the Germans in St. Laurent had surrendered.
General Kraiss scanned accounts of the battle from his division headquarters. Initial reports were promising, with the only bad news coming from the 716th Infantry Division, on the right. The hard-pressed 916th Regiment was standing its ground even though its own right flank was exposed. The British 50th Division had broken through the coastal defenses of Arromanches and pushed inland toward Bayeux. The 916th's 1st Battalion held out for the better part of the day, but when the 441st Ost Battalion collapsed, Bayeux was as good as lost. The 352nd's only battalion in the British zone retained the fortified Meuvaines ridge east of Arromanches until after midday.
By noon the U.S. 1st Division had cleared the Germans from the beaches and bluffs in its area, but in the 29th Division's area fire was still coming from German slit trenches and bunkers that had been bypassed or otherwise overlooked by the advancing troops.
By that time the 352nd Division was in desperate need of reinforcement. Most of its coastal positions had been lost, but some secondary positions, along with fortified command bunkers and artillery positions, were still intact. By midnight Kraiss reported to Marcks that he could hold the enemy until the next day at best. Upon learning that the only help he could hope to receive was a so-called mobile brigade equipped with bicycles, Kraiss cannibalized some of his artillery units and deployed them as infantry along the coastal road.
The Germans made one more effort to destroy the Allied beachhead. The 1st Battalion of the 914th Regiment hit the Rangers at St.-Pierre-du-Mont, just southeast of Pointe-du-Hoc. Although the Rangers suffered heavy casualties, they were able to keep the Germans at bay with mortars, and they also directed artillery fire at the attackers from a destroyer offshore. The following day Kraiss finally ordered the withdrawal of his battered division, which had suffered about 1,200 casualties.
Sixty percent of the U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion had become casualties in its two days of fierce fighting within a 200-yard perimeter. Overall, 1st Division losses for D-Day were estimated at 1,036, 29th Division losses at 743 and corps troops at 441.
Omaha Beach was secure, but the Americans still faced six weeks of fighting in the hedgerow country before they could escape the Cotentin Peninsula. Throughout that time, the GIs of the 1st and 29th divisions would repeatedly be in conflict with the same nemesis that first met them on Bloody Omaha–the 352nd Infantry Division.
This article was written by Kevin R. Austra and originally appeared in the July 1999 issue of World War II magazine.
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