After hitting the landing sites from June 5, 1944, we proceeded to another highlight of our trip through France: Omaha beach. While the American cemetery closed just as we were walking up, we went to the beach near Vierville-sur-Mer. We were clearly in the areas code named Charlie and Dog Green. It was spectacular.
Omaha was always known to be the most difficult of the five D-Day landings. A two-man British team had bravely gone on the beach shortly before the landings to take soil samples on a night with completely still waters and a bright moon. It was an extraordinary act of courage. They returned to warn Eisenhower that Omaha could be a bloodbath. He was already aware of the high risks and expected significant losses. Those losses, however, were increased on various mistakes. First, the bombardment failed to take out many of the guns. The rocket attack fell harmlessly in the water – though it was hard for the general staff on the ships to see that the rocket ships were firing too far out from the beach. Our floating tanks did not float in the rough seas and all but two were lost to sinking (enemy fire to the few that made it to the beach). (Notably, the British fared better because they ignored the U.S. instruction to release the tanks 5000 meters off shore and came in much closer). Our radios malfunctioned due to sea water contamination. These were costly lessons.
However, the biggest lesson was learned by the Germans who had put a huge amount of resources in the “impregnable” Atlantic Wall. They should have known better after making a mockery of the French and the Maginot Line. Rommel, who was put in charge of the defense, not only saw the flaw in the reliance on the wall but predicted the landing at Normandy rather than Calais. More importantly, after his North African experience, he warned that keeping the Panzer division back from the coast would expose them to crippling air attacks. He wanted the tank divisions brought to the coast where they could repel the attack. Of course, it was ultimately Hitler himself who doomed his strategy by retaining the sole authority to release the Panzer divisions — a critical delay that allowed the allies to establish a stable beachhead.
The landing seemed to unfold like a Hollywood movie, which of course it became. Colonel George A. Taylor was made famous by standing that warning the troops that “There are only two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts, you’re the fightin’ 29th.” Then there was Gen. Norman Daniel “Dutch” Cota, Sr. who was widely known for his comment on Omaha beach “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.” (As a trivia matter, Cota also gave the Rangers their famous slogan. In conferring with Max Schneider, commander of the 5th Ranger Battalion, Cota asked “What outfit is this?” Someone yelled “5th Rangers!” Cota replied “Well, God damn it then, Rangers, lead the way!” Now, “Rangers lead the way” is the motto for all Rangers).
Omaha is 5 miles long and run from east of Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes to west of Vierville-sur-Mer on the right bank of the Douve River estuary. When we entered the beach, it was easy to recognize the location. We were in the landing area of the 29th Infantry Division, which hit the beaches with the 1st Infantry Division on its flank. A partially submerged artificial harbor was still visible from the shore. The cliffs are quite daunting and in the distance you could see Pointe du Hoc where the famed Second Rangers climbed under fire.
The beach itself has been largely cleared of D-Day bunkers and strongpoints. It is now a gloriously beautiful beach. Indeed, the kids and I immediately went into the cool water of the English Channel at low tide. You could easily swim to the artificial harbor wreckage. While the kids continued to swim, I walked toward Pointe du Hoc. I passed extraordinary areas of rocks and seaweed where French families were harvesting for snails and crabs. One elderly woman showed her their catch, which was about ten pounds of snails and crabs. I found the walk quite moving. There were few people on the beach and you could easily imagine the armada out at sea and the roaring of landing crafts heading for the beach. As the high tide began to come in, it was time to head back. It came in quick – cutting off Leslie who was holding everyone’s clothes. We left as the sun was setting over the beach.
Despite my military history fascination, I was glad to see that it had returned to being a beach for families to enjoy. It made for a far better beach than a battlefield. It reminded me of all those thousands of young men who never left the beach alive – denied a family and a future. It is a better memorial as a living beach with the kids, snail hunters, and sunbathers enjoying the peace secured on June 6, 1944. I intend to return to the D-Day beaches and I hope that more Americans will have a chance to walk along this beautiful and moving shore.
We are now off to Paris for about a week. (Note: posting have been delayed due to the earlier Internet interruption in the South of France as postings).