History of D-Day
An Excerpt from Chapter 12 of NEPTUNE: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings (Oxford University Press, 2014) by Craig L. Symonds
THE FIRST ALLIED LANDING CRAFT arrived on the American beaches within minutes of the moment indicated on the timetable. The Navy and Coast Guard coxswains jammed their Higgins Boats up onto the beach, or as close to it as the uneven sub-aqueous terrain and still-visible mined obstacles would allow. The coxswains had been guided to their departure points by patrol craft, but for the final run in to the smoke-enshrouded beach, they simply aimed their craft shoreward and opened the throttles, going “hell bent for election as fast as we could go,” as one put it. More than a few of the boats, running flat out and pushed on by the rising tide, were lifted up by the surf and slammed down violently onto the sand. One sailor remembered that the wooden boats “would just bounce up and down, up and down, until finally they were hard aground.” Some of them “split wide open” and the men had to swim or crawl away. Those not wrecked on the beach, became targets of the German artillery, which immediately opened fire.
The men in the first several waves had been told that the aerial bombing and naval gunfire would knock out the enemy defensive positions, and many also expected that the beach would be pockmarked with ready-made bomb craters that they could use as foxholes, but neither of those expectations was validated. Instead they were greeted by a fury of artillery and machine gun fire. Some of the German machine guns fired at the astonishing rate of twenty rounds per second, and that created a virtual wall of fire that could not be avoided. Those who made it through the surf to the beach, staggered forward to find imperfect cover behind a slight rise in the sand some two hundred yards inland from the surf line. Along part of the beach there was a low concrete seawall that offered additional protection, but elsewhere there was only this slight rise in the shingle—the product of several centuries of high tides. The men could advance no further due to the ubiquitous fire across the beach, nor could they go back since any landing craft that had not been wrecked on the beach or hit by German gunfire had already retracted.
Indeed, the destruction of so many landing craft was nearly as disastrous to the Allied invasion plan as the casualties to the soldiers. As one example, the USS Thurston (AP-77) lowered a total of twenty-five Higgins boats that morning. One sank when it collided with a submerged tank just off the beach; two others broached during the landing; five were smashed up by hard landings or enemy fire and had to be abandoned; the rest succeeded in landing their soldiers and retracting, but of those, nine were so badly damaged they had to be hoisted back on board the Thurston for repair. As a result of these and other incidents, of the twenty-five boats employed in the first wave, only three remained available for subsequent waves.
The second and third waves heading for Omaha Beach were only minutes behind the first. In addition to the Higgins Boats, these included a large number of the bigger and stouter LCTs. As the men on board them got close enough to peer through the smoke to see what was happening ashore, they were horrified. “For Christ’s sake, they’re pinned down,” a soldier on one LCT called out to no one in particular. Of more immediate concern to the boat drivers was the fact that there was almost no place for them to go. The few gaps between the obstacles created by the Naval Combat Demolition Units were clogged with sunken tanks and wrecked and damaged Higgins Boats, as well as other, more grisly impediments. Ensign Karl Everitt, driving his LCT toward the beach, felt compelled to throttle down to avoid running over the many bodies floating in the water. He did not want “to cut them up with my screws,” so he stationed men in the bow with boathooks to push the bodies out of the way. Coxswain George Poe, who was driving a Higgins Boat, saw that “the water was full of men, some dead,” but he did not slow down to avoid them for fear that his boat would not be able to clear the sand bar.
The fire was so intense on Omaha Beach that on some of the LCTs, the soldiers balked at leaving the ship at all. Beach master Joel Smith watched one LCT come ashore, and noted that the moment it dropped the ramp, “a German machine gun or two opened up, and you could see the sand kick up right in front of the boat.” The soldiers could see it, too, and, Smith noted, “no one moved.” The Navy ensign in command of the boat “stood up and yelled,” and for whatever reason, everything suddenly got quiet, and Smith clearly heard his plaintive entreaty: “For Christ’s sake, fellas, get out! I’ve got to go and get another load.”
Other LCTs were stranded on the beach due to damage from mines or gunfire, or were encumbered by wrecked or sunken vessels, jeeps, and even tanks. One Mike Boat (LCM) attempting to retract from the beach found its propellers snagged on something in the water. Two men jumped over the side to clear the obstruction, which turned out to be “the bottom half of a man entangled in the screws.” Even when there were no obstructions, withdrawal was not an easy matter. When LCT 612 was ready to retract, Ensign Horace “Skip” Shaw ordered a young sailor whom he remembered only as “Helpy” to “wind up on that winch and get us off the beach.” The young sailor hung his life vest on the exhaust pipe next to him to have more freedom of movement, and engaged the lever to wind in the stern anchor. A German machine gun had the range, and a storm of bullets “just blew that life jacket to a million pieces.” More bullets flew all around the sailor, thudding into the wheelhouse of the LCT only inches away. Shaw was amazed. “He didn’t bat an eye, that guy,” Shaw remembered. “He just plain wound up that winch, got that anchor up, and got us off the beach.”
By 8:00 a.m., it was a mess. Lieutenant (j.g.) Harry Montgomery, skipper of LCI(L) 489, reported that “Craft of all description were maneuvering in all directions,” making it impossible for him, or anyone else, to steer a straight course. He could not get to the beach because it was completely congested with “debris, wreckage, broached and sunken boats, burning tanks and vehicles.” Those soldiers who had landed, and those sailors forced to join them when their ships were wrecked, sheltered precariously behind that low ridge of shingle, pressed face-down into the sand as they sought to avoid the machine guns bullets passing only inches over their heads. Soon, German mortar fire would erase even that limited protection. And all the while, the relentless tide continued to mount the beach, faster than some of the wounded could crawl, reducing slowly but inexorably the narrow strip of land where men could still live. At 8:30, the beach master on Omaha notified Admiral Hall that “they were stopping the advance of follow up waves.”
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The D-Day 70th Anniversary Commemoration is jointly co-hosted by Friends of the National World War II Memorial and the National Park Service.