Expanding the Beachhead
June 7-30, 1944
Shortly after dawn on June 7, Lt. Horace Henderson of the Sixth Engineer Special Brigade landed on Omaha Beach. Going in on his Higgins boat, "I noticed that nothing moved on the beach except one bulldozer. The beach was covered with debris, sunken craft and wrecked vehicles. We saw many bodies in the water...We jumped into chest high water and waded ashore. Then we saw that the beach was literally covered with the bodies of American soldiers wearing the blue and gray patches of the 29th Infantry Division."
Although the fighting had moved inland, sporadic artillery shelling and intermittent sniper fire from Germans still holding their positions on the bluff hampered movement on the beach. Henderson's job was to distribute maps (a critical and never-ending process -- eventually in the Normandy campaign, the U.S. First Army passed out 125 million maps), but because the front line was just over the bluff at Omaha, only men, ammunition, weapons, and gasoline were being brought ashore, so he had no maps to hand out. He and his section unloaded jerry cans of gasoline, the first of millions of such cans that would cross that beach.
Sometime that afternoon, Henderson recalled, "Before the bodies could be removed, the first religious service was held on Omaha Beach. We prayed for those who had been lost and thanked the Lord for our survival. I promised God that I would do all in my power to help prevent such a terrible event ever happening again."
That evening, toward dusk, Henderson dug in at the foot of the cliff opposite the Vierville draw. Just as he lay down, four German bombers appeared. "A sea of ships began to fire hundreds of antiaircraft guns with a noise that was terrifying." That was the lone Luftwaffe foray against Omaha Beach that day.
To the west, inland from Utah Beach, on the morning of June 7, Lieutenant Wray's foray had broken up the German counterattack into Ste.-Mère-Eglise before it got started. But by noon the Germans were dropping mortar shells on the town. Pvt. Jack Leonard of the 82nd was in a foxhole that took a direct hit. His stomach was blown away. His last words were, "God damn the bastards, they got me. The hell with it."
That afternoon E Company, 505th PIR, moved out to drive the Germans farther back. Those who participated included Sgt. Otis Sampson, an old cavalry soldier with ten years in the Army, by reputation the best mortarman in the division, something he had proved on D-Day; Lt. James Coyle, a platoon leader in the 505th PIR; and Lt. Frank Woosley, a company executive officer in the 505th. In some ways the experience they were about to have -- fighting in the hedgerows -- typified what others were going through that same day, or would be experiencing in the days to follow; in other ways they were atypically lucky.
The company had two tanks attached to it. Lieutenant Coyle's order was to take his platoon across the field and attack the hedgerow ahead, simple and straightforward enough. But Coyle had been in Normandy for a day and a half, and he knew this wasn't Fort Benning. He protested. He explained to his CO that the Germans dug into and hid behind the hedgerows and they would exact a bloody price from infantry advancing through a field, no matter how good the men were at fire-and-movement.
Coyle figured there had to be a better way. He received permission to explore alternate routes. Lieutenant Woosley accompanied him. Sure enough, Coyle found a route through the sunken lanes that brought the Americans to a point where they were looking down a lane running perpendicular to the one they were on. It was the main German position, inexplicably without cover or observation posts on its flank.
The paratroopers were thus able to observe an unsuspecting German battalion at work. It had only arrived at the position a quarter of an hour earlier (which may explain the unguarded flank) but it already had transformed the lane into a fortress. Communication wires ran up and down. Mortar crews worked their weapons. Sergeants with binoculars leaned against the bank and peered through openings cut in the hedge, directing the mortar fire. Other forward observers had radios and were directing the firing of heavy artillery from the rear. Riflemen at the embankment also had cut holes through which they could aim and fire. At the near and far corners of the lane, the corners of the field, German heavy machine guns were tunneled in, the muzzles of their guns just peeking through a small hole in the embankment, with crews at the ready to send crisscrossing fire into the field in front.
That was the staggering firepower Coyle's platoon would have run into, had he obeyed without question his original orders. Because he had refused and successfully argued his point, he was now on the German flank with his men and two tanks behind him. The tanks did a ninety-degree turn. The men laid down a base of rifle and machine-gun fire, greatly aided by a barrage of mortars from Sergeant Sampson. Then the tanks shot their 75mm cannon down the lane.
Germans fell all around. Sampson fired all his mortar shells, then picked up a BAR. "I was that close I couldn't miss," he remembered. "That road was their death trap. It was so easy I felt ashamed of myself and quit firing. I felt I had bagged my quota."
The German survivors waved a white flag. Coyle told his men to cease fire, stood up, walked down the lane to take the surrender. Two grenades came flying over the hedgerow and landed at his feet. He dove to the side and escaped, and the firing opened up again. The Americans had the Germans trapped in the lane, and after a period of taking casualties without being able to inflict any, the German soldiers began to take off, bursting through the hedgerow and emerging into the field with hands held high, crying "Comrade!"
Soon there were 200 or so men in the field, hands up. Coyle went through the hedgerow, to begin the rounding-up process, and promptly got hit in the thigh by a sniper's bullet, not badly but he was furious with himself for twice not being cautious enough. But he had great self-control, and he got the POWs gathered in and put under guard. He and his men had effectively destroyed an enemy battalion without losing a single man.
It was difficult finding enough men for guard duty, as there was only one GI for every ten captured Germans. The guards therefore took no chances. Corp. Sam Applebee encountered a German officer who refused to move. "I took a bayonet and shoved it into his ass," Applebee recounted, "and then he moved. You should have seen the happy smiles and giggles that escaped the faces of some of the prisoners, to see their Lord and Master made to obey, especially from an enlisted man."
Sergeant Sampson saw another NCO shooting directly down with his BAR. He was the only man shooting. On investigation, Sampson discovered that he was shooting disarmed prisoners who were standing in the ditch, hands up. The GI was blazing away. "There must have been some hate in his heart," Sampson commented.
E Company's experience on June 7 was unique, or nearly so -- an unguarded German flank was seldom again to be found. But in another way, what the company went through was to be repeated across Normandy in the weeks that followed. In the German army, the slave troops from conquered Central and Eastern Europe, and Asia, would throw their hands up at the first opportunity, but if they misjudged their situation and their NCO was around, they were likely to get shot in the back. Or the NCOs would keep up the fight even as their enlisted men surrendered, as Coyle discovered.
Lt. Leon Mendel was an interrogation officer with Military Intelligence, attached to the 505th. He did the interrogation of the prisoners Coyle's platoon had taken. "I started off with German," Mendel remembered, "but got no response, so I switched to Russian, asked if they were Russian. 'Yes!' they responded, heads bobbing eagerly. 'We are Russian. We want to go to America!'
"Me too," Mendel said in Russian. "Me too!"
The Wehrmacht in Normandy in June of 1944 was an international army. It had troops from every corner of the vast Soviet empire -- Mongolians, Cossacks, Georgians, Muslims, Chinese -- plus men from the Soviet Union's neighboring countries, men who had been conscripted into the Red Army, then captured by the Germans in 1941 or 1942. There were some Koreans, captured by the Red Army in the 1939 war with Japan. In Normandy in June 1944, the 29th Division captured enemy troops of so many different nationalities that one GI blurted to his company commander, "Captain, just who the hell are we fighting, anyway?"
Ethnic Germans also surrendered. Even veterans of the Eastern Front. Corp. Friedrich Bertenrath of the 2nd Panzer Division explained, "In Russia, I could imagine nothing but fighting to the last man. We knew that going into a prison camp in Russia meant you were dead. In Normandy, one always had in the back of his mind, 'Well, if everything goes to hell, the Americans are human enough that the prospect of becoming their prisoner was attractive to some extent.'"
By no means were all the enlisted German personnel in Normandy reluctant warriors. Many fought effectively; some fought magnificently. At St.-Marcouf, about ten kilometers north of Utah Beach, the Germans had four enormous casements, each housing a 205mm cannon. On D-Day, these guns had gotten into a duel with American battleships. On D-Day Plus One, GIs from the 4th Infantry Division surrounded the casements. To hold them off, the German commander called down fire from another battery of 205 cannon some fifteen kilometers to the north, right on top of his own position. That kept the Americans at bay for more than a week while the German cannon continued to fire sporadically on Utah Beach.
The casements took innumerable direct hits, all from big shells. The shells made little more than dents in the concrete. The casements are still there today -- they will be there for decades if not centuries, so well built were they -- and they bear mute testimony to the steadfastness of the Germans. For eight days the gun crews were confined in their casements -- nothing to eat but stale bread, only bad water, no separate place to relieve themselves, the ear-shattering noise, the vibrations, the concussions, the dust shaking loose -- through it all they continued to fire. They gave up only when they ran out of ammunition.
Among other elite German outfits in Normandy, there were paratroopers. They were a different proposition altogether from the Polish or Russian troops. The 3rd Fallschirmjäger Division came into the battle in Normandy on June 10, arriving by truck after night drives from Brittany. It was a full-strength division, 15,976 men in its ranks, mostly young German volunteers. It was new to combat but it had been organized and trained by a veteran paratroop battalion from the Italian campaign. Training had been rigorous and emphasized initiative and improvisation. The equipment was outstanding.
Indeed, the Fallschirmjäger were perhaps the best-armed infantrymen in the world in 1944. The 3rd FJ had 930 light machine guns, eleven times as many as its chief opponent, the U.S. 29th Division. Rifle companies in the FJ had twenty MG 42s and 43 submachine guns; rifle companies in the 29th had two machine guns and nine BARs. At the squad level, the GIs had a single BAR; the German parachute squad had two MG 42s and three submachine guns. The Germans had three times as many mortars as the Americans, and heavier ones. So in any encounter between equal numbers of Americans and Fallschirmjäger, the Germans had from six to twenty times as much firepower.
And these German soldiers were ready to fight. A battalion commander in the 29th remarked to an unbelieving counterpart from another regiment, "Those Germans are the best soldiers I ever saw. They're smart and they don't know what the word 'fear' means. They come in and they keep coming until they get their job done or you kill'em."
These were the men who had to be rooted out of the hedgerows. One by one. There were, on average, fourteen hedgerows to the kilometer in Normandy. The enervating, costly process of gearing up for an attack, making the attack, carrying the attack home, mopping up after the attack, took half a day or more. And at the end of the action, there was the next hedgerow, fifty to a hundred meters or so away. All through the Cotentin Peninsula, from June 7 on, GIs labored at the task. They heaved and pushed and punched and died doing it, for two hedgerows a day.
No terrain in the world was better suited for defensive action with the weapons of the fourth decade of the twentieth century than the Norman hedgerows, and only the lava and coral, caves and tunnels of Iwo Jima and Okinawa were as favorable.
The Norman hedgerows dated back to Roman times. They were mounds of earth to keep cattle in and to mark boundaries. Typically there was only one entry into the small field enclosed by the hedgerows, which were irregular in length as well as height and set at odd angles. On the sunken roads the brush often met overhead, giving the GIs a feeling of being trapped in a leafy tunnel. Wherever they looked the view was blocked by walls of vegetation.
Undertaking an offensive in the hedgerows was risky, costly, time-consuming, fraught with frustration. It was like fighting in a maze. Platoons found themselves completely lost a few minutes after launching an attack. Squads got separated. Just as often, two platoons from the same company could occupy adjacent fields for hours before discovering each other's presence. The small fields limited deployment possibilities; seldom during the first week of battle did a unit as large as a company go into an attack intact.
Where the Americans got lost, the Germans were at home. The 352nd Division had been in Normandy for months, training for this battle. Further, the Germans were geniuses at utilizing the fortification possibilities of the hedgerows. In the early days of the battle, many GIs were killed or wounded because they dashed through the opening into a field, just the kind of aggressive tactics they had been taught, only to be cut down by pre-sited machine-gun fire or mortars (mortars caused three quarters of American casualties in Normandy).
American Army tactical manuals stressed the need for tank-infantry cooperation. But in Normandy, the tankers didn't want to get down on the sunken roads, because of insufficient room to traverse the turret and insufficient visibility to use the long-range firepower of the cannon and machine guns. But staying on the main roads proved impossible; the Germans held the high ground inland and had their 88mm cannon sited to provide long fields of fire along highways. So into the lanes the tanks perforce went. But there they were restricted; they wanted to get out into the fields. But they couldn't. When they appeared at the gap leading into a field, presited mortar fire, plus panzerfausts (handheld antitank weapons), disabled them. Often, in fact, it caused them to "brew up," or start burning -- the tankers were discovering that their tanks had a distressing propensity for catching fire.
So tankers tried going over or through the embankments, but the hedgerows were proving to be almost impassable obstacles to the American M4 Sherman tank. Countless attempts were made to break through or climb over, but the Sherman wasn't powerful enough to break through the cementlike base, and when it climbed up the embankment, at the apex it exposed its unarmored belly to German panzerfausts. Further, coordination between tankers and infantry was almost impossible under battle conditions, as they had no easy or reliable way to communicate with one another.
Lt. Sidney Salomon of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, one of the D-Day heroes, found that out on June 7. He was leading the remnants of his battalion, which had come ashore on the right flank at Omaha and been involved in a day-long firefight on D-Day, westward along the coastal road that led to Pointe-du-Hoc. Three companies of the 2nd Rangers had taken the German emplacement there, and destroyed the coastal guns, but they were under severe attack and had taken severe casualties. Salomon was in a hurry to get to them.
But his column, marching in combat formation, began taking well-placed artillery shells. To his right, Salomon could see a Norman church, its steeple the only high point around. He was certain the Germans had an observer spotting for their artillery in that steeple. Behind Salomon a Sherman tank chugged up, the only American tank to be seen. It was buttoned up. Salomon wanted it to elevate its 75mm cannon and blast that steeple, but he couldn't get the crew's attention, not even when he knocked on the side of the tank with the butt of his carbine. "So I ultimately stood in the middle of the road directly in front of the tank, waving my arms, and pointing in the direction of the church. That produced results. After a couple of shots from the cannon and several bursts from the .50-caliber machine gun, the artillery spotter was no more."
Salomon's daring feat notwithstanding, it was obvious that the Army was going to have to work out a better system for tank-infantry communication than having junior officers jump up and down in front of American tanks. Until that was done, the tanks would play a minor supporting role to the infantry, following the GIs into the next field as the infantry overran it.
The U.S. First Army had not produced anything approaching a doctrine for offensive action in the hedgerows. It had expended enormous energy to get tanks by the score into Normandy, but it had no doctrine for the role of tanks in the hedgerows. In peacetime, the Army would have dealt with the problem by setting up commissions and boards, experimenting in maneuvers, testing ideas, before establishing a doctrine. But in Normandy time was a luxury the Army didn't have. So as the infantry lurched forward in the Cotentin, following frontal assaults straight into the enemy's kill zones, the tankers began experimenting with ways to utilize their weapons in the hedgerows.
Beginning at daylight on June 7, each side had begun to rush reinforcements to the front. The Americans came in on a fight schedule, long since worked out, with fresh divisions almost daily. Sgt. Edward "Buddy" Gianelloni, a medic in the 79th Division, came ashore on D-Day Plus Six on Utah Beach. The men marched inland; when they reached Ste.-Mère-Eglise, a paratrooper called out to Gianelloni, "Hey, what outfit is that?"
"This is the 79th Infantry Division," Gianelloni replied.
"Well, that's good," the paratrooper said. "Now if you guys are around this time tomorrow you can consider yourselves veterans."
The Germans came in by bits and pieces, because they were improvising, having been caught with no plans for reinforcing Normandy. Further, the Allied air forces had badly hampered German movement from the start.
The German air force (the Luftwaffe) and the German navy were seldom to be seen, but still the Germans managed to have an effect on Allied landings, through their mines and beach obstacles. The most spectacular German success, the one they had most hoped for, came at dawn on June 7.
The transport USS Susan B. Anthony was moving into her off-loading position off Utah Beach. Sgt. Jim Finn was down in the hold, along with hundreds of others in the 90th Infantry Division, set to enter the battle after the ship dropped her anchor. The landing craft began coming alongside, and the men started climbing up out of the hold onto the deck, prepared to descend the rope ladders. Finn and the others were loaded down with rifles, grenades, extra clips, BARs, tripods, mortar bases and tubes, gas masks, leather boots, baggy pants stuffed with cigarettes, toilet articles, helmets, life jackets, and more.
"There was a massive 'Boom!'" Finn recalled. "She shook. All communications were knocked out. All electricity was out. Everything on the ship went black. And here we were, a massive number of troops in confined areas, with tremendous amounts of clothing and gear on, all ready for the invasion, and not knowing what was going on, in total darkness."
The Susan B. Anthony, one of the largest transport ships, had hit a mine amidships. She was sinking and burning. Panic in the hold was to be expected, and there was a bit of it, but as Finn recalled, the officers took charge and restored calm. Then, "We were instructed to remove our helmets, remove our impregnated clothing, remove all excess equipment. Many of the fellows took off their shoes." They scrambled onto the deck.
A fire-fighting boat had pulled alongside and was putting streams of water onto the fire. LCVPs began pulling to the side of the sinking ship. Men threw rope ladders over the side, and within two hours all hands were safely off -- minutes before the Susan B. Anthony sank.
Sergeant Finn and his platoon went into Utah Beach in a Higgins boat, a couple of hours late and barefoot, with no helmets, no rifles, no ammo, no food. But they were there, and by scrounging along the beach they were soon able to equip themselves from dead and wounded men.
Getting the Susan B. Anthony was by far the greatest success of the German navy's efforts to disrupt the landing of American reinforcements in Normandy. Thanks to the fire-fighting boat -- one of the many specialized craft in the armada -- even the loss of the ship hardly slowed the disembarking process. The U.S., Royal, and Canadian Navies ruled the English Channel, which made the uninterrupted flow of men and supplies from England to France possible. The fire-fighting boat that saved the lives of the men on Susan B. Anthony showed what a superb job the three navies were doing.
At Omaha, too, reinforcements began coming in to the beach before the sun rose above the horizon. Twenty-year-old Lt. Charles Stockell, a forward observer in the 1st Division, was one of the first to go ashore that day. Stockell kept a diary. He recorded that he came in below Vierville, that the skipper of the LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) feared the underwater beach obstacles and mines and thus forced him to get off in chest-deep water, that he saw equipment littering the beach, and then "The first dead Americans I see are two GIs, one with both feet blown off, arms wrapped about each other in a comradely death embrace." He was struck by the thought that "dead men everywhere look pathetic and lonely. You feel as if you would like them to be alive and the war over."
Stockell didn't get very far inland that morning. The front line, in fact, was less than a quarter of a mile from the edge of the bluff, running along a series of hedgerows outside Colleville. That was as far inland as Capt. Joseph Dawson, CO of G Company, 16th Regiment, 1st Division, had gotten on D-Day -- and Dawson had been the first American to reach the top of the bluff at Omaha. On June 7, he was fighting to secure his position outside Colleville, discovering in the process that he had a whole lot to learn about hedgerows.
The 175th Regiment of the 29th Division came in on schedule at 0630, June 7. But it landed two kilometers east of its intended target, the Vierville exit. Orders came to march to the exit. In a loose formation, the regiment began to march, through the debris of the previous day's battle. To Capt. Robert Miller, the beach "looked like something out of Dante's Inferno."
Sniper fire continued to zing down. "But even worse," according to Lt. J. Milnor Roberts, an aide to the corps commander, "they were stepping over the bodies of the guys who had been killed the day before and these guys were wearing that 29th Division patch; the other fellows, brand-new, were walking over the dead bodies. By the time they got down where they were to go inland, they were really spooked."
But so were their opponents. Lt. Col. Fritz Ziegelmann of the 352nd Division staff was one of the first German officers to bring reinforcements into the battle. At about the same time the 175th Regiment was swinging up toward Vierville, Ziegelmann was entering Widerstandsnest 76, one of the few surviving resistance nests on Omaha, a kilometer or so west of the Vierville draw. It had done great harm to the 29th Division on D-Day, when the 29th and the 352nd Divisions locked into a death embrace.
"The view from WN 76 will remain in my memory forever," Ziegelmann wrote after the war. "The sea was like a picture of the 'Kiel review of the fleet.' Ships of all sorts stood close together on the beach and in the water, broadly echeloned in depth. And the entire conglomeration remained there intact without any real interference from the German side!"
A runner brought him a set of secret American orders, captured from an officer, that showed the entire Omaha invasion plan, including the follow-up commitment that was taking place in front of Ziegelmann's eyes. "I must say that in my entire military life, I have never been so impressed," he wrote, adding that he knew at that moment that Germany was going to lose this war.
At dawn, all along the plateau above the bluff at Omaha, GIs shook themselves awake, did their business, ate some rations, smoked a cigarette, got into some kind of formation, and prepared to move out to broaden the beachhead. But in the hedgerows, individuals got lost, squads got lost. German sniper fire came from all directions. The Norman farm homes, made of stone and surrounded by stone walls and a stone barn, made excellent fortresses. Probing attacks brought forth a stream of bullets from the Germans, pretty much discouraging further probes.
Brig. Gen. Norman "Dutch" Cota, assistant division commander of the 29th, came on a group of infantry pinned down by some Germans in a farmhouse. He asked the captain in command why his men were making no effort to take the building.
"Sir, the Germans are in there, shooting at us," the captain replied.
"Well, I'll tell you what, captain," said Cota, unbuckling two grenades from his jacket. "You and your men start shooting at them. I'll take a squad of men and you and your men watch carefully. I'll show you how to take a house with Germans in it."
Cota led his squad around a hedge to get as close as possible to the house. Suddenly, he gave a whoop and raced forward, the squad following, yelling like wild men. As they tossed grenades into the windows, Cota and another man kicked in the front door, tossed a couple of grenades inside, waited for the explosions, then dashed into the house. The surviving Germans inside were streaming out the back door, running for their lives.
Cota returned to the captain. "You've seen how to take a house," said the general, still out of breath. "Do you understand? Do you know how to do it now?"
"Well, I won't be around to do it for you again," Cota said. "I can't do it for everybody."
That little story speaks to the training of the U.S. Army for the Battle of Normandy. At first glance, Cota's bravery stands out, along with his sense of the dramatic and his knowledge of tactics. He could be sure the story would get around the division. A lesson would be learned. His own reputation would go even higher, the men would be even more willing to follow him.
But after that first glance, a question emerges. Where had that captain been the last six months? He had been in training to fight the German army. He had been committed to offensive action, trained to it, inspired to it. But no one had thought to show him how to take an occupied house. He knew all about getting ashore from an LCVP, about beach obstacles, about paths up the bluff, about ravines, about amphibious assault techniques. But no one had shown him how to take a house, because there were no standing houses on Omaha Beach, so that wasn't one of his problems.
Not on June 6. But on June 7, it became his number one problem. The same was true for the 200 or so company commanders already ashore and would be for the hundreds of others waiting to enter the battle. As Cota said, he couldn't be there to teach all of them how to take a house. They were going to have to figure it out for themselves.
Normandy was a soldier's battle. It belonged to the riflemen, machine gunners, mortarmen, tankers, and artillerymen who were on the front lines. There was no room for maneuver. There was no opportunity for subtlety. There was a simplicity to the fighting: for the Germans, to hold; for the Americans, to attack.
Where they would hold or attack required no decision-making: it was always the next village or field. The real decision-making came at the battalion, company, and platoon levels: where to place the mines, the barbed wire, the machine-gun pits, where to dig the foxholes -- or where and how to attack them.
The direction of the attack had been set by pre-invasion decision-making. For the 1st and 29th Divisions, that meant south from Omaha toward St.-Lô. For the 101st Airborne, that meant east, into Carentan, for a linkup with Omaha. For the 82nd Airborne, that meant west from Ste.-Mère-Eglise, to provide maneuver room in the Cotentin. For the 4th and 90th Divisions, that meant west from Utah, to the Gulf of St.-Malo, to cut off the Germans in Cherbourg.
The objective of all this effort was to secure the port of Cherbourg and to create a beachhead sufficiently large to absorb the incoming stream of American reinforcements and serve as a base for an offensive through France. SHAEF's detailed projections of future activity -- where the front lines would be on such-and-such a date -- were already wrong on June 7. That was inevitable. What wasn't inevitable was the Allied fixation with Cherbourg -- how heavily, for example, the SHAEF projections for August and September were based on having a fully functioning port there. So strong a magnet was Cherbourg that the initial American offensive in Normandy headed west, away from Germany.
Eisenhower and his high command were obsessed with ports. Whenever they looked at the figures on supply needs for each division in combat, they blanched. Only a large, operational port could satisfy the logistical needs, or so Eisenhower assumed. Therefore the planning emphasis had been on ports, artificial ones to begin with, Cherbourg and Le Havre next, with the climax coming at Antwerp. Only with all these ports could Eisenhower be assured of the supplies a final fifty-division offensive into Germany would require. Especially Antwerp -- without it, an American army could not possibly be sustained in Central Europe.
The Germans had assumed that the Allies could not supply divisions in combat over an open beach. The Allies tended to agree. Experience in the Mediterranean had not been encouraging. Churchill was so certain it couldn't be done he insisted on putting a very large share of the national effort into building two experimental artificial harbors. Russell Weigley has speculated that without the promise of these experiments, Churchill might never have agreed to Overlord. As experiments, the harbors were moderately successful (the American one was destroyed by the storm of June 19; the British one was badly damaged but repaired and soon functioning). But as it turned out, their contribution to the total tonnage unloaded over the Normandy beaches was about 15 percent.
It was the cargo and troop ships, supported by the LST (Landing Ship Tank) and the myriad of specialized landing craft, that did the most carrying and unloading. It was a hodgepodge fleet -- a British crew of old salts on a Higgins boat in the Canadian Navy taking GIs ashore at Utah; LSTs commanded by a twenty-two-year-old American lieutenant carrying British troops to Gold Beach; LSTs at every beach, their great jaws yawning open, disgorging tanks and trucks and jeeps and bulldozers and big guns and small guns and mountains of cases of rations and ammunition, thousands of jerry cans filled with gasoline, crates of radios and telephones, typewriters and forms, and all else that men at war require.
The LSTs at Omaha and Utah and the other beaches provide a symbol for the Alliance. British-designed, American-built, they did what no one had thought possible: they came into open beaches to supply fighting divisions with their needs. The LST was in fact the Allies' secret weapon, far more practical and effective than the secret weapon Hitler put into operation a week after D-Day, the pilotless radio-controlled fighter aircraft carrying a high-explosive bomb, called the V-1 (the V was for Vengeance).
Through June, the Germans continued in the face of all evidence to believe LSTs could not supply the Allied divisions already ashore, and that therefore Overlord was a feint with the real attack scheduled for the Pas-de-Calais later in the summer. A continuing Fortitude deception plan and campaign of misinformation put out by SHAEF reinforced this German fixed idea. So through the month, Hitler kept his panzer divisions north and east of the Seine River.
Hitler had recognized that his only hope for victory lay on the Western Front. His armies could not defeat the Red Army, but they might defeat the British and Americans, so discouraging Stalin that he would make a settlement. But after correctly seeing the critical theater, Hitler completely failed to see the critical battlefield. He continued to look to the Pas-de-Calais as the site where he would drive the invaders back into the sea, and consequently kept his main striking power there. To every plea by the commanders in Normandy for the panzer divisions in northwestern France to come to their aid, Hitler said no. In so saying he sealed his fate. He suffered the worst humiliation of all, the one with the most consequences -- he had been outwitted.
The mission of the 101st Airborne Division was to take Carentan and thus link Omaha and Utah into a continuous beachhead. It took an all-out commitment from the airborne infantry. One of the critical actions was led by Lt. Col. Robert Cole, CO of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd PIR.
Cole was twenty-nine years of age, an Army brat and a 1939 West Point graduate, born and trained to lead. On D-Day, he had gathered up seventy-five men, moved out to Utah Beach, shot up some Germans on the way, and was at the dune line to welcome men from the 4th Division coming ashore. From June 7 on he had been involved in the attack on Carentan. The climax came on June 11.
Cole was leading some 250 men down a long, exposed causeway. At the far end was a bridge over the Douve River. Beyond that bridge was the linkup point with units from the 29th Division coming from Omaha. The causeway was a meter or so above the marshes on either side. On the far side of the inland marsh, about 150 meters away, there was a hedgerow, occupied by the Germans.
Once Cole was fully committed along the causeway, the German machine gunners, riflemen, and mortarmen along the hedgerow opened fire. Cole's battalion took a couple of dozen casualties. The survivors huddled against the bank on the far side of the causeway.
They should have kept moving. But the hardest lesson to teach in training, the most difficult rule to follow in combat, is to keep moving when fired on. Every instinct makes a soldier want to hug the ground. Cole's men did, and over the next half hour the Germans dropped mortars on the battalion, causing further casualties. Whenever an American tried to move down the causeway, he drew rifle and machine-gun fire. For yet another half hour, the GIs were pinned down.
Then Cole could take no more and took command. He passed out an order seldom heard in World War II: "Fix bayonets!"
Up and down the line he could hear the click of bayonets being fitted to rifle barrels. Cole's pulse was racing, his adrenaline pumping. He pulled his .45-caliber pistol, jumped onto the causeway, shouted a command in so loud a voice he could be heard above the din of the battle, "Charge!," turned toward the hedgerow, and began plunging through the marsh.
His men watched, fearful, excited, impressed, inspired. First single figures rose and began to follow Cole. Then small groups of two and three. Then whole squads started running forward, flashing the cold steel of their bayonets. The men began to roar as they charged, their own version of the Rebel Yell.
The Germans fired and cut down some, but not enough. Cole's men got to the hedgerow, plunged into the dugouts and trenches, thrusting with their bayonets, drawing blood and screams, causing death. Those Germans who dodged the bayonets ran out the back way and fled to the rear. Paratroopers took them under fire and dropped a dozen or more.
Cole stood there, shaking, exhausted, elated. Around him the men began to cheer. That added to the Civil War atmosphere of the scene. After the cheering subsided, Cole got his men down the causeway to the bridge and over it to the far side of the Douve River. There, the following day, Omaha and Utah linked up.
Cole's victory, memorable in itself, also serves as an example not only of heroism and spirit but also of the many things the Americans were doing wrong. Later in the war, in Holland and Belgium, the 502nd PIR would not have advanced over a causeway crossing a swampy area, with an unsecured hedgerow 150 meters away. It would have found a way to flank the hedgerow. Nor would the experienced 502nd have done what Cole did, make a bayonet charge over open, marshy ground. Not after having seen, too many times, what speeding bullets and hot shrapnel do to the human body. As veterans, the paratroopers would have called in artillery, and fighter aircraft, to blast the German position.
But in June, they didn't have the knowledge nor the communications capability to do any of that. No one had foreseen the need for air-ground communication, pilot to tank commander, infantry captain to forward observer over the radio; as no one had seen the need for the infantry to be able to communicate with tankers when the hatch was down.
Throughout First Army, young men made many discoveries in the first few days of combat, about war, about themselves, about others. They quickly learned such basics as keep down or die -- to dig deep and stay quiet -- to distinguish incoming from outgoing artillery -- to judge when and where a shell or a mortar barrage was going to hit -- to recognize that fear is inevitable but can be managed -- and many more things they had been told in training but that can only be truly learned by doing. Putting it another way, after a week in combat, infantrymen agreed that there was no way training could have prepared them for the reality of combat.
Capt. John Colby caught one of the essences of combat, the sense of total immediacy: "At this point we had been in combat six days. It seemed like a year. In combat, one lives in the now and does not think much about yesterday or tomorrow."
Colby discovered that there was no telling who would break or when. His regimental CO was "grossly incompetent," his battalion commander had run away from combat in his first day of action, and his company CO was a complete bust. On June 12 the company got caught in a combined mortar-artillery barrage. The men couldn't move forward, they couldn't fall back, and they couldn't stay where they were -- or so it appeared to the CO, who therefore had no orders to give, and was speechless.
Colby went up to his CO to ask for orders. The CO shook his head and pointed to his throat. Colby asked him if he could make it back to the aid station on his own, "and he leaped to his feet and took off. I never saw him again."
Another thing Colby learned in his first week in combat was: "Artillery does not fire forever. It just seems like that when you get caught in it. The guns overheat or the ammunition runs low, and it stops. It stops for a while, anyway."
He was amazed to discover how small he could make his body. If you get caught in the open in a shelling, he advised, "the best thing to do is drop to the ground and crawl into your steel helmet. One's body tends to shrink a great deal when shells come in. I am sure I have gotten as much as eighty percent of my body under my helmet when caught under shellfire."
Colby learned about hedgerows. Once he got into a situation where "I had to push through a hedgerow. A submachine-gun emitted a long burst right in front of my face. The gun was a Schmeisser, which had a very high rate of fire that sounded like a piece of cloth being ripped loudly. The bullets went over my head. I fell backward and passed out cold from fright."
About themselves, the most important thing a majority of the GIs discovered was that they were not cowards. They hadn't thought so, they had fervently hoped it would not be so, but they couldn't be sure until tested. After a few days in combat, most of them knew they were good soldiers. They had neither run away nor collapsed into a pathetic mass of quivering Jell-O (their worst fear, even greater than the fear of being afraid).
They were learning about others. A common experience: the guy who talked toughest, bragged most, excelled in maneuvers, everyone's pick to be the top soldier in the company, was the first to break, while the soft-talking kid who was hardly noticed in camp was the standout in combat. These are the clichés of war novels precisely because they are true. They also learned that while combat brought out the best in some men, it unleashed the worst in others -- and a further lesson, that the distinction between best and worst wasn't clear.
On June 9, Pvt. Arthur "Dutch" Schultz of the 82nd Airborne was outside Montebourg. That morning he was part of an attack on the town. "I ran by a wounded German soldier lying alongside of a hedgerow. He was obviously in a great deal of pain and crying for help. I stopped running and turned around. A close friend of mine put the muzzle of his rifle between the German's still crying eyes and pulled the trigger. There was no change in my friend's facial expression. I don't believe he even blinked an eye."
Schultz was simultaneously appalled and awed by what he had seen. "There was a part of me that wanted to be just as ruthless as my friend," he commented. Later, he came to realize that "there but for the grace of God go I."
Allied fighter pilots owned the skies over Normandy. On June 15, Eisenhower crossed the Channel by plane to visit Bayeux. Every airplane in the sky was American or British.
Thanks to air supremacy, the Americans were flying little single-seat planes, Piper Cubs, about 300 meters back from the front lines and some 300 meters high. German riflemen fired at them, ineffectively. Still, the bullets worried the pilots. Like all men at war, they feared above all getting hit in the testicles. Ground maintenance men eased their worry by welding steel plates under their seats.
When the Cubs appeared, all German mortar and artillery firing stopped. As Sergeant Sampson described it, "They didn't dare give their positions away, knowing if they fired our pilot would call in and artillery would be coming in on them, pin-point. The results could be devastating."
Sgt. Günter Behr was a radioman with a German artillery battery. Because of spotter planes, two of the guns were blown apart within minutes of the first time the battery shot at Americans. From then on, Behr related, "as soon as we fired our guns, we had to run again, and look for a good place to hide. We were hunted. Always afraid. If you could not run, it was over. Like eagles and rabbits."
Air supremacy also freed Allied fighter-bombers, principally P-47 Thunderbolts, capable of carrying two 500-pound bombs, to strafe and machine-gun and bomb German convoys and concentrations. From D-Day Plus One onward, whenever the weather was suitable for flying, the P-47s forced nighttime movement only on the Germans, at an incalculable cost to their logistical efficiency.
During the day, Germans caught in the open quickly paid. The Jabos would get them. (From the German "Jäger Bomber," or "hunter-bomber.") Fifty years later, in talking about the Jabos, German veterans still have awe in their voice, and glance up over their shoulders as they recall the terror of having one come right at them, all guns blazing. "The Jabos were a burden on our souls," Corp. Helmut Hesse said.
The B-26 Marauders, two-engine bombers, continued their all-out assault on choke points in the German transportation system, principally bridges and highway junctions. Lt. James Delong was a Marauder pilot who had flown in low and hard on D-Day over Utah Beach. On June 7, it was a bridge at Rennes, on the Seine. On the 8th, a railroad junction near Avranches.
These were defended sites. "We were being met with plenty of flak from enemy 88s," Delong recalled. "That Whomp! Whomp! sound just outside with black smoke puffs filling the air was still scary as hell, damaging, and deadly." But there were no Luftwaffe fighters, partly because the B-26s flew fight formations and stayed low, discouraging fighter attacks, but more because most German pilots were on the far side of the Rhine River, trying to defend the homeland from the Allied four-engine bombers, and the Luftwaffe was chronically short on fuel.
Almost exactly four years earlier, following the RAF withdrawal from the Battle of France, the Luftwaffe had ruled the skies over Normandy and all of Europe. Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering's air fleet struck terror in the hearts of its enemies. But in June 1944 it was not even a minor factor in the battle. One German soldier, while being interrogated after being made prisoner, said, "Yah, I saw the Luftwaffe. Seven of them, 7,000 Jabos."
In Normandy in June 1944, German soldiers learned to always look up for danger. GIs seldom had to look up. So total was this dominance that the Germans became experts in camouflage to make themselves invisible from the sky, while the GIs laid out colored panels and otherwise did all they could to make themselves plainly visible from the sky. They wanted any airplane up there to know that they were Americans, because they knew without having to look that the plane they heard was American.
German Gen. Fritz Bayerlein of the Panzer Lehr Division gave an account of how the Jabos worked over his division on June 7: "By noon it was terrible; every vehicle was covered with tree branches and moved along hedges and the edges of woods. Road junctions were bombed and a bridge knocked out. By the end of the day I had lost forty tank trucks carrying fuel, and ninety other vehicles. Five of my tanks were knocked out, and eighty-four half-tracks, prime movers and self-propelled guns." Those were heavy losses, especially for a panzer division that had so far not fired a shot.
Without doubt, the Jabos had a decisive effect on the Battle of Normandy. Without them, the Germans would have been able to move reinforcements into Normandy at a rate three, four, five times better than they actually achieved, in both quantity and speed. Two examples: the 266th Division left Brittany for Normandy on June 10. Unable to use rail transport or major roads, the division marched, at night, averaging less than sixteen kilometers a day. It took more than two weeks to get to the front. The 353rd Division left Brittany on June 14 and finally marched into Normandy on June 30, having advanced to the sound of the guns at a pace slower than a typical Civil War march eighty years earlier.
But airpower could not be decisive alone. The Germans already in Normandy were dug in well enough to survive strafing, rocket, and bombing attacks on their lines. They could move enough men, vehicles, and materiel at night to keep on fighting. Once in Normandy, their mobility was somewhat restored, because they could move along the leaf-covered sunken lanes. The frequently foul weather gave them further respite. Low clouds, drizzle, fog -- for the Germans, ideal weather to move reinforcements to the front or to reposition units. And there were more of those days than there were clear ones.
Over the first ten days of the battle, the Germans fought so well that the Allies measured their gains in meters. By June 16, the euphoria produced by the D-Day success was giving way to fears that the Germans were imposing a stalemate in Normandy. These fears led to blame and recriminations among the Allies.
The difficulty centered around the taking of Caen. Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery, commanding the ground forces, had said he would take the city on D-Day, but he had not, nor did he do so in the following ten days. Nor was he attacking. The British Second Army had drawn the bulk of the panzers in Normandy to its front. It was at Caen that the Germans were most vulnerable, because a breakthrough at Caen would put British tanks on a straight road through rolling terrain with open fields headed directly for Paris. Therefore the fighting north of Caen was fierce and costly. But there was no all-out British attack.
The Americans, themselves frustrated by their glacial-like progress in the hedgerows, were increasingly critical of Montgomery. Monty sent it right back. He blamed Gen. Omar Bradley, commanding U.S. First Army, for Allied problems, saying that the Americans should have attacked both north toward Cherbourg and south toward Coutances, "but Bradley didn't want to take the risk." Monty added, "I have to take the Americans along quietly and give them time to get ready."
Normandy, the land of fat cattle and fine orchards, and thus of excellent cheese and outstanding cider, had gone from pastoral idyll to battlefield overnight. War came as a shock to the Normans, who had quite accommodated themselves to the German occupation. We get some sense of how it was for the Normans before and during the battle in a top secret report from OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in London direct to President Franklin Roosevelt. Dated June 14, it was based on "an entirely reliable source," an unnamed Frenchman who went into Normandy for a day and interviewed residents.
Highlights: severe gasoline shortages immobilized many German vehicles and even entire units; the general belief among both Frenchmen and Germans was that the Normandy landing was but the first of a series and the next one would be at Pas-de-Calais; people were well fed and clothed; the behavior of the Germans during the four years of occupation had been "extremely correct"; "there is no food shortage apparent in the restaurants, although prices are very high. Source states that the wine cellar of the Lion D'Or hotel is excellent."
The political gossip had it that "de Gaulle is regarded as a symbol of French resistance, but not liked personally. Pétain is not hated by the majority of persons with whom source spoke; he is regarded merely as a poor, tired, old man. A picture of him in the Mayor's office has been replaced by one of Marshal Foch."
All over France, citizens were looking at the portrait in their hôtel de ville (city hall), wondering about the right moment to take Marshal Pétain down and put Marshal Foch -- or, perhaps, who knows? -- General de Gaulle up. Or maybe Stalin. All over France, Gaullist and Communist-dominated resistance groups were wondering about the right moment to strike -- against the Germans and in a simultaneous bid for power in France.
At the top, through June, the Allied high command squabbled. At the front, the soldiers fought. They got through to the west coast of the Cotentin on June 18, to Cherbourg on the 20th. It took a week of hard fighting to force a surrender on the 27th, and even then the Germans left the port facilities so badly damaged that it took the engineers six weeks to get them functioning. Meanwhile supplies continued to come in via LSTs.
With Cherbourg captured, Bradley was able to turn U.S. First Army, now composed of the V, VII, VIII, and XIX Corps, in a continuous line facing south. St.-Lô and Coutances were the objectives of this second phase of the Battle of Normandy. To get to them, the GIs had a lot of hedgerows to cross.
To get through the hedgerows, junior officers in the tank units had been experimenting with various techniques and methods. One idea that worked was to bring to the front the specially equipped dozer tanks (tanks with a blade mounted on the front similar to those on commercial bulldozers) used on the beaches on D-Day. They could cut through a hedgerow well enough, but there were too few of them -- four per division -- to have much impact. A rush order back to the States for 278 additional bulldozer blades was put in, but it would take weeks to fill.
In the 747th Tank Battalion, attached to the 29th Division, someone -- name unknown -- suggested using demolitions to blow gaps in the hedgerows. After some experimenting, the tankers discovered that two fifty-pound explosive charges laid against the bank would blow a hole in a hedgerow big enough for a Sherman tank to drive through. Once on the other side, the tank could fire its cannon into the far corners, using white phosphorus shells, guaranteed to burn out the Germans at the machine-gun pits, and hose down the hedgerow itself with its .50-caliber machine gun. Infantry could follow the tank into the field and mop up what remained when the tanker got done firing.
Good enough, excellent even. But when the planners turned to the logistics of getting the necessary explosives to the tanks, they discovered that each tank company would need seventeen tons of explosives to advance a mile and a half. The explosives were not available in such quantities, and even had they been the transport problems involved in getting them to the front were too great.
An engineer suggested drilling holes in the embankment and placing smaller charges in them. That worked, too -- except that it took forever to dig holes large enough and deep enough in the bank because of the vines and roots, and the men doing the digging were exposed to German mortar fire.
A tanker in the 747th suggested welding two pipes of four feet in length and six inches in diameter to the front of a tank, reinforced by angle irons. The tank could ram into a hedgerow and back off, leaving two sizable holes for explosives. The engineers learned to pack their explosives into expended 105mm artillery shell casings, which greatly increased the efficiency of the charges and made transport and handling much easier. Some tankers discovered that if the pipes were bigger, sometimes that was enough to allow a Sherman to plow right on through, at least with the smaller hedgerows.33 Other experiments were going on, all across Normandy. The U.S. First Army was starting to get a grip on the problem.
It was also growing to its full potential. The buildup in Normandy, slowed but not stopped by the storm of June 19, was proceeding in fine shape. By June 30, the Americans had brought in 71,000 vehicles over the beaches (of a planned 110,000) and 452,000 soldiers (of a planned 579,000). The shortfall in soldiers was felt exclusively in supply and service troops: the combat strength of the First Army was actually greater than originally planned. It had eleven divisions in the battle, as scheduled, plus the 82nd and 101st Airborne, which were to have been withdrawn to England to prepare for the next jump, but which were retained on the Continent and kept in the line through June. The British Second Army also had thirteen divisions ashore, including the 6th Airborne.
The Americans had evacuated 27,000 casualties. About 11,000 GIs had been killed in action or died of their wounds, 1,000 were missing in action, and 3,400 wounded men had been returned to duty. So the total active duty strength of U.S. First Army in Normandy on June 30 was 413,000. German strength on the American front was somewhat less, while German losses against the combined British-Canadian-American forces were 47,500.
That the GIs were there in such numbers, and so well equipped if only partly trained, was the great achievement of the American people and system in the twentieth century and equal to the greatest nineteenth-century achievement, the creation of the Army of the Potomac. In 1864 and again eighty years later the American democracy gathered itself together and although sorely tested by three years of war was able to provide the men and matériel Grant and Eisenhower each needed to carry out a war-ending offensive.
In most cases the GIs were much better equipped than their foe. Some German weapons were superior, others inferior. In vehicles, the United States was far ahead, in both quality and quantity. The Germans could not compete with the American two-and-a-half-ton truck (deuce-and-a-half) or the jeep (the Germans loved to capture working jeeps, but complained that they were gas-guzzlers). The German factories making their vehicles were a few hundred kilometers from Normandy. Their American counterparts were thousands of kilometers from Normandy. Yet the Americans got more and better vehicles to the battlefront than the Germans did, in less time.
Simultaneously, the Americans were on the offensive in Italy and in the Pacific, and were conducting a major air offensive inside Germany. But the Germans were fighting on four fronts, the Eastern, Western, Southern, and Home. They could not possibly win a war of attrition, no matter how much closer to Normandy the German industrial centers were than the American.
The senior German commanders in the West, Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt and Erwin Rommel, were perfectly aware of that fact. Having failed to stop the Allied assault on the beaches, having failed to prevent a linkup of the invasion forces, completely lacking any air support and seriously deficient in air defense, chronically short on fuel, sometimes of ammunition, taking heavy casualties, they despaired. On June 28, the two field marshals set off for Hitler's headquarters in Berchtesgaden. On the drive, they talked. Rundstedt had already told Hitler's lackeys to "make peace." Now he said the same to Rommel.
"I agree with you," Rommel replied. "The war must be ended immediately. I shall tell the Führer so, clearly and unequivocally."
Rommel knew what that meant. Hitler had told him, six months earlier, "Nobody will make peace with me." But the failure to stop the landing on the beaches had put victory out of the question. Hitler would have to go, be forced to resign and give himself up, for the good of Germany. And now, at once. Every day the war went on made a terrible situation worse.
The showdown meeting with Hitler came at a full-dress conference attended by the top echelon of the high command: Field Marshals Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, and Goering, along with Admiral Karl Dönitz and many lesser lights, were there. Rommel spoke first. He said the moment was critical. He told his Führer, "The whole world stands arrayed against Germany, and this disproportion of strength --"
Hitler cut him off. Would the Herr Feldmarschall please concern himself with the military, not the political situation?
Rommel replied that history demanded he deal with the entire situation. Hitler rebuked him again and ordered him to stick to the military situation only. Rommel then gave a most gloomy report.
Hitler took over. He said the critical task was to halt the enemy offensive. This would be accomplished by the Luftwaffe, he declared. He announced that 1,000 new fighters were coming out of the factories and would be in Normandy shortly. He talked about new secret weapons -- the V-2 -- that would turn the tide. He said the Allied communications between Britain and Normandy would be cut by the Kriegsmarine, which would soon be adding a large number of torpedo boats to lay mines in the Channel, and new submarines to operate off the invasion beaches. And large convoys of brand-new trucks would soon be headed west from the Rhine toward Normandy.
This was pure fantasy. Hitler was clearly crazy. The German high command knew it, without question, and should have called for the men with the straitjacket. But nothing was done.
As the meeting broke up, Rommel said he could not leave without speaking directly to Hitler, "about Germany."
Hitler wheeled on him: "Field Marshal, I think you had better leave the room!" Rommel did.
For the Americans, numbers of units and qualifies and quantifies of equipment helped make victory possible, but it still took men to make it happen. And out in the hedgerows, it wasn't so apparent to the GIs that their side enjoyed great manpower and equipment advantages. Indeed it often looked the other way to them. As, indeed, sometimes it was. Meanwhile all those American vehicles would be idle until the GIs managed to break out of the hedgerows. And that rested on the wits, endurance, and execution of the tankers, artillery, and infantry at the front.
Copyright © 1997 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.
Afterword copyright © 1998 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.