The Disasters of D-Day
The successful invasion of Normandy may seem predestined today, but it certainly wasn’t on the morning of June 6th, 1944. The Germans and the weather weren’t the only problems for the Allies. In many cases, the Allies were their own worst enemies. For every Ponte Du Hoc, there was a Vierville Draw; for every Pegasus Bridge there was a Merville Battery, if not more, many more. The question isn’t really how the Allies won, but how did they not lose despite themselves? Laziness, greed, incompetence, ignorance, poor staff work, etc, these were obstacles that were far different than German machine gun nests, but had to be overcome nonetheless.
These are the D-Day stories we don’t like to talk about, because they are the stories we fear to repeat. They are the tragedies that we inflicted upon ourselves.
The disasters of D-Days started even before the final go-ahead by Eisenhower. The airborne landings, though absolutely necessary, were catastrophic. The SOE Jedburgh Teams dropped in on the night of the 4th found that many of their supplies parachuted in with them were stolen before they could be recovered, undoubtedly by the French Resistance who were the only ones who knew they were coming. Most Jedburgh teams were reduced to the role of poorly equipped cut off infantry, not unlike the paratroopers that followed them.
Almost none of the pathfinders of the airborne divisions marked their drop zones, and if they did, it was usually in the wrong spot. Only the chaos of the actual jump masked it. History has recorded that chaos as a positive for spreading the German defenses out, but it wasn’t so for the paratroopers that night. Fra fewer made it into the fight than myth and legend tells us. The fire in Sainte-Mère-Église caused the destruction of an entire airborne company after a pilot mistook it for the lights of the drop zone. And Sainte-Mère-Église, celebrated as the first town liberated in France, was only secured after the Germans pulled out to more defensible terrain: terrain that 82nd Airborne was originally supposed to secure in the first place, but couldn’t because it lacked the men to do so. Almost another entire airborne company drowned when its jumpmasters pushed them out over the flooded area. Another group of twelve paratroopers, lost, broke into a wine cellar and were found drunk two days later. Another pilot flew so low that the parachutes of his charges couldn’t open and one soldier on the ground, cursing the pilot, noted that they sounded like “pumpkins splatting on the ground”.
The most celebrated unit in the airborne invasion was E/1/506 who fought D-Day with just 14 men, out of 140. More joined later, but that doesn’t change the fact that Captain Dick Winters had to seize the Breucourt Manor guns, a company if not a battalion objective, with just 11 men.
Even those paratroopers that didn’t hide or wander and took the initiative, weren’t immune to human fallibility. One enterprising German unit captured over 50 paratroopers by using their cricket against them. When the challenge of “one click” got a response of “two clicks”, the American was quietly taken prisoner. Another group of 19 Americans was taken prisoner behind Utah Beach and subsequently killed in the invasion bombardment.
One can only imagine the stories that haven’t been recorded.
The invasion itself was an unmitigated disaster for the French population of that stretch of the Norman coast. De Gaulle’s refusal to address his people over semantics in Eisenhower’s draft request undoubtedly caused thousands of casualties among French civilians who ignored Eisenhower’s pleas to evacuate the coast. For every French civilian who proudly waved the tricolor during the bombardment, dozens, if not hundreds were killed or wounded. In Caen, the Gestapo executed every French civilian in the prison. The Hotel D’Normandie in Ouisterham collapsed upon its inhabitants and those who survived were nearly all killed ten minutes later when their cover was struck by the bombardment.
As the bombardment continued, the movement at sea from the transfer points to the beaches was beyond chaotic, much of it self-inflicted. In their arrogance, the Americans refused British help with navigational aids marking the beaches, such as prepositioned midget subs that successfully guided British troops to the correct destinations. They relied on patrol cutters to guide the landing craft in, almost all of whom got lost. A coxswain bringing in the rangers to scale Pont Du Hoc got lost and the rangers arrived 30 minutes late, well after the first waves hit Omaha. The rising tide was almost lapping the base of the cliff by the time the rangers scaled the heights. That there were no guns at the top was all that prevented a greater disaster on the Omaha and Utah beaches below.
Of the first three waves to hit the beaches at Omaha and Utah, only a single company, A/1/116th of the 29th Division landed at the beach they were assigned, and they were massacred for it. Tens of thousands of pages of orders and timetables and millions of man hours: useless and wasted. 8 of the 16 landing craft that carried Omaha Beach’s duplex drive tanks refused to land the tanks directly on the beach, even though the swells would obviously swamp the tanks further out. That the DD tanks would never make the 5000 yard swim to shore was obvious to all. Thirty tanks and their crews were forced out of the landing craft because the sailors refused to deviate from the plan. Not a single tank made it more than hundred yards out to sea, most just drove off the ramp and sank.
The 4th Infantry Division’s entire assault wave landed a mile and quarter south of where they should have been due to their coxswains following a lost patrol cutter.
The landings on the beaches, at Omaha in particular, were horrific, and the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan is tame in comparison. The entire bombardment over shot the beach defenses, despite spotter planes continually calling in “on target”. One British observer watched as an entire formation of B-17’s and B-26s drop their loads into the fields behind the beaches. “That’s a fat lot of use, all it’ll do is just wake them up.”
American and British intelligence missed the movement of the entire German 352nd Infantry Division into the beach defenses opposite Omaha until the 4th of June, and then decided not to tell the assault troops. Until the moment the ramps dropped, the men of the 1st and 29th Divisions expected to face the green conscripts of the 716th Division, not the tough and experienced 352nd battle hardened on the Eastern Front. One amazed German sergeant looking down on Omaha commented, “They must be crazy. Are they going to swim ashore right in front of our muzzles?”
One German private estimated he fired his rifle 400 times that morning, and hit someone more than half the time.
A single German MG42 gunner, Heinrich Severloh, claimed he hit, “at least 1,000 men, most likely more than 2,000. But I do not know how many men I shot. It was awful.” Though his account is considered exaggerated by historians today, that Severloh alone caused dozens, if not hundreds, of casualties on Omaha Beach’s Easy Red and Fox Green sectors is beyond doubt.
An entire LCI was destroyed when a single errant bullet struck a flamethrower tank and exploded. Men carrying a hundred pounds of equipment quickly found out that the weight doubled when it was soaked with sea water: something those who mandated the combat load would never have to experience. Many men drowned because they couldn’t get out of the water fast enough or were crushed when a swell pushed a landing craft violently forward. Most craft were stuck on a sand bar initially but as the tide rose they became increasingly stuck on the beach obstacles. The assault waves landed at low tide, but the rising tide became a problem: the landing craft and debris were inadvertently pushed into the mines.
Men who were too wounded to move forward quickly drowned. The flotsam and jetsam, and bodies, along the beach began to accumulate as the tide pushed it forward: crushing some, but forcing all into German fields of fire. An LCI was destroyed by mine, and became a plow as the tide pushed it forward onto the beach. The arrogant American refusal of the British offer of specialty engineer vehicles was paid in blood. Engineers got into fights with soldiers seeking scant cover behind beach obstacles they were supposed to blow, and in several instances detonated them anyway. Entire groups refused to move until the tide forced them to and there was at least one mutiny on the beach. Men spent hours digging in only to have the tide swallow them whole. Unwounded men got high on their own morphine, and waited for the water to end their existence before the Germans did.
On the relatively calm Utah, several men found a small remote controlled Goliath. They played around with the controller, amused by the little tank. Unbeknownst to them, it was packed full of explosives and they accidentally set it off, killing everyone watching.
On the British beaches, many troops landed, neutralized the beach defenses… and then dug in, awaited orders, and brewed tea. One unit even reveled in the fact that they were first British unit to brew tea in France. Lt James Doohan, the future Montgomery Scott of Star Trek, had to pull his pistol on his coxswain to get him to move toward the beach. Barrage balloons were set up on the beaches, which only acted as markers for German artillery. It would hours and dozens of casualties later before someone had the moral courage to cut them loose. Just off of Sword Beach, the Merville Battery was taken at great cost, then abandoned for fears of friendly naval gunfire, and subsequently reoccupied by the Germans. It wouldn’t be recaptured for another seven weeks. Allied bombers destroyed Caen, killing a thousand French civilians, and inadvertently turned it into a fortress for the Germans.
By noon, General Omar Bradley seriously considered sending troops from Utah to Omaha, or even pulling off of Omaha altogether.
Along the shingle on Omaha, one soldier wrote in his diary, “I prayed for the fourth time today, asking God, “Why do these things have to be visited upon men?”
Thankfully, some of those men persisted.
Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “Out of every one hundred men in battle, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they the battle make. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others home.”
When teaching history, we tend to celebrate Heraclitus’ fighters and warriors. They make a good tale, but since they’re the only tales told, we also tend to ascribe their uniqueness to the mass. For every junior NCO or officer who led a few stalwarts up the hill on Omaha and cracked the German defense, there were a hundred down below just trying to survive. The stories of the others make us uncomfortable at best and embarrassed at worst. However, very little is ever learned in victory. And even worse, to ignore those stories does a disservice to the fighters and warriors that had to endure beside them. It also does a disservice to the system that produced them both as internal factors are almost always more important than external factors. The difference between a good unit and a great unit, between victory and defeat is sometimes as small as one or two more willing to fight. The fighters and warriors rose to the occasion despite themselves, their comrades, even those supposedly their betters.
As the memory of D-Day passes into history, to tell only 10% of the story is a travesty, and dishonest. One cannot fully appreciate their resilience unless you have something familiar to compare it to, that those stories are difficult to talk about should be immaterial. Those that didn’t live up to the almost impossible standards of conduct we set for June 6th 1944 nonetheless still showed up that day.
The disasters of D-Day are reminders that soldiers, sailors, and airmen are human and are subject to the same human fallibility as any other. Leaders, and historians, tend to fall into the assumptions that subordinates always followed orders, the plans were always perfect, and that luck was always in their favor. This is rarely, if ever, the case. Errors happen. Humans break, sometimes easily.
Egos have killed more people than bullets and shells.
But the fighters and warriors succeeded despite those working against them, even their own.
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