D-Day, June 6, 1944
This book is a detailed look at the invasion of Omaha beach on D-Day. This is the beach that was best defended, more or less by chance, and came closest to being defeated. While the preparation is looked into to some extent, the bulk of the material is how the troops on the beach adapted and created an entirely new plan, and won.
Worst Laid Plans
In an earlier book on the planning of the operation I mentioned the discordance between the desire for a ‘surprise invasion’ and the need to prepare the beach using bombardment. Balkoski brings up another issue that compromised the initial assault. Omaha beach is faced with steep bluffs, with a limited number of entryways inland – called ‘draws’. Because of the need to bring masses of vehicles up these draws in the hours and days of the attack, the planners were concerned that the planned air bombardment would create huge craters. So they reduced the power of the bombs, which might well have limited the effectiveness of the bombing. The air forces, concerned about hitting the offshore forces, played it safe and the entire mission was dropped far inland, missing the fortified units.
A major improvement in the defenses was the lucky fact (for the Germans) that the experienced 352 Division was conducting exercises in the area and could take position to repel the assault. The tides offshore pushed the invading troops out of the expected locations, and the obstacles were not cleared. Most of the supporting tanks sunk. Casualties were severe.
Move or Die
It soon became clear that the initial plan to attack up the draws was suicidal. The Germans had set up many bunkers covering the route, and the walls blocking them had not been blasted open by the engineers, since they were cut to pieces on the beach at dawn. Flipping the plan on its head, the leaders left collected men they could find into scratch units and went straight up the sides of the bluffs. The Germans had not covered these areas as tightly, so slowly men could get up on the cliffs and begin to take out the bunkers that were firing onto the beach below.
The Navy also helped, pushing destroyers close to the shore for point-blank fire support. If the position could be spotted, they could usually hit it. There were a few cases where they hit friendly troops in the confusion, but on the whole the support was critical to reducing the strongpoints.
The one part of the initial plan that ended up working well was simply the mass of the number of men and material that was to be put on the beach that day. If the plan had gone right, these men would have been strolling off the beach and driving inland. Instead, these troops were turned into infantry and used to pry open the stubborn defenses – but it was what was needed. By the end of the day, the US was on-shore to stay, if not as far inland as they would have liked.
Balkoski has mixed in numerous quotes and observations from the men on both sides into the text. He has done some great research and it shows. I’ll be getting his other books on this subject.