On the Beach

by wjw on October 22, 2014

omahaSeventy years and several months ago, my dad was bouncing around in a small boat just off this inoffensive-looking beach, which was then covered with obstacles, burning ships and tanks, and a lot of dead soldiers.  My dad was ready to join Eisenhower’s great crusade, and though he didn’t land until three days after the Omaha Beach invasion, he watched the whole thing from his transport along with everyone else in his unit, leaning over the rail even though all the officers kept telling them to go below where it was safer.  German shells were landing all around, though none of them hit the transport, and the shrapnel began to pile in drifts on the deck.  There was so much of it that the weight of it— along with the weight of the rubbernecking GIs— was threatening to capsize the craft, so brooms were broken out and the shrapnel was swept overboard.

My guess is that the battlefield was covered with smoke and dust and that my dad didn’t see much.

The beach has changed a good deal since 1944.  There was an enormous pile of shingle just inland from the beach, hard to climb and very difficult for vehicles.  Behind the shingle was a seawall composed partly of masonry and partly of timber.  And behind that was the tall bluff covered with masked German fortifications.

Looking at it now, I can’t imagine how anyone got off the beach alive.

In the background of the photo is Point du Hoc, where the Rangers climbed up a vertical cliff to storm an enemy battery, aided by the fact that the Germans didn’t believe such an attack was possible and all the fortifications were facing the other direction, ready to repel a land assault.  The 155mm guns had been withdrawn a few days earlier, but the Rangers hunted them down and destroyed them later in the day.

I’ve been to France maybe half a dozen times, but this is the first time I’ve sought out anyplace connected with my father’s adventures.  (Well, I did look for the slit trench he claimed to have dug in the garden at Versailles.)  I know in a general way where he was, but very few specific locations.  Hard to miss this one, though.

I was surprised at the number of D-Day buffs looking at the sites on a cold Wednesday afternoon in October.  Most of them were French, and a great many brought their children.

Good to know that my dad’s efforts, and those of his comrades, are not being forgotten.

Rosie October 23, 2014 at 12:45 pm

As a one-time archaeologist, I find it fascinating how little physical evidence remains a mere 70 years after a massive invasion of such a well-fortified site.

wjw October 23, 2014 at 8:37 pm

A lot of late 20th Century technology was deployed to clean all the wreckage up. I’m staying in this city that was bombed flat in 1944, and now it’s a nice modern city with even the medieval stuff restored.

But you can still find the war on the land that isn’t useful to anyone. Pointe du Hoc is still chock-full of bomb craters, and even the remains of an underground railroad. There are still bunkers, pillboxes, tobrouks, and gun batteries here and there.

And offshore, sunken wrecks of ships and tanks. It was amazing how many ships were sunk keeping the troops supplied.

John Appel October 24, 2014 at 2:35 am

There’s actually a fair bit of the remnants of WWII around in Normandy if you know where to look. And they can catch you unawares, like the steel cable I snagged my foot on during a visit to Utah beach, which my guide told me was part of the anchor for some of the fortifications; it was attached to a slab of concrete still buried under the sand. (Of course I didn’t know at the time that what I thought was a sprained ankle which kept me from visiting Chateau Gaillard the next day was actually a split tendon.)

The same guide told us that the remains of about a dozen war dead, almost always Germans, are found each year in Normandy.

Shash October 25, 2014 at 1:13 am

On my first visit to Le Mans, I met a few young people from Normandy and every one said thank you to me for the American effort. One told me he had to promise his grandfather that he would tell his own children the story. That happened only eight years ago.

DensityDuck November 2, 2014 at 7:35 am

The thing to keep in mind is that the Saving Private Ryan-style “machineguns firing directly into troop landers” thing only happened in a couple places, and only because somebody fucked up. Most of the landings weren’t directly opposed, because either they landed somewhere the Germans weren’t or because the Navy was blasting the crap out of the defenders (while your bunker might be thick enough to stand up to five-inch shellfire, you won’t be standing up at the firing slit manning the guns.)

That’s not to say that there weren’t hazards; mines and artillery fire still killed plenty of people. But those tend to be easier to handle (or, at least, run through) than direct gunfire.

You’re right that when the landings happened on defended beaches without naval support, it went very badly.

wjw November 11, 2014 at 7:06 am

If you landed in the first hour at Omaha, you had a 49% chance of becoming a casualty. Some units, like A Company of the 116th Regiment, suffered over 90%.

In any case the survivors generally got ashore without firearms, radios, food, bangalore torpedoes, or their officers, most of whom were shot or overwhelmed. The tanks were sunk or quickly put out of action, and the beaches were so covered with smoke that the Navy couldn’t see anything to shoot at. (Which changed later in the day, when the destroyers ventured within 400 yards of the beach.)

Most of the troops were landed in the wrong place, and unable to carry out the missions they’d been trained for.

Subsequent waves landed at higher tide and didn’t have so far to run to get to shelter, and so managed to get enough equipment ashore to begin to push off the beach.

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