Friday, May 30, 2014

It's the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings.

Tuesday, June 6, 1944, was D-Day. That was exactly 70 years ago.

Planning for D-Day ended on May 12. After that, alterations simply could not be made due to the massive complexity of the plan. Aerial bombing targets began to be identified on May 15. Eisenhower confirmed June 5 as D-Day, and ordered all preparations to be complete by June 1. Troops begin moving from their barracks to embarkation points on May 18. Three days later, Allied planes began attacking rail lines and bridges in the interior of France. Troops finished arriving at the embarkation points on May 24, and all ports were sealed off. No one could enter or leave them, not even civilians. The same day, Allied planes begin bombing bridges around Paris, to prevent the German reserves from moving up to Normandy. On May 26, XIX Corps arrived in Britain to replace those troops at the embarkation point. XIX Corps was to be the reserve, sent to Normandy once the beachheads are secure. The Royal Navy sealed the English Channel on May 27, and mines were laid off the coast of France. All troops were now confined to their landing craft at night, to prevent any leaks. The "corn cobs" took to sea, as they were the slowest ships and needed eight days to reach Normandy. On May 31, loading of troops, equipment, and supplies onto landing craft began. The night of June 2, "Task Force O" -- the combined naval fleet which will protect the Normandy landings -- departed from Glasgow, Scotland.

Allied bombing of the French coast and interior began in earnest on June 2. This was part of "Cover" -- the attempt to fool the Germans into believing that Calais rather than Normandy was the target of the invasion. But "Cover" had to have a strategic and tactical aspect as well, because bombings had to occur at Normandy and those bombings had to be effective. On Friday, June 2, 521 B-17 "Flying Fortresses" and 284 B-24 "Liberators" hit V1 and V2 missile sites near Calais. That afternoon, 242 B-17s bombed railroad targets near Paris. About 350 B-26 "Marauders" and A-20 "Havocs" bombed V1 and V2 sites and coastal defense batteries along the English Channel, while P-38 "Lightnings" and P-47 "Thunderbolts" dive-bombed V1 and V2 sites, fuel dumps, railroad junctions, and bridges in Normandy. On June 3, 219 B-17s and 120 B-24s attacked coastal defenses near Calais in the morning, while 97 B-17s and 98 B-24s hit in the afternoon and 23 B-24s hit in the evening. The same day, 250 B-26s and A-20s bombed airfields, highway bridges, and coastal defense batteries in Normandy, while 400 P-38s and P-47s dive-bombed other targets. On June 4, 183 B-17s and 51 B-24s attacked Calais in the morning and 222 B-17s and 53 B-24s hit coastal defenses in the afternoon. Around Paris that afternoon, 263 B-17s and 185 B-24s hit airfields, railway junctions, and bridges. Bad weather cancelled the morning flights against Normandy, but that afternoon 300 B-26s and A-20s bombed highway bridges and coastal batteries while 200 P-47s and P-51 "Mustangs" dive-bombed bridges, railroad junctions, trains, and "targets of opportunity" (anything else that moved). On June 5, bad weather canceled many missions. But 423 B-17s and 203 B-24s bombed coastal defenses in the major French ports of Boulogne, Caen, Cherbourg, and Le Havre.

The airborne assault teams departed Great Britain at about 11 p.m. on June 5. Just under two hours later, most of the "pathfinder" groups were dropped onto French soil. At about 1:30 a.m., the remainder of the 22,000 paratroops landed behind German coastal defenses and began to seize or destroy river bridges, highway junctions, and key high terrain points.

At 3:00 a.m., 659 B-17s and 418 B-24s bombed coastal targets throughout the Normandy landing area.

At 6:00 a.m., the naval bombardment of the Normandy beaches began. It lasted exactly 90 minutes.

At 5:40 a.m., 160,000 troops aboard more than 4,100 landing craft hit five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of Normandy near the city of Caen: Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword, and Utah.

Sword Beach was the easternmost beach. Near the town of Ouistreham, it was almost five miles (eight km) long and assigned to the 28,845 men of British I Corps. The beach itself sloped gradually up to a low seawall, and then the town. The objective was to capture the town of Caen and the nearby Carpiquet airport, and link up with paratroops of the British 6th Airborne Division who were holding the bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal. The first troops came ashore at 7:25 a.m. They met little resistance, and the fighting was over in 45 minutes. By the end of the day, all 28,845 British troops had come ashore. The troops managed to move about five miles (eight km) inland. Nonetheless, Caen was not captured; I Corps was stopped about 3.75 miles (six km) short of the city. The sheer amount of personnel and equipment coming ashore bogged down the British advance. In the town of Ouistreham, British troops raced for a mile through the town to reach and disable a shore battery inside a casino. (This is captured in an amazing overhead shot that lasts five minutes in the 1962 film, The Longest Day.)

Juno Beach was four miles (6.4km) west of Sword Beach. Covering the seaside towns of Lion-sur-Mer, Luc-sur-Mer, and Courseulles, it was six miles (10 km) wide and assigned to the 21,400 men of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade. Juno was the second-most heavily defended beach in the area (Omaha being worse). Like Sword Beach, June Beach sloped only gradually. But at the edge of the beach was a high, high seawall -- in some places, more than 12.5 feet (3.8m) high. Near Courseulles, the Canadian troops crossed the beach and invested the town within 15 minutes. But just a mile (0.6km) to the east, near the tiny village of Bernieres-sur-Mer, the Canadians ran 200 yards (182m) across the beach and were nearly wiped out by hidden German guns. Nonetheless, by 10 a.m., the entire beach was secure and by noon the entire 3rd Infantry and 2nd Armored were completely ashore. By the end of the day, the Canadians were 9.7 miles (15.7km) inland -- the furthest of all Allied troops. They had also linked up with Juno Beach to their left.

Gold Beach was 10 miles (16km) to the west of Juno Beach and was the center-most landing beach. It was five miles (eight km) wide, with a gently sloping beach leading up to the seaside towns of Arromanches and Port-en-Bessin. The 24,970 men of the British 2nd Army's 50th (Northumbrian) Division were assigned to the beach. The center highlands were marshy and only lightly defended, but either end was dry and hard. German artillery inland covered the beach. Strong winds, however, made the tide higher here -- so that engineers and sappers could not clear the mines and anti-tank obstacles now under water. The decision at Gold Beach was to run the landing craft right up onto the beach and let the submersible tanks out first. But the landing craft hit numerous mines and obstacles, and nearly all the were wiped out. A second wave of infantry, too, was badly hit by mines and only a limited number of troops got ashore. But the third wave, which contained tanks as well, managed to make it onto the beach -- albeit an hour late. Heavy shelling took a toll on the tanks and troops, but the British pushed inland through the center quickly. At 4 p.m., the British captured the town of Le Hamel on the British left. Sweeping inland and then west, they reached the outskirts of the city of Bayeux by 8:30 p.m. Fearing encirclement, the Germans begin to withdraw from Arromanches, and the British took the city at 9 p.m. At 11 p.m. the British linked up with the Canadians on Juno Beach, but failed to take Port-en-Bessin and its harbor.

Omaha Beach was 5 miles (8 km) long, and extended roughly from Port-en-Bessin in the east to the town of Viercille-sur-Mer in the west. Rocky high cliffs anchored either end of the beach. The beach itself was a gently sloping 300 yards (275m) wide. An eight foot (2.4m) high beach of slate and gravel extended beyond that. In some places, the slate beach was 15 yards (14m) wide. On the eastern third of the beach, a seawall ranging four to 12 feet (1.5–4m) in height lay beyond the slate beach. On the western two-thirds of the beach there was no seawall, just a sand embankment. Behind the seawall/sand embankment was another 200 yards (180m) of flat sand. Finally, steep bluffs rose 100–170 feet (30–50m). In five places, the bluffs were pierced by narrow valleys filled with brush and trees. They were the only way off the beach. The western half of Omaha Beach was assigned to the green U.S. 29th Infantry Division and eight companies of the U.S. Army Rangers. The eastern half was assigned to the U.S. 1st Infantry Division. Altogether, 43,250 troops would hit the beach. The primary objective was to secure the beach and move five miles (eight km) inland, link up with the British at Gold Beach, and link up with the U.S. VII Corps at Utah Beach to the west. The commander in charge was General Omar Bradley, promoted to a four-star general just six months earlier.

Everything went wrong at Omaha.

Just underwater at the low-tide mark was a gap-toothed line of upright metal fencing with mines attached to the top of the fences. About 30 yards (28m) inland were punji sticks thrust into the sand, every third one capped with an anti-tank mine. Another 30 yards (28m) inland were 450 concrete ramps sloping towards the shore. Any flat-bottomed landing craft which hit a ramp would either hit the mine at the top of the ramp or ride up and flip over. At the high-tide mark were a solid line of "hedgehogs" -- the jack-like iron shapes which proved immensely effective at stopping tanks. The flat sandy beach between the shingle beach and the bluffs was also mined, as were the vertical bluffs themselves (to prevent anyone from scaling them).

Ten landing craft were sunk in rough seas before they even reached the beach. Large numbers of amphibious tanks also sank. A heavy current pushed the landing craft eastward, away from their scheduled drop zones. Few landing craft knew where they were headed, as smoke bombs -- meant to guide them shoreward -- obscured the cliffs and any visual landmarks they could have used to correct course. Units were scrambled once they got ashore, some missing their equipment (which ended up hundreds of yards down the beach). Many soldiers were killed or wounded as they moved horizontally on the beach, trying to get back to their assigned landing place. Major gaps between troops opened up, preventing the soldiers from effectively suppressing enemy fire.

On-site commanders, seeing how many tanks were sinking due to the rough seas, decided to drop their tanks right on the beaches. But this meant that many landing craft now struck the mines and anti-landing craft obstacles. Many of the troops were disgorged into chest-deep water, struggled through 50 yards of water, slogged another 30 yards through wet and sucking sand, and were barely walking by the time they hit the shingle beach. By then, most troops were too exhausted and demoralized to do more than cower.

As the troops at Omaha came ashore, they took heavy enemy fire. The average casualty rate was 30 percent dead and wounded. At either end of Omaha, where the cliffs provided the Germans with excellent vantage points, units lost half or more of their fighting strength to enemy fire. It quickly became clear that the bombing campaign the night before had had little effect, as the planes had dropped their ordnance too far inland (to avoid hitting the approaching landing craft). Engineers, who were supposed to blow up many of the anti-tank and anti-ship obstacles, found their own troops taking cover behind the obstacles instead. The heavy fire decimated the engineers (the casualty rate was a whopping 40 percent), and after an hour only six narrow gaps had been cut through the obstacles for oncoming troops and vehicles.

The second wave of troops began coming ashore at 7 a.m. They, too, came ashore in the wrong place, took heavy fire, and hit numerous mines and obstacles. As jeeps, half-tracks, and mobile artillery began landing on shore, they bunched up and became easy pickings for the German artillery.

But not all was lost. At 7:30 a.m., a group of Rangers scaled the cliffs on the far western end of the beach near Vierville and spent the rest of the day clearing out German defenders and securing the valley for the oncoming troops. At 7:50 a.m., troops cut their way through the barbed wire opposite the tiny hamlet of Les Moulins, and by 9:30 a.m. more than 600 troops had reached the cliffs, scaled them, and were moving inland. Just to their east, three rifle companies cut their way through the barbed wire and scaled the cliffs next to the Les Moulins valley.

Slowly, the few remaining officers on the beach began to organize remnants of various units into new fighting groups. These groups began to crawl up the beach, over the shingles, and across the flat sand toward the cliffs. They were supported by naval gunfire. At first, naval units were fearful of coming too close to shore, because they didn't want to come under fire from shore defenses and because they worried about running aground. But many American destroyers ignored the risks. Some came within 1,000 yards (914m) of the shore, their hulls scraping the bottom. Their gunners followed the fire of tanks on shore, and slowly they began to take out the shore batteries. At one point, the USS Frankford crossed the beach, guns blazing. Then it backed up, taking another run at the German artillery.

At 8:30 a.m., naval commanders suspended all further landings at Omaha. Landing craft began to bunch up at sea, many of them swamping in the heavy swells. Landing craft with tanks were ordered to land to provide suppressing fire for the troops and protect them as they pushed toward the cliffs. But hours passed as the tank-laden landing craft had to push through a mass of other ships and creep through the few clear channels to the beach.

Finally, at 11:30 a.m., the valley leading to the village of St. Laurent was seized by the U.S. forces. At 1:00 p.m., the Rangers announced they had seized the valley near Vierville. In the valley farthest to the east, originally considered too steep to use, Army engineers actually laid down a road under fire, and traffic began flowing off the beach at 8 p.m. Landings on Omaha were permitted again at 2 p.m., and slowly more obstacles, mines, and wire were removed from the beach -- widening the existing clear channels and creating new ones.

By midnight, U.S. troops had barely penetrated a few hundred yards inland. Omaha Beach was still under constant artillery fire. The last ships, scheduled to come ashore in mid-morning, did not arrive until 11 p.m., and even then suffered 50 percent casualties. Instead of 2,400 tons of equipment and ammunition, only 100 tons had come ashore. It took U.S. troops at Omaha another 48 hours to achieve their Day One objectives.

Utah Beach was about 3 miles (5 km) long and separated from Omaha Beach by the River Douve. A gently sloping beach led up to numerous and dunes, beyond which was very swampy marshland. The 32,000 men of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division were assigned to the beach, with a mission objective of coming ashore and capturing the port of Cherbourg (up the coast to the northwest) as quickly as possible. As at Omaha, strong currents pushed the invading forces to the southeast. Smoke intended to guide the forces to their proper landing zones instead served to hide the visual landmarks on the shore, making course corrections almost impossible. Instead of landing opposite the hamlets of Saint-Martin-de-Varreville and Saint-Germain-de-Varreville, the landing forced ended up a mile southeast opposite the seaside town of La Madeleine. Luckily, Utah Beach was only lightly defended. The Germans had relied heavily on flooding the marshlands behind the sand dunes, allowing invading forces to establish a beachhead and seize roadways in force. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (at 57, the oldest soldier to make a landing with the troops at Normandy) came ashore at La Madeleine. Realizing the problems his troops would encounter, he personally made a reconnaissance behind German lines and returned safely to his forces. He hastily drew maps, made assault assignments, and sent his forces inland. Another factor aiding the assault at Utah was that the landing craft disgorged their amphibious tanks much closer to the beach. This allowed them to swim against the current, keeping them from swamping in the rough seas and allowing them to land closer to the troops than at Omaha. By 3 p.m., nearly all the troops were ashore, and by midnight the 4th Infantry had captured Carentan, Périers, St. Lô, Coutances, Valonges, and Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte.

Overall, 10,000 casualties had been incurred (6.25 percent casualty rate). This was about half the number that had been estimated.

During the D-Day landings, 325 B-17s made bombing runs just behind the German lines to disrupt troop movements and communication as well as the movement of supplies. Naval bombardment of the interior was also carried out as airborne troops and troops moving inland directed warship fire. German General Von Rundstedt considered the naval bombardment the most effective element in delaying the German response.

Two Mulberry harbors were created on June 9. One was at Arromanches and the other at Omaha Beach. A severe storm destroyed the Mulberry at Omaha on June 19, and it was not rebuilt. By this time, American troops had raced across the Cotentin Peninsula and cut off Cherbourg. (The deep-water port was captured on June 26; however, German sabotage made the facilities unusable until mid-August.) By August 1, 629,000 troops, 95,000 vehicles, and 218,000 tons of supplies can been brought ashore.

The first PLUTO line to France was laid on August 12, 1944. It led from the Isle of Wight through the English Channel to Cherbourg. After the liberation of Calais, 17 other lines were laid to provide additional fuel to Allied troops in Europe.

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