At 02:00 on June 6, the lead ships of Force U, consisting of 12 convoys totalling 865 ships, reached their staging area 12 miles (19km) off the west coast of the Cotentin Peninsula, opposite the dunes of Varreville: Utah Beach. The attack on Utah Beach, all along its western flank, was in fact a stand-alone operation. If all else failed it could be reinforced to form a bridgehead, to cut off Cotentin, capture Cherbourg and make a new attempt from there. In that case, Overlord would be a thing of the past.
Operation Order I read:
” The 7th Army Corps attacks Utah Beach at H-Hour on D-Day and captures Cherbourg with the minimum of delay. ”
In the hours before dawn came the orders given to the 7th Army Corps. The 4th Infantry Division was to form the bridgehead; the 8th Infantry Regiment in front with the 1st Battalion on the right flank, on Green Beach, and the 2nd Battalion on the left flank, on Red Beach; two companies from each battalion in the front line; in each landing craft 30 men; five landing craft for each company, twenty landing craft with 600 men in the vanguard and two companies of the 70th Tank Battalion in the first wave. Behind them would follow wave after wave to H+5, H5-15, H+17, H+30 and so on all day and all night long: infantry, tanks and engineers, all in the shallows, all through the barricades, the minefields, over the beach, the dunes, the dykes, the inundations, inland to the villages and open fields : 40 kilometres through the narrowest part of the peninsula, from Carentan to Lessay and then further north to Cherbourg.
Soldiers aboard an LCVP boat en route to Utah Beach.
H-Hour for the western flank was 06:30, but along the invasion beaches tidal variations necessitated differences in H-Hour from the right to the left flank. Between Utah Beach and Sword Beach, therefore, there was a time difference of 1 hour 25 minutes. But the men on the right flank were as lonely as those on the left. In the chill of the morning they were tossed to and fro in their little landing crafts. Above their heads the air trembled with the thunder of the aeroplanes. The noise grew louder and louder; cannon fire boomed, shells rumbled through the air, and all around them were men and boats. Yet they were lonelier than ever.
Along the dark coastline the sand rushed up from one side to the other, blown up in a towering cloud of dust by the explosions of shells and bombs. Like a menacing, opaque curtain, that dust cloud hung over the beach.
Enemy shells exploded over the water, with the occasional dull thud of an exploding mine in between. Men stumbled and fell forward into the water with their arms wide open, unable to stand up because of the weight of their equipment. The noise lodged itself in the minds of the men and formed a sea of fire in which the last cries of those who died were no more than the frightened squeaks of mice in a lion’s cage. The 60 German soldiers of Battery B of the 29th Field Artillery saw dark shadows ploughing through the water, under the water, part of the pattern at the bottom of the sea.
Troops land on Utah Beach.
But the pattern moved forward without concern for personal disaster, the second wave, the bulldozers in their landing crafts, the special engineer units, all were ready. The heavy guns of the firing squadron ripped the grey dawn to shreds; this was to continue for another 40 minutes. 276 planes of the American 9th Air Force came down low over the beach and dropped their bombs: 4404 bombs of 125 kg on seven targets, all ‘by the book’.
Seventeen of the 33 support vessels seemed to tear the sky with the unbearable noise of their rockets, which they fired at the coast. Other craft had their machine guns rattling, perhaps hoping to detonate mines, perhaps just to boost morale, but all together ‘drenched the beaches with fire’.
Another 700 metres and just in time: ten assault landing craft with a total of 300 men on the left flank and ten with 300 men on the right flank. Behind them came 28 DD tanks; the foams of the hostile sea swept over them, the long barrels of their guns protruded like the snouts of monsters, a miracle that was due to the initiative and decisiveness of their commanders, who had launched the tanks 3000 metres away, ‘not by the book’.
The beach was almost completely hidden by the curtain of sand thrown up by the cannon fire and bombs. It seemed to be one with the sky above. And in it, below it, ‘was the enemy… if an enemy could still exist!
Some 67 bombers had failed to drop their bombs, a third of the rest had fallen between the high and low water mark and most of the rest had landed on the forts of La Madeleine.
The forward attack wave sent up smoke projectiles to ask the gunners of the shelling force to stop firing. Then there was still 300 metres to go… the blows of the landing craft went down. 300 men of the 2nd Battalion waded through the water up to their waists to the beach. Holding their rifles above their heads and their gaze fixed on the dry sand, they felt animated with new courage. Normandy, the first men had gone ashore and from the dust of battle not a shot had sounded. The tanks rolled up onto the beach growling from the sea and sowing fear and terror among the few defenders who still dared to raise their heads. Here and there a few hesitant shots could be heard.
The first to enter the beach and their comrades who came after them did not know that the tide had taken them more than a kilometre south of their goal. They were lucky. They had landed on a less well-defended stretch of beach than the one they were supposed to be landing on. Two hours later the front units were off the beach. The enemy support points were cleared with company strength and the dunes did not have to be stormed. By 10 a.m., six battalions of infantry were already moving inland from the beach and the engineers were only occasionally hampered in their task by an explosion and reminded of their vulnerability as they applied their charges. By noon the beach had been cleared at the cost of six dead and 39 wounded. And a total of 400 men had been on the beach, all without cover and without armour protection.
Shortly after noon three battalions of the 22nd Infantry Regiment were on their way north to clear the northern end of the beach. The 3rd Battalion took the coastal road to anchor a flank at Hamel-de-Cruttes, the 1st and 2nd Battalions waded obliquely off the beach, up to the waist and sometimes to the armpits through the inundations to St. Germain-de-Varreville. The 12th Infantry Regiment fared even worse; many men were soaked to the neck in the advance from the Grand-Dune position just behind the beach.
In the course of the day the 8th and 22nd Infantry Regiments lost 12 men. Had there been 200, the losses would have been considered moderate; had there been 1200, they would have been a setback to be reckoned with. A single soldier, armed with a back-loader, could have taken out at least twelve men on the beach in the first half hour, including a brigade commander and a colonel. The 4th Infantry Division had to fight primarily against the forces of nature, and they were no small force. Further east, for their countrymen on Omaha Beach, it was not so easy.
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