Second World War

D-Day: History Geek hits Omaha Beach

Today is D-Day.  And I don’t mean that in the figurative sense.  Today marks the 69th anniversary of the Allied landings at Normandy on 6th June 1944.  The original non-metaphorical D-Day.  To commemorate this day of days I thought I’d share some of my personal experiences from a visit to one of the most iconic battlefields of the Second World War – Omaha Beach.

Omaha was a code name given to one of the five beaches chosen as the landing points for Allied forces.  The Americans landed at Omaha and to the west on Utah Beach, with the high cliffs of Pointe du Hoc separating the two.  The U.S. Rangers scaled these heights in the early hours of that morning to neutralize a gun battery overlooking the beaches – but that is another story.  To the east Allied forces landed at another three beaches, Gold, Juno and Sword.  Behind all these beaches airborne forces fought to take key strategic points and soften up defending forces before the main invasion.

Of the five beaches it was Omaha where the Allied forces faced the stiffest defenses along with the highest casualty rates.  If you go there it becomes immediately obvious why – the beach is overlooked by hills and flanked by steep bluffs.

100_3232The above photo shows some of the remaining German defenses and gives you an idea of the kind of terrain the attackers faced.  On June 6th 1944, bunkers such as the ones in this photo would’ve been further defended with sand bags, barbed wire, mines and lots of guns.  The hills in the background were crisscrossed with trenches and machine gun emplacements.  Behind them would’ve been mortar teams and further back there were artillery batteries.  Despite overwhelming air superiority and an opening barrage from their support vessels, the American soldiers landing at Omaha faced considerable opposition.

These photos were taken at the section of Omaha Beach that inspired the landing scene depicted in the opening of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’.

Omaha Beach was split into a series of sectors and each given a different code name.  This sector was named DOG GREEN.

100_3242I’ve never forgotten the name of the sector thanks to an unusual coincidence.  At a nearby car-park I came across this dog standing next to a green jeep and the sight has never left my memory.  You’ll probably always remember it too now.

100_3241The DOG GREEN sector suffered some of the heaviest casualties of the landing.  The first company to land here was all but decimated by machine gun fire and mortars.  The second wave faced a similar reception.  Those who survived long enough to get off the landing craft were mowed down while crossing nearly two hundred metres of open beach.  The landing had to take place at low tide to avoid the mines, hedgehogs and other anti-invasion defences that would’ve otherwise decimated the landing craft.

Even if the attacking soldiers managed to survive the initial landing and the dash through the machine gun fire they still faced a major obstacle. At the DOG GREEN end of Omaha Beach there was and is to this day a seawall.

100_3246I was surprised to find out that at the time of the landing there was a road along the edge of the beach.  A road with a seawall.  European beaches have always been prime real estate, even in the 1930’s and 40’s.  As this pre-war postcard shows there was clearly a road along the beach – although you don’t seem to see it in the movies.

American soldiers walking along road towards western end of Omaha Beach Sourced from Battle of Normandy Tours http://www.battleofnormandytours.com/photos-omaha.html

American soldiers walking along road towards western end of Omaha Beach
Sourced from Battle of Normandy Tours
http://www.battleofnormandytours.com/photos-omaha.html

100_3260The main difference between now and then is that there used to be a shingle bank against the seawall.  Other than that the site hasn’t changed too much in the last 69 years.

At first it is easy to think that the seawall offered some protection from the hail of bullets, and in some sectors it did.  However in the DOG GREEN sector this cover wasn’t nearly as effective.  When I lay down on the wall I could see why.

100_3236Even when lying prone against the seawall the soldiers were still vulnerable to enemy fire from the hills to the west.  In fact they are just about on the fringe of the field of fire from one of the bunkers.  And what is the one thing missing from the equation?  The missing shingle bank.  In June 1944 this position must’ve been even more exposed.

On top of that they were under continual fire from the many mortar positions on the surrounding bluffs.  Here is one such position overlooking the opposite end of Omaha Beach.  It is the best preserved of the Omaha strong points, to this day you can still walk through the German trenches.

100_3266100_3272100_3273

NOTE:  This emplacement is at the far end of the beach from DOG GREEN but is the best surviving example of the kind of fortified position that overlooked the beach.

After visiting the DOG GREEN sector of Omaha Beach it became obvious to me why Steven Spielberg used it as the setting for the landing scene in ‘Saving Private Ryan’.  The terrain heavily favoured the defending Germans who had also positioned extra resources at this sector.  Behind the bunkers was one of the few routes off the beach, a road to a nearby village, and this meant that DOG GREEN was of huge strategic importance.  Americans landing here really did have the odds stacked against them so the horrific casualty rates they suffered are no surprise.

I was there just a couple of days after the 65th anniversary and as you can see from the photos the weather I experienced was pretty similar to the conditions on the day of the landing.  Not quite stormy, but nearly stormy.  Followed by stormy.  It was a moving time to be there, with veterans making pilgrimages, the cemeteries with freshly laid flowers, and in the villages there were flags of the liberating nations hanging from the windows of appreciative locals and vintage vehicle enthusiasts driving their wartime jeeps and trucks through the narrow streets.

100_3022On a side note – most but not all my posts tend to have a New Zealand perspective.  I don’t feel compelled to always add it for posts like this about international history but in this instance I will in case it is of interest.

While no New Zealand land units were deployed during the D-Day invasion (our forces were fighting the Germans in Italy and the Japanese in the Pacific), a New Zealand officer lost his life while attached to a British unit, there were many New Zealanders flying air operations during the campaign and New Zealanders were also part of the naval operations during the landings.  A number of them lost their lives when the destroyer HMS Isis hit a mine.  In total there are 58 New Zealanders buried in war cemeteries in Normandy.

Another often overlooked role performed by New Zealanders serving with the Royal Navy during the landings was piloting the landing craft in to the beaches.  One New Zealand LTC operator was Dunedin poet Denis Glover who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his role on D-Day.  In fact, many of the LTC operators dropping American soldiers off at Omaha Beach were actually British servicemen from the Royal Navy – I know this as I met one of them while in Normandy.  That story will have to wait until next time.

© Lemuel Lyes

39 replies »

  1. Cool set of photos – and what a fantastic place to visit, historically. My wife and I have been trying to get there for years. My sister managed it on the anniversary four years ago (I think at the same time you were there actually) – but she lives in Europe and could literally drive there for a weekend. They sent me a very tacky souvenir pencil with a toy tank glued to the end of it by way of compensation…

    I remain stunned at the venture. It was the most difficult military operation in modern history – planned down to the last detail but still easily able to fail if too much went wrong. If it had failed the wouldn;t have been able to mount another attempt until 1945 – and doubtless the Soviets would still have won the war, and the whole of Europe might have been under the iron curtain, at least until the 1990s.

    We have a family friend who was under the “outbound” aircraft stream in southern England on D-Day. He says the sky was filled with aircraft – and they were only going one way. All day.

    • It was certainly a fascinating place to visit. In was incredible to stay in the former residence of one of Napoleon’s senior officers, learn about the Norman invasion of England one day and then visit D-Day battle sites the next. One thousand years of world-changing history right there!

      I’ve got a funny story about D-Day souvineers. I visited the Airbourne museum at Saint Mere Eglise and happened to be in the gift shop at the same time as a bus load of school kids. Every single one of them had bought a replica cricket clicker as used by the paratroopers as a signalling device to differentiate between friend and foe. Needless to say that the sound of all those crickets in that gift shop could’ve roused German re-enforcements from as far away as Paris!

  2. Fascinating place – I enjoyed the photos, especially the then-and-now comparison. I would love to visit this area. One of my travel interests is battlegrounds and war cemeteries; they don’t necessarily need a NZ connection but it’s always a bit more personal when they do.

    • It is well worth the visit if you get the chance – additional to the obvious WW2 history there was also a lot more to see and experience such as the Bayeux tapestry and cathedral, and the beautiful little villages.

      I managed to get to two of the cemeteries in Normandy – the American one and also the German one. Both were very moving in their own ways. It was sad to see how young they all were.

      • Glad to hear you are well! I’ve been very busy lately but do have an upcoming post that I’m currently researching and writing.

        Recently a lot of my evening and weekend research time has been hijacked by another, rather exciting historical project which I can’t really talk about yet but it has been a great chance to put some archive detective skills to good use!

      • It is actually primarily for a television documentary, which is what I do for my day job. So at the very least I’m intending to promote the show when it goes to air – and might also share some of the research on my blog once the film is released as through the research I’ve stumbled on a number of interesting stories. It has been a lot of fun researching for this project but it has also been monopolizing my free time!

      • Oh that’s right!! I forgot about your day job – how perfectly old of me to forget!! Will this only air in NZ or do you think we’ll get it here in the US?

      • Most of the projects I work on do air in the United States, often they are wildlife films. This one is a little different though as it is primarily a New Zealand based story, so I’m not sure at this stage. I look forward to being able to share more details!

    • Thanks for stopping by! I agree, the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan had a profound impact on many individuals, including myself. As a medium for sharing history cinema has many flaws, but it can also inspire people to learn more about events and develop a greater appreciation for the past. I know that it did for me!

  3. Came by way of our good friend gpcox. Nice blog on hidden history. It was humbling to walk the sands, to see my 16 year old daughter at that time get totally swallowed up by a shell crater and to look down on those exposed beaches.

    • It is certainly a humbling place to visit – glad to hear you have made the trip as well. The shell craters at Pointe du Hoc were incredible. It was particularly poignant for me as I spent a fair amount of time as a teenager here in New Zealand exploring WW2-era coastal defence batteries, positions that fortunately weren’t put to the ultimate test, to see such dramatic evidence of the battle fought for Pointe du Hoc gave me a greater appreciation for how fortunate I am to live in a country that hasn’t seen a conflict of such scale fought in living memory on our own shores. New Zealand doesn’t have as strong a direct connection to the beaches of Normandy as many other nations do, but it was still a trip that I felt I really needed to make.

  4. Cannon fodder and grist to the mill. It’s always been so and ever will be so until the decision makers themselves can be made to feel the pain themselves. That ain’t gonna happen in any hurry. If the nice Mr Key commits NZ troops to a new Mid Eastern war, rather than sniff in manly fashion as he waves ’em goodbye at the airport — he should be in the first plane going, as a frontline private soldier. Ain’t gonna happen …

    Led here by a GP Cox comment, I’m glad I came. Yours is the first I’ve come across that gives the ‘feel’ for it. (And shingle is a bastard to run across at any time …)

    • It is sad that despite the proliferation of cameras and communications technology that there is still such a rift between the front-line realities of warfare and the civilians at home who so readily agree with politicians who think that war is the best answer. I believe that we all have a duty to remember the sacrifices made by previous generations and hope that we can find ways to avert such tragedies in the future.

  5. Also found this via GPCox. What a great find too. The D-Day landings were hair-raising. I went to Omaha beach years ago, and even though it was the height of summer found it a bleak, disturbing place. Too many ghosts. We need to keep remembering them though, so thank you for this very thoughtful piece.

    • It is hard to imagine those beaches ever shaking off those ghosts – and perhaps they shouldn’t – as the memory of what happened there needs to be preserved.

      That is great that you were able to visit Normandy in person as well. I’d like to go again as I wasn’t there nearly long enough to visit all the places I’d like to.

  6. Your writing is impeccable and your knowledge of what took place so thorough. I love to read about history, and this day is especially intriguing. Great post! Great site! Thanks for writing!

    • Hi – thanks for stopping by and for the compliments! Glad to hear you enjoyed this post. It was a privilege to visit the beaches of Normandy and walk in some of those footsteps.

  7. MY NAME IS BOB LOWRY, I LANDED ON OMAHA DOG GREEN ON D-DAY 6-6-44 WITH COMPANY “C,” 116TH INF. REGT., 29TH DIVISION AS A BUCK PVT. MY WIFE & I HAVE BEEN BACK TO THE CELEBRATIONS EVERY 5 YEARS SINCE THE 50TH. IF ANY OF THE FELLOWS WHO SURVIVED THE CARNAGE ON D-DAY WOULD LIKE TO COMMUNICATE BY E MAIL OR TELEPHONE I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR FROM THEM. SINCERELY, BOBLOWRY,
    E-MAIL BOBVELLOWRY@GMAIL.COM. TELEPHONE 805-929-2373.

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