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.
The 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.
I’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.
The 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.
I 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.
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.
Even 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.
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.
On 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