Part II of the Beaches of Normandy Then and Now Series

Omaha Beach

June 1, 2015

Reproduced from Wikipedia

This is one of the most famous photos of the war, taken by the legendary war photographer Robert Capa when he landed with the assault troops on Omaha's Easy Red sector. The bluffs are clouded in a pall of smoke and the Americans are everywhere pinned to the beach, behind German beach obstacles and a disabled Sherman. If you look closely, near the tank you can see what appear to be clods of earth thrown into the air by an exploding mortar shell.

I waited for the tide to go out and walked up and down the entire sector and taking into account the bushes that have since grown atop the bluffs, this spot most closely matched the original photo. Though, I was probably not out far enough.

The nearly disastrous American D-Day landings

Robert Capa described his experience when he took these photos.

"The flat bottom of our barge hit the earth of France," Capa remembered in his book Slightly Out of Focus. "The boatswain lowered the steel-covered barge front, and there, between the grotesque designs of steel obstacles sticking out of the water, was a thin line of land covered with smoke — our Europe, the 'Easy Red' beach.

"My beautiful France looked sordid and uninviting, and a German machine gun, spitting bullets around the barge, fully spoiled my return. The men from my barge waded in the water. Waist-deep, with rifles ready to shoot, with the invasion obstacles and the smoking beach in the background gangplank to take my first real picture of the invasion. The boatswain, who was in an understandable hurry to get the hell out of there, mistook my picture-taking attitude for explicable hesitation, and helped me make up my mind with a well-aimed kick in the rear. The water was cold, and the beach still more than a hundred yards away. The bullets tore holes in the water around me, and I made for the nearest steel obstacle. A soldier got there at the same time, and for a few minutes we shared its cover. He took the waterproofing off his rifle and began to shoot without much aiming at the smoke-hidden beach. The sound of his rifle gave him enough courage to move forward, and he left the obstacle to me. It was a foot larger now, and I felt safe enough to take pictures of the other guys hiding just like I was."

Capa was squeezing off photographs as he headed for a disabled American tank. He remembered feeling "a new kind of fear shaking my body from toe to hair, and twisting my face." With great difficulty his trembling hands reloaded his camera. All the while he repeated a sentence that he had picked up during the Spanish Civil War: "Es una cosa muy seria" ("This is a very serious business").

After what seemed an eternity, Capa turned away from the beach killing zone and spotted an incoming LCI (landing craft, infantry). He headed for it. "I did not think and I didn't decide it," he later wrote. "I just stood up and ran toward the boat. I knew that I was running away. I tried to turn but couldn't face the beach and told myself, 'I am just going to dry my hands on that boat.'"

-The Magnificent Eleven: The D-Day photographs of Robert Capa on Skylighters

Robert Capa took 106 photos in the first minutes of the Omaha Landings. He sent his film to the Life photolab in London where an overeager dark-room assistant accidentally ruined all but 11 of the photos. The 11 that survive are known as the "Magnificent Eleven."

Reproduced from Wikipedia

Men from the 1st Division, the Big Red One, wade towards the shore. Soaked, seasick, covered in salt sprayed on them during hours in open landing craft, taking intense and accurate fire from machine guns, mortars and heavy artillery, it is difficult to imagine a more awful experience.

Reproduced from Wikipedia

Troops take cover behind beach obstacles. Tens of thousands of these stakes, sometimes called "Rommel's Asparagus", lined all the landing beaches and were designed to flip landing craft. Every third one was topped with a mine. The existence of these obstacles forced the Allies to attempt the landings at low tide, meaning assault troops had to cross open beaches which were carefully prepared killing zones.

Reproduced from Wikipedia

Men take cover in the surf as the landing craft that dropped them off turn around and return for another load. For these men there was nowhere to retreat. The only path was forward.

Reproduced from Wikipedia

A shot taken by a Coast Guard photographer titled "Into the Jaws of Death". I was not able to wade into the surf to get the correct distance from the bluffs, though this gives one an idea of the beach that had to be crossed.

In 1960 US Army historian S.L.A. Marshall wrote an article for the Atlantic describing the plight of the men who landed in the first waves at Omaha Beach. One gets the sense that the horrific opening scene of Saving Private Ryan doesn't do justice to the scale of the horror.

ABLE Company riding the tide in seven Higgins boats is still five thousand yards from the beach when first taken under artillery fire. The shells fall short. At one thousand yards, Boat No. 5 is hit dead on and foundered. Six men drown before help arrives. Second Lieutenant Edward Gearing and twenty others paddle around until picked up by naval craft, thereby missing the fight at the shore line. It's their lucky day. The other six boats ride unscathed to within one hundred yards of the shore, where a shell into Boat No. 3 kills two men. Another dozen drown, taking to the water as the boat sinks. That leaves five boats.

Lieutenant Edward Tidrick in Boat No. 2 cries out: "My God, we're coming in at the right spot, but look at it! No shingle, no wall, no shell holes, no cover. Nothing!"

His men are at the sides of the boat, straining for a view of the target. They stare but say nothing. At exactly 6:36 A.M. ramps are dropped along the boat line and the men jump off in water anywhere from waist deep to higher than a man's head. This is the signal awaited by the Germans atop the bluff. Already pounded by mortars, the floundering line is instantly swept by crossing machine-gun fires from both ends of the beach.

Able Company has planned to wade ashore in three files from each boat, center file going first, then flank files peeling off to right and left. The first men out try to do it but are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning, doomed by the waterlogging of their overloaded packs. From Boat No. 1, all hands jump off in water over their heads. Most of them are carried down. Ten or so survivors get around the boat and clutch at its sides in an attempt to stay afloat. The same thing happens to the section in Boat No. 4. Half of its people are lost to the fire or tide before anyone gets ashore. All order has vanished from Able Company before it has fired a shot.

Already the sea runs red. Even among some of the lightly wounded who jumped into shallow water the hits prove fatal. Knocked down by a bullet in the arm or weakened by fear and shock, they are unable to rise again and are drowned by the onrushing tide. Other wounded men drag themselves ashore and, on finding the sands, lie quiet from total exhaustion, only to be overtaken and killed by the water. A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find that they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upward, so that their nostrils are out of water, they creep toward the land at the same rate as the tide. That is how most of the survivors make it. The less rugged or less clever seek the cover of enemy obstacles moored along the upper half of the beach and are knocked off by machine-gun fire.

Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, Able Company is inert and leaderless. At Boat No. 2, Lieutenant Tidrick takes a bullet through the throat as he jumps from the ramp into the water. He staggers onto the sand and flops down ten feet from Private First Class Leo J. Nash. Nash sees the blood spurting and hears the strangled words gasped by Tidrick: "Advance with the wire cutters!" It's futile; Nash has no cutters. To give the order, Tidrick has raised himself up on his hands and made himself a target for an instant. Nash, burrowing into the sand, sees machine gun bullets rip Tidrick from crown to pelvis. From the cliff above, the German gunners are shooting into the survivors as from a roof top.

Captain Taylor N. Fellers and Lieutenant Benjamin R. Kearfoot never make it. They had loaded with a section of thirty men in Boat No. 6 (Landing Craft, Assault, No. 1015). But exactly what happened to this boat and its human cargo was never to be known. No one saw the craft go down. How each man aboard it met death remains unreported. Half of the drowned bodies were later found along the beach. It is supposed that the others were claimed by the sea.

Along the beach, only one Able Company officer still lives -- Lieutenant Elijah Nance, who is hit in the heel as he quits the boat and hit in the belly by a second bullet as he makes the sand. By the end of ten minutes, every sergeant is either dead or wounded. To the eyes of such men as Private Howard I. Grosser and Private First Class Gilbert G. Murdock, this clean sweep suggests that the Germans on the high ground have spotted all leaders and concentrated fire their way. Among the men who are still moving in with the tide, rifles, packs, and helmets have already been cast away in the interests of survival.

To the right of where Tidrick's boat is drifting with the tide, its coxswain lying dead next to the shell-shattered wheel, the seventh craft, carrying a medical section with one officer and sixteen men, noses toward the beach. The ramp drops. In that instant, two machine guns concentrate their fire on the opening. Not a man is given time to jump. All aboard are cut down where they stand.

By the end of fifteen minutes, Able Company has still not fired a weapon. No orders are being given by anyone. No words are spoken. The few able-bodied survivors move or not as they see fit. Merely to stay alive is a full-time job. The fight has become a rescue operation in which nothing counts but the force of a strong example.

-W.A.L. Marshall writing in First Wave at Omaha Beach.

Reproduced from Wikipedia

This is an anti-tank gun bunker in front of Vierville, at the western end of the beach. The men from Able Company landed in front of this bunker. The gunners were credited with destroying a number of American tanks on the beaches before being neutralized by a shell fired directly into the embrasure, which was essentially the only way to knock out the positions. Note the impact mark above the embrasure. Today it serves as the National Guard Memorial.

A deeper look at the German defenses
Reproduced from Wikipedia

Americans killed on the beach have been collected and are awaiting burial.

Reproduced from Wikipedia

A Navy communications command post has been set up on the seawall to coordinate further landings in the hours after the beach was cleared.

Reproduced from Wikipedia

A halftrack drives through the beach exit in Easy Red sector, the first draw to fall to the Americans.

Reproduced from Wikipedia

American troops advance inland through the Easy Red draw, below them is a knocked out German anti-tank bunker. There are German bunkers still in place all along the bluffs on the edge of farmers fields that have been overgrown by thick brush.

Omaha Beach Today
Reproduced from the town of Colleville

In the days after D-Day American equipment presses inland through the town of Colleville, just behind the beach. This is part of a series of photos hung throughout the town to commemorate liberation by the Americans.

Reproduced from the town of Colleville

French civilians turn out to greet American troops pushing inland.

Reproduced from the town of Colleville

GIs file past the ruined church at Colleville. The ubiquitous churches in Normandy offered the best vantage points for German artillery spotters and snipers, and soon the Allies learned to destroy the tall steeples as a matter of course.

Pointe du Hoc

Several kilometres west of Omaha Beach is Pointe du Hoc. Atop sheer 90 foot cliffs overlooking the ocean the Germans had emplaced a heavy coastal artillery battery that could potentially wreak havoc on the fleets steaming towards Omaha and Utah. The decision was taken to neutralize the guns by a daring assault by American Rangers, who would scale the cliffs and seize the positions. On the morning of June 6, 225 Rangers launched grappling hooks up the cliffs, and in the face of heavy German fire, scaled the cliffs and seized the bunkers, only to find that the guns had already been moved inland.

For the next two days the Rangers awaited relief from the forces at Omaha Beach, all the while fending off ferocious German counterattacks. When the main invasion force finally linked up with the beleagured Rangers, only 90 of the original 225 men were still standing. Remarkably, after the war the battlefield was left as it was and the land was gifted to the United States by France. All the crumbling German bunkers and deep craters from the bombardment remain there today.

Reproduced from World War II Photofinder

The observation bunker at Pointe du Hoc has been restored.

Reproduced from Wikipedia

Colonel Rudder's temporary headquarters set up beside the blasted remnants of a German anti-aircraft bunker at Pointe Du Hoc on D-Day+2. I'm about five feet off from the right perspective, a fence was preventing me from getting any closer.

A few more photos of Pointe du Hoc today

Beaches of Normandy Then and Now Series



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