This would have been at the top of my parents' to-do list were they able to make it, and it was no less of a priority for us. (Most of the photos here, even the black and white ones, are actually ours.) The invasion beaches of WWII, while a bit off the beaten path for tourists to reach, are well worth the effort, and there really is no place like it in the world. Many Americans waded ashore here that day, from the famous—Yogi Berra, Robert Montgomery, Rocky Marciano, Andy Rooney, William Golding—to everyday boys whose names would be familiar only to their family members back home and the men they shared their singular experience with, many of whom remain here today. To stand among the eternal residents of the American Cemetery is to be suddenly struck mute, and to begin to have some idea of what happened on perhaps the most pivotal day in Western civilization. Elizabeth wept the moment we entered the grounds, and I came awfully close.
To get to the Normandy beaches, we hopped on the train to Bayeux, the nearest sizable town. The minute we hopped off, we discovered that everyone who had been on the train with us was dividing into two groups: those heading for the waiting tour group buses, and those heading for buddies who lived in town. We were the only two people just wandering through the town. Not to worry, though; thanks to our handy Rick Steves guide, we had a rough sketch of Bayeux's layout, and meandered through the town until we found the tourism office. There, we learned that our plan to rent a couple of bikes and pedal the six miles to the beaches had only one slight snag: it may be six miles to the shore as the crow flies, but via the usual twisty back roads, it was more like fifteen. And, of course, fifteen back. Not to mention the running back and forth between the various sites along the shoreline. Well, we had been hoping to get there a little faster; we had only so many hours to spend seeing everything in the area before our return train departed for Paris, so we decided to grab a taxi instead and attempt to catch up with one of the non-charter buses somewhere out there. Mission accomplished; thanks to the predictably speedy French cabbie, we soon found ourselves deposited right at the cemetery.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, a fleet of nearly seven thousand ships—the largest naval armada the world had ever seen—traversed the short distance across the English Channel and began the largest amphibious invasion in history, which would prove to be the first opposed landing across the Channel to be successful in nine centuries.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces, had finally given the go-ahead to the long-delayed invasion of western Europe, something the Soviets had been pushing for since entering the war themselves in summer 1941. The final plan would involve nearly fifty Allied divisions from the United States, Britain, and Canada, as well as Free French and Polish troops fighting to regain their homelands; in all, 1,400,000 troops were committed to the operation.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, recognizing the weakness in defending only the seaports, turned the beaches of France into what he hoped would be an impenetrable wall. Only one section remained unfinished, its supplies delayed because of Resistance bombings of railway lines: Normandy.
Having learned from disastrous earlier landings, chief invasion planner General Sir Bernard Montgomery had prepared an operation to take advantage of Allied air cover; however, given the planes' short range, the choice of targets seemed limited to Normandy and the Pas de Calais, separated from the cliffs of Dover by just thirty miles. Convinced that everyone would assume Calais to be the obvious choice, the Allies chose the opposite, and mounted an immense disinformation campaign to keep convincing the German High Command that Calais was indeed to be the target. A flurry of leaked communiques suggested the formation of a massive new invasion force under the command of General George Patton, for which visual "proof" was delivered to German spies and double agents in the form of photos of "landing craft" and "tanks" that were often cutouts or even inflatable dummies. The phony campaigns (codenamed Operation Fortitude and Bodyguard) helped to convince the Germans that false preliminary invasions would precede the real strikes, at likely targets from Calais to Norway to the south of France and even the Balkans, and troops that might otherwise have changed the Germans' fortunes at Normandy were rerouted elsewhere. Montgomery's real plan, meanwhile, called for Allies to secure a beachhead in Normandy—including the badly needed deep-water harbor in Cherbourg—within the first forty days, long enough to land the reserve of the troops and material and push inland, toward the Loire and Seine river valleys.
The initial date for the invasion, June 5, had been pushed back in the face of unacceptably inclement weather, a sudden change from the perfect conditions that had been present throughout the month of May. Needing a full moon for both pilot visibility and the favorable tides that would enable the Allies' experimental new landing craft to penetrate all the way to the French shoreline, Eisenhower pondered delaying until July, but worried about the costly delays (in fuel, logistics, and morale) that would result from turning around the waves of assault forces, already en route and taking shelter from the storm along the inlets of southern Britain. Amidst a group of senior advisors split on when to proceed, Eisenhower made his final decision to greenlight the operation (codenamed Overlord) on the strength of chief meteorologist Group Captain J. M. Stagg's prediction that the storms would relent slightly on the morning of the 6th. At the same time, the Germans saw the weather as sufficient cause to relax their guard, and ordered several units to stand down, while many of the senior commanders left for home or for previously scheduled war games.
Not everyone was in the dark. In the latest in a series of coded radio broadcasts to various Maquis resistance cells throughout France, variations on the opening lines of Paul Verlaine's poem "Chanson d'Automne" ("Songs of Autumn") were sent in two parts: the first line, "Les sanglots longs des violons de l'automne" ("The long sobs of autumn violins"), to alert the cells in the Orléans region to begin disrupting rail lines in preparation for an Allied invasion, with the second line, "Bercent mon coeur d'une langueur monotone" ("Sooths my heart with a monotonous languor"), to tell them the invasion was imminent. The German High Command's codebreaking division had already decoded the meaning of the poem (and many others being transmitted), but their sudden alerts went unheeded by the upper echelon, who had felt burned by an earlier mobilization when the aborted May landings did not follow up the same transmissions.
To secure the bridges and German resupply lines in advance of the landings, waves of four hundred C-47s at a time delivered over 13,000 paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, along with their counterparts in the British 6th Airborne Division, airdropping them behind enemy lines shortly after midnight. In the chaos of flak bombarding their aircraft, nearly half were dropped over the wrong areas, at times directly into enemy positions. However, the misdrops actually served to confuse the Germans as to the intended target, and their earlier defensive decision to flood parts of Normandy served to shield many of the scattered troops from counterattack. By the morning of the 6th, the fragmented 82nd Airborne had managed to capture the town of Sainte-Mère-Église, making it the first French city liberated in the invasion. The paratroopers would spend the next several days roaming behind the German lines, consolidating into small groups and fighting wherever they could, often linking up with units from numerous different divisions.
The official communications blackout, coupled with enough phony radio traffic to mystify the codebreakers, prevented the Germans from discovering the real nature of the threat amassing against them, although Free French General Charles de Gaulle's speech to his countrymen advising them that their liberation was underway almost wrecked the plan. (A crossword puzzle which appeared in the London Daily Telegraph several weeks earlier had also contained a wide range of key codewords, from the various beach names to Overlord itself; it was later suggested that the crossword designers had picked up buzzwords from soldiers in camp and innocently worked them into the puzzle.)
The beach operations themselves began at 3:00 a.m., as the vastly superior Allied air forces (12,000 planes, vs. 300 remnants of the Luftwaffe) began pounding the coastal defenses at the first (easternmost) of the invasion zones, codenamed Sword. The naval bombardment, from the massive flotilla escorting the slow-moving landing craft, soon followed, and by 7:30 a.m. the first British troops waded ashore. German resistance here was among the weakest on D-Day, and the Brits were soon able to link up with their paratroopers and begin their slow push in toward the city of Caen. By the time an inoffensive counterattack was launched in the afternoon, the British had secured the landing zone with a loss of only 630 men out of nearly thirty thousand. The British were also assigned the central landing zone, codenamed Gold. Here, however, they met heavier resistance than at Sword, partly because the experimental new floating Sherman tanks bogged down in the shoreline. By the time this group had begun to push in toward the town of Bayeux in the late afternoon, their casualties had reached four hundred, out of a landing force of 25,000.
The Canadian forces were assigned to take the next landing zone, codenamed Juno. It would prove to be the second-most-heavily defended site, with a natural seawall twice the height of Omaha Beach's augmenting the sea mines and heavy guns. Air attacks here had proved ineffective, and by the time the weather permitted the Canadians to land, the Germans had regrouped and began inflicting massive casualties on them, approaching the same fifty percent level in the first hour that the Americans would suffer at Omaha; the attrition rate was so high that Commonwealth military officials would have to coin a new term—Double Intense—to describe them. Once they were ashore, however, they quickly worked their way inland, and by noon had moved several miles inland to seize nearby bridges; by 6:00 they had seized the town of Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, having pushed farther inland than any other Allied force. Among the young officers leading the way was Lieutenant James Doohan (who would later become "Scotty" on Star Trek), who led his men up the hill and took out two snipers as they crossed a minefield. Hit six times by machine gun bullets that evening (including one which severed his right middle finger, and a chest shot which was stopped by his cigarette case), he would later transfer and train with the Royal Canadian Air Force, and learn to fly an artillery observation plane, becoming notorious for slaloming between telegraph poles to show it could be done. By the end of June 7, the Canadians were able to link up with the British group at Sword.
The landing zone that was the farthest to the west, codenamed Utah, would also prove to be the most lightly defended, an afterthought landing added to the Overlord plan only when extra landing craft became available. Though coming ashore in the wrong area, the Americans who seized it were able to wade in with little resistance, especially after B-26 strikes pounded German positions to smithereens. Led by General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.—the eldest son of the former President and at 57, the oldest soldier and seniormost officer to storm the beach, at his own insistence—they quickly regained their bearings and pushed back toward the fighting, aided by Roosevelt's own reconnaissance of the area and his calm, even humorous greeting of the waves of soldiers arriving on the beach (including future author J. D. Salinger), as well as the floating tanks that were able to maneuver here more easily than the ones in the choppier seas further east. The real reason for the light infantry casualties—just two hundred out of 23,000 men—was the earlier sacrifice of the Airborne troops, who had been fighting their way toward the beaches at tremendous cost; the 101st Division alone lost forty percent of their men on D-Day.
By far, the most brutal fighting of the day occurred at Omaha Beach, the other landing zone assigned to the Americans. Here, a mixture of the battle-hardened 1st Infantry Division and the untested 29th Infantry Division joined together with eight companies of Army Rangers who had been retasked from their objective to take a fortified battery at the nearby cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, a total of 43,000 men in all. Facing them was the cream of the experienced German defense, the 352nd Division, equipped with nearly a hundred heavy machine gun emplacements and an equal number of artillery and anti-tank guns. No area of the beach had been left undefended, and the concavity of the inlet allowed for overlapping fields of fire; in a rare breakdown of Allied intelligence-gathering, no one had discovered Rommel's fortification of the area. When the first wave of infantry and engineers stormed the beach (including future actor Charles Durning and director Sam Fuller), they found themselves mowed down by the heavy guns before they could clear the heavy steel obstacles blocking the larger landing craft. Hemmed in at both ends by rocky cliffs, the troops found themselves without an exit, and soon bunched together around the few cleared channels, further delaying reinforcements.
It was just one in a series of terrible developments for the Americans. The aerial bombardment had gone awry when the bombers, steering aside to avoid the returning paratroop carriers, dropped their ordinance well inland of the German positions, something not discovered until the men walking ashore found themselves facing an untouched defensive wall. Engineers assigned to clear the beach obstacles were blown to pieces when German weapons fire set off the explosive charges they were carrying. Out to sea, ten landing craft and the men in them went down before reaching the shore, tossed about by the choppy waves. Some of the floating tanks were brought ashore under ferocious assault, one entire battalion losing all but one of its officers in the process. To make matters more confusing, the landing craft at Omaha had become as misdirected as the Airborne landings, and only one of the nine companies coming ashore was where they had practiced landing, the others scattered across the length of the five-mile beach. Unable to come all the way in lest they become lodged in sandbars, many landing craft released their men several hundred yards out to sea, where they sank under the weight of their heavy weapons and equipment or cast them off only to come ashore empty-handed. Those that managed to make it to land found themselves slugging along at a slow walk through a hail of machine gun fire, bogged down by wet clothes, sand-clogged weapons, and a marshy beach. By the time the first wave crawled the three hundred yards to the relatively safety of an overhang, they had lost half their forces within a matter of minutes.
The second wave began arriving at 7:00 a.m., and suffered the same losses as the first. As the vehicles and resupply equipment bogged down in the sand and became easy targets, the men on shore found themselves virtually without equipment, ammunition, and radios. Morale sank as the men watched successive waves meet withering fire; bullet-ridden landing craft burned away just off shore, while the uncountable wounded began to drown as the tide came in. General Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. First Army, pondered evacuating Omaha altogether, with Montgomery considering diverting them to Gold Beach.
The only spot of hope for the Americans—many in combat for the first time—was that the Germans were on their own, their reinforcements rerouted to the other landing zones where the Allies had been able to come ashore more easily. The scattered survivors struggled to regroup and launch a series of improvised attacks on the tough German wall, and at 7:50 the Rangers succeeded in blasting a hole in the barbed-wire-strung fortifications with a Bangalore torpedo. Scattered Ranger companies began to link up with each other and spread the gap in the German lines, and by 9:00 six hundred men had crested the hill above the "Dog White" section of Omaha Beach. From here, they fanned out in all directions, turning back the increasingly panicked Germans against great odds; in one spot, an American lieutenant and two soldiers fought off an entire group of Germans in a pitched two-hour battle, killing an unknown number of enemy fighters and taking 21 prisoners in the process. Colonel George Taylor, one of the senior officers at Omaha, had arrived by 8:30 and told the men still huddling behind the remaining barricades, "Two kinds of people are staying on this beach—the dead and those who are going to die. Now let's get the hell out of here." Reorganizing anyone nearby into impromptu combat teams regardless of unit, he sent them through the Rangers' gap and into the fight. By 9:30, the regimental command post had finally been established below the crest of the bluffs, and two more battalions had made it inland. By 10:00, the naval forces, previously fearful of hitting the clusters of men on the beach, shoved their way to the shoreline and began blasting away at the German emplacements. When one destroyer got so close that it threatened to become lodged in the sandbar, the men aboard her watched an immobilized tank continuing to fire away at the concealed German positions and used the info to launch its own crushing strikes.
The Germans held out, however, and after four hours of trying to outflank a hidden machine gun nest, the 5th Ranger Battalion was forced to give up any hope of pushing further inland. Despite the penetrations that had been achieved at great cost, the key beach objectives had still not been achieved, and by 8:30 the landing craft still heading for the central portions of Omaha were rerouted to easier-to-achieve areas off toward the ends. The tanks coming ashore, being a slower-moving and more tempting target for the Germans, wound up diverting most of the German assault away from the infantry, although nearly all were lost in the process. One battalion commander reported that the tanks "saved the day...they shot the hell out of the Germans, and got the hell shot out of them." Without the clear channels for landing and coming ashore, reinforcements fell further and further behind, and the forces on the beach were still waiting to come over the hill and move inland until 2:00 in the afternoon; by the end of the day, only two small footholds had been achieved. However, the German numbers were diminishing, and their commander radioed that he had only enough men to hold up the American advance until "D-Day +1." There were no more reinforcements available to give him.
Night fell, late as it does in France in the summer, with the landings finally beginning to see some signs of progress. By 9:00 p.m., the initial landings had been completed, though at tremendous cost. Fifty landing craft, ten larger ships, and fifty of the fifty-five tanks had been lost, along with 2,300 of the 2,400 tons of equipment due to come in with the first wave. V Corps had suffered an estimated 3,000 casualties on D-Day, with some divisions losing over a thousand men each. In a story that directly inspired the film Saving Private Ryan, brothers Preston and Robert Niland (of the 4th Infantry and 82nd Airborne Divisions, respectively) were both killed at Normandy, and as a result, brother Fritz (of the 101st Airborne) was sent home to serve out his tour in America; later, it would be discovered that the fourth brother, Army Air Force technical sergeant Edward, was actually still alive and living in a POW camp in Burma. For their part, the tough German 352nd Division had lost 1,200 men, roughly twenty percent of their forces. Still, the twin pockets of Americans at Omaha were still in danger of being turned back, and throughout the next day they continued to take scattered artillery fire even as they consolidated their landing zone and began bringing more men and equipment ashore. Over the next few days they slowly pushed their way inland, and by June 9 had finally linked up with the British at Gold Beach and with the 101st Airborne at Utah. By July 13, all five of the Normandy beaches had been linked together into a true beachhead on the continent.
The Rangers who scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc using simple rope ladders soon found that the artillery placed there had been moved further inland, and struck out early in the battle to find and destroy them. Lest other guns be brought back to the cliff outpost and used against the struggling landings going on below, they then returned to Pointe du Hoc and held it without reinforcement for two days, losing more than sixty percent of their force in doing so.
With the eventual dissipation of the German 352nd Division, the way was finally paved for the introduction of the Mulberry harbors, prefabricated artificial harbors towed in pieces across the Channel and assembled just offshore, with the scuttled landing craft being used as a breakwater to hold back the tides. By June 16, D-Day +10, the first of the harbors became operational, and began unloading two vehicles every minute. On June 19, the worst storm in forty years hit Normandy, wrecking the harbors irreparably over the course of three days, although by this point the beaches had finally been secured enough to bring supplies directly ashore. In their brief three-day lifespan, the temp harbors had helped bring in 11,000 troops, 2,000 vehicles, and 9,000 tons of equipment. Over the next hundred days, more than a million tons of cargo would be offloaded at Omaha Beach, along with 100,000 vehicles and 600,000 fresh troops, enough to begin to turn the tide in Europe.
The nearby town of Caen, one of the original prime targets of Overlord, was still in German hands by the end of June. A massive aerial bombardment preceded a concerted effort to take the town, which finally began to see success by July 7, a month and a day after D-Day. The ten-foot-thick hedgerows of western France proved to be an immense advantage to the German defenders, who could not be clearly seen through the thick foliage; the field-to-field combat would continue to slow the Allied advance for weeks and months to come. However, by the end of the Normandy operation—much later than its planners had hoped, though with only half of the 20,000 casualties Churchill and others had expected—the numbers game which had served the Wehrmacht so well during the early days of the war had been reversed, as the Allies in France now outnumbered the Germans four to one. On August 1, Patton's Third Army was unleashed, tearing across the countryside and surrounding the Germans within three weeks. With tens of thousands of German POWs secured, the itinerary for the liberation of France was back on schedule, and on August 19 the Resistance rose up in open opposition against the Nazis controlling Paris. Six days later, the city would finally be freed from four years of occupation as the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the Free French 2nd Armored Division under General Leclerc rolled up the Champs-Élysées on their way to the ultimate celebration out at Place de la Bastille.
93,000 wounded soldiers would also pass through Omaha on their way back to England, passing along the way 9,387 of their comrades buried in the new cemetery at the seaside town of Colleville-sur-Mer, most of whom had been killed on D-Day or in the nearby fighting over the ensuing days and weeks. The 172-acre cemetery would be bequeathed in perpetuity to the United States from a grateful French nation. The graves face westward, toward America.
The cemetery—now permanently designated American soil—contains thousands of gleaming white grave markers, themselves arranged in a perfect Latin cross formation. In every direction, the exacting layout reveals the precise lines and intricate geometric patterns.
In addition to the expected large number of infantry, we occasionally came across the graves of soldiers from other branches of the service, stark reminders that even those who remained behind in the ships were never far from danger.
Jewish soldiers are buried under a Star of David of a design comparable to the crosses. Visitors traditionally leave a small stone on the headstone.
Four of the dead are women, nurses who died during the war and were interred here. In addition, there are thirty-three pairs of brothers buried side-by-side, along with one father and son: Colonel Ollie Reed and Lieutenant Ollie Reed, Jr.
The tiny town of Bedford, Virginia, lost 19 men on D-Day from a population of less than 4000, making their sacrifice the greatest per capita of any city in the United States.
For his role in reorganizing the taking of Utah Beach, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., was awarded the Medal of Honor. On July 12, he succumbed to the heart trouble that had long plagued him and was buried at the American Cemetery at Normandy, one of three Medal of Honor winners to be interred there, along with Lieutenant Jimmie W. Monteith, Jr., and Technical Sergeant Frank Peregory (the three men have their names, dates, and unit info inscribed in gold leaf on their crosses to distinguish them). Beside Roosevelt lies his brother Quentin, who had died in World War I and who was later moved here from the cemetery at Chamery, France. The calm heroism this privileged son displayed on D-Day led to his portrayal in the film The Longest Day, as played by Henry Fonda. In the same film, Robert Mitchum plays General Norman Cota, with whom Colonel George Taylor is often confused, and whose part has been rewritten to include Taylor's memorable quote.
Beyond just visiting the cemetery in general, I wanted the experience of actually being there on the anniversary of D-Day. Usually, a high-ranking muckety-muck from America comes to give a short speech; this year, it was former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. We arrived just as he was wrapping up his remarks, although he also stayed around a while to talk with several of the soldiers, veterans, and their families in attendance. The backdrop behind him is part of the main pavilion facing the reflecting pool and cemetery.
1,557 soldiers who could not be located or positively identified are memorialized on the walls of a semicircular garden at the east end of the cemetery, surrounding the pavilion which contains maps of the invasion and a bronze statue entitled The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.
A number of other unknown soldiers are buried in various locations throughout the cemetery, with the traditional epitaph, "Here rests in honored glory A Comrade In Arms known but to God."
The rotunda at the opposite end from the pavilion is a small chapel.
A special squad of Frenchmen dress up as American soldiers to frequently re-enact a graveside ceremony.
It's very sweet, and you can just make out their marching orders...in French, of course.
"Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
"You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
"Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
"But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given to us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
"I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of the Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander
Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force
June 6, 1944
"We're here to mark that day in history when the Allied peoples joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.
"At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers—at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine-guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting only ninety could still bear arms.
"Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.
"These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war."
speaking at Omaha Beach on the 40th anniversary of D-Day
June 6, 1984
The Other Paris