NORMANDY DAY 2:BLOODY OMAHA BEACH

Omaha beach was by far the bloodiest of beaches during D-Day. The Americans paid a horrendous price to take that length of sand: (via):

Wars leave names indelibly impressed into the psyche of our lexicon. Half a century later successive generations hear of these places without thought to their significance.

To the British they are Dunkirk, El Alamein and Arnhem. To Canadians Dieppe and Vimy Ridge (WW I) recognize catastrophe and success. To Americans, Iwo Jima, Tarawa and Omaha Beach symbolize costly, bloody triumphs against diehard enemies. “Bloody Omaha” is the image of killers, untouchable in concrete bunkers, slaughtering America’s youth helpless on an open beach. OMAHA Beach is sacred, hallowed ground bloodied by men who came three thousand miles to free Europe and subdue Hitler’s nazis.

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To get a feel for what they faced, we hiked down the pebble beach. You stand at the bottom looking up, imagining German machine gun, mortar and artillery fire raining down on you, land mines and obstacles everywhere, absolutely no cover available. One has to wonder how anyone made it off the beach.

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What they faced (via):

OMAHA Beach is a seven-kilometer (4 miles) long concave arc. The 35-meter (100-foot) bluffs gave the Germans, in long established positions, the high ground from which they dominated every square foot of the beach. Two thirds of the eastern end of beach was shingle making vehicle traffic impossible. At the western end a 2-3 meter sea wall ran the length of the promenade. A significant obstacle for mobile equipment. Five valleys (called draws) led from the beach up to the higher ground. The westerly
one at Vierville was paved but the other four were undeveloped tracks. The draws were wooded and defended by paired “resistance nests” (Wiederstandsnest). Six more resistance nests on the bluffs between the draws and three inland at the towns created a formidable defense. Along the beach were eight large caliber guns in concrete casements, thirty-five antitank guns in pillboxes and eighty machine gun nests. Communication trenches interconnected the defenses.

On the sandy beach were three lines of log obstacles, 7 meters apart, tipped with contact mines and shells. Closer to shore were metal hedgehogs tipped with explosives (similar to 4 meter tidily winks) to tear open the hulls of landing craft. At high tide the obstacles were beneath the water and difficult to see. From the beach to the foot of the bluff were antitank ditches, minefields and barbed wire, thickest around the draw entrances. Scattered liberally over the slopes were thousands of antipersonnel mines designed to explode under foot or pop up and explode at waist level.

We then hiked around the hill and headed to the top to get the German view. From the top, the whole beach rolls out in front of you. On the end of a sniper rifle or machine gun, it must have been a) scary to see the magnitude of the invading force and b) been like shooting turkeys in a barrel. Just keep firing.

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What you do notice is how your view is limited, there is a certain field of fire and if someone makes it outside that field of fire, you are blind. To get that feeling, we climbed inside a bunker (this time I had my camera loaded). The entrance was overgrown and I went in first – carefully (you never know what someone left behind, beer bottles or worse).

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Inside is very eerie. Absolutely dark (I kept using my flash to light it up … should have brought a flashlight). Silent and not very spacious. Imagine being crammed inside this thing with bombs and bullets whistling around. Better than on the beach, but still quite scary.

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You can still see out the machine gunner’s opening. Limited field of view, but you can see a long way.

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Hidden among the grasses and brush are remnants of the war, huge slabs of torn up concrete, careful where you step.

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The vantage point from the top. The US troops stormed up this gap, it was a death trap – mines and barbed wire. Casualties on the beach averaged one per every 2 meters (6 feet).

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I read that it took 20 years for the French to clean up the beaches, so littered with mines and anti-invasion devices. If you look out on the horizon, you can still see some remnants in the water.

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A new perspective on why we wear the poppy and should be very thankful for what they did ..

NORMANDY DAY 2: POINTE DU HOC

The problem with driving down a road and going to a place where you have never been before is that you are constantly filled with doubt .. did I miss it? How much farther? Did I miss the sign?

In the end, we never did make it to Batterie de Maisy, because I thought we were there when we came to Point du Hoc, a coastal gun emplacement. I am glad we made the mistake. The sun had cleared the morning’s ominous clouds, so we headed down the path from the parking lot. As you walk, you start to see craters. Huge 15-20 foot deep holes where the shells from the Allied ships and bombers had attacked the emplacement. As you end the path, you round a corner and look out on this huge field that had once been flat … the Allies shelled the place into oblivion. Amazing  ….

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A number of the bunkers remain, but huge slabs of cement, with jagged iron stick out at odd angles everywhere. A two foot thick slab of concrete sticking oddly out of the ground gives you a distinct impression of the size of the artillery shells.

The six 155mm gun battery with a 17 kilometer range housed inside concrete bunkers threatened the invasion fleet, OMAHA Beach, 6 kilometers east, and UTAH Beach, 14 kilometers to the northwest. This was the most lethal battery in the invasion area. The battery had to be neutralized as quickly as possible in the early hours of the invasion.

The battery was bombed April 15, May 22 and June 4 resulting in the six 155mm howitzers being moved temporarily to an orchard one kilometer south. Substitute telephone poles, under camouflage netting disguised the precautionary move. Andre Farine, the café owner in
Letanville (3 kilometers southwest), in seeking wood for baking would visit M. Fouche’s farm overlooking the Pointe du Hoc battery site and secure intelligence he transmitted to England. He discovered the German ruse but the ships had sailed under radio silence. His own observations and what he gleaned from the labor building the Atlantic Wall eating in his café saved many lives. He was awarded the
Croix de Guerre.

The 8th Air Force bombers cautiously held their bomb loads a few seconds longer to avoid hitting the assault wave. The bombs landed harmlessly inland. At 6 a.m. the battleships Arkansas and Texas commenced their bombardment. Before lifting their shelling a half-hour later they had fired 600 12 to 14 inch shells. The 10,000 tons of explosives equaled the destructive power of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. One battleship shell exploded inside an empty bunker collapsing the rear wall.

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The whole area was once a myriad of tunnels, connecting the different bunkers and gun emplacements. Many remain open and survived so that you can explore and come up through the turrets. We spent hours exploring …

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Loved climbing into the ruins.

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As you walk to the edge of the site, you look down and try to imagine …US Rangers in boats, with climbing ropes and ladders scrambling get to the top of the cliffs while under enemy fire. The German’s must have thought they were nuts …. via:

The plan called for the 2nd Ranger Battalion (Companies D, E and F) to land east and west of the Pointe at 6:30 a.m. The rangers, using British LCPs (Landing Craft Personnel) manned by British coxswain had one of their 10 boats swamped shortly after leaving the mother ship. The company commander and platoon were rescued but returned to England. A 20mm cannon shell fired from the cliff top sank one of the four DUKWS (amphibious truck).

In error the coxswains headed for Pointe de la Percee, 5 kilometers east. Colonel James Earl Rudder seeing the error ordered a course change that brought the 9 landing craft, 3 DUKWs and one supply boat (a second had swamped) back to Pointe-du-Hoc along a route paralleling the coastline. A German machine gun nest on the cliff edge 300 meters east of the Pointe raked the passing attack force. All the craft landed east of the point forty minutes late and long after the USS Texas bombardment had lifted. (The delay caused the reinforcement 5th Ranger Battalion to believe the rangers on the Pointe had not been successful and diverted to OMAHA Beach.) The Germans rushed to the cliff edge firing and throwing hand grenades down on the invaders. Two navy destroyers, the HMS Talybout and the USS Satterlee moved in close firing their machine guns and antiaircraft pompom guns into the German ranks. From the landing craft grappling hooks with rope ladders attached were fired to the top of the 35-meter high cliffs. Many of the ladders heavy with seawater fell short.

On each hook a burning fuse terrorized the Germans attempting to cut the attached rope. From one of the DUKWs a ladder borrowed from the London Fire Department rose to overview the cliff top. Sergeant Bill Stivinson with his machine gun climbed the ladder. The DUKWs unsteadiness on the rocky beach combined with Stivinson’s weight caused the ladder to sway back and forth 45 degrees. Each time the sway brought Stivinson past the cliff top he fired on the Germans along the edge.

Within five minutes a number of rangers had climbed to the top. In another ten minutes the remaining 120 of Rudder’s 225 men were slithering over the edge and into the welcome protective shell craters. The platoons moved off to seize their pre-assigned bunkers ignoring the machine gun and 20mm fire from the large strongpoint on the cliff edge. Determining they had captured empty bunkers containing only telephone poles the rangers moved south to D514. Although the bunkers had been taken the battery area was still not cleared. The enemy would unpredictably appear from their elaborate tunnel structures, fire a burst from an automatic weapon or throw a grenade then disappear. The machine gun east of the Pointe that had harassed the landing craft now poured fire over the heads of the rangers in the shell holes. The navy and army fire control team had been knocked out with a short shell and the radios damaged. A visual Morse code blink light signalled the USS Satterlee to knock out the machine gun nest. A few rounds tumbled the nest and occupants down the cliff face onto the beach. No one survived.

These are the cliffs they climbed …

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I cannot image the climb. The fighting. It is truly a site to behold. The size of the craters makes one wonder, what was it like living through the artillery barrage? The view from inside a bunker …

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A great perspective on the slabs of concrete. Those were mighty big shells.

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The irony is that the guns were found hidden in an orchard later, unprotected.

The intact battery bunker nearest the point became the medic’s aid station. The Germans had pulled back south of D514. The rangers set up defences. Sergeant Leonard Lomell and Jack Kuhn followed a dirt road, suspicious it might be the track created by the Germans hauling out the six-gun battery. Two hundred and fifty meters south of D514 in an orchard they found the guns and ammunition unmanned.

The German gun crews had cautiously pulled away from their ammo dump. The Americans blew up the ammo, destroyed several guns and incapacitated the remaining gunsites.

The empty site …

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One of the guns … they are big.

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A couple amazing hours later, we jumped in the car to hit our final stop, Omaha beach (or so we thought).