The second beach from the west among the five landing areas of the Normandy
Invasion of World War II was Omaha Beach. It was assaulted on June 6, 1944 (D-Day of the invasion), by units of the U.S. 29th
and 1st infantry divisions, many of whose soldiers were drowned during the approach from ships offshore or were killed by
defending fire from German troops placed on heights surrounding the beach.
Formally part of the Omaha invasion area was Pointe du Hoc, a promontory
situated to the west of the landing beach. On D-Day it was the object of a daring seaborne assault by U.S. Army rangers, who
scaled its cliffs with the aim of silencing artillery pieces placed on its heights.
The largest of the D-Day assault areas, Omaha Beach
stretched over 10 km (6 miles) between the fishing port of Port-en-Bessin on the east and the mouth of the Vire River on the west. The western third of
the beach was backed by a seawall 3 metres (10 feet) high, and the whole beach was overlooked by cliffs 30 metres high. There
were five exits from the sand and shingle beach; the best was a paved road in a ravine leading to the resort village of Vierville-sur-Mer,
two were only dirt paths, and two were dirt roads leading to the villages of Colleville-sur-Mer and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer.
The Germans under Field Marshal Erwin
Rommel had built formidable defenses to protect this enclosed battlefield.
The waters and beach were heavily mined, and there were 13 strongpoints called Widerstandsnester (“resistance
nests”). Numerous other fighting positions dotted the area, supported by an extensive trench system. The defending forces
consisted of three battalions of the veteran 352nd Infantry Division. Their weapons were fixed to cover the beach with grazing
enfilade fire as well as plunging fire from the cliffs. Omaha
was a killing zone.
was part of the invasion area assigned to the U.S.
First Army, under Lieutenant General Omar
Bradley. The assault sectors at Omaha
were code-named (from west to east) Charlie, Dog (consisting of Green, White, and Red sections), Easy (Green and Red sections),
and Fox (Green and Red sections). The beach was to be assaulted at 0630 hours by the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, with the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division attached
for D-Day only. Omaha was wide enough to land two regiments
side by side with armour in front, and so the 116th Regiment was to land at Dog (Green, White, and Red) and Easy Green, while
the 16th Regiment, 1st Division, was to land at Easy Red and Fox Green.
The objectives of the 1st Division were ambitious. First it was to capture
the villages of Vierville, Saint-Laurent, and Colleville; then it was to push through and cut the Bayeux-Isigny road; and
then it was to attack south toward Trévières and west toward the Pointe du Hoc. Elements of the 16th Regiment were to link
up at Port-en-Bessin with British units from Gold
Beach to the east.
From the beginning everything went wrong at Omaha. Special “DD” tanks (amphibious Sherman
tanks fitted with flotation screens) that were supposed to support the 116th
Regiment sank in the choppy waters of the Channel. Only 2 of the 29 launched made it to the beach. With the exception of Company
A, no unit of the 116th landed where it was planned. Strong winds and tidal currents carried the landing craft from right
to left. The 16th Regiment on the east half of the beach did not fare much better, landing in a state of confusion with units
Throughout the landing, German gunners poured deadly fire into the ranks of the invading Americans.
Bodies lay on the beach or floated in the water. Men sought refuge behind beach obstacles, pondering the deadly sprint across
the beach to the seawall, which offered some safety at the base of the cliff. Destroyed craft and vehicles littered the water's
edge and beach, and at 0830 hours all landing ceased at Omaha.
The troops on the beach were left on their own and realized that the exits were not the way off. Slowly, and in small groups,
they scaled the cliffs. Meanwhile, navy destroyers steamed in and, scraping their bottoms in the shallow water, blasted the
German fortifications at point-blank range. By 1200 hours German fire had noticeably decreased as the defensive positions
were taken from the rear. Then one by one the exits were opened.
By nightfall the 1st and 29th divisions held positions around Vierville,
Saint-Laurent, and Colleville—nowhere near the planned objectives, but they had a toehold. The Americans suffered 2,400
casualties at Omaha on June 6, but by the end of the day they
had landed 34,000 troops. The German 352nd Division lost 20 percent of its strength, with 1,200 casualties, but it had no
reserves coming to continue the fight.
An ominous piece of land jutting into the English Channel, Pointe du Hoc provided
an elevated vantage point from which huge German guns with a range of 25 km (15 miles) could deliver fire upon both Omaha
Beach (7 km, or 4 miles, to the east) and Utah
Beach (11 km, or 7 miles, to the west). Allied intelligence and photoreconnaissance
had identified five 155-mm guns emplaced in reinforced-concrete casemates on the Pointe, and Allied commanders had determined
that the neutralization of these guns was the key to the fate of the Omaha and Utah landings. The area of the Pointe was defended by elements of the German 352nd Infantry
The task of neutralizing the guns, and of cutting the road running behind
the Pointe from Saint-Pierre-du-Mont to Grandcamp, fell to the 2nd and 5th ranger battalions, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel
James Rudder. The scheme was to land Companies D, E, and F of the 2nd Battalion in a cliff-scaling attack on the Pointe while
Company C landed to the east to destroy gun positions on the western end of Omaha
Beach. While these assaults were taking place, Companies A and B, along
with all of the 5th Battalion, were to mark time off the beach and wait for a signal that the cliff scaling had succeeded.
If the signal came, they were to follow in and also scale the heights. If the signal did not come, they were to land at Omaha Beach and attack
the Pointe from the rear.
Companies D, E, and F landed at the Pointe at 0710 hours, 40 minutes
later than their planned landing time. They were the victims of heavy seas and winds, one of their landing craft having sunk
on the way in. Once landed, however, the rangers engaged the Germans on top of the cliffs in a heavy firefight, and within
minutes the first man was up. In small groups the rangers fought their way to the casemates, only to find them empty of the
big guns. They moved forward and cut the road behind the Pointe, and then a two-man patrol went down a narrow road leading
south and discovered the guns some 500 metres (550 yards) from the casemates. The guns were zeroed in on Utah Beach, and a German force, totaling some
100 men, was assembled a short distance away. Using thermite grenades, the two rangers melted and destroyed the guns' elevating
and traversing mechanisms, rendering the pieces immovable. They then returned to their positions.
The other rangers offshore, not seeing the signal from the Pointe, landed
at Omaha Beach but were not able to accomplish
their mission of attacking Pointe du Hoc since they became involved in the desperate fighting on Omaha itself. They were, however, a key to the eventual success at Omaha.
Although early reports characterized
the attack on the Pointe as a wasted effort because the German guns were not there, the attack was in fact highly successful.
By 0900 hours the rangers on the Pointe had cut the road behind the Pointe and had put the guns out of action. They were thus
the first American unit to accomplish its mission on D-Day—at a cost of half of their fighting force. By the end of
the day they were holding onto a small pocket on the heights of the Pointe, and the Germans were counterattacking. The rangers
held out for two days until help arrived.