The Allies victory on D-Day was complete—but only in hindsight does their triumph that day appear certain.
The endless training, the long and anxious wait for the start of combat, and the pounding trip through the English Channel had been trouble enough. Then Harold Baumgarten faced the hazy shore of Normandy, and a leap off a landing craft into neck-deep water – into hell. A private in the 29th Infantry Division, Baumgarten was in the vanguard of the attack on the beach that was soon to be called “Bloody Omaha.”
The cliffs ahead bristled with German soldiers and armaments, a mix of mortars and machine guns and rifles and artillery. Bombardments from Allied naval guns and bombers during the run-up to the attack had failed to dislodge the entrenched soldiers. They waited – and then gave the 19-year-old Baumgarten and his comrades a merciless reception.
“We were losing men right and left. The water was full of blood,” the veteran of D-Day, June 6, 1944, recalled years later. “There was a group of us running across the beach … When we got to about 135 yards away from the sea wall, a machine gun came from the trenches up on the bluff.”
Baumgarten felt a vibration on his right side and heard a loud thud. He turned his rifle over and saw a hole in the receiver. “[The] seven bullets in the magazine section had stopped the German bullet. Another thud behind me to the left, and that guy was gone,” Baumgarten said.
Baumgarten hit the sand behind a metal obstacle, a hedgehog, planted to ensnare landing boats. About the length of a football field still stood between him and the cover of the sea wall. He paused. To his right he saw a fellow soldier, Pvt. Robert Didmar of Fairfield, Conn., try to take cover: “He tripped over the hedgehog, spun completely around, and lying on his back [he yelled], ‘I’m hit! I’m hit! Mom! Mother!’”
Then Didmar fell silent.
Baumgarten looked to his left and saw Sgt. Clarence Robinson of Lynchburg, Va. Helmetless, Robinson was staggering; a gaping hole was visible in the left side of his forehead and his blond hair was streaked with blood. Baumgarten vainly screamed for Robinson to take cover. “He couldn’t hear me anyway,” he said. “The noise on that beach was horrendous, shells coming in, flame-throwers blowing up with guys getting on fire.”
Robinson staggered toward Baumgarten and fell near him. Clutching his Rosary, laying in about three inches of bloody water, Robinson began to pray. “And [then] the machine gun up on the bluff fired over my head, and cut him in half,” recalled Baumgarten, who over the next 32 hours was wounded five times. He was one of two men on his landing craft – which had carried 30 men onto shore that day – to survive D-Day.
Two years in the making
Baumgarten’s ordeal, the scene of carnage and helplessness, was just what Allied commanders had feared might happen as American, British and Canadian forces waded to shore at the vanguard of Operation Overlord, the long-awaited assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe. The coordinated attack, two years in the making, on the elaborate network of coastal defenses was unprecedented in scale – more than 160,000 troops, 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft, including more than 20,000 American and British airborne troops. But the extraordinary show of force and meticulous planning did not ensure success.
Allied commanders faced the prospect that German reserves numbering in the hundreds of thousands, backed by Panzers and other motorized vehicles, would overwhelm Allied paratroopers who landed inland and converge on the contested beaches, isolating and then dismembering the infantry fresh from the Higgins boats on the bloody surf. Some German commanders actually favored allowing the enemy to establish a beachhead and begin to push inland, so that they could be encircled and annihilated; “let them come,” was the phrase often heard.
The Allies could take confidence in having achieved air dominance in and near Normandy following a relentless campaign of destruction against the German Luftwaffe in the months preceding D-Day. But air power was just one piece – albeit an important one – of the strategic puzzle. Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower and his top lieutenants were all too familiar with a glaring weakness in their own forces: Most of the soldiers expected to breach Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had never seen combat. Although well trained and equipped, their response to a maelstrom in the landing zones remained an unknown. Fresh on their minds was the Battle of Kasserine Pass in North Africa in February 1943, when Afrika Korps forces led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel routed mostly green American troops, forcing a 50-mile retreat. In anticipation of an Allied invasion of Western Europe in 1944, Hitler had placed the brilliant, battle-tested Rommel in charge of preparing the Normandy coastal defenses.
Rommel believed Germany’s best chance to defeat an Allied invasion was to do so at the landing points, and he drove soldiers and conscripted laborers to strengthen fortifications and add mines and beach obstacles. “The war will be won or lost on the beaches,” the famed “Desert Fox” general predicted. “We’ll have only one chance to stop the enemy, and that’s while he’s still in the water, struggling to get ashore. The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive.”
Rommel’s priority spoke to a fundamental worry of Allied military planners: Operation Overlord, which depended on the success of large scale amphibious landings at heavily defended beaches, didn’t have history on its side. Although the tactic was used successfully by the Japanese as early as the 1930s (against the Chinese) and staunchly defended by the U.S. Marine Corps over many years – as an alternative to attacking fortified ports – amphibious landings had a checkered record.
The disastrous World War I invasion at Gallipoli, by British, French and Australian forces influenced deep skepticism among British planners. And by 1944, Allied amphibious operations in the Pacific and Mediterranean had done little to inspire confidence. At Salerno and Anzio in Italy, Allied forces had landed in chaos and came to the brink of disaster. Plus, American marines had barely hung on during the invasion of Tarawa, suffering terrible casualties that fueled public outrage back home.
The difficulty of an amphibious attack was heightened by a logistical challenge: naval vessels had to not only carry the troops and equipment for the initial attack, but had to ensure a continuous supply of men, resources and equipment to support the Normandy campaign. Any major disruption of these supplies, whether by the enemy, weather or leadership blunders, could paralyze the invasion effort.
Ultimately, Allied military and political leaders decided that if unconditional defeat of Germany was to be achieved, there was no alternative to the largest amphibious invasion in world history. Failure would mean delaying the push to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny. Despite the mixed record with past amphibious operations, Eisenhower displayed unshakable resolve: “This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be. We’re going down there, and we’re throwing everything we have into it, and we’re going to make it a success.”
Preparation for D-Day
In the run-up to D-Day, countless measures were taken to help ensure Operation Overlord’s success. More than a million people were involved, most in non-combat support roles. Ships, soldiers and supplies were assembled in gargantuan quantities in Great Britain; as one soldier recalled, “Half of England was under tarps.” While the Germans knew the Allies were massing for an invasion of Europe sometime in 1944, they didn’t learn when and where until troops filled the skies and approached the Normandy beaches on June 6.The extraordinary steps taken to maintain secrecy were successful.
Misinformation proved effective, too. As a result of a massive Allied deception campaign that employed dummy ships, planes, jeeps, armies and radio signals, Hitler believed the likely point of attack was at Calais, France, located at the narrowest part of the English Channel, just 22 miles from Great Britain. Meanwhile, Allied logistics teams assembled thousands of the innovative landing craft built by Higgins Industries in New Orleans, featuring drop-down gates for rapid unloading of troops and equipment. (Eisenhower would later credit manufacturer Andrew Higgins with playing a crucial role in winning the war, as his landing boats delivered marines and soldiers on D-Days around the globe.)
A final, vexing obstacle to launching Overlord was the weather. High winds and stormy seas in the English Channel delayed the invasion by a day, and frayed the nerves of paratroopers, foot soldiers, seamen and airmen. Suddenly, the fate of the free world seemed at the mercy of the elements. But then, early on June 5, 1944, forecasters delivered the promising news of a clearing sky for the following day. Eisenhower gave the long-anticipated order – “OK, let’s go!” – and the invasion fleet powered toward Normandy.
After personally thanking geared-up American paratroopers who would be among the first to hit Normandy, the Supreme Commander privately wrote and placed into his wallet a statement accepting responsibility for the failure of the invasion if plans went awry. “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” he wrote. “My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” For emphasis, Ike drew a line under “mine alone.” Though he exuded confidence, It’s clear that Eisenhower was wracked by grave concerns.
The Day of Days
Confidence was evidential among American pilots and seamen who witnessed the armada’s approach to Normandy. As one P-47 fighter pilot, Lt. Charles Mohrle of the 405th Fighter Group, recalled, “Ships and boats of every nature and size churned the rough Channel surface; seemingly in a mass so solid one could have walked from shore to shore.” To Mohrle, a 23-year-old Texan who joined the Army Air Corps following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the force appeared indestructible: “I specifically remember thinking that Hitler must have been mad to think that Germany could defeat a nation capable of filling the sea and sky with so much ordnance.”
Onboard the destroyer USS Harding, the ship’s executive officer, Lt. William Gentry, recalled a lingering quiet as the naval force came into clear sight of German batteries. “For several minutes nothing happened as we looked at Naziland and I guess they were looking back at us wondering how this tremendous bunch of ships had appeared out of nothing,” he said. “Suddenly, a German gun opened fire and as of that moment hell exploded from the mass of bombarding ships all along the miles and miles of assault beaches.”
Among those waiting for the Americans at Omaha Beach was Heinrich Severloh, a 20-year-old soldier in Germany’s 352nd Infantry Division. Severloh, who was inscripted into the Wehrmacht in 1942 one month after his 19th birthday, later described the thunderous “softening-up” assault from Allied bombers and naval artillery.
“Rockets and shells of the heaviest calibers thumped down continuously on our positions,” Severloh wrote in his autobiography. “The ground of the entire line of high coastal bluffs trembled under the head-on attack, and the air vibrated. Thick, yellow, choking dust filled the air … On the slope of our position, dry grass and gorse bushes began to burn.”
But when the shelling stopped, Severloh quickly recovered. As landing craft filled with soldiers reached the beach, Severloh said he did his duty. He shot American soldiers en masse as they emerged from the boats, using an MG-42 machine gun – which he said repeatedly overheated – and a rifle.
“I was a soldier; a soldier who was going to be attacked, and as such I now had to defend myself. I moved the safety lock of my machine gun to the off position and began to fire,” he remembered. “I could see the water spouts where my machine gun bursts were hitting, and when the little fountains got close to the GIs, they threw themselves down. After only a few seconds, panic broke out among the Americans. They all lay in the shallow, cold water; many tried to get to the most forward beach obstacles to find some cover behind them.”
Severloh reported firing thousands of rounds. “Soon the first corpses drifted about in the waves of the slowly rising tide. I fired further among the many dark forms in the water, which were still about 300 meters from the upper beach. After a little while, all the GIs on the beach had been brought down.” (Severloh, now deceased, noted in his book that “nobody can really imagine how terrible one feels” being personally responsible for many of the thousands of crosses at the Normandy American Cemetery.)
For many American paratroopers, whose critical job was to keep German reinforcements from reaching the beach landing zones, terror set in long before they set foot on French soil. “I looked at my watch and it was 12:30. When I got into the (airplane) doorway, I looked out into what looked like a solid wall of tracer bullets,” recalled Pvt. Leonard Griffing, a 19-year-old New Yorker in the 101st Airborne Division. “I said to myself, ‘Len, you’re in as much trouble now as you’re ever going to be in. If you get out of this, nobody can ever do anything to you.”
Zane Schlemmer, a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division months shy of his 20th birthday, landed hard and off target. “We had jumped extremely low,” he recalled. “I hit in a hedgerow apple orchard, coming up with very sore bruised ribs.” After clearing away his parachute, Schlemmer was unable to join his fellow paratroopers because of German gunfire spewing from a farm house. “The firing was quite overwhelming … I was alone. I had no idea where the hell I was other than being in France.”
An End to All Things
The ending to D-Day at Normandy is a dramatic story, popularly told through the writings of Stephen E. Ambrose, the films such as The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, through exhibits at museums. The invasion concludes with the Allies’ celebrated race across France – the beginning of the liberation of Europe. The Atlantic Wall was breached. The French flag flew again in the coastal village of Ste. Mere Eglise, and more Allied troops and supplies poured ashore, promising a hard-won victory the next year.
What seems unfortunate is that the result of this great sacrifice, of courage shown in defense of high ideals, often seems inevitable to students of history today. Of course the West would prevail, right? It was the irresistible force.
But the reality of June 6, 1944 was far different. Nothing was certain that day; it was a grim and dangerous moment in time, the ultimate test for America, its Allies, and its ideals. The risk of failure, of a very different chain of events, loomed large, and this understanding makes the outcome of D-Day even more significant.