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In war there is but one favorable moment; the great art is to seize it!
-- Napoleon Bonaparte
As the time for the attack on Hitler's Europe approached, General Omar Bradley gathered in Exeter in southern England, the officers of the U.S. divisions that were to make the assault landings in Normandy. Bradley's purpose, no doubt, was to let us meet the man who would command the American ground forces.
In the course of his talk, he sought to rouse us to the occasion by pointing out that we would have a front-row seat for the greatest military operation in history. For a few seconds there was silence. Then a roar of laughter swept across the room.
Bradley looked about, clearly puzzled. A professional soldier, he was approaching the greatest moment in his career. Most of us, however, were civilians in uniform. We were well aware that we were about to participate in a historic event. We were all concious, however, that a number of us would not witness the end of the first act of the drama that was to unfold, let alone the final curtain.
When the 4th Division, which I had joined two years earlier, went ashore at Utah Beach, on June 6, 1944, I doubt that it ever occurred to me that we could fail. After several years of intensive training in the United States, the division went to England in early 1944. There, we made a number of practice landings on the south coast at a place called Slapton Sands. This area was chosen because of its similarity to Utah Beach and its hinterland.
As the level of training intensified, so did the level of tension. Finally, the 29th Field Artillery Battalion in which I was a 24-year-old assistant intelligence officer, moved to its assembly area near Dartmouth. Those of us who had already been informed of the plans for the landing briefed the rest of the battalion.
At last the day arrived when we went to our embarkation point in the river Dart. By this time, our battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Joel F. Thomason, decided that several of us would go on the same landing craft as Colonel James Van Fleet. He commanded the 8th Infantry Regiment which made the initial assault on Utah Beach.
Van Fleet's headquarters for the crossing of the English Channel was an LCT (landing craft tank), a flat-bottomed boat just large enough to hold 4 tanks. In addition to the boat's crew, the only person who got a cabin was Van Fleet. The rest of us made out as best we could on the upper deck.
As we sailed from Dartmouth on June 4, we all assumed that the next morning would find us in France. We had not counted, however, on the weather, which, when we were at sea, turned foul. As a result of General Eisenhower's decision to delay the landing a day to allow the weather to improve, we found ourselves bobbing around in the wind and rain for an entire night. Slowly but surely seasickness took its toll. Even though I was on of the happy few who did not succumb, I was as relieved as the others to see the French coast in the gray morning light of June 6.
All around us were thousands of ships and landing craft that had made their way across the Channel undetected. The reason for that, as we later learned was that the Germans had not sent out their patrol boats in the belief that no one would attempt a landing in such terrible weather.
Although we were too far out to make out what was happening on shore, the sound of loud explosions from aircraft bombs and naval shells left no doubt that the beach was an inferno.
As soon as Colonel Van Fleet got word by radio that the first waves had secured the beach and were driving inland, he announced that he was going ashore.
The run into the beach in a smaller landing craft, to which some of us transferred, was a bizarre experience. Most of us were happy to cower behind the little protection provided by the metal sides of the landing craft. One officer from regimental headquarters, however, insisted on sitting in a chair above us, where he was exposed to enemy fire. Arms folded, he announced that he did not want to miss a moment of this spectacular show. (A few weeks later, under similar circumstances, he collapsed with a bullet through his head.)
When the landing craft hit the beach and the front ramp went down, I waded through some shallow water and ran to the shelter of the seawall that ran along the beach - barely glancing at several soldiers who were lying on the sand as though asleep. I could hear rifle and machine-gun fire beyond the dunes, and some mortar shells fell not too far away.
My task, once ashore, was to guide our three artillery batteries to firing positions that we had selected in England from a detailed foam rubber relief map of the beach. After crossing the sand dunes that lay just beyond the seawall, I was unable to figure out where I was. When I asked an infantry officer to help me, he laughed and said that the Navy had landed the first wave several thousand yards south of where we were supposed to land.
Fortunately, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr, who had joined the 4th Division shortly before the landing, had volunteered to go in with the first wave. He later told some of us that he had gone forward to reconnoiter the beach: Finding that Major General Maxwell Taylor's 101st Airborne Division, which had dropped during the night, had captured the causeways over the inundated area behind the beach. Roosevelt decided that to try to move the landing northward would only cause confusion.
As it turned out, the Navy's error was forunate. The beach on which we landed was much more lightly defended than where we were supposed to have landed and the German resistance was relatively easily overcome.
When I went back to the beach, I told Colonel Thomason that I could find only two firing positions, not three in the limited area between the sand dunes and the inundated area. As calmly as if we were on a practice landing, he said, "It's alright. We'll only need two.
B Battery hit a mine on the way in and the landing craft sank."
Before I could think too long about the 60 men on the boat, Thomason told me to get moving and guide the other batteries to their firing positions.
After the batteries were in position, Thomason suggested we go inland to find the infantry. After crossing a causeway over the inundated area, we found ourselves in the middle of a field. We froze when we heard a soldier on the other side of the field shout, "Don't you fools know that you are in the middle of a minefield."
After discussing our predicament, we agreed to separate, so that if one of us stepped on a mine we would not both be blown up. It was along way to the other side of that field. Discussing this incident not long ago, Thomason and I agreed that the soldier was right. We were fools. We should have had someone clear a path out to us with a minesweeper.
Late in the afternoon, after our batteries had moved inland to support the infantry, the clear blue sky was filled with colored parachutes. From these were suspended boxes of supplies for the paratroopers. Colorful sight turned to horror, however, when the gliders, loaded with soldiers and equipment, started to circle and land. Unnerved perhaps by the German anti-aircraft fire, some of the pilots crashed their gliders into the headgerows that surround the samll field of Normandy.
Whenever I recall that scene, I can still hear the screams of pain that filled the air around me.
My last memory of that day is watching multicolored tracer bullets arch through the sky over St. Mere Eglise which had been captured by our paratroopers but was still surrounded by German forces.
I fell to sleep well after midnight in a ditch by the road - a road that would lead us first north to St. Lo. After that, we participated in the liberation of Paris, the nightmare of the Hurtgen Forest, and the crushing of the German mid-winter offensive.
After crossing the Rhine, we fought sporadic engagements until we found ourselves south of Munich. There we stopped simply because there were no more German units left to fight.
Note: by John C. Ausland
This Day in History
British forces seize Basse-Terre and Guadeloupe from France.
Union cavalry units continue to skirmish with Confederate forces in Henderson, North Carolina and Munsford Station, Alalbama.
The U.S. Senate passes the Soldiers Bonus Bill.
In retaliation for the British raid on Lubeck, German bombers strike Exeter and later Bath, Norwick, York, and other "medieval-city centres." Almost 1,000 English civilians are killed in the bombing attacks nicknamed "Baedeker Raids."
The Soviet Army fights its way into Berlin.
Chiang Kai-shek evacuates Hainan, leaving mainland China to Mao Zedong and the communists.
At a speech at Tulane University, President Gerald Ford says the Vietnam War is finished as far as America is concerned. This was devastating news to the South Vietnamese, who were desperately pleading for U.S. support as the North Vietnamese surrounded Saigon for the final assault on the capital city.