Omaha Beach - A Portrait of Courage
A picturesque beach where romantic tales and childhood fables could be told -a beautiful place painted with high plateaus, rocky cliffs, and sandy bluffs. It is on this beach that one of most historical accounts of perseverance, tragedy, and torture played out. It was at Omaha Beach, on June 6, 1944, that one of the deadliest battles during D-Day occurred. As American soldiers moved to and from the shore as effortless as the tide, a flawless plan of victory was no match for their tragic course of destiny.
A Shore Fire Way to Lose
Omaha Beach is the code name for one of the five sectors of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France in the Normandy landings on during World War II. Omaha Beach is located on the coast of Normandy, France. It stretched six miles wide making it the largest of all five beaches. Additionally, the entire beach was overlooked by cliffs making the area of attack very difficult. Facing the English Channel, the beach stretched from east of Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes to west of Vierville-sur-Mer on the right bank of the Douve River estuary. With features that are gorgeous to the eyes, the beach proved to be nothing more than an obstacle course with danger at every angle. The area was covered by arching bluffs that ran to heights as high as 200 feet. Additionally, the long trip from ship to shore caused an obstruction from the beginning. If Germany was going to win, it would be on this beach and at this moment.
A Brilliant Plan Foiled by a Devastating Twist of Fate
This is where Germany could stop American forces. The beach was constructed as if by the soldiers themselves with every direction having an obstacle of its own. The German army, led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, built formidable barricades around Omaha. Rommel built several of his 'dragon's teeth' on the beach, which were designed to take out the base of landing craft. He added his own special touch to these teeth by enclosing mines in them. In addition to these mined landing craft annihilators, fortified resistance nests had been built on top of the cliffs. To offer the troops a unified wall, most German positions were connected by a system of trenches to allow for better movement within the group. Lastly, gun emplacements had been designed to cover the entire stretch of beach.
Rommel knew that the landing phase was the optimal time to acquire any success. He believed that the enemy would be weakest right after landing. The troops will be disorientated, overcome by seasickness, and unfamiliar with the terrain. He also knew the troops would be defenseless as they gather their heavy weapons. It appeared as though the German army knew what to expect and just waited for their chance at victory. However, what Rommel and his infantry did not count on was the bloodbath and complete chaos that they were soon to be enthralled in.
For American troops, the plan was to land alongside armored amphibious Sherman tanks. In essence, such a palpable force would give Americans the strength they needed to conquer the German forces. Unfortunately, the tanks never made it. The 29 tanks were released from the landing craft too far from the beach. Moreover, strong tides and winds veered the landing craft off its direction. When troops did land, they were confused by the disorganization and where each unit was meant to be directed. The ocean's great swell was just the first of misfortunes that left the American troops without cover and without a prayer.
A Fine Mess amidst the Cliffs
It was as if the American troops were given a visitor's day pass into hell. The long distance from ship to shore and tumultuous seas destroyed many amphibious vehicles, darkness and strong winds combined to cause other troops others to land in different areas. The troops were mentally and physically exposed as they reached the shore. Without armor and without clarity, they forged ahead with the tide and met their fate as their feet hit the sand. The Germans patiently held their fire until the first wave of men hit the beaches, and then the scene turned disastrous. For the first six hours, the invaders held only a few yards of beach, which remained under intense enemy fire.
Sergeant Robert Slaughter, one of the few American survivors, recalls the scene, "It was all very disorganized, because we lost nearly all our officers and people just lay around, not knowing what to do. If the Germans had counterattacked we could not have held them. We threw our hand grenades away or lost them. We didn't really have any weapons at all!"
Fighting heavy gun fire, the American engineers did what they could to clear beach obstacles. Landings could then gather around the few channels that were successfully cleared. But the strength of the German army proved to continually overwhelm the American mission. The surviving troops could not clear the heavily defended exits thus causing consequent delays for more landings. It appeared that no one would survive the horror that was unfolding. Then, as if a light was found at the end of the enduring tunnel, small penetrations were achieved by the remaining survivors. Through spontaneous assaults, two small, isolated footholds were conquered. The American objective was once again in sight.
The Hollow Nature of the Victory
American troops knew the only way to escape was to scale the cliffs. Led by Rangers, they found a way out and the chance for survival increased. A small naval craft came in as close as possible then attacked the German gun emplacements. In doing so, the German resistance was lessened considerably and by nightfall the Americans had gained a hold on the beach. By the turn of the battle, German Norman "Dutch" Cota was famously quoted as saying, "There are two kinds of soldiers on this beach. Those who are dead and those who are about to die. So let's get the hell of the damned beach!"
Visions of terror, bloody body parts, and overwhelming obstacles still plague those heroes that survived the beach that has become known as "Bloody Omaha". General Bradley was once quoted as saying, "Even now it brings pain to recall what happened there on June 6, 1944. I have returned many times to honor the valiant men who died on that beach. They should never be forgotten. Nor should those who lived to carry the day by the slimmest of margins. Every man who set food on Omaha Beach that day was a hero."
With more than 24,000 casualties - this event can only be called a blunt force trauma for the American spirit and a hollow victory for the troops. The beauty that is Omaha Beach will forever be tainted by the American blood that seeped into the tide waters. US troops who landed in the midst of the heavy gun fire were in left in an exposed position that was tantamount to a death sentence. They began to rally the troops and what followed were extraordinary acts of heroism.
If you had to paint a portrait of courage, what would it look like? Would the colors represent heroism, honor, and courage? Would you set the backdrop on Omaha Beach where heroes were made, lives were lost, and those who walked away would be changed forever? Those who fought on Omaha Beach painted just that on June 6, 1944 and their portrait of courage will hang on the walls of American history forever.