Bloody Omaha Beach - D-Day from the German perspective

By John Dudek 23 Jul 2015 0

Of all the British, Canadian and American D-Day invasion beaches along the Normandy coast, none was as fiercely defended nor caused as many lost Allied lives than at Omaha Beach.  The reasons for the near disaster at Omaha beach were many, with both Allied and Axis forces directly or indirectly sharing the blame for this near defeat, turned to costly victory.

 

0630 Hours 6 June 1944.  D-Day Normandy France. Easy Red Beach sector Omaha Beach.

As impacting German artillery and mortar rounds sent geysers of angry brown water skyward, American landing craft of the first invasion wave threaded their way towards the beach. Most of them narrowly evaded the countless offshore concrete and steel tetrahedron mine-tipped anti-boat obstacles, while others disappeared in flashing explosions upon contact. The landing craft soon came under intense German machine gun fire coming from reinforced concrete bunkers built high into the bluffs 300 yards inland.  The German machine gunners calmly and deliberately waited until each landing craft lowered its steel ramp before firing directly into the Higgins boats, killing or wounding the massed American soldiers standing near shoulder to shoulder within.  This was done so as to inflict maximum casualties upon the invaders before they could get ashore, disperse and go to ground.  The German's cruel, but entirely militarily sound tactics were all too brutally efficient. One German Corporal, Heinrich Severloh and his MG-42 machine gun, capable of firing up to 1,500 rounds a minute, was turning Easy Red Beach into a blood and gore splashed abattoir slaughter pen. 

 

 

The American casualty rate in this sector soared during the first invasion assault wave. The numbers of the fallen first wave have been put between 65 and 95 percent killed or wounded and there seemed to be neither end nor relief anywhere in sight.  The 250 men of A Company, 116th Infantry had less than a half dozen effective troops left within minutes of coming ashore. The extremely stubborn German resistance in this sector alone nearly caused a total American abandonment and withdrawal from Omaha Beach after U.S. First Army General Omar Bradley received the tragic news of the bloody and one sided fighting going on ashore.  During the next several hours, well over 2,000 American Army assault troops and Rangers would be felled by German mines, machine gun, rifle and mortar fire.  Severloh later reckoned that he fired nearly 14,000 machine gun and rifle rounds at the invading Americans throughout the first nine hours of that invasion morning and afternoon.

 

 

 So much prolonged machine gun fire from Severloh's gun wore the rifling smooth on all of his replacement machine gun barrels, yet the gun remained completely serviceable until he was finally captured later that evening.  Some historians have since given Severloh the moniker of the "Beast of Omaha Beach."  To get an all too true and shockingly visual "bird’s eye view" of what actually happened at Omaha Beach that early morning, one only need watch the first half hour of the movie "Saving Private Ryan."  The only historical difference between the movie and historical reality is the actual tidal line on Omaha Beach was over 300 yards from the German fortifications atop the bluff and not nearly directly below as portrayed in the movie. 

Of all the British, Canadian and American D-Day invasion beaches along the Normandy coast, none was as fiercely defended nor caused as many lost Allied lives than at Omaha Beach.  The reasons for the near disaster at Omaha beach were many, with both Allied and Axis forces directly or indirectly sharing the blame for this.  The Allied pre-invasion aerial bombardment of the beach head and German fortifications on the bluffs was a fiasco mainly because the bombers released their bombs far too late.  As a result, the bombs impacted up to three miles behind the German defense positions.  The only thing the Allied bombs killed were French civilians in their farms and their live-stock grazing in the fields.  The Allied pre-invasion naval bombardment was cut to only 40 minutes duration by General Omar Bradley.  This was done in spite of strong objections by the U.S Navy, especially in light of their recent experiences in the Pacific against the Japanese.  Considering the strength of the well armed, concrete German fortifications lining the shore, this proved to be nothing short of criminal. The American assault troops of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions paid the price for the lack of naval bombardment preparation with their blood. 

The weather too played an all important role in the slaughter at Omaha beach.  High waves from a recent channel hurricane had not yet begun to subside.  As a result, many of the amphibious Sherman Designated Drive tanks of the 741st Tank Battalion were dropped off into Seine Bay some five thousand yards offshore.  In the high rolling seas, 27 of the 32 tanks swamped and sank with a loss of 33 men. The remaining tank company were able to land 14 of its 16 tanks directly onto the beach where the vast majority were knocked out by German anti-tank fire. Had all these tanks made it to shore, they could have provided a priceless base of gunfire support to the beleaguered but hard fighting American troops already there, while greatly lowering the cost in human blood. 

One cannot underestimate the value of the massive German fortifications along the bluffs of the five mile long Omaha beach.  Although incomplete at the time of the invasion, the primary fortifications consisted of 15 reinforced concrete strongpoint block houses and 35 pillboxes known as Widershandsnester or resistance nests. All of the beach exits or "draws" were effectively closed, protected by thick tangles of barbed wire, anti-personnel and anti-tank mine fields.  These fortifications were manned by three reinforced battalions of German infantry with one additional battalion in reserve.  The troops were armed with their standard issue infantry rifles, machine guns plus 60 light artillery guns.  An additional 18 anti tank guns were located in concrete pillboxes. They were designed and situated in such a way as to provide enfilading fire along the beach to destroy the maximum number of Allied tanks or other armored vehicles once they were ashore.  In addition to the mine fields already in place, German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel envisioned a million additional land mines to be planted along Normandy's beaches, but by June 1944 he'd received and planted only a fraction of that number.

Another contributing factor in the slaughter at Omaha Beach was that Allied military intelligence incorrectly identified Omaha Beach's German defenders as being merely a reinforced battalion of nearly a thousand men of the under strength static or "fortress" 716th Infantry Division. Many of them were formerly captured Russian POW volunteers of questionable loyalty.  The rest were volksdeutch, (German speaking volunteers or conscripts from the occupied territories) or veteran German troops in poor health from advanced age, battle wounds or disease.  These men were therefore non deployable in active roles elsewhere, but could fight effectively from a static or fortress position. What Allied intelligence missed was the recent deployment of the reinforced, well equipped and highly capable 12,000 man 352nd Infantry Division. They'd arrived in Normandy only a few months before and were deployed in the Omaha and Gold Beach sectors. The 352nd consisted of 9 infantry and support battalions rather than the 6 battalions now standard to most late war German infantry divisions.  Therefore, instead of a single reinforced battalion of foreigners and old men with health issues of the 716th Infantry Division at Omaha Beach, there were also between five and six thousand highly motivated German troops of the 352nd Infantry Division. On the sixth of June they would reap a bitter harvest of Allied and American KIA and WIA before the close of the first day.

 

 

Rommel's plan for the defense of Normandy was to hold the Allied invaders tightly within their beach heads and not allow them to proceed further inland.  He therefore concentrated the vast majority of his defenses at the water's edge.  As a result there was little to no defense in depth with few reserve motorized troops available to quickly commit to any threatened sectors.  Normandy's defenses were extremely strong but extremely brittle and subject to breaking under heavy pressure. What's more, if the Americans at Omaha Beach could somehow break through and advance up the draws to the top of the bluffs, the integrity of the line of German defenses would be shattered and completely compromised. Rommel also fervently hoped and planned that his many German armored divisions scattered throughout France would receive ample warning of the coming invasion and quickly come to his aid. If the tanks arrived during those crucial first 24 hours of the invasion day, the Germans could conceivably hurl the Allies back into the sea. 

 

 

Perhaps the wily "Desert Fox" Rommel could somehow reach back into his storied past to regain some of his earlier military magic from the heady, victorious early days of the North African campaign three years before.  If so, then he would give the Allies a severe drubbing in Normandy. Such a huge and grievous Allied defeat with the attendant heavy losses of men and material would result in them being unable to mount another cross channel invasion until the following year.  This would give the German army and their war industries the priceless breathing space and time needed to reinforce and rebuild their shattered infantry and armored divisions on the Russian front.  Perhaps the Germans could regain the strategic initiative there with enough fresh troops, new tanks and the secret wonder weapons now rolling off their assembly lines.  Perhaps too a negotiated peace could still be worked out if the Allied defeat was large and bitter enough. Everything hinged on those critical first 24 hours of "The Longest Day."

At this late stage of the war, the Allies had a number of strong advantages over their German counter-parts.  The British, Canadian and American armies were completely motorized whereas the Germans still relied on tens of thousands of horse drawn wagons to haul much of their supporting weaponry and supplies up to the front.  This meant the Allies could react much quicker to the ever changing fortunes of war on the battlefield and keep badly needed supporting supplies and ammunition up with the troops in their most forward positions.  The Allies also possessed complete air superiority above the invasion beaches with over 12.000 strategic and tactical aircraft immediately available to support the D-Day invasion.  The Germans had but 570 planes in and around Normandy with roughly 1,000 more still in Germany. The disparity in numbers was immediately and painfully felt from that first day.

On D-Day, 6 June 1944, Luftflotte 3 flew 139 (single plane) “strike” sorties (presumably fighter and bomber sorties over and around the invasion area), 24 reconnaissance sorties and 35 night fighter sorties. The latter two were also presumably over and around the invasion area. In contrast, the Allies flew 14,075 sorties in direct support of the invasion and lost only 127 aircraft to all causes.

Overwhelming Allied air superiority soon established the strategic precedent that no German reinforcements could be brought up by railroad or truck convoy traffic during daylight hours.  Any such reinforcement attempts would see them heavily bombed and strafed by Allied fighters or tactical bombers.  Allied air attacks eventually proved to be a major factor in the final German military defeat in Normandy.

Another key factor in the American victory at Omaha Beach was the leadership shown by the American junior officers and NCO's.  These men inspired and led their troops through hail storms of machine gun, rifle, mortar and artillery fire across the contested Omaha beach.  They would eventually open the barbed wire and minefield blocked draws before engaging the Germans atop and behind the fortified bluffs. Besides the savage "never say die" tenacity of the American fighting men, another nearly equal and important factor came to bear in the final victory over the Germans at Omaha Beach. This was the massive preponderance of Allied naval superiority, both in the direct fire bombardment role and the invasion support role.  Most important was Allies ability to continue landing large amounts of fresh troops on the beach with each succeeding wave. As a result, the Americans were in the unusual position of being able to reinforce an amphibious landing by sea quicker and more easily than the Germans could reinforce their defenders by land.  By the end of the first day the Americans were able to land 34,000 men on Omaha Beach alone.

While the initial preparatory Allied naval bombardment was far too short in duration to affect the fighting strength of the German fortified positions along the Omaha Beach shore, the actions of the US destroyers who used close-in direct artillery fire to blast the enemy fortifications and keep the German's heads down proved crucial in helping to break German resistance.  Firing from point blank ranges less than 1,000 yards offshore and oftentimes with less than a foot of water under the destroyer's keels, they crippled the German defense positions with their vicious flat trajectory artillery salvos.  These were fired directly at the bunker's firing apertures.  By late morning, Heinrich Severloh was running short of machine gun ammunition and was forced to use belts of anti aircraft ammunition with every fifth round being a tracer bullet just to keep his gun in action.  Located offshore and seeing the source of the brightly lit machine gun tracer rounds from less than a thousand yards away, the US destroyer Frankford directed an entire main gun battery salvo of five inch guns directly upon his position.  Severloh saw the incoming shells headed directly at him and the wide-eyed corporal had just enough time to duck behind the armored casemate wall before the rounds impacted all around him.  The nearby explosions dismounted his machine gun, leaving him coughing up concrete dust and cordite smoke while also leaving him temporarily deaf with his ears ringing.

 

 

Several US destroyers now openly defied direct orders from their superiors not to bring their ships just offshore to pound the hardened German positions all along Omaha Beach. The destroyer McCook destroyed a 75mm gun position and pillboxes with direct gunfire.  The American task force commander now reversed his earlier command and ordered his destroyers to get as close in as possible. Their accurate gunfire proved to be critical in the Omaha Beach landing's final success. With the American troops now closing in upon his fortified position and left without ammunition, Severloh abandoned the bunker and fled to the nearby village of Colleville-Sur-Mer.  He surrendered and was taken prisoner by a squad of American troops that night and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp in the United States.  He later spoke and wrote of his experiences on D-Day.

Upon seeing the terrifying sight of a near endless train of hundreds of Allied ships arrayed in the bay early that morning and with dozens of landing craft now headed ashore he said:

"What came to mind was, 'Dear God, why have you abandoned me?'  There were 30 of us,"

"Every one had only one thought in our heads that day-would we be coming out of this alive? I didn't want to be in this war. I didn't want to be in France. I didn't want to shoot a machine gun at young fellows my age. But there we were, serving in a war that was already lost and obeying the orders of our Lieutenant-to open fire as soon as they were knee-deep in water. "

"I wasn't afraid. My only thought was, 'How can I get away from here? I had 12,000 rounds for my machine gun. I started shooting at 5am and I was still shooting nearly nine hours later. There was no panic, no hate. One did what one had to do and knew that they as sure as hell would be doing it to you if they got the chance.  At first the corpses were 500 metres away, then 400, then 150. There was blood everywhere, screams, dead and dying. The swell of the sea bobbed more bodies onto the beach. In the early afternoon, I realised I was the last person still firing. I could see tanks manouvering on the beach and knew that I couldn't hold them alone. I heard an order shouted by Lieutenant Ferking - a fine fellow and, at 32, a veteran - that we should retreat. I ran from bomb crater to bomb crater behind our bunker complex. I waited but he never came. I was taken prisoner that night. I don't think I would have survived had I been captured at my post. Had they known what I had done to their friends, I don't think those first-wave troops would have shown me any mercy." 

Hein Severloh said he took no pride in what he did, but telling his tale had given him a sense of relief. "I have thought about it every single day that God gave to me," he said. Now, he said, "the pressure is gone."

 

 

 

Even at this late stage of the D-Day fighting, the Germans remained happily shocked and surprised at their original successes at Omaha Beach.  Until late morning they remained completely convinced they had decisively beaten the Americans there.  As a result, the few available German reinforcements who could have been deployed to tip the balance of battle completely into their favour, and therefore threaten and isolate the nearby Utah Beach, were instead sent elsewhere.  When the tide of fighting at Omaha Beach began to tip decidedly in the Americans favor, there were no longer any available German troop reserves in that sector.  By nightfall, the German defenses at Omaha Beach were virtually all conquered, with only scattered pockets of German resistance left in the areas behind the concrete fortifications. 

The Americans now held a tenuous beach head perimeter ranging from barely a mile and a half deep near Colleville to a far shallower penetration on the other side of the beach at Vierville.  American 29th and 1st Infantry division losses were heavy and estimated at well over 3,000 killed, wounded and missing.  The U.S 741st tank battalion had but five serviceable battle tanks ready the following morning.  Meanwhile, German long range artillery continued to fall along the entire beach head for days afterward from positions well inland. In contrast, the German 352nd division lost about 20% of its fighting strength on D-Day with 1,200 killed, wounded and missing. The division was virtually destroyed in the bloody weeks of fighting to follow, but was reconstituted back in Germany and fought on until the closing days of the war.  The German 716th Infantry division was badly mauled in Normandy and pulled out of the line on 10 July 1944. It was redeployed in the south of France and would later surrender to the Americans at Kempten, Germany in May 1945. Erwin Rommel's hoped-for plan for German armored division tank support never materialized until days later when it was far too late.  Hitler refused to release the armored divisions to Rommel during those critical first 24 hours.  Instead, he believed the D-Day assault to be but a diversionary ruse.  He thought the main Allied invasion would take place at Calais.  Rommel was later badly wounded in Normandy in mid July and eventually implicated in the assassination plot against Hitler.  The heroic Field Marshall Rommel was forced to take poison or risk the ruination and national disgrace of a court martial.

The tenuous American hold on the Omaha Beach perimeter continued until 9 June when they linked up with the British troops of XXX corps from the adjoining Gold Beach.  Within weeks the Allies would break out of their beach heads to utterly destroy the German Seventh and Fifteenth Armies, driving them completely out of France and Belgium.  In less than a year, the Germans sued for unconditional surrender in May 1945.

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