Thursday, October 16, 2008

Utah Beach


Our final destination in France was the family house in Normandy. It is close to Utah Beach where the Americans landed on D-Day. The Utah landings went well from an American perspective. It was the most westerly of the five allied landings. The next one was also American but that went very poorly for them initially for they were almost driven back into the sea by the Germans. Here I want to show what Utah beach looks like and also illustrate why the Americans had such great difficulty at Omaha Beach. The British were particularly successful on their two beaches and then seem to have got stuck but I will also discuss that.

This map also shows where Calais is. The Germans were expecting the invasion to take place there so they had their strongest defences there.

These maps show the five landing beaches and also where the airborne forces landed. Notice that there was no airborne landing behind Omaha Beach to divert the defenders in that sector. Utah beach is the most sheltered from storms coming in from the west. has excellent brief description.

This is Utah beach. The grader gives the scale of it.

Standing on the beach in September 2008. The actual events took place on 6th June 1944. June is summer of course but they had really poor weather just then so the invasion was posponed by one day and a few days later a exceptionally big storm came through and destroyed one of the artificial harbours they had created (but it was also not correctly installed).

The plan was to land on the beach and move inland through the marshes on the four roads. The Germans had flooded the area to make it particularly marshy & had their defences aligned along the four tracks.

On the top of the ridge inland was a big battery to defend the entire bay in front.

The person and horse give the scale of what the soldiers had to cross here. At Utah they met little resistance but at the next beach, Omaha, the American troops were mown down by the defenders who were busy with a training exercise just at that time so were on the alert.

One of the defence positions, that is a WW2 pillbox at the end of the wall. This is one of the few fortifications on Utah beach, there were many more on Omaha. The allies had led the Germans to expect the invasion to take place across the narrowest part of the Channel so their defences and troops were concentrated much further along the coast around Calais (shown on first map).

Imagine those were two soldiers and a tank and you were a German here with a machine gun. Sitting ducks? Remember too that they had had to wade through the water first. They were dropped off when the water was waist deep and they were 100 meters from the beach and it was low tide then.

Another view of what the troops had to cross with a person for scale again.

A wide angle view from the invader’s viewpoint.

Zooming in on the critical bit he would have to cross. The tide was quite far out when these photos were taken which is what it was like as the landings started. The invasion had to take place first thing in the morning and the tide had to be low because the Germans had covered the beaches with booby traps against boats and people so these had to be visible. There also had to be a full moon because night parachute landings inland were also planned. This limited the possible landing days. This article discusses the tide

This is what one of those four tracks looks like today. The marshes have been largely drained now. The troops were aiming to get through to the hills behind. The big gun emplacement was on those hills in the background.

More of the marsh.

More of the marsh, still with water today.

Marsh. Here is Wikipedia on one of the reasons things went better at Utah compared to the horrors at Omaha:

Fewer German fortifications: The defense of the area was largely based on flooding the coastal plain behind the beaches, and there were fewer bunkers.

This is one of the few bunkers the Germans had at the beach.

The Americans had sent their parachute ‘Screaming Eagles’ to a village on the top of the ridge behind. Here is what Wikipedia says about them and the difference they made at Utah compared to Omaha where there was no such landing:

Paratroopers: The most significant difference was the 13,000 men from the 101st Airborne Division and the 82nd Airborne Division already fighting inland. For 5 hours before the first Utah landings, the paratroopers (and glider forces) had been fighting their way out toward the beach, clearing the enemy from positions along the exits. The paratroopers also greatly confused the enemy and prevented any significant counterattack to the landing area.

As a sideline: Screaming Eagle is the name Harley Davidson use for their aftermarket performance parts.

One got caught on the church tower and was captured by the Germans.

They keep a dummy there to record the event. Behind me as I took this photo is the museum to the airborne troops which has a roof shaped like a modern parachute. If you look at the second map you will see that the American aircraft had come in from the west quite a way overland before dropping the parachutists and releasing the gliders. They had difficulty with navigation so the troops were dropped over a much larger area than intended with severe consequences.

Outside that museum is this old Sherman tank. These made a huge part of the difference between Utah & Omaha. Wikipedia again about Utah:

DD tanks: Nearly all of these swimming tanks made the beach because they were launched half as far out as at Omaha and were able to steer into the current more effectively to avoid swamping in the rough seas.

It is one of the things that I admire about the American soldiers. It was obvious that those tanks at Omaha were ordered to be launched at twice the specified distance and that the sea was too rough out there for them. Yet they obeyed orders and launched only for the tanks to sink & the crews to drown.

From here get this about Omaha.

The 1st Infantry assault experienced the worst ordeal of the D-Day operation. All but two out of 29 amphibious tanks sank and almost all the senior officers were killed or wounded as they set foot on the beach. Despite a 50% casualty rate, the survivors regrouped and pressed on. Aided by heavy naval bombardment, the infantry crossed the beach and began scaling the cliffs. Paratroops closed in on the German defence from behind, enabling the beach exits to be secured by midday. The Americans suffered 2,400 casualties at Omaha on June 6th, but 34,000 Allied troops had landed by nightfall.

So the soldiers at Omaha had only two tanks to attack the German bunkers and gun emplacements and were pinned to the beach and slaughtered there until some managed to find a gap and get through.


Most of the casualties occurred after the ramps were dropped when machine-gun fire from the trench line above cut a swath through the disembarking troops. On one LCVP, only seven Gls reached the beach of the original 32. It was only slightly better in the other 13 landing craft that landed in this sector in the first wave. One LCVP lucky enough to land away from the most intense fire got all 32 men to the shore, but only 20 Gls survived the run across the beach. Within moments, Co. F had lost six officers and half its troops. Some of the infantry tried to use the beach obstructions for cover, but this could have tragic consequences. In several instances, machine-gun fire from WN62 set off the mines on the obstacles, killing the infantry below. One of the German gun crew later recalled, "We watched the landing craft under the direct fire of our guns and could see precisely what happened to the Americans, it was terrible."

I have so often in my life heard disparaging remarks and comments about the US forces in WW2. I disagree. Another group that I admire particularly was the Eighth Air Force who flew their B17 Flying Fortresses in tight formation over Germany during daylight knowing that many would be shot down each day yet the next day they went again, no questions asked.

This map shows Saint Mere Eglise, the target for the paratroops, at the kink in the red line and the four tracks through the flooded coastal plain. (Eglise = church in French)

This is called a casement. The most important guns were put inside these. There were two completed ones on the site and two more were under construction. In this picture you can see that the roof has collapsed.

This plaque nearby explains what happened. 600 tons of bombs from 101 US 4-engined bombers & it was still working! In the end the commander requests that another German battery destroy it. Amazing.

Here is a view from the back. Now you can see the damage. But I found this explanation at :

After the capture of the batteries, units Of the U.S. engineer corps undertook attempts to destroy the two large casemates by experimenting with explosives, they placed explosives in the two munitions rooms behind the casemate. The explosion caused the almost total destruction of the rear of the classmate and the whole of the roof completely caved in. The front part was hardly affected by this explosion.

Picture from that website of the casement as captured.

That is a plan of the whole battery on the right. Notice the 6 circular things.

Well here is one I photographed. I did not know what it was since we were pressed for time so could not get into the museum. However from the site that I quoted from above I now know that these are the actual gun positions. He includes a photo of one with a standard wheel mounted 155mm artillery piece in position. Here it is:

The big guns were initially mounted like this then moved inside the casements as they were completed. The post in the middle must be at the middle of the gun carriage axle.

The other gun encasement. Damaged by American army engineers after they were captured to determine how resistant to explosions they really were.

I went to school in Guernsey in 1961 which was occupied by the Germans during WW2. On Guernsey there are similar gun encasements and lots of other concrete defences so I had seen these things before. (Guernsey is within sight of the French coast off the west coast of the Cherbourg peninsula but not shown on the first map unfortunately .)

And I thought it was bomb damage when I saw it.

‘Bomb damage’ showing how massive the concrete is.

The view from the battery across the marshes to the beach. They covered the whole bay from up here. They did the following:

A Cruiser Hit
A Destroyer Sunk
A Torpedo-Boat Hit
With numerous other ships damaged

A different view of the territory the Americans had to advance over.

The beach. A terrible storm hit on the third (?) day.

I appreciate that the German flag also flies at this museum/memorial.

A final picture to show the surf, the exposure and the scale. On Utah there were not a lot of defenders but at Omaha there was good defence and the Americans suffered dreadfully but succeeded. See the headland in the background? Omaha is round the corner from there.


I also want to discuss the lack of ‘progress’ that the British and Canadians seemed to make after the landings despite the good success they had on D-Day. There are many books in the family house in France including one left by my late father in law “Victory in Normandy” by Major-General David Belchem who was part of Montgomery’s team in planning the Normandy invasion. I read that book while there. The majority of the German armour was to the east around Calais. Once the Germans realized that the Normandy landings were the real thing and not a diversion before a full assault at Calais they moved their armour against the Allies in Normandy. The British and Canadians had to engage with them and keep them occupied while the Americans firstly captured Cherbourg so they had a good port and then they had to swing down south and around and trap the Germans in a pincer with the British. The British did their side very well and kept the German tanks occupied and the Americans duly came round and caught the Germans in the pincer. (The Americans were somewhat delayed as they had quite a lot of difficulty with the terrain.) The Germans then fought brilliantly and quite a significant portion managed to fight their way out of the pincer. In the diagram the Germans occupied the black shaded area and you can see how it was squeezed but that they managed to prevent it being completely closed off. My point is that it was always the tactical plan for the British to not drive the Germans backwards; they had to occupy them as the intention always was to encircle them and eliminate them. The British did their part exactly according to plan even though it looks as if they were failing to make any progress against the Germans.



I would like to discuss this tank. 50 000 Sherman tanks and its direct derivatives were made. They had been used in North Africa and were a fair match against the German tanks there but in Europe after the landings they came up against newer German designs of tanks and guns and they were completely outclassed by them.

However, immediately following the invasion of Normandy, it was discovered that the 75 mm M3 gun was completely ineffective against the front of the German Panther & Tiger I and the front of more common later version German tanks such as the Panzer IV tanks at typical combat ranges. The 75 mm M3 gun was thereby rendered obsolete, and the European Theater of Operations quickly demanded deliveries of the Sherman armed with the 76 mm M1 gun.

However, the Sherman's armor, while good for an early war tank, was inadequate against the German 75mm KwK 40 L/48 used by the later Panzer IV's, the higher velocity 75mm KwK 42 L/70 used by the Panther tank, and the infamous 88mm KwK 36 L/56 used on the Tiger tanks. It was this deficiency in its frontal armor that made the Sherman very vulnerable to most German anti-tank rounds in 1944.


Early Sherman models were prone to burning when struck by high velocity rounds. The Sherman gained grim nicknames like "Tommycooker" (by the Germans who referred to British soldiers as "Tommys"; a tommy cooker was a World War I era trench stove). With gallows humor, the British called them "Ronsons", after the cigarette lighter with the slogan "Lights up the first time, every time!", while Polish tankers referred to them as "The Burning Grave". This vulnerability increased crew casualties and meant that damaged vehicles were less likely to be repairable. US Army research proved that the major reason for this was the use of unprotected ammo stowage in sponsons above the tracks. The common belief that the use of gasoline (petrol) engines was a culprit is unsupported; most World War II tanks used gasoline engines and petrol was unlikely to ignite when hit with armour piercing shells.

The US Army required the Sherman not to exceed certain widths and weights to permit it to use a wide variety of bridge, road and rail travel for predicted strategic, industrial, logistical and tactical flexibility.

They were only medium tanks because they had to be carried by rail from the factories in the USA to the ports so were limited in width, height and weight by that. They were up against German heavy tanks. They were completely outclassed but that’s the tank the Allies had and they used them and drove the Germans back despite their inferior tanks. The Sherman was quick and agile and there were many of them once the landings had been consolidated. Sherman crews had been told prior to Normandy that the Sherman was the best tank in the world but this was patently untrue as demonstrated during that campaign. But they took on the Germans despite this and beat them because they had more tanks than the Germans and disciplined crews.

The Sherman tank had a 9 cylinder radial air cooled engine originally used for aircraft including the gorgeous Beech Staggerwing.

This is another of the problems they had. France has these narrow roads with high embankments each side; in 1944 they were so narrow that the tanks almost filled them. What it meant is that the tanks could not turn around once they were in them and could not get out of them. It was worse for the Germans because their tanks were bigger.

Another VITAL difference at the D-Day landings was that the Luftwaffe was nowhere to be seen. The German air force was reduced to defence against bombing raids into Germany and was unable to do anything against the Allies in Normandy. This limited the casualties on the Allied side and also contributed to the driving out of the Germans because their armour suffered heavy casualties from rocket attacks by Allied aircraft.


No comments: