At 12:05 AM on June 6, 1944, three gliders carrying an element of the British 6th Airborne Division silently cut loose form the their tow planes and drifted towards the PegasUnited States Bridge, one of the few bridges that led over the Seine towards Normandy.
Within fifteen minutes, the British paratroopers inside landed and stormed the bridge with heavy casualties. The first landings in Europe were made.
Around the same time, pathfinders equipped with powerful lanterns dropped all over the Cotentin Peninsula. Alone, outnumbered, and often in the wrong place, they were dropped to mark the way for the thousands of men coming in behind them.
In England, hundreds of transports prepared gliders with paratroopers carrying their body weight in food, supplies, and weapons. One witness recalled the paratroopers “kneeling in prayer“ as they prepared for takeoff. Actually they were too heavy to stand. They boarded the transports and prepared to drop over Normandy.
By 2 AM Normandy was alive with antiaircraft fire. Dakotas carrying the United States Army’s 101st, 82nd and United Kingdom Royal Army’s 6th Airborne came under fire as soon as they hit the coast. Pilots struggled to keep their unarmed and unarmored craft stable long enough to drop their stick of eighteen paratroopers. Some drowned in Rommel’s flooded fields, some overshot the Peninsula and landed in the Atlantic. Twenty-five British paratroopers landed inside the German Fifteenth Army Headquarters.
The rest were scattered all over Normandy. Miles from their drop zones, alone and in ones or twos, then platoons and companies, the paratroopers started to accomplish their mission. The Germans were confused by the landings, plUnited States the landings of dummy paratroopers, and did not react in time.
The United States Army’s 82nd Airborne Division units liberated the first town in France, Sainte Mére Eglise, early in the day. A stick of troopers from Company F had dropped on the town during a fire and was wiped out by the German garrison guarding the firefighters. The 101st Division’s medical unit was captured, but the paratroopers occupied the approaches to the beaches and started fighting.
Meanwhile, the 5,000 ships of the Allied landing force were traveling through passages in the minefields in the English Channel. 2,000 oceangoing ships, including old World War I battleships, modern cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, and the ubiquitous LSTs, escorted 2,000 landing craft of many different types across the Channel. A few ships were lost to mines, but they formed up offshore of the invasion beaches by 0500 Hours. They carried armies of a dozen Allied nations; many men were returning to the continent for the first time since fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Danish, Polish, Dutch, French, Luxemburg, Norwegian, and more joined the Canadians landing at Juno Beach, the Americans landing at Omaha and Utah Beaches, and the British landing at Sword and Gold Beaches.
Colonel Walther Pluskat of the Wehrmacht’s 352nd Infantry Division was roused by his commander and sent to what the Allies called Omaha Beach. From his vantage point in his bunker, he could see the Allied armada offshore and made a worried call to his commanding officer, saying 5,000 Allied ships were off the coast. “Don’t worry, Pluskat,” the CO responded, “the Allies haven’t got that many ships.”
But they did and they were off the French coast. Bombardment began immediately, the fourteen-inch (356 mm) guns of the USS Texas and HMS Warspite and the twelve-inch (305 mm) guns of the USS Arkansas attempting to knock out the hardened casemates of German artillery. Waiting soldiers could actually see the shells on their way overhead. Tactical aircraft targeted heavy railroad guns and fixed heavy artillery more than a mile behind the beach.
Rommel’s designs would not even be breached by direct hits from battleship caliber guns. At Omaha Beach, lack of bomb and shell accuracy neither created shelter for the Americans about to land nor knocked out the guns overlooking the area.
At the other beaches, the Allies made progress. At Utah only 200 casualties were suffered by the United States Army’s 4th Infantry Division before resistance lessened and the troops moved inland. The British also faced minimal opposition at Gold and Juno. The Canadians took many casualties in the first wave, but made additional landings and were off the beach by early morning. Canadian armor was crucial, at one point driving over the dead and wounded to attack German positions.
United States Rangers tasked with eliminating German artillery in the heights overlooking both American beaches took heavy casualties climbing up the rock face of Pointe du Hoc, but despite later legends, located heavy guns inland and destroyed them. Only a handful of the Rangers remained to hold Pointe du Hoc against the heavy counterattack that was coming.
Omaha Beach was the key. The link between the Americans on Utah and the Allied beaches to the west, if Omaha could not be held, the invasion might fail.
At 6:20 AM, United States 1st Army Group Commander General Omar Bradley watched the first and the second waves go in at Omaha. The men in the boats looked at the untouched church steeples and buildings beyond the beach and realized the air bombardment and naval gunfire had not landed on target.
By 6:55 AM the first wave was shattered. The United States Army’s 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division, temporarily attached to the 1st Infantry Division, was selected to lead the assault and took 99% casualties in fifteen minutes. Bedford, Virginia, where most of the National Guardsmen hailed, lost most of their young men in the first wave.
The second wave faired no better. Landing craft braved mortars and artillery coming into the beach, and some boats simply disappeared and were never heard from again. Others made it to the beach, but were wiped out as the ramp dropped. For hours the wounded and the living crawled towards the sea wall, the only cover available. Men and machines piled up on the beach, nowhere for them to move on.
By 8:30 AM Bradley had to reconcile himself that putting ashore further units would only hinder the operation. Clearly the operational plan was in shambles; the men already ashore would have to fight their way off the beach or die trying to be pulled off by the fleet. The British coxswains driving the assault craft in must have remembered Dunkerque as they saw their comrades’ boats disintegrate under fire as they dumped their cargo. Many men died in deep water as the boats let go too far from the beach.
Unlike the other beaches where Russian and Czech conscripts would build defenses but not put up a stiff fight, Omaha Beach was defended by the crack 352nd Division, veterans of fighting in Russia. Allied intelligence did not know of their presence at Omaha.
American combat doctrine, much more flexible than the German command structure, took over. 1st Infantry Division Commander Brigadier General Norman D. Cota motivated his men to move to the attack, and gathered Ranger units to “lead the way,” Actually, the din of battle was so loud that it is unlikely that he could be heard, but he was a powerful presence on the beach.
In Pluskat’s bunker, the gunners fired 12,000 rounds at the Americans and were running out of ammunition. By the early afternoon, It was clear in the bunker that something needed to be done and soon if the Germans were going to sustain the repulse. Pluskat left to drive to headquarters and was wounded in an air raid.
His men continued fighting. Working their way up the sea wall, blowing holes in the German defenses, the men of the 1st and 29th Divisions and a handful of Rangers, without armor, broke through the German lines and were on the beach to stay. By late afternoon the landings resumed and 34,000 men were ashore by nightfall.
The beaches had not linked up, but the Allies were on the continent to stay. A second airborne drop went in the night of June 6. The Allied first day objectives, most notably the city of Caen, were not achieved, but hundreds of thousands of men were ashore and more were coming in. What Rommel called the “Longest Day” for both sides was over. The fighting in the bocage country was about to begin, and neither side was fully prepared.