The D Day Beaches

Mar 22, 2024 | D-Day 80 Years On

The price of freedom

“Two kinds of people are staying on this beach: the dead and those who are going to die. Let’s get the hell out of here!”
—Colonel George Taylor, 16th Infantry Regiment

On June 6th, 1944, American, British, and Canadian forces landed on the beaches of Normandy to begin their long, bloody march toward Hitler’s Germany. Their landing beaches were codenamed from west to east: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The English Channel was angry that morning, with strong currents driving many of the landing craft off course and swamping smaller landing craft and vehicles. The Atlantic Wall, Hitler’s long line of defensive fortresses, awaited the Allied armies.

The D Day Beaches
with the Airborne Divisions covering the flanks

Each beach was divided into specific target landing zones given their own code names. Thus, for example, Utah was divided into Tare, Uncle and Victor. Some zones each were further subdivided into Red White and Green.

Utah (Tare, Uncle, Victor)

The tide rolled up the English Channel from west to east, and so Utah was the first beach to be landed. Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt Jr., President Roosevelt’s son, was in command on the beach, landing with the 8th Infantry Regiment. He was the first Allied general in France.

Their landing craft had been blown far off course, from Tare Green to Victor, but Roosevelt was undeterred. “We’ll start the war right here,’ he said. Despite landing in the wrong place, the attack was conspicuously successful, with 21,000 troops landing on Utah on the first day with less than 200 casualties.

Utah
Omaha

Omaha (Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox)

The situation at Omaha, the American beach east of the Pointe du Hoc, was, alas, very different. Steep cliffs and high ground overlooked the beach, with strong defensive positions manned by the battle-hardened German 352nd Infantry Division firing down on the American 1st Infantry Division as they waded ashore.

Almost everything went wrong. Many of the landing craft ran aground, forcing the troops to wade ashore under fire. Almost every unit had been blown off target and landed in the wrong place. Numerous DD ‘swimming’ Sherman tanks and other vehicles were swamped or sunk in the high seas—for example, the 741st Tank Regiment lost 27 of its 29 DD tanks.

There were only a limited number of exits or ‘draws’ off the beach and these were heavily defended, causing the attackers to be bottled up under fire. The beaches themselves were mined and filled with antipersonnel and antitank obstacles, and 15 enemy strongpoints or Widerstandsnesters looked down from the heights.

The initial assault waves suffered casualties up to 60% and were unable to move off the beach. The second wave ran into the same difficulties. Only after two hours of intensive fighting were some units able to scale the cliffs and open the first draws leading off the beaches at Dog Green and Easy Red. It was not until evening that the beach was partially secured.

The 1st Infantry Division suffered a casualty rate of 7%, the worst of all five beaches.

Gold
Juno

Gold (How, Item, Jig, King)

Gold beach, to the east of Omaha, was the first of two British beaches. The 50th Infantry Division with its supporting DD tanks were able to disembark close to the shore despite the rough seas. The beach was overlooked by fortified houses and defensive gun emplacements, particularly at Jig and King, but, unlike Omaha, the terrain was relatively flat. The first and second landing waves were able to clear the beach, but the bad weather prevented reinforcements from landing and therefore they were stopped short of their target city of Bayeux. Several large German gun emplacements continued to fire into the afternoon. In total 25,000 men landed on D Day with 1,000 casualties.

Juno (Love, Mike, Nan)

It is sometimes forgotten that there were three Allied armies at Normandy on D Day—the Us, the British, and the Canadians. Juno beach, just to the east of Gold, was also relatively flat and lined with heavily armed houses and strongpoints. The 7th and 8th Canadian Infantry Brigades led the landings. As was the case at the other beaches, the rough seas delayed the initial landings and slowed reinforcement. The Canadians initially faced fierce opposition from the German 716th Division, particularly at Mike and Nan Green. At Nan Red the troops had to run across 100 yards of beach and over barbed wire fencing directly in the face of continuous enemy fire.

The Canadians at Juno suffered the second highest casualty rates of the five beaches.

Despite these early difficulties they were able to secure the beach by late morning and push inland. By nightfall they had linked up with the British 50th on Gold but were blocked by a Panzer counterattack from linking up with the British 3rd Division on Sword beach to their east. Overall, the Canadians made most progress inland of any of the five beaches.

Approaching Sword
Pinned on Sword

Sword (Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger)

The easternmost of the five beaches was Sword, which was the last to be landed as the tide rose up the Channel from west to east. This beach was the target for the British 3rd Division. The initial landings encountered fierce resistance, but the assault groups were able to fight their way off the Beach at Queen within two hours.

The two flanks proved more difficult. Commandos (including the only French troops to land on D Day) struggled to defeat the Casino Widerstandsnester on Roger on the eastern flank. The British were unable to link up with the Canadians on the western flank where tanks from the 21st Panzer Regiment counterattacked later in the day and reached the sea at Oboe.

Once off the beach the 3rd Division discovered the enemy had set up a defense in depth and was unable to reach its objective of Caen, which remained undefeated for another six weeks.

The Price of Freedom

As Colonel Taylor said: “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach: the dead and those who are going to die.”

The following table shows the total number of men who landed on the beaches and the casualty rates they suffered. I have also included the airborne landings that covered the flanks and the Rangers who attacked the Point du Hoc that lay between Utah and Omaha.

In addition, 127 aircraft and approximately 100 navy vessels and small landing craft were lost. Almost 200 DD tanks failed to reach the shore.

This is the price of freedom.

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