On June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious invasion of all time landed on the Normandy coast. The landings, codenamed Operation Neptune (as part of the larger operation to liberate France known as Operation Overlord), involved some 7000 ships, landed some 150,000 men (roughly half American and half from Commonwealth countries) with their immediate supplies, and included air cover by thousands of Allied fighters and bombers plus the transport aircraft that carried the paratroopers (the invasion was immediately preceded by the drop of the British 6th Airborne Division and the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions). By the end of the day, the Germans had suffered about 1000 casualties, while the Allies had suffered about 10,000 casualties, 4, 414 confirmed dead. The only woman to land on D-Day was Martha Gellhorn, a celebrated war journalist and at that time the wife of Ernest Hemingway. Today was spent in Normandy at sites important during the initial invasion.
Our initial stop was at Pegasus Bridge. This was the site of the earliest attack of the invasion. British glider troops made near-flawless landings and took the bridge and another nearby, thus securing the ability to hamper German reinforcement attempts. The bridge was originally known
as the Benouville Bridge, but the named was changed after the operation to Pegasus Bridge because a flying Pegasus was the shoulder emblem of the British airborne forces. Because the operation took place before the beach landings, it included the first Allied casualties. First to die was Lance corporal Fred Greenhalgh, who drowned in a nearby pond when his glider landed. The first man lost to enemy fire was Lt. Den Brotheridge who was shot in the neck leading the successful assault across the bridge. The initial landing held on for several hours until reinforced by more troops, which included Capt. Richard Todd. He later became an actor and played the part of the assault's leader Col. Howard in the movie The Longest Day. Since we were the day before the anniversary of the assault, there were re-enactors, bagpipe bands, and lots of visitors. And a few veterans of th action, all in wheelchairs with their medals prominently displayed.
Next, we visited Colleville-sur-Mer Cemetery, last resting place of 9,387 of our military dead, most of whom died on D-Day or in the ensuing operations in the area. If you have seen the movie Saving Private Ryan, it is this
cemetery where the old man comes to visit at the start of the movie. Included in the burials are Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair (posthumously promoted by Congress to General). He, Simon Buckner, and Millard Harmond were all Lieutenant Generals at the times of their deaths, and were the highest ranking American officers killed in the war. McNair's son was killed two weeks after his father in Guam. McNair was killed when a bomb dropped by the Allied 8th Air Force landed short, directly in his foxhole. Judging from his record, it may not have been entirely a bad thing. Also interred at this cemetery are Maj. Thomas Dry Howie (more on him later), Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt (son of the President), and the Niland brothers, whose family losses were the basis of the film Saving Private Ryan.
We took a guided tour of the cemetery, then stopped by some of the graves I had pre-located, including Maj. Thomas Dry Howie (more on him later), Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr and his brother Quentin (killed in World War I) (the two sons of President Theodore Roosevelt, the Niland brothers, and Gen. McNair.
We toured the Omaha Beach Museum, and walked
on Omaha Beach, then proceeded to Pointe-du-Hoc.
Omaha Beach was the scene of unbelievable carnage. Of the 10,000 total Allied casualties, 3881 were on this one beach. With the landings coming at low tide to enable the landing craft to see and avoid the obstacles the Germans had placed, the landing soldiers had to first cross a long beach, then assault uphill into the dunes. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan has been described as the closest anyone has gotten to reproducing the scene. The Allies reached none of their major objectives, but were able to establish a beachhead, and soon men and machines were pouring ashore in overwhelming numbers, a steady stream that would continue until the defeat of Germany 11 hard months later.
At Pointe-du-Hoc , 2 battalions of Rangers were to assault up the 40 meter nearly sheer cliffs and take out the 155 mm guns that had been placed there by the Germans. Because of navigational errors, treacherous currents, and enemy gunfire, only 220 men actually made the assault. By the time they were relieved and reinforced on June 8, only 95 were still capable of fighting. Although the assault up the cliff
was daunting, the highest number of casualties came in defending the position later. The Germans had removed the large guns that could have fired on both Utah and Omaha beaches, but they were found nearby and destroyed with thermite grenades. The assault was to have been led by Maj. Cleveland Lyle, but shortly before the landings he became somewhat inebriated and loudly voiced the opinion that it was a suicide mission. Feeling that a mission could not be led successfully by someone who did not believe in it, Col. James Earl Rudder assumed the command himself over the objections of his superiors. Rudder later went on the become the preside of Texas A&M (the college of my father and grandfather) and during his tenure made the corps voluntary, admitted female students, and integrated the student body, allowing A&M to progress to its current status as the 4th largest University in the US and a renowned center for science and related subjects. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 60. My father never forgave him for admitting women and making the corps voluntary, particularly the former. Today, the surface of Pointe du Hoc is cratered like the surface of the
moon. It is hard to imagine anything surviving the pounding that this area took prior to the invasion, when it was hit by some 10,000 pounds of high explosives, equivalent to the Hiroshima bomb in explosive power.
We finished our day by heading to our hotel in Caen.
For me the highlight of the day, in a day filled with highlights, was at the cemetery. Families and others can commission memorial commemoration with the laying of a wreath, the playing of the national anthem, and then the playing of Taps. While we were on our guided tour, one such observance took place. When the national anthem played, about midway through it, some started softly singing the words. I valiantly tried to join in, but could not control my voice. Taps was harder.
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