As their landing craft plunged through heavy surf on the morning of June 6, 1944, it was obvious to the men of Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 29th Infantry Division that the coming hour would be the gravest test of their lives. Assigned to the first wave of assault troops landing on Omaha Beach’s Dog Green sector, the troops were the spearhead of a massive Allied invasion aimed at breaking Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
As the landing craft approached the beach, the soldiers inside could hear the telltale sound of machine-gun rounds striking the raised ramps. Private George Roach recalled that he and his fellow soldiers were well aware that their assignment to the first wave would result in heavy casualties. “We figured the chances of our survival were very slim,” recalled Roach.
At 6:30 am the landing craft carrying Company A quickly closed the distance to the beach. When it was about 30 yards offshore, the flat-bottomed vessel struck a sandbar. As the ramps were lowered, the troops were fully exposed to the fury of the German machine guns. Many of the first men who exited the landing craft were slain by machine guns positioned to have interlocking fields of fire. Their lifeless bodies toppled into the water. Some men chose in their desperation to jump overboard instead of exiting the front of the craft. Once in the water where they were weighed down with their equipment, they faced a life-and-death struggle to keep their heads above water. They thrashed about while strapped to heavy loads. Those who could not get free of the loads drowned.
Struggling forward through a hail of machine-gun and shellfire, the survivors desperately sought cover behind tank obstacles placed by the Germans. Enemy positions were well concealed, and the hapless riflemen of Company A, unable to effectively fight back, fell in mangled heaps. Terrified and demoralized, the green troops of Company A had entered the worst killing zone on Omaha Beach. “They’re leaving us here to die like rats!” screamed Private Henry Witt above the steady roar of enemy fire.
Since Germany’s declaration of war on the United States on December 11, 1941, an Allied assault against continental Europe was inevitable. Beginning with Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, the Allies maintained their momentum against the Third Reich with landings in Sicily and Italy in 1943. In this way, Anglo-American forces battered away at the edges of an overextended Nazi empire.
But perhaps the greatest prize of the war remained occupied France. If the Allies could establish a beachhead, they would have an ideal path to the Ruhr industrial region of western Germany. In March 1943 the Allies selected British Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Morgan to serve as chief of staff to the Supreme Allied Commander, or COSSAC. Morgan and his staff immediately set to work developing preliminary plans for an invasion of France.
Formulating a workable scheme for what promised to be the largest invasion in military history was a herculean logistical endeavor. Morgan’s staff performed the unheralded but vital task of number crunching that would be done on a monumental scale. Allied planners determined the number of troops, tanks, and aircraft needed for such an operation. They tabulated men and matériel in excruciating detail. Individual supplies numbering in the millions, ranging from ammunition, rations, medicine, tires, and boots, would enable a modern army to carry the war to occupied France.
Morgan further assessed the suitability of landing sites in the far reaches of Western Europe. Although an intuitive guess would place an Allied landing somewhere on the north coast of France, Allied planners explored the possibility of launching an invasion anywhere from Denmark to the Spanish border. From a practical standpoint, though, Allied planners focused on northern France, which possessed suitable beaches on the Pas-de-Calais and Normandy coasts.
The Pas-de-Calais region, situated a mere 20 miles from Britain, was a superficially inviting target. Any invasion there would promise a quick crossing of the English Channel, could be well supported by Allied air forces, and would find beaches suitable for an amphibious landing. Yet it became alarmingly clear from Allied reconnaissance flights that the enemy expected an attack on the Pas-de-Calais. Because of this the Germans had constructed superb fortifications in the region, making it the most heavily defended sector in occupied France.
Allied planners, therefore, chose the coast of Normandy for the landings. Although reaching Normandy would require a 100-mile crossing of the choppy and unpredictable English Channel, a series of beaches stretching west of Caen would afford ideal sites for initial landings. Furthermore, Allied planners believed that the port of Cherbourg, situated just west of the proposed landing sites, could be seized in short order and provide the Allies a deep-water port for the resupply of invasion forces. Just as important, the Normandy coast appeared to be lightly defended by second-rate German conscripts.
Morgan’s staff set in motion in late 1943 an epic and irreversible course of events for what became known as Operation Overlord. Although the massive buildup of men and supplies proved to be a frustratingly slow process, the Russians were loudly clamoring for the Allies to open a second front against Nazi Germany. The leaders of the three primary Allied powers—the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—held a series of strategy meetings beginning November 28 in Teheran, Iran. At the meetings the three leaders hammered out a strategy to open a new front and assist the hard-pressed Russians.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was deeply suspicious of the intentions of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The Germans had badly mauled Russian forces on the Eastern Front in the two years following the launch of Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1942. In particular, Stalin was annoyed that the Allies had not yet named a supreme commander to oversee the planned Anglo-American invasion of France. To show good faith, Roosevelt announced in the wake of the conference that U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower would serve as the supreme commander for Operation Overlord.
While the Allies planned the Normandy landings the high command of the German Army, known as Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, put its talented military engineers to work hardening the coastal defenses of northern France. Legions of German and French laborers worked tirelessly with pick and shovel to construct one of the most imposing defensive lines in history.
Stretching from the tip of Jutland to the border of neutral Spain, the Germans erected a series of fortifications known collectively as the Atlantic Wall. They used millions of cubic yards of steel-reinforced concrete to build fortresses, bunkers, and pillboxes. Defended by nearly a million men, the Atlantic Wall by mid-1944 bristled with heavy artillery, mortars, and machine guns.
The Germans had great difficulty, however, finalizing their strategy for defending against Operation Overlord. While the Atlantic Wall was being built, a major disagreement arose between Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the supreme commander of German forces in Western Europe, and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the commanding officer of Army Group B overseeing the German forces in northern France.
Rundstedt favored a measured approach to confronting a possible invasion. The senior commander believed that the powerful guns on Allied warships would furnish a protective umbrella for the Allied units coming ashore. When the Allies had moved inland beyond the protective cover of the naval guns, the German panzer formations could maneuver in such a way that they would achieve a decisive victory over the Allies.
For his part, Rommel believed it was imperative to contain the Allies on the beaches. He believed that the Allies’ clear advantage in tactical air power would make it impossible for the German panzer formations to maneuver as set forth in Rundstedt’s strategy. If the Allies were allowed to establish a firm foothold on the beaches, Rommel feared they would win the war in France because of their overwhelming advantage in men and matériel. “The high-water line must be the main fighting line,” said Rommel.
The disagreement was compounded by meddling by German leader Adolf Hitler. He insisted on retaining direct control of Germany’s armored and mechanized reserves in France. This meant that Rommel would need Hitler’s authorization to commit the four armored divisions that constituted the Wehrmacht’s strategic reserve in France. The armored divisions were billeted hundreds of miles from the coast.
Eisenhower did not have a strategic conflict similar to that the German generals faced because he had been given greater strategic authority than his German counterparts. He was well suited for the job at hand because of his tireless devotion to duty and his exemplary strategic and administrative skills.
Born in Texas, but raised in Kansas, Eisenhower graduated from West Point in 1915. Although he lacked combat experience in World War I, he was an accomplished staff officer who earned high praise from his superiors. Many of his contemporaries, including General Douglas MacArthur, considered Eisenhower to be the best officer in the U.S. Army at the time. “When the next war comes, he should go right to the top,” said MacArthur.