“As the machine gunners’ bullets began tearing up the gravel directly in front of them, the now understandably bewildered soldiers reacted like a clutch of startled bumblebees. Worse still, the soldiers hitting the beach had been ordered to return fire at their imaginary enemy as they went forward as part of the simulation. Many did so, apparently under the impression that they had all been issued blank cartridges. However, the GIs on the beach that day had inadvertently loaded up their rifles with real ammunition instead of blanks. Bunched up as they were, some of the boys became the unwitting casualties of friendly fire.
“Meanwhile, according to plan, the British heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins continued its bombardment, pouring ordnance into a designated section of the beach that the beach wardens had obligingly marked off for the naval gunners with a cordon of white tape. In the ensuing chaos and confusion, scores of soldiers desperately attempting to get out of the line of machine-gun fire strayed across the white demarcation line and ended up directly in the kill zone. As the officers on the bridge of the Hawkins looked on in stunned horror and disbelief, these unfortunate souls were practically vaporized, blown to bits by the Royal Navy’s big guns.”
As if that weren’t bad enough, soldiers participating in a night exercise five days later encountered an even greater tragedy. As eight LSTs loaded with 4th Division troops made their run into shore, a squadron of German torpedo boats (known as E-boats, the equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s PT boats) appeared out of nowhere and began attacking the unsuspecting flotilla.
A British journalist noted, “At first, many of the Americans thought that it was all part of the realism of the exercise. Then there were explosions and huge mushrooms of fire as the torpedoes struck. In that one terrible night, more than 800 U.S. servicemen died. And they were only practicing.” It would be a toll far greater than what the division would suffer on D-Day.
Complete secrecy was clamped around the disaster. For decades, it was hushed up. Army surgeons and nurses were threatened with court-martial if they even spoke with the wounded, and the casualty lists were kept top secret. Families were only notified that their loved ones had died due to a training accident.
Despite the tragedy, Operation Overlord would go on as scheduled.
4th Infantry Division Becomes “Force U”—with Utah Beach as Their Destination
After being delayed for 24 hours because of a strong storm sweeping through the English Channel, the great day arrived, and with it, a great armada that had been assembled for Operation Neptune—the assault phase of Overlord—in the hours before dawn: more than 4,000 landing craft; 287 minesweepers; 138 destroyers, cruisers, and battleships; 221 escort destroyers; 1,260 merchant ships; and more than 400 ancillary ships.
Packed into their transports were 156,000 young American, British, Canadian, and Free French troops. Thousands of American and British sailors and Coast Guardsmen stood ready to play their part in this biggest of war dramas, history’s largest and most important combined air and sea invasion.
The 4th Infantry Division, scheduled to sail from Plymouth, England, and land at Utah Beach, had been designated “Force U.” (Troops destined for Omaha Beach were “Force O.”) Once the beachhead had been secured, follow-on forces would arrive at Utah later in the day. These included the 90th Infantry Division (Maj. Gen. Jay W. MacKelvie) and the 4th Cavalry Regiment (Colonel Joseph Tully).
To soften up German defensive positions, 18 ships from the U.S. Navy (including the battleship USS Nevada, sunk at Pearl Harbor but repaired in time for Overlord) and Royal Navy pummeled miles of shoreline with thousands of high-caliber shells.
Then, 20 minutes before the scheduled 6:30 am seaborne landings began, 300 Martin B-26 Marauders of the U.S. Army Air Force’s IX Bomber Command came in low over the beachhead and laid their ordnance effectively on German positions. (This was in stark contrast to what happened at Omaha Beach, where the Navy overshot its targets and the air force bombed too far inland.)
A heavy shroud of smoke and dust from the bombing and naval gunfire hung over the beachhead, obscuring the view of German gunners. Onboard one of the rocket-firing boats off Utah Beach was 19-year-old Seaman Second Class Lawrence P. “Yogi” Berra, a future New York Yankees baseball player who had enlisted in the Navy. “It was just like a Fourth of July celebration,” he remarked about the fiery barrage.
He said in an interview 65 years after the war that he was proud of the small part he played in the D-Day invasion. “I felt sorry for the paratroopers who went in there before us. They caught hell over there, boy.”
Two American airborne divisions, the 82nd and 101st, had dropped into Normandy a few minutes after midnight on June 6. Their casualties, as Leigh-Mallory had feared, were heavy, but they managed to sow confusion among the enemy, stop German reinforcements from reaching the beachhead, and captured important towns and road junctions.
The Story Behind Teddy Roosevelt Jr.’s Famous Landing at Utah
At 6:30 am, 300 men of Lt. Col. Carlton O. MacNeely’s 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division became the first Allied seaborne unit to hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Their group of 20 LCVPs landed at low tide at Les Dunes de Varreville near the hamlet of La Madeleine. After wading in waist-deep water for 200 yards, the men threw themselves down on the golden sand, waiting for German rifles or machine guns to open up on them.
Surprisingly, the only noise of battle to greet them was the crump of random mortars and artillery shells and the ripping sounds of shells still flying overhead from Allied ships off shore. The expected fury of enemy fire just didn’t happen.
The landing area was divided into three sectors: Tare Green, Uncle Red, and Victor. Landing at Tare Green were Companies B and C, while Companies E and F landed to their left on Uncle Red. Captain Leonard T. Schroeder, commanding Company F, is credited with being the first American to reach Utah Beach. He later told an interviewer, “Today, I realize that to be the first man ashore is an immense honor, yet I do not merit it more than anyone else. Five of my men died at Normandy. They alone are the heroes.”
Wading ashore with the first wave was a little man with a cane who wore a single star on his steel helmet. His name was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the eldest son of the former “Rough Rider” president of the United States and the fifth cousin to the current occupant of the White House.
It quickly became apparent to Roosevelt and other officers in the first wave that they had landed at the wrong beach. They had come ashore not north of the Madeleine as planned but to the south of that village, under the gun embrasure of the German strongpoint WN5. The strong current had pulled them too far to the southeast, and three of the four designated control craft that were supposed to have guided the Higgins boats in had been lost to mines.
The sole surviving control craft eventually rounded up the confused LCVP drivers who were still looking for landmarks they had memorized, and using a bullhorn for communication, led them in. The force eventually landed one mile southeast of its designated landing area, in the less heavily defended Victor sector at Exit 2.
While under fire, Roosevelt gathered the 8th Regiment’s Colonel James Van Fleet, Commodore James Arnold, the naval officer in charge of the Utah Beach landings, and other officers to make a command decision. Realizing they were in the wrong place, Roosevelt said in his bullfrog voice to Arnold, “I’m going ahead with the troops. Get word to the Navy and bring them in. We’ll start the war from here.” He designated the new landing beach as “Uncle Red.”
Allied Tanks Hit the Sands at Normandy
Officers began shouting, “Get going! Get off the beach!” and small clumps of men began moving forward, running through the soft sand and crawling over the low dunes covered with tall beach grass, hoping to avoid the profusion of mines that seemed to be everywhere.
One of the 8th Infantry soldiers, Harry Bailey of Company E, remembered jumping off the ramp of his landing craft into waist-deep water. He recalled that a man in his platoon “was the first to reach the sand dunes, and I ran and dropped down beside him…. He was immediately killed with a hit to the head by a sniper’s bullet. I knew I had to move fast or I would be next.”
German shells now began exploding here and there on the beach, throwing up huge geysers of sand and water. But the shelling seemed to have no intensity to it. Swinging to the right toward La Madeleine, the men of Van Fleet’s 8th Infantry Regiment saw a group of concrete German pillboxes and casemates scattered across open fields that had been flooded, and waded toward them, killing or capturing their occupants.