What It Took to Win While Storming Utah Beach During D-Day

World War II History
April 25, 2021 Topic: World War II History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War II HistoryD-DayUtah BeachAlliesAxis

What It Took to Win While Storming Utah Beach During D-Day

Taking this particular beach was allegedly easier than the others, although that word does not describe the terrible cost of running ashore against enemy fire.

Five minutes after the first wave hit the sands, the second wave—Companies A and D of the 1st Battalion and Companies G and H of the 3rd Battalion—began arriving at Tare Green to the north of Uncle Red. Accompanying them were combat engineers and underwater demolition teams who set to work removing and destroying beach obstacles and mines.

Next came the amphibious tanks. A group of 32 duplex-drive (DD) Sherman tanks from the 70th Tank Battalion was supposed to have arrived 10 minutes before the infantry, but rough sea conditions caused them to be 20 minutes late.

Four swimming Shermans of Company A never made it at all because their LCT (Landing Craft, Tank) struck a mine and sank. The remaining 28 tanks made it safely to the beach. They began pulling themselves out of the sea, their long-barreled snouts looking for something to shoot at.

Sam Grundfest was a junior officer on the LCT that lost the four tanks. “It blew us sky-high,” he recalled. “The other officer in the boat was killed. Everyone was killed except me and two of the Navy personnel…. And the four tanks were lost. I didn’t hear the explosion that blew up my boat, but when I opened my eyes, I was underwater…. Were it not for the Mae West life jackets that we wore … I don’t think I would be here today.”

Shortly thereafter, the next armored wave arrived: 16 conventional Sherman tanks and eight tanks outfitted with bulldozer blades delivered by LCTs.

British sailor Graham Hiscox, aboard an LCT of the Royal Navy’s 44th LCT Flotilla, was helping to offload the Shermans. His craft was soon targeted by German shore batteries, but the Allied fleet gave them covering fire, which stopped the German guns—the crews of which now feared giving away their position—from firing.

It was only some time later that Hiscox learned where they had landed. “My job was simply to look after the craft’s engines and generators,” he said, “So I wasn’t party to any information where we were heading.”

The 4th’s Remarkable Job Ashore

The 4th Division had planned to have artillery support on D-Day, but a large landing craft carrying 60 men of Battery B, 29th Field Artillery Battalion struck a mine and all 60 were killed.

At about 10 am, elements of Colonel Hervey A. Tribolet’s 22nd Infantry Regiment began arriving. As enemy defenses succumbed to the Americans, the 22nd pushed northward along the coastal road and through the flooded fields toward St. Germain de Varreville, terrain that was occupied by the German 709th Infantry Regiment.

The 3rd Battalion of the 22nd Infantry, supported by five tanks, moved north along the shoreline to eliminate German strongpoints as they were encountered. In some cases, naval gunfire had to be called in to finish the job.

Morris Austein, Company I, 22nd Infantry, recalled, “On the shoreline itself, there were land mines. Germans put them down, and if you stepped on one, you blew up. I lost five men that way. There was utter confusion on the beach, and soldiers were crying for help.”

Meanwhile, 8th Regiment infantrymen were pushing farther inland, engaging any Germans who might have survived the naval and air bombardments. As they advanced upon defensive position WN7 and the headquarters of 3rd Battalion, 919th Grenadiers near La Madeleine, which was 600 yards inland, the men of Company B met little resistance. At the same time, Company C attacked the enemy strongpoint WN5 at La Grande Dune, which essentially had been knocked out by the bombardment.

Companies E and F advanced inland about 700 yards to defensive position WN4 at La Dune, where they encountered some stunned Germans who put up a brief fight before being eliminated. As this action was taking place, Companies G and H moved south along the beach to Beau Guillot and enemy strongpoint WN3. There they encountered a minefield and came under machine-gun fire but soon captured the position.

For soldiers who had never before seen combat, the men of the 4th Infantry Division were doing a remarkable job.

Land Mines in their Midst

Arriving in a later wave, 25-year-old infantryman Claire Galdonik was heading shoreward in an LCVP, watching naval shells exploding inland and dirty black clouds roiling in the sky. The boat scraped the sand, the ramp dropped, and suddenly Galdonik was in the water with the other men who had been penned up in the landing craft. They trudged toward land.

“Something I feared more than German artillery was … stepping on a land mine,” he confessed. “So far, so good, but enemy shelling had taken its toll on the beach area. Tanks and trucks were gutted and burning, but only a few dead Americans were there. It shook me up.”

Captain John L. Ahearn, Company C, 70th Tank Battalion, recalled that his tank company was the first armored unit landed on the beach. Once ashore, he took a group of seven Shermans south toward Pouppeville.

“As my tank proceeded down a small lane, it hit a land mine. The front left bogie wheel was blown off, and we were immobilized.” Ahearn climbed out of his tank and heard cries for help. He went across several hedgerows before he found several wounded paratroopers. He went back to his tank to retrieve a medical kit, but while returning to the injured men, stepped on a mine that knocked him unconscious. He was taken back to a field hospital.

“I later learned from our battalion maintenance officer that they had discovered some 15,000 mines in that vicinity. So the odds were not very good that I would be unharmed.”

Ahearn’s war was finished; surgeons had to amputate one of his mangled feet.

The Germans Push Back at Ste. Marie-du-Mont and Fauville

Lieutenant Colonel Carlton O. MacNeely’s 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry, accompanied by several Shermans, pushed inland along Causeway 1 toward Pouppeville, only to discover that the hamlet was already in the hands of the 3rd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. There was understandable joy when the two battalions met up.

As more men and tanks piled onto the sand, Causeway 2, directly behind La Grande Dune (today the site of the Utah Beach museum at the former WN5), soon became the main exit road off the beach in the direction of Ste. Marie-du-Mont, about three miles inland.

In his book, Utah Beach, author Joseph Balkoski said that the Germans had blown a small bridge over a culvert, and movement was delayed while engineers made repairs. With Causeway 2 becoming congested, some units waded through the flooded areas beside the road.

The 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment of the German 91st Infantry Division was prepared to defend Ste. Marie-du-Mont, but members of the 506th Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division successfully attacked and knocked out the batteries at Holdy and Brécourt Manor, then took Ste. Marie-du-Mont in house-to-house and street combat, allowing Lt. Col. Erasmus H. Strickland’s 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry to advance up Causeway 2 practically unopposed.

By mid-afternoon on D-Day, Strickland’s men, accompanied by elements of the 82nd Airborne, reached National Highway 13 at Les Forges and then headed north to Fauville (less than half a mile southeast of Ste. Mère-Église), where a group of Germans were holding out. Although encircled to the north by the parachutists and to the south by the 3rd Battalion (supported by tanks), the Germans held firm at Fauville and prevented any advance along the national road.

1,700 Vehicles and 23,250 Soldiers Ashore on Utah Beach

Time was of the essence: the Americans needed to neutralize this position that threatened the later arrival of glider reinforcements on nearby Landing Zone W, which was still within range of the Germans.

The 4th Division’s 12th Infantry Regiment, under Colonel Russell P. Reeder, Jr., was now ashore and, without any opposition to hold the regiment back, began moving inland in the wake of the tanks and the other two regiments.

As one British historian noted, “For the 12th Infantry Regiment, the going was, if anything, worse as they crossed the inundations behind the Grand Dune and half-swam toward La Galle and Ste. Marie-du-Mont. By 1300 hours, contact was made with the airborne forces and by nightfall, the bridgehead was secure. To those who took part, it seemed incredible that the 8th and 22nd Regiments should have lost only 12 men, and that the total casualties of the division on that first day in Europe amounted to 197.” 

At the end of the day on June 6, 1944, 1,700 vehicles and nearly 23,250 American soldiers had landed on Utah Beach. 

4th Infantry Gets a Lucky Break 

That night, at least one aid station had been established, first in a large shell crater and then farther forward near a knocked-out German bunker. Battalion surgeon Captain Walter E. Marchand recounted large numbers of wounded men that he and his staff had treated since shortly after the landing: “Finally, we got all of our aid station together—we were all exhausted—and we were so tired we just fell down and fell asleep, with artillery, mainly enemy, going overhead, most of it, fortunately for us, being directed toward the beach. This is the end of D-Day. It was hectic from the start.”