World War II: The “Easy” Victory at Utah Beach on D-Day

World War II: The “Easy” Victory at Utah Beach on D-Day

Unlike the chaos on Omaha Beach, the landings at Utah Beach came off smoothly, allowing the U.S. 4th Infantry Division to quickly move inland.

Here's What You Need to Know: The Ivy Division enjoyed what has been described as being the military version of a cakewalk.

In the weeks leading up to the still-undefined D-Day, commanders argued about every detail of Operation Overlord. Sometimes, the arguments grew contentious. In one, just a few weeks before the Normandy invasion was launched, British Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, under whose aegis the airborne forces would operate, got cold feet and told Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. 1st Army, which was slated to land at Utah and Omaha Beaches, that he feared casualties among the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would be catastrophic and urged the commander of Overlord ground forces, General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, to cancel them.

Furious, Bradley replied that if the airborne and glider landings were eliminated, then he would insist that the whole Utah Beach plan be scrapped. “I won’t go in without the airborne,” Bradley told Leigh-Mallory. Ultimately, Monty had to step in and settle the heated disagreement, ruling that the airborne and glider portion of the invasion would proceed as planned.

Leigh-Mallory’s pessimism and predictions of doom were one more burden for Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower to carry. Ike noted in Crusade in Europe, “If [Leigh-Mallory] was right, it appeared that the attack on Utah Beach was probably hopeless, and this meant that the whole operation suddenly acquired a degree of risk, even foolhardiness, that presaged a gigantic failure, possibly Allied defeat in Europe.”

The airborne and seaborne landings at Utah Beach had been deemed vital, because in addition to being a blocking force that could prevent the Germans in the Cotentin Peninsula from attacking the western end of the invasion area, the troops that landed at Utah would be in good position to head north and, it was hoped, capture the deep-water port at Cherbourg.

In the event, Ike did not order the Utah assault cancelled. “To abandon it,” he said, “really meant to abandon a plan in which I had held implicit confidence for more than two years.”

Nevertheless, as Eisenhower biographer Michael Korda wrote, “Nobody liked the look of Utah Beach, the only one that was available [on the east coast of the Cotentin Peninsula]. Ike himself described it as ‘miserable.’ On the landward side was a shallow, wide lagoon, crossed by narrow causeways, on which the Germans would certainly direct their artillery. If the Germans could hold on to the exits from these causeways, the troops would be trapped on the beach and ‘slaughtered’ there.”

SHAEF had the responsibility of selecting the units that would participate in Overlord, and the planners were worried that two of the three American infantry divisions slated to land by sea (the 4th and 29th) had not seen combat before, but it could not be helped. The only other experienced combat divisions on that side of the world were tied down in Italy. Selected to lead the charge at Utah Beach, therefore, was the U.S. 4th Infantry Division.

How the 4th Infantry Division Became Known as the “Ivy Division”

The 4th’s lineage began in December 1917 when it was formed as America geared up to take part in World War I. In April 1918, the “Ivy Division” embarked for France. (The nickname comes from the design of the division’s insignia, which has four green ivy leaves joined at the stem. The word “Ivy” is a play on the Roman numeral four, or IV. Ivy leaves are symbolic of tenacity and fidelity, the basis of the division’s motto, “Steadfast and Loyal.”)

It fought with distinction in the Marne and Aisne regions, and was the only American combat force to serve with both the French and the British in their respective sectors, as well as with all corps in the American sector.

When the Great War ended on November 11, 1918, the Ivy Division was awarded five battle streamers. More than 2,000 officers and men had been killed in action, and the list of wounded and missing totaled 12,000. 

Deactivated at the conclusion of “the war to end all wars,” the 4th was brought back to life a month after Nazi Germany invaded France, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

Reactivated on June 1, 1940, at Fort Benning, Georgia, the division was made up of the 8th, 12th, and 22nd Infantry Regiments, plus supporting units. From August 1940 through August 1943, the division was designated a “motorized” division and participated in the Louisiana Maneuvers, then moved to the newly opened Camp Gordon, Georgia, where it took part in the Carolina Maneuvers. 

“Tubby” Barton: Commander of 4th Infantry

On July 3, 1942, 53-year-old Maj. Gen. Raymond Oscar “Tubby” Barton was appointed commander of the 4th Infantry Division, coming into the position with a reputation as an exacting and demanding leader.

Barton was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1890 and graduated from West Point in 1912. Although his sports at West Point were boxing and wrestling, he somehow acquired the nickname “Tubby,” a moniker that stayed with him the rest of his life. He served in World War I in France with the 1st Battalion of the 8th Infantry Regiment.

One 4th Division colonel later described Barton as “a very strict disciplinarian who commanded his division with an iron hand.” 

His no-nonsense attitude was made clear when he first addressed the officers and men of the 4th Division on the day he assumed command: “I am your leader…. In the not-too-distant future, we will be in battle. When bullets start flying, your minds will freeze, and you will act according to habit. In order that you develop the right habits, training discipline must be strict. I know that 90 percent of you want to cooperate. I will take care of the other 10 percent.” 

A member of the 22nd Regiment said, “His manner was firm and brisk, but not sour or stiff. The rank and file are strongly impressed with the ability and energetic leadership he has exhibited in the short time since he took command of this division.” It would be his leadership and his instilling of discipline in his young, untried soldiers that would be a major factor behind the division’s success in the battles to come.  

The 4th finally moved to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and was converted back to a “regular” infantry division redesignated the 4th Infantry Division. In September 1943, the 4th moved again, this time to Camp Gordon Johnston, Florida, where the men received realistic amphibious training in preparation for the assault on Fortress Europe.

In early 1944, the division was sent to England to prepare for the long-awaited invasion of Europe. The division was spread out in camps across Devon in towns with names such as Newton Abbot, Tiverton, and Bishopsteignton.

Before the division set foot on French shores, though, it would require a further tuning-up prior to D-Day.

Fighting Mock D-Day Battles in Britain

It had been decided that the units going into Normandy on D-Day needed to rehearse their actions in places in the UK that most resembled the actual landing places in France. For that reason, the beach at Slapton Sands in Lyme Bay on the Devon coast was found to be an almost identical twin to the place where the troops destined for Utah Beach were scheduled to land. 

In December 1943, homes, businesses, and villages in the South Hams area of Devon were ordered abandoned by the British government so that the soldiers could gain experience fighting mock battles in real towns. More than 3,000 people found themselves uprooted by government order.

In April 1944, to prepare the green troops for the real thing, it was decided to use live ammunition during a full-scale dress rehearsal known as Exercise Tiger. Perhaps things were a bit too realistic. A stray dog ran into the lobby of the abandoned Slapton Sands Hotel, triggering a demolition device that destroyed the building—and the dog.

During Exercise Tiger, a number of LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) were being protected by two British Royal Navy destroyers, three torpedo boats, and two motor gunboats bristling with .303 Vickers machine guns, depth charges, and 6-pound cannons. Their role was to guard Lyme Bay and keep away any enemy who might want to interfere. But a mix-up led to tragedy. 

On April 22, according to historian Robert Heege, “Unaware that both the live-fire battle simulation and H-hour had been delayed, several LSTs, still adhering to the exercise’s initial timetable, made landfall and disembarked their men at Slapton Sands just as the now-rescheduled naval bombardment began raining shells down on the beach.

“Soldiers that had never really expected to be placed in harm’s way in what was supposed to be a simulation, albeit an ultra-realistic one, suddenly found themselves in danger of being blasted to pieces. According to plan, the machine guns firing just above their heads had also been directed to fire a few bursts into the ground a few yards ahead of the landing zone on U Beach for the added benefit of the infantrymen as they came ashore, a realistic touch that was to have chilling consequences.