Our trip to Normandy was only a couple of days, so we only visited three of the Beaches. Juno had been incredibly moving for us, personally and as Canadians. Next we decided to stop at Omaha, which had been key to the landings at Utah beach succeeding.
The German troupes and defenses at Omaha were of a much higher quality than had been believed, the naval barrage had not gone as planned and the air attacked missed its target by several kilometres. When the American DDs (amphibious tanks used in all the D-Day landings) were deployed, they sank in the heavy seas, leaving the troupes without that protection.
16th Regimental Combat Team (US 1st Division) and 116th Regimental Combat Team (29th Division), 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions were the first to land, with 1,450 soldiers of the 1st and 29th Infantries leading the way. They were mowed down by the still strong German batteries. All Officers and Warrants were among the 90% losses, cut down by snipers.
Tanks and arms were stuck on the shore, unable to move off the beach. At one point, HQ debated abandoning Omaha, but luckily they persevered. Around 10:00 the advance on Vierville had finally, if as a trickle, begun. By 11:00, the town had been captured and the move toward St Laurent could continue. The 18th Infantry was able to join the 16th in fighting at Colleville-Sur-Mer.
By noon, although still under very heavy German fire, the German lines had been breached in four places, allowing the Americans to begin the move inland some two hours later.
Finally, at about 16:00, the tanks and other armoured vehicles were able to leave the beach and move inland to support the troupes.
By the end of the day, the men of the 1st infantry had reached the coastal road connecting Vierville with St Laurent and Colleville. The latter two towns were captured by 20:00 and by 24:00, a fragile beachhead had been established that had they been able to organise it, the Germans could have broken with a tank attack. Luckily, they weren’t able and Omaha Beach was taken, allowing the men and armaments from Utah Beach to move inland.
The cost was enormous and devastating.
There was a small ceremony of remembrance occurring as we drove up to the beach-side parking lot in the morning sun; a touching sign that even after 70 years, the men of a British commando raid that landed here on September 19, 1942 – 18 months before D-Day – were remembered and honoured by French and English dignitaries alike.
Then we turned toward the beach, squinting in the brightness of the Channel waters. To the east were the cliffs that marked Utah Beach; to the west, open beach stretched. There was very little sign of other life about, but a few walkers and riders enjoyed the freshness of the day.
The monument at Omaha Beach is marvellous and grand, like angels’ wings reaching for the crystal waters and heaven both at once. It dominates the area, surrounded by Allied Flags and the official monumental marker that appears on all the Beaches.
Gulls and terns call, as the wind off the Channel brushes hair about my cheeks.
I am drawn repeatedly back to the monument, known as ‘Les Braves’.
Made of stainless steel and nine metres tall, Anilore Ban’s work comprises three parts: ‘Wings of Hope’; ‘Rise, Freedom!’; and ‘Wings of Fraternity’.
Designed to become surrounded by the waters of the Channel at high tide, it honours the men who landed here, who stood against incredibly great odds and prevailed.