June 4, 2013
I have always dreamed of standing on Omaha Beach on a rainy and cold morning at low tide, standing by the edge of the water and looking inward. Until recently, I never had. No matter how many times I had visited France before, I always needed to be somewhere else, or was too busy to really imagine. I could never devote my mind to the water and the beach and the memories that, for me, were history but for those who took part in the D-Day landing were the pivot of their lives. Imagining a battle long gone is an act of will and imperfect in the best of circumstances, in spite of the fact that I have read voraciously on this battle. It is an act of will to force yourself to believe, to know, that something extraordinary happened here. The morning I visited Omaha Beach, a man was racing a horse drawing a sulky up and down on the sand, as if to challenge my intentions.
The invasion took place at dawn on June 6, 1944. A North Atlantic storm had hammered the beaches the day before June 6 and would resume a few days later. On the day the forces came ashore, there was a break in the wind and rain. But it was still cold, wet and terrifying. The invasion took place at low tide. The Germans had placed obstacles that, at high tide, would be submerged and tear out the bottoms of landing craft. They were revealed at low tide. But that meant that the men who landed would have go across a vast, flat expanse of sand to a sea wall that is no longer there. I tried to imagine what it was like to force yourself to walk across the beach with heavy packs and machine gun fire raking the beach. I think I would have frozen. Death was random that morning, and no amount of skill or courage would prevent it. A man placed his soul in the hands of his God and moved forward. On a peaceful day when the only movement was a horse, sulky and rider, it still took me about five minutes to go from the water's edge to the place where the sea wall had been in June 1944. I tried to feel what the soldiers must have felt. In some battles, there is a degree of wit and skill that gives you the illusion that you might have control over your fate. There could be no such illusion at Omaha Beach. Some lived, some died, and virtue had little to do with it.
The Significance of Omaha Beach
I focus on Omaha Beach not because the British at beaches codenamed Sword and Gold, the Canadians at Juno or the Americans at Utah were less brave than the men at Omaha, but because the defeat of Nazi Germany was sealed that day on Omaha Beach. The plan of the invasion was to land the British and Canadian forces to the east, as far as the town of Ouistreham. The Americans landed at Utah, at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, and at Omaha. It was a 50-mile front. There was no chance of creating a continuous front that day, but the expectation was that the landing forces on the five beaches, plus the airborne troops behind enemy lines, would link up and create a foothold that could withstand German counterattacks.
An enormous number of things went wrong that day. Landing craft could not make it into the beach, and men drowned when they left the craft under fire and could not swim with their equipment. The landing craft came in at the wrong place. The naval gunfire and air forces could not destroy the German positions. The airborne assault was chaotic as troops were scattered all over the region. The amphibious tanks had trouble being amphibious.
I reflect that had the modern media been there, they would have declared the landing a failure and demanded that Eisenhower be investigated. Even after the landings proved a success, I can imagine op-ed pieces and television commentators, as well as senators and congressmen, asking how Eisenhower could not know that naval gunfire could not clear the defenses. All the planning in the world is of little value when chance, the enemy and miscalculation intervene. Those who have not fought wars demand precision from commanders that they themselves are incapable of in their own, much simpler lives. One hundred and sixty thousand troops landed within 24 hours on a 50-mile front. That it was chaos was inevitable. That it achieved the mission changed history.