After visiting Pointe du Hoc and before visiting the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer on my “get out of Paris and see some of the countryside” World War II Normandy Invasion tour, the second stop was Omaha Beach.
On D-Day June 6, 1944, The Allies stormed the German Atlantic Wall with the largest amphibious invasion in history. Troops were sent ashore at five beaches code named, from west to east, Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The American Army was assigned to land on Omaha and Utah Beaches and also to secure a German battery of 155mm howitzers at Pointe du Hoc.
Omaha, an eight-mile stretch of beach between Sainte-Honorine des Pertes in the east and Vierville-sur-Mer on the West, was the site of the strongest resistance and highest casualties at any of the landing beaches.
Many battles are shaped by topography. At Omaha, the dominant topographical feature is the line of bluffs just beyond the shore that are 30 – 40 meters high. Draws or gaps in the bluffs lead inland. The German plan to defeat an invasion was to stop it at the water’s edge. They established formidable defensive positions on the bluffs and particularly strong positions guarding the draws that served as exits from the beach.
Today, the scene at Omaha is peaceful and serene.
Of course on D-Day, things were quite different.
At low tide when the landings occurred the beach is more than 200 meters wide.
Omaha was the responsibility of V Corps, the 29th and 1st Infantry Divisions and the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions. Units were given precise objectives and timetables. Due to navigational problems, uncleared obstacles, and enemy fire, few units landed in their assigned areas. Carefully laid plans went out the window fast.
For many, the primary objective became staying alive long enough to get to the beach to find defilade, if possible.
Proposed and actual landings of the first wave at 0630 on D-Day are depicted below.
The second wave was to follow at 0700. These are the proposed and actual follow-up landings.
Landings of the 2nd Ranger Battalion in the Dog Green sector of Omaha near Vierville are depicted reasonably accurately in the dramatic second scene of Saving Private Ryan.
The defenders were elements of the veteran German 352nd Division that had been recently moved from a rear area. Defenses were concentrated around 15 strong points called Widerstandsnest (resistance nest) identified as WN-60 to WN-74 from east to west. These points were protected with rifles, machine guns, pillboxes, light artillery and heavy artillery in casemates and open pits, anti-tank guns, and minefields. Trenches with infantry and machine gun emplacements guarded the areas between strong points.
Many bunkers exist today. Our tour didn’t stop at any but the public does have access.
The defenses exacted a heavy toll. Surprisingly (or maybe not), the exact cost for securing Omaha Beach is unknown. Estimates of American dead, wounded, missing, and captured at Omaha on D-Day range from 2,000 to 4,700.
The first WWII American cemetery in France was established on D-Day on Omaha beach at Vierville-sur-Mer.
In 2004, the French erected a sculpture, Les Braves by Anilore Ban, directly on the beach.
A nearby monument commemorates the actions of the 1st Infantry Division and the 116th Regimental Combat Team of the 29th Division.
The Omaha Beach Memorial Museum is located in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. The museum depicts the landings and daily life of the troops on both sides as well as life for the locals during the occupation. It also shows a movie in which participants in the battle relate their experiences. Admission is about $7.50.
To land the amount of supplies required to provision an advancing army, two artificial harbors (mulberries) were constructed in England, towed to the landing beaches – one at Omaha and one at Gold – and fixed in place. On June 19-20, a powerful storm severely damaged the harbor at Omaha and it was abandoned. The harbor at Arromanches on Gold remained in operation for 10 months.
There is a lot to explore at Omaha Beach. To ensure you see sights you want, read an article about the invasion and check the internet for a list of things to do in advance. One could easily spend one or more days roaming the villages and bluffs of Omaha beach. For those who have less time, it is important to know your top locations to visit before going. Self-drive or private tours can be the best value. Group tours will see most but not all of the best sites.
As at Pointe du Hoc, the experience of visiting the site of such an important historical event that involved the sacrifice of so much was moving. It is helpful to visit places like Omaha Beach so that the price of freedom is remembered and that threats to freedom that might require a repetition of an event like Omaha are never required.