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World War II Explainer: Omaha Beach



Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] MICHAEL RAY: On the morning of June 6, 1944, two US infantry divisions, the First and the 29th, landed at Omaha Beach, the second to the west of the five landing beaches of D-Day. And it was the bloodiest fighting of the morning. The troops went ahead and, in many cases, had to fight through waist-deep water, being fired upon by German strong points throughout. In many cases, the landing craft were hung up on beach obstacles that could not be cleared because of simply the way the tide had rolled in that day. There were mines. There were large steel obstacles that ended up actually providing cover, the only cover that was available on the beaches for the landing American troops that day.

And by the end of the day, the initial assault had not carried through to the final positions that were called out in the initial D-Day plan. But they did have a minor toehold on the beach. Things were so close that Allied commanders had actually considered pulling the troops back because fighting on Omaha had gone so badly throughout the day. It was only carried when initial waves were able to make it to final positions later in the afternoon.

Some of the heaviest fighting was an American Ranger group took the high points at Pointe du Hoc, which looked down on the beach and provided a great firing position for the Germans, as well as the German spotters calling artillery onto the beach from a distance behind the landing beaches.

The top left map illustrates the plan and the believed disposition of German forces for the landings in Omaha Beach. This was not carried out on the morning of June 6th. The initial landing was a mess. Landing craft were mixed up. Individual units were blended together, if they did survive the initial landing at all.

And what you saw were mixtures of troops from various different units combining to achieve objectives that were shifting as the battle carried out throughout the day. You saw troops from the First and 29th Infantry Divisions doing various things, whatever they could, to get out of the killing zone that was Omaha Beach. And by the end of the day, those troops did come together under whatever officers could be found to achieve some of the initial goals for that day.

You have just concentrations of troops landing wherever they came ashore and getting into groups of a dozen, 20, a half dozen, and trying to make it through the worst parts of the beach and make it up onto the high ground above. The difficulty there was that, in some cases, troops were landing in areas that they hadn't at all been briefed on. They had gone over some of the basics of the initial assault. But you had troops that were supposed to be going through one specific exit point from the beach, and they were hundreds of yards from that point. The intelligence that they had on the German defenders was useless from the standpoint of where they actually were.

So the green blobs that you see on the map and the lines that you see going into the towns that are just beyond the initial beachhead illustrate where those units went as they were breaking through in the hours after the initial landings. The final positions of US troops behind Omaha Beach, they had not made it to many of their final objective points. There were key strong points of German resistance that were stopping advances further inland. The troops that landed at Omaha had been so bloodied that they simply lacked the strength to push further.

And the German artillery that were firing onto the beach had hampered the landings and the additional landings throughout the day. While you saw a stronger beachhead established at other beaches, such as the British beaches and the Canadian beach and Utah Beach, Omaha was a hard-fought battle even until midnight on D-Day. The final positions on D-Day, the red arrows represent paths taken by organized breakouts from the beach.

In many cases, these recapitulate the routes that you see on the initial assault map. But in some cases, these are just the largest organized breakouts that took place from concentrations of troops. The pink areas represent where large bodies of US troops were gathered, often in opposition to remaining German strong points. And those positions were cleared out in the ensuing days as more troops were landed, Especially with armor support, which was sorely lacking at Omaha Beach on June 6th.

Casualties on Omaha Beach were the worst of any of the invasion beaches on D-day. 2,400 casualties were suffered by the US forces. And that includes wounded and killed, as well as missing. There is no concrete number for the German forces that were killed at Omaha Beach. Those records simply did not exist, and entire German units were wiped out virtually to a man. Any best estimate at the German losses on D-Day is a guess.

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