DAY 6: FRIDAY 10th SEPTEMBER 1999
|At the same time as the landings at Utah, the 16th Regiment of the US 1st Infantry Division, and the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division (attached to the 1st Division) assaulted Vierville-sur-Mer and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer/Colleville-sur-Mer respectively, the combined 6,500 yard stretch of coastline forming Omaha Beach. Knowing that the beaches were so suitable for disembarkation, they were heavily fortified and manned by the German 716th Coastal Defence Division, but unfortunately for the Americans, the 352nd Infantry Division had also moved into the area just days before to train for defense against a amphibious assault. Much of the 352nd came battle-hardened from the Eastern Front, while many of the American troops had never been in combat before.
|To make matters worse, ten of the 180 American LCA's which had been released at 04:30 five miles off-shore had sunk, and while most of the troops were saved, their comrades had a two-hour wait in the foul Channel weather. Meanwhile, twenty-nine amphibious "Duplex Drive" (DD) Sherman tanks also sank, leaving just three as the 1st Division's armoured support once they hit the Beach. The German defenders patiently waited until the landing craft ramps went down, and then threw everything they had at the Americans who were trying to get across 600 yards of beach to the relative safety of the sea wall.
|By 09:00, after two and a half hours, the situation was so grave that General Omar Bradley, commanding the First (US) Army, considered abandoning Omaha, but instead ordered the supporting fleet to bombard the enemy defenses again. Coupled with the Germans running low on ammunition, this proved decisive, but it was still several hours before a fragile beachhead was established. 6,000 American troops had been killed, wounded, or lost to the sea. It is this assault which is portrayed so graphically at the start of Saving Private Ryan, although with a misleadingly compressed timescale. An excellent museum it housed close to the beach at Vierville-sur-Mer.
|Omaha Beach today. Forty-five years ago, 3,000 men died here in the bitterest and most prolonged fighting on D-Day.
|M4A3 Sherman medium tank outside the Omaha Museum at the Musée Vierville.
|The two sides of German WW2 logistics: a BMW motorcycle, and horse-power. Surprisingly, the latter accounted for over half of the German's transport capability.
|German Work Service comemorative plaque from a blockhouse - Nazi iconography appeared on even the most mundane of items.
|German Maschinengewehr 42 general-purpose machine gun. Its design was so advanced that the Americans would later base their M60 GPMG - which remained in service until the 1980s - on it.
|German "Butterfly" bomb. When dropped from an aircraft, the outer case would spring open as shown, and the bomb would spiral to the ground like a sycamore seed, but would not explode until picked up or moved. An indiscriminate booby-trap, many live examples kept as "souveniers" unexpectedly turned up in the 1970s when the British TV drama series Danger UXB included an episode about them.
|American Browning .30" heavy machine gun.
|Omaha Beach diorama with Jeep.
|Selection of German equipment and arms. The rifle is a Sturmgewehr ("Assault Rifle") 44, from which the Soviets borrowed heavily in developing the Kalashnikov AK-47. Capable of single-shots or fully-automatic fire, it was intended to replace both the standard bolt-action rifle and the machine-pistol. The term "Assault rifle" is said to have been coined by Hitler himself.
|Examples of artefacts still being found in the vicinity of Omaha Beach, include the remains of a German MP40 machine-pistol [bottom left] and glass anti-personnel mine [bottom right], and American helmet [top right].
|Above the cliffs at Saint-Laurent lies the principal American Cemetery for the Invasion area. In stark contrast to the Commonwealth sites, the 9,386 graves in the American cemetery are widely spaced-out over 175 acres of clinically plain grass (in comparison, Etaples holds around 11,000 in about 8.5% of the area). There is no differentiation between the headstones beyond them being in either the shape of a latin cross or a Star of David (which carry a minimum of personal details), even though it is acknowledged that there are a number of non-American casualties interred there (interestingly, the US Veterans Association headstones are now broadly similar to the Commonwealth ones, with inscription rather than overall shape denoting religion).
|The cemetery is administered by the US Battle Monuments Commission, which fulfils a similar function to the CWGC. However, while Commonwealth war dead must legally be buried in situ, this is not the case with American casualties, the majority of which were therefore returned to the US for burial. The USBMC provides a similar - although not as detailed (listing only name, rank, serial number, date of death and location) - search facility via its web-site (http://www.usabmc.com/).
|Heading towards the British Beaches, we passed through Colleville-sur-Mer, and by chance spotted the ubiquitous small green CWGC plaque next to the entrance to the local churchyard as we passed by. Inside we found the single grave of H.J.R. Barrow, a Sergeant Pilot in the Royal Airforce Volunteer Reserve, who died in November 1940, in the second year of the War. The recent remains of a wreath and poppy crosses confirmed that this is one grave that certainly hasn't been forgotten, despite it's off-the-track location.
|The American Cemetery at St-Laurent.
|The lovingly-tended grave of H.J.R.Barrow in the Colleville-sur-Mer churchyard.
|We stopped for lunch at Port-en-Bessin, a pleasant fishing port which bears few remnants of June 1944 beyond a few bunkers high on the cliffs above the harbour, and a memorial on the tip of one of its moles. On the East side of the town is a much older fortification - the work of the great 17th Century seige architect Sébastian le Preste de Vauban. Interestingly, the spectacular sequence of No. 4 (French) Commando's attack on Ouistreham in The Longest Day was actually filmed here.
|The Vauban tower, with WW2 bunker on the cliff-top.
|We drove inland again to Commes (just outside Port-en-Bessin) to visit the Musée des Épaves Sous-Marine du Débarquement ("Museum of Underwater Wrecks of the Invasion"), which is privately owned by Jacques Lemonchois, the salvage expert who - in the 1970s - was contracted to clear much of the debris from the Invasion (and earlier conflicts) which had remained on the seabed off Omaha Beach. Although the bulk of what was salvaged was sold on for scrap, many of the best relics - from bottles and ship's bells, to whole tanks and even mines - are preserved here. This was one of the few museums which did not allow photography or video recording inside - although it was permitted for the exterior exhibits - but this is not so prohibitive considering they sell a wide range of appropriate videos and postcards. Definitely well-worth a second visit.
|Recovered DD Sherman tank (M4A1 chassis) of the 741st Tank Batallion at the Musuem of Underwater Wrecks. It sank 4 miles off Omaha Beach on 6 June, and still retains the commander's .50" machine-gun on the turret.
|The track-driven propellors at the rear of the DD Sherman could achieve a meagre 4 knots.
|Sherman Tank-Dozer (M4A4 chassis). It was intended for clearing beach obstacles, but - retaining its main gun - it could still operate as a conventional tank.
|M7B1 "Priest" 105mm howitzer motor carriage of the 58th Armored Field Artillery Batallion. This particular vehicle had earlier taken part in the North African campaign.
|British WW1 Vickers 4" submarine deck-gun
|American M5A1 light tank.
|Of the many surviving German coastal batteries on the Normandy coast, the best-preserved is the one at Longues-sur-Mer, which uniquely retains its wartime armament in situ. Unlike the battery at the Pointe-du-Hoc and many others covering the Bay of the Seine, Longues was built and manned by the Kriegsmarine (German Navy), as was the Todt Battery at Audinghen/Audreselles, although the individual casemates at Longues are much smaller. The Kriegsmarine got the pick of armament, radar and building materials, while the other batteries, operated by the Wermacht, were inferior in construction, and usually housed old or obsolete guns plundered from the arsenals of conquered European countries. The Kriegsmarine casemates were better designed and constructed, and withstood aerial bombardment better than the Wehrmacht's did, as a comparison between the casemates at Longues and the Pointe-du-Hoc clearly shows.
|Prior to the Invasion, aerial bombing was ineffective is putting Longues out of action, so the Battery was able to fire on the Allies on 6 June. With the original cannon still in place, one can even stand where the German gunners peered from behind the armour plating at the massed armada out to sea. At 05:37 off Omaha Beach, the French cruiser George Leygues and the American battleship Arkansas opened fire on the Battery, which in turn targetted the destroyer USS Emmons and the Arkansas. At 06:05, the Battery then turned its attention to the British Gold Beach, forcing the flagship HMS Bulolo to weigh anchor. The cruiser HMS Ajax returned fire, and the battery ceased firing at 06:20, but was soon active again shelling the first waves of assault troops on Omaha and Gold. Ajax and the destroyer HMS Argonaut again bombarded Longues, knocking out three of the four guns.
|The Battery was firing again in the afternoon, but was finally put out of action by fire from the George Leygues. The garrison surrendered the next day. Thanks to radar, the Allied ships fired on Longues with pin-point accuracy, with shells either piercing the gun shields themselves, or passing through the gaps in the wide embrasure either side, to explode inside the casemates. Today, one can see the holes punched in the armour plating, or the impact points on the back wall sof the gun chambers. Only Casemate 4 is substantially demolished, and this actually happened some time after D-Day. When a temporary airfield was built 400 metres away, a defensive anti-aircraft gun was set up on the roof of the casemate, and the ammunition stored inside. Unfortunately, an accidental explosion blew the structure apart from the inside, killing four soldiers, and hurling the remains of the gun towards the cliff.
|The damaged Casemate 4 at Longue-sur-Mer. Fragments of the gun are partially buried in front of the embrasure.
|The back wall of Casemate 2's firing-chamber, with shell detonation point. The sharapnel and blast would have almost certainly killed all the gun-crew in the chamber.
|The 152mm (6") cannon in Casemate 2. The gunners would have stood either side of the breech, inside the armour plating shield, which has been badly damaged. The crescent-shaped hole on the right may even have been made by the incoming shell before it hit the back wall.
|Casemate 1. The "pits" in the concrete of the roof were deliberate and intended for the siting of camouflage vegetation matching that found locally.
|Rear of the "Leitstand" Control Bunker. The upper gallery was to have housed the optical range-finding equipment, but it had not been installed on 6 June, hampering the gunners' accuracy.
|Front of the "Leitstand." At the time of the Invasion, as it had not been completed, the view from the ground-level middle gallery was still obstructed by part of the cliff. This was cleared away during the making of The Longest Day.
|After the raid on Dieppe, the Invasion planners realised that it would be nigh-on impossible for the Allies to capture intact a deep water Channel port through a frontal assault. The first few weeks would be crucial, as they would need to land huge numbers of personnel and vast quantities of supplies, munitions and fuel, otherwise the offensive would grind to a halt. The British solution was to simply bring a two prefabricated "Mulberry" ports across the Channel - one to be sited at Gold Beach, the other at Omaha - comprising an outer "Bombardon" breakwater moored to the sea-bed, an inner "Gooseberry" breakwater of block-ships and huge "Phoenix" concrete caissons, and inside that floating piers and roadways connected to the land.
|Remains of floating roadway supports at Arromanches-les-Bains, with breakwater of Phoenix caissons on the horizon.
|Close-up of "Phoenix" caisson. A number of the caissons had anti-aircraft guns mounted on them.