D-Day, 76 years later
—photo by Mike Fuller—
Colleville Cemetery overlooking the eastern sector of Omaha Beach, looking north towards the beach and Seine Bay and the English Channel and eventually the southern coast of England [over 100 miles; over 90 nautical miles; 160 km] from the beaches. The heavily-defended (and indeed infamous) Colleville Draw (ravine) is just east of the cemetery (beyond the RHS of this photo). 9,387 American fighting men—representing only about 1/3 of all Americans killed fighting in Normandy in the summer of 1944—are interred here at Colleville. Among them is (hotlink: Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt Jr.) who was the only allied General officer to land with the first assault troops on any of the Normandy beaches (Utah Beach) on D-Day, and whose weak heart finally quit on July 12, five weeks after D-Day. His brother, Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, a pilot who was killed in France in WW1 in July, 1918, was reinterred from Champagne-Ardenne (in far northeastern France) to Colleville and rests beside him. And for the record, Teddy’s son, Captain Quentin Roosevelt II (who survived the battle and the war), landed with his troops on bloody Omaha beach in the first assault waves of the 29th Infantry Division at roughly the same moment his father was landing with the 4th Infantry Division (commanded by Major General Raymond “Tubby” Barton) on Utah Beach, about 18 miles [30 km] to the west.
Incidentally, each of those 9,387 Americans interred here is resting in American soil. You see, France ceded the cemetery’s elegantly manicured 172 acres (69 hectares) to the United States after the war. Think of it as ‘The Arlington Cemetery of the Battle of Normandy.’
And one other thing: three of the grave markers have the inscriptions gilded in gold. Each gold inscription designates that this is the grave of a posthumously-awarded Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. Among those three is Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., whose quick thinking… under fire… at Utah Beach played a vital role in the success of the landings. Teddy was portrayed in Darryl Zanuck’s 1962 epic blockbuster The Longest Day by actor Henry Fonda.
The opening and closing scenes of Steven Spielberg’s epic “Saving Private Ryan” were filmed right here at Colleville Cemetery.
The Military Channel (TMC) typically hosts a special “D-Day Marathon,” beginning on the afternoon of 6 June. Check your cable guide.
In the spring of 1944 millions of allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen… British, American, Canadian and expatriate Europeans [Free French, Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, Danes, Dutch, Belgians and others] gathered, bivouacked, trained and trained and waited and trained in Britain for the inevitable invasion of northern France to free Europe and the world of the tyranny and the brutality of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi war machine.
Perhaps the worst-kept secret in the world was that the allied invasion was coming; on the other hand, the best-kept secret in the world was precisely where and when the allied forces would storm ashore. The secret began to leak out early on the morning of Tuesday, June 6, 1944, in an overall operation code-named “Overlord” and a day forever after known to the entire world as “D-Day.” Just after midnight over 24,000 American and British paratroopers began jumping out of transport aircraft—mostly Douglas C-47 “Skytrains”… labeled “Dakotas” by the British—commenced landing on Normandy soil. Along with the paratroops were the glider-borne forces transported in flimsy American “Waco” (pronounced “wokko”) and the much larger British “Horsa” gliders. Those thousands of British and American paratroopers and glider troops and thousands of French Maquis (pron “mahKEY”… guerrilla resistance fighters… the word roughly translates as “the bush” in French) were vital to the success of the D-Day landings: their task was to sabotage, disrupt and destroy enemy communications lines (including bridges, railroad tracks, rolling stock, and telecommunications/ radio-communications centers) and to thus obstruct and delay the reaction time of the Heer [German army, pronounced “hair”], and armoured SS reinforcements to the Allied beachheads. The Maquis’ contribution to the success of the D-Day landings cannot be overstated.
And just after dawn the first seaborne landing craft began arriving along a 50-mile [80-kilometer] stretch of beaches on the north coast of Normandy’s Cotentin [aka Cherbourg] Peninsula that were code-named [in east-to-west order] Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. 54,000 British landed on Sword and Gold, over 14,000 Canadians on Juno, 58,000 Americans on Omaha and Utah.
Over 2,400 American fighting men—almost precisely the same number killed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941—had perished by the end of that bloody Tuesday, the lion’s share of them on Omaha Beach; Heer (German army) weaponry, combat strength and combat-readiness was present on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach in much greater strength than allied military intelligence had reason to believe, and the German soldiers fought determinedly, using every weapon in their arsenal to unleash a rain of hot steel and explosives onto the beach. Omaha Beach sand and surf quite literally ran red with the blood of American soldiers. The beach-assault footage of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” pretty effectively depicts the mind-numbing bedlam and the extreme violence those soldiers faced as the front gate of their ‘Higgins Boats’ [of the U.S. 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division] dropped down into the surf of Omaha Beach. On some of the initial landing craft, all 30 GI’s were killed [mostly by the Germans’ “buzz-saw” MG-42 machine guns, each dispensing nearly 1,200 8mm rounds per minute**] before they could exit the boat. And because it was low-tide, those soldiers who managed to survive exiting their landing craft (each of whom was heavily-laden with equipment and ammunition) were then obliged to sprint across hundreds of yards of open surf and open beach and anti-personnel land mines under extremely heavy German 352nd Infantry Division rifle, machine-gun, mortar and field artillery fire to finally reach any sort of cover at all. Further compounding their plight was the fact that 1) virtually every one of the 30 or so DD (duplex drive) amphibious Sherman tanks that were launched from several miles out at sea to provide critical support to the landing troops was swamped and sunk due to the heavy storm seas or else destroyed by German artillery fire after reaching the shore, and 2) every single one of the field radios that would’ve made possible critical situation reports and supporting-fire requests with the fighting ships offshore had been destroyed/otherwise rendered inoperable in that murderous chaos that was Omaha Beach. So for the first several critical hours during that bloody Tuesday morning of 6 June, those assault troops had no choice but to rely entirely on their own resourcefulness and initiative and courage to advance against the entrenched German positions high on the bluffs overlooking the beach.
**Personal footnote: I was at Colleville Cemetery on June 6, 1994, on the 50th Anniversary of D-Day. When I became overcome with emotion trying to read the endless name after name on the 9,387 grave markers, I decided to retreat over to the blufftop asphalt walkway overlooking the beach [that same walkway you watched the elderly Private Ryan and his wife and two younger generations of his family walking along at the beginning and end of the movie epic] to try to recompose myself. There were about a dozen WWII vets and their wives already there… all weeping, some sobbing uncontrollably. As I was approaching, I didn’t yet comprehend what had simultaneously triggered the emotions of all of them, especially since they also had left the cemetery area. Then it hit me: they (and now I) were all peering down onto Omaha Beach from the very perspective of those German machine gunners (and riflemen and mortar men). The beach was so close that for a German MG-42 machine gunner, gunning down those American soldiers would’ve been far easier than shooting fish in a barrel. The distance from the muzzle of an MG-42 gun barrel (each spitting out about 60 rounds/second) to the advancing GIs was much, much closer than any of us had realized. With the 85 MG-42 machine guns raining down a total of perhaps 100,000 rounds-per-minute at Omaha, each and every GI on the beach had several hundred 8mm Mauser rounds coming down at him with (figuratively speaking) his name and dogtag number on them. As if those elements of fiendish bedlam weren’t terrifying enough, the surf and beach were themselves laced with anti-personnel buried mines by the thousands. The drop-down gate on the front of each of those Higgins Boats was indeed The Gate to Hell. We all had to wonder in stunned dismay just how any one of those GI’s managed to survive that murderous gauntlet of 2,400 fps hurtling lead and red-hot shards of steel shrapnel. At Omaha alone, over 2,000 of them didn’t survive the day. It was some solace to me to witness the French (and other Europeans) visiting the cemetery and the beach sector that day (in 1994), who displayed the very same level of anguish and grief and respect for the self-evident sacrifice of that day in 1944 as the American visitors did. Indeed, Colleville Cemetery and the Normandy invasion beaches [in east-to-west order: Gold, Juneau, Sword, Omaha (including Pointe-du-hoc, Utah] are hallowed ground to much of the entirety of mankind. CS
Saturdayday, June 6, 2020 marks the 76th anniversary of D-Day, and of the beginning of the pivotal Battle of Normandy [D-Day was merely the first day of a very costly 2-1/2-month campaign, including the high-casualty slugfest of fighting through the bocage (hedgerow) country for several weeks; it ended with the liberation of Paris on August 25th]. It was arguably the most important single military campaign in the history of the world. The world you and I live in is a far better place today because of the sacrifices of those thousands of American, British, British Commonwealth, Canadian, Free French (and French “Maquis” partisans) and Free Poles and other allied fighting men and women of WWII. They represent perhaps the only generation in history of which it can be fairly stated “they saved the world.” American news anchor and author Tom Brokaw aptly titled his book about them “The Greatest Generation.”
And here’s an irresistible li’l anecdote about how sheer luck played an extraordinary role in the success of the allied landings on D-Day: you may know that German Field Marshal Erwin (pronounced “Air-vin,” not “Ur-win”) Rommel was away on a short leave visiting his wife Lucie and 15-year-old son Manfred in Ulm, Germany (alongside the Danube River) when the landings began. He was 10 hours by car from Normandy. His absence w/o question played a huge role in the success of the landings, since he was a recognized maestro of rapid response counterattack. But you see, his wife Lucie was born on 6 June, 1894. And thus Tuesday, 6 June 1944—D-Day— was Lucie’s 50th birthday. Only such a special occasion could’ve lured Rommel away from Normandy.
And it was all serendipitous… allied planners had no idea that June 6 was Lucie Rommel’s birthday.
The very youngest of those Normandy veterans are now in their mid-90s; a 20-year–old soldier on those Normandy beaches would be 96 today. So should you perchance encounter a WWII veteran of any allied fighting force, thank him [or her], shake his hand, tell him you appreciate his personal sacrifice, his (or her) small part in saving the world.
You see, in only a few short years (or perhaps months) he [or she] won’t be around any more for you to express your gratitude.
Finally, if visiting Colleville Cemetery and the Normandy invasion beaches (all five of them) and the village of Sainte-Mère-Église doesn’t rank high on your Bucket List, it should.