Landing on the Edge of Eternity
Landing on the Edge of Eternity
24 Hours at Omaha
After a tense weather forecast conference on 5th June 1944 at Southwick House near Portsmouth, General Dwight D Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander Allied Forces, scrawled a hastily composed note. ‘Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops’ he wrote. He crossed out the start of the next sentence three times. ‘My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available’. It was his decision. ‘The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do’. Eisenhower was about to visit one of the tented camps of the 101st (US) Airborne Division, before they took off to Normandy. ‘If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt’ he carried on, ‘it is mine alone’. He was now to confront soldiers who would face the consequences of his ‘go’ decision. That this was an anxious moment is reflected by the date he wrote beneath: ‘July 5th’. It was actually the 5th of June.
Eisenhower folded the note and tucked it inside his wallet and set off to meet the US paratroopers at Greenham Common near Newbury. Several weeks later the notelet was still inside his wallet and he passed it to his naval aide Commander Butcher, for posterity.
Two hours after H-Hour on Omaha beach the next day the prophecy rang ominously true. General Omar Bradley, the First US Army Commander, scanning the distant shoreline through binoculars aboard the USS Augusta, relived Eisenhower’s dilemma. Fragmentary reports coming from offshore reported the first wave had foundered and that a catastrophe was unfolding along that grey indistinct line of beach. Twinkling flashes and bulbous clouds of black smoke boiling up from burning tanks and listing landing craft in the obstacle-strewn surf suggested failure. The remorseless conveyer belt of successive waves heading for the maw of this fiercely fought bridgehead had to be momentarily halted. Bradley needed to decide whether to redirect the landing effort to the British Gold beach further east, where headway was being made towards Bayeux, or carry on. Nobody was aware the Supreme Commander had already tucked away a note that formed the basis for a press statement covering just such an eventuality. Bradley agonized over what he should do.
4,700 casualties were inflicted on American Forces landing at Omaha on D-Day. More than were lost at Pearl Harbour at the outset of the war and among the costliest single day’s losses for the subsequent battles that would rage on the mainland of Europe. It has taken decades to realize the full extent of the damage inflicted, almost five times higher than the next worse loss suffered at D-Day on Juno beach. Such a frontal assault appeared to echo the sterile tactics of the First World War.
Hollywood, beginning with Daryl F Zanuck’s rendition of Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day first brought the heroism of the assaults at Omaha and Pointe du Hoc vividly into the American consciousness. It also played to the global tensions of Cold War. American President Carter was the first of five US presidents to visit the site. America’s first physical entry onto the strategic heartland of North West Europe was at the cost of a grievous blood letting. In an age less cynical than our own, freedom meant so much more in an emotionally charged sense, juxtaposed against another totalitarian menace, Soviet hegemony seeking to dominate Europe. Successive Hollywood feature films and countless TV documentaries culminated in 1998 with Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which offered both a poignant and viscerally gritty portrayal of the Omaha beach landings. The critical and commercial acclaim the film engendered seemed to lead to a resurgence of American interest in the Second World War. President Obama, the fifth president to visit Omaha on 6th June 2014, unknowingly stood meters from the site, alongside French President Holland, where Lieutenant John Spalding, crested the German held bluffs for the first time. ‘This sacred place of rest for 9,387 Americans’ President Obama said, should be ‘seared into the memory of history’, insisting it ‘was democracy’s beachhead.’ The battle on the Omaha beaches resonates symbolically with Americans to tangibly demonstrate her attachment to Europe.
These 24 hours at Omaha are a story therefore, well worth the telling. Its narrative has over the years become increasing emotionally embellished by films and the media. Second World War veterans are often embarrassed to be collectively addressed casually as ‘heroes’. The accolade is clear, but not everyone was a hero. They, more than others, are acutely aware of the soul baring human frailties revealed in combat.
Most were scared and carried on with a dogged determination that saved the day for the American landings, which were beset by some problematic planning. Some were rendered helpless and incoherent to orders because of the visceral shock they endured on landing. They were not in a fit state to do any more than survive. Others committed acts of extraordinary bravery, which had to be witnessed by superiors to be recognized by awards, so many accomplishments that day went unrecorded. The assault at Omaha was committed frontally against well entrenched and prepared positions, defended by the most powerful infantry division stationed anywhere near the coast at the time. These were also brave men, despite fighting for a malign cause, and were also prepared to die. In between were French civilians, rarely written about, who died in their thousands.
Landing on the Edge of Eternity tells the story of 24 hours at Omaha through the eyes, ears and senses of American, German and French eyewitnesses to that day. It covers their individual experiences from midnight to midnight. Extensive use is made of American and German after action reports, many unpublished and including the telephone log of the German 352nd Division defending Omaha. It is less a strategic and historical overview, more about what it was actually like for these people on that day. What could they see or hear left and right of their field of vision?
One American demolition engineer remembered:
‘I was just coming out of the water when this guy exploded right in front of me. There just wasn’t anything left of him except some of his skin, which splattered all over my arm. I remember dipping my arm in the water to wash it off’.
German machine gunner Heinrich Severloh insisted:
‘It wasn’t my fault I had killed so many people there. I only did what I was supposed to do, and there was no way for me to avoid doing it’. All of them that had come ashore here, had it in for me, to put an end to me and I didn’t want that to happen.’
‘The bullet comes and then the crack comes after’ David Silva, who landed with the 29th division explained. ‘You can’t hide from it no way, because those bullets are firing at about 3,000 feet per second’
‘Every time the waves went out I saw blood coming up the water from Smitty’s lower body’, Sergeant ‘Sol’ Evnetsky with the 147th Combat Engineer Battalion remembered. ‘He started to cry that he didn’t want to drown. I cannot express my feelings but I’m sure I cried too, for here was my first experience of war’.
Ivy Agee landed with the 29th Division and recalled tanks were ‘drawing fire all around me. Wounded soldiers were lying on the beach, they could not move and the tank could not stop. The screams are with me yet’.
French civilian Edmond Scelles fleeing from the action met a German officer on the road, who told them ‘you are doing well to leave, but it’s only going to last for a few hours’. Scelles could see the Germans were confident, and ‘had the impression that they were going to push them back in the water; they were probably expecting reinforcements coming back from Trévières’. The local French had been watching German reinforcement coastal maneuvers being practiced for years.
Albert André remembered a dead German lying in the road. ‘There was a little dog that followed him, he stayed beside him for eight days’.
Machine gunner Ludwig Kwiatkowski manning strongpoint WN 62 at Colleville was exuberant at midday. ‘We truly believed the invasion appeared almost at an end’ he remembered ‘we all believed we would get the Iron Cross 1st Class pinned to our chests and be sent on holiday.’
Ex paratrooper officer Robert Kershaw has extensively walked the sites, explored the bunkers to investigate how the German soldiers defended them, measuring the ground with a practiced tactical eye. He has climbed the bluffs where Lieutenant John Spalding with the 1st ‘Big Red One’ Division first penetrated the German defenses, and located the precise spot where the famous war photographer Robert Capa came ashore. Using his surviving photographs and terrain analysis, Kershaw is able to bring the story to life. ‘Now the Germans played on all their instruments, and I could not find any hole between the shells and bullets that blocked the last 25 yards to the beach’, Capa later wrote. He was pinned behind a stranded tank ‘repeating a little sentence from my Spanish Civil War days, Es una casa muy seria. Es una casa muy seria. This is a very serious business’.
Eyewitness accounts have created a maze of contradictory information about the Omaha landings, influenced by strongly held views and the emotion implicit in the story they are telling. Recent documentary TV coverage often asks individuals to summon detail from the fringe of living memory. For this reason I have attempted to get as close to the origin of these events as is possible. Much of the recent German eyewitness material is at variance to earlier American accounts. My own personal memories of conflict come in snapshot form, and this has been the approach here, to represent them coherently within a logical narrative, against the backdrop of a 24-hour clock. There are few certainties in the chaos of combat. Discussion about what happened after the event can be controversial, even minutes after an event, never mind decades later.
Films and TV documentaries tend to glorify the Omaha tale, told through iconic heroes, like an epic Homeric Illiad account. Objective truth is so much more difficult to achieve. There were heroes yes, but human frailty in abundance. Successive American Presidents saw the event as representing the nation’s consciousness of who they are. American soldiers were brave, generous and resolute, sacrificing thousands of lives to free people they had never met.
The assault on Omaha’s beaches was exactly what German propaganda foresaw would be the consequence of trying to breach Hitler’s invincible Atlantic Wall. The first hours realized the Allies worst fears. If this German resistance and intensity of firepower had been replicated on the other four beaches, the story of D-Day might have had a different outcome. Landing on the Edge of Eternity tells the human story of how they succeeded, why the Germans failed, and what happened to the helpless French civilians in between.