Approaching Omaha Beach on June 23, 1944, evidence of the violence which had occurred there just 17 days earlier was everywhere. The shattered remains of dozens of ships of various sizes and types, already showing rust, protruded from the shallow waters. Portions of the „Mulberry" dock system, destroyed by the storms which had kept the 3rd Armored Division bivouacked in England for days, constituted navigational hazards in shallower water. The beach itself apparently had been very lightly inhabited; what few homes there were had been reduced to rubble; engineer troops had smoothed access roads inland through ground thoroughly churned up by bombs and shells.
Our LST ran her bow up on the sand of Omaha Red Easy beach, opened her bow doors and Captain Robuck‚s halftrack rolled off into water puddles no more than ankle deep, followed in orderly fashion by the rest of the Battery. Now we could see close up what an impossibly costly exercise an amphibious invasion could be. Some of the immensely strong big gun emplacements had taken innumerable direct hits from naval guns without being penetrated. Others had been blown apart by direct bomb hits. Most had been neutralized with infantry tactics flame throwers and grenades. The blasted hulks of every type of war machine familiar to me were strewn about the sand on every side, mute testimony to the savagery of the battle between men for a few yards of sand. The concept and the cost in human lives, of assaulting such a heavily defended position was impossible to grasp. Where did those men get the courage, the guts, the will to accomplish such impossible deeds? The waters off Omaha Beach, in either direction, were cluttered with anchored ships carrying supplies for troops already ashore.
Because docking facilities were non-existent, Army amphibious trucks shuttled between ship and shore in endless numbers, delivering the thousands of tons of supplies necessary for the insatiable appetite of a military force of 400,000 men. These fat targets appeared nearly defenseless, with the exception of a few anti-aircraft batteries near the beach and an occasional flight of P-51s, but the German Airforce and Navy were no shows. We had been told to expect little or no enemy air activity and to fire at planes only if the anti-aircraft crews opened up first. There were many nervous fingers on triggers when any plane appeared, but there were no untoward incidents while we were on the beach. Forming up to move inland to our assembly area, we could hear the constant rumble of artillery fire ahead and an occasional round from a naval vessel behind us.
The naval fire was our introduction to the sound of friendly artillery rounds passing overhead: a distinct rustling sound which, in the months ahead, would become a very comforting sound, indeed. The Normandy beachhead on June 23 was approximately 7 miles deep at it deepest point and some 20 miles long. That meant that, even at the deepest point, the entire beachhead was within range of German field artillery. As Springfield led our long column inland along the French road, we gaped at the countless numbers of twisted, tortured remains, the detritus of war, machines which had been driven and crewed to that spot by human beings, men of a different country and culture, to be sure, but men like us, whose fate was obvious.
Both American and German crewmen had died, violently, on foreign soil. No amount of training can condition the human mind to accept the thought that suddenly occurred to me as the scenes of brutal devastation continued to unroll: there are half a million Germans out there and they are all going to do their absolute best to kill me. Violent death, in a foreign country. All of my life to this point had been prologue; from this moment on, I stood exposed, naked in a world of such unimaginable, such unspeakable violence that I couldn‚t truly grasp it. We were not out on maneuvers; this was not a game. This was real. Men were being killed at a horrible rate. And I was part of it. Suddenly, my life had been reduced to its lowest, it‚s basest, dimension: Kill or be killed. The future was now, this minute, the minute which could be my last. Life, even in this hell-hole of war, suddenly became much, much sweeter and precious.
Our assigned area was about three miles inland. Hundreds of ships were belching up thousands of troops; finding room for all of us on the beachhead must have been a monumental headache for someone. We immediately noted a feature of the Norman landscape which had not been mentioned to us: hedgerows. Not the pretty, low-growing, shaped hedgerows Americans are familiar with. These were like nothing we had ever seen. Norman farm fields were small ˆ probably no larger than five acres. The method of „fencing‰ these fields was unique, developed over the centuries. A row of dirt three to four feet high and at least as thick at the bottom formed each side of the field. On top of the row of dirt were planted shrubs and small trees. The total height of the obstacle often reached eight feet. A man could confidently walk on one side of the hedge knowing he was invisible to, and protected from attack by, anyone on the opposite side. The rows of fields often did not have a common hedge between them.There was a lane between them formed by the hedgerows, permitting access to fields on either side of the lane. These unique hedgerows provided perfect features for defense: Each field became a battleground.
There was only one way into each field and the Germans had only to cover the opening to exact an enormous price in lives and blood for even a small gain. And there were thousands of these tiny fields. Of all the possible invasion sites on the entire French coast, the geography made the Norman coast the easiest, by far, to defend. The German high command must have been delighted. The abject failure of the Allied High Command to inform the combat units destined to fight in Normandy of the horrendous nature of the formidable defensive geography they would confront and to devise and train the troops in the use of equipment to help overcome this lethal situation is still a mystery to me, despite 50 years of reading and research. To say they didn‚t know, didn‚t recognize the hedgerows for what they were, is to credit Military Intelligence with greater stupidity than even they deserve. With all the resources available to them -- aerial photography, spies, the French Underground, etc. -- they had to know. Which leaves only one conclusion: through the process of some convoluted thinking, they feared that devising equipment and training men for fighting in hedgerow country would risk revealing the location of the invasion site to the enemy.
This from the same group of men who successfully fooled the Germans into believing the then- nonexistent US 3rd Army was assembling on the English coast for an invasion of the French Pas de Calais area! The combat units lack of knowledge, training and equipment to fight on this battlefield cost thousands of unnecessary American casualties. The tank˜mounted hedgerow cutter, invented in the field out of desperation by combat GIs, the device which finally got us out of the beachhead, was so innocuous in appearance that the German High Command wouldn‚t have figured out what it was intended for if Eisenhower had sent one to Hitler. When we reached our assigned area, we initiated a procedure for getting our unit off of the road. We would utilize this procedure countless times in the long, hard campaigning which lay ahead. It was referred to as „coiling."
The Battery Commander‚s vehicle, peep or halftrack, depending upon which one he happened to be riding in, left the road, proceeded through the opening in the field, circled the entire perimeter of the field and parked just inside the opening. All vehicles followed in precisely the same manner. If the field was sizable, all vehicles could park, properly spaced, closely parallel to the hedgerow, secure, on one side, from artillery shells or bombs. Smaller fields necessitated that some vehicles park in the more exposed center of the area. In this manner, all vehicles were in position to move out quickly, without confusion, still in their proper place in the column. When all of the vehicles had been parked in this first area, without an order being given, every man began, with great energy and enthusiasm, to perform a chore which, until now, had been heartily disliked and often slighted: digging a foxhole. A deep, deep foxhole. The mounds of excavated dirt grew with great rapidity, some to monstrous proportions.
The ceaseless crashing of those cannon ahead of us lent emphasis to the realization that we were in the killing zone. With the security of a hole close at hand, we applied ourselves to the job of removing the water-proofing material and equipment from our vehicles, flinching at every unfamiliar sound. Removing it required much less time than applying it had. The entire water- proofing exercise had been an expensive and unnecessary program for troops coming over the beaches as late as the 3rd Armored did. All vehicles had to be camouflaged, meaning each vehicle had to wrestle with the large, unwieldy camouflage nets. When these housekeeping chores had been completed, Springfield‚s crew had nothing to do. The radio networks were not open. We had food (field rations), water, gasoline and ammunition of all kinds to last for several days so the Sections responsible for procuring those items were also idle.
Gathering in large groups was, wisely, prohibited, but small groups of men gathered and lively discussions of our situation and what we had observed en route inland from the beach followed. It was a time, for most of us, of nervous tension, when we would have welcomed doing some of our familiar tasks to relieve the tension. It was a time to start getting used to the sounds of war..
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