Gear Up: Omaha Beach, Normandy, France

fl0909_gear_001_500.jpg
** Glider Transport: One of the huge Airspeed
Horsa gliders used by the Royal Air Force.**

A cold, raw rain falls, disturbed by winds that occasionally must push 20 knots. It is 58° and the visibility appears to be less than a mile. The American Cemetery here would be impressive in any weather and I am somehow glad to visit this place in poor conditions, not unlike those confronted by brave Allied forces 65 years and four days ago.

I've come to Normandy to learn more about the invasion of France and to understand some, just some, of the forces at work in this critical moment in world history. The American Cemetery is a somber breath stealer. The northern edge slopes down to a parapet overlooking Omaha Beach. As I stand looking northward the chilly damp weather beats down steadily; the view out to sea is curtained by low clouds. Behind me lie 9,387 graves beneath white Lasa marble headstones; the orderly array is staggering in size and scope. Our guide makes it clear: This is a cemetery, not a memorial.

It is hard to imagine the death and carnage that began with the assault on the fortifications of the Third Reich, given the quiet mood of visitors and respectful silence of the sea gulls. But here, especially on this beach before me, so many were slaughtered, so many were injured and so many did what they were trained to do, that I find myself just walking numbly; soaking, cold and eager for warmth and wondering what it must have been like to have landed here amid heavy fire, in similar conditions, with no hope of any warmth, dry clothes or a meal. Hoping only, really, to survive and to prevail.

With a mental image of the beach landings as my only preconception, I was surprised at the critical role that aircraft, many unpowered, played in the success of Operation Overlord. In my mind, I remember only pictures of soldiers wading chest deep in cold water from landing craft towards the open shooting gallery called Omaha Beach. Saving Private Ryan, the Steven Spielberg film, portrayed part of this battle and I remember only the beach landing and nothing about airplanes.

There were lots of them, though; thousands. Fighters, bombers, Dakotas and gliders were all employed. Some of the most riveting parts had to do with the role of aircraft just before D-Day's H-hour. They were used to bomb, strafe, drop men and machines, and to confuse the enemy by deceit.

One-hundred-sixty-three airbases dotted England in preparation for this day. Members of the British Air Force crews joked that you could taxi the length and breadth of England and not scratch a wing tip. The U.S. Air Forces were represented by the experienced 82nd Airborne division (they had participated at Sicily and Salerno) and the inexperienced 101st Airborne. The British objectives were the province of the 6th and the 1st. Like the troops arriving by sea, General Eisenhower had assigned the western part of the invasion to the American forces, as the capture of Cherbourg, a deep water port, was critical for resupply by American ships. The British forces were to take the eastern half. Airborne troops were to land prior to the assault, secure the east and west flanks from German attack, destroy bridges that the enemy might use to counterattack and to secure bridges necessary for Allied troop advancements. There are several good books about D-Day, especially Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day and Stephen Ambrose's D-Day: June 6, 1944. I'll leave the facts to the experts; this piece is about what it feels like to be there this many years later.

Our guide is from Bayeux, the closest town of any size to the beach. She is remarkably well versed and nuanced in her presentation. We go first to the German Cemetery. She knows she is shepherding a gaggle of Americans and she wants to catch our attention before rampant jingoism develops. She makes the point that while 100,000 allied soldiers died in the recapture of Europe, there were 200,000 German dead. Most of the Germans killed were very young, very old, or captured Russians, Cossacks, Tartars, etc; the experienced fighters had been redeployed to the eastern front. I maneuver through a group of German high school students who are huddled out of the rain to visit grave markers that are almost flush with the ground. Each bears a name, dates of birth and death, and the inscription: "Ein Deutsche Soldat."

It was to surprise and confuse these German soldiers and their generals that air bombardments had taken place over much of the French coastline for months. Hitler was convinced that the invasion would be near Calais, where the English Channel is most narrow. Bombardment there was to reinforce his erroneous conclusion, but the eventual landing zones were bombed as well.

The invasion was planned for June 5, 6 or 7 for special and predictable astronomical reasons. Eisenhower wanted a late rising moon to protect the pre-assault bombardment, pathfinder drops and paratrooper deployments, and his troops would need low tide at dawn to facilitate landings from the sea. The beach was 800 yards wider at low tide that day, just as it is now. As history well records, bad weather ruled out the 5th. Though the 6th proved better, it was still not a sunny day in France.

Early the night before the invasion, pathfinders were dropped to prepare glider landing sites and paratrooper drop zones. Some vaulted out of airplanes as low as 300 feet above the ground. Flak and low clouds made precision difficult and many pathfinders ended up far from their intended targets, confused and disoriented; few landmarks were visible. The Dakotas then filled the sky with noise and paratroopers; nearly 18,000 of them. Each airplane held 18 jumpers, called a "stick." These airplanes also had a hard time hitting their marks due to clouds and flak. Many paratroopers fell into German fire or drowned in shallow water. In a welcoming gesture, the Germans had flooded the plains of the Douve and Merderet rivers by opening dikes, and this cost many their lives.

And yet, and yet. By 03:40 on D-Day, 69 English gliders had landed. They held jeeps and artillery, men and supplies. By 4:00 a hundred American gliders were due. Gliders? Yes, gliders. British Horsas and American WACOs (CG-4As to be exact).

The airplanes that carried the pathfinders and paratroopers were Dakotas (C-47s to our forces, DC-3s to the airlines). The gliders were towed by Dakotas. Having twice attempted to launch a DC-3 with no glider attached and almost bringing myself and others to grief had it not been for the expert airmanship of one Scott Edwards, I can't imagine how a DC-3 behaves when operating as tow plane.

On one wall of the entrance to the American Cemetery a map depicts the route of the gliders. Though the famous hedgerows of Normandy were not adequately expected by the Allies, first crews cleared the many landing areas by flattening the hedges and dismantling the obstructing poles planted by the Germans, called "Rommel's asparagus." Though most were wrecked upon landing, the men and their equipment, including heavy mortars and anti-tank guns, survived the controlled crashes in the dark in unfamiliar terrain without power. Think of that next time you are wondering if you've judged your approach on final correctly.

I saw evidence of heavy bombing by both battleships and bombers at Pointe du Hoc, where many U.S. Rangers died trying to secure German guns that were not there. (They had been withdrawn about a mile back from the site, which has a commanding view of what became both Omaha and Utah beaches.) In the cold rain I walked over bombed out German fortifications and peered down the steep 90-foot cliffs to the sea. What must a young man have thought when ordered to grapple up those cliffs to take, by hand almost, the heavy cannons of the Third Reich?

As almost 5,000 ships approached the beaches, 9,000 airplanes filled the sky, "almost wing tip to wing tip." The aerial bombing was done by Lancasters, Fortresses and Liberators up high, B-26s just lower, and on the deck, cover was provided by Spitfires, Mustangs and Thunderbolts, which whistled over the head of the seasick troops praying below. Just minutes prior to the landing of amphibious forces one of the sad consequences of the cloud layer played an important role in the invasion. Maneuvering mostly by dead reckoning, bomber pilots were loathe to unleash their bombs too soon, for fear of killing their own men at sea lying off the coastline or the paratroopers just inland. As a result most bombs fell harmlessly behind the German fortifications. In fact, at the beginning of the assault, most major German installations were still untouched. This accounted for much of the bloodshed on the beaches, especially Omaha.

So where were the Germans? In a sense they were well prepared, in another, not so. Since the major gun installations had survived the pre-invasion bombing, terrible casualties were suffered by the assault troops. Waves of troops passed by the already dead. Ryan put it this way: "The dead floated gently, moving with the tide toward the beach, as though determined to join their fellow Americans."

On the other hand, the timing and the location of the invasion was a major surprise. General Erwin Rommel was back home in Germany with his wife, certain that the weather would preclude an invasion. "The Allies only attack in good weather," was the German thinking. Despite Rommel's insistence, only 160 serviceable fighters were available to combat the invasion. Major panzer divisions were not allowed to engage the Allies early, especially around the city of Caen. And there was general surprise at the size of the invasion and the number of ships and airplanes that filled the German binoculars.

Back in Paris at a café dinner, my wife and I are subjected to three young American women sitting close, too close, to us. Their speech is a mixture of Valley girl and Sex in the City, consisting almost exclusively of the words "awesome," "for sure," " totally" and like, well, "like." Though I am sure I am guilty of many vacuous conversations of my own, this night their talk sounds loud and discordant to me. As they prattle on, I cannot help but think if it weren't for those men and those tanks and those guns and those airplanes and those crosses, they might be holding their inane conversation in German.

Is that too over the top? I don't think so. As our guide told us in French-accented English about the tide that gradually came in during the first six hours of the invasion, "It was a red tide, you know?"