History Lesson / December

HISTORY LESSON

The cross-channel invasion of France finally came on 6 June 1944, Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. The 29th Infantry Division sent the 116th Infantry Regiment to support the western flank of the 1st Infantry Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment at Omaha Beach. Omaha was known to be the most difficult of the five landing beaches, due to its rough terrain and bluffs overlooking the beach, which had been well fortified by its German defenders of the 352nd Infantry Division. The 116th Infantry Regiment was assigned four sectors of the beach; Easy Green, Dog Red, Dog White, and Dog Green. Soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division boarded a large number of attack transports for the D-Day invasion, among them Landing craft, Landing Ship, Tank and Landing Ship, Infantry ships and other vessels such as the SS Empire Javelin, USS Charles Carroll, and USS Buncombe County.

As the ships were traveling to the beach, the heavy seas, combined with the chaos of the fighting caused most of the landing force to be thrown off-course and most of the 116th Infantry missed its landing spots. Most of the regiment’s tank support, launched from too far offshore, floundered and sank in the channel. The soldiers of the 116th Infantry began to hit the beach at 0630, coming under heavy fire from German fortifications. A Company, 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry, from the Virginia National Guard in Bedford, Virginia was annihilated by overwhelming fire as it landed on the 116th’s westernmost section of the beach, along with half of C Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion which was landing to the west of the 116th. The catastrophic losses suffered by this small Virginia community led to it being selected for the site of the National D-Day Memorial. The 1st Infantry Division’s forces ran into similar fortifications on the eastern half of the beach, suffering massive casualties coming ashore. By 0830, the landings were called off for lack of space on the beach, as the Americans on Omaha Beach were unable to overcome German fortifications guarding the beach exits. General Omar Bradley, commander of the First Army, considered evacuating survivors and landing the rest of the divisions elsewhere. However, by noon, elements of the American forces had been able to organize and advance off the beach, and the landings resumed. By nightfall, the division headquarters landed on the beach with about 60 percent of the division’s total strength, and began organizing the push inland. On 7 June, a second wave of 20,000 reinforcements from the 1st and 29th divisions was sent ashore. By the end of D-Day, 2,400 men from the two divisions had become casualties on Omaha Beach. Added to casualties at other beaches and airdrops made the total casualties for Operation Overlord 6,500 Americans and 3,000 British and Canadians, lighter numbers than expected.

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