Operation Utah

This was the US assault beach for Major General Raymond O. Barton’s 4th Division in ‘Overlord’ (6 June 1944).

The leading formation of Major General Joseph L. Collins’s US VII Corps within Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group, the 4th Division was tasked with landing Colonel James A. Van Fleet’s 8th Infantry, Colonel Hervey A. Tribolet’s 22nd Infantry and Colonel Russell P. Reeder’s 12th Infantry between Les Dunes de Varreville and Pouppeville, and then of advancing inland through the defences of two forward units (the 919th Grenadierregiment and 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment) of Generalmajor Wilhelm Falley’s 91st Luftlande-Division to relieve Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne Division and Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s 101st Airborne Division dropped farther inland during the previous night.

The 91st Luftlande-Division was an element of General Erich Marcks’s LXXXIV Corps in Generaloberst Friedrich Dollman’s 7th Army, which was one of the two armies of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Heeresgruppe 'B' charged with the defence of northern France. The 7th Army held north-western France, and Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s 15th Army was responsible for north-eastern France. To the north of the 91st Luftlande-Division was Generalleutnant Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben’s 709th Division, and to its south-east Generalleutnant Dietrich Kraiss’s 352nd Division.

The object of the 'Utah' Beach landing was to extend the Allied beach-head to the west of the natural barrier formed by the Vire river and so facilitate the planned US advance to Cherbourg and its vital port facilities on the north coast of the Cotentin peninsula. The 4th Division’s losses on 'Utah' Beach were just 197 out of around 23,000 landed, the lightest of any beach in ‘Overlord’, and the division was able to press inland relatively easily and link with elements of the widely scattered airborne divisions, which had helped secure the hinterland of the beach-head and confuse the Germans before the landings, albeit with heavy casualties. The US troops were able to press inland much more rapidly than had been expected, making this part of the assault an almost complete success.

The 20 landing craft, each holding a 30-man assault team of the 1 and 2/8th Infantry, were launched in sheltered waters and did not experience much difficulty with wind and surf. Even so, the troops landed almost 2,000 yards (1830 m) to the south of their intended landing sector. This was a fortuitous error, for it brought them to a weakly defended beach. The 32 amphibious tanks intended to support the first infantry wave landed 15 minutes late because of the sinking of their control vessel, and with the loss of four tanks. However, the lack of German opposition meant that the tanks were not immediately needed.

The first landing wave, under the leadership of Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr, the assistant divisional commander, quickly reconnoitred and reorganised. There was some discussion whether to land the follow-up waves on the correct beach, or to have them land on the existing beach-head, and Roosevelt told the commander of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade to deliver them onto the current beach-head. After company-size task forces had eliminated the lightly defended fortifications guarding two central beach exits, the 1/8th Infantry moved off the beach in the direction of Audouville la Hubert, while the 2/18th Infantry turned south to move along the Pouppeville road.

Five to 15 minutes after the first assault wave had landed, elements of an extemporised Beach Obstacle Demolition Party reached the beach. So light was German opposition that, except for a shell that hit a landing craft just as it dropped its ramp and killed six engineers, all of the men assigned to demolition work came ashore safely. They abandoned the plan to clear lanes through the obstacles and instead began to clear the entire beach, a task which they accomplished within an hour. Companies A and C of the 237th Engineer Combat Battalion proceeded to blow gaps in the sea wall behind the beach and to remove mines. Of the 400 men assigned to the Beach Obstacle Task Force, six were killed and 39 wounded.

Some 20 minutes after the landing of the first wave, British Royal Marines of No. 30 Commando Assault Unit, under the command of Captain G. Pike, landed on the beach with the task of capturing the German radar station at Douvres la Delivrande.

The second assault wave, comprising the 3/8th Infantry and the 70th Tank Battalion, landed in good order. Well ahead of schedule, the beach area had been cleared and troops were moving toward their inland objectives. While moving along the causeway to Exit 2, the lead tank struck a mine, and an anti-tank gun claimed a second tank. A third tank advanced to knock out the anti-tank gun and the column pushed until it reached a point just to the north of Ste Marie du Mont, where it encountered a dug-in German force backed by 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-purpose guns. There followed a short firefight and the 3/8th Infantry closed in, cutting down some 50 Germans who broke and ran. By the fall of night the battalion was located to the north of Les Forges facing the high ground to the south of Ste Mere Eglise.

The 1/8th Infantry had meanwhile moved to the west on the causeway behind Exit 3, crossed the flooded ground, and approached Turqueville by the evening. Company F of the 2/8th Infantry dealt with the beach defences. Company E found a path through the minefield behind the dunes and followed it inland. Lieutenant Colonel Carlton O. MacNeely, the battalion commander, then manoeuvred Company E behind Company F and led it along the road on the eastern edge of the flooded area. Company G moved to the south behind the shelter of the sea wall. This southward edging movement toward the battalion’s D-Day objectives took place under continuous small arms fire. German artillery fire brought Company G to a brief halt as it neared a strongpoint at Beau Guillot, but the company then pressed forward and joined the balance of the battalion at Pouppeville. Here, shortly before 12.00, the 2/8th Infantry met elements of the 501st Parachute Infantry in the first link between the seaborne and airborne troops.

The battalion then continued to the west and bivouacked for the night near the road junction at Les Forges.

The 8th Infantry’s inland advance had bypassed German positions round the lock to the north of Le Grand Vey. This was an important position because it controlled the inundations. Company A of the 49th Engineer Combat Battalion undertook the mission of securing this lock and reducing the adjacent defences, captured the position and took 28 prisoners. With the help of the engineers, the 8th Infantry had reached all of its D-Day objectives.

The 2 and 3/8th Infantry, supported by elements of the 70th Tank Battalion, had a solid defensive position at Les Forges, and had pushed out patrols toward Chef du Pont.

The 1/8th Infantry, along with the 70th Tank Battalion’s Company A, was facing the German strongpoint at Turqueville. The relative ease of the landing surprised the regiment. Along with the 22nd Infantry, the 8th Infantry suffered only 197 casualties including 12 men killed.

About 1 mile (1.6 km) behind the dunes backing 'Utah' Beach was a water barrier extending from Quinéville in the north to Pouppeville in the south. The Germans had created this by reversing the action of a system of locks that the French had built to drain the land. Seven causeways crossed the flooded ground, connecting the beach with a north/south inland road.

It was planned that the 12th Infantry would land after H+4 and advance inland to capture the high ground between Emondeville and the Merderet river, and also to take a crossing over the Merderet river at Le Port Brehay. When the men of the regiment started to land, shortly after 12.00, they encountered a situation for which their training had not prepared then, namely the absence of beach obstacles, which had all been cleared. There was also little in the way of German resistance beyond an occasional random shell burst. The regiment therefore rallied on the beach and set off across the inundated ground toward its objective. The major obstacle proved to be the waist-deep water and the numerous ditches and holes that swallowed the heavily burdened soldiers. After crossing the flooded region, the 12th Infantry joined the 502nd Parachute Infantry to the south of Beuzeville au Plain. Here it took up overnight positions confronting the German strongpoint in the village.

While the paratroopers secured the regiment’s left flank, its left rear remained a trouble spot since Germans continued to defend a strongpoint around Turqueville. The right flank was little troubled with the 1 and 2/22nd Infantry in good defensive positions facing Foucarville. The 12th Infantry as a whole suffered fewer than 80 casualties on D-Day.

The Germans had prepared for more than two years to repel an Allied landing in France. Yet on 6 June 1944, the 4th Division managed to secure an extensive beach-head with relative ease. Not only had the 4th Division landed with small loss, but the VII Corps as a whole had managed to build a considerable beach-head in short order. Excepting the 20th Field Artillery Battalion, the entire division had landed in the first 15 hours. In addition, safely ashore were one battalion of the 359th Infantry, the 65th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion, 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion (less two companies), the 70th and 746th Tank Battalions, and components of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade.

Already this engineer force had begun organising the beach to support the build-up. More than 20,000 men and 1,700 vehicles of the VII Corps had landed on 'Utah' Beach by the end of D-Day. There were several reasons for this success.

Firstly, from the systematic British and US elimination of the German weather forecasting stations, which meant that the Germans did not possess the Allies’ capability for the prediction of weather conditions on the Normandy coast, and until the start of the landing had believed 6 June unsuited to an invasion. Thus the 4th Division achieved total tactical surprise.

Secondly, the German defensive preparations were far from complete when the 4th Division came ashore. Total Allied air superiority also prevented the Germans from using northern France’s railway network to carry adequate matériel to the Normandy coast for the construction of the fortifications which had been planned.

Thirdly, the brilliant Allied 'Fortitude' deception plan left German strategists believing that the major cross-Channel attack would be led by Lieutenant General George S. Patton to land the non-existent US 1st Army Group in the Pas de Calais, and for several weeks after the start of ‘Overlord’, Adolf Hitler and many of his senior generals continued to believe that the Normandy landing was intended only as a diversion to lure German attention away from the area in which the major assault would be delivered.

Fourthly, there was argument among German strategists regarding the optimum way to defeat the invasion. One faction believed that the best solution was to concentrate armoured forces well inland for release only after the axis of the Allied attack had become completely clear: this Panzer force would move to the coast and deliver a crushing counterattack. The other faction, led by Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, with his experience in the North African desert, understood that total Allied air superiority demanded unorthodox German methods.

Thus Rommel believed that the best way to use the Panzer formations was to place them just behind the beaches from where they could deliver an early counterattack. Rommel put his faith in a system of fixed fortifications designed to stop the invasion in its tracks at the water’s edge. Rommel’s vision may have been right at the purely militarily level, but ignored reality. With the Germans compelled to fight the Soviet forces along a vast Eastern Front, and unable to sustain the logistical effort required to build an ‘Atlantic Wall’ according to specifications, Rommel’s solution failed in the face of the 4th Division’s assault.

The men of the 22nd Infantry began to land on 'Utah' Beach at H+85. Its plan called for the regiment to wheel to the north from the beach and seize the causeway across the flooded fields at Les Dunes de Varreville, and then to drive to the north-west and take the high ground around Quinéville and Fontenay sur Mer. The regiment landed on 'Utah' Beach without problem as excellent engineer work had paved their way. The combat engineers of the Beach Obstacle Task Force along with the Naval Demolition Teams had accomplished more than anticipated. The naval troops were responsible for destroying all underwater obstacles, while the army troops took care of those above the water. Their initial responsibility was to blow four gaps, each 50 yards (46 m) wide, in the German obstacle belt.

Aerial reconnaissance had indicated that there was a triple band of obstacles at the water’s edge. Wading ashore with some 60 lb (27 kg) of explosives each, the engineers found that the number of obstacles was fewer than expected so, instead of limiting themselves to the designated task, they opted to widen the lanes through the obstacles to accommodate the press of landing craft that was gathering offshore. Relying primarily on hand-placed demolition charges, they had blown huge lanes in the obstacle belt in spite of moderate German artillery fire. By 09.30 'Utah' Beach was free of all obstacles. Thereafter, the engineers concentrated on blowing gaps in the sea wall, creating lanes through the sand dunes, and clearing the exit roads across the flooded land just inland from 'Utah' Beach.

Consequently, when the 3/22nd Infantry landed at about 07.45 as part of the second wave, it found itself able to proceed as planned. It moved north along the beach to eliminate any strongpoints that could deliver effective fire against the beach. Around 1,000 men of the 1 and 2/22nd Infantry landed with the planned task of moving inland through Exit 4. However, this exit’s eastern end was still covered by German fire, and the exits farther to the south were full of other divisional troops. As a result, the two battalions did not use the causeways and began to wade through the flooded zone between the exits.

When the regiment had to cross the Exit 3 road in order to advance toward its objective, St Germain de Varreville, it encountered elements of the 8th Infantry also using the road, and the consequent congestion, resulting from the fact that the initial landing had taken place some 2,000 yards (1830 m) away from the planned landing beach, delayed all. The 1 and 2/22nd Infantry spent about seven hours wading through the flooded zone before reaching dry land near St Martin de Varreville, and from here the battalions moved to St Germain de Varreville, where they spent the night. In front of them was the village of Foucarville, and on their left was the 12th Infantry, which confronted a German strongpoint at Beuzeville au Plain.

The 3/22nd Infantry co-operated with 3/8th Infantry and 70th Tank Battalion to complete the reduction of the German beach defences, and then moved to the north past Les Dunes de Varreville and the Exit 4 road to reach the southern end of Hamel de Cruttes, another German strongpoint, by the fall of night. The regiment fell short of its D-Day objectives, but the rapid inland drive of the 22nd Infantry was part of a broad Allied advance on D-Day that prevented German plans to repel the invasion at the water’s edge. By D+2, The VII Corps was in position only 10 miles (16 km) from the key port of Cherbourg and ready to advance.