The 23,250 US Army troops aiming for Utah beach met with early misfortune, as the boat responsible for guiding them to shore, patrol craft PC-1176, hit a mine. They made their way to land, nonetheless, just over a mile south of their intended landing place. The mistake served them well, as the beach turned out to be largely unguarded. Quickly the men fought their way inland, with just 589 losses according to the D-Day Museum website.
The stereotypical blood-stained picture of D-Day most strongly reflects what happened on Omaha beach – that is, mass slaughter. Not only were the defences very strong, and largely untouched by the bombing, but the defenders were of the 352nd Infantry Division, tough veterans from the Eastern Front; Allied Command had not known that this unit was present. The bullets were flying before the landing craft even made it to the beaches. Unfortunately, a huge proportion of the available DD tanks – 21 out of 29 – were swamped getting to shore, and more were knocked out immediately on landing. Many troops found themselves trapped on the beaches by the anti-tank walls, with nothing but their personal weapons to help them break through. They were also left at the mercy of the mines which either the DD or AVRE tanks might have been used to clear.
Ironically they met with far less resistance beyond the beachhead, so had they broken through faster they would have suffered relatively few casualties in the landing. As it was over 10% of the 34,250 US troops who landed on Omaha beach lost their lives on the first day of fighting, and the assault was almost called off before the navy ships (at great risk) moved in closer to help bombard the beach.
Similar heavy resistance greeted the UK troops on Gold beach – 1,023 men died - but with two key differences. First, according to ‘The World at Arms’, the naval bombardment began 20 minutes earlier than on the US beaches, and lasted nearly an hour longer, plus frogmen were sent in to help clear obstacles. One landing craft exploded nonetheless.
Apart from having less defences left to negotiate, the men on Gold had more tanks than the US troops (Eisenhower had been offered the use of all ‘Funnies’, but chose only to select the DDs). In ‘WWII Written Accounts by Troop Sgt, Bernard Kaye No. 2073747 Royal Engineers 16th Assault Sqd’ in our Historic Documents Archive, Bernard remembers: “I myself landed on Gold Beach at a town called Aromanches. The worst of the assault was over and I was lucky to have missed it… On D Day (the Petard Bomb) was used to lead the assault to put the concrete emplacements out of action. It had marked success although a great many men were lost. Any soldier who was in a pill box when the Petard Bomb struck was either killed or too shocked to take any further part in the war.”
On Juno beach there were initially heavy casualties, as landing craft and vehicles were hit, but again the ‘Funnies’ did their bit and cleared mines and blasted holes in the sea wall. Add to that the fact that the terrain was much less favourable to the defenders that on Omaha beach, with no cliffs and lots of routes inland, and again, far less men were killed, though 1,242 Canadian soldiers still died. The best progress was made from this beach, and by nightfall the troops were nearing the town of Caen.
Sword beach was initially quite lightly defended, thanks to the British paras’ success in knocking out Merville battery, which overlooked it. By 1.30 the commandoes under Lord Lovat had met up with the para troops, and things were looking good. A late attack by the 21st Panzer Division slowed their advance considerably, but after two assaults the tanks withdrew to Caen. The men were just lucky that confusion over orders had delayed the tanks’ approach until the afternoon; nonetheless, 1,304 troops died.