Seventy years after British, American, Canadian and French troops invaded Normandy, the battle is remembered as a great Allied victory and the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. But from the perspective of soldiers, sailors and flyers in combat that day, there were moments of all-consuming terror when it seemed anything that could go wrong did go wrong. And much of what went wrong with the Normandy landings started with the weather.
In fact,the Normandy landings almost didn’t happen because of the weather. Original plans called for invading on June 5, but high winds, rough surf, clouds and rain forced the invasion’s supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, to postpone it to June 6. Eisenhower was close to postponing it again—a decision that would have delayed the operation four weeks because of tides—but gave the go-ahead when a meteorologist predicted the weather would clear.
It did, but just enough and just in time.
At Omaha Beach, bombs dropped by B-17 Flying Fortresses and a massive bombardment of 14- and 12-inch diameter shells from the battleships Texas and Arkansas were supposed to obliterate landing obstacles and clear minefields. Because of the cloud cover, the B-17s dropped their bombs inland behind the beach defenses. From their stations six miles off the coast, the overcast made it difficult for the Texas and Arkansas to find their targets. Even with added gunfire from cruisers and destroyers closer to shore, the beach was still blocked by obstacles, barbed wire and enemy gun emplacements when soldiers landed
Up and down the beachhead, infantry had counted on support from amphibious dual drive tanks, also known as DD tanks or “Donald Ducks.” Along with a waterproof “skirt” that could be erected to make it buoyant, each tank had a propeller that would allow it to swim to shore from two miles out.
The DDs were capable of operating in waves no higher than one foot from trough to crest. In the storm-whipped sea off of Normandy that day, waves ran six feet high and water flooded over the tops of the buoyancy skirts. Few DDs reached the shore anywhere along the Normandy coast. At Omaha, 27 of the 29 DD tanks that set out for the beach sank before they got there.
The weather could not be blamed for everything. Some of what went wrong on with the Normandy landings was the fault of poor intelligence.
At Pointe du Hoc, a 300-foot cliff overlooking Omaha and Utah beaches, commanders sent a regiment of U.S. Army Rangers to capture and destroy cannons that could wreak havoc on both landing sites. The cannons were installed in massive concrete bunkers that could not be knocked out by bombing or naval bombardment.
To reach the guns, Rangers had to land on the narrow beach at the foot of Pointe du Hoc and then fight their way up the cliff. Some were able to scramble up ropes attached to rocket-propelled grappling hooks. Others climbed part of the way on 100-foot-long ladders, then the rest of the way by hand. All the way up, defenders dropped grenades or shot at them with rifles and machine guns.
By the time the Rangers reached the top, they found there were no cannons in the bunkers. The Germans had moved the cannon weeks before to the nearby village of Maisy; 157 Rangers had died on a fool’s errand.
The beach bombardment, swimming tanks and Pointe du Hoc are only a few examples of what went wrong for the Allies during the Normandy landings. Much more went right than wrong, but the mistakes, miscalculations and unfortunate circumstances are worth recounting 70 years later because they show the determination and courage it took to turn the longest day into a day the world still remembers.
By J.W. Huttig