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D-Day: Tide turned by heroism

IN JANUARY 1944, frogmen reconnoitred Omaha beach. One of them, Major Logan Scott-Bowden of the Royal Engineers, realised that four narrow valleys leading to high ground 'contributed to one of the strongest imaginable defensive layouts'.

On his return to Britain, he was surprised to be called to a meeting at which he said to Lt-Gen Omar Bradley, commander of First US Army: 'Sir, I hope you don't mind my saying it but this beach is a very formidable proposition indeed.' Bradley replied: 'I know, my boy, I know.'

If the Germans were going to stop the invasion anywhere, it would be on Omaha. It was enclosed by high ground and it was a disaster waiting to happen. For the German defenders it was a perfect killing-zone, a 200 to 300-metre-wide stretch of firm sand, then shingle, several feet high, and then a sea wall. But without securing Omaha there would be too big a gap between the three contiguous British beaches and the favourable American landing ground at Utah.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, in charge of the defence of the Atlantic Wall, saw the importance of Omaha as clearly as the Allies. It was an obvious place to attack and the Germans placed the best division they had there, the 352nd Infantry. The Allies thought there was only a regiment on this sector. Omaha Beach was the only area where Field Marshal Rommel possibly had enough troops to repel the invasion.

The American attack began at 6.30am but, with a 10-knot north-westerly, many landing craft and amphibious tanks were swamped - by mistake 32 of the latter were dropped 6,000 yards from the beach. The Americans transferred their infantry to landing craft 12 miles out, rather than the seven-mile limit the British adopted. Carrying 68lbs of equipment, American infantrymen stumbled ashore ahead of the surviving amphibious tanks - rather than, as planned, behind them - and into heavy, accurate German fire.

By 7.30am, those who had made it ashore and up the beach were pinned down behind the sea wall, while others sheltered beneath the steel anti-tank obstacles on the shoreline. Smashed landing craft, tanks and trucks littered the shoreline which meant that there was no room for anything else to land. At 8.30am, the beachmaster suspended further landings.

A German officer reported that the invasion had been stopped and he expected the Americans to withdraw. That would not have been possible, but Bradley did consider sending the follow-on waves to other beaches.

At this stage, Navy destroyers supporting the attack came close in, risking running aground, to deliver devastating point-blank fire, and some of the troops, especially the 5th Rangers on the right flank, started working their way inland. By the afternoon, they had cleared German resistance. At most, they were only a mile inland instead of the six set out in the plan, but they had won. The first waves suffered 50 per cent casualties.

The US 1st Infantry Division suffered 1,744 casualties (more than 10 per cent) and the 29th Division, 2,440. It was a heroic feat of American arms. Had it not succeeded there would have been a huge hole between the British beaches and Utah, and the Germans might have used this to defeat the invasion piecemeal.