Saturday, June 6, 2009

When Men Made History

One of the more enjoyable experiences of my third tour in Iraq was the opportunity to fire an MG3 machinegun, a weapon notorious for its high rate of fire, deadly accuracy, and superb reliability. Of all the heavy weapons I’ve fired, the MG3 unquestionably stands as my favorite.

Today, however, I am reminded of a more tragic aspect of this weapon. Its near-identical predecessor, the MG42, was one of the primary weapons whose withering fire was used to pin down allied troops on the beaches of Normandy exactly 65 years ago. This weapon’s fire, combined with that of mortars and artillery, killed thousands of allied soldiers wading through the surf to the beachhead.

When I look at this photograph, I wonder what was running through these young men’s minds as they crouched low, waiting to hit the sand. I wonder how many were seasick, how many were praying, how many, having just heard General Eisenhower’s epic speech to the invasion force, were firmly convinced they weren’t going to live through the day. I also wonder how many of them were right.

In the culmination of months of planning and astounding military preparation, British, Canadian, and American soldiers sailed across the English Channel from England and simultaneously hit five French beaches at 0630 on Tuesday, June 6th, 1944. Naval guns and allied planes were still bombing Nazi fortifications as they approached. The troops’ landing was preceded the night before by thousands of allied paratroopers in a poorly-executed mission that left their ranks scattered and disorganized. Perhaps 40% of these men survived the week behind enemy lines.

Waves of British infantry hit Sword beach with relatively light casualties and while falling short of their desired objective for the day, were firmly entrenched by the time the second and third waves of soldiers hit the sand. To their west, the Canadians landed on Juno beach under heavy fire. The morning’s bombardment had been ineffective in destroying Nazi positions. Unscathed, the Germans unleashed hell on the Canadians. More than half of the first wave died, but by the end of the day they had advanced nearly 15 kilometers and landed more than 15,000 Canadian troops. The Canadians fought fiercely, and were successful.

Further west, the British encountered heavy casualties at Gold beach, due mostly to a delay in their armored support. Despite their staggering losses and encountering a town heavily fortified by the Nazis, they had advanced far inland by the end of the day. Aside from the Canadians at Juno, the British at Gold were closest to achieving their D-day objectives.

To the far west, the Americans hit Utah beach with minimal resistance, yet still sustained 197 soldiers killed. By the evening, 23,000 troops had landed there, providing the foothold the allies needed in France to maintain their momentum.

The worst beach, however, was Omaha, which was assigned to the Americans. With most Nazi fortifications undamaged despite heavy bombardment, the first wave of soldiers was virtually slaughtered outright. Within ten minutes of landing, every officer and NCO was either dead or lay wounded. The official record states that “it became a struggle for survival and rescue,” not the high-paced assault that was originally intended. General Eisenhower actually considered evacuating the beach altogether, but eventually chose to persist.

Chaplain Burkhalter, an Army lieutenant who landed among the first wave, stated it matter-of-factly:

"The enemy had a long time to fix up the beach. The beach was covered with large pebbles to prevent tank movements, and mines were everywhere. The enemy was well dug in and had set up well prepared positions for machine guns and had well chosen places for sniping. Everything was to their advantage and to our disadvantage, except one thing, the righteous cause for which we are fighting - liberation and freedom. For the moment our advantage was in the abstract and theirs was in the concrete. The beach was spotted with dead and wounded men. I passed one man whose foot had been blown completely off. Another soldier lying close by was suffering from several injuries; his foot was ripped and distorted until it didn't look much like a foot. Another I passed was lying very still, flat on his back, covered in blood. Bodies of injured men all around. Sad and horrible sights were plentiful."

Of the sixteen allied tanks landed on Omaha that day, only two survived. The remainder were destroyed by the heavy Nazi fire. At one point, the troops were so badly pinned on the beachhead by German 75mm guns that destroyers were ordered to move in as close as they could to the beach and provide direct naval gun support to the men trapped in the surf. One ship, the Frankford, made full speed for the beach itself. Many on the beach thought the captain was intending to beach her. But just before grinding to a halt into the channel sand, she cut hard west and began decimating the coastline with her main guns.

In the surf, a single disabled tank still fired at targets on the cliff face. Gunners on the Frankford, following the lead of the lone tank, began obliterating whatever fortifications the tank targeted. As she steamed past the beach, rather than heading back into the channel to come about again, the Frankford ground her screws into full reverse and continued firing along the coastline. There were men to save, and her crew would do everything in their power to help them. Many other destroyers ran aground acting similarly.

On the beaches, crouched behind bodies of fallen comrades and huddled beneath beach obstacles, the situation was dire. The ocean itself was red with the blood of the dead. Fish flopped in the surf, stunned or killed by the concussive waves of artillery from both sides. A young Army colonel strolled forlornly through the ranks and declared, “Gentlemen, we are being killed here on the beaches; let's move inland and be killed there.” And they pushed forward. Few in that first wave survived.

And I think about the MG42 machinegun again, and wonder how I would have acted when faced with a near-inevitability of death. I wonder if I would have crouched behind the men in front of me and hoped they were hit instead of me. I wonder if I would possess the fortitude to do what they did. I wonder if I would even have time to think about it.

There were bigger battles fought in that great war, by far. There were heavier casualties over smaller plots of land. There was astounding heroism in innumerable battlefields against insurmountable odds, and not just on the beaches of Normandy. And in the grand scheme of the war, this was a relatively minor event.

But its historical significance does not go unnoticed. These were waves of young men who, for a cause they barely grasped, ran into a hail of bullets for millions they would never meet. Yet it is the sacrifices and the bravery of these few that brought an entire continent out of bondage.

And now, sixty-five years later, as the veterans of this great battle fade quickly into history and legend, those who fell at Normandy and throughout Europe lay there still. There are fields of well over 100,000 small marble crosses resting on acres of lawns inside perfectly-tended hedges. They fell to purchase countries they would never inhabit, for strangers, for foreigners, for men and women who thirsted for freedom. And those they freed still remember. No single nation is indebted to them, but a continent. They were our youth, our finest and greatest generation, and they bravely dismantled evil.

Nobody can love God better than when he is looking death square in the face and talks to God and then sees God come to the rescue. As I look back through hectic days just gone by to that hellish beach I agree with Ernie Pyle, that it was a pure miracle we even took the beach at all." Yes, there were a lot of miracles on the beach that day. God was on the beach D-Day; I know He was because I was talking with Him.

-2nd Lt Burkhalter, Chaplain, US Army, 6 August, 1944

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. Heros all. We remember them, we know them and we are related to them.

  2. D-Day + 5, the first thing my dad saw was a dogfight between a German and an American plane resulting in German nose dive into parts unknown in the Normanday countryside. But the one memory that haunts my Dad are the personal effects of the fallen soldiers that remained on Omaha Beach... He can still see those photographs of loved ones.