Sunday, July 6, 2014

Omaha Beach, 70 Years Later

Rex and Deborah Henderson at the Omaha Beach Cemetery
 in Normandy, where 9,000 American soldiers are buried.
This and other photos in this post by JT Marlin.
Alice and I visited Omaha Beach last month. I am still sorting through all my notes and photos. Every American should visit Omaha Beach, where so many young American soldiers are buried. More lie there than still survive World War II.

I have posted about our visit to the grave of my uncle Dr. Willem van Stockum, a mathematician who piloted a Halifax bomber with the serial number MZ 684 and is buried with the other six members of the crew near Laval, Department of Mayenne,  France.
The story of van Stockum is told in a largely biographical novel (with a memorable and pertinent sci-fi add-on), Time Bomber, by Dr. Robert Wack, a pediatrician in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. He discovered van Stockum through his twin interests in D-Day and time travel.
This year for the first time (I have visited my uncle's grave site twice before, in 1954 and 2011), I met Dr. Thomas Rex Henderson, son of the pilot of the other Halifax, serial number MZ 532, that was shot down in the early morning of June 10, 1944.

During the two days prior to the reunion of the families of the two crews in Laval, we had the great privilege of traveling with Rex, an Australia pediatrician, and his wife Deborah, a cancer researcher, on a visit to Normandy. We went up via Bayeux and Caen to Honfleur, then returned to Omaha Beach the next day, June 7, when the traffic had eased up slightly around the site of D-Day, the day after its 70th Anniversary.

Operation Overlord. This is the view, portrayed on the wall of
 the memorial at the American Cemetery, of Normandy looking
 south, from the vantage point of the Allies. Omaha Beach
 is in the middle. 
Rex, by the way, was included in the 2012 Queen's Honours list. (He didn't mention it, but I found it from Garrulous Grandma Google.) He was added to membership in the Order of Australia for his pediatric and neonatal care in rural Western Australian. Rex's father's pilot gene continued into the next generation, as Rex has visited his patients mostly via private plane.

The D-Day story has been told often in books and on film. Rick Atkinson's book, The Guns at Last Light has been made into a grade-school reader, D-Day, which I have recommended as a quick source of data on the Normandy landing.

In the diagram posted at the memorial by the American Cemetery showing the deployment of the 1st U.S. Army, the arrows with stars on them represent three U.S. army divisions, two of them (1st and 29th Infantry) targeting Omaha Beach and one (4th Infantry) targeting Utah Beach to the right (west) of it.

The United States was given two western beaches to attack because supplies were coming directly from the United States and it was important to capture Cherbourg and ports in Brittany quickly to deliver supplies for the large numbers of troops who were landing. The 101st and 82nd Airborne landed paratroopers on both sides of Sainte-Mère-Église, and this was the first target that the Allies  captured in Normandy.

The huge force of Americans attacking Omaha Beach sustained the most casualties because, among other problems including terrible weather,  (1) after landing, U.S. soldiers had to climb a steep hill from the beach and (2) the gun emplacements at the top were not disabled by bombers as planned.
This view of Omaha Beach is from the vantage point of Nazi
 gun emplacements. The guns were supposed to have been
disabled by U.S. bombers, but were not.

We were told by someone at the American Cemetery that the bombardiers assigned to take out the Nazi gun bunkers delayed too long in unloading their bombs for fear of killing G.I.s that were landing. As a result, the gunners atop the hill were able to mow down the American soldiers as they traversed the beach and tried to come up the hill.

The three beaches to the left of Omaha Beach had easier terrain and less resistance and were captured with fewer casualties by the 2nd British Army, made up of two British infantry divisions attacking Gold and Sword beaches and a Canadian infantry division in the middle attacking Juno beach.

The German armies were commanded by Dollman and Rommel.

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