Operations of the VII Corps, 1st US Army (1-A), Landing on Utah Beach, Normandy, France, June 6 1944 – June 7 1944, Personal Experience of a Corps Liaison Officer, Capt Charles I. Balcer
This report covers the operations of the US VII Corps, US 1st Army, in the landing on Utah Beach, Normandy, France, June 6-7 1944. For the purpose of orientation, the readers attention is directed to a few of the far reaching and decisive conferences hold by the Allied Chiefs of Staff which brought about this operation. By the month of May 1941, the top Military and Political leaders of America had decided upon a basic war plan to defeat Germany first. This was followed by a series of conferences and military decisions that gradually brought about the final directive to invade Europe. Thus at Casablanca, the Allies in January 1943, reached the decision to launch operation Overlord in May 1944. Tip to this time however, a Supreme Commander had not been appointed, but until such time presented itself, an organization known as COSSAC (Combined Chief of Staff Supreme Allied Commander) was placed in operation on the basic plan. This group was organized under the British Gen Frederick Morgan, who had been appointed Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (designate).
Lt Gen Sir Frederick Edgeworth Morgan KCB (February 5 1894 – March 29 1967) was a British Army officer who fought in the First World War and the Second World War. He is best known as the Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC), the original planner of Operation Overlord. A graduate of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, Morgan was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery in 1913. During the First World War he served on the Western Front as an artillery subaltern and staff officer. Afterwards he served two long tours with the British Army in India. In 1939, Morgan was promoted to brigadier and assumed command of the 1st Support Group of the 1st Armoured Division, which he led during the Battle of France. In May 1942 he became a lieutenant general and was given command of the I Corps. Morgan’s headquarters was designated Force 125, and given the task of dealing with a German thrust through Spain to Gibraltar that never occurred. In March 1943 he was appointed Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (Designate), or COSSAC. As COSSAC he directed the planning for Operation Overlord. When Gen Dwight Eisenhower became Supreme Allied Commander, Morgan became Deputy Chief of Staff to Maj Gen Bedell Smith at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF).
It was also realized at this time that air supremacy was necessary for the contemplated invasion. The struggle for this supremacy had been going on since the war had started. It was however, to be intensified by the issuing of a new directive entitled Point Blank. This order came out in January 1943, with the result that enemy air power was subjugated by the spring of 1944. At last in July 1943, the basic plan for Overlord was completed and ready for approval. One month later in August 1943, at the Quebec Conference, it was approved and the operational date was set for May 1 1944.
In December 1943, Gen Eisenhower had been appointed Supreme Commander and in February 1944, SHAEF came into being. Under this set up, the 21st Army Group commanded by Gen Bernard Montgomery and composed of the British Second Army and the the US 1-A, was assigned to SHAEF. In February 1944, it was decided to postpone the invasion until May 31 1944. This delay was caused by an increase in the landing forces and an enlargement of the landing areas. The weather, tidal and light conditions further deferred the landing date to the first week in Jun 1944. This set back proved to be a very favorable one. The first week of Jun 1944 saw the fall of Rome in Italy and the Crimea was cleared while the Germans were predicting a major Russian offensive.
The General Situation – Allies
The overall plan of attack involved an assault on the beaches between Caen and Varreville. The Initial objectives were : Caen, Bayeux, Isigny and Carentan, including sites for air bases. The final and most important of all was the capture of the port of Cherbourg. The assault forces for the Americans were organized under the code names U and O for Utah and Omaha. The British were assigned the letters S, J and G for Sword, Juno and Gold.
Mention is made at this time of the fact that the original plan did not include landing beaches on the east Cotentin and that security necessitated a restriction on the number of persons having knowledge of the locations of specific landing areas. Thus the enlargement of the landing beaches and other changes in the plan called for a new code word Neptune, being assigned for this operation. The main objective however of Neptune was generally the same as Overlord : to secure a bivouack area, including airfield sites and the capture of Cherbourg as a base for future operations.
The enlargement of the landing areas caused the addition of another town as one of the initial objectives, namely Ste Mère Eglise. As the plan now stood, the D-Day objectives were the towns of : Caen, Bayeux, Isigny, Carentan and Ste Mère Eglise. The Neptune plan defined the mission of the 1-A, under Gen Omar N. Bradley, to assault and secure the Omaha and the Utah beaches. The Omaha beach was to be developed southward toward St Lô along with the British on the left flank. Under Gen Leonard T. Gerow, this was the mission of V Corps. The Utah beach was to be developed to the west and north and to capture the port of Cherbourg. The VII Corps under Gen Lawton J. Collins was assigned this mission.
The overall commander in France and the Low Countries was Field Marshal Von Rundstedt. At the time of the invasion he had some 60 divisions divided into two Army Groups. Under Field Marshal Rommel, Army Group B and under Gen Blaskowitz, Army Group G. Deployed along the intended invasion coast was Army Group B, composed of the 15.Army and the 7.Army. The 15.Army was concentrated in the general area of Pas de Calais while the 7.Army was charged with the defense of the Cotentin Peninsula.
For quite some time our intelligence had known that the enemy strength on the peninsula consisted of at least two infantry divisions. These being the 709.Infantry-Division along the eastern half including the high ground about the city of Cherbourg and running south but not including Carentan. The 243.Infantry-Division was deployed to the west in rear of the 709. for the defense of the western half of the peninsula.
About 10 days before the invasion was to take place, intelligence reports indicated some changes in the enemy dispositions and the appearance of a new unit on the VII Corps front. The 91.Infantry-Division had moved in between the 709. and the 243., thus the defense from Valognes to Carentan had been increased in depth. This change was the result of a difference of opinion between Rommel and Von Rundstedt on the concept of defending the beaches. Rommel wanted to stop any invasion at the beaches, or if possible before a landing could be made. On the other hand Von Rundstedt favored a covering force on the beach, with a close in tactical reserve and a counterattacking force in the rear.
A compromise was made and the result was the movement of the 91. as mentioned above. Based upon these reports, the enemy was now estimated as being able to (1) maintain a rigid defense of the beaches with the 709.Infantry-Division, (2) reinforce the assault area with the 243.Infantry-Division at H-Hour, (3) piecemeal counterattacks with at least four battalions on D-Day and (4) a coordinated counterattack with armor after D plus 2.
The Cotentin is the seaward portion of the larger Cherbourg Peninsula. The important feature on the land mass is the Douve River, with its main tributary, the Merderet River. This body of water drains the major portion of the land and runs generally south and east to the sea. High ground is around Cherbourg in the north, the southern portion descends to a low marshy coastal plain which extends from Valognes to Carentan. A series of locks and a dam just northeast of Carentan controlled the drainage of these bottom lands. This fact plus the undrained swamp lands, restricted movement of traffic to the established routes. A study of the map discloses only two major routes open for this traffic when such a condition exists. These are the Carentan and Pont-l’Abbé on the east and St Lô d’Ourville – St Sauveur de Pierrepont on the west. Thus, the critical areas were Carentan with its locks; the dry ground at Ourville, Fierre-Pont and the inundated area to the east.
The VII Corps landing area was just east of Ste Mère Eglise. The beach was composed of compact, smooth sand and of a shallow gradient between high and low tides. Unlike Omaha, there was no dominating ground to seize and hold. Along the beach was a masonry wall for about 10,000 yards, almost vertical and from 4 to 8 feet high. In many places sand was piled against it forming a ramp on the seaward side. At the top was a wire fence and existing roads running down to the beach terminated with gaps in this wall, but blocked by the enemy. Behind the wall were sand dunes, from 10 to 20 feet in height and extending inland for about 150 to 1000 yards. Beyond these the inundated areas extended westward, the banks of which could be easily defended by the enemy.
Along the seaward side of the beach were obstacles from 50 to 150 yards out, consisting of piles, stakes, hedgehogs, etc. In most cases these were mined. Immediately behind the wall there were pill boxes, under ground shelters, tank turrets and firing trenches, the whole protected by wire, antitank ditches and mines. Strong points had interlocking fire and contained fixed and mobile artillery. The natural obstacle of the inundated area resulted in the Utah defenses not being as heavy as at Omaha. Although several miles inland there were any number of artillery emplacements to cover the sea approaches and the beach area.
As had been mentioned before, the invasion date had been put off several times and as fate would have it, the weather for June 1944 was the most unfavorable as far as sea and wind as had been experienced in the past 20 years. D-Day had been set for June 5 and part of the force was already at sea, but had to put in to port to seek shelter. As a result of these conditions the invasion was again postponed for 24 hours.
Supplies for US Forces were under the control of First Army from D-Day to D plus 14. Rations consisted of C and K from D-Day to D plus 3. POL (Petroleum, Oil, Lubricants) was based on 25 miles per day per vehicle for the first 14 days. Ammunition was based on 7 units of fire until D plus 20. It was expected to land some 20000 vehicles and better than 176000 personnel by D plus 1.
The general plan of the First Army called for a combined landing on two beaches, by two Corps within 30 minutes of each other, starting at 0630 on the right beach, VII Corps area, VII Corps was to be assisted by the 1st Engineer Special Brigade in establishing a beachhead in the vicinity of Varreville. The immediate objectives of First Army were the capture of Cherbourg and a drive toward St Lo to the south.
The VII Corps (Gen Collins) was loaded aboard ships so as to land in the order : the 4th US Infantry Division, the 90th US Infantry Division and the 9th US Infantry Division. The 4th Cavalry Group was to capture the islands of St Marcouf. In the area of the VII Corps, the terrain was rather flat and there were no dominating ground features to be seized. To the advantage of the VII Corps was the fact that, the actual landings touched down some 1500 yards south of the planned areas. This point of beach proved to be lightly defended as compared to the original beach.
VII Corps Plan
Field Order #1, May 28, read : VII Corps assaults Utah Beach on D-Day at H-Hour and captures Cherbourg with minimum delay.
Under this plan the 82-A/B was to seize and hold the area in and around Ste Mère Eglise, establish deep bridgeheads over the Merderet River and to be prepared to drive toward St Sauveur le Vicomte. This same order assigned the 101-A/B the mission of seizing the western exits of the roads across the inundated areas from the beach and taking up defensive positions on the north and south edges of the invasion area and to; establish bridgeheads across the Douve River for later drives toward Carentan and eventual link up with the V Corps. The 4-ID by this order was to assault Utah beach at H-Hour and establish a beachhead and then drive on to Cherbourg. The 90-ID, the 9-ID and the 79-ID were to land on D+1, D+4 and D+8 in that order. At H minus 2 hours the 4-CG (Cavalry) was to land on the islands of St Marcouf.
Concentrated Air and Naval bombardments were to precede the landings. At about midnight of June 5, the RAF would bomb the beaches and just before H-Hour the 9-AAF was to attack batteries in the Utah area. At H minus 40 minutes, Naval fire would undertake the enemy shore. As the assault waves came within 600 to 700 yards of the shore, rockets were to be discharged toward the beach.
Preparations for the Assault
In the long history of warfare, this assault caused a concentration of the largest force for war to be brought together for any one operation. As early as 1942 and in some cases earlier, the first stages of stock piling and the building up of manpower began on the tiny island of England. The Air Force and the Navy were very important at this point. The strategic bombing of Germany was reducing her aircraft production plants and robbing her of capacity production. The Navy in addition to its normal duties in the Atlantic was engaged in channel training exercises for the assault.
As D-Day approached the interdiction of road, railroad and communication lines took on increasing importance. On D-Day some 70 bridges and tunnels were out of action. This entire program of bombing was carried out so as to deceive the enemy as to the true location of any assault area. In special assault training centers, troops and engineers practiced landings and the assaulting of various types of strong points and fortifications.
The last of these exercises was held on May 4. In the second week of May the assault forces began to assemble in the marshaling areas and on June 1 and June 2 they moved to embarkation points. As soon as the troops were aboard ship the Navy took control. Under the command of Rear Admiral Moon, Task Force U became responsible for the lift, protection at sea, fire support and breaching of under water obstacles.
Events Preceding H Hour
The Naval Task Force for Utah beach was composed of some 866 vessels, in 12 separate convoys. Because of the extent of this force, it was necessary to use 9 separate loading areas, since no one port was large enough to handle all the necessary traffic. Another result of this vast dispersion, was the fact that all vessels had to make a precise rendezvous before setting sail for the coast of France.
As mentioned earlier, some sections had sailed before June 5, but because of bad weather, had returned to port. On the morning of June 5 all sections again set out for the enemy shore and the second start got underway without too much confusion. About 0200, June 5, the USS Bayfield, headquarters ship for Task Force U, had passed the Transport Area marker vessel. By 0229 hours, she was at anchor and followed by other control vessels which took their positions closer to the shore. H Hour was 0650.
About 2145, June 5, 20 pathfinder planes took off from England with the necessary crews to mark six drop zones and a glider landing zone. It was most unfortunate however, that tine pathfinder operations were not entirely successful, due to enemy antiaircraft artillery and cloud formations. The airborne elements of both the 82-A/B and the 101-A/B comprised 6 regiments, with normal artillery and engineers. This force amounted to over 13000 men and required about 926 C-47 planes.
At a later hour on D Day and on D+1, some additional 4000 infantry and their supporting elements, were to arrive by 500 gliders. The last elements of the divisions, were to come by water and land on D+1. This airborne operation was probably the most difficult of the whole invasion, a landing behind an enemy line at night and a full five hours before shore landings.
Airborne Landings – 82-A/B
The overall landing of the 82-A/B was very bad. Of the three regiments the 505-PIR made the best landing. Despite this however, the division seized the east bank of the Merderet in the vicinity of Ste Mère Eglise. All positions however, were not as fully occupied as had been expected according to the division plan. Initial missions of each regiment were as follows : 505-PIR : land east of the Merderet, capture Ste Mère Eglise, seize and hold river crossings at La Fière and Chef du Pont, and maintain positions to the north through Neuville au Plain, tying in with the 101-A/B on the right. 507-PIR and 508 PIR, land west of the river and consolidate their bridgeheads. The 507-PIR was to assist the 505-PIR in securing the La Fière bridge. The 508-PIR was to destroy the crossings of the Douve at La Bastille and Pont L’Abbé. Both regiments to be prepared to push to the west, to a line along the Douve
The two major objectives then of the 82-A/B, were the founding of a base for operations at Ste Mère Eglise, and establishing the bridgeheads across the Merderet. The latter operation did not succeed as had been expected and the action at Ste Mère Eglise assumed the most importance. Tactically speaking, the Ste Mère Eglise actions were the most significant of all D-Day for the 82-A/B. This was the objective of the 505-PIR. The 3/505 started at once for the town and the order was to use knives, bayonets and grenades only, so as to be able to tell the enemy by his fire.
By 0430 the town had been seized and the unit had put up the same American flag it had flown over Naples. The enemy made several counterattacks during the day, but these were beaten off. By 0950 the communication lines to Cherbourg had been cut, road blocks were in and except for snipers the town had been cleared. By nightfall the situation was well in hand.
The 507-PIR and the 508-PIR jumped on time, but without aid from the pathfinders due to the enemy actions. This resulted in both regiments going beyond the drop zones and a great number of men and large quantities of equipment landing in the marshes. The two regiments were so widely scattered, that elements of the 508 were fighting with the 101-A/B. The most important as far as the 82-A/B was concerned were the two river bridges across the Merderet. Here the bulk of the forces were committed and here the enemy put up his strongest resistance.
It so happened that these groups landed almost on top of the headquarters of the German 91.Infantry-Division. A group of about 400 men from all the regiments launched an attack on the La Fière bridge, but they could not consolidate their gains on the west bank. As a result, when the enemy counterattack came only a short time after they lost the bridge, and the elements on the west bank became isolated from the east side.
The enemy attack was pressed again in the afternoon, but the 82-A/B held on. The east bank was reorganized and at about 2000 reinforcements arrived and by dark the defense was stabilized. Farther south at Chef du Pont, the attempt to seize that bridge was unsuccessful. However, our troops were able, late in the day to gain the west bank, but could go no further. Although the actions of units at Ste Mère Eglise and the bridgeheads were the principal ones for D Day, it is known that numerous small units which had landed west of the Merderet aided the overall actions. Some of these isolated groups fought for as long as four or five days before being able to link up.
In general the division did not have a good drop, but it was much better than the 82-A/B. Some 1500 men and about 60 percent of the equipment were either killed, captured or lost in the swamps. Many of the initial missions were carried out by mixed groups. The wide dispersion although not good, did work to the general advantage of the division. The sudden appearance of the Americans confused the Germans and although they fought by fire they did not seem to want to leave their positions to attack.
The plan of the 101-A/B was the seizing of the four inland exits between St Martin de Varreville and Pouppeville. In the south, it was to destroy the two bridges over the Douve River on the main road north of Carentan, as well as the railroad bridge. It was to seize the lock and establish bridgeheads over the Douve at Le Port north of Carentan. After being relieved by the 4-ID at the beachhead it was to seize Carentan and establish contact with V Corps and thereafter protect the southern flank of VII Corps.
The seizing of the two northern exits was assigned the 502-PIR, it was to drop just west of Exits 3 and 4. About seventy five men from this regiment took off for one of the main objectives, an enemy coastal battery near Varreville, but found it deserted. Pushing east they secured the two exits, as other troops took up defensive positions to the north and to establish contact with the 82-A/B.
The capture of beach Exits 1 and 2 was the mission of the 506-PIR, in addition, it was to defend a line along the Douve River, seizing the two bridges near its mouth at Le Port and establish a bridgehead for subsequent use and at the same time prepare to destroy them if necessary. To carry out these missions, some eighty men from this unit made for Exits 1 and 2, attacking the Germans there, forcing them to surrender by noon. At about 1530 contact was established with the 8-IR (4-ID).
It had been planned to drop the 501-PIR just north of Carentan, in order to carry out the missions of destroying the highway bridges and securing the lock. In the south some fifty men attacked and seized the bridges at about 0500 and about one hundred fifty others captured the lock north of Carentan. When other units attempted to destroy the bridges on the main highway and the railroad, the enemy brought in intense high angle and small arms fire. The excellent use of Naval gun fire neutralized this enemy fire. By the end of the day some 2500 of the original 6600 men were now organized and working together. All missions, except destroying the highway and railroad bridges had been accomplished.
Seaborne Landing – 4-ID
While the airborne troops were trying to assemble among the hedgerows and the marshes, the seaborne forces were getting ready to assault the shore. At about 0430, the 4-ID and 24-CS landed on the islands of St Marcouf. This suspected enemy location was found to be void of any enemy troops and the landing was completed by 0530. At H minus 40 minutes Naval bombardment began firing on the enemy shore. This was followed in a few minutes by the bombing of the 9-AAF of the beach area. As assault craft came within 700 yards of the shore, the fire support group began to drench the landing area with fire. The leading wave had some 20 LCVP craft, each carrying a 30 man assault team and 8 LCT craft carrying 4 amphibious tanks each. The second wave had some 32 LCVP craft and in addition to infantry troops, contained 8 Naval Demolition teams. The third and fourth waves brought in tanks and engineer combat troops.
At almost H Hour the leading wave touched the shore and the men moved into waist deep water for the last hundred yards to the beach. Aside from a few enemy artillery bursts, there was no real opposition at H Hour. The actual landings did not take place at the planned areas, but almost 2000 yards to the south. As mentioned before, this worked to our advantage as the shore was not as thickly obstructed and the defenses not as formidable. The Army and Navy demolition groups that followed the assault wave found the beach less obstructed than had been expected. Due to this lack of expected obstacles the entire beach was cleared in little more than an hour. The blowing of gaps in the sea wall and clearing paths through the sand dunes progressed rapidly. The infantry found enemy troops in field fortifications, but they were apparently dazed from the preparatory fires and offered little fight.
By 0800 four battalions had landed and two more were ashore by 1000. The leading regiment, the 8-IR, moved inland across the three southern causeways and advanced to the west to contact the airborne forces. By evening two of the battalions of the 4-ID were on the Carentan highway south of Ste Mère Eglise and the third was compressing the enemy pocket that separated the forces of the 82-A/B in Ste Mère Eglise, from the balance of the Corps.
The other two regiments of the 4-ID came ashore some time after the noon hour. The 12-IR had to wade through the inundated area south of Exit 3 and took up positions on the left of the 502-PIR. The 22-IR also had to move through the swamps, but reached dry land near St Martin de Varreville, and pushed north to take up positions on the left of the inundated area, near the 502-PIR.
The close of D-Day saw our positions in fairly good shape. But it was not just one battle by a large combined force. There were some fifteen or twenty engagements in the airborne divisions alone. In general, the overall action was a success, as small units took advantage of the enemy’s surprise. The 82-A/B held Ste Mère Eglise, had won and then lost the bridge at La Fière, had gained only the west bank at Chef du Pont and had large numbers of men isolated west of the Merderet.
The bridge at La Fière alone was to engage the most effort of the division for the next three days. The 101-A/B held the northern sector, the southern flank was weak, but they held the bridge at Le Port and the lock to the west. At St Come du Mont the enemy held the 501-PIR against the swamps and the rail and road bridges could not be taken and south of Ste Mère Eglise, while the 12-IR and 22-IR were to the northeast between Ste Mère Eglise and the inundated area. Late in the afternoon an advance detachment of the VII Corps came ashore and at 1900 set up a CP near the 4-ID CP at La Hubert.
Actions on D+1
The morning of D+1 saw the elements of the 8-IR launch an attack on the enemy salient to the south of Ste Mère Eglise, with the objective of making contact with the 82-A/B. It had no sooner contacted the 506-PIR in the town when the enemy to the north launched an attack. A coordinated counterattack was planned by both units and by the end of the day the enemy was cleared from his positions.
The actions at La Fière and Chef du Pont had reached a stalemate. Several enemy counterattacks were beaten off but no gains were made by the 82-A/B, and the isolated forces west of the river were to remain for several days more.
On June 7, the 12-IR attacked to the northwest and seized the high ground to the northeast of Ste Mère Eglise. About mid morning they again pressed an attack to the north and when stopped in the afternoon on the forward slopes of the high ground northeast of Neuville au Plain, they reorganized for the night.
The 22-IR, on D+1 jumped off on an attack against the enemy’s strongest inland positions so far, the coastal forts north of St Marcouf. For several hours the regiment attempted to move forward, but enemy counterattacks drove them back to Odainville. The 3/22, under steadily increasing enemy pressure was to continue the mission of clearing the beach fortifications as they moved north along the shore.
The actions of the 101-A/B throughout D+1 continued to be those of small units. The main effort was a preparation for attacking the bridges north of Carentan. To the east the 506-PIR held the lock and the bridges at Le Port.
By the night of D+1, the VII Corps had a beachhead some 12000 yards, deep and the initial assault had succeeded. However elements of the 82-A/B were still isolated west of the Merderet. To the north and south the enemy still held strong positions, in the south at Carentan the area remained open. Enemy guns on the coast were still harassing the beach. The failure of the 82-A/B to establish a bridgehead over the Merderet and the slow progress of the 4-ID brought about the first change in the VII Corps plan.
Originally the 4-ID was to cross the Merderet and then turn north to capture Valognes. Because of this slow progress the 4-ID would continue its present mission east of the Merderet, while elements of the 82-A/B would continue on the left flank of this northward drive. The balance of the 82-A/B to continue in their efforts to establish the bridgehead. In the south the 101-A/B was to continue to seize the causeways and approaches into Carentan. These objectives were to take almost a week for the VII Corps to accomplish.
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Gunter ‘Doc Snafu’ Gillot
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(NB : Published for Good – Mai 2019)