Landing on the Edge of Eternity: Twenty-Four Hours at Omaha Beach
As with many other subjects, one can find a surfeit of publications on the so-called Longest Day—D-Day—and its attendant Normandy campaign. Of course, Cornelius Ryan’s title of the same name immediately comes to mind for most in terms of the largest and most complex amphibious operation undertaken during World War II.
Given that size and complexity, it shouldn’t be too terribly surprising that there are still facets, phases, events and individual experiences that remain to be covered by someone willing to do the research and writing. Not everything can be covered in a single publication leaving a wide variety of possible topics to be explored and plumbed for enterprising historians and authors.
Considering that the Omaha Beach phase was the most touch-and-go and the closest to failing, it really deserves all of the exploration it can be given. Indeed, there was serious consideration by 1st U.S. Army commander, Omar Bradley, to withdraw the assault troops of the 1st and 29th Divisions from the beach and re-land them at Utah Beach or at one of those assigned to the British: Gold, Juno, and Sword.
(Even overall Operation Overlord commander, Dwight Eisenhower, had penned a press release taking personal responsibility had the entire D-Day invasion failed to establish a foothold in France.)
There were three problems with a possible withdrawal: The logistics of doing so under fire and amid the destruction already wrought, the effect on the morale of those troops withdrawn and the gap that would have been left between the other American-assigned beach and those of the British, leaving the Germans more forces available to concentrate against those beaches.
The thrust of this publication is not just to tell the overall story of what happened at Omaha Beach but to do so in a personal manner, sowing individual experiences into the narrative, from American, German, and even French civilian perspectives. Author Robert Kershaw has used veteran survivor and family interviews, memoirs, and other documentation to spell out those experiences and to describe what else was witnessed in their immediate vicinity.
As bad as was Omaha Beach, it could have been much worse had the Germans ultimately been able to complete their defenses. As it was, strongpoints, primarily in the center of their defenses at Omaha, were still under construction, unarmed as a result and lacked personnel anyway to man them. The leadership capabilities of those in the second assault wave were also instrumental in finally getting assault troops to move against the bluffs, overcome the defenses, and eventually head inland.
Also included, over and above recounting the terrible nature and horrific casualties of the fighting on the beach, are the initial parachute operations by the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions prior to the invasion itself, the Ranger assault on Pointe du Hoc and the bombing and naval support operations conducted by Allied forces as part of Overlord.
Creditably, the German side of the story is nearly as extensive in the retelling and provides a virtual personal eye level view of the enemy’s viewpoint and experience under American firepower. Had their beach defenses, obstacles and strongpoints been completed and manned, the Germans might have managed to push American forces into the sea, jeopardizing the operation for the reasons cited above.
The ten chapters are sectioned by location and timeline over the course of the 24-hour period covered by the text and one will need to consult the maps in order to keep track of the action from location to location.
The maps are extremely detailed and diagrammatic of both the planned American assault effort and where the American landing craft actually landed and the German defenses. There is also one that specifies the location of each man’s “voice” referenced in the text. The photographic section has some of the famous photos taken by Robert Capa on the beach, ones of German, French and American participants and the multiple beach defenses.
Although, at three pages, the bibliography doesn’t seem quite sufficient and there aren’t that many notes per chapter, the detail and quotes employed in each chapter are demonstrative of the effort made by the author to tell the story of the worst part of D-Day.
The men who survived Omaha Beach were casualties just as much as those who didn’t. The word hero can never be too lightly or easily applied to any of them.