“Thank God for the United States Navy!”
That quote comes from a very grateful Major General Leonard Gerow, commander of V (5th) Corps, which consisted of the 1st (Big Red One) and 29th infantry divisions that landed on Omaha Beach.
Much has been written about Operation Overlord, the invasion of mainland Europe on D-Day, June 6th,1944, but little has been said about the Multinational Naval involvement (Operation Neptune) and the destroyers that may have saved the invasion.
Omaha Beach was one of the five sectors of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France in the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, during World War II. It was an open beach, some 8,000 yards wide and 400 or more yards deep, and the most heavily defended portion of the Normandy Coast. Unfortunately, landing here was necessary to link the British landing to the east at Gold Beach with the Americans landing to the west at Utah Beach.
Very little went as planned during the landing at Omaha Beach. Difficulties in navigation caused the majority of landing craft to miss their targets throughout the day. The defenses were unexpectedly strong and inflicted heavy casualties on the landing U.S. troops. Under heavy fire, the engineers struggled to clear the beach obstacles, and later landings had to bunch up around the few channels that were cleared. Weakened by the casualties taken just in landing, the surviving assault troops could not clear the heavily defended exits to get off the beach.
Half an hour before the landing, Naval ships sitting 12 miles offshore started shelling the German installations, but the 100 plus American bombers sent in to soften up the area for the landing were hampered by fog. Instead of bombing the German installations overlooking the beach, they bombed further inland, leaving the German beach installations fairly intact.
General Omar Bradley, the commander of the ground forces, sensing the possibility of defeat on Omaha Beach, directed naval destroyers to sail to a point a thousand or less yards off the beach and shell German installations with their 5-inch guns.
This tactic was not new having once before been used during a landing on a Japanese-held island in the Pacific. The landing craft carrying the Marines were grounded on a reef several hundred yards offshore making them “sitting ducks” for Japanese guns. Moving into the shallows, destroyers protected the Marines while they made their way to the beach.
As the destroyers cruised back and forth in the shallows just off Omaha Beach, they took fire from the German artillery, mortars and small arms. They were successful in not only destroying many German emplacements, but also distracting the Germans, thereby reducing the amount of fire the troops were getting, allowing them to move forward off the open beach.
This is why, when General Gerow went ashore to set up the V Corps headquarters, his first message to General Bradley was: “Thank God for the United States Navy!”