Utah Beach was the code name for the right flank, or westernmost, of the Allied landing beaches during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, as part of Operation Overlord on 6 June 1944. Utah was added to the invasion plan toward the end of the planning stages, when Eisenhower and Montgomery insisted that the scale of the invasion be expanded to five divisions, with airborne descents by three additional divisions, to allow operations on a wider front and speed up the capture of the port at Cherbourg.
Utah Beach, about 3 miles (4.8 km) long, located between the villages of Pouppeville and La Madeleine in Manche (in the Cotentin peninsula), was the westernmost of the five landing beaches. It became the right flank anchor of the Allied offensive along the left bank (western bank) of the Douve River estuary. The German sector code was W5.
The Allies planned to launch the invasion on 1 May 1944. The initial draft of the plan was accepted at the Quebec Conference in August 1943. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed commander of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). General Bernard Montgomery was named as commander of the 21st Army Group, which comprised all of the land forces involved in the invasion.
On 31 December 1943, Eisenhower and Montgomery first saw the plan, which proposed amphibious landings by three divisions and two-thirds of an airborne division. The two generals immediately insisted that the scale of the initial invasion be expanded to five divisions, with airborne descents by three divisions, to allow operations on a wider front. The change doubled the frontage of the invasion from 25 miles (40 km) to 50 miles (80 km). This would allow for quicker offloading of men and materiel, make it more difficult for the Germans to respond, and speed up the capture of the port at Cherbourg. Eisenhower and Lieutenant General Omar Bradley selected for Utah the VII Corps. Its current commander, Major General Roscoe Woodruff, was replaced with Major General J. Lawton Collins, who had experience with amphibious operations in the Pacific Theater of Operations, though not in the initial assaults.
Utah Beach, the westernmost of the five landing beaches, was on the Cotentin Peninsula, west of the mouths of the Douve and Vire rivers. The terrain between Utah and the neighboring Omaha Beach was swampy and difficult to cross, which meant that the troops landing at Utah would be isolated. The Germans had flooded the farmland behind Utah, restricting travel off the beach to a few narrow causeways. To help secure the terrain inland of the landing zone, rapidly seal off the Cotentin Peninsula, and prevent the Germans from reinforcing the port at Cherbourg, two airborne divisions were assigned to airdrop into German territory in the early hours of the invasion.
The need to acquire or produce extra landing craft and troop carrier aircraft for the expanded operation meant that the invasion had to be delayed to June. Production of landing craft was ramped up in late 1943 and continued into early 1944, and existing craft were relocated from other theaters. More than 600 Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft and their crews took a circuitous route to England in early 1944 from Baer Field, Indiana, bringing the number of available troop carrier planes to over a thousand.
A report by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefehlshaber West (Supreme Commander West; OB West), overall commander on the Western Front, to Hitler in October 1943 regarding the weak defences in France led to the appointment of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to oversee the construction of enhanced fortifications along the expected invasion front, which stretched from the Netherlands to Cherbourg. Rommel believed that the Normandy coast could be a possible landing point for the invasion, so he ordered the construction of extensive defensive works along that shore. In addition to concrete gun emplacements at strategic points along the coast, he ordered wooden stakes, metal tripods, mines, and large anti-tank obstacles to be placed on the beach to delay the approach of landing craft and impede the movement of tanks. Expecting the Allies to land at high tide so that the infantry would spend less time exposed on the beach, he ordered many of these obstacles to be placed at the high-tide mark. The terrain at Utah is flat, offering no high ground on which to place fortifications. The shallow beach varies in depth from almost nothing to 800 yards (730 m), depending on the tides. The Germans flooded the flat land behind the beach by opening the floodgates at the mouth of the Douve to admit seawater and damming up streams.
Defense of this sector of eastern coast of the Cotentin Peninsula was assigned toGeneralleutnant Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben and his 709th Static Infantry Division. The unit was not well equipped, lacking motorized transport and provided with captured French, Soviet, and Czech equipment. Many of the men were Ostlegionen (non-German conscripts recruited from Soviet prisoners of war, Georgians, and Poles). The southernmost 6 miles (9.7 km) of the sector was manned by about 700 troops stationed in nine strongpoints spaced from 1,100 to 4,400 yd (1,000 to 4,000 m) apart. Tangles of barbed wire, booby traps, and the removal of ground cover made the both the beach and the terrain around the strongpoints hazardous for infantry. The German 91st Infantry Division and 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment arrived in May, and were stationed inland as reserves. The Allies detected this move, and shifted their intended airborne drop zones to the southeast.
Allied plan of attack
Landings at Utah were to be preceded by airborne landings further inland on the Cotentin Peninsula commencing shortly after midnight. Forty minutes of naval bombardment was to begin at 05:50, followed by air bombardment, scheduled for 06:09 to 06:27.
The amphibious landing was planned in four waves, beginning at 06:30. The first consisted of 20 Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVPs) carrying four companies from the 8th Infantry Regiment. The ten craft on the right were to land on Tare Green beach, opposite the strong-point at Les Dunes de Varreville. The ten craft on the left were intended for Uncle Red beach, 1,000 yards (910 m) south. Eight Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs), each carrying four amphibious DD tanks of 70th Tank Battalion, were scheduled to land a few minutes before the infantry.
The second wave, scheduled for 06:35, consisted of 32 LCVPs carrying four more companies of 8th Infantry, as well as combat engineers and naval demolition teams that were to clear the beach of obstacles. The third wave, scheduled for 06:45, consisted of eight LCTs bringing more DD tanks plus armored bulldozers to assist in clearing paths off the beach. It was to be followed at 06:37 by the fourth wave, which had eight Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM) and three LCVPs with detachments of the 237th and 299th Combat Engineer Battalions, assigned to clear the beach between the high and low water marks.
Troops involved in Operation Overlord, including members of the 4th Division scheduled to land at Utah Beach, left their barracks in the second half of May and proceeded to their coastal marshalling points. To preserve secrecy, the invasion troops were as much as possible kept out of contact with the outside world. The men began to embark onto their transports on June 1, and the 865 ships of Force U (the naval group assigned to Utah) began their journey from Plymouth on June 3 and 4. A 24-hour postponement of the invasion necessitated by bad weather meant that one convoy, U-2A, had to be recalled and hastily refuelled at Portland. The ships met at a rendezvous point (nicknamed "Piccadilly Circus") south-east of the Isle of Wight to assemble into convoys to cross the Channel. Minesweepers began clearing lanes on the evening of 5 June.
German order of battle
Allied forces attacking Utah Beach faced two battalions of the 919th Grenadier Regiment, part of the 709th Static Infantry Division under Generalleutnant Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben stationed on the Cotentin Peninsula.
Allied order of battle
- VII Corps, commanded by Major General J. Lawton Collins
- 4th Infantry Division: Major General Raymond O. Barton
- 90th Infantry Division: Brigadier General Jay W. MacKelvie
- 4th Cavalry Regiment: Colonel Joseph Tully
- 82nd Airborne Division: Major General Matthew Ridgway
- 101st Airborne Division: Major General Maxwell D. Taylor
Bombing of Normandy began around midnight with over 2,200 British and American bombers attacking targets along the coast and further inland. Some 1,200 aircraft departed England just before midnight to transport the airborne divisions to their drop zones behind enemy lines several hours before the beach landings. Once the four troop transports assigned to Force U reached their assigned position 12 miles (19 km) off the coast, 5,000 soldiers of 4th Division and other units assigned to Utah boarded their landing craft in rough seas for the three-hour journey to their designated landing point. Two hours before the main invasion force landed, a raiding party of 132 members of 4th Cavalry Regiment swam ashore at 04:30 at Îles Saint-Marcouf, thought to be a German observation post. It was unoccupied, but two men were killed and 17 wounded by mines and German artillery fire.
The eighteen ships assigned to bombard Utah included the US Navy battleship Nevada, the Royal Navy monitor Erebus, and the heavy cruisers Hawkins (Royal Navy) and Tuscaloosa (US Navy). Naval bombardment of areas behind the beach commenced at 05:45, while it was still dark, with the gunners switching to pre-assigned targets on the beach as soon as it was light enough to see, at 05:50. Since troops were scheduled to land at Utah and Omaha starting at 06:30 (an hour earlier than the British beaches), these areas received only about 40 minutes of naval bombardment before the assault troops began to land on the shore. Coastal air bombardment was undertaken in the twenty minutes immediately prior to the landing by around 300 Martin B-26 Marauders of the IX Bomber Command. Due to cloud cover, the pilots decided to drop to low altitudes of 4,000 to 6,000 feet (1,200 to 1,800 m). Much of the bombing was highly effective, with the loss of only two aircraft.
The first troops to reach the shore were four companies from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry, arriving at 06:30 on 20 LCVPs. Companies B and C landed on he segment code-named Tare Green, and Companies E and F to their left on Uncle Red. Leonard T. Schroeder, leading Company F, was the first man to reach the beach. The landing craft were pushed to the south by strong currents, and they found themselves near Exit 2 at Grande Dune, about 2,000 yards (1.8 km) from their intended landing zones opposite Exit 3 at les Dunes de Varreville. The first senior officer ashore, Supernumerary General Officer Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. of the 4th Infantry Division, personally scouted the nearby terrain. He determined that this landing site was actually better, as there was only one strongpoint nearby rather than two, and it had been badly damaged by bombers of IX Bomber Command. In addition, the strong currents had washed ashore many of the underwater obstacles. Deciding to "start the war from right here", he ordered further landings to be re-routed.
The second wave of assault troops arrived at 06:35 on 32 LCVPs. Companies A and D landed on Tare Green and G and H on Uncle Red. They were accompanied by engineers and demolition teams tasked with removing beach obstacles and clearing the area directly behind the beach of obstacles and mines.
A contingent of the 70th Tank Battalion, comprising 32 amphibious DD tanks on eight LCTs, were supposed to arrive about 10 minutes before the infantry. However, a strong headwind caused them to be about 20 minutes late, even though they launched the tanks 1,500 yards (1,400 m) from shore rather than 5,000 yards (4,600 m) as planned. Four tanks of Company A and their personnel were lost when their LCT hit a mine and was destroyed about 3 miles (4.8 km) south of Iles St. Marcouf, but the remaining 28 arrived intact.
The third wave, arriving at 06:45, included 16 conventional M4 Sherman tanks and eight dozer tanks of the 70th Tank Battalion. It was followed at 06:37 by the fourth wave, which had eight LCMs and three LCVPs with detachments of the 237th and 299th Combat Engineer Battalions, assigned to clear the beach between the high and low water marks.
Gaps were blown in the sea wall to allow quicker access for troops and tanks. Combat teams began to exit the beach at around 09:00, with some infantry wading through the flooded fields rather than travelling on the single road. They skirmished throughout the day with elements of the 919th Grenadier Regiment, who were armed with antitank guns and rifles. The main strongpoint in the area and another 1,300 yards (1.2 km) to the south were disabled by noon. The 4th Infantry Division did not meet all of their D-Day objectives at Utah Beach, partly because they had arrived too far to the south, but they landed 21,000 troops at the cost of only 197 casualties.
Several factors contributed to the success at Utah compared to the bloody battle at nearby Omaha:
- Fewer German fortifications: The defense of the area was largely based on flooding the coastal plain behind the beaches, and there were fewer bunkers.
- Effective pre-invasion bombardment: Many of the known large bunkers, such as the coastal battery near Saint-Martin-de-Varreville, were destroyed from the air prior to D-Day. B-26 Marauder medium bombers of the US Ninth Air Force, flying below 5,000 feet (1,500 m), provided close air support for the assaulting forces.
- DD tanks: Nearly all of these swimming tanks made the beach, because they were launched half as far out as at Omaha and were able to steer into the current more effectively to avoid swamping in the rough seas.
- Mis-landings: Because most of the invasion force landed opposite Exit 2, this one was the most used; other exits were more heavily fortified.
- Paratroopers: The most significant difference was the 13,000 men from the 101st Airborne Division and the 82nd Airborne Division already fighting inland. For five hours before the first Utah landings, the paratroopers (and glider forces) had been fighting their way toward the beach, clearing the enemy from positions along the exits. The paratroopers also greatly confused the enemy and prevented any significant counterattack to the landing area.
The true cost of Utah Beach is reflected in the heavy airborne casualties: The 101st alone lost less than 20% of its forces on D-Day. Also, the 1,000 casualties during Exercise Tiger, a practice run for the Utah assault, could also be considered part of the price for D-Day.
- Whitmarsh 2009, p. 13.
- Beevor 2009, Map, inside front cover.
- Wilmot 1997, p. 170.
- Gilbert 1989, p. 491.
- Whitmarsh 2009, pp. 12–13.
- Balkoski 2005, p. 5.
- Balkoski 2005, p. 10.
- Balkoski 2005, pp. 26–28.
- Balkoski 2005, pp. 12, 17–18.
- Balkoski 2005, p. 19.
- Balkoski 2005, p. 22.
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- Ford & Zaloga 2009, p. 30.
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- Balkoski 2005, p. 54.
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- Balkoski 2005, p. 51.
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- Balkoski 2005, p. 52.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, p. 119.
- Whitmarsh 2009, p. 49.
- Whitmarsh 2009, pp. 51–52.
- Balkoski 2005, p. 88.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, pp. 158–159, 161.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, p. 158.
- Balkoski 2005, p. 68.
- Beevor 2009, p. 3.
- Balkoski 2005, pp. 70–72.
- Beevor 2009, p. 74.
- Whitmarsh 2009, p. 33.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, p. 125.
- Beevor 2009, p. 51.
- Balkoski 2005, p. 78.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, p. 160.
- Balkoski 2005, pp. 344–345.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, p. 69.
- Whitmarsh 2009, pp. 51–52, 69.
- Balkoski 2005, pp. 90–91.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, pp. 158, 161.
- Lee 2008.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, pp. 131, 160–161.
- Whitmarsh 2009, pp. 50–51.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, pp. 158, 164.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, pp. 158, 160–161.
- Balkoski, p. 204.
- Balkoski 2005, p. 203.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, pp. 158–159, 164.
- Whitmarsh 2009, p. 51.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, p. 165.
- Balkoski, Joseph (2005). Utah Beach: The Amphibious Landing and Airborne Operations on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 0-8117-0144-1.
- Beevor, Antony (2009). D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. New York; Toronto: Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-02119-2.
- Lee, Demorris A. (June 6, 2008). "For Largo man, D-day is like yesterday". The St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 27 September 2014.
- Ford, Ken; Zaloga, Steven J (2009). Overlord: The D-Day Landings. Oxford; New York: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-84603-424-4.
- Gilbert, Martin (1989). The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: H. Holt. ISBN 978-0-8050-1788-5.
- Whitmarsh, Andrew (2009). D-Day in Photographs. Stroud: History Press. ISBN 978-0-7524-5095-7.
- Wilmot, Chester (1997) . The Struggle For Europe. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions. ISBN 1-85326-677-9.
- Some text in this article was taken from the official US Military History Utah Beach to Cherbourg, written by Roland G. Ruppenthal. This work is in the public domain.
- American D-Day: Omaha Beach, Utah Beach & Pointe du Hoc
- Utah Beach American Memorial on the American Battle Monuments Commission web site
- D-Day : Etat des Lieux : Utah Beach
- Utah Beach song Memorial song written by Daniel Bourdelès. Bilingual lyrics.