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 the Plain (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.
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 Group: Colonel Joseph Tully
- 6th Armored Group: Colonel Francis Fainter
- 82nd Airborne Division: Major General Matthew Ridgway
- 101st Airborne Division: Major General Maxwell D. Taylor
The first wave arrived at the line of departure on time and all 20 craft were dispatched abreast. Support craft to the rear were firing machine guns, possibly with the hope of exploding mines. When the LCVPs were 300–400 yards (270–360 metres) from the beach, the assault company commanders fired special smoke projectors to signal the lifting of naval support craft fire. Almost exactly at H Hour the assault craft lowered their ramps and 600 men waded through waist-deep water for the last 100 or more yards to the beach. The actual touchdown on the beach was therefore a few minutes late, but the delay was negligible and had no effect on the phasing of the succeeding wave. Enemy artillery had fired a few air bursts at sea, but otherwise there was no opposition at H Hour.
The first troops to reach shore were from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry. Captain Leonard T. Schroeder, leading Company F, was the first man from a landing craft to reach the beach. The 1st Battalion landed a few minutes later. Both came ashore considerably south of the designated beaches. The 2nd Battalion should have hit Uncle Red Beach opposite Exit 3. The 1st Battalion was supposed to land directly opposite the strong-point at les Dunes de Varreville. The landings, however, were made astride Exit 2 about 2,000 yards (1,800 metres) south.
This error was potentially very serious, for it could have caused great confusion. But it did not. The original plans, in which each assault section had a specific mission, could not be carried out in detail, of course.
Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., assistant commander of the 4th Division, had requested several times, against his commander's best judgement, to go in the first wave and personally lead the initial attack on the beach strong points. His written request was finally approved by General Barton, 4th Division Commander.
Roosevelt was the only general to land with the initial seaborne assault wave on D-Day, coming ashore in Schroeder's LCVP. At age 56, he was the oldest soldier to land. When Roosevelt realized the landing craft had drifted south with the current and smoke more than a mile from their objective—and that the first wave was a mile off course—he personally made a reconnaissance of the area immediately to the rear of the beach to locate the causeways which were to be used for the advance inland.
He then returned to the point of landing, contacted the commanders of the two battalions (Lieutenant Colonels Conrad C. Simmons and Carlton O. MacNeely), and coordinated the attack. Roosevelt's famous quote was, "We’ll start the war from here!" These impromptu plans worked successfully and with little confusion. With artillery landing close by, each followup regiment was personally welcomed on the beach by a cool, calm and collected Roosevelt, who inspired all by humor and confidence. He pointed almost every regiment to its changed objectives. For his actions on Utah Beach, Roosevelt was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
The German forces responsible for the defense of the beach were elements of the 709th Infantry Division, commanded by Generalleutnant Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben, and the 352nd Infantry Division, commanded by Generalleutnant Dietrich Kraiss.
By the end of D-Day, some 23,250 troops had safely landed on the beach, along with 1,700 vehicles. Only about 200 casualties were recorded during the landings. 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.
- Balkoski 2005, pp. 24–25.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, p. 30.
- Beevor 2009, p. 33.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, pp. 54–56.
- Whitmarsh 2009, p. 31.
- Balkoski 2005, pp. 52, 56.
- Balkoski 2005, p. 54.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, p. 130.
- Balkoski 2005, p. 51.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, p. 118.
- 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.
- Ford & Zaloga 2009, p. 125.
- Lee, Demorris A. (June 6, 2008). "For Largo man, D-day is like yesterday". The St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2009-03-03.
- "J'ai été le premier Américain à débarquer sur les plages (I was the first American to land on the beaches)". VSD magazine (in French) (864): 64–70. June 2, 1994.
- 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.
- 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.
- Much of this text is 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.