Ep. 11 - World War II part two show notes
Part Two: Into the Jaws of Death
What you're about to listen to is part two of a multiple episode series regarding the second world war. If you happen to be the kind of person that can pick up in the middle of a story and be able to listen in then keep on listening. If you are more like me and you want to get the full picture I'd encourage you to go back and listen to the previous episode, part one, which will help you develop a fuller understanding of what this episode is diving into.
Many people don't understand the full picture without the complete contextual back drop, and I can hardly think of a story that requires more context, background and explanation than that of World War II. At the very least if you go back and listen carefully to the first episode you'll be able to listen to me use the same quote twice without realizing I had already done so; that might be worth it on its own.
This is part two of the series and it picks up just before the Allied invasion of Normandy, France; marking the beginning of the end for the Axis. So, without any further adieu, this is part two of the World War II series on The Monday American "Into the Jaws of Death." I hope you enjoy...
June 6th, 1944 marks the day that the United States landed on the beaches of Normandy, France along with the British, Australian, and Canadian forces to engage in battle the Nazi Wehrmacht Army. No one knew just what they were getting into.
Its truly hard to imagine the chaos that these men were jumping into; and to top it off they were all off course by an unimaginable amount. Stories have come from this landing such as a hole getting blown into a plane fuselage that sucked two GI's right out of the plane, in another plane the floor had so much vomit on it that the men couldn't get enough traction to stand and had to wait an hour to jump.
The plan for the invasion of Normandy hinged on the successful landing of the army troops on the 5 beaches: Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha and Utah. In order to make sure that these men weren't just sitting ducks on the beach they had to figure out a way to keep the German Wehrmacht (Army) from sending in their reinforcements. That involved the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions along with the British 6th to parachute behind enemy lines the night before in order to secure key towns and bridges to stop any Germans away from the beach landings.
The paratroopers had to deal with the torment of sitting helplessly while floating slowly toward the ground as lead filled the air around them. They mayor of St. Mere noted that he saw one American dangling from a tree limb "with eyes open, as though looking down at his own bullet holes."
Many of these paratroopers would land in the ocean, given a signal to jump when the plane was way off course; many others would land in a valley that had been flooded by Germans as deep as ten feet in some places and would be taken to a watery grave by their heavy kits strapped around them. By some miracle, four hours later a message was sent to the Division commander that simply stated "I have secured St.-Mere-Eglise." The message was sent from an American Colonel, and it would be the first town that the Americans liberated in the war.
The paratroopers were more or less in place and ready to fight, undermanned and under equipped certainly, to defend their comrades who were on their way to the beaches behind them. Operation Overlord was about to hit its next big challenge.
The Beach Landings:
Of all the things about the D-Day landings, I always gravitate back to one question regardless of what part of D-Day I'm thinking about. I always wonder what it was like to sit in that boat for the long ride over and watch everything around you happening. What would that feel like, how afraid would you have been if you thought you might be one of the 15 or so that made it off that boat out of the 40-50 that got on with you? If you could possibly fathom what that felt like, that's what these soldiers felt like nearly every single day. One soldier said about his experience on the naval ships before the landing began that "fear...is a passion like any other passion." That passion, that fear its what gripped these men. They were consumed by a passionate type of fear that I don't really know if I can adequately understand what that felt like. One of the doctors on the ship confessed to drinking "so much coffee I was having extra systoles every fourth or fifth beat." The crazy part is that he was that nervous for those men and he wasn't even leaving the ship!
"The Waiting is always the worst. The mind can wander."
These men weren't just fighting a physical enemy they were fighting their own psyche from ripping them apart from within. Atkinson does a wonderful job in his book The Guns at Last Light when he says "Waiting for battle induced the philosopher in every man. 'Mac,' a young soldier in the 16th infantry asked a comrade, 'when a bullet hits you, does it go all the way through?'" These were young boys, the large majority of them between 18 and 20 years old and they were about to jump off of a boat and onto a beach in order to carry out an operation where the safety and security of the world rested on the success of a bunch of boys and how they handled themselves on the battlefield. That's a scary thought to have in the back of your mind and obviously an enormous amount of pressure if you're on the ground. Those boys weren't thinking about the larger picture, they were thinking about what was in front of them and all around them. They were surrounded by death and destruction like none else, they were firmly in the grasp of the jaws of death; there was no turning back.
Problems from the Get go:
From the get go conditions were far from perfect. There was a thick layer of overcast clouds that shrouded the view from the air, on the ground the current was stronger than expected with high winds and rough seas. Eisenhower had already canceled the invasion once; he couldn't afford to do it again. The Airborne divisions landing the night before managed to turn chaos into success but everyone wondered how the big landing would go if it went as poorly as the jumps just a few hours before. As the ships drew near they began to drop anchor and the men began to slowly climb over the sides into their landing craft. Many of them wouldn't be able to get in the seas were so rough, on many occasions a sea swell would cause a soldier to lose footing and get thrown up and then down into his steel bottom landing boat and upon impact he would break his legs.
The Cloud cover was so thick that Eisenhower had agreed to permit clumsy "blind bombing" if necessary, which hardly more effective than the name suggests. The pilots would use radar to pick the shoreline and then gauge their targets from there. Not only that but on the night before, on June 5th, he had issued an order for the bombers that were to bomb the beach before the infantry arrived to postpone their payloads for an additional 30-45 seconds in order to not hit the invasion flotillas on accident. These were conditions that only added onto a pile of issues that were working against the invaders before they had even begun, but they were able to stick through it and fight it out. At 5:36 am the ships were anchored offshore and ready to begin their assault, it was precisely at this time that allied fighter planes acting as spotters had identified muzzle flashes coming from the shore and notified the navy below; there was no more surprise its time to light it up.
The Invasion Begins:
The naval bombardment of the Norman beaches had begun and in a moments notice there were suddenly eight hundred naval guns thundering across a fifty mile firing line. Sailors had to pack cotton into their ears it was such a massive display of firepower. Reporter Don Whitehead was there and he said it felt like "the air vibrated", Ernest Hemingway wrote about the the murderous guns of the Arkansas and Texas that "they sounded like rail way trains thrown skyward." Perhaps the best account of what it was like to actually be on one of those ships as they wreaked havoc towards the enemy comes from David K. E. Bruce who was on board the Tuscaloosa which he described as:
There is cannonading on all sides as well as from the shore...The air is acrid with powder, and a fine spray of disintegrated wadding comes down on us like lava ash...The deck trembles under our feet, and the joints of the ship seem to creak and stretch...Repeated concussions have driven the screws out of their sockets [and] shattered light bulbs.
And for all that might and power, the preparatory bombardment for the American beaches in operation Overlord only lasted half an hour so that they could just move on with the beach landings. In total they fired 140,000 shells, but little was destroyed. Nevertheless the GI's were about to go there and see if for themselves.
Boots on the Ground:
Omaha beach is where we are going to spend most of this D-Day portion of the story because it is by far the landing site that received more than its share of difficulty to take. The Canadian force was able to mostly walk to shore, some men didn't even get wet. The British troops had some fighting but really not very much of a difficult time taking their beachhead, on Utah and Omaha beach (the two American beaches) is where the bulk of the German defense was housed; and the GI's went right up to that house and knocked on the door. The German's had prepared fearsome defenses for the Americans on Omaha beach; there were 85 machine-gun nests, which GI's nicknamed "murder holes", that was more machine guns on Omaha than three times the amount of all the British beaches combined. Most of the obstacles and barriers the GI's found as the only source for cover on the beach were so densely mined on navy officer described them "like huckleberries". the shape of the land on this section of beach made it particularly deadly. The landscape offered the ability for the defenders to lay down both plunging and grazing fire, the GI's coming to shore essentially had no where to hide.
The American intelligence which was normally spot on correct, had predicted one battalion of weak and inexperienced defenders, and they had failed to detect the hidden artillery guns that the Germans used at will against the GI invaders. If they had been one battalion it would have been a different story but General Erwin Rommel, the tactical mastermind that he was, had foreseen a weakness in the line and reinforced Omaha beach with two veteran and battle hardened battalions right behind them. What was supposed to be a three to one ratio in favor of American forces ended up becoming a three to five ratio weakness. These men that were walking onto those beaches were up against every single odd they could have possibly faced, and then they landed on the beach.
What made Omaha beach exceptionally more dangerous and difficult to capture was the amount of beachhead exits that particular strip had. There were only five ways off the beach. This allowed the German defense to concentrate all their power on only five narrow thoroughfares instead of spreading out to defend a plethora of exit routes. Like I've mentioned several times already, its impossible to know what it was like on that beach unless you were actually there.
"For those who outlived the day, the memories would remain as shot-torn as the beach itself. They remembered waves slapping the steel hulls, and bilge pumps choked with vomit from seasick men making 'utterly inhuman noises'...They remembered machine-gun bullets puckering the sea 'like wind-driven hail' before tearing through ground driven boats so that, as one sergeant recalled, 'men were tumbling out just like corn cobs off a conveyor belt.'"
That was just from the machine gun firing. The mortars were often the most terrifying thing that soldiers had to deal with because there was no real way to be safe from them. Mortars and artillery would, for those who aren't familiar, be shot high up and then they would fall down and explode on impact spewing shrapnel in every direction. The only way to be relatively safe from it was to be in a hole underground because the shrapnel wouldn't touch you there. The thing in the back of every soldier's mind though, was if they would be lucky enough to not have a shell land directly in their hole. Mortar fire on the beaches of Omaha spewed fragments "said to be the size of shovel blades" that would skim the shore, trimming away arms, legs and heads off the men that were on the beach that day.
The contrast of these men from before the landing to how they were on the beach was startling; "Soldiers who had sung 'Happy D-Day, dear Adolf' now cowered like frightened animals." These men had no escape, they desperately gouged out shallow holes in the shingle with mess kit spoons and bare knuckles. Their mouths wide open with a look of astonishment, as instructed, which was intended to prevent artillery concussions from rupturing their eardrums. The men that were there that day remembered brave men advancing on the beach "as if walking in the face of a real strong wind...all affecting the same tight grimace until whipcrack bullets cut them down; Above the battle din they remembered the cries of comrades ripped open." BBC reporter David Howarth described the screams and sounds of these men as they laid dying in pieces on a beach far from their home, he described the sound as
"a long terrible dying scream which seemed to express not only fear and pain, but amazement, consternation and disbelief."
The men that were on that beach on that fateful day remembered "the shapeless dead, sprawled on the strand like smears of divine clay, or as flotsam on the making tide, weltering, with their life belts still cinched." The carnage that these men witnessed, and the fear that was unavoidable is truly beyond the point of our understanding today. These men were so stricken with fear they were like statues stuck in place; even as all their training and their fellow soldiers would remind them to get off the beach, they were paralyzed with fear beyond comprehension. In order to help create and widen the exits from the beach there were army and navy engineers that were supposed to land three minutes after the initial wave. Like the rest of the invasion, little went right for them as well some of them landed nearly a mile and a half away from their intended zone due to current or navigator error. In one of these boats an 88mm shell hit Team 14's landing craft "blowing the coxswain overboard and slaughtering the vessel's entire navy demolition squad; one man's lower trunk and severed legs were described by a seaman as 'sticking up in the water like a pitiful V for victory.'" Men were so fear struck that they "sheltered behind the German obstacles 'like clusters of bees,' even as engineers screamed, kicked, and threatened to blow their charges anyway." By seven A.M. only six of the 16 gaps that were intended to be cleared had been opened; and that cost more than half of the engineers that were there. The death on that small strip of beach that day would be something that those men could never overcome in their nightmares for years to come. One master sergeant would years later recall,
"I can still hear those men calling for help over the noise." The machine guns were the one part of the weaponry that soldiers remembered the most. On man said the sound was "like a Venetian blind being lifted up rapidly" and that was perforating the beach, killing the wounded and re-killing the dead. "All thirty-two soldiers in one boat...were slaughtered, including their captain. A lieutenant shot in the brain continued to direct his troops until, a survivor recounted, 'he sat down and held his head in the palm of his hand before falling over dead.' Wounded men jabbed themselves with morphine and shrieked for medics, one of whom used safety pins to close a gaping leg wound."
By 8:30 a.m. the invasion had stalled while the rising tide quickly began to return, "drowning those immobilized by wounds or fear." What strikes me here as especially significant is that the amount of fear these men had was so great that some were drowned to death by a returning tide, they were so afraid they were paralyzed to the point that they drowned were they were because they couldn't escape the grip of fear on them. Think about that for a minute, that is something that I just can't fathom. The words of Captain Joseph T. Dawson of the 16th infantry summarize this ordeal the best as Atkinson writes in his book,
"an hour earlier, Dawson had leaped from his landing craft onto Easy Red just as an artillery shell struck the boat, exterminating the thirty-three men behind him. 'The limitations of life come into sharp relief,' he would write his family in Texas. 'No one is indispensable in this world.'"
Monsters of Men
As the engineers finally were able to use the long tube grenades known as Bangalore's the men on the beach had finally been given a route of escape, and that's really what it was, it was an escape rather than an advance. At one of these cleared areas the first man that ran through was cut down by machine gun fire, he cried for a medic "then sobbed for his mother until he died."
One aspect of this war that so drastically separates it from wars before it is the dehumanization in the sense that revenge killings were not only common but widely accepted as normal. When some of these men got through one exit on Omaha beach and the fighting had mostly subsided a German soldier came out of a pillbox and "feigned surrender and threw a grenade from his raised, disemboweling a Ranger lieutenant, the dead officer's enraged men not only killed the killer but each man reportedly 'shot the corpse six or eight times' as they filed past." This was just a mild example of the revenge type of killings or actions that occurred in this war; more famously associated with this idea is the way that the Nazi army raped and murdered its way to Russia; and the way that the Red Army (who was encouraged to do so by their officers and politicians) responded by raping their way back to Berlin. This idea of humanity as something that didn't even matter, or basic human treatment to other people whether or not they were civilian or soldier; that is is what makes this war so much different than any other war in the history of mankind. There is a famous soldier who took photos throughout the war his name was Robert Capa and I watched a documentary about how he took the most iconic photos of the war, not a single one staged as they often were back then, and it ended with Capa telling this story about the last photo he took while over there. He said it was the only thing throughout that entire experience that he wishes he had never seen. This was after the war had ended and the fighting was over, he came upon a woman who was dead on the side of the road. The sight he saw was a woman who had sympathized with Nazi's and was a known supporter; she had been raped by several men and when they were done raping her they killed her. They killed her by stabbing a bayonet into her vagina.
Capa said of that ordeal it was the first time that what he saw made him physically sick to see and once he had come to from vomiting he raised his camera to take a picture but he said he couldn't do it. It was too brutal a sight to put on film and he pulled the woman's torn dress over her waist to cover the scene and give some respect to the corpse. As he was walking away he stopped and he remembered why he had been taking picture after picture from the beaches of Normandy through the Ardennes forest and battle of the bulge; it was to document and let us know in the future what this war was like. He said he turned around, pulled the dress back the way it was when he originally found it and took one single picture. I tell that story because it lends an explanation of why studying these events is so crucial to our understanding today. The most important part of history is context and if we can gather context for this war and these experiences we understand things differently and in a way that will help us to understand the present. The way that humans treated other humans in this war was one of the most terrible acts of our history as a species, hopefully studying the context of this war allows us to never repeat that mistake again.
The only thing working against the American invaders once they got past the beach, as far as France itself, were the hedgerows. Rommel himself noted that for the American's France would be "a conqueror's paradise" because the people of France helped the Americans every chance they got. Once the invasion moved off the beach, the only natural obstacles the Americans faced as invaders were the hedgerows. These were century old entanglements of vines and bushes that provided borders to land plots and shelter from high winds for agriculture. These would be sometimes as high as 10ft. and thicker than the length of an outstretched man. Not even the American Sherman tank could break through these hedgerows and if they did they would expose their soft and un-armored underbelly to crippling enemy fire. In one stretch of 4 miles by 6 miles there were 2,000 such irregularly shaped fields, all with hedgerow borders. The Germans took full advantage of the ancient wagon tracks that provided excellent ambush spots, the inability to see through the brush and the American planners' failure to understand the terrain they were to be fighting in after the beach. Normally progress for an advancing army is measured in miles, with the army in the hedgerows progress was measured in yards. The reason these were such an obstacle is within each square of hedgerow was wide open field, just farm land. The German's were able to use these hedgerows defensively knowing that the allies wouldn't be able to get through them easily and once through they were in an expansive field were they were then gunned down mercilessly by pre-sighted machine gun nests. Some of the most gruesome fighting of the war was in between these hedgerows. Rommel was particularly concerned with the Allied position once off the beach saying to one of his generals "If I was commander of the Allied forces right now, I could finish off the war in fourteen days!" Needless to say that wasn't case but his statement reflects just how poor off the Nazi defenders were after the beach.
To Paris, To Berlin...
The following is a list of works cited or referenced for the creation of each part of the series covering World War II. This list includes all works cited directly as well as any additional work used to gather information pertinent to the episodes.
Sledge, E. B. With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. New York: Presidio, 2010. Print.
Atkinson, Rick. The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945. NY, NY: Picador, 2014. Print.
Hofmann, Michael, and Ernst Jünger. Storm of Steel. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.
McManus, John C. Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II through Iraq. New York: NAL Caliber, 2011. Print.
Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988. Print.
Kershaw, Ian. Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Bishop, Morin, Mike Humphries, and Joanne Camas, eds. World War II Victory: The Pivotal Events That Won The War (2015): n. pag. Print.
Welch, Claire. Rise and Fall of the Nazis. London: Magpie, 2008. Print.
Mettler, Suzanne. Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation. New York: Oxford U Pr., 2007. Print.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic, 2012. Print.
Range, Peter Ross. 1924: The Year That Made Hitler. New York, NY: Little, Brown, 2016. Print.