Utah and Omaha Beaches


Today we toured two of the five beaches stormed in the invasion of Normandy on June 6th, 1944: Omaha and Utah. These two beaches were the two overseen by the Americans and have coincidentally been the two that I’ve studied the least and therefore found today’s talks new as well as interesting. The first piece of trivia that caught my attention was that initially, only four of the five beaches were the targets of Operation Overlord; two beaches overseen by the Americans and two by the Canadians, leaving Utah and the British completely out of the equation. Upon seeing this final draft, General Dwight D Eisenhower asked where the British forces were planning to be in this invasion they were so invested in. From there the front was opened to incorporate a fifth beach and expand the British presence from zero to two whole beaches. I was completely unaware of the fact that there was any doubt that Britain would have been on the forefront of an invasion of Europe in 1944. Though the world had become a great deal more interconnected by the time the Second World War broke out, to give the colonies the opportunity to take over Europe from Germany by invading alone seems as a lot less appealing. Apparently it was a lot less politically problematic to send colonial boys to die rather than their own, consequences of an American postwar Europe be damned.


The Utah Beach invasion was the most successful of all 5 beaches in terms of objectives reached and the number of causalities sustained, especially when compared to the Omaha Beach invasion. Two airborne divisions were dropped behind the causeways the Germans had made as the only way to approach the beachhead. From behind, they had created strongpoints while flooding all surrounding land to deter invaders. 12 000 strong each, both the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions sustained around 1000 casualties in total, secured the causeways, and made the occupation of the beach possible. When presented at the Utah museum, the curator’s notes made it seem as if the world had been changed by the outcomes of Utah Beach and though I agree that it was crucial all beaches be captured, to suggest that the Allies would have ‘failed to save the world by losing Utah’ distorts the memory of this battle to serve a modern American narrative of being the international police state.

Omaha Beach was another story. One of the many issues with this beach was that the Germans defending it were the 352nd, a properly trained division who had fought on the Eastern Front and were merely guarding the Atlantic Wall area while training. The American’s drop point, instead of being only 1 mile off like in Utah, was so far away from the beach that almost all of their tanks sank. The one that made it ashore was blown up. The Americans also had no artillery because the guns they were using were not the self-propelled howitzers the Canadians were using at Juno but guns that had to be towed. They were either left in the craft or swamped when brought on the beach. At the end of D-Day on Omaha beach a total of 2000 soldiers died; the 116th company sustained 100% casualties. It was the worst hit beach. Despite all the shortcomings of the invasions and situations surrounding them, Allied forces managed to capture all beaches and invade Europe.


Brigette Farrell

America’s Side

Today we focused on the American side of the Normandy invasion by going to Utah and Omaha beach and the St. Mere church. There is a significant difference between the American sites and the Canadian sites in terms of visitors, but then again, D-DAY is only two days away meaning more visitors are likely to visit those places. Despite that, we visited the beaches learning about how they carried out their orders and the challenges they faced while climbing up the beach. I was shocked by what the Americans had to do at Point du Hoc as they had to climb up a steep cliff to take German bunkers and some guns. The bunkers were there but the guns were pushed about 10 kilometers inland so they could not get to them. There were also a lot of deep shell holes which gave me a good idea of the power of the American guns used during the operation.


Additionally, there were many reenactors present at all American sites. One place in particular had dug foxholes and brought in several different types of American vehicles. Many of us assumed the reenactors were American, but many were Belgian and maybe some French as well. It is curious why they choose to dress up like Americans. Perhaps it is easier to find American gear or because of the American film industry catching their imagination. There was after all, many visitors on site.

Today was an incredible day but what made it even better was that I got to meet one of the actors who played in Band of Brothers at Utah beach. He was speaking with a WW2 veteran and I asked if I could take a photo which was great!



Seeing History of the Second World War

It is hard to believe that we have one week left before we’re back on that plane flying home to our respectful areas. It seems like we have been here far longer than I know we have. I have learned and seen so much that there is nothing I can compare this experience to.

We said goodbye to Dieppe and the beautiful waterfront hotel and have made our way to the coast of Normandy where we are now studying the invasion of June 6, 1944 – Operation Overlord. Bright and early we got up and made our way to Sword Beach, one of the two British Beaches on the French coast of Nomandy. When we arrived I was struck by the sight of massive metal floating rectangles in the water and washed up on the shore. These are called Mullberry harbours. These were prefabricated harbours, created in the UK, and towed to Sword Beach following the inital invasion of the beach. They were used to transport supplies, vehicles and people ashore more easily. The Mulberries were only suppose to last for 3 years, however as I clearly saw, they have remained much longer than that.
Following this, we made our way to Juno beach, where again I was stopped in my shoes by the visual indications that there had infact been a bloody and horrific invasion here. The bunkers with the original machine gun still peacefully sitting inside, or german observation posts still hidden behind grass and bush. I can’t help but think what these things have seen. It was an honour to deliver a presentation on Operation Neptune while standing on the beach itself. However, it felt different than my last. In truth, visiting Second World War sites feel different to me and I wasn’t able to initially put my finger on why. At first I was concerned that I was placing a greater emphasis on the Second World War than I was on the First, or that perhaps it was a personal tie in relation to my Grandfather who faught. But then I came to realize that it was the degree of “stuff” that is still standing which has allowed me to better visualize what the men endured here.
When studying the First World War, where I felt the heaviest weight was at the Commonwealth Cemetaries… walking row on row and thanking the dead under my breath. But these past few days, where I have felt the greatest degree of sorrow and gratefulness has been at the battle sites or invasion sites that we have visited because of the degree to which aspects of this time remain untouched. Standing in an open field over the Ypres Salient and learning about the first gas attack with the only tangible reminents being small pieces of shrapnel is quite a different feeling than standing in a preserved bunker, looking out to Juno beach while seeing further bunkers and machine guns all around you.
This is interesting to me from a Punlic History perspective as it presents two very different ways that history can be delivered to the public and absorbed by the public. When delivering First World War information on a battle site, it will be done in a way that recognizes its distance past whereas the moretangible and visiual history of the Second World War is a great advantage and of course a great interpretive tool. No one is better than the other, simply different given the time period and once one recognizes thte limitations and advantages it because easier to deliver this informationn to others.


Why Dieppe?

Why Dieppe? This is a question that I have often heard asked about the Dieppe raid. There are different variations of the question: Why did the Allies choose this particular location to launch a raid? Why 19 August? What was the purpose of the raid? Why was it the Canadians who carried out the raid? These questions are often asked in light of knowing the result of the Dieppe raid, and with the assumption that Dieppe was a massive failure in all regards.

During our visit to Dieppe today, we were encouraged to cast aside the privilege of hindsight and consider the information the Allies had at the time that went into the decision making process. For example there were only a few locations along the French coast that were close enough to England for transporting the troops and to allow for the provision of air support. There were also considerations to be made for weather conditions, tides (to be able to land and then withdraw once objectives were reached), and moon phase (at new moon, so the landing craft would not be seen in the moonlight by the Germans). Each of these factors contributed to narrowing the window of opportunity and where a raid could be launched. The original plan was also altered to a frontal attack on the main beaches rather than from the rear because of anticipated difficulties with constructing bridges to cross the rivers along the way.

We also discussed that there was an increasing need for Britain to relieve pressure from Russia in the east by opening up a second front in the west. There was also pressure on the home front to see our troops in action at this point in the war. In many cases people are not satisfied with these explanations and are searching for a single purpose for the raid. However, it is only by considering all of these factors regarding what decision makers knew at the time that we can begin to understand why Dieppe happened.

I presented at Dieppe today on the Essex Scottish regiment that fought as part of the landing at Red Beach. I was shocked when I read there were 75% casualty rates with the regiment by the time they withdrew at 11am. I found doing research on the experiences of the Essex Scottish on August 19 to be a helpful exercise in expanding my knowledge of the operational side of Dieppe, rather than just a focus on how we remember the raid more broadly. Despite an examination of secondary sources and excerpts of the war diaries, contributing to what I thought was a thorough understanding of what happened at Red Beach, I found the conceptions I had crafted in my head to be entirely different when I saw the landscape before me. This is what I think is the greatest value of this trip – the experiential learning, viewing the landscape in real life alongside the maps and text. As our leaders began to explain what occurred for other regiments surrounding the Essex Scottish, I was able to situate them within the larger context of the raid while trying to imagine what Dieppe looked like when the Canadians landed almost 75 years ago.

Sara Karn