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World War II

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As you are well aware, your ever lovable Grey Beard Biker loves military history – and for that matter – United States history. Be it the War of the Revolution, War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam or the War on Terror, he has read about it extensively. But the Civil War has always been Grey Beard’s passion.

Having been born and raised in Central Illinois, but living the majority of his adult life in Missouri and Tennessee, your old bearded pal has a very unique take on what southerners call the War of Northern Aggression – a term I do not embrace. While sympathetic to the south, as someone who has adopted the southeast United States as home, my views on the Civil War tend to be more pragmatic. The North had the manufacturing and manpower to bring the South to her knees, but the Rebel armies had a certain elan which was admirable. During the last thirteen months of the war, the two most well known commanders, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee would face each other in a fight to the death. These men were vastly different – but also quite alike in many respects. While Grant never was beaten in any campaign he commanded, R.E. Lee was known for his daring on the battlefield. Let’s take a brief look at each general.

Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee was born in 1809 in the tidewater area of Virginia. His father was “Lighthorse” Harry Lee which would be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because Henry Lee was a celebrated hero of the Revolutionary War, but a curse because he left his family terrible amounts of debt. He would graduate from West Point at the top of his class and serve as an engineer and a cavalry officer. He earned a great deal of respect for his courage on the battlefield during the Mexican War. Lee would serve as superintendent at West Point and would finish his service in the U.S. Army as lieutenant colonel of the vaunted 2nd Cavalry.

After Abraham Lincoln‘s inauguration, and the secession of several southern states, Lee wound be offered command of the Union armies arriving in Washington, D.C. to protect the capital. After the firing on Fort Sumter, in Charleston bay, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. This would be the final straw for Lee, who’s home state of Virginia promptly seceded. Lee would resign his U.S. Army commission and take a role as President Jefferson Davis‘ military advisor.

After the wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston, during the Peninsula Campaign, Lee would be placed in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, where he would earn the love and respect of his soldiers and the entire southern citizenry. He would lead this army through some of the most brutal battles of the war: the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Overland Campaign and Petersburg.

Ulysses S. Grant

Lieutenant General, U.S. Grant

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in an Ohio River town in southern Ohio in April 1822. His upbringing would be vastly different than R.E. Lee’s as he did not have the family name or the connections Lee would benefit from. He was an excellent equestrian and enjoyed reading. What he did not like to do was spend time in his father, Jesse Grant’s tannery. He could not stand the sight of blood and was disgusted by the smell. Unlike Lee, Grant was never particularly close with his mother.

Jesse, knowing young Ulys did not desire to follow in his footsteps, secured him an appointment to West Point. Unlike Lee, Grant would not graduate at the top of his West Point class. While he wanted to join the cavalry service, he would instead be assigned to the 4th Infantry Regiment and head to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. While there, he would meet Julia Dent, sister of his fellow classmate, Fred Dent, whom he would later marry.

During the Mexican War, Grant would be assigned quartermaster’s duties for his regiment. Inevitably this would help him later in his career, when he was responsible for large armies. Not wanting to be away from the fighting, while in Mexico, he would volunteer to help along the infantry lines and was cited for gallantry. After the Mexican War he would be sent to upstate New York, where he could enjoy Julia’s company. But that would be short lived, as he was soon transferred to the west coast where it would be too difficult to have his family with him. Missing his family desperately, he would resign his commission and move to St. Louis where he would scratch out a living on the Dent family’s farm.

By the time of Lincoln’s election, Grant had moved his family to Galena, Illinois to work in his father’s store. As secession was taking place, Grant offered his services to the U.S. Army, but received no response. He would end up helping organize volunteer regiments in Springfield and would eventually earn a commission as colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry. Through well placed friends in Washington City, he would quickly be promoted brigadier general, volunteers and would earn a reputation as an aggressive fighter at the Battle of Belmont (Missouri).

As mentioned previously, Grant would never lose a battle or campaign during the Civil War. He became a celebrity after capturing forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee – which would open both the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. These battles would earn a promotion for Grant, to major general, volunteers. He would go on to win battles at Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga before being brought east to command all Union armies. This move brought him promotion to lieutenant general in the regular army – a rank not given since George Washington received it.

Never wanting to be away from the fighting, he would set up his command with Major General George Meade‘s Army of the Potomac. Here he would oversee the gruesome fighting at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, the North Anna, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. After capturing Petersburg, he would command the forces chasing Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the Appomattox Campaign – eventually receiving Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. He was the only Union commander to capture a Confederate army, until Major General William Sherman captured the remnants of the Army of Tennessee, in North Carolina to end the war. Grant captured three armies.

Was Grant or Lee the “Butcher?”

It is said, that after the fierce fighting a Cold Harbor, Mary Lincoln called Grant a butcher. Yes, Grant was aggressive. He would send his infantry to attack prepared positions. He would hammer away at entrenched lines, always looking for a weak spot. He did this at Donelson, Vicksburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and to a degree, at Petersburg. But Lee was also very aggressive, often dividing his army in front of vastly larger forces. He would also hammer at entrenched lines in several battles: Malvern Hill, Gettysburg and Petersburg come to mind. Did Grant deserve the moniker, “butcher,” or was Lee’s aggressive fighting more deserving of this title?

Let’s look at some actual numbers from when Lee faced off against Grant, starting in the spring of 1864. These numbers are taken from Edward H. Bonekemper III’s fabulous book, A Victor Not A Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant’s Overlooked Military Genius.”

BattleLeeGrant
Wilderness11,12517,666
Spotsylvania C.H.13,42118,399
North Anna River3,7663,986
Cold Harbor4,59512,737
Petersburg Assaults (prior to siege)4,00011,386
Petersburg Siege28,00042,000
Appomattox Campaign41,66610,780
Totals106,573116,954

There is much which can be learned by these overall numbers. First, they contain all casualties for each belligerent: killed, mortally wounded, wounded, captured and missing. After taking command of all Union forces, Grant made his headquarters with Meade’s Army of the Potomac near Warrenton, Virginia. While later in the fighting in Virginia, he would become involved in tactical decisions, early on he let Meade manage the fighting. And thus, he advised Meade, “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” While strategically quite sound, this mandate would inevitably cause much bloodletting.

By the spring of 1864, Lee’s situation was extremely precarious. He had suffered tremendous losses at Gettysburg, retreating to Northern Virginia to lick his wounds. Over the fall of 1863 and the winter of 1863-1864, his Army of Northern Virginia would also bleed losses from desertion. Simply put, the Rebel soldiers were becoming aware of the inevitability that the Union juggernaut doomed their cause – they did not want to die for a doomed southern independence. So, the diminishing numbers of troops fit-for-battle required that Lee keep his army almost exclusively on the defensive. While he would try to take advantage of offensive opportunities – especially in the Wilderness – for the most part he would keep his army in fixed positions behind entrenchments.

Grant was much wiser than his naysayers gave him credit for. Going into the Overland Campaign, he knew Lee’s army was suffering from severe attrition and that the key to winning the war was constantly hammering the Army of Northern Virginia. And so the blood flowed heavily throughout the Overland Campaign and during the initial attacks against Lee’s lines around Petersburg and Richmond. But what the raw casualty numbers do not reflect, on face value, is that Lee’s overall strength during this time was 1/2 that of Grant’s. With his Army of Northern Virginia behind very heavy earthworks, especially starting at Spotsylvania Court House, Lee would still suffer a higher percentage of losses than Grant with one glaring exception: Cold Harbor. Lee’s desperation led to his high losses. Grant’s realization that the Civil War had become a battle of attrition led to his high losses. The Union’s ability to replenish their forces and Lee’s inability to do so made it thus.

One last analysis of Grant’s overall losses during the entire Civil War bears some examination. Grant would suffer 153,642 total casualties compared to 190,760 Confederate losses. Much of the lopsidedness of these losses were because Grant captured three complete Confederate armies at Donelson, Vicksburg and Appomattox. But based on raw numbers, especially with the never ending manpower reserves of the North, Grant should not be considered the “Butcher.”

In closing, your ever lovable Grey Beard Biker greatly respects the generalship of Robert E. Lee. He proved himself cunning, brave and willing to risk his Army of Northern Virginia when the potential outcome was worth the risk. Grant, undoubtedly is one of the United States’ premier generals. Without his leadership, the Civil War would have at least dragged on much longer. He recognized early on that the war was not a war of capturing territory, but rather a war of annihilating the Confederate war machine. Both of these generals should command respect.

Grey Beard Biker

Note: Besides referencing Bonekemper’s book, this entire post is primarily written from memory. Any mistakes are fully the responsibility of your bearded author.

The United States has survived over two centuries because we have had men and women who signed a contract with our government. A contract to protect and defend their country from all enemies – foreign and domestic. While your ever lovable Grey Beard Biker has the greatest respect for all members of our armed services, active duty and retired, there is a very special place in his heart for those who have been awarded the Medal of Honor. So today, he shares a story of heroism from the Second World War.

Pfc. Frederick C. Murphy – Profile of Courage

Unit: Medical Detachment, 259th Infantry, 65th Infantry Division
Hometown: Boston, Massachusetts
Date of Birth: July 27, 1918
Date of Death: March 19, 1945
Place of Death: Saarlautern, Germany (Siegfried Line)
Final Resting Place: Saint Laurent, France

U.S. Army Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor Citation:

An aid man, he was wounded in the right shoulder soon after his comrades had jumped off in a dawn attack 18 March 1945, against the Siegfried Line at Saarlautern, Germany. He refused to withdraw for treatment and continued forward, administering first aid under heavy machinegun, mortar and artillery fire. When the company ran into a thickly sown antipersonnel minefield and began to suffer more and more casualties, he continued to disregard his own wound and unhesitatingly braved the danger of exploding mines, moving about through heavy fire and helping the injured until he stepped on a mine which severed one of his feet. In spite of his grievous wounds, he struggled on with his work, refusing to be evacuated and bleeding profusely. He was killed by the blast of another mine which he had dragged himself across in an effort to reach still another casualty. With indomitable courage, and unquenchable spirit of self-sacrifice and supreme devotion to duty which made it possible for him to continue performing his tasks, while barely able to move, Pfc. Murphy saved many of his fellow soldiers at the cost of his own life.

Thank you Pfc. Murphy for your courage and intrepidity on the Siegfried Line in World War II. Your actions went far above the call of duty. Today, there are children and grandchildren who would have never known the freedom of the United States without your actions. The Grey Beard Biker salutes you, sir!

Grey Beard Biker

The Grey Beard Biker loves sharing stories about members of our Armed Forces. He considers all who have served to be heroes. Today’s Profile of Courage tells the story of Private First Class (Pfc.), Joe E. Mann. Mann was killed in action during World War II and is one of only two 101st Airborne Division soldiers to be awarded the Medal of Honor during that terrible conflict.

Pfc. Joe E. Mann

Your lovable Grey Beard Biker reads a great deal of military history. Living in Clarksville, Tennessee – home of the 101st Airborne Division – he has read a great deal about this unit. Having just finished reading Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose (for probably the 10th time), Grey Beard remains amazed that only two 101st Airborne Division paratroopers were awarded the Medal of Honor for service in Europe during WW II. This being the division which heaped glory upon itself behind the lines during D-Day, in Operation Market Garden and at Bastogne (Battle of the Bulge) – makes it that much more surprising this unit had only two Medal of Honor recipients in its ranks.

Joe E. Mann – Profile of Courage

Joe E. Mann, Private First Class (Pfc.)
Unit: Company H, 502nd PIR, 101st Airborne Division
Hometown: Reardan, Washington
Date of Birth: 8 July 1922
Date of Death: 19 September 1944
Place of Death: Best, the Netherlands
Final Resting Place: Spokane, Washington

Early Life and Military Service

Joe E. Mann was born in Reardan, Washington on July 22, 1922, to John and Anna Mann. Mann would grow up on a farm with eight siblings. Shortly after graduating from Reardan High School, he would enlist in the U.S. Army at Seattle, Washington, in August 1942. After basic training at Fort Lewis, he would be assigned to Company G, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne Division. Like most of the 101st Airborne Division, he would receive his jump wings after training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia. Prior to embarking for England, to prepare for Operation Overlord, Mann would be reassigned to Company H, 502nd PIR. While he would miss his first combat jump at Normandy, due to back issues, he would be reassigned to his unit in time to participate in Operation Market Garden, parachuting behind German lines in the Netherlands. The 502nd (5 O-deuce) PIR would fight on the southern flank at Best – just north of Eindhoven. It was here that Mann would wrap himself in glory, giving his last full measure, for his teammates, his regiment, his division and the United States Army.

U.S. Army – Medal of Honor

Joe E. Mann – Medal of Honor Citation

He distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. On 18 September 1944, in the vicinity of Best, Holland, his platoon, attempting to seize a bridge across the Wilhelmina Canal, was surrounded and isolated by an enemy force greatly superior in personnel and firepower. Acting as lead scout, Pfc. Mann boldly crept to within rocket-launcher range of an enemy artillery position and, in the face of heavy enemy fire, destroyed an 88-mm. gun and ammunition dump. Completely disregarding the danger involved, he remained in his exposed position, and, with his M 1 rifle, killed the enemy one by one until he was wounded 4 times. Taken to a covered position, he insisted on returning to a forward position to stand guard during the night. On the following morning the enemy launched a concerted attack and advanced to within a few yards of the position, throwing hand grenades as they approached. One of these landed within a few feet of Pfc. Mann. Unable to raise his arms, which were bandaged to his body, he yelled “grenade” and threw his body over the grenade, and as it exploded, died. His outstanding gallantry above and beyond the call of duty and his magnificent conduct were an everlasting inspiration to comrades for whom he gave his life.

Besides earning the Medal of Honor, Private First Class Mann earned many other honors:

  • Bronze Star with “V” device
  • Purple Heart (5 times – 4 with bronze oak leaves)
  • Army Good Conduct Medal
  • American Campaign Medal
  • Europe-Africa ME Medal (with bronze arrow and star)
  • WW II Victory Medal
  • French Croix de Guerre medal (with bronze star)

Legacy and Memorial

Joe E. Mann Memorial
Best, the Netherlands

After the war, a memorial would be placed at the site of Mann’s mortal wounding, between Best and Son, the Netherlands. In addition to the the statue, an open air theater there was named in his honor. It is still in use today. The plaque on his memorial reads:

The American paratrooper Joe Mann was involved with the capture of the bridge over the Wilhelminakanaal. He saved the lives of his comrades, by intercepting a grenade with his back. For this act he posthumously received the highest American military distinction: the Medal of Honor.

The Grey Beard Biker salutes PFC Mann! Your unselfish service to your brothers-in-arms, your company, your battalion, your regiment, your division and your country knew no bounds. May you forever rest in peace, knowing a loving country still remembers what you did for our freedom – and the freedom from Nazi tyranny for the people of Europe!

Grey Beard Biker

Your lovable Grey Beard Biker loves military history. You know this, because you are in the know. To the Grey Beard it doesn’t matter if a soldier was given any specific award, they are still a hero because they signed their name in blood on a contract with the United States government – a contract which is due-and-payable, if necessary, with their life. But those brave souls who have been awarded the Medal of Honor have a very special place in my heart. You see, less than 3,500 soldiers have been given this award since its inception during the Civil War. Until World War II, the vast majority of MoH recipients received their award while still alive. Since WW II, greater than 60% received the medal posthumously.

The basis for receiving our country’s highest military award is stringent, according to the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation:

Awarded by the President of the United States, in the name of Congress, to a member of the armed forces who “distinguishes himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:”

  • while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States;
  • while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or
  • while serving with friendly forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.

Grey Beard Biker’s Medal of Honor Profile:

Gunnery Sergeant, John Basilone, United States Marine Corps

Gunnery Sergeant, John Basilone, USMC

John Basilone
Hometown: Buffalo, New York
Date of Birth: November 4, 1916
Died: February 19, 1945, Iwo Jima, Japan
Age at Death: 28
Final Resting Place: Arlington National Cemetery

John Basilone was the sixth of ten children born to Salvator and Colle Basilone (nee Sannita). Although he was born in Buffalo, Basilone moved to Raritan, New Jersey as a toddler. Before joining the armed forces, Basilone worked as a golf caddy at a local country club.

In 1934 Basilone entered the United States Army, completing his enlistment in the Philippines after a three year stint. He may have been best known at that time as a champion caliber boxer. Leaving the military, he returned to the U.S. and a short career as a truck driver in Maryland.

In 1940, Basilone enlisted in the Marine Corps at Baltimore, Maryland. After training at Marine Corps Base Quantico, he would be assigned to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba until the United States declared war on Japan, after the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Assigned to Dog “D” Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division, Sergeant Basilone’s first duty assignment would be to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, South Pacific. It would be here that young Basilone would display undaunted courage, through his actions, at the Battle of Henderson Field, earning him the Medal of Honor.

Official Medal of Honor Citation:

For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action against enemy Japanese forces, above and beyond the call of duty, while serving with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division in the Lunga Area, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, on 24 and 25 October 1942. While the enemy was hammering at the Marines’ defensive positions, Sgt. Basilone, in charge of 2 sections of heavy machineguns, fought valiantly to check the savage and determined assault. In a fierce frontal attack with the Japanese blasting his guns with grenades and mortar fire, one of Sgt. Basilone’s sections, with its guncrews, was put out of action, leaving only two men able to carry on. Moving an extra gun into position, he placed it in action, then, under continual fire, repaired another and personally manned it, gallantly holding his line until replacements arrived. A little later, with ammunition critically low and supply lines cut off, Sgt. Basilone, at great risk of his life and in the face of continued enemy attack, battled his way through hostile lines with urgently needed shells for his gunners, thereby contributing in large measure to the virtual annihilation of a Japanese regiment. His great personal valor and courageous initiative were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

1943 would mark a homecoming for Basilone. He would be brought home to tour the United States on a War Bonds Tour – essentially urging civilians to purchase war bonds to fund the ongoing hostilities around the world. Feeling uncomfortable in the limelight, he would request to return to action, twice, before being approved to return to the Pacific Theater.

On 19 February 1945, assigned to “C” Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marines, 5th Marine Division, Basilone would storm the beaches of Iwo Jima, Japan, fighting his way inland to Airfield Number 1. Assisting a Marine tank, which was stuck in an enemy minefield, Basilone was killed by enemy mortar shrapnel. His gallant actions greatly assisted the Marines in expanding their beachhead at Iwo Jimo on that D-Day. His actions at Iwo Jimo would lead him to receive the Navy Cross, the Marine Corps’ second highest decoration for valor, posthumously.

Gunnery Sergeant, John Basilone, thank you for your courage, intrepidity and valor in the Pacific Theater during World War II. You remain, to this day, an inspiration to so many.

Semper Fi, Marine!
Grey Beard Biker

Note: John Basilone was portrayed in the HBO’s miniseries, The Pacific, by Jon Seda. While not as inspiring as Band of Brothers, this program is still highly recommend by The Grey Beard Biker.

Medal of Honor, United States Navy

Today June 6, marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day at Normandy. By the early summer of 1944, the U.S. had been embroiled in World War II for over two years. As a country, we had been against entry into the war until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Everything changed on that day, with congress approving a war declaration and F.D.R. declaring war on Japan, shortly after Pearl Harbor. That would lead to Hitler declaring war on the United States. It was truly a World War and the United States was in it.

Prelude to War in Europe

Britain had long wanted the U.S. to join the fight in Europe against the Axis Powers – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Vichy French troops. Until Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt could not be swayed. The U.S. had firmly entrenched itself as committed to be a neutral non-interventionist in Europe. After much prodding from Winston Churchill, Roosevelt signed the Lend Lease Act, in March 1941, which pledged support in the form of war ships and military equipment to the primary European Allies – Britain and Russia. Pearl Harbor would be the impetus which would lead to our joining the fight in the Pacific – with the Battle of the Coral Sea, Battle of Midway and Battle of Guadalcanal in early 1942 and the invasion of Vichy held northwest Africa (Operation Torch) in November 1942. The ultimate goal of Torch was to push west to Tunisia, trapping the Axis troops (German and Italian) on the peninsula at Tunis and forcing the surrender of the Afrika Korps, under the command Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. The Allied forces battling Afrika Korps would come from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Free France.

Roosevelt, all along, believed that the primary objective for the European theater should be Berlin, Germany – the headquarters of the Third Reich. He disagreed with Churchill, and the other leaders of the Allies, in an approach to Europe through Africa and southern France. F.D.R. believed that the quickest path to victory would be a straight line – and the straightest line led through northern France to Berlin. While true, the planning and build up to a cross-channel invasion would take years – years that homeland Britain, and Russia, did not have. Britain was being bombed daily from western Europe and Russia was being pummeled by Germany on the Eastern Front. After much prodding from Churchill, and Stalin, about the merits of striking the “soft underbelly” of the Axis in North Africa and Southern France, Roosevelt agreed to the invasions. This would allow the Allies to divert – or at least occupy – German forces on the two fronts in Europe, while the build up for the cross-channel invasion was completed.

None of the Allied leaders believed that the path to southern Europe, and the “soft underbelly” of the Axis, would take so long and cost so much. Ultimately that path would lead through the major battles of Africa, Sicily, southern Italy and southern France. The cost in blood would be staggering with the Allies suffering over 63,000 killed in action and nearly 340,000 missing or wounded. Battles would be named for locales which most Americans had never heard of: Oran, Kasserine Pass, Tunis, Salerno, Anzio, Monte Cassino, Ley Muy, Saint Tropez, Saint Raphael, Marseille and Toulon. The strategic goal of diverting Axis troops to the southern front was largely unsuccessful. Bombings continued unabated in Britain and Russian forces had their hands full on the Eastern Front. However, the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, southern Italy, Anzio and southern France benefitted the Allies significantly. These invasions all required huge flotillas, airborne infantry units penetrating behind enemy lines and immense beach landings of infantry, engineers and armored forces. Lessons learned during this time would prove essential for military planners preparing for the cross-channel invasion of Europe – code named: Operation Overlord.

Planning for Operation Overlord

Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower

Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) was responsible for the planning and execution of Operation Overlord. Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was in overall command with British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery being in command of the overall European Theater. Forces involved would come from: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Czechkosolovakia, Luxembourg, Greece, Netherlands and Norway.

Inevitably, Hitler knew the Allies were planning an invasion from England. But he assumed it would be at Pas de Calais – the closest point of continental Europe across the English Channel – and the launch site for V-1 and V-2 rockets which continued to bombard London. With this in mind, Hitler ordered this region heavily fortified. He was unaware that Allied planners had chosen Normandy because of its geography – there were less rivers and canals in the area so a broad front of Allied soldiers could mass after the landing. Additionally, the proximity of Normandy to the port of Cherbourg, in the American sector, and Brittany, in the English sector, made Normandy more appealing. The Allied Expeditionary Forces would require massive amounts of supplies, armored vehicles, clothing, ammunition and fuel. Opening a broad beachhead at Normandy would satisfy their port requirements – to a degree – once the Americans opened the port at Cherbourg.

The Allied planners agreed that there would be three phases of the cross-channel invasion:

  1. Allied bombing raids would target rail lines, German manufacturing, fuel supplies and airfields. Codenamed Operation Point Blank, these bombing raids were designed to prevent quick reinforcement of Axis lines from the south and ensure air superiority over Normandy
  2. Airborne infantry would drop behind Axis lines several hours before the beach landings to tie up some of the German defenses and open up pathways to the interior for infantry landing on the beaches.
  3. Seaborne landings would begin on June 5 (later postponed to June 6 due to low cloud ceiling preventing airborne transport planes from dropping their sticks accurately) with First Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, landing on the two western beaches (Utah and Omaha) and Second Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey, landing at the three eastern beaches (Gold, Juno and Sword). Bradley’s First Army would include the American V Corps and VII Corps. Dempsey’s Second Army would include British I Corps, XXX Corps and the First Canadian Army. Included with the First Canadian would be troops from Poland, Netherlands and Belgium.

The objective for Operation Overlord was for Bradley’s First Army to quickly cut off the Cotentin Peninsula and capture the port of Cherbourg. The U.S. Airborne troops, consisting of the 82nd Airborne Division, commanded by Major General Matthew Ridgeway, and the 101st Airborne Division, commanded by Brigadier General Maxwell Taylor, would be transported on 432 C-47 planes and were tasked with opening the beach causeways and blocking German reinforcements coming from the east towards Carentan. The British airborne force included Major General Richard Nelson Gale’s 6th Airborne Division which would drop near Caen. They were tasked with capturing two bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River, allowing ingress of troops once the Normandy beachhead was established.

D-Day at Normandy

Supreme Allied Command, General Dwight D. Eisenhower on D-Day

Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower communicated by letter with all Allied forces on the afternoon of June 5:

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”

U.S. Airborne soldiers on the cross channel flight

At 22:30 on June 5, the C-47s containing the U.S. Airborne troops began taking off from airfields in Great Britain. These serials would continue departing over the next hour. Entering France from the west, the C-47s decreased their altitude from 1,500 feet to 500 feet. Despite precise planning, the transports quickly scattered due to a solid cloud bank, heavy German anti-aircraft (flak) fire and unmarked/improperly marked drop zones. The two airborne divisions would take the better part of two days to organize.

Preliminary naval bombardment of the Atlantic Wall defenses began at 05:45 and continued until 06:25. Five battleships, 20 cruisers and 65 destroyers would fire tons of heavy naval ordnance with minimal damage being done to the Atlantic Wall defenses.

Allied infantry approaching Omaha Beach

Overnight, infantry began departing the shores of Great Britain for their voyage across the English Channel. Code named Operation Neptune, the beach landing armada would include nearly 7,000 vessels – 1,213 of which were naval warships, 4,126 landing ships/crafts and nearly 900 merchant ships.

The first troop landings began at 06:30 with the U.S. 4th Infantry Division landing around 1/2 mile south of their planned landing zone. Commanded on D-Day by Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of President Teddy Roosevelt, the 4th Division would meet only minor resistance forming their beachhead. Suffering approximate 200 casualties, by the end of D-Day, they would push four clicks ashore by nightfall. Roosevelt would be the only general officer to land by sea on D-Day and would survive just over one month, dying on July 12 of a heart attack.

Airborne Assault Forces over Normandy

With the scattered nature of the U.S. Airborne drops – only 10% of the assault forces would actually land in their assigned drop zones – confusion ruled the early fighting. The 82nd Airborne Division would capture Sainte-Mere Eglise, but its failure to capture the crossing of River Merderet would result in a delay sealing off the Cotentin Peninsula. The 101st Airborne Division, The Screaming Eagles, would capture a crossing of the River Douve, near Caretan, somewhat protecting the southern flank.

Allied infantry pushing ashore at Omaha Beach

Meanwhile, the more heavily defended landing at Omaha Beach was assigned to the U.S. 1st and 29th infantry divisions. Unknowingly, these troops were not facing a single German regiment, but the entire 352nd Nazi German Division. Casualties at Omaha Beach would be greater than all other landing zones combined as they faced concentrated artillery and machine gun fire from heavily fortified pillboxes along the heights overlooking the beach. By 08:30, landings would have to be delayed as beach obstructions were causing havoc along the entry points to the beach. Complicating matters were the scant five exit gullies from the beach – the only way to reach high ground. By noon, infantry, aided by naval gunfire, had started reaching the German defenses – which were beginning to run out of ammunition. The beachhead would remain quite tenuous over the coming days with D-Day objectives pushing out to D+3.

An Allied infantryman braving the surf at Omaha Beach

Second Army landings at Gold and Juno would be complicated by high seas and wind. Landings at Sword would be more successful with tanks and infantry clearing a significant beachhead and supporting the delayed landings at Gold and Juno.

Landing and supply ships at the beaches of Normandy

Over the coming days, man made harbors would begin to be assembled to allow supply ships, infantry and tanks to continue the buildup at Normandy and supply food, medical supplies, ammunition and much needed fuel. The armada of military vehicles and tanks pushing into Normandy would eclipse 10,000 by D+1.

Tanks arriving at Omaha Beach

While the initial objectives of D-Day were only partially met, it would prove a singular success over the intervening years. The beachheads would continue to grow, with each passing day, allowing nearly 1.5 million Allied troops to enter France by July 25th and over 2 million by September 1st. But the cost would be extremely high on both sides. The butcher’s bill on D-Day alone, would climb to over 10,000 Allied troops – with 4,414 killed in action (KIA). Additionally 185 Sherman tanks would be lost, including most of their crews, landing at the beaches. Some of these tanks had been modified to disembark in deep water and push ashore via propellers. This proved folly, as most all of the “amphibious” tanks would never reach shore.

An Allied Sherman tank scaling the Atlantic Wall on D-Day

The Nazi German toll on D-Day is unknown, but estimated to be between 4,000 and 10,000. Many of these would be captured and sent to prisoner of war camps in the United Kingdom and the United States. Given the defenses along the Atlantic Wall, the lower casualties of Axis troops was expected.

The United States paid the highest price on D-Day. All told, recently updated casualty figures, from the US National D-Day Memorial Foundation, have confirmed 6,603 total U.S. casualties, with 1,914 KIA. The stiff resistance at Omaha Beach is where the majority of these casualties occurred.

The Grey Beard Biker’s respect for all veterans, current members of our armed forces and especially those airborne troops, infantry troops, army air force troops and sailors who took part on D-Day knows no bounds. While the veterans of WW II are called the Greatest Generation, Grey Beard views all who have signed their contract with the U.S. armed forces, in blood, to be greater than great. God Bless the United States, her allies and especially our troops in harm’s way!

The Grey Beard Biker