D-Day: On the Beaches, Over the Cliffs, and Behind the Lines

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Jun 06, 2007 12:45 PM

I watched "Band of Brothers" this weekend. All 10 hours of it. It was just about the perfect thing to spend a weekend doing, especially the weekend between Memorial Day and D-Day. I would recommend it to anyone. I had read the book years ago, but the miniseries is well worth your time. In fact, once you start, you probably won't be able to stop.

I am often at a loss for words when writing about a time when we were at no loss for heroes. They volunteered for missions impossible and accomplished feats unimaginable. They were war-torn and trench-footed and twenty years old. And, there were so, so, so many of them.


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Reagan and a YouTuber beautifully memorialize the "Boys of Pointe du Hoc":


FDR's D-Day Prayer: "We know that by your grace and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph."
Audio of Eisenhower's order to the Allied Expeditionary Forces, here.

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Elsewhere on D-Day, men were dropping through a sky on fire to land behind the enemy's lines. Many would die before they left the planes. Many would die on their way to the ground. And, still more would die trying to capture causeways to Utah Beach.

And, since this particular D-Day exploit is both fresh in my mind and always worth a retelling, read the story of Dick Winters and just a handful of 101st Airborne paratroopers who captured three German guns manned by as many as 50 soldiers:

And it was on D-Day that Dick Winters had his rendezvous with destiny. Easy Company's mission,as with the other units within the 101st Airborne Division, was to seize the causeways behind Utah Beach to facilitate the expansion of the beachhead. Jumping from a C-47 Dakota at 150 miles per hour and at500 feet and less, the Division's drop was scattered across the Cotentin Peninsula. Winters came down near the town of Ste.Mere-Eglise, several kilometers from the intended drop zone. Rallying a couple of troopers, he soon was en route to Ste. Marie-du-Mont,destined to be the Division's headquarters for most of D-Day. En route,Winters stumbled across the battalion staff and 40 men of D Company. By7:00 a.m., E Company consisted of two light machine guns, one bazooka with no ammunition, one 60 mm mortar, nine riflemen and two officers.No one knew the whereabouts of the company commander, so Winters took command.

Three kilometers from Ste.Marie-du-Mont, the column encountered sustained enemy fire, and Winters was summoned to the front. The battalion commander informed Winters that there was a four-gun battery of German 105 mm cannons, a few hundred meters to the front across an open field opposite a French farmhouse called Brécourt Manor. The battery was set up in a hedgerow and defended by a 50-man German platoon. The guns were firing directly down a causeway leading to Utah Beach. The battalion operations officer directed Winters to take the battery. Taking his company, Winters made a careful reconnaissance and then issued orders for an assault. The attack would consist of a frontal assault led by Winters with covering fire from several directions to pin down the Germans. Winters selected three soldiers for the assault: Pvt. Gerald Lorraine, Pvt. Popeye Wynn and Cpl. Joe Toye. Asked later why he selected these three, Winters recalled, "In combat you look for killers.' Many thought they were killers and wanted to prove it. They are, however, few and far between."

Winters saw the impending attack as a "high risk opportunity." The key was "initiative, an immediate appraisal of situation, the use of terrain to get into the connecting trench and taking one gun at a time." Crawling on their bellies, Winters and his men got close enough and knocked out the first gun. Mowing down the retreating Germans,Winters then placed a machine gun to fire down the trench. He had also noticed that as soon as he got close enough to assault the first gun,the Germans in an adjacent hedgerow temporary lifted their fire so that they would not inflict friendly casualties. That was enough for Winters, who had a "sixth sense" that such a respite shifted the advantage to him.

With the first gun out of action, Winters grabbed two other soldiers and charged the second gun. Throwing hand grenades and firing their rifles, they took the second howitzer. Next to the gun was a case with a map that showed all the German artillery in the Cotentin Peninsula.Winters sent the map back to battalion headquarters and then directed another assault which rapidly captured the third gun. Reinforcements led by an officer from D Company soon arrived. Winters briefly outlined the situation and then watched D Company capture the last gun. With the mission complete, Winters ordered a withdrawal. It was 11:30 a.m.,roughly three hours since Winters had received the order to take the battery. In summarizing Easy's action, historian Stephen Ambrose notes that with 12 men, what amounted to a squad, later reinforced by elements of D Company, Winters had destroyed a German battery, killed15 Germans, wounded many more, and taken 12 prisoners. It would be a gross exaggeration to say that Easy Company saved the day at Utah Beach, but reasonable to say that it had made an important contribution to the success of the invasion.

Winters' action at Brécourt Manor was a textbook infantry assault, frequently studied at the U.S. Military Academy.

Here's the "Band of Brothers" clip reenacting the assault at Brecourt Manor:

Laughing_Wolf at Blackfive:

Gold, Sword, Omaha... Names that should be known to all, but fewer remember them with each passing year. Fewer still are taught about them. Today, take a moment and remember. Take a moment, and teach.Stand silent for a moment, and remember all those who died this day, so that the light of freedom could shine again, for at least a while, on a continent gone dark.
God rest all their souls.