Military history

Area Eleven

UTAH Beach Walk: The 4th Infantry Division and 101st (Airborne) Divisions on D-Day


UTAH Beach was the most western beachhead selected for the Overlord operations. The landings here by American troops were part of the wider plan to land in the Cotentin peninsula and advance on the port of Cherbourg; capturing it would give the Allies deep-water port facilities. The Atlantic Wall on the eastern side of this peninsula where the landings would take place was well defended, but an area around the dunes at Varreville was selected. The beaches here were sandy but solid, there was a low sea wall and some dunes, and while it was well defended, it was nothing outside the capabilities of the forces available for Overlord.

The German defenders were from a mixture of Grenadier and Fusilier battalions backed up with assault guns and engineers from two infantry divisions, and an airlanding division, supported by battalions from the 6. Fallschirmjäger Regiment (Paratroops). Facing them in the landings were American infantry from 4th Division, backed up by armoured troops. Landing within the peninsula would be units from two American airborne divisions, 82nd and 101st, with the 101st Airborne landing nearest to UTAH Beach to secure the vital positions between Ste-Mère-Eglise and the coast.

The seaborne landings at UTAH Beach assembled off the French coast in the early hours of 6 June. Just out of range of German shore batteries, as the vessels gathered transport aircraft passed over carrying the airborne troops to their DZs. A little later at 0430 two troops from the 4th and 24th Cavalry Squadrons landed at the Îles St Marcouf to neutralise German positions there as it was feared they would interfere with the landings at UTAH.

Corporal Harvey S. Olsen and Private Thomas C. Killeran of Troop A, with Sergeant John S. Zanders and Corporal Melvin F. Kinzie of Troop B, each armed only with a knife, swam ashore to mark the beaches for the landing crafts. They became the first seaborne American soldiers to land on French soil on D Day. As the troops dashed from their landing craft they were met with silence. The Germans had evacuated the islands but they did leave them heavily mined.1

Dawn arrived just before 0600 and in the next ten minutes more than 4,400 bombs rained down on the German defences at Tare Green and Uncle Red Beaches at Varreville where the troops were going to land. Later reports showed that this pre-H Hour bombardment had been quite effective, but a strange quirk of fate would mean that despite the damage done, the bombardment would not have any effect on the success or failure of the landings about to happen. The first troops approached the beach,

The first troops to reach shore were from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry. 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 south.

It is difficult to pinpoint the cause for this error. Both Red Beach control vessels had been lost, and one of the Green Beach control vessels had gone back to bring in the LCTs carrying DD amphibious tanks. Guiding the initial assault waves to the proper beaches was therefore the sole responsibility of one control vessel. The possibility of error was increased by the strong tidal current as well as by the beach drenching administered by naval fire support craft, which threw up a tremendous cloud of smoke, dust, and fine sand, obscuring the beach for many minutes just prior to and after the jump-off from the line of departure.

Potentially this error was very serious, for it might have caused great confusion. In fact it did not. The original plans, in which each assault section had a specific mission, could not be carried out in detail, of course. Brig Gen Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., assistant commander of the 4th Division, had volunteered to coordinate the initial attack on the beach strong points until the arrival of the regimental commander, Colonel Van Fleet, and had landed with Company E. When it was realized that the landings had been made at the wrong place, 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, Lt Cols Conrad C. Simmons and Carlton O. MacNeely, and coordinated the attack on the enemy positions confronting them. These impromptu plans worked with complete success and little confusion. The errors in landing actually proved fortunate. Not only was the beach farther south less thickly obstructed, but the enemy shore defences were also less formidable than those opposite the intended landing beaches.2

Men from the 4th Division landing at Utah Beach.

With a successful landing and the defences breached, the work to clear the beach for the follow-up waves began, and was completed in an hour. More troops poured in, along with armour and supporting mortars and artillery. The units of 4th Division then began the task of reaching their D-Day objectives and gradually cleared the inland German defences, with one element of 8th Infantry making the first link-up with airborne troops at Pouppeville. These events were in complete contrast to those across the estuary at OMAHA Beach,

The relative ease with which the assault on UTAH Beach was accomplished was surprising even to the attackers, and gave the lie to the touted impregnability of the Atlantic Wall. The 4th Division’s losses for D Day were astonishingly low. The 8th and 22nd Infantry Regiments, which landed before noon, suffered a total of 118 casualties on D Day, twelve of them fatalities. The division as a whole suffered only 197 casualties during the day, and these included sixty men missing through the loss (at sea) of part of Battery B, 29th Field Artillery Battalion. Not less noteworthy than the small losses was the speed of the landings. With the exception of one field artillery battalion (the 20th) the entire 4th Division had landed in the first fifteen hours . . . A total of over 20,000 troops and 1,700 vehicles reached UTAH Beach by the end of 6 June.3

While the Task Force heading for UTAH Beach had been assembling, the men of 101st Airborne Division had already began the battle for the peninsula. Some 432 C47 transport aircraft carried 6,600 troops into Normandy in those early hours of 6 June. In addition, gliders would bring in men from Glider Infantry and some of the heavier equipment. The 101st Airborne’s D-Day drop was less than successful, however,

Paratroop echelons approached the Cotentin from the west and made their landfall in the vicinity of les Pieux . . . Formations were tight until reaching the coast, but from the coast to the Merderet cloud banks loosened the formations, and east of the Merderet flak scattered them further. In general the division did not have a good drop ... About 1,500 troops were either killed or captured and approximately 60 percent of the equipment dropped was lost when the bundles fell into swamps or into fields covered by enemy fire. Only a fraction of the division’s organized strength could initially be employed on the planned missions, and many of the missions carried out were undertaken by mixed groups which did not correspond with original assignments.4

The beach secure, the follow-up waves arrive.

One of the great tragedies was that many airborne troops were mistakenly dropped into the sea, or the nearby estuary or into flooded areas. Just a few inches of water for a heavily laden airborne soldier meant certain death, and many disappeared into the marshes and flooded zones. The 101st Airborne’s D-Day, therefore, became a series of scattered battles rather than one coherent one. With small group of airborne men scattered far and wide, often without leaders, it is a testimony to their training and bravery that so many attempted to put into operation tasks they had trained for prior to the drop.

One objective that had initially missed the attention of airborne troops was the German gun battery located in the hedgerows close to a large farm complex known as Brécourt Manor. There was mixed information on the battery, and what type of guns were firing from it, but on D-Day guns were known to be firing from positions here onto the landings at UTAH Beach. Survivors of Easy Company, 2nd Bn 506th PIR were given the task of silencing it. The company had lost its commander in the drop and was now led by 26-year-old Richard ‘Dick’ Winters, a former college student from Pennsylvania. Winters only had a handful of men at his disposal, and most accounts put it at around thirteen airborne troopers. But he quickly formulated a plan and went in.

Winters positioned two .30 calibre machine guns to cover the attack and coming in from the north-east, he led his team down the hedgerow from gun pit to gun pit. The attack surprised the gunners, but they had their own machine gun teams close by and these soon opened fire. However, Winters’ men quickly overwhelmed the first three guns and destroyed them with explosives before ten re-enforcements arrived from Dog Company and took on the final gun. By this time, enemy fire had increased and Winters took his party out. Casualties in his own company had been one man killed and one wounded, with two dead and one wounded from Dog Company. The Brécourt Manor Gun Battery had been silenced.

For Winters this was one of several actions on D-Day and in subsequent days in Normandy. It was a small-unit action that does not feature in the American official history, despite the fact that Winters was interviewed about it after the war. However, he appears to have downplayed the whole event, which could explain it. At the time the bravery and initiative of the men involved was indeed recognised as Dick Winters was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, and three men the Silver Star, nine the Bronze Star and three the Purple Heart. Almost seventy years later, it is arguably the most famous American airborne action of D-Day and the tactics used by Winters and his men are still studied at West Point to this day.

For the 101st Airborne,

a hard fight had been fought on D Day . . . a fight that had not gone entirely according to plan and had cost heavy casualties. Not one battle but fifteen or twenty separate engagements had been fought . . . Initial dispersion was further aggravated by the Normandy terrain; the hedgerows made it difficult to assemble and still more difficult to coordinate the manoeuvre of units. Some units were completely unaware of others, fighting only a few hundred yards away. The groups were usually mixed, and men strangers to their leaders fought for objectives to which they had not been assigned. Still, the airborne operation was in general a success. Small groups of parachutists took advantage of a surprised and temporarily disorganized enemy to seize many of the vital objectives quickly.

When D Day ended, the 101st Airborne Division had accomplished the most important of its initial missions. General Taylor had estimated at noontime that, despite the errors of the drop, the tactical situation of his division was sound. The way had been cleared for the movement of the seaborne forces inland . . . Yet here, as elsewhere on D Day, the weakness of the American forces was more than offset by the almost total lack of aggressiveness on the part of the enemy. Positions which tactically should have required battalions for defence could be and were held by small improvised forces which had to worry more about cover from artillery and mortar fire than about counterattack. Probably the weakest feature of the whole situation at the close of D Day was the lack of communication. This had plagued the activities of most of the battalions during the day. At night, though it was only the southern forces that remained out of contact, the southern flank was precisely the most seriously threatened portion of the division sector ... Of the 6,600 men of the 101st Division dropped on the morning of D Day, only 2,500 men were working together at the end of the day.5

Airborne supply drop near Ste Marie du Mont.

Walk 11: In the UTAH Beach Area

STARTING POINT: Car park in front of UTAH Beach Museum

GPS: 49°24′54.0″N, 1°10′31.1″W

DURATION: 17.1km/10.6 miles

Although the area where the landings on UTAH Beach was small, the ground over which 101st Airborne operated on D-Day was wide, and as such this walk covers the ground around the beachhead and focuses on the 101st Airborne around Ste-Marie-du-Mont.

Start the walk at the excellent UTAH Beach Museum ( This museum re-opened in June 2011 with new displays telling the story of American troops in the landings and the role of the airborne. At least ninety minutes should be put aside for the museum before walking down onto the beach and seeing where the troops landed before walking up onto the sand dunes where the memorials are located. There are memorials to the 4th Division, the 90th Division (who landed in the D-Day follow-up) and a more recent one to the American Navy. At low tide it is possible to walk along the shoreline, but it is easier to go from the memorials and a minor road that runs parallel to the sea. Stay on this until it meets a major road junction with sand dunes ahead. Stop.

The Utah Beach Museum.

Beach defences are still visible at Utah Beach.

This is the start of Exit 3 just north of the original Tare Green where the landings should have taken place on D-Day. This was the site marked ‘Dunes de Varreville’ on the D-Day intelligence maps and the bunkers ahead were part of WN-106, sometimes also called WN-7. This consisted of bunkers, two 50mm guns, one 47mm and a field gun in a bunker; traces of the bunkers can be explored in the dunes. The site was captured by men from 4th Division but close to it Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole of 502nd PIR led a bayonet charge on D-Day, inflicting seventy-five casualties on the Germans in this area.

At the junction go left onto Exit 3, named Blair Road after Private First Class J. Blair, who died here on 10 June 1944 while serving with a Quartermaster unit. Follow this for a short way and then take the first left onto another minor road. On this road take the first right onto a track (marked on some maps as Le Grand Hard) which you follow across the fields until it meets a minor road. Here go straight across and continue straight ahead until this route meets the D14 at Le Grand Chemin. Walk across to the memorial overlooking a field on the other side of the road. Stop.

This is a memorial to the Easy Company attack on the Brécourt Manor Gun Battery. The gun site was across the field behind the tree line and Richard Winters’ attack came in from your right towards the tree line. After D-Day an American hospital was later set up in this field. The field cannot be entered and respect for private property should be shown.

The hedgerow at Brécourt where the gun battery was dug in and assaulted by Easy Company.

The Band of Brothers Memorial at Brécourt.

The distinctive church at Ste Marie du Mont.

The ‘Liberty Way’ marker at Ste Marie du Mont. Men from Easy Company were photographed here on D-Day. The First World War Poilu statue behind had been removed during the war.

Continue along the minor road to the left of the memorial signposted to Brécourt. Further up on the left a large Normandy stone farm complex can be seen. These are the buildings known as Brécourt Manor and the gun battery site was to the right, on the other side of the hedgerows. This is a working farm and a family home, and private property and this should be respected at all times.

Continue on this road past the farm and at the next junction turn left onto the D424 and follow it into Ste-Marie-du-Mont. Ste-Marie-du-Mont was the first major village inland from UTAH and prior to D-Day the Germans had troops based here and an OP in the church tower, which was linked to gun sites nearby, including Brécourt, by fixed telephone line as well as radio. Around the village more than 400 aircraft dropped the men from 101st Airborne in the early hours of D-Day and many small-unit actions were fought in the fields and hedgerows here. It was eventually liberated by men from the 501st and 506th PIR on D-Day. Today, the village has a number of cafés and shops, and also two good museums. One tells the story of the American operations here in 1944 and the other looks at the subject of the occupation of Normandy. The church is also open and worth exploring; bullet impact marks are noticeable in several places and on certain days the church tower is open allowing excellent views across the battlefields.

From the main square take the road to the south-east, Rue du Thouays. Follow this out of the village to the first junction and then go left onto Rue du Mont. Follow this through an area where a retirement home is located and continue to where it meets the D115. Go right and then first left onto the D329 and follow this into Pouppeville. The village of Pouppeville was where the 2nd Bn 8th Infantry Regiment met with men from the 3rd Bn 501st PIR, marking the first link-up between seaborne and airborne troops in the American sector on D-Day.

Continue through the village. You are now on Effler Road, and will see the road memorial on the right; it is named after Private First Class A.A. Effler. Effler was a nineteen-year-old from North Carolina who served with 531 Engineer Shore Regiment and died at UTAH Beach on 14 June 1944. Continue and go straight across at the first junction and then left at the second onto MacGowan Road, Rue Ferme du Mur. Private First Class W.E. MacGowan served with the 531st Engineer Shore Regiment and died near here on D-Day, 6 June 1944. This later becomes Ham Road which is named after Private Otis A. Ham, a Mississippi man who served with the same unit as MacGowan. He was mortally wounded here and later died in the UK on 10 June. He is buried at Cambridge American Cemetery. Follow this route back to the UTAH Beach Museum and your vehicle.

The lanes around Utah Beach were named after men who died in the area and today these are perpetuated with permanent markers.

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