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D-Day: Afternoon on Omaha Beach

What Eisenhower Did Right

Converted for the Web from "D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II" by Stephen E. Ambrose

On D-Day, Hitler misused his sole potential strategic weapon, just as he misused his tactical counterattack force. His interference with his commanders on the scene stands in sharp contrast to Churchill and Roosevelt, who made no attempt at all to tell their generals and admirals what to do on D-Day, and to Eisenhower, who also left the decision-making up to his subordinates.

Eisenhower was up at 0700 on June 6. His naval aide, Harry Butcher, came by his trailer to report that the airborne landings had gone in and the seaborne landings were beginning. Butcher found Eisenhower sitting up in bed, smoking a cigarette, reading a Western novel. When Butcher arrived, Eisenhower washed, shaved, and strolled over to the tent holding the SHAEF operations section. He listened to an argument about when to release a communique saying that the Allies had a beachhead (Montgomery insisted on waiting until he was absolutely sure the Allies were going to stay ashore) but did not interfere.

Eisenhower wrote a brief message to Marshall, informing the chief of staff that everything seemed to be going well and adding that the British and American troops he had seen the previous day were enthusiastic, tough, and fit. "The light of battle was in their eyes."

Eisenhower soon grew impatient with the incessant chatter in the tent and walked over to visit Montgomery. He found the British general wearing a sweater and a grin, Montgomery was too busy to spend much time with the supreme commander, as he was preparing to cross the Channel the next day to set up his advance HQ, but the two leaders did have a brief talk.

Then Eisenhower paid a visit to Southwick House to see Admiral Ramsay. "All was well with the Navy," Butcher recorded in his diary, "and its smiles were as wide as or wider than any."

At noon Eisenhower returned to the tent, where he anxiously watched the maps and listened to the disturbing news coming from Omaha. He called some selected members of the press into his canvas-roofed, pine-walled quarters and answered questions. At one point he got up from his small table and began pacing. He looked out the door, flashed his famous grin, and announced, "The sun is shining."

For the remainder of the day he paced, his mood alternating as he received news of the situation on the British and Canadian beaches and on Omaha and Utah. After eating, he retired early to get a good night's sleep.

The supreme commander did not give a single command on D-Day. Hitler gave two bad ones.

As dusk descended on Omaha Beach, intermittent shellfire continued to come down. Men dug in for the night wherever they could, some in the sand, some at the seawall, some on the bluff slopes, some behind hedgerows on the plateau. There were alarms caused by overeager troops, occasional outbursts of firing. There were no rear areas on D-Day.

Still, things had quieted down considerably. Lt. Henry Seitzler was a forward observer for the U.S. Ninth Air Force. He was taking "a lot of heckling and ribbing from the guys" because of the failure of the air forces to bomb and strafe the beaches as promised. "Of course, I had nothing to do with it; they just wanted to needle somebody.

"My biggest problem was to try to stay alive. My work didn't really start till D plus three, and here I'd gone in at H plus two hours on D-Day and I had been in the thickest and hottest part of it, and I had no real work to do, no assignment, except as far as I could see to stay alive, because I had no replacement."

Late in the afternoon, Seitzler and some members of a beach brigade decided they were hungry. "So we went out and climbed on a burned-out LCI. We broke into the pantry. Boy, that was really something. It hadn't been damaged. We brought a lot of stuff out and ate it on the beach under the seawall. The Navy really lived fine. We had a boned chicken, boned turkey, boned ham. We had everything you could think of, and we made pigs out of ourselves because we were half starved by that time."

When they finished, they decided they needed to top off their picnic on the beach with some coffee. They built a small fire behind the shingle seawall, using wood they had scavenged from one of the blasted-out vacation homes, and made Nescafe.

For Seitzler, that turned out to be a mistake. When it was full dark, the rule was that every man should stay in his foxhole. Anything that moved would be shot. But the Nescafe had a diuretic effect on Seitzler.

"So it was quite a problem, I'll tell you. If I made any noise or anything, I could very well get shot. All I could do was get up, ease up on the edge of my foxhole, roll over a couple of times, use an old tin can to do my business, throw it away, and roll back, very slowly and quietly. I called it 'suffering for sanitation.' I have never been able to drink Nescafe since."

The next morning, Pvt. Robert Healey of the 149th Combat Engineers and a friend decided to go down the bluff to retrieve their packs. Healey had run out of cigarettes, but he had a carton in a waterproof bag in his pack.

"When we walked down to the beach, it was just an unbelievable sight. There was debris everywhere, and all kinds of equipment washing back and forth in the tide. Anything you could think of seemed to be there. We came across a tennis raquet, a guitar, assault jackets, packs, gas masks, everything. We found half a jar of olives which we ate with great relish. We found my pack but unfortunately the cigarettes were no longer there.

"On the way back I came across what was probably the most poignant memory I have of this whole episode. Lying on the beach was a young soldier, his arms outstretched. Near one of his hands, as if he had been reading it, was a pocketbook (what today would be called a paperback).

"It was 'Our Hearts Were Young and Gay' by Cornelia Otis Skinner. This expressed the spirit of our ordeal. Our hearts were young and gay because we thought we were immortal, we believed we were doing a great thing, and we really believed in the crusade which we hoped would liberate the world from the heel of Nazism."

Copyright © 1994 Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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