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Normandy After D-Day: June 7-30, 1944

Training

Converted for the Web from "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose

At dawn, all along the plateau above the bluff at Omaha, GIs shook themselves awake, did their business, ate some rations, smoked a cigarette, got into some kind of formation, and prepared to move out to broaden the beachhead. But in the hedgerows, individuals got lost, squads got lost. German sniper fire came from all directions. The Norman farm homes, made of stone and surrounded by stone walls and a stone barn, made excellent fortresses. Probing attacks brought forth a stream of bullets from the Germans, pretty much discouraging further probes.

Brig. Gen. Norman "Dutch" Cota, assistant division commander of the 29th, came on a group of infantry pinned down by some Germans in a farmhouse. He asked the captain in command why his men were making no effort to take the building.

"Sir, the Germans are in there, shooting at us," the captain replied.

"Well, I'll tell you what, captain," said Cota, unbuckling two grenades from his jacket. "You and your men start shooting at them. I'll take a squad of men and you and your men watch carefully. I'll show you how to take a house with Germans in it."

Cota led his squad around a hedge to get as close as possible to the house. Suddenly, he gave a whoop and raced forward, the squad following, yelling like wild men. As they tossed grenades into the windows, Cota and another man kicked in the front door, tossed a couple of grenades inside, waited for the explosions, then dashed into the house. The surviving Germans inside were streaming out the back door, running for their lives.

Cota returned to the captain. "You've seen how to take a house," said the general, still out of breath. "Do you understand? Do you know how to do it now?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, I won't be around to do it for you again," Cota said. "I can't do it for everybody."

That little story speaks to the training of the U.S. Army for the Battle of Normandy. At first glance, Cota's bravery stands out, along with his sense of the dramatic and his knowledge of tactics. He could be sure the story would get around the division. A lesson would be learned. His own reputation would go even higher, the men would be even more willing to follow him.

But after that first glance, a question emerges. Where had that captain been the last six months? He had been in training to fight the German army. He had been committed to offensive action, trained to it, inspired to it. But no one had thought to show him how to take an occupied house. He knew all about getting ashore from an LCVP, about beach obstacles, about paths up the bluff, about ravines, about amphibious assault techniques. But no one had shown him how to take a house, because there were no standing houses on Omaha Beach, so that wasn't one of his problems.

Not on June 6. But on June 7, it became his number one problem. The same was true for the 200 or so company commanders already ashore and would be for the hundreds of others waiting to enter the battle. As Cota said, he couldn't be there to teach all of them how to take a house. They were going to have to figure it out for themselves.

Normandy was a soldier's battle. It belonged to the riflemen, machine gunners, mortarmen, tankers, and artillerymen who were on the front lines. There was no room for maneuver. There was no opportunity for subtlety. There was a simplicity to the fighting: for the Germans, to hold; for the Americans, to attack.

Where they would hold or attack required no decision-making: it was always the next village or field. The real decision-making came at the battalion, company, and platoon levels: where to place the mines, the barbed wire, the machine-gun pits, where to dig the foxholes -- or where and how to attack them.

Copyright © 1997 by -Tubbs, Inc. Afterword copyright 1998 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

Click to Amazon to purchase "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose.

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