Silver Star — The hard way


Part 40: The D-Day invasion of Normandy, France

From the accounts of Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek, shared by his son, Glen Palecek

By the time the D-Day invasion of Normandy happened on June 6, 1944, Dad had already been a part of four D-Day invasions by sea and several more across Italian rivers. (D-Day stands for “Day of Invasion.”) Most people are told of only one D-Day, and that is the one at Normandy. In terms of ships and planes, it was by far the biggest invasion, and arguably the most significant in world history. In terms of the number of men who landed on the beach in one day, however, it was not the largest. That dubious honor still belongs to the D-Day invasion of Sicily where half-a-million Allied soldiers were put ashore on the first day. Eventually, after several months, more than 2-million soldiers were put ashore at Normandy, thus making it the biggest beachhead invasion point in world history.

General Omar Bradly, who had been promoted over Patton, was on a ship during the Normandy D-Day Invasion where he tried to get an overall view of the landing as it progressed. Bradly stated in his book, “A Soldier’s Story,” that there were three critical parts to this invasion. The first was the landing, which is the part we see in the movie, “Saving Private Ryan.” The second part was the German counter-attack. Bradly stated that this part was the most crucial. German counter-attacks had almost succeeded at the prior D-Day invasions of Salerno and Anzio. Just like at Anzio, the Germans had several Panzer divisions in reserve waiting to counter attack the Allies. Lucky for our side, Hitler did not release them in time, still believing the real attack would come from General Patton’s fake army across from Pas de Calais.

Bradly believed that the third part of a successful D-Day invasion was the breakout, which he believed had to happen as soon as possible. He didn’t want a situation like Anzio where the Allies had been stalled for four long months.

The landing itself was the poster child for SNAFU (situation normal, all fouled up). Shells from Navy guns fell short, while bombs from Allied planes overshot their targets. Allied officers and soldiers without any experience in beachhead landings or war, dug so-called “foxholes,” only deep enough to cover their legs as was shown in a photograph in “Life Magazine.” The photo shows the men’s entire bodies sticking straight up from the waist up. They must have looked like tin cans set-up for target practice to the Germans.

Just like at Salerno, many landing boats got stuck on sandbars and many overloaded soldiers drowned in the choppy waters. Large tiller mines and enemy machine-gun fire killed many more soldiers before they ever reached shore. Ironically, craters made from exploding German shells created a few places for cover. Such craters were supposed to have been made by bombs from Allied ships and planes, but, as I already stated, most of these shells missed the beach.

The Allies had a new surprise weapon for the landing — the DD (double-drive) tank. These tanks had propellers, which were powered by the tanks’ main engine, just like the tracks were. They were fitted with seven-foot, accordion-style canvas skirts, which made the 32-ton Sherman tanks able to float and operate like boats. The ships that carried the tanks to one of the American landing points, Omaha Beach, let the tanks into the churning sea 6,000 yards offshore. The result was tragic as only two of the 29 tanks put in made it to shore because of the rough water. The 27 other DD tanks all sunk. Except for the man sticking out of the tank hatch cover, the crew inside the tank never had a chance and was drowned.

The DD tanks landing at the other American landing point, Utah Beach, had better success, due in large part because the commander of the 70th Tank Battalion demanded that they be let off close to shore. As a result, all 28 DD tanks let off at Utah Beach made it to shore, even though one of the ships carrying them hit a mine and was sunk.

With only two tanks for troop support, the American casualties were much higher at Omaha Beach. That, combined with bad foxholes, the poor aim of planes and ships, poor orders, and lack of proper training and experience made the Normandy landing much worse than it had to be. This does not, in any way, take away from the extreme bravery and determination demonstrated by the American soldiers. The fact they were able to take these beaches in spite of extreme SNAFU shows grit and courage far beyond what the Germans ever could have expected.

The Germans had a special surprise for the Allies you probably have not heard of — speedboats armed with machine guns. The idea was to race through the landing area and machine-gun down Allied troops before and after they landed. The Germans thought the fast-moving boats would be hard to hit and would cause immense casualties. Fortunately, Allied intelligence found out about the speedboats and where they were located. Allied bombers then destroyed them where they were docked and before they could be used on D-Day at Normandy.

Did you ever wonder why blimps were flying above the ships when you watch a documentary about one of the D-Day invasions? These blimps were called barrage balloons. Cables and nets were hung below them in order to prevent enemy planes from flying low over the Allied ships. This made it much harder for the German planes to hit the ships with their bombs and machine guns. Perhaps because of bad weather, the Germans failed to launch a large air attack against the incoming Allied ships.

Dad thought Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” gave an accurate account of what it was like to be involved in a beachhead lading — “Pure Hell,” as Dad described it. As for what it was really like in the midst of a World War II battle, the movies “Saving Private Ryan” and “Hacksaw Ridge” are, in my opinion, the best choices.

Once the Allies took control of the beachhead, their work was far from over. Just as General Bradly wrote in his book, the Allies had to fight back sustained German counterattacks and several very large and costly battles inland in the days that followed.

Only after the very worst was over, eight weeks after D-Day, did General Patton’s Third Army finally enter the war and begin Patton’s glory-seeking race toward Berlin. Unlike General Hodges’ First Army, which had seven tank divisions, Patton’s Third Army had only two, but it was enough to send Patton on his merry way and try to live up to the false reputation he had been given.

Meanwhile, Dad’s 45th Division was now part of General Patch’s Fifth Army and was preparing to make yet another D-Day invasion and open another front on the south coast of France. More on that story as this series unfolds.


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