I have no idea what it was like to take the beach at Omaha. However, of all the movies and films I have seen and history books I have read, the opening clips from the movie “Saving Private Ryan” come closest to the horrible conditions our allied soldiers went up against on that day 68 years ago.
Saving Private Ryan opens with a 30-minute cinematic tour de force that is without a doubt one of the finest half-hours ever committed to film. This sequence, a soldier’s-eye view of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, is brilliant not only in terms of technique but in the depth of viewer reaction it generates. It is certainly the most violent, gory, visceral depiction of war that I have ever witnessed on screen. Spielberg spares the viewer nothing of the horrors of battle, using every tactic at his disposal to convey the chaos and senseless waste that lies at the core of any engagement. We are presented with unforgettable, bloody images of bodies being cut to pieces by bullets, limbs blown off, entrails spilling out, and a variety of other assorted examples of carnage. And, when the tide comes in with the waves breaking on the body-strewn beach, the water is crimson. Those who are at all squeamish will find the opening of Saving Private Ryan unbearable. This aspect of the film almost earned it an NC-17 rating; only the fact that Spielberg rigorously avoids even a hint of exploitation convinced the MPAA to award an R.
In addition to showing what happens when projectiles rip into the soft flesh of the human body, the director employs other methods to capture the essence of battle – hand-held cameras, a slight speeding up of the images, muted colors, and several different kinds of film stock. Put it all together, and it adds up to a dizzying, exhausting assault on the senses. As good as the rest of Saving Private Ryan is, and it’s very good, the D-Day attack on Omaha Beach is the sequence that everyone will remember most clearly.
By dawn on June 6, thousands of paratroopers and glider troops were already on the ground behind enemy lines, securing bridges and exit roads. The amphibious invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture beaches codenamed Gold, Juno and Sword, as did the Americans at Utah Beach. U.S. forces faced heavy resistance at Omaha Beach, where there were over 2,000 American casualties. However, by day’s end, approximately 156,000 Allied troops had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches. According to some estimates, more than 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives in the D-Day invasion, with thousands more wounded or missing.
Less than a week later, on June 11, the beaches were fully secured and over 326,000 troops, more than 50,000 vehicles and some 100,000 tons of equipment had landed at Normandy.
For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Rommel, who was away on leave. At first, Hitler, believing the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions to join the counterattack. Reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays. He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. Moreover, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.
In the ensuing weeks, the Allies fought their way across the Normandy countryside in the face of determined German resistance, as well as a dense landscape of marshes and hedgerows. By the end of June, the Allies had seized the vital port of Cherbourg, landed approximately 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy, and were poised to continue their march across France.
Victory in Normandy
By the end of August 1944, the Allies had reached the Seine River, Paris was liberated and the Germans had been removed from northwestern France, effectively concluding the Battle of Normandy. The Allied forces then prepared to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet troops moving in from the east.
The Normandy invasion began to turn the tide against the Nazis. A significant psychological blow, it also prevented Hitler from sending troops from France to build up his Eastern Front against the advancing Soviets. The following spring, on May 8, 1945, the Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Hitler had committed suicide a week earlier, on April 30.
Photo by ROBERT CAPA
An American soldier wades through water under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire to reach the beach on the Normandy coast of France, June 6, 1944. It turned out to be the biggest and most important Allied amphibious operation of World War II. (AP Photo/Files-Wartime Pool/Robert Capa)