Overlord

Blood in the Sand: When James Jones Wrote a Grunt’s View of D-Day

Acclaimed novelist James Jones’s one nonfiction book about World War II has long been out of print. Now it’s back. Here’s Jones on the hard-won victories on the Normandy beaches.

In 1975, James Jones, author of the acclaimed World War II novels From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, wrote the text for an oversized coffee table book abut the war. The book, edited by former Yank magazine art director Art Weithas, featured visual art from the war and was a best seller. Joseph Heller called it the “most stirring and lucid account of World War II that I have ever read.” James Michener said it was “a remarkable achievement.” The book featured images on almost every page, many in color, exactly the sort of volume that’s too expensive to reprint after the initial burst of attention. It soon fell out-of-print and out of memory.

Fortunately, The University of Chicago Press has rescued and reissued Jones’s text—this was his only extended non-fiction writing about World War II—in a handsome new volume, WWII: A Chronicle of Soldiering. Even more fortunately, we are honored to present an excerpt for you in this space. Reprinted with permission from WWII: A Chronicle of Soldiering by James Jones, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1975 by the Estate of James Jones. All rights reserved.

D-DAY

Volumes and volumes have been written about it. Probably more than has ever been written about any other single military operation. Certainly more paintings were painted of it, and the few days following, than of any other part of the war. Every artist-correspondent and writer-correspondent who could possibly get permission to be there, was there. It must have been one of the big highs of the war, to be in London and hit the pubs during the last two months before D-Day.

War buffs have argued its pros and cons and various details since about June 7, 1944—and are still arguing them. Concerning argument, suffice it to say that, once started, no matter how terrible the cost, it was successful. The lodgement was made. And more important, it served to funnel inward all the huge mass of men and matériel, waiting, like a ton-weight albatross around the neck of England, to pour ashore in France.

General Eisenhower issued on SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force) stationery over his signature a confident hortatory message which was distributed to every man just before the great armada got under way, and which today reads honestly and truthfully, but which, having seen a facsimile of it, I must in all honesty say, would not have exhorted me unduly had I been a private in the First Infantry Division’s first wave forward element.

Just the same, Ike’s terrible sincerity, and terrible responsibility, came through it. He had no way of addressing his assault troops personally.

Five divisions (2 American, 2 British, 1 Canadian) were attacking abreast, over 5 different beachheads. One hundred thirty-eight major warships with 221 smaller combat vessels would support them in the assault. Four thousand landing ships or craft would carry them in. Eleven thousand aircraft would bomb preparation and give them air cover. Over 1,000 minesweepers and auxiliary vessels, 805 merchant ships, 59 blockships, several hundred miscellaneous small craft would be involved. It would have been pretty hard for Ike to shake hands with everybody.

It is interesting to note that at the same time he issued his statement to the troops, old Ike also wrote out another statement, to cover a different contingency, a statement he devoutly hoped never to release. It announced a withdrawal from the French shore due to invincible enemy resistance. When one thinks of that, and the responsibility it entailed, it makes the hairs on the back of the neck move.

The whole project seemed doomed to uncertainty and near-unbearable tension from the start, and particularly from the day it was postponed from May to June. In June only the three days were available, because of tide and moon: the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh. And bad weather was predicted. Everyone knows the story of how, with the huge fleet already at sea in the Channel on June 4, the operation was postponed one day because of the weather, and how Ike agonized most of June 5 over whether to go on the sixth. Most of his senior commanders had advised him Go. But in the army it is the commander who makes the final decision, and takes the final full responsibility. It was probably Eisenhower’s finest moment. And the thousands of vessels cruising the rough night Channel began to form up in their groups and head for their landing designations.

The sheer weight of the attack almost assured a landing. But that was not the problem. The assault divisions must move inland, consolidate their positions, hook up right and left with units from the other landings, so as to present a united front that could hold and leave sufficient room in its rear for the vital all-important buildup behind it that was to follow. The plans called for four additional divisions to be landed by D + 3, and a further 11 by D + 14. The total force envisioned for this stage was therefore 23 divisions, including the three airborne which had jumped in before dawn on June 6.

Hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of tanks and other vehicles waited at the staging areas to be shuttled over as soon as time and space permitted. Without them to extend and solidify a front and base from which armor could attack overland northeast toward Soissons and Germany, the successful landings themselves were meaningless. The first day’s objectives therefore called for an Allied line from Quineville in the west around the corner of the Cotentin peninsula, all the way to Cabourg in the east beyond the Orne River. In the fact of it, none of the five assault forces reached their objectives on the first day.

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The German resistance encountered varied greatly. In the west at Utah Beach the U.S. Fourth Infantry Division encountered almost none, lost 12 men killed in the first 24 hours. The pre-invasion aerial bombardment and naval shellings were marvelously successful, and the losses of the Fourth Division for the first day were only 197 in killed, wounded and missing. It was incredible luck. Yet they had not taken their objective, had not linked up with the 82nd and 101st Airborne, who had jumped into the Cotentin corner the night before. British commanders then, and British writers later, would maintain they had moved too cautiously. Omaha around the corner, 10 or 12 miles farther east, was different—a veritable bloodbath. Still farther east on the three British beaches, Gold, Juno, and Sword, the British and Canadian divisions, like the excellent professionals they were, moved briskly and rather stylishly ashore and inland against marked resistance, picked up most of their airborne, but failed to meet their objectives also, taking somewhat under 3,000 casualties in killed, wounded, and missing in the process. At Omaha, Gerow’s V Corps alone sustained 3,881in KIW, WIA and missing.

Omaha had had bad luck all around. It was known beforehand that the Omaha terrain was perhaps the roughest of the five, a crescent-shaped dish with a bluff on top and only two exit roads, which could be a devastating defensive position. It was not known that a fresh, crack division, the 352nd, had been moved into the area a few days before. In addition the air bombardment had missed its target, the majority of the Duplex Drive tanks (semi-amphibious

tanks that were to lead off) had sunk in the heavy seas before they reached the beach, and the beach and underwater obstructions were much tougher than expected. As late as 1030 hours the good-as-gold old First Division lay pinned down behind the seawall while the enemy swept the beaches with small-arms fire. German artillery chased the landing craft where they milled off shore. By 1300 hours the crisis was pretty much over. Much credit for that goes to Admiral Kirk, the U.S. naval commander, who bunched his destroyers off the coast and delivered maximum fire on the German strong points. At the same time, the German 352nd Division was running out of shells, as the excellent U.S. aerial bombardment on the roads behind them kept them from getting resupplied and reinforced. But at midnight the deepest penetration on Omaha was barely more than a mile. For almost 3,900 casualties.

In 1961 I worked as a scriptwriter on producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s film about D-Day, The Longest Day, and I had occasion to tramp all over the D-Day beaches and the disputed terrain inland, and even over the U.S. Rangers’ assault area at Pointe du Hoe (which, when the Rangers finally scaled it, at great cost, was found to have no siege guns at all) until I got to know them very well.

Utah was a long, lonely windswept beach that stretched for miles and miles, with one tiny little monument on it to mark the landings. The English beaches were relatively flat country, much of it through towns and built-up areas, with the large town of Ouistreham and its famous casino and the Orne estuary on the left flank. At Arromanches about half-way between the Orne and Omaha—where the remains of the huge British false port “Mulberry” could still be seen—there is a war museum with the uniforms and equipment of the time and an animated, colorful diorama of the action. But at Omaha I climbed up and sat a while on the edge of the bluff, and looked down into the cup-shaped area with the sea at its back. It too had been built back up, and the six or eight tall spindly French summer homes have been rebuilt. It was easy to see what a murderous converging fire could be brought to bear on the beaches from the curving bluff. Especially to an old infantryman. And it was easy to half-close your eyes and imagine what it must have been like. The terror and total confusion, men screaming or sinking silently under the water, tanks sinking as their crews drowned inside, landing craft going up as a direct hit took them, or grating ashore to discharge their live cargo into the already scrambled mess, officers trying to get their men together, medics trying to find shelter for the wounded, until finally out of the welter a “certain desperate order began to emerge,” and men began to move toward the two bottleneck exits. I sat there until my friends began to yell at me from down below, and I fervently thanked God or Whomever that I had not been there.

BLOODBATH AT OMAHA

Along with all the others, an Anglo-American controversy (still unresolved today) grew up out of this matter of Omaha. British Intelligence (which had had men on shore at Omaha occasionally, beforehand) claimed it had observed the bringing in of the German 352nd, and had passed this piece of information on to the U.S. First Army Command, but that the First Army had found the information suspect, and had not informed the assault troops. The British found it “inconceivable that they [the U.S. troops] had been briefed to expect less than the worst the enemy could be expected to perform,” in attacking “this superb defensive position.” Also, they claimed, General Bradley had rejected the British General Hobart’s “magnificent array of special assault armour,” and had accepted the Duplex Drive tanks only with reluctance.

Now, General Hobart’s “special assault armour” requires a bit of explanation. British troops called them the “Funnies.” Hobart had been a tank advocate as far back as 1934. He had, in fact, raised and trained the first British armored division in Egypt (the outfit which became the famed Seventh Armoured “Desert Rats”), but had been removed by Wavell because Wavell could not accept his concept of the use of armor (which later became standard practice). Prematurely retired in early 1940, Hobart was brought back at the personal insistence of Churchill. (Hobart was also the brother-in-law of Montgomery.) And he raised and trained the Seventy-ninth Armoured, which in 1943 was charged with the development and training of the special armored devices and personnel to be used to lead the assault across the invasion beaches.

Hobart apparently threw his British heart and soul into his task. The “Funnies” were a weird assortment of odd-looking beasts. The Duplex Drive (called DD) was one: an amphibious conversion which could be fitted to a normal Sherman tank. A collapsible canvas screen around the tank gave it buoyancy (up to a point) and it was driven by two propellers which worked off the main drive. With its screen raised, it looked more than anything else like a mechanized bathtub. The Bobbin was a “road” layer, with a huge drum forward built on a regular Churchill chassis, designed to lay a ten-foot carpet of matting across soft sand for the tanks that followed. The well-known flail-tank (called the Crab by the British) was another Hobart invention, and carried a whirling drum fitted with chain flails for exploding mines and opening a ten-foot path through minefields. Then there was the Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle, Royal Engineers) with SBG (Small Box Girder) Bridge: a Churchill tank chassis adapted to carry a bridge which could be dropped in 30 seconds over a 30-foot gap, or surmount a 15-foot wall while supporting 40 tons. The now commonplace Armoured Bulldozer was another of Hobart’s. Lastly there were the Churchill Crocodile, a flame-thrower conversion of the Mark VII, which carried the flame-gun fuel behind it in its own little armored trailer, and the Petard tank, designed to fire a heavy “dustbin” charge straight into gun emplacement openings.

Weird as they sound, and look, the British gave these monsters much of the credit for the comparative ease with which they broke through the defenses of their beaches to move inland. And Montgomery offered this array of “special armour” to General Bradley, who refused them, and chose to stick with his own flesh-and-blood engineer demolition teams.

I assume Bradley saw demonstrations of the “Funnies” before rejecting them. And they must have worked. Perhaps it was simply the weird look of them that put him off , and the “chin-up, stiff-upper-lip” British games-playing attitude to the war and its death and destruction may have angered him. In any case, that the American demo teams failed at Omaha because of heavy casualties is a fact. And that “much of the [Omaha Beach] difficulty had been caused by the underwater obstructions,” was admitted by the U.S. First Army chief of staff. The British credited Bradley’s refusal of Hobart’s monsters for the Dantesque horrors, as they termed it, of Omaha. They still do today.

One British writer went so far as to say: “No one may ever know what General Bradley thought about it [the comparative failure of Omaha]. Why had he refused the flails, the petards, and all the rest of Hobart’s armour? Chester Wilmot believed that it was Bradley’s contempt for British ‘under confidence and over-insurance.’ Captain Sir Basil Liddell Hart summed up: ‘Analysis makes it clear that the American troops paid dearly for their higher commander’s hesitation to accept Montgomery’s earlier offer to give them a share of Hobart’s specialized armour.’”

But there were other factors at Omaha. The very DD tanks Bradley did accept sank (all but a very few) in the high seas without ever reaching shore; sank, most of them, with their crews. (The same British writer claims that this was due to an irresponsible commander who launched the DDs six thousand yards out, much too far out for the heavy seas.) But the bad weather and heavy seas could not be blamed on Bradley. Other factors were the fact that the pre-invasion aerial bombardment missed its targets, and that fresh, crack German troops had been moved in a few days before.

The fact remains, the British did get through their beach obstacles, the “hard crust” of beach defenses, in considerably better shape than the Americans. Their DDs did not sink, or not many of them, and their “special assault armour” did work for them, and spring their boys through inland with relatively fewer casualties.

It may well be that there is (or was) a fundamentally different psychological outlook between the British soldier and the American soldier. Bradley was a man who worried deeply and brooded over the lives lost among his commands. He did not commit them lightly. Generally, most high American general officers felt the same (with the notable exception of Patton and a couple of others), and usually preferred to act on the side of caution. Probably this is a peculiarly American attitude, growing out of the basic fact that the American army was essentially a civilian, and a reluctant, army. An American general who “wasted” troops was looked on very unkindly by the civilian population and by the troops themselves. Whereas the British officer had more the general European attitude, that the men were there to be used, and the strategist and tactician were there to use them. We have seen over and over that the American commanders chose the line of caution, when there was a choice, and as often as not it cost them more men in the end than if they had gambled. The American cautious, slow-moving attitude at Anzio is a classic example, when compared to Churchill’s swashbuckling wish for a swift over-extended drive on Rome. We still do not know if Churchill’s way would have worked at Anzio. We know the American cautionary way did not. Omaha was perhaps similar.

As one British writer put it so succinctly: “The cost of the day in killed was not more than 2,500 men, 1,000 of them on Omaha Beach. At Towton Field, on 29th March, 1461, 33,000 men perished by the sword and were buried there. Nearly 20,000 British troops were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.” So it wasn’t so bad, in his view.

On the other hand, General Bradley wrote somewhere, about the whole European campaign of 1944: “The rifleman trudges into battle knowing that statistics are stacked against his survival. He fights without promise of either reward or relief. Behind every river, there’s another hill—and behind that hill, another river. After weeks or months in the line only a wound can offer him the comfort of safety, shelter, and a bed. Those who are left to fight, fight on, evading death but knowing that with each day of evasion they have exhausted one more chance for survival. Sooner or later, unless victory comes, the chase must end on the litter or in the grave.”

A basically American point of view, perhaps. For a general. Certainly not European.

CONSOLIDATION

To “link up the beachheads and peg out claims well inland” was necessarily the first aim of Overlord. Only thus could the Allies hope to bring ashore the troops and the armor to fight their way out of what at any moment might become their death trap. By evening of June 10, despite the slow start at Omaha, this first objective (expected to be won by midnight of D-Day itself) had been achieved and a single front stretched from near Quineville on the Cotentin peninsula to beyond Ouistreham and the Orne estuary. The major exception was the city of Caen in the British zone, ten miles inland, which was to become a painful boil in the British flank for the next six weeks, and the basis for another unending controversy between British and American military historians yet unborn.

In the American zone, by night of June 8 the U.S. 29th Division of Gerow’s V Corps of Bradley’s First Army had taken the town of Isigny in one corner of the Cotentin. By the tenth, on Eisenhower’s express orders, they had joined up with the 101st Airborne near Carentan to complete the beachhead line.

Strategically, this turning of the Cotentin corner was very important. From this position Maj. Gen. J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins (who won his nickname and his reputation off my division, the 25th, on Guadalcanal—not in Europe) and his VII Corps could drive westward across the thumblike Cotentin peninsula, cutting off the port of Cherbourg and all the German troops in the peninsula, and giving the Allies their first much-needed major port. This Collins proceeded to do, reaching the west coast at Carteret on June 17, though Cherbourg itself (20 miles away) did not fall till June 27. Collins was hampered by the rains, swampy terrain and hedgerow country that were going to be such troubles to Bradley in reaching St. Lô. When it did fall, Cherbourg and its port were so thoroughly destroyed that it was useless for the three vital weeks it took to clear it, and would require several months before the Americans could discharge cargoes in any important quantity.

Meanwhile the rest of Bradley’s sector had to pretty much rest in place and mark time while the available reinforcements went to VII Corps and its attack. This gave the Germans time to stabilize and dig in on the “hedgerow front” before St. Lô. In addition, the “Great Storm” of June 19 blew up, as if some malign fate wished to test the Allies to their fullest, and in three days of seas and high winds completely ruined the American “Mulberry” port at Omaha, so badly it had to be abandoned, and seriously damaged the British one at Arromanches.

In the meantime, General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, still in front of Caen on July 1, kept poking attacks that failed into the increasing ruins and house-to-house work of that miserable city. The last of the Germans would not be out of it until July 19. And thus the Great Anglo-American Caen Controversy was launched.

Poor Caen. I spent several days there two or three times in 1961, when the Zanuck Longest Day film was being shot. Caen, being so central, was the headquarters for the Zanuck production people. And I guess the people of Caen hadn’t had so much excitement or attention since June of ’44. John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Peter Lawford. And “a host of other stars,” as they say.

But poor Caen itself was pretty hopeless. From reports it must once have been a lovely old city with stone houses and a medieval quarter. Some of the old landmarks remain, but today it is mostly rebuilt in the boxlike architecture of cracking concrete and loosening glass laughingly labeled “French Modern.”

The Great Caen Controversy proceeds from two apparently diametrically opposed statements of fact. One school, mostly British, claims that Monty’s strategy from the very beginning (even before the actual invasion) was to keep the Germans and the bulk of the German armor occupied around Caen, so that Bradley’s U.S. First Army would be freed to make the final breakout and wheel east to trap the German Seventh and Fifteenth Armies in what came to be known as the “Falaise Pocket.” This school states unequivocally that this strategy was included in the final Overlord plans. Thus they lay at Monty’s feet the full credit for the victory Bradley and the Americans effected—with some 44,000 casualties.

The second school, mostly American, claims equally unequivocally that no such strategy was written into the Overlord plans. That in fact the Overlord strategy was directly opposite. According to the pre-invasion plans. Bradley’s army was to cover the right flank of the British army, which was to head left for the Seine. This would seem reasonable, since in that direction lay the only territory open enough for swift attack by armor. Why would Monty and Ike, knowing the kind of difficult bocage hedgerow terrain in front of Bradley, lending itself so to defense, decide on their major offensive precisely through such bad ground? They wouldn’t, this second school says; and adds that only after Montgomery failed to take Caen and move out onto the open Falaise plain, did the Allies reverse their pre-invasion concept, and in desperation to expand the beachhead, begin to push Bradley through the hedgerow country for the breakout. The drawback was that the terrain in front of Bradley made success very costly.

Probably any terrain would have been costly, at this point. The Germans were fighting desperately to hold in France. And probably the truth lies somewhere in between the two theories. Certainly Monty, by ordering Dempsey (the almost forgotten commander of British Second Army) to make small probing attacks at Caen to keep the Germans off balance, did prevent the Germans from launching their crushing counterblow against the early beachheads. (He had as a helpful ally in this Adolf Hitler, who kept refusing to believe the Normandy landings were the main landings.) And certainly Monty’s strategy worked beautifully, when Bradley did break out and make his sweeping end run. Probably, like the field genius that he was, Montgomery was improvising his strategy as he went along, according to the situation as it developed. The pro-Monty school, however, say they have letters and memos from Monty to General Sir Alan Brooke, the British chief of staff, stating his hold-Caen push-Bradley strategy from before June 6. The anti-Monty school say they do not have them, or are interpreting them with hindsight. Either way, Montgomery can be accused of ordering the Canadian II Corps to a major offensive which he either did not intend for them to win, or knew beforehand that they could not win.

In any case, here they all were, both British and American, on July 24, poised for the breakout, with a line running all the way from Ouistreham and the Orne to Lessay on the Britt any coast, with Cherbourg and the Cotentin peninsula in their hands, with both St. Lô and the infamous Caen finally inside the perimeters. There were now five British corps in the British sector, and five American corps in the American sector. It was now almost impossible to speak of individual divisions in relation to these actions, but only of corps. And soon it would be armies instead of corps: Patton’s U.S. Third, Bradley’s First, Canadian First, British Second, French First, U.S. Seventh, U.S. Ninth. That was how the U.S. war was growing.

On the American flank, to get out of the hedgerows and take St. Lô, twelve divisions had incurred a total of 40,000 casualties in 17 days and had advanced the U.S. First Army front less than seven miles. (Add the fighting before that, and the American casualties came to over 62,000.)