Beginning at 2:00 a.m. on D-Day, more than 23,000 American and British airborne troops began landing in heavily clouded darkness just behind the Axis coastal defenses. The black skies and enemy antiaircraft flak caused many jumpers to land miles from their targets, then fight for their lives through treacherous Normandy swamplands and thick hedgerows—the nearly impenetrable hills of tangled roots and branches planted by farmers hundreds of years earlier as field boundaries.
Under the night sky, the Augusta, anchored twelve miles offshore, along with Allied planes, battleships, and other cruisers, bombarded the German fortifications. As dawn broke, transports began debarking American infantry, vehicles, and supplies through high waves onto the Utah and Omaha beaches. Standing on the bridge with Admiral Kirk, Bradley plugged his ears with cotton against the Augusta’s blasting guns, his binoculars trained on the haze and smoke that enveloped distant Omaha Beach.
While the British Second Army at their three beaches and the 21,000 Americans at Utah Beach landed without significant German resistance, the 35,000 U.S. forces at Omaha Beach met brutal opposition. The pre-dawn naval and air bombardments, through heavy cloud cover, had lasted less than an hour; “their chances of destroying the enemy’s expertly camouflaged concrete pillboxes would be virtually nil,” assessed war historian Joseph Balkoski. And Bradley now learned that tough, battle-tested troops under the formidable Rommel had not only heavily fortified Omaha beach but also erected concrete gun emplacements and mined the sand dunes and bluffs. “Altogether,” wrote U.S. Navy historian Samuel Eliot Morison, “the Germans had provided the best imitation of hell for an invading force that American troops had encountered anywhere. Even the Japanese defenses of Iowa Jima, Tarawa and Pelilu are not to be compared with these.”
Aboard the Augusta, Bradley heard increasingly alarming radio reports of ship sinkings and disastrous casualties. As the landings fell ominously behind schedule, he anxiously began planning for the evacuation of Omaha and diverting subsequent forces to Utah or the British beaches. Fortunately, as he struggled over a decision, U.S. Navy destroyers steamed closer to shore and unleashed rapid-firing guns against the Germans. Then the infantry began assaulting through “Bloody Omaha” and by 9:00 a.m. had gained a foothold and penetrated several enemy defenses. As the Augusta moved toward the beach, Bradley viewed a terrible scene: sunken vehicles, burned tanks, scores of sprawled bodies. Only the slightly wounded could be transported through the heavy surf to hospital ships; medics moved the more seriously injured to temporary shelter under the sea wall. But by evening, the Allies landed an astonishing 175,000 men and equipment, including 50,000 vehicles, and controlled all five of the invasion beaches. Utah forces reached some six miles inland, liberating the crossroads town of Sainte Mère-Eglise.
Early the following morning, Bradley came ashore amid the 2,500 Omaha dead and wounded, ten times more than at Utah. “The situation is being clarified rapidly,” Bradley informed Eisenhower the next afternoon, “and while there were still a lot of pockets of resistance, more groups of paratroopers are being contacted all the time, and those resistance groups are being wiped out.” On both beaches, he reported, "We are about 24 hours behind on loading. The principal difficulties on Omaha have been that we were unable to get a foot-hold in time to use the first tide. The obstacles are very bad on Omaha and many craft were hit, thus cluttering up the beach. In addition, about 50% of the key personnel of the shore brigade and the naval shore party were casualties. Those who took over command were not as good of course and it has taken some time to re-organize things the way we want them. I am sure Kean will get it straightened out this afternoon. The Germans we are meeting in the Omaha area are much superior to those being met in the Utah area. Very few of them are surrendering. There are many pockets of resistance behind the front lines each of which has to be mopped up with considerable loss of time. Snipers have been infiltrating into the area and firing on the beaches and we have had to clear out the beach area several times. Fire is still falling on Omaha beach." (From Bradley to Eisenhower, June 8, 1944, Bradley file, Eisenhower Library.) Copyright 2014