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cemetery American
American Cemetery

On June 6, 1944, more than 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops stormed 50 miles of Normandy’s beaches in northern France in an operation that was to be a critical turning point in World War II.

Surrounded by steep cliffs and heavily defended, Omaha was the bloodiest of the D-Day beaches, with roughly 2,400 U.S. troops turning up dead, wounded or missing. Omaha Beach, a five mile section of the coast of Normandy, France, was one of the five sectors of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France in the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, during World War II.  Taking Omaha was the responsibility of United States Army troops, with sea transport, mine sweeping, and a naval bombardment force provided predominantly by the United States Navy and Coast Guard, with contributions from the British, Canadian, and Free French navies.

Opposing the landings was the German 352nd Infantry Division.  The German strategy was based on defeating any seaborne assault at the water line, and the defenses were mainly deployed in strongpoints along the coast. The defenses were unexpectedly strong, and inflicted heavy casualties on landing U.S. troops.

Ten landing craft were swamped by the rough seas before they reached the beach, and several others stayed afloat only because their passengers bailed water out with their helmets.  Navigation of the landing vehicles was made difficult by the smoke and mist obscuring the landmarks they were to use in guiding themselves in, while a strong current pushed them continually eastward.  As the boats approached to within a few hundred yards of the shore, they came under increasingly heavy fire from automatic weapons and artillery.  As infantry disembarked from the landing craft, they often found themselves on sandbars 50 to 100 yards  out. To reach the beach they had to wade through water sometimes neck deep, and they still had 200 yards or more to go when they did reach shore.  Those that made it to the only cover available, a thin natural bank of stones called the shingle, did so at a walking pace because they were so heavily laden. Most sections had to brave the full weight of fire from small arms, mortars, artillery, and interlocking fields of heavy machine gun fire. The survivors at the shingle, many facing combat for the first time, found themselves relatively well-protected from small arms fire, but still exposed to artillery and mortars. In front of them lay heavily mined flats exposed to active fire from the bluffs above.  Where vehicles were landing, they found a narrow strip of beach with no shelter from enemy fire.  Many groups were leaderless and witnesses to the fate of neighboring troops and landings coming in around them. Wounded men on the beach were drowning in the incoming tide and incoming landing craft were being pounded and set ablaze.

Only 100 of the 2,400 tons of supplies scheduled to be landed on D-Day were landed. An accurate figure for casualties incurred by V Corps at Omaha on June 6 is not known; sources vary between 2,000 and over 5,000 killed, wounded, and missing.  The German 352nd division suffered 1,200 killed, wounded and missing; about 20% of its strength.

Today at Omaha jagged remains of the harbor can be seen at low tide. The shingle bank is no longer there, cleared by engineers in the days following D-Day to facilitate the landing of supplies.  The geography of the beach remains as it was and the remains of the coastal defenses can still be visited.  At the top of the bluff overlooking Omaha is the American cemetery.  In 1988, particles of shrapnel, as well as glass and iron beads resulting from munitions explosions were found in the sand of the beach, and the study of them estimated that those particles would remain in the sand of the beach for one to two centuries.