Walking above the Beach gives you a clear view of the English Channel’s rendezvous with the northwest coast of France. The land slopes down gently, as the dense green vegetation meets the sand. You can smell the sea, feel the wind and watch the waves relentlessly crash onto the beach. Here history remembers a beach that was once a place of unimaginable violence, chaos, death and destruction. Behind me are some of the mute participants of that struggle: 9,387 graves spread over 172 acres. The cemetery includes an additional 1,557 names of the missing, bodies that simply vanished, destroyed in an instant flash of German artillery. On D-Day Omaha Beach was the most deadly place on earth. There are many reasons for this and one of them will shock you, because it was buried in 1944 and remained classified until 2004. This nearly unknown gun battery was ordered entombed under four feet of dirt by US Army Engineers, insuring its anonymity for sixty years. It was a place the D-Day commanders wanted to forget. And like the dead heroes of D-Day, the massive German batteries at Maisy were going to simply fade away. Now unearthed, this is the story of Omaha Beach and the Maisy Gun Batteries - D-Day’s Forgotten Place.
Normandy is today much as it has been for over a thousand years, an active farming and dairy region of coastal France. Added to that are the museums, restaurants, tour buses, travelers and pilgrims converging here to understand the momentous historical events of Normandy. Beaches, cemeteries, villages, cities, all are visited for their historic contributions on the “Day of Days”.
For me it is a place of research, discovery, and endless curiosity that brings me back year after year as I pursue history and its little known or forgotten stories.
Here where the water meets the land, liberty and tyranny were separated by the width of a deadly beach. And here in Normandy on June 6, 1944 Americans fought and died to free a continent, and to ensure our American liberties would not be threatened. Normandy is full of examples of bravery, heroism, and selfless sacrifice. Here intricate planning, and months of training, intersected with successes and failures. Truths, legends, and myths still grow at the water’s edge, varnished by passing time and fading memories of a generation nearly lost. And Normandy has stories yet to be told, stories of forgotten places and faces, and Maisy is amongst its most fascinating. The story of Maisy begins on Omaha Beach at H-Hour on D-Day.
At Omaha Beach the American military planners believed they could supply a war winning offensive. They would build a Mulberry Harbor system, and land an entire railroad on the beach. Ships would anchor and unload the men and materials to win the war. But first you had to win the battle for Omaha Beach.
D-Day, June 6, 1944 was the deadliest day for all Americans in World War II. Omaha Beach was the deadliest place on the deadliest day for Americans during World War II. In 1960, only sixteen years removed from the D-Day invasion, noted military historian SLA Marshall published his findings in the Atlantic Monthly. Marshall was a recently retired Brigadier General in the United States Army, having participated in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. He is remembered as the sometimes controversial US Army Chief Military Historian for the European Theater of Operations, and the author of over 25 books on military history.
Dispelling the myths that had grown up around D-Day, and its leader, the recently retired President of The United States Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Marshall wrote: “the passing of the years and the retelling of the story have softened the horror of Omaha Beach on D Day.”1
Marshall went on to explain his conclusions, “… their [troops landed at Omaha Beach] ordeal has gone unmarked because its detail was largely ignored by history in the first place… overlooked… personal experiences were toned down… in a situation which was largely characterized by tragic failure.” 2
General Marshall’s gritty portrayal of the events on Omaha Beach were startling to some readers. His words uncovered a truth only known to the men who landed on Omaha Beach. Marshall continued to remove the sanitization that had turned truth into myth at Bloody Omaha Beach, “…Normandy was an American victory…But… the story of Omaha [is] as an epic human tragedy which in the early hours bordered on total disaster…”3
Marshall’s revelations were difficult to understand, yet his words have within them an invitation to look deeper at the events at Omaha Beach. They were in direct opposition to the official reports from 1945 and 1950.
According to the, US Army Historical Division, “Omaha Beachhead”, September 1945, Lt. Colonel Charles Taylor, a US Army officer who landed on Omaha Beach early on D-Day wrote, “…the two assaulting regimental combat teams (16th and 116th) lost about 1,000 men each.”4
Five years later another official US Army historian reinforced the 1945 conclusions of Lt. Colonel Charles Taylor. In October 1950, Gordon Harrison, US Army, Office of the Chief of Military History, “Cross Channel Attack”, “ The V Corp losses for [June 6] were two thousand killed wounded or missing…” 5
General Marshall’s excoriated review of the Omaha Beach struggle was in defiance of the US Army’s official reports and stands in stark contrast to the official US Army records. Writing in a 2004 assessment, the same year Maisy Battery was discovered, historian Joseph Baloski, author of, Omaha Beach: D-Day June 6, 1944 addresses the US Army’s casualty figures, “…in large measure, accurate figures are available…relevant documents yield the inescapable conclusion that Taylor’s and Harrison’s casualty figures are significantly underscored…”6
Citing available after- action reports, and unit histories for all the ground, naval and air units that participated in the assault at Omaha Beach, Baloski continues, “ A more realistic estimate of the killed, wounded and missing the Omaha Beach invasion… is about … 4,700 men…” 7
If Baloski is correct then Omaha Beach had more casualties than the four other landing beaches: Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword and Point-du-Hoc, combined. It also means that Omaha Beach had more causalities then the attack on Pearl Harbor. According to the Center of Military History United States Army, the Day of Infamy claimed, 3,592 Navy, Marine and Army, killed, wounded or missing. Omaha Beach alone claimed 25% more than all of the losses at Pearl Harbor.
One veteran, US Navy Quartermaster Peter Rossetti, 70 years removed from D-Day, recalled his experience on Omaha Beach. “What makes Omaha important is the extent of the losses…Gen. Bradley, seriously thought of withdrawing his forces at one point,”8
In his somber recollections, Rossetti plainly stated, "Those poor guys never had a chance… we were all being shelled by the German artillery…”9
What caused the results at Omaha to be so different than the other beaches? And why was it then, and still to this day so relatively unknown? Rossetti’s recollections point to the German Artillery. The questions seem to jump out at you. What artillery? Where was the artillery?
Eisenhower decided the guns of Ponte-du-Hoc would be his number one target on D-Day. The Allied Commander feared that the massive guns atop the promontory that protruded out into the English Channel would potentially destroy the landings at both Utah and Omaha Beaches. From early April 1944 until D-Day morning Pointe-du-Hoc was amongst the most heavily bombed places per square meter of earth during the entire Second World War.
“This operation is not being planned with any alternatives…we’re going to make it a success…”10 Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower said. And Pointe-du-hoc was in his sights.
On D-Day morning the US Army Air Corps dedicated a large fleet of bombers for one last aerial pounding of Pointe-du-Hoc. When the aerial bombing ended the US Naval bombardment began their shelling from the seas surrounding Pointe-du-hoc.
Beginning at 07:30 hours on D-Day, elements of the US Army Rangers landed on the beach at the base of the 100’ cliffs at Pointe-du-Hoc. The Germans began firing on the Rangers while their landing crafts were running into the shoreline. Three companies of the 2nd Battalion, US Army Rangers under the command of Lt. Colonel James Rudder attacked the six German gun casements on top of Pointe-du-Hoc. Fighting up the cliffs, climbing ropes and ladders the Rangers ultimately made it to the top. Once over the top the Rangers attacked the massive gun positions covered in camouflaging netting. To their everlasting astonishment the “guns” under the netting were not guns, but telephone poles sticking out of the gun casements.
On D-day at 09:00 hours (9:00AM) US Army Rangers located the guns that were supposed to be at Pointe-du-Hoc. Five very large wheeled 155 millimeter guns were sitting unguarded in an apple orchard one mile from the promontory of Pointe-du-Hoc. The Rangers destroyed the guns. In the daring and successful assault of Pointe-du-Hoc, “The US Army 2nd Ranger Battalion suffered over 50% casualties.”11
On D-Day morning Eisenhower’s number one target, 5 “Canon de 155 Grande Puissance model 1917”12 World War I, French made field guns were destroyed.
The guns at Pointe-du-hoc never fired a single shell on D-Day. Yet, Omaha Beach was very heavily shelled on D-Day as noted by historian and author, Steven Zaloga. Zaloga writing in his 2013 book, The Devils Garden: Rommel’s Defense of Omaha Beach on D-Day, claims, “…that the most lethal weapons [firing at Omaha Beach] were motors and artillery” 13
Cornelius Ryan author of, The Longest Day, described Omaha Beach at H-Hour [06:30] on D-day, “The [German] guns… opened up…Artillery roared…and shells rained down… All along the four miles of Omaha Beach German guns flayed the assault craft.”14
Author Sharon Cromwell in her book, GI Joe in World War II describes the chaos on Omaha Beach, “Artillery…rained down.”15
All D-Day morning Omaha Beach was raked by German artillery. The chaos and killing were delivered in large part by artillery fire, but from where? Here are some of the known batteries of German Artillery near Omaha Beach.
Longues-sur-Mer Battery is between the American Omaha Beach and the British Gold Beach. It is composed of four large naval guns enclosed in massive concrete casements. I have visited this site many times, having once toured this important gun position with a World War II German Army veteran. The guns and their casements are very impressive, and it is those casements that restricted these guns from firing on Omaha. They would have only shelled the approaches to the beach. On D-Day morning the Allied air forces dropped over a thousand tons of high explosives at the battery site. Next, the Royal Navy fired on the battery basically neutralizing the German guns in less than an hour. The results being that these guns had zero effect on Omaha Beach on D-Day. My German Army tour guide labeled these weapons as, useless.16
I have also visited and explored the Azeville and Crisbecq Batteries which were closer to and sighted on Utah Beach. These batteries are just too far from Omaha Beach to have had any impact. These two German gun positions were to be neutralized on D-Day by the Utah Beach Landing forces. These guns never fired at Omaha Beach, because they were busy defending themselves from the Utah Beach attackers.17, 18
If the artillery at: Pointe-du-hoc, Longues-sur-Mere, Azeville and Crisbecq did not fire on Omaha Beach, then where was the German artillery that incurred so much destruction? The answer may have been found by accident, when an old map found new life, when it was removed from the pocket of an old pair of US Army pants by a military collector.
On a cold rainy January day in 2004, two brothers from England were wandering around an old farm field in Normandy. They were searching for a place to build a museum. Their day had been long and fruitless. Tiered, discouraged, and nearly ready to call it quits, Gary Sterne took one last look at the old map.
Stopping in a small clearing in the dense overgrowth of brush, he realized he was standing on a slab of concrete. He murmured to himself that Normandy was full of old German gun placements made of concrete. Nothing here, he figured as he turned to walk back to the car in the rain, cold and wind of Normandy. But then he stumbled, and looking down saw what he believed was the remnants of a chimney sticking out of the concrete slab. He was not on a floor slab; he was on the roof of an old German concrete bunker! A German bunker that was not supposed to be there. He had literally stumbled onto a piece of World War II history, a German gun battery covered over and nearly forgotten. Sterne had found the Maisy Battery.
The German battery at Grandcamp-Maisy was built under strict secrecy. Unlike most German gun positions in Normandy, it was not built with local conscripted French workers, but with Russian, Polish and other prisoners of war. The German Army oversaw its construction and the area was restricted from the local French population. No one allowed in - and no one allowed out.
Maisy was unlike most shore batteries in other ways, not just its construction. Maisy was very large. It was actually three separate and connected batteries with its own observation platforms; a local church bell tower and water tower, and its own telephone exchange. Maisy was one of only two German shore batteries with its own telephone exchange. The telephone exchange was further connected to artillery observers closer to the shoreline at the area the Allies had designated, Omaha Beach. The German observers on the bluffs at Omaha Beach called down the unprecedented death and destruction to a beach and landing area that was laid out with precise coordinates, many bearing a single word to simplify the carnage.
The battery at Maisy was massive covering over 144 acres including the defending mine fields. It Contained dozens of buildings, and over two miles of trenches connecting it all together. It was staffed by elements of two German Army divisions. It had its own medical facilities, and was one the best equipped and stocked shore batteries in all of Normandy. David Lesjak author of, Does Pointe-du-Hoc Still Matter notes, “Maisy represents one of the largest batteries in the region [Normandy], and by its very size is important”19 Maisy’s guns were within easy reach of both the Utah and Omaha landing beaches.
The German designation for the batteries at Maisy were, “Widerstandsnest” or (Resistance Nest) 83 and 84. We know that Eisenhower’s prize - Pointe-du-Hoc had six 155 millimeter French made guns - all captured and destroyed on D-Day morning. In comparison, the relatively ignored Maisy Batteries included:
“6-155mm French howitzers
4- 150mm German howitzers
1-British 25 pounder field gun
76.5mm Russian gun
2-Renault tank turrets
4-10.5 (aka105’s) German Field Guns
12- German 88’s
Plus many other anti-aircraft and smaller caliber weapons”. 20
In total Maisy had 30 operational field guns, six times the fire power of Pointe-du-Hoc. All plugged into the German coastal artillery spotters around the invasion beaches at Utah and Omaha. On D-Day all of Maisy’s guns were functional, even though the Royal Air Force bombed Maisy that morning. The Royal Air Force reported, “The two Widerstandsnesten [Resistance Nests] received another pasting on D-Day itself”21. Lastly, Maisy was not directly behind Omaha Beach; it was behind it to the west. Maisy’s guns offered enfilade firing onto Omaha Beach. Enfilade or firing from the side, is most effective and therefore quite destructive.
According to Jack Burke, A Company, 5th Rangers, who landed on Omaha Beach stated, “…we got closer to the beach…in range of German artillery… I can still hear…[and smell] odor of exploding shells…you begin to experience the worst day of your life…murderous machine guns…the 88’s and 105’s[German artillery guns] shelling the beach…I will never see anything like it again…”22
John Raanen of the 5th Ranger Battalion remembered his ride into Omaha as,”… artillery shells were detonating all around us…adding to the inferno…the scene was one from hell…” 23
In his article, Does Pointe du Hoc still Matter author David Lasjak quotes radio reports from two US Navy Warships at Omaha Beach on D-Day, “…USS Ancon [landing zone command ship] and the amphibious support ship Samuel Chase…both state regularly that [the] batteries at Maisy [were] still firing on Omaha Beach throughout D-Day morning.” 24
There is no doubt that Omaha Beach was shelled causing enormous death and destruction. Explaining the results of shelling infantry men in combat, author Steven Zaloga, quotes a US Army Medical Department study that found, 80-92% of battlefield casualties can be a result of Artillery and mortar rounds. Zaloga finishes stating that the men under fire at Omaha included, “…field artillery located some distance from the beach…25. “Some distance from the beach” is the large German gun battery at Maisy.
The seemingly endless morning of death, slowly became the afternoon. The shelling and the killing at Omaha continued, with precious time slipping away the intensity grew. On D-Day time was the driver of mayhem on a three mile long French beach. Time’s passing hardening the resolve of both invaders and defenders. The afternoon looked like the morning on Omaha beach to Major Stanley Bach, HQ 1st Infantry Division, liaison officer with the 29th Division, in his Diary, June 6, 1944, between 12:15-16:00 hours [12:15 to 4:00 PM] wrote,
“…heavy mortar and 88’s[German cannons] fire on the beach, from east end to west end…at burst of shell, two Navy men went flying throat the air…direct hit on LCM,[Landing Craft Mechanized] flames everywhere men burning alive…direct hit on trucks gasoline load…for 100 square yard men’s clothes on fire…others die in the flames… See man on his knees, think he is praying…he is dead - died on his knees praying…” 26
In closing his diary entry for June 6, 1944 Major Bach writes, “…nothing can approach the scenes on the beach…men being killed like flies from unseen gun positions… 27
The infantry sent to attack Maisy was led by the Rangers. Silencing the guns at Maisy battery became job number one as the beach at Omaha was secured. Elements of the 5th and 2nd Ranger Battalions spearheaded the assault. On June 9, 1944 Maisy was captured after bitter fighting between the American and Germans. As perhaps quietly noted in the 1998 movie, Saving Private Ryan.
Although the movie was a fictional story, there are many accurate references contained in the story. After the landings on Omaha Beach and before he is sent to find Private Ryan, fictitious Captain John Miller [Tom Hanks] C Company, 2nd Rangers Battalion, reports to his superior officer, Lt. Col. Walter Anderson [Dennis Farina]. Just before the scene we see on screen, “OMAHA BEACH D-DAY PLUS THREE.”28 Captain Miller describes the difficult fight he has been in to his superior officer. First, he explains the dense mine fields protecting the German guns he was sent to destroy. Then lamenting his lost comrades he stares blankly at a map, Miller says softly, “They just didn’t want to give up those 88’s.”29 It is perhaps a reference to the real 2nd Rangers who attacked Maisy on June 9, 1944, D-day plus three, finally silencing the guns of Maisy Battery.
US Army Ranger Jack Burke remembers the guns when the fight was over, “…I remember the big guns… the mortars and artillery encampments had charts painted on the walls with firing objectives and the exact range of each place. That is why they [the German guns] were so accurate…there was absolutely no damage to the guns [from Air and Naval Bombardments] 30
I have visited Maisy and it is really very different than other of the historical sites in Normandy. It is still being unearthed and has a feel like a place waiting to be fully discovered. The bunkers, some of which contain poorly made concrete, are a reminder that time was slipping away from the German builders. Tunnels that are dark and dank like they were while the guns shelled Omaha Beach, lead you to the next trench. The endless trenches seem like a labyrinth pulling you to the next piece of history. A large field gun sitting in its position, still aiming at the beach invaders. Quietly sitting under netting it looks like the crew has just left for lunch. The barely visible painted references, marking out firing points that meant instant death to the American invaders of Omaha. Walking on you will find a Tobruk, a German small weapons bunker meant to protect gunners and soldiers at the battery. It is another empty place with its own story to tell.
Maisy is still alive. Much of it is still buried, only partially excavated. It is an expanding site, with a story not fully told. As a researcher and frequent visitor to Normandy it pulls me in, like a friend eager to share a secret. Maisy is raw, in geography and history. That is the attraction of the place and the story. Maisy is out of place, in a place where the answers are as manicured as the monuments that line the Normandy coast.
The debate over the significance of Maisy Battery will go on for a very long time. D-Day’s history is filled with old black and white photos, and time honored books crammed with the opinions of noted historians and authors. And most importantly there is the ever fading voices of those brave men who fought on Omaha Beach. Only begrudgingly will history yield to our new discoveries allowing our curiosities to be satisfied.
At the end of my research I find a component that is simple and uncomfortable to understand. Pointe-du-Hoc was a ruse. It was a brilliant diversionary installation that sat out on a promontory into the English Channel daring the Allies to attack. Rommel understood that the Pointe could not be ignored. It was not. With the combined Allied: intelligence, air, naval, and ground forces, Eisenhower was all in on the attack at the Pointe. Rommel got his enemy to look away from where the real danger was, a battery of modern rapid firing field guns hidden under some netting in farm fields.
Eisenhower had no choice but to attack Pointe-du-Hoc on D-Day. The incredible daring, skill, and accomplishment of the US Army Rangers at Pointe-du-Hoc is military legend. It should never be minimized, only respected and honored by its benefactors. And we must try to put into proper historical context the significance of the deadly Maisy Battery, D-Day’s Forgotten Place.
Each year I walk along the beach remembered as Omaha. Always in the fall when the tourist have disappeared. It is always quiet on my visits to Omaha, in stark contrast to that day many years ago. As I walk along, I remember I am on the same sands they fought and died for so long ago. Sands that separated a world of tyranny from a world of freedom. No longer soaked with the blood and dreams of boys who became broken men as they fought, suffered and died on Bloody Omaha. Those who fought here are no better off for being here on that fateful day of days. But we are better off that they were here. And if you walk off the beach, and climb up the bluffs you will find some of them are still here.
At the top of the bluffs, not far from the sands, quietly rests some of the participants of D-Day. I am walking with a friend, in a field of thousands of white Crosses and Stars of David, each a memorial to a life given nearly seventy years ago. I turn to her and barely able to whisper say, “They were all a Mother’s son”. Her eyes find mine, and as she scans the endless white marble crosses, she quickly brings her hand to her mouth. She must have for a moment thought of her own children and grandchildren, or perhaps of her father who as a nineteen year old walked across Omaha Beach just days after the invasion. We walked on, our hearts heavy, our eyes teary trying to make sense of this hallowed place.
The men who fought in Normandy are fading from our collective memories, passing into history. Just like other places of historical significance, Normandy with all its purpose and remaining secrets, slowly fades into myth, and legend. In the American Cemetery at Normandy take a moment and notice all the gravestones; they all forever face west, towards the home and lives they left. The beautiful white marble markers stand in defiance of nature and time, reminding us - Earn This.
If you get to Normandy in your travels, please take half a day and visit the Maisy Battery site. It is worth your time, and will give you a different look at World War II’s most important Battle. You will feel like you are witness to history, seeing Normandy like it was. The Web Site is www.maisybattery.com
I would like to thank Gary Sterne the man that discovered and uncovered the Maisy gun batteries. Mr. Sterne is a remarkable source of information and the history of Omaha Beach, Maisy Battery, and the US Army Rangers. I would also
Like to thank Mr. Douglas McCabe of Ohio University in Akron, Ohio. Mr. McCabe allowed me access to the notes of Cornelius Ryan, author of, The Longest Day.
Amelia McNutt, Director
Normandy Research Foundation
“Don’t Let Their Glory Fade”
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