Where they landed
One of our primary research objectives has been to pinpoint with a degree of accuracy where the first Echelon of 21 BDS landed. This basic and fundamental question has not been easy to answer, and even now there is a degree of doubt about the exact location of their landfall.
We know where they should have landed from the landing table (see Landing Area Map) and that was Easy Red. This section of the beach begins at a point halfway between the Les Moulins draw and the St Laurent draw, then runs eastwards to a point very close to the Colleville draw. Not only was this the scheduled landing point but, if everything had gone to plan, would also have been the safest and most secure.
As we know, they were supposed to land at H-hour plus 300 minutes. As H-hour for the American beaches was 6.30am, this would mean that their scheduled time for landing was 11.30am. However during their approach, it was obvious that none of Omaha beach was safe for a non-combative group of men to land on and the off-shore beach masters instructed them to return to sea and to circle around until the beaches were in a safer condition for a landing. Had everything gone according to plan, the beach demolition crews of the American First Infantry Division would have created safe channels along which incoming landing craft could safely navigate to allow disembarkation irrespective of the state of the tide. Their scheduled landing time of 11.30am would have meant their landing would take place at near enough high water mark.
But we know that very few of the demolition teams succeeded in their task and there were only a handful of channels that had been created during low tide at the start of the D-Day landings.
This meant that landings that were attempted from about 9.30am onwards not only had to avoid the anti-landing craft obstructions that had been placed on the beach with their associated mines, but also meant that the landing craft were closer to the German defenders. For these reasons, many of the teams scheduled to come in during the morning of D-Day had to wait offshore for the situation on the beach to improve.
During 6th June the Americans slowly gained a foothold on Omaha beach, and many separate small groups of Americans fought their way up the bluffs and began to push inland, attempting to circle behind the German defenders to capture the five draws leading away from the beach. The two draws where the Americans had their first success were D-1, the Vierville draw, and E-1, the St Laurent draw. At that time, the St Laurent draw was just an unpaved track, offering a single lane from the beach to the east of St Laurent village. Thanks to the fortitude and bravery of the men of the 1st Infantry Division, the two strong points that protected the St Laurent draw, WN-64 and WN-65, were silenced in the early afternoon, and by 3pm the first signs of an organised, uncontested area of Allied occupation was forming on this part of the beach. We know that, by about 4pm as the tide was falling, a concentrated effort was made to clear many of the beach obstacles to allow an easier and safer passage for incoming landing craft.
Out at sea, the RAF contingent in their five craft were enduring a long and nauseating period, confined to those landing craft. From survivors’ accounts, by 5pm the feeling was that a landing by them on 6th June was unlikely. However, just when they felt they would be heading back to the UK, the off-shore “traffic cops” relayed orders for them to make an immediate landing, and so their five landing craft assembled in an arrow formation and headed for the beach.
At this point, we must rely on the evidence as it presents itself. Although their pre-arranged destination was on the east of St Laurent, although it was the St Laurent draw that had been opened and was a relatively safe area for landing craft to land, and although that was more or less in the centre of Easy Red… for some inexplicable reason, it seems that they actually landed in the Easy Green section of the beach, close to D-3 draw at Les Moulins.
Whether it was an error in navigation or there was a communication problem, we cannot determine. The tragic result of this incorrect landing was that they were put onto a part of the beach still being fiercely defended by the Germans, a part from which as yet there was no exit onto the Les Moulins to St Laurent road. Sadly for 21 BDS, this error had tragic abd fatal consequences: not only did they lose many vehicles during the landing process but even those that managed to reach the shore became sitting targets for German 88mm guns firing from behind the beach, and mortars still being fired from German strongholds – particularly WN-67 and 69.
To visualise what faced the incoming troops that day, we have collected photographs of the area before and after the D-day invasions.
Les Moulins Draw
The tiny hamlet of Les Moulins lies just north of St Laurent-sur-Mer. In 1944 there was a tarmac-paved road connecting the two communities, and this coastal road wound down from St Laurent, dropping several hundred feet over a distance of about a mile.
Before the War, on the coast itself were a number of dwellings and holiday homes, and the layout and the construction of the hamlet can be seen in the photograph on this page.
When the Germans began to defend this part of the Normandy coastline in preparation for an invasion, they demolished many of the holiday homes immediately on the beach; those that remained were converted into 45 houses. The dwellings slightly back from the coast were not destroyed, and several large buildings, including the mill, were in existence on 6th June 1944. The position of these dwellings and the strongholds which the Germans built, is shown on the map below.
In addition to the fortified defensive positions, the Germans also constructed anti-tank ditches and anti-tank walls in a V-shape, protecting the road off the beach and up towards St Laurent. These provided formidable defensive structures which the Americans would have to penetrate if they were to capture the beach and access the road off the beach to the villages and countryside beyond.
There are photographs which show not only the position of the draw before the invasion, but also immediately after, when the Americans and RAF had managed to penetrate at least the first series of obstacles. This allowed them to take shelter within the valley leading to St Laurent on the first night of D-Day.
Based on the testimonies which can be read in the section Men and their Experiences, we think it is possible to trace the movements of the remaining vehicles and men of the first Echelon of 21 BDS to a spot on the eastern side of the Les Moulins valley, close to a retaining wall which is still there today, and where in 1944 a substantial dwelling existed, part of which gave them shelter. This is now very close to the present day Omaha Beach Museum which is a prominent feature of this part of Omaha.