D-Day: The Utah Beach Landings

As dawn broke on June 6, 1944, Allied forces were conducting their first wave of landings on Utah Beach—and quickly realized that a part of their plan had gone very, very wrong. 

Giles Milton
7-minute read
Episode #81

To one young soldier, it was an overwhelming experience. “Bombs, shells...rockets whooshing overhead, ack-ack from the German positions...an awesome display.”

Schroeder was raked with fire that skimmed his head and splashed into the sea. He led his lads in a spirited dash across 400 yards of sand. It was not easy, for their clothes were sodden and acted like a dragnet. They eventually reached the low sea wall, where they had a refuge of sorts. In just a couple of minutes, Schroeder’s 150 men of F Company were ashore with only a few men down.

It didn’t take long to realize that something was seriously wrong.

Off to the right, Schroeder could just make out the men of E Company storming ashore under the leadership of Howard Lees. Among them was Teddy Roosevelt, panting heavily and feeling every one of his 58 years.

Further along the beach came C Company, many of whom had shaved their heads like Mohawks. “They yelled like Indians as they ran up the beach.” It felt better arriving in a blaze of noise.

It didn’t take long to realize that something was seriously wrong. According to the maps and models used in training, they should have landed close to a windmill and earthen structure known as Mud Fort.

But here, there were no landmarks at all. Leonard Schroeder was puzzled, as was Captain Robert Crisson of C Company. “Dammit, captain,” said one of Crisson’s officers, “there’s no Mud Fort down there.”

Roosevelt took a quick scout around the dunes and found “a house by the seawall where none should have been."  He then crawled on to a higher dune and saw a windmill in the far distance. Only then did the terrible truth sink in: the ferocious swell had pushed them a mile to the south of their intended landing.

This presented a potentially disastrous setback. In their months of training, they had focused all their energies on learning how to capture causeway three, one of the four raised tracks that led inland across the flooded meadows behind the sand dunes.

But they had actually landed at causeway two, a mile to the south. This meant that none of their planned objectives could be undertaken. It also meant that all the successive waves, along with the tanks, bulldozers and jeeps, would also land in the wrong place.

Adaptability is everything in warfare; that was the constant refrain of Leonard Schroeder’s commanding officer, Colonel James van Fleet. He landed shortly after Schroeder and was immediately told they were in the wrong place. He now had to weigh up what to do.

“Should we try to shift our entire landing force more than a mile down the beach and follow our original plan?” he asked himself. “Or should we proceed across the causeways immediately where we had landed?”

The former option—to move the landing force—carried a clear danger: it would cause chaos for all the follow-up landings.

But fighting from where they had landed was also far from ideal. All their original objectives would be irrelevant and their targets would be completely different.

Van Fleet had played a key role in training his men; now, he took a key role in leading them. “Go straight inland,” he shouted over the noise of exploding shells. “We’ve caught the enemy at a weak point, so let's take advantage of it.”


About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.