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D-Day: When the Tides Turned on Omaha Beach

In the last episode from Season 3 of Unknown History, we learn how the American Troops finally won the beach from German defenders at Omaha Beach. 

By
Giles Milton,
Episode #87
German Surrender at Omaha Beach

Who were Charles Canham and Norman Cota? And why were they sent to Omaha Beach with the greatest urgency on the morning on D-Day? Turns out, they were the only two men who could break the bloody stalemate that had afflicted Omaha since dawn.

Welcome to Season 3 of Unknown History: D-Day Stories. I'm your host, Giles Milton, and today we're returning to the terrible killing fields of Omaha Beach.

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In an earlier episode of Unknown History, we heard how the first wave of American troops to land on Omaha were massacred by the German defenders. Hardly a single man who landed in the first wave survived.

So what happened next? And how did American troops finally win the beach? It’s a story of courage and leadership—and it begins on USS Augusta, anchored offshore from Omaha. Pacing the bridge of the ship, and gravely anxious, was General Omar Bradley, General Eisenhower’s principal American commander on D-Day.

Norman Cota and Charles Canham were to be dispatched to Omaha Beach with the unenviable task of saving the landing from catastrophe.

Bradley was a worried man. The few reports he’d received from the beach suggested that the assault on Omaha was turning into a huge-scale catastrophe.

"Privately," he said, "I considered evacuating the beach-head and directing the follow-up troops to Utah Beach or the British beaches."

But he knew that evacuation was logistically impossible and that a diversion of troops would wreck the entire invasion plan. It would also condemn those already on the beach to certain death.

It was in this moment of desperation that Bradley chose to deploy two of his most formidable weapons. Norman Cota and Charles Canham were to be dispatched to Omaha Beach with the unenviable task of saving the landing from catastrophe.

Cota was a brigadier general, Canham a colonel, but their ranks were only partly relevant to everything that was to follow. More crucially, both were tried and tested leaders accustomed to getting their way.

Colonel Canham was the more unusual of the two. "A fiery old guy who spat fire and brimstone," said one. Another said he was "a tough son of a bitch: tall and lanky, he had a thin little moustache like the villain in a movie."

Canham’s comrade in arms was Norman Cota. Fifty-one years of age and with thinning hair, he was an old man leading a young man’s game. There was something of the outlaw about Cota: he champed on an unlit cigar even when under fire, and had perfected the art of swinging a pistol on his index finger. He had driven his men hard and vowed to lead from the front. His men were known as the Bastard Brigade. He was the Bastard-in-Chief.

Cota had warned his men that Omaha was going to be a nightmare. "You’re going to find confusion," he said. "The landing craft aren’t going in on schedule or people aren’t going to be landed in the right place. Some won’t be landed at all. We must improvise, carry on, not lose our heads."

Norman Cota and Charles Canham rode to the beach in the same landing craft, accompanied by a group of officers. Canham leaped ashore under heavy gunfire, charging up the shingle like some fiery Chicago gangster, with a .45 pistol in one hand and an automatic rifle in the other.

"Get your ass out of there!" he screamed at the men lying paralysed on the shingle. "What are you doing there, laying there like that? Get up! Get across the rest of this goddamn beach!"

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