The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, a unit of all African Americans, was part of the first waves of soldiers on Omaha and Utah beaches on D-Day. They brought barrage balloons ashore to help protect the soldiers who would follow. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History/Twitter.
The choppy waves and darkly clouded skies set an ominous tone for the throngs of Allied troops motoring toward Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944.
Hours earlier, American and British paratroopers had made landfall beyond the fortress of bunkers that girdled the shorelines, advancing inland to secure paths of egress from the beaches and thwart a German retreat. Now, the second phase of Operation Overlord would commence with an assault by six Allied divisions on a total of five heavily defended beaches: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.
At roughly 6:30 a.m., the battle commenced. More than 160,000 troops attempted to storm the shoreline under a relentless barrage of machine-gun and artillery fire. Among them were a number of small, specialized units tasked with a variety of unique missions to help ensure the overall success of the invasion. Here are four of those units.
In the summer of 1942, a brand-new US Navy unit specializing in identifying amphibious landing zones for invasions took form. The first missions for these so-called Scouts and Raiders involved sending two-person kayak teams to conduct surveillance of the Normandy coastline, collect sand samples from the beaches, and gather intelligence. These daring operations helped lay the groundwork for D-Day. Many of the Scouts and Raiders also participated in the invasion itself, guiding landing cruisers to the beaches in their small, agile watercraft.
Lt. Phil Bucklew, colloquially known as the “father of Naval Special Warfare,” served as a skipper on one of the first Scout boats to reach the heavily defended coast. While tanks were disembarking from the landing craft, Bucklew fired rockets over them to mark their targets along Omaha Beach. When he ran out of rockets, he positioned his boat closer to shore and fired his twin .50-caliber machine guns at the German positions. Between bouts of firing, he helped rescue American troops who had bailed from a burning landing craft. Bucklew’s extraordinary actions that day ultimately led to his being awarded the Navy Cross.
After D-Day, the Scouts and Raiders were no longer needed. Many who served within the ranks left the organization to serve in various naval special operations units for the remainder of the war.
The Naval Combat Demolition Units comprised sailors who specialized in demolitions. Each six-man NCDU team included three US Navy seamen who had attended special courses in Scotland where they learned how to handle explosives. The NCDUs at Utah Beach reportedly cleared 700 yards of shoreline in just two hours. Then they shifted to using heavy machinery, such as bulldozers, to remove more entrenched obstacles. As a whole, the NCDUs suffered a 52% casualty rate in the invasion, amounting to what the Navy SEAL Museum now considers the bloodiest single day in Naval Special Warfare history.
The 320th Very Low Altitude (VLA) Barrage Balloon Battalion was the only all-Black unit that took part in Operation Overlord. The 320th had a vital role in protecting ships and landing craft from strafing runs by enemy aircraft. The barrage balloons were inflated on the boats, secured with cables, and then hoisted into the sky. Floating above the fleet, the balloons would force an enemy aviator to think twice before conducting a low-level air assault. The cables were difficult to see and could shear off the wing of an enemy aircraft attempting to pass through them. Meanwhile, aircraft that flew above the balloons would be exposed to anti-aircraft weaponry.
The 320th was dispersed across more than 100 landing craft destined for Omaha and Utah beaches. More than 600 members of the unit participated in the invasion. Those included Sgt. Waverly “Woody” Woodson Jr., who served heroically that day as a medic with the 320th. Woodson’s landing craft went over submerged mines and was blown out of the water. He entered the ocean, maneuvered around a burning tank, and ran through the surf. Once on the beach, Woodson set up an ad hoc aid station near a rocky embankment and spent the next 30 hours working to save the wounded. Woodson was recommended for the Medal of Honor for his actions but ultimately received a Bronze Star with Valor.
The failed Dieppe Raid in August 1942 exposed weaknesses in the Allies’ tactics for landing armored vehicles during an amphibious invasion. In an effort to correct these weaknesses, British tank expert Maj.-Gen. Sir Percy Hobart created special armored vehicles for mine-clearing and other mission-specific tasks. These tanks were aptly nicknamed “Hobart’s Funnies” and belonged to the 79th Armoured Division.
One example was the Duplex Drive “Swimming” Sherman, an amphibious tank that relied on engine-powered propellers to make it through the surf. Once on land, the Swimming Shermans used tracks to advance and provided infantry forces with immediate fire support.
The Crab was another Hobart Funny. The Sherman tank was armed with a “flail” — or a roller and weighted chain for mine-clearing.
The Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineer (ARVE) was a Churchill tank modified with a spigot mortar mounted as a makeshift turret, which was used to demolish steel and concrete structures such as bunkers. The ARVE was also equipped with the “Bobbin” Carpet Layer, a device that emplaced matting over the sand to allow other vehicles to more easily move across the beaches.
Other Hobart Funnies models included a bridge layer and a tank that served as a ramp for armor and infantry. All played various vital roles in Operation Overlord and continued to prove instrumental for the Allies for the remainder of the war.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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