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Leadership – D Day

Heroism takes many forms, but the most raw and inspiring comes in war. In all of American history no moment has crystallized more clearly than the invasion of Normandy, exemplified most clearly on Omaha beach. The stories are horrifying and inspiring, but ultimately they are lessons – examples of heroism which inspire the value of leadership deep in head and heart both.

What is less commonly understood about Omaha Beach is how much it all went wrong. Nearly everything about this landing went as horribly off plan as possible, with thousands dying needlessly. The beach was almost abandoned as the loss of life mounted. What made the difference that day was leadership – courage boiled down into conviction to get the job done. It was shown at every level from every man who took part in the mission and rose above the problems.

Omaha Beach is a lesson for all of us as to what raw leadership can do in times of trial.

Omaha Beach on D-Day

Omaha Beach on D-Day

The plans were drawn up months in advance. As with any military operation, amateurs talk strategy but experts talk logistics – and the Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Eisenhower was primarily a logistical genius. Everything was carefully planned down to the last detail and then everyone rehearsed. Training is what makes men move as one machine into battle.

Strategy came into play primarily with the ruse set up at Dover that made it look like the landing would come at the narrow point in the English Channel, at Calais. The Nazis bought this ruse for many reasons and concentrated their forces there. As planning went forward, Normandy remained relatively unfortified.

Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Eisenhower

Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Eisenhower

That is, until another great general, Erwin Rommel, inspected the defenses. He recognized immediately that Normandy was a better landing site – that it, in fact, looked just like the beach we chose to come ashore in Sicily a year earlier. Rommel was able to divert some resources to the reinforcement of what Eisenhower and his command were calling Omaha Beach.

When reconnaissance flights showed these new bunkers and pillbox guns, the allied forces knew their plans were thwarted. But it was too close to the invasion to make major changes, so they improvised. They came up with a three point plan to address the new reinforcements on the beach:

  • Paratroopers would drop the night before to disable what they could.
  • Destroyers would shell ahead of the landing to “soften up” the defenses.
  • More amphibious Sherman tanks would be brought ashore.
US Soldiers heading towards Omaha Beach

US Soldiers heading towards Omaha Beach

On D-Day, 6 June 1944, the allies landed at five total beaches. Some were easy and almost uneventful, others had some significant resistance. Omaha was a bloodbath.

The paratroopers landed far off their mark and were completely ineffective, not able to reach anywhere near Omaha Beach. The naval bombardment was only partially effective, coming before dawn on heavy seas. And when the landing actually took place, those same stormy seas sank nearly all of the amphibious tanks before they reached the shore.

The soldiers who landed at Omaha were met with incredible slaughter as a result, the survivors off the landing craft pinned down just yards from the surf. The careful planning of the leadership appeared to have failed them. But much more leadership was yet to come.

Brigadier General Norman Cota

Brigadier General Norman Cota

Wading ashore with the rest of the troops was Brigadier General Norman Cota. He assessed the situation and quickly realized that this was the time to show where the star on his helmet came from. He is quoted as saying to those who could hear him over the screams and shells,

Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.

Cota then led a column of men personally up the cliff to one of the bunkers sizzling with hot machine gun fire and brought them close enough to rip the guts of it out with grenades, opening a breach that others could follow. His leadership, the rawest and most courageous type, certainly saved the beach.

Offshore, the destroyers saw what was happening almost helplessly. They had been ordered to stay a safe distance from shore and to stop shelling once the troops landed, given how inaccurate their guns would be at distance. The Captain of the USS Frankford, Harry Sanders, ordered the 12 ships under his command to move in as close as they could and resume firing – at great risk of running aground or being shelled themselves. They took out several Nazi bunkers with their unusually close precision shelling and certainly saved the beach.

A depiction of the Destroyers, led by the USS Frankford, nearly running aground to supply close support.

A depiction of the Destroyers, led by the USS Frankford, nearly running aground to supply close support.

And, of course, each of the men on that beach showed another kind of great leadership – personal conviction that drove them to move forward and do what every part of their body must have told them was going to be lethal.

This story is worth telling because it illustrates many aspects of leadership – and why it is absolutely essential when a task which seems impossible simply has to get done.

At the top of the list, the careful planning is what we commonly think of as “leadership”, but it only took us so far. Terrible mistakes were made at Omaha when the response to a changing situation was grossly inadequate and makeshift.

We salute you, too!

We salute you, too!

What made the difference was situational leadership, particularly the inspiration of Gen Cota. What he exhibited was more than bravery – it was his commitment which rallied the troops and made advancement possible. And then there was the leadership of Capt. Sanders, who defied orders and risked the ships under his command to simply do what he could see needed to be done.

None of these men sat around complaining about the situation. They moved forward and did what they had to do. There saw that Omaha Beach was turning into a disaster and that was unacceptable. The quick action of a few galvanized the many as genuine leadership, throbbing through adrenalized heartbeats and rattled brains, raced into the breach and created the opening.

They didn’t whine. They got the job done, no matter how screwed up everything was.

This Memorial Day we remember the sacrifices made by so many who fought to preserve our freedom. What we must do is more than place flowers on their graves and stand in awe with our heads bowed. What we must do is learn from their example and demonstrate leadership in our own lives.

Life rarely calls on us to put our bodies on the line as it did those men on Omaha Beach. But we are all called to leadership in the defense of the freedom we all cherish.

Leadership is not stubborn, it is resilient Leadership does not stand, it moves. Leadership does not whine, it inspires.

Leadership simply does.

10 thoughts on “Leadership – D Day

  1. Fantabulous Post!! I Miss My Dad – Here’s his version of the story he shared in my youth, “I t was foggy that a.m. and at 8:36 am, they landed at (who knows what code name of the beach point – – Utah?~?) – by 9:09a.m, after they had been caught….”

    This is what I heard, in my mind, and always remembered.. forever more, as hope when you think all is lost….
    “Well, the currants caught their boat and they were late to their landing point, ended up landing far past where they intended – but Good News! They landed at a point where there were no defenses for beach, stormed inland, flanked around, managed to ‘gain surrender of’ of entrenched enemy bunker on focused on the REAL landing point, cleaned up, got the prisoners marched out, secured the beach head, other crews landed and everyone started the battle to work through the hedgerow territory – ”

    I loved my Dad – who could remember the exact date, time, weather, names, etc….BUT who forgave my tendency to do ‘big picture’ perspective and realize, I got the point, despite my innate ability to immediately grasp the minute details –

    Which was…. “Sometimes, when it seems everything is going wrong – well, it turns out to be the thing that kept you alive and saw you through to victory” – –

    🙂 Thank you for this wonderful post – for those who have served – for lessons learned from the past – for putting in the details so I can bookmark to memorize the details… But most of all – personally – thank you for the wonderful memory of my Dad – because, though it’s no chronological thingee – you have filled a spot in my life that was left empty when he died – the spot that is more into details and facts, etc., than I can always memorize and spout of the cuff, BUT the kindness to recognize I heard/read and I GET IT! I just tell a different story about what it means – (sans dates/times/weather/etc….LOL ) Thank you so much for your gift of sharing your craft! 🙂

    • Thank you so much, I am glad to have touched you. I would have loved to have met your Dad as I love meeting all veterans. Their stories need to be told because we are asked so little in our own lives.

  2. We must never forget. Your take on D-Day is not that different from what I have seen in documentaries but I like the emphasis on what went wrong. It is amazing that they were able to win that day with what they were up against. You are right though in that what made it a great victory is that they persevered even though it all went wrong. A great story for Memorial Day. Never forget!
    I feel like there is a bigger message here.

    • There is a bigger message here – we don’t have anything to whine about, and even if we did whining wouldn’t solve a damned thing.
      Leadership is what makes the difference whenever things get tough. Whether it’s leading and inspiring others or just steeling yourself, it’s really about leadership to get the job done. That’s what we need more of.

  3. Great piece. That generation never complained about anything, they just did. A lot of them suffered in silence for the rest of their lives with the PTSD they brought home. I miss my grandpa who came ashore a month after D Day. He said it was all quiet by then but I know he saw some terrible thiings after that. He never talked about that.

    • So sorry to hear that he passed without telling you more. That generation did indeed just do without whining. We miss them terribly as a society.

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