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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.