Sixty-years-ago, along a 60-mile stretch of France’s Normandy coastline, a combined force of American, British, and Canadian soldiers began streaming ashore as German artillery, mortar, machine-gun, and rifle fire ripped into their ranks. The mission of the Allied force was to kick down the door of Nazi Germany’s Fortress Europe, and then launch a drive toward the heart of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
Overseen by American Gen. Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, the operation was–and remains to this day–the largest amphibious assault in history.
Since then, the question has often been raised as to why the U.S. Marine Corps did not play a leading role in the landings. After all, the Corps’s raison d’être was amphibious warfare. Marines had been perfecting the art of the amphibious assault since the 1920’s, and between 1942 and 1944, they had put their skills to practical use at places like Guadalcanal, Makin, Bougainville, and Tarawa, in the Pacific.
In the Atlantic, Marines had trained Army forces for seaborne landings prior to the North African campaign in 1942, and then made landings during the same. Marines trained Army forces for the Sicilian-Italian landings in 1943. Marine Corps amphibious experts were on Ike’s staff. And most Normandy-bound Army units were in fact instructed by Marines prior to the 1944 invasion.
So why didn’t U.S. Marines storm the French coast with their Army counterparts?
First, the Marine Corps was then–as it has always been–much smaller than the Army. During World War II, the Corps swelled to a force comprising six divisions, whereas the Army expanded to 89 divisions. The Corps’ resources were stretched thin, and much of its efforts were focused on the fighting in the Pacific.
Second, a deep-seeded rivalry between the Army and Marines was in full bloom: Its origins stretching back to World War I; the defining period of the modern Marine Corps.
Following the 1918 Battle of Belleau Wood (France), in which Marines played a leading role, newspapers in the U.S. credited much of the success of the American Expeditionary Force to the Marines. This occurred at the expense of deserving Army units even when referring to actions in which Marines did not participate.
In one instance, a number of newspapers covering the fighting at the Marne River bridges at Chateau-Thierry (a few days prior to the Battle of Belleau Wood) published headlines that read “Germans stopped at Chateau-Thierry with help of God and a few Marines.” The headlines contributed to the Corps’ already legendary reputation, and the Army was justifiably incensed. The Germans in fact had been stopped at Chateau-Thierry by the U.S. Army’s 7th machinegun battalion.
Army leaders–including Generals George C. Marshall, Eisenhower, and Omar N. Bradley–were determined not to be upstaged by Marines, again. Thus, when America entered World War II in late 1941, the Marine Corps was deliberately excluded from large-scale participation in the European theater. And when the largest amphibious operation in history was launched, it was for all intents and purposes an Army show.
In the wee hours of June 6, 1944, paratroopers from the American 82nd, 101st, and British 6th Airborne divisions began jumping over France. Hours later, the first assault waves of the initial 175,000-man seaborne force began hitting the Normandy beaches at the Bay of Seine. Five beaches comprised the landing areas: Sword, Juno, and Gold Beaches were struck by Lt. Gen. Miles Christopher Dempsey’s Second British Army. Omaha and Utah Beaches were stormed by Gen. Bradley’s First U.S. Army.
Between Omaha and Utah, 225 men of the U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion were tasked with scaling the 100-foot cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. There, five 155-millimeter guns were emplaced in reinforced concrete bunkers. As such the position encompassed “the most dangerous battery in France.” It had to be knocked out to protect the landings.
When the Rangers began suffering heavy losses, brief consideration was given to sending-in the Marines from one of the offshore ships’ detachments.
Those slated to go were leathernecks from the 84-man Marine Detachment aboard the battleship U.S.S. Texas. On the morning of June 7 (D-plus-one), the Texas’s Marines began making last minute preparations: Wiping down weapons, distributing grenades, waterproofing field packs, and sharpening K-Bar fighting knives. Others were on the mess decks eating the traditional pre-landing breakfast of steak and eggs: A fact that concerned the Navy’s medical corpsmen who feared they would be treating stomach wounds later in the day. Those anxious to go ashore, watched the ongoing action from the ship’s railings.
In his book, Spearheading D-Day, Jonathan Gawne writes, “Most of these Marines had no combat experience and had only been in the Corps for a few months [the same could have been said of many of the soldiers who had just landed]. One of them [the Marines] commented: ‘This is going to be the biggest slaughter since Custer got his at the Little Big Horn.’”
At the last minute, word was passed down through the Army chain of command that no Marines would be allowed to go ashore, not even riding shotgun on landing craft ferrying Army troops or supplies. Rumors quickly spread that the Army leadership feared a repeat of the media gaffes in 1918. They did not want to see headlines that read, Marines save Rangers at Normandy. Consequently, the Marines were ordered to “stand down.”
Though little-known outside of special-operations circles, Marines did however play a few combat roles in the invasion.
Prior-to, during, and after the landings, Marines assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)–the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency–planned and led sabotage and resistance operations with the French underground against the occupying Germans. On D-Day, Marines helped pave the way for British and American pathfinders and paratroopers who dropped behind enemy lines. Additionally, a handful of Marine Corps observers were attached to Army landing forces.
Offshore, Marines were positioned high in the superstructures of American warships in the English Channel. From their lofty perches, the riflemen fired at and detonated floating mines as the ships moved in close to “bombardment stations” along the French coastline. It was reminiscent of the Old Corps during the age of sail when sharp-shooting Marines climbed the masts and riggings and battled enemy crews from the “fighting tops.”
Normandy was indeed big, but the war itself was far bigger. There was enough action in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters for everyone, and everyone got to play. But that failed to stanch the growing interservice rivalry between the Army and Marines.
The day before the invasion of Normandy, a restless Army Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. addressed his troops (the shorter, less-profane version of that address was made famous by actor George C. Scott, who ironically was a former U.S. Marine).
Publicly, Patton was full of fire and an unsated desire to kill the enemy. Privately, he was disappointed. Neither he nor his 1st U.S. Army Group–a skeleton host formed to deceive the Germans into believing that the Americans would land at Pas de Calais–were going to participate in the landings. But unbeknownst to the general, the coming weeks would see Eisenhower bring Patton off the sidelines, give him command of the U.S. Third Army, and then hurl that force against the reconstituted German defenses beyond the Normandy beachhead. In that capacity, Patton was destined to make headlines of his own.
Outlining his colorful albeit controversial vision of the future, Patton said, “The quicker we clean up this g**damned mess, the quicker we can take a little jaunt against the purple pissing Japs and clean out their nest, too. Before the g**damned Marines get all of the credit.”
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.