Soldiers come ashore on Utah Beach on D-Day (National Archives)
By George Morris
In the dim but rising light of about 6:30 a.m., Leonce Haydel, of Gramercy, Louisiana, became one of the first Allied soldiers to step on the French beach. He was not expected to return.
“It was a suicide mission,” Haydel said. “What they sent us in on, we weren’t supposed to survive at all.”
If German Gen. Erwin Rommel had his way, that’s how it would have worked out.
Although Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt disagreed, Rommel firmly believed that the coming invasion needed to be stopped, if possible, at the beach. Since the Allied air forces owned the skies, even a small Allied foothold on Europe, he reasoned, would be unacceptable.
Along with concrete reinforced artillery and machine gun emplacements, Rommel had four million mines laid along the Channel coast. In addition, he developed an extensive array of obstacles for tanks and landing craft.
Logs with mines attached to the end rose from the sand where water at high tide would hide them. Similarly placed steel obstacles could rip open the bottom of landing craft and tanks. Even boats not destroyed by these devices could be slowed long enough for German 88mm guns to draw a bead on them.
That was why Haydel and others like him were the first to arrive. A member of the 299th Combat Engineers, his job was to destroy obstacles and mines just minutes ahead of the actual invasion time, called H Hour.
Haydel only wishes everything had operated like clockwork. The intense naval shelling of the coast was still going on when he hit the beach.
“A lot of that stuff was falling on top of us,” Haydel said.
The USS Nevada shells Utah Beach on D-Day (National Archives)
As soon as the naval fire stopped, the German guns opened up. He had to clear a 50-yard path through the obstacles and mines, but first, he had to get to the right section of beach.
“We had to walk up the beach a ways, which meant we took a lot more casualties than we would have taken if we’d gone directly to the obstacles,” Haydel said. “They had those artillery pieces pre-zeroed in, so all they had to do was load them and fire them.
“Most of the casualties came from artillery fire. While we were working on the beach, we were drawing a lot of rifle and machine gun fire. You can understand the casualties were high. We weren’t in a position to get off the beach right away.”
The only way off the beach was to cross it, then wait for the incoming infantry. To do that, the mines had to be cleared. Engineers like Haydel used Bangalore torpedoes, 4-foot metal tubes filled with explosives that could be connected to each other and pushed into the minefield. If necessary, connected Bangalore torpedoes could be 200 yards long. When detonated, they would open a path through the mines.
Haydel said there were 21 men on his boat. By the time he crossed the beach, there were three. His survival, he said, was “an act of God.”
“There were many times artillery fell around me and people would get wounded and killed around me, and you’d wonder why it wasn’t you,” Haydel said.
“We were totally expendable. There’s no other way to look at it. There was no reason why any of us should have survived that. Artillery just kept raining in on you and drawing machine gun fire until the infantry came in and they got up the beach. Later on in the evening, we were better off, but the initial hours, it was just a living hell.”