Mortars, machine guns, 37 mm anti-tank guns, 75 and 88 mm guns, steel tripod stakes, floating mines, wired mines, buried mines and Teller mines that were just covered by the sea at high tide all took their toll on Lt. Jimmie Monteith's men. In moments the fifty-one men and the Lieutenant were reduced to just twenty-five.
Lt. Jimmie Monteith
After cutting a swath of destruction across North Africa it fell to Field Marshall Erwin Rommel to bolster the Atlantic Wall defenses for Adolf Hitler. For Lieutenant Jimmie Monteith Jr. of Virginia it was his job to cut through those defenses on June 6, 1944- D-Day.
The L.C.V.P. churned through the surf carrying Company E, the 16th Infantry unit of the U.S. Army 1st Divisionthe Big Red One. A quarter mile from the sand machine gun rounds were already finding their mark on the armored loading ramp. It was 0645. The craft had circled for thirty minutes after the men embarked to form up in concert with others. The Channel's six-foot waves began to take their toll in nausea damage as vomit hit the bilge water at their freezing cold feet. These were battle tested men who had fought in North Africa and through Sicily but the prolonged disorientation in the craft did them in.
Add the heavy equipment load each man carried in their weakened state and it contributed to the recipe for disaster. Weapons with 250 rounds of ammunition, grenades, rations, canteens, explosives, first-aid kits, gas masks, entrenching tools and life preservers were all vital but all added to the weight.
There was some solace in the fact that the fifty-two men were part of 35,000 assaulting Fortress Europe that day in the first wave and the fact the naval guns and B-26 bombers had plastered the defenses earlier. Also, amphibious tanks were to precede the infantry to the beaches. The sad surprise was that the bombardment completely missed or did little damage and most of the tanks sank or bogged down as they emerged from their landing craft too far from the beach in the heavy seas. The floundering tanks were unique to Omaha's churning surf. At other beaches they performed as planned.
The landings had to be made at low tide to reveal the traps and obstacles. At high tide the relative safety of the shorter beach that needed to be crossed had the down side of the assault vehicles being hung up or destroyed on the submerged dangers. Three hundred plus yards of bare beach was required to be crossed to the sea wall where the bluffs began.
The L.C.V.P. thunked to stop on a sand bar 75 yards off the beach unable to proceed farther. Monteith rallied the seasick men to their feet as the ramp dropped. Other craft shared a similar fate hung up 50 to 100 yards from the sands. Muzzle flashes pierced the overcast low gray of the dawn from the wall beyond the beach from a thousand weapons. As the slugs splashed into the water in front of the ramp Monteith ordered the men over the sides of the craft.
Lt. Monteith splashed into the cold three-foot deep water with his men. As bullets swept the area he ducked below the water instinctively. Those that didn't follow suit died. Beyond the sand bar the nasty green water rose to eight feet and the puny life preservers could not help non-swimmers stay afloat. They drowned thrashing about the ugly water. Eleven men were already gone from the unit.
Everyone looked for the tanks they'd hoped would punch a hole in the enemy line but not one was in sight as Monteith lamented to Sergeant Orville Pierce, the demolition expert, "Man, one thing for sure, this just ain't our day."
The bluffs of Colleville-sur-Mer spat out ordnance and the rounds erupted all around the 16th. The village of the same name lay about a mile from the shoreline approachable via the Colleville Draw or over the bluffs.
Lt. Monteith zigzagged to a position near an anti-tank obstacle called a spider. The 7.92 mm copper-jacketed projectiles made the metal sing as the men hunkered behind it and others strewn along the beach. They crawled forward to the relative safety of a rock overhang from the steel rain. Monteith did a head count and found that fully half of his fifty-one men were missing.
The radioman repeats the message from Colonel Taylor, "Hell, we're dying on the beach. Let's move inland."
Few expected the Allied invasion at Omaha Beach. But the Desert Fox, Rommel, did. "The war will be won or lost on the beaches. The first 24 hours will be decisive," he concluded. And he took pains to make the beaches impenetrable. Besides the first layer of tank obstacles and mines was concertina wire and then more mines. Backing that were the 100-foot cliffs housing pill boxes with machine guns, 20 mms, 50 and 75 mm anti-tank cannon. Mortars came next and then the big 88 mm gun emplacements dotted the furthest firing line. The fact that the seasoned 726th Regiment, 716th Division was bolstered by the greener 352nd Infantry Division that was on maneuvers nearby on June 6th was not known to Allied intelligence.
Lt. Jimmie Monteith was right about it not being their day at Omaha. The other beach landings went well and though resistance was substantial in places the Allied force quelled the brunt of the German defense. At Omaha every tank and anti-tank gun ferried ashore was picked off by the uncanny accuracy of the German gunners. Twenty-nine amphibious D.D. or duplex drive tanks sank offloaded too far from shore in order to avoid gun fire and thirty-five more that did "swim" in were soon destroyed or crippled. Only two eventually made it intact.
Going to sea
These were M-4 Shermans that sported raise-able, watertight skirts above the hull. Twin propellers gave thrust. At other beaches the waves were a bit less turbulent and the D.D.s did fine.
At 0700 the second wave arriving was cut to pieces worst than the initial one. To the casual observer it would seem that Rommel's defenses had halted the American assault. All that was left was the 16th's twenty-three men now huddled beneath a shelf-like escarpment and they would soon be picked off by the deadly fire. But leading those twenty-five was Monteith. Jimmie was a big man physically but it would take a man with big leadership ability to save his men. He had a plan.
The 1st's advance had bogged down all along the line a thousand yards on either side of them relayed radioman Private Kormann. Monteith and Pierce sprang for the barbed wire aprons lacing their advance inland. It was a long thirty seconds but the charge was set and they returned to the rest of the men.
Monteith forewarned every man to follow or face the consequences while his foot depressed the plunger as he rose to lead the charge through the narrow gap. Some wavered a bit but all followed as the Lieutenant miraculously navigated the minefield to the base of the bluffs. This singular action had turned the tide of the battle as other units began to blow gaps in the German defenses to move up.
Skirt down - ready to rumble
The two D. D. tanks of the 741st Armored represented some 75 mm artillery for the beleaguered infantry but they could get no clear shots in. Monteith dropped his equipment and sprinted for the tanks ahead of the fire. 75, 50 and 20 mms showered the beach but the big Virginian made it. He then walked out in front of the vehicles to lead them through the gap he'd forged in the mines. Monteith was unbelievably unscathed. The men of E Company were amazed with his charmed existence.
The Lieutenant used hand signals to direct the tanks' fire to the German 75 mm, 50 mm and machine gun emplacements. With the now-rising tide two destroyers were able to come close in and plaster the bluffs from just 1,000 yards with their 5-inch guns. The heavy fire was taking its toll!
Monteith led his men forward with Private Kormann staying behind them to direct the big guns by radio. He kept their barrage 300 yards in front of the advance. They were moving now and surged ahead up the rocky terrain. Kormann halted the artillery when the men came close to a machine gun position. Jimmie Monteith and his 21 men soon lobbed grenades into the area and realized they were above the other German emplacement owning a 200-yard line of France.
Spreading the men out along that line in defensive positions worked well as thirty to forty Germans probed behind a light mortar barrage. Below the machine guns were now focusing upward instead of seaward to cover their troops. Monteith lay his rifle down for a Thompson as the fire fight continued. Besides the semi-auto, .30 caliber Garands the B.A.R.s laid down heavy fire at the now sixty strong Germans. Only three got close and were gunned down by Private McHugh. The remainder halted 100 yards down.
Two more such probing advances were repelled. The men saw Monteith moving all about firing constantly from every position.
It was time to move. The big Virginian knew the Germans would mean business now and reasoned it would do no good to hold the position without G.I.s from another wave to bolster their strength.
Instead of retreating Monteith ordered an attack on the German flanks below them. The spearhead of men now came down 500 yards of terrain as the Germans opened fire on both sides. Lt. Monteith was running full speed one second and an anonymous slug stopped him dead in his tracks the next.
He would have been twenty-seven years old on July 1st.
The rest is history as such. The remainder of the 16th got down to relative safety and the Big Red One plus all the other units secured their foothold on France.
Of the 60,000 men that hit the Normandy beaches only four received the Congressional Medal of Honor with two being from one outfit- Pvt. Carlton W. Barrett, 18th Infantry Division; Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., 4th Infantry Division, Technician 5th Grade John J. Pinder, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division and 1st Lt. Jimmie W. Monteith Jr., 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division.
Lt. Monteith's citation read:
"The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of The Congress the Medal of Honor to
FIRST LIEUTENANT JIMMIE W. MONTEITH JR.
UNITED STATES ARMY
Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Army, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Colleville-sur-Mer, France, 6 June 1944.
Entered service at: Richmond, Va.
Born: 1 July 1917, Low Moor, Va.
Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, near Colleville-sur-Mer, France. 1st Lt. Monteith landed with the initial assault waves on the coast of France under heavy enemy fire. Without regard to his own personal safety he continually moved up and down the beach reorganizing men for further assault. He then led the assault over a narrow protective ledge and across the flat, exposed terrain to the comparative safety of a cliff. Retracing his steps across the field to the beach, he moved over to where 2 tanks were buttoned up and blind under violent enemy artillery and machinegun fire. Completely exposed to the intense fire, 1st Lt. Monteith led the tanks on foot through a minefield and into firing positions. Under his direction several enemy positions were destroyed. He then rejoined his company and under his leadership his men captured an advantageous position on the hill. Supervising the defense of his newly won position against repeated vicious counterattacks, he continued to ignore his own personal safety, repeatedly crossing the 200 or 300 yards of open terrain under heavy fire to strengthen links in his defensive chain. When the enemy succeeded in completely surrounding 1st Lt. Monteith and his unit and while leading the fight out of the situation, 1st Lt. Monteith was killed by enemy fire. The courage, gallantry, and intrepid leadership displayed by 1st Lt. Monteith is worthy of emulation."
Perspective: It was vital that the Allied forces regain a foothold on the Continent. The British along with assorted European military allies had last combated the German on "home turf" at Dunkirk in May 1940. Due to a pure stroke of luck some 300,000 of them were able to escape to England.
For four years Belgians, Poles, French and others pushed from France served with units of Her Majesty's military awaiting the day they were collectively strong enough to face the German war machine on the Continent. It would take until 1944 for the United States to produce sufficient war materiel and import it along with enough fighting men.
For all those years the war continued in the air above Europe, on the seas and on the sands of North Africa. Rommel's forces were vanquished from Africa where his supply lines were stretched to the limit across the Mediterranean. Continental Europe posed a different strategy. Hitler's forces were well dug in and no natural geography hindered things. Rommel oversaw the fortification of the Atlantic Wall defenses all along the coast upgrading them ominously.
The U-Boats alone had almost strangled England. Without American convoys and determined aerial support England alone would have likely withered into Nazi submission. The American Eighth Air Force began flying from Britain in early 1942 and by D-Day dominated the skies over France. Long-range bombing missions reached into the heart of the Reich. The Royal Air Force bombed by night as the Americans bombed by day. But German airspace teemed with defense in the form of flak guns and interceptors.
No European infantry combat had taken place apart from the Italian landings since mid-1940. The Allies had a taste for how the Wehrmacht fought and knew an assault on France would not go easy. Continental Europeans had been at war nearly five years and no end was in sight. A move had to be made. But a blunder would set the Allies back an untold time. If a foothold in France could not be attained it would be a minimum of a year until the Allies could regroup and form new strategies. Certainly landings had to be made in moderate weather with enough mild weather ahead before the fall and winter cold lay in. So at least another year would have to pass if the landings were repulsed. Given the accelerated German military science a mid-1945 landing would not have guaranteed success either.
V-1 and V-2 rockets had already taken to the air and pummeled both England and the Low Countries. Synthetic fuel was being formulated. Jets were in service with more and new types on the way. No, they would not have allowed Hitler to win the war but they would have prolonged it until at least 1946 costing casualties on all sides.
Given the weight of the circumstances that rested on Allied shoulders much of that burden was brought to bear on the infantrymen on June 6, 1944 when a "make it or break it" mindset prevailed. The fate of the Western world was in their hands. It was time to free Europe from the dark hand of Nazism that gripped at its throat for five long years.