‘THE BIG RED ONE’
Organised in 1917, the First Division was the first American Division to land in France, the first to fire a shell against the enemy, to capture prisoners, to launch a major attack, first American unit to enter Germany. Never de-activated between the wars, the First Division was the first to land in North Africa, to land in Sicily and amongst the first to land on D-Day.
It was the first American Division to take 60,000 prisoners in World War II. The ‘Big Red One’ first came to England in 1942, staying at Tidworth Camp in Wiltshire.
Having fought in Sicily, the Division returned to England in 1943, this time staying in camps, towns and villages all over Dorset.
Having landed and fought in North Africa and Sicily, the First Infantry was the most experienced US Division that would land on D-Day. GI’s from the First Division were easily recognised by the badge they wore on their left upper sleeve – the famous big red one on a green shield (although on their return to England they wore no unit insignia as a security measure).
COMPOSITE UNITS OF THE FIRST INFANTRY DIVISION
16th, 18th, 26th Infantry Regiments
5th, 7th, 32nd, 33rd Field Artillery Battalions
1st Signal Company
701st Ordinance Company
1st Quartermaster Company
1st Reconnaisance Troop
1st Engineer Battalion
1st Medical Battalion
Divisional CO, Major General Clarence R Huebener
CO, 16th Infantry – Colonel George A Taylor (HQ at Parnham House, Near Beaminster)
CO, 18th Infantry – Colonel George Smith, JR (HQ at Islington House, Near Puddletown)
CO, 26th Infantry – Colonel John F Seitz (HQ at Binnegar Hall, Near Wareham)
CO, Divisional Artillery – Brigadier-General Clift Andrus
Col. George A Taylor (16th Infantry) was the Officer who made the famous rallying speech to his troops:-
“There are two kinds of people staying on this beach – the dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here!”
The American landings on Omaha Beach began at 0630 hrs. The 16th Infantry and the 116th Infantry (29th Division were the main part of the initial assault.) DD Tanks, Demolition Engineers and parts of two Ranger Battalions were due to land at the same time.
An intense aerial bombardment was expected to seriously weaken the defending German forces in the area and the American Infantry was prepared for only scattered resistance as the GI’s waded ashore. The German 726th Infantry Regiment (716th Division), supported by the 916th Infantry (352nd Division), opposed the landings from fixed defensive positions along the Bluffs and Draws on the landward side of the beach, and poured a decimating hail of small arms fire into the Americans while the GI’s were still in the water. The beach, chosen for it’s width by the Allied Planners, offered little – if any – cover to the Americans that made it ashore. Particularly heavy casualties were suffered opposite the D-1 draw, near Vierville- sur-Mer. From their pill-boxes on the bluffs, the Germans maintained their devastating fire, and by mid-morning reports were received at 352nd Division Headquarters that the Americans had been repulsed. The Commander of the 352nd Division, General Kraiss, believing the reports to be accurate, committed most of his reserves against Gold Beach to the east – which was being attacked by the 50th British Infantry Division (including the Dorsetshire Regiment).
The Americans had, however, only landed part of the force due to land on Omaha, and assisted by supporting fire from destroyers coming close inshore, the GI’s slowly fought their way up the bloody beach. The 16th Infantry’s 2nd Battalion discovered a weak point in the German defences near the E-1 draw, and around midday, the 18th Infantry Regiment (1st Division) and the 115th (29th Division), were landed on Easy Red Beach to exploit this weakness. The Germans continued their ferocious resistance, and the 18th and 115th Regiments suffered heavy losses as they made their way through the chaos and slowly advanced towards the Bluffs.
At dusk, the Americans were fighting in St. Laurent and had cut the coastal road between there and Colleville by the end of the day, the Americans had landed the major part of two divisions on Omaha Beach, but the casualties suffered had seriously affected the fighting capabilities of the units so far landed, and the size of the beach-head was much smaller than anticipated. But the beach-head was established, and unknown to the GI’s on the beach, the Germans did not realise that Omaha was a planned major objective – and had diverted much of their reserve forces to other Allied sectors.