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The Story How One Man Might Have Saved D-Day

D-Day. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Troops in an LCVP landing craft approach Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Note the helmet netting, faint "No Smoking" sign on the LCVP's ramp, the M1903 rifles and M1 carbines carried by some of these men.

The D-Day Anniversary Is Here. One expert gives us his take on how one person changed that day forever: During the Normandy landings on the coast of France on June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 assault troops streamed ashore to attack Nazi Germany’s “Fortress Europe.” On that bloody day 79 years ago, one of the pivotal battles of World War II in Europe was unfolding. 

Paratroopers and glider-borne infantry began attacking targets shortly after midnight, followed by divisions of assault troops that began the invasion on code-named beaches called Utah, Omaha, Gold, Sword, and Juno. 

Countless tales of bravery were written into the history books that day, but one of the most important acts of bravery was conducted by a 51-year-old general who rallied the troops that were pinned down on Omaha Beach, possibly saving the day in the American sector. 

Brigadier General Norman Cota, known to his friends as “Dutch”, was one of the most senior officers who went ashore with the assault troops on Omaha Beach. Upon landing with the second wave of assault troops, Cota came across a disorganized, shell-shocked, pinned-down American assault in danger of foundering. Recognizing the danger of the situation,  he reorganized and reinvigorated the action, and personally took charge of the assault by getting the men off the beach.

Cota was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his personal bravery and was credited with uttering the now-famous motto of the United States Ranger Regiment during his rallying of the troops, “Rangers Lead the Way.” He was later portrayed on film as one of the heroes of D-Day.

Taking Charge From the Front

Cota was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1893 and was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1913. He was part of the class of 1917 which graduated seven weeks early because the United States had just entered into World War I. In his class, he and nine of his classmates would become General Officers. They included Matthew Ridgway, J. Lawton Collins, Mark W. Clark, and Ernest N. Harmon.

Because of the war, he rose quickly through the ranks, being promoted from second lieutenant to major in less than two years. By the end of WWI, he was an instructor at West Point. Between the wars, he served in Virginia and Hawaii and was an instructor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School.

When World War II broke out Cota was the G-2 (intelligence), G-3 (plans and operations), and later worked as chief of staff for the 1st Infantry Division. After the invasion of North Africa, he rewrote the task organizations for assault divisions and his plans were used in the invasion of Sicily.

Cota was then promoted to brigadier general and was assigned to England for the preparation of Operation Overlord, the invasion of France. He was assigned as the assistant division commander position of the 29th Infantry Division from Maryland, the famous “Blue and the Grey.” During the planning phase of Overlord, Cota was an outspoken critic of a daylight landing in France, arguing for a nighttime assault.

But his and the concerns of other senior officers were discounted by the senior Allied command. The massive naval and air bombardment, it was argued, would annihilate the German defenses. And as was the case in several other amphibious operations of the war, in both the European and Pacific invasions, those arguments advocated for massive naval bombardments neutralizing enemy defenses were proven wrong.

Cota told his staff to expect the worst. Yet, even his warnings would pale to what actually transpired on Omaha Beach.

“This is different from any of the other exercises that you’ve had so far. The little discrepancies that we tried to correct on Slapton Sands are going to be magnified and are going to give way to incidents that you might at first view as chaotic… You’re going to find confusion. The landing craft aren’t going in on schedule and people are going to be landed in the wrong place. Some won’t be landed at all … We must improvise, carry on, not lose our heads.”

Cota went ashore with the second wave, one hour after the initial assault on the Dog White sector of Omaha Beach, with part of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division. Omaha Beach and the Vierville Draw were concave, therefore, the natural outline allowed the Germans to pour fire down in a cone on the assault troops.

The first wave was ineffective and pinned down. Cota’s landing craft came under heavy machine-gun fire and the first three men to disembark were killed as they exited. Mortar and artillery fire was also raining down on the troops.

Due to failed communication with other Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, elements of the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions didn’t receive a signal that the cliffs were secured, so they went ashore on Omaha and reinforced the 29th.

Cota tried to rally his shell-shocked men. He strode upright amid heavy German fire and willed the men to fight. He told the troops, many of whom were in combat for the first time, “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.” Another quote, attributed to Cota, but was actually uttered by another 29th Division officer was, “There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Rangers, Lead the Way!”

During the epic war film classic, The Longest Day, Cota was portrayed by Robert Mitchum. With the situation on Omaha Beach hanging precariously in the balance, Cota walked up to a group of men huddled in the sand. “What outfit is this?” Cota asked, still standing upright. “5th Rangers,” he was told. “Well Hell Rangers, Lead the Way!” That phrase became the Ranger Regiment’s motto, and history was made.

Cota personally supervised men placing a bangalore torpedo under a barbed wire obstacle, blowing it up, and creating a path for the men to place charges to blow a further path to get the troops off the beach. The first soldier to attempt it was killed by a a German sniper. The rest of the men froze. Cota, however, once again jumped into action.

Joseph Balkoski, a soldier from the 29th, who wrote the book Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy, recalled, “Cota leaped up, dashing across the road, and through the gap.” Eventually, a steady stream of soldiers followed him up the beach, and he led that column into the village of Vierville-sur-Mer, he shouted at the last men, “Where the hell have you been, boys?”

The next day, the troops were driving inland and he came across a unit pinned down by German fire from a farmhouse. Stephen Ambrose in his excellent book Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany described what followed next,

“Cota asked the captain in command why his men weren’t trying to take the house.

‘Sir, the Germans are in there, shooting at us,’ the captain said.

‘Well, I’ll tell you what, captain,’ said Cota, unbuckling two grenades from his jacket. ‘You and your men start shooting at them. I’ll take a squad of men and you and your men watch carefully. I’ll show you how to take a house with Germans in it.’

Cota led his squad around a hedge to get as close as possible to the house. Suddenly, he gave a whoop and raced forward, the squad following, yelling like wild men. As they tossed grenades into the windows, Cota and another man kicked in the front door, tossed a couple of grenades inside, waited for the explosions, then dashed into the house. The surviving Germans inside streamed out the back door, running for their lives.

Cota returned to the captain. “You’ve seen how to take a house,” said the general, still out of breath. “Do you understand? Do you know how to do it now?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I won’t be around to do it for you again,” Cota said. “I can’t do it for everybody.’”

Cota’s and the Rangers’ exploits on that epic day are now etched in the history of the U.S. Army. Later that year he was promoted to Major General and given command of the 28th Infantry Division. His son Dan was a U.S. Army Air Corp pilot who flew reconnaissance missions for the 28th Division during the Battle for the Huertgen Forest.

Cota retired in June 1946 as a Major General. He died in 1971 and was buried with his wife Connie at the cemetery in West Point.

Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Army Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for and other military news organizations, he has covered the NFL for for over 10 years. His work was regularly featured in Massachusetts’s Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers.

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Written By

Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 1945, he covers the NFL for and his work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.