D-Day through the eyes of the US 4th Infantry Division’s Commander
Story by Stephen A. Bourque
“I, Bill York (Aide), and Jas. K. Richards (Driver) landed, dry footed, by ‘Snowbuggy’ from the LCT [Landing Craft, Tank]. Some artillery fire (hostile), one half-track burning, and Co. A, 1st Amphibious Engineers digging in against seawall instead of doing their job of helping my troops across the beach. I rooted them out and onto the job with my pistol and cusswords. I learned later from York and Richards, who returned to the beach, that they went right back under the seawall as soon as I left.” –Maj. Gen. Raymond O. “Tubby” Barton
Despite the massive amount of literature describing every aspect of American performance in Normandy on June 6, 1944, historians have told us little as to what the commanders of the three American divisions (1st, 4th, and 29th Infantry) were doing after General Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered “the great and noble undertaking” of that fateful day. However, thanks to the discovery of Raymond O. Barton’s unpublished war diary, supplemented by other manuscripts and interviews, we better understand how the 4th Infantry Division commander spent the period immediately before boarding ships, crossing the English Channel, and during the battle on June 6.
By the time he arrived on Utah Beach, Barton had already spent 32 years in active service. He was Ada, Oklahoma’s 1908 high school valedictorian and a 1912 graduate of the US Military Academy. While at West Point, he earned the nickname “Tubby,” because of the solid build he developed on the wrestling mat and football field. It was a nickname he loved and he used it among, and when writing to, his friends. His first assignment was with the 30th Infantry Regiment, serving in Alaska, San Francisco, the Plattsburgh, New York, training camps, and the Mexican border. His World War I service was in the United States, primarily in New York and Georgia, training officers on machine gun use and employment.
Joining the 8th Infantry Regiment in Coblenz, Germany, in 1919, he served as part of the American occupation force at the end of the war. The Army commander, Maj. Gen. Henry T. Allen, acknowledged his performance and potential when he selected the young major to lead General John J. Pershing’s
honor guard during his Congressional Medal of Honor presentation to the French and British Unknown Soldiers in Paris and London in 1921.
His last act as commander of the 8th Regiment’s 1st Battalion was to supervise lowering the national flag over the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress in 1923, signifying the end of American participation in the First World War. Returning to the United States, he traveled to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and attended the Command and General Staff School, turning down a teaching assignment at West Point. The War Department then assigned the new graduate as G-3 of the Seventh Corps Area in Omaha, Nebraska. In
addition to his training responsibilities, he supervised corps relief operations during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. In 1928, he returned to the Command and General Staff School as an instructor of the two-year course, educating some of this nation’s most senior future commanders. He and his family then moved to Washington, D.C., first for attendance at the Army War College class of 1932 and then, until 1935, as professor of military science at Georgetown University.
His subsequent assignments were in Georgia, first as a military liaison to the Civilian Conservation Corps and then as commander of the 8th Infantry Regiment on Tybee Island. In 1940, he became the first chief of staff of the recently reactivated 4th Infantry Division, the “Ivy Division,” at Fort Benning and chief of staff, IV Army Corps, where he was assigned when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
During these last two assignments, he participated in the great series of prewar maneuvers in Louisiana and the Carolinas, serving with Maj. Gen. Oscar W. Griswold, who would go on to command the XIV Corps in the Pacific. After a short period in early 1942, as assistant division commander for the 85th Infantry Division, Barton assumed command of the 4th Motorized Division at Fort Gordon, Georgia, the post he had helped to design while the division’s chief of staff. After an extensive training period, the War Department directed Barton to convert the Ivy Division back to a standard infantry division organization. In February, he led the division to England and continued training until D-Day. Unfortunately, part of his command suffered casualties during the German torpedo boat attack at Slapton Sands in April, before the invasion.
Most division commanders operated in a whirlwind of activity and danger. It is not surprising that few had the time to publish accounts of their combat experience, as did senior commanders such as Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley and J. Lawton Collins. Fortunately, historians have been able to piece together the 4th Infantry Division’s operations, using daily operations journals and detailed division after-action reports to provide a relatively accurate and complete narrative of the division’s actions. Each evening, Col. James S. Rodwell, the 4th Infantry Division chief of staff, and his deputies summarized the regimental reports and forwarded this document to the VII Corps headquarters. There, Col. Richard G. McKee, the VII Corps chief of staff, and his team prepared a corps-wide summary with these reports for Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, the corps commander. He extracted appropriate portions and sent them on to First Army headquarters. At the end of each month, the division staff compiled its reports, including information on personnel, intelligence, logistics, and operations, and sent this monthly history, through the corps headquarters, to the adjutant general in Washington. Historians also have copies of the orders and instructions Barton issued to his subordinates.
Although this material has been available for years, seldom mentioned is the extended letter Barton wrote to Cornelius Ryan when the latter was writing The Longest Day (Simon & Schuster, 1959).
Composed 10 years after the event, it identified most of Barton’s actions that critical day, along with the occasional personal confession or vignette. Finally, Barton’s recently discovered war diary, maintained by his aide Capt. William B. York, and other personal letters and documents, augment and elaborate on the information that has been available since the 1950s. As a result, we now have a relatively accurate picture of how he spent this historic day and the following weeks.
An aspect that needs to be addressed is the relationship between Barton and Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Darryl F. Zanuck’s movie The Longest Day (1962) distorted what little the post-World War II generation knew about Tubby Barton and events surrounding this famous political and military personality.
In March 1944, Collins visited the division to watch Barton’s regiments training. Such visits were not unusual, as they happened at least once a week. However, this time, Collins had another issue: what to do about Ted Roosevelt? Roosevelt, son of the former president, had a distinguished record in the First World War, after which, he helped to organize the American Legion. When World War II began, this politically connected officer rejoined the active forces as a brigadier general. He became the 1st Infantry Division’s deputy commander and served with Maj. Gen. Terry D. Allen in North Africa and Sicily. An aggressive unit on the battlefield, Eisenhower and Bradley believed it was an ill-disciplined mob behind the front lines. As a result, Bradley replaced the division’s chain of command once the Sicilian fighting ended. After his relief, Roosevelt traveled to England, where doctors forced him to check into a hospital to treat his pneumonia. Roosevelt was not happy on the sidelines, however, and lobbied with everyone he knew to get back into the field. So, Collins came down to 4th Division headquarters to tell Barton that Bradley had decided that Ted was now his and to use him as he saw fit.
Barton was not excited to get a possibly pretentious and arrogant president’s son as one of his
subordinates, but he had little choice. He already had an assistant division commander in Brig. Gen. Henry A. Barber Jr., who had been with him for several months. Also in the command group was Brig. Gen. Harold W. “Hal” Blakeley commanding the artillery.
Therefore, he did not need an extra general officer in his command without a defined role. Nevertheless,
on March 25, Roosevelt and his aide, Lt. Marcus O. Stevenson, reported for duty. It turned out Barton’s assessment was wrong, and his diary notes that the two became good friends within a very short time. Roosevelt had more combat experience than almost any general officer in the European Theater of Operations. By the time he reported to the Ivy Division, his awards included a Distinguished Service Cross with a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, a Silver Star with three Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters, a Distinguished Service Medal for World War I courage, and a Legion of Merit. Because Barber was already his assistant, Roosevelt became an extra general on the division staff.
In this role, he visited units daily and reported his observations back to Barton at the end of the day. The
division commander came to depend on the advice and mentorship this veteran could give him, and these nightly meetings became a standard occurrence in the months ahead.
From the time the VII Corps staff briefed its plan, Roosevelt pleaded with Barton to land on Utah Beach with the first wave. Finally, on May 26, not on the USS Bayfield as the movie depicts, but in Portsmouth after Montgomery’s commanders’ conference, he wrote Barton a formal request. In his letter,
Roosevelt, a veteran of previous landings, laid out five reasons for going in with the first landing craft.
He concluded with, “I believe I can contribute materially to all of the above by going with the assault companies.
Furthermore, I know personally both officers and men of these advance units and believe that it will steady them to know I am with them.” Barton had good reasons, none of them mentioned in the movie, not to allow “Rough Rider,” as Roosevelt often was called, to land at the beginning of the assault. From a practical standpoint, Col. James Van Fleet was Barton’s most experienced and competent regimental commander and would be in charge during the assault. He did not require a general standing next to him when he made decisions and gave his battalion and company commanders orders. Generals did not land with the first wave for an important reason; they had to stay out of the way while their subordinates did their jobs.
Tubby also knew that Ted’s son Quentin was landing at the same time on Omaha Beach and did not relish the prospect of the father and son perishing during the invasion on the same day. It had nothing to do with The Longest Day’s insinuation that Barton wanted to keep him from harm because he was President Roosevelt’s son. He passed that danger threshold much earlier. If the letter had gone forward, there is little doubt that Collins, Bradley, and even Eisenhower would have supported the division commander. So, the letter, for the time being, went nowhere other than Barton’s desk, and he let Roosevelt go ashore.
Always good-natured about these things, Roosevelt respected his boss and knew Barton was trying to do the right thing. Writing to his wife on June 3, Roosevelt noted: “Most generals are afraid to battle for what they believe with superiors who hold the power over their advancement. One of the reasons I’m so fond of Tubby Barton is that he is not. He will never, wittingly, let his men down.” The following week, as he watched Roosevelt get into his landing craft, Barton “never thought he would see him again alive.”
In the Channel
The division continued to load during the first three days of June, and Barton spent much time visiting his units, watching them load onto their LSTs (Landing Ship, Tanks) and other vessels. After a June 2 meeting at corps headquarters, he drove that evening to South Brent, England, his rear detachment headquarters. The war correspondents who were traveling with the division to France had gathered. It gave him a chance to meet personally the journalists accredited to the division, who would connect his
soldiers with their families back home.
Henry T. Gorrell, the distinguished war correspondent for the United Press, would file the first report on
Normandy’s invasion and later convey detailed accounts of the division’s progress across France. From CBS, Larry E. LeSueur would be with Barton and become an honorary member of the division. Kenneth G. Crawford, from Newsweek, would go ashore with Company C, 8th Infantry, and be in the heat of the fight from the beginning.
Lastly, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ira Wolfert, reporting for Reader’s Digest, would cross the channel with Barton. Tubby’s days in Omaha and with the CCC had prepared him well for working with the press. After the gathering, he then returned to the USS Bayfield for the evening. The following day, Barton continued visiting the various loading areas and talking to the soldiers and their leaders. He started on Portsmouth’s west side, at the Tamar docks, and then drove two hours east to Dartmouth, where he spoke to naval officers about the loading process. From there, he motored for an hour north to Torquay,
where soldiers from the 3d Battalion, 8th Infantry, were boarding one of the transports. Already on board and crowding around the rails were soldiers from Company I. Riding with Barton and York was the former commander of that unit. When Barton arrived at the dock, he got out and moved toward
the transport. However, when the soldiers on the ship saw their former commander, they all began booing and hissing. As he later told Cornelius Ryan, he was “almost sick at this unexpected and bitter greeting. He was so hurt that he did not know what to say or do.” It was not until much later that he learned the booing was for the captain, whom the soldiers disliked.
After this painful incident, he boarded a motor launch and spent the rest of the day riding the boat among the ships that carried his soldiers: the USS Dickman, the USS Barnett, and the HMS Gauntlet, the largest. He was now feeling much better, and at each stop, he gave a little speech and wished them all luck. He then sailed over to Col. Hervey A. Tribolet’s LST and spent some time with him and his staff. Finally, he returned to land, linked up with his driver and his sedan, drove to Victoria Wharf at Queen Anne’s Battery, and turned the vehicle over to his quartermaster. He then boarded the USS Bayfield for the last time.
Because of the weather, Eisenhower and his commanders needed to delay the assault by one day, so the 4th Infantry Division spent the day onboard their ships. On June 5, the USS Bayfield hoisted anchor at 0930, moved out of Plymouth, and joined its convoy heading for France. The scale of this undertaking is difficult to imagine. Each of Barton’s regimental combat teams required 13 Landing Craft, Infantry, six LCTs, and five LSTs. Each vessel towed a barrage balloon to deter air attacks. Cruisers and destroyers protected the flanks of the moving convoy. Somewhere in the channel, an Allied fighter shot down a German plane as it approached the convoy. The Bayfield’s crew heard the report and used the public address system to let everyone onboard know that the shooting had begun. The convoy was Task Force 125, and its crossing was not without incident. The vessel carrying a battery from the 29th Field Artillery Battalion hit a mine as it approached the shore, causing its entire complement of guns and prime movers to sink to the bottom of the channel. It is doubtful that Barton noticed a young gunner’s mate, Peter Berra, performing his crew duties. After the war, “Yogi” Berra would become one of the greatest ballplayers of all time and remain a staunch supporter of service members for the rest of his life.
Although Barton would spend almost 165 days in combat, it was the first one that, in many ways, was the
most important. By now, Barton had nearly two full years of training and leading the division – more than that when including his time as chief of staff and 8th Infantry commander.
He had supervised its preparation for combat in extensive exercises in the Carolinas and in amphibious training in Florida and England. He knew all of the division’s senior officers and most of the company commanders personally. Few American units would be as prepared for its first day of battle as the Ivy Division. Yet, after 32 years in uniform, this was his first taste of actual combat. Barton told Cornelius
Ryan that he constantly fretted about becoming so afraid that he would freeze and fail as a combat leader. On June 6, he would discover which was more robust: his natural human fear, or character developed in decades of preparing for this day.
Like almost all commanders, there was little Barton could do that night or morning. Colonel Van Fleet’s 8th Infantry Regiment would lead the assault. A football player and coach and aggressive by nature, he was the right leader to drive his troops forward to link up with the 101st Airborne Division that landed the previous evening. Next in was Colonel Tribolet’s 22d Infantry. A caring and methodological commander, Barton thought he would do well rolling up the German fortifications on the coast. Finally, the newest commander and another football coach and player, Col. Russell P. “Red” Reeder, would lead the 12th Infantry through the gap between the other two regiments to expand the bridgehead.
After Van Fleet’s troops headed to the beach, Barton watched as the 22d and 12th Infantry formed up and headed to shore. Colonel Reeder later remembered the radio call before climbing into his landing craft: “Cactus to Cargo, come in.” Reeder responded to Barton: “Come in Cactus.” Then: “Good luck, Red.”
General Barber was moving slower than planned that morning and pulled up alongside the Bayfield at 0625, asking Barton if the assault waves had moved on time. The commander’s short reply was yes, and his deputy headed off to shore.
Barber would join up with Tribolet’s 22d Infantry on the right flank, moving north and through the German coastal defenses. Four companies from the 8th Infantry Regiment, hit the beach precisely at 0630. Roosevelt went in with Company B on the right and began coordinating the advance of its two assault battalions: Lt. Col. Conrad C. Simmons’s 1st Battalion and Lt. Col. Carlton O. MacNeely’s 2d Battalion. Within a few minutes on the beach, the two battalion commanders began telling Roosevelt that the actual beach terrain bore little resemblance to the sand tables and maps they had been pouring over for months. While the battalion leaders got their troops productively engaged in battle and moving forward, the brigadier had time to survey the battle area.
The veteran of previous assaults realized they were in the wrong place. He got his bearings, located where they should be, and moved from one commander to another, orienting them on their actual locations. He instructed MacNeely and Simmons to clear German troops from the strong points to their front and then head toward their original objectives. At 0915, Van Fleet arrived with the 3d Battalion, and Roosevelt updated him on the situation and his decisions. The regimental commander concurred and the follow-on units received instructions to follow the 8th onto the modified landing site. Both Van Fleet and MacNeely emphasized in their reports that Roosevelt was under machine gun and artillery fire during the entire period he was moving across the beach. They were impressed with his poise under fire and effectiveness as a leader. As the veteran among the group, he was the one who decided on the preferred course of action. Soldiers remember Roosevelt walking around the beach, poking soldiers with his cane and yelling “Get out of here! If we’re going to get killed, we’re going to get killed inland.” Unfortunately, Simmons would die in action on June 24, so we have no report from him on what he
observed during the landing.
As a lieutenant with the 22d Infantry, Bob Walk served as a liaison officer between his regiment and division headquarters. He was on the LCT that served as the vessel for the liaison and radio jeeps and other vehicles from the headquarters command group. This cramped boat also served as Barton’s command post as the fight began. Bouncing alongside the Bayfield, Barton used the hood of Walk’s jeep as the table for his situation map. There, he listened to the reports from shore and monitored the action. According to the G-3 Journal, communications between Barton and his key leaders appeared to be excellent. Walk remembered Van Fleet’s reporting that everything was under control, and in fact the two leaders spoke at 0635 and again at 0650. Interestingly, there are no entries in the operations journal indicating that the landing location had changed early that morning. The June after-action report also says nothing about changing the location. Most likely, this veteran organization just took this friction in stride and continued to operate.
By 0904, the 22d Infantry was ashore. Barton now had three regimental commanders, two deputy commanders, and his artillery commander on the way or on the beach. He could wait no longer. Bob Walk remembers Tribolet, his regimental commander, calling in and reporting that everything was going
according to plan. After that report, he heard Barton say: “That’s enough for me, let’s go.” At 0900, he left the Bayfield for the beach.
At 0934, he reported his arrival on the beach. As quoted at the beginning of this article, he, Jason K. Richards, his driver, and Capt. William B. York, his aide-de-camp, arrived on the shore in their M29 Cargo Carrier – he referred to it as the “Snowbuggy,” but soldiers called it the Weasel. It did not go far, as his driver mired it in the sand with a broken track. Barton jumped off the vehicle and moved to shore on foot.
Bill York directed Pvt. John Sears, driving another M29, to go back to the beach and gather Barton’s gear and maps and bring them to the general, which he did. Sears was supposed to be General Barber’s driver, but because he was late and did not land with the early waves, he had a utility role that morning.
Barton later admitted he was terrified, as the sounds of weapons fire were all around him. A German
artillery shell exploding nearby only increased his concern. He encountered the engineers behind the seawall, noted at the beginning of this article, and continued moving inland. He did not go far, but found a house with a high, brick-walled courtyard on the dunes. Most likely, this was just south of the postwar Utah Beach Museum. Meanwhile, the German artillery was increasing its fire rate, and anyone on the beach was a potential casualty, so the house gave some protection. By radio, he contacted his deputies and regimental commanders; all reported things were on track. At 1025, one of the deputies, probably Roosevelt, reported that they had landed “5,100 yards from the main objective.” This was the first note in the division reports acknowledging the change.
Barton is quite open that there was little he could do at this point. His regimental commanders had a plan, and Roosevelt and Barber were on the ground making the needed adjustments. He had a reasonably good understanding of the landing’s progress and saw no need to make any changes.
Barton sent out liaison officers and others to find out the situation around him. Lt. Joseph Owen remembered that at about 1100, Barton sent him toward Sainte-Mère-Église to find the exact location of the 8th Infantry Regiment. On his way, he remembered running into Roosevelt, who slowed down his jeep to yell out, “Hey Boy, they’re shooting up there,” followed by a big “Haw Haw.”
One constant among 4th Infantry Division soldiers that morning was Roosevelt’s ubiquitousness. He ranged across the entire beach area without any fixed responsibilities, advising, coordinating, and keeping things moving. Owen found Van Fleet, and the colonel instructed one of his officers to mark the battle map for delivery back to Barton.
By noon, his battle staff and those who landed to assist during the early hours of the invasion began
to join him. One of the first was Lt. Col. Dee W. Stone, the G-5 (Civil Affairs and Military Government), who had found Maj. Philip A. Hart, one of his temporary staff officers, severely wounded at the water’s edge. The amphibious engineers present (under the seawall’s shelter) refused to help Stone rescue Hart from the advancing tide, but he was able to move the wounded officer to safety. Then Lt. Col. Richard S. “Dick” Marr, the G-4, and Capt. Parks Huntt, his headquarters commandant, arrived, reported, and began moving toward the planned headquarters site.
Subsequently reporting in was Col. James E. Wharton, the 1st Engineer Special Brigade commander and the senior commander for the soldiers Barton encountered at the seawall. As Barton notes in his letter to Cornelius Ryan: “The colonel took the trouble to inform me that his men were not the only ones quitting their missions at the seawall but that some of mine had done the same – in the beginning that was true but Ted Roosevelt cured that.” One suspects the division commander let him know how he felt.
While at the beach house, Barton says he had little idea as to what was going on: “I was in a semi fog. No contact nor communications with anyone but those present … About a mile off our planned landing point. No idea of where nor how my assault battalions were, except that I did know they had taken their beach and gone on inland.” This is not exactly true, as the G-3 Journal clearly indicates he had
reasonable communications and was in contact with his leaders. It might not have been to his standard, but he was not out of the fight. His most important contribution that morning was when commanders of the attached units found him and asked if he had any instructions. In every case, he said: “No; just go ahead on your job per plan.”
Around 1300, Barber’s aide found Barton and guided him to the temporary command post. This
impromptu collection of vehicles and staff officers was just south of Causeway 2, directly opposite the modern Utah Beach Museum and across from Marker 1 on the Voie de la Liberté.
There, Lt. Col. Orlando C. Troxel (G-3) and Lt. Col. Harry F. Hansen (G-2) and their small staffs were at
work monitoring the combat team’s progress. Now, by early afternoon, Barton was beginning to gain control or at least good situational awareness of how the regiments were doing. Dick Marr reported that the infantry had crossed the low ground the Germans had flooded and were making good progress inland. All reports indicated that everything was generally going according to plan. There was little Barton could do; he had to let the commanders do their jobs. However, he noticed that many of the following units were backing up on the causeways and having trouble moving inland.
Tubby could see that Causeway 2 (U5) was bumper-to-bumper with vehicles and not moving. Without intending to, GIs performing their assigned local duties made it difficult to get the division’s combat power forward into the fight. Engineers improving the route, antiaircraft guns, and wire teams were all making movement difficult.
Therefore, Barton and Marr went to the traffic jam, looked at the situation, and ordered everything nonessential off the road. Some vehicles also had broken down, blocking the road. Barton had soldiers move anything in the way off the trail and into the swamp. Once traffic across the causeway was flowing, troops would spend the rest of the night pulling the unfortunate broken-down vehicles out of the mire.
Troxel received reports that the division had captured Causeway 3 (T7) just to the north, and it was open for use. Nearby, Lt. Col. C. G. Hupfer’s 746th Tank Battalion was still near the landing area. Barton wanted it off the beach and to its next position near Audouville-la-Hubert. Because of the congestion in front of him, he began developing an alternate route for the armor, using the reportedly open road.
In the middle of all that confusion, around 1500, Roosevelt arrived at the temporary command post. They joyfully embraced each other. Then, of course, Teddy wanted to talk. Barton later noted: “He was bursting with information (which I sorely needed) – but wouldn’t let him talk.” He was under pressure to get the tank battalion into the fight. He later noted: “Try some day to keep a Ted Roosevelt from sounding off if he wants to – but I did.”
In the middle of all of this, his aide Bill York interrupted the proceedings and notified his boss that some Associated Press photographers wanted pictures of the division commander. “Reluctantly and irritably,” he consented. It broke his chain of thought and the photographers took their time in taking the photos. Barton was “mad as hell” because the only thing he wanted to do was get the tanks on the road and talk to Ted. Finally, the photographers departed, and Barton later cherished the photographs. Hupfer got his orders and returned to his command, and now Barton and Roosevelt could catch up.
It was around 1900 when Barton arrived at Blakeley’s headquarters. For the first time since leaving the Bayfield, he had good communications and could contact his regimental commanders by radio. Nearby, Capt. Parks Huntt began to establish the division’s operations center. Barton went over to see how
things were going. Huntt, who was always proper in his military bearing, came over to the general, raised his arm to render a salute, and immediately tumbled to the ground. He got to his feet, again tried to salute, and fell again. Barton, who had been extremely tense and fearful of his first combat
experience for the last two weeks, broke into laughter as artillery shells exploded around them. Apparently, one nearby explosion temporarily affected his headquarters commandant’s equilibrium and raising his arm had the effect of knocking him off his feet.
Barton helped him up and said: “Forgive me, Parks, but you looked so damn silly wheeling around that I couldn’t help laughing, why don’t you lie down for a bit.” Barton reported to Ryan that his fear of battle never affected him again. He walked over to the intersection and found Van Fleet (Combat Team 8), watching some of his troops load a soldier into an ambulance. Barton was anxious to get on with his tasks but came over to talk with his commander.
Just then, a tall, distinguished-looking Frenchman, in coat and knickers, came up to them waving a marked map and excitedly trying to tell them something. Van Fleet had to leave, and Barton remained with the civilian, whom he could not understand but turned out to be a retired army colonel. He was trying to convince Barton that a German artillery battery was close by, but Tubby had recently walked by that location and saw nothing. After politely saying goodbye, he walked over to Rodwell, who had recently joined the command post group. Just then, a report arrived confirming the French colonel’s warning.
He told his chief “to run out to the road, grab the first combat outfit he found and have it go take the hostile battery.” Rodwell found an element of an antitank battalion going into bivouac and grabbed some of its infantrymen. He was back soon with the report, “mission accomplished with ease.” Around 2100, it was still light in this northern part of the world in June.
There was still little Barton and Blakeley could do to influence the battle until the command posts were operational and the staff began processing the unit reports. The infantry was settling into its evening positions, and the artillery batteries were repositioning to best support them. Therefore, Barton and Blakely decided to inspect the piece of France that now belonged to the 4th Infantry Division. With Sergeant Richards still driving the M29 Weasel, he and York headed out to visit a captured German artillery battery nearby at Saint-Martin-de-Varreville. The Ninth Air Force had done a good job taking it out, as it was in a position to have hurt Barton’s assault battalions.
Unlike the Eighth Air Force’s heavy bombers that failed to destroy the German fortifications on Omaha
and the other beaches, the medium bombers of the Ninth were precise. Their accurate air attacks had prevented enemy gunners from interfering with the landings and inflicting casualties on the American troops. They drove around looking at some of the other positions, and near Causeway 4 (S9), the farthest north, Barton’s vehicle threw a track around 2330 as it was getting dark. Not able to repair it on the spot and located right along the front lines, Barton and York climbed into Blakely’s vehicle. The general assured Richards that they would send help. According to Barton, Richards did not say a word, but after the war told him, “he never felt so lonely, nor scared.”
Sometime after 2330, Barton and Blakely arrived at the headquarters at Audouville-la-Hubert, where Rodwell had the staff operating. He gave Barton an overview of his division’s status. From the beginning, the landing had gone well. Frankly, it is incorrect to say that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. An operation plan is nothing more than a scripted series of events that provide leaders with the direction for the opening phase of an operation. In this case, the nature of the region’s currents and the loss of one of the naval control vessels caused the first wave to land south of the intended landing area.
It turned out to be a brilliant stroke of luck as the German defenses were weaker than the original sector. Once ashore, the leaders went about their business as if on another practice exercise. Everything that happened in those first few hours reflected on the division cadre’s high level of preparation.
Generally forgotten in most narratives is the division staff’s role in ensuring that the regiments were as prepared as possible to handle the friction of battle. Rodwell and his crew monitored the enemy situation and the infantry battalions’ progress while working behind the scenes away from photographers and journalists.
They established the command post late in the afternoon and early evening and established radio contact with subordinate units. Now they could verify their situation and, if required, supply them with what they needed. First on the ground, and then by radio, they connected with the 82d and 101st Divisions and began planning to organize the beachhead. Finally, they maintained contact with Colonel McKee and the VII Corps staff, still afloat, keeping him apprised of the division’s situation and requirements.
When the division commander returned to the headquarters that night, Rodwell could give him the
update he needed to make decisions, get his guidance, and start preparing orders to guide the fight over the next few days. Writers generally ignore the chief of staff’s role in most historical accounts, but he is as vital as any regimental commander, just not as noticeable. Barton was satisfied with how things went that day. He told Rodwell that night, “things are good; I think we made it.” By nightfall on D-Day they “were ashore, well inland, an intact operational division – and now proven veterans.”
Barton’s last act of June 6 was to gather his regimental commanders outside his command post. Someone had liberated a few bottles of champagne, and the commander shared them with Rodwell, Blakeley, Barber, Roosevelt, Tribolet, Van Fleet and Reeder, so they could “drink to the health of the best division in the army.” He began the day after his commanders had arrived and by the end of the day had regained control of his division. Barton’s fears of falling in battle had not materialized. However, using a football analogy, it was only the first series of downs and it would be a long game. Over the next three weeks, the division would claw its way north, fighting intense but generally forgotten battles at Crisbecq, Montebourg, Bois du Coudray, La Glacerie and the eastern side of Cherbourg.
By the end of June, Barton’s division had been in continuous combat for over three weeks and would have little rest before it headed south back into the bocage near Carentan. During this intense three weeks of combat, the division lost 5,400 soldiers killed, wounded or captured – almost 40 percent of its authorized strength.
Most of these losses took place in the three line regiments. Only five of the rifle company commanders who had made the D-Day landing were with the division three weeks later. Fortunately, many officers and newly promoted noncommissioned officers remained to steady the 4,400 replacements who partially refilled the division’s ranks. Among those missing at the end of June were some of the division’s key leaders. Barton’s deputy, Henry Barber, had worn himself out and would soon be on his way back to England. Barton lost all three of his regimental commanders. Although a great trainer, Hervey Tribolet, failed the test of battlefield leadership, and was simply too close to his soldiers.
Collins and Barton had to relieve him and send him to army headquarters. James Van Fleet received a well-deserved promotion to brigadier and a new assignment, with Jim Rodwell taking his place. Probably the most heartbreaking for Barton was Red Reeder’s wounding and evacuation after only a few days of combat. The intense fighting killed four battalion commanders: Dominick P. Montalbano (2d Battalion, 22d Infantry), Thaddeus R. Dulin (3d Battalion, 12th Infantry), John W. Merrill (1st Battalion, 12th Infantry), and Conrad C. Simmons (1st Battalion, 8th Infantry). Seven out of his 12 frontline infantry combat commanders were gone. At the same time as Rodwell’s departure to the 8th Infantry, Collins took his G-3 Orlando Troxell and moved him to the same role at corps headquarters. After only three weeks of combat, Barton lamented:
“We no longer have the division we brought ashore.” Ted Roosevelt would continue to mentor him for the next five weeks before suffering a heart attack. By then, Barton was a veteran commander and would continue to lead the division until his health gave out at the end of December. For Barton, D-Day was probably one of his best days in combat.
Editor’s notes: This story appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Army History and is reprinted with permission from US Army Center of Military History. Dr. Stephen A. Bourque retired from the US Army after 20 years of enlisted and commissioned service in 1992.
He earned a PhD at Georgia State University in 1996 and has taught at several civilian and military colleges. He retired as professor emeritus from the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies in 2017. His most recent publications include D-Day 1944:
The Deadly Failure of Allied Heavy Bombing on June 6 (Osprey, 2022) and Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Naval Institute Press, 2018). The French edition, Au-delà des plages: La guerre des Alliés contre la France (Humensis, 2019), received the Grand Prize in Literature from the l’Aeroclub de France in 2020. Bourque is completing a biography of Maj. Gen. Raymond O. “Tubby” Barton.