D-Day 80 Years Ago – Minding the Gap

For the Allies to get ashore in Normandy with a good prospect for military success from D-Day to breakout into France, every individual soldier, vehicle, and pound of materiel had to complete a common, literal passage. That was to step, roll, or be carried from a water-borne landing craft or ship onto the beach on the far shore. Early on, D-Day planners coined a deceptively simple term for this passage which stuck, “bridging the water gap.” Over the course of a year before D-Day, a huge investment and intense effort went into making that passage possible.

Their weapons slung, these U.S. First Army Afro-American soldiers carefully drive a ¾-ton weapons carrier off a U.S. Navy “Rhino” barge onto the beach during one of the pre-D-Day amphibious exercises. Lots of information in this fascinating – and rare – Signal Corps photo. Let’s unpack it.

Where, when, why, and who? Based on the limited notes on the photo and other sources, my analysis is that the soldiers are part of Force O (U.S. V Corps) in the final rehearsal for their D-Day landing on OMAHA Beach. That was the purpose of Exercise FABIUS 1 at Slapton Sands, Devonshire, on May 4, 1944. FABIUS had six parts that included all the assaulting corps for D-Day save one which already had exercised (U.S. VII Corps). Partly to keep the Germans from learning too much, relatively few large-scale, pre-D-Day, amphibious exercises were conducted. This was vital training and there were only enough slots for the units that would be critical to success on D-Day, not the week after, on D-Day.

So, who were these soldiers? One possibility is the only Black unit known to have been in the first wave on D-Day, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, an army-level asset. The 320th’s job, under fire, was to get their armed cable-dangling balloons up to deter German fighters from strafing and bombing the frontline troops. On D-Day, the 320th deployed one battery each at UTAH and OMAHA Beaches. In the first wave, the 320th batteries’ three-man teams went in light with the infantry in LCVP’s, not “Rhinos” like this one. But for their heavier equipment, they would have needed vehicles such as these weapons carriers very soon after landing. The other possibility is that the soldiers were part of an unidentifiable combat engineer unit. In the early 1940’s, sixty percent of the U.S. Army’s engineers were Afro-American. Engineers were heavily involved on the beaches from the earliest hours, but their equipment was different. So, my inclination is that this is part of the 320th’s follow-on force, but that cannot be proven. Whoever they were, these guys were critical to success on D-Day.

That I found this photo linking Black GI’s to a key exercise for a decisive operation was just chance. I was searching in the National Archives and Records Administration for photos of pre-D-Day exercises and Rhino’s. Their participation had gone unnoted in 1944, but there they were. No search keyed to “Black GI’s” would have surfaced this photo. Over 100,000 Afro-American in the then-segregated U.S. armed forces deployed to Britain in World War II. Their proportion in the Army Corps of Engineers alone is proof that OVERLORD could not have succeeded without these Americans. Yet, the facts of their substantive contribution are very hard to reconstruct, barely appearing in surviving contemporary records. Often if not buried by indifference, those accounts were skewed by racial bias, leaving them useless to historians today.

So, what’s a “Rhino”? For D-Day and other novel uses, the U.S. Navy came up with welded steel cubes (3feet by 5 feet by 7 feet) that could be bolted together to form a barge 180 feet long by 42 feet wide and powered by two big outboard motors. to move vehicles from ships offshore to the beach, The middle two rows of cubes were offset to incorporate a simple ramp at the bow and make a protruding “horn” at the stern to mate with the ramp of a landing ship tank. Hence the nickname. A Rhino could carry up to 50 vehicles, unloading an entire LST in just two trips. They proved so efficient on D-Day that the admiral in charge of the British landings ordered unloading ships to give priority to Rhinos over other landing craft and to have a hot meal ready for its crew every time a Rhino came along side.

Next time you ride the London Underground and the doors open for your stop, I hope that ubiquitous public announcement will be a double cause for remembrance as you “mind the gap.”

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