What they carried: The Guns of D-Day

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Seventy years ago this week, the "Greatest Generation" surged across the English Channel to form a human battering ram directed right at Hitler's Fortress Europe in the largest seaborne invasion in history, focused on the beaches of Normandy. As a tribute, we look at what they carried into battle.

The invasion force

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The Jaws of Death." A photo by CPHOM Robert F. Sargent, USCG. A Coast Guard-manned LCVP from the USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division on the morning of June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach. The Coast Guard was one of the great-unsung players on D-Day, and more Coast Guard vessels were lost or damaged that day than at any time in its history before or since.

A massive armada of Allied warships, preceded by a force of transport planes packed with paratroopers, transported some 73,000 American, 83,000 British Commonwealth, and smaller groups of freedom fighters from occupied Europe on June 6, 1944. Facing them were more than 50,000 German troops.

While the numbers would seem like it was an easy fight for the Allies, the Nazi forces were dug into some of the most heavily fortified positions ever seen in warfare, and had been directed in doing so by military genius Erwin Rommel.

However, at the end of the day, with the help of navy and air assets, the GIs and Tommie's stood atop the bluffs overlooking the English Channel, facing Paris and then, Berlin.

As a tribute to those GIs, let us look at their arms.

The Greatest implement ever devised

From the soldiers of the 1st and 29th Infantry on Omaha Beach, to the 4th Infantry on Utah Beach, to the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne landing behind the Nazi lines, to the Rangers scaling the cliffs, by far the most common firearm in the hands of the average GI was the M1 Garand.

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(2nd Rangers on D-Day prior to landing with M1 Garands)

Known officially as the "Rifle, Caliber .30, M1," the 8-shot 30.06-caliber battle rifle adopted by the U.S. Army in 1936 was commonly known by the last name of its inventor, Mr. John C. Garand. Built by Springfield Armory, then augmented by contract production performed at Winchester and H&R during the war, over 5-million of these guns were carried during the war.

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The Garand, tipping the scales at 9.5-pounds, were hefty guns that were nearly four feet long. Further, they were vastly different from the single-shot and bolt-action guns that the young men of the day had grown up with on the farm, which required a good bit of training to figure out and keep running. However, they were hard-hitting, could be fired and reloaded much faster than the German's Mauser rifles, and were reliable. This led to military legend Gen. George S. Patton dubbing the rifle, "the greatest battle implement ever devised."

The War baby

Production of the Garand, while being an excellent rifle, did not meet the needs of the fastest growing army in the free world. Between 1940 and the end of the war, the U.S. Army grew from 269,023 to nearly 9-million soldiers. To arm all of those GI's, the big green needed a cheap, yet reliable and effective rifle that could be issued to truck drivers, support personnel, artillery crew members and others who didn't need to carry the big Garand.

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This led to the rapid production of the "United States Carbine, Caliber .30, M1." Designed by David "Carbine" Williams and others, the 5.2-pound carbine was compact, at just 35-inches long, and could fire 15-rounds of specially designed .30 caliber ammunition in just a few seconds. Simple to produce, these babies cost Uncle Sam just $40 (about $600 today), and were soon being made by such non-traditional manufacturers as Underwood and IBM (who made typewriters), Rockola (juke boxes), and Irwin-Pedersen (power steering parts for cars).

The guns proved a hit and many squad and platoon leaders carried the little carbine, including paratroopers who had a special folding stock version, M1A1, whose compact length made sense for guys crammed into flying tubes.

Gen. Thompson's contribution

First envisioned during World War 1 by Brig. Gen. John Taliaferro Thompson, his .45ACP hand-held machinegun came too late for that Great War. Put into stateside production by Auto Ordinance in 1921, the 'Tommy Gun' sold slowly on the civilian market, but did become popular with those on both sides of the law during Prohibition. In 1938, the U.S. military began purchasing first the M1928A1 version of the gun, and then, once World War 2 seemed inevitable, a more streamlined M1 version.

Some 1.5-million of these 10.6-pound guns were used by all branches of the military, but with a 32-inch overall length they were compact, and best yet, could fire 600+ rounds per minute as long as the 20 or 30-round box magazines held out.

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Lt. Kenneth Garnier, US Navy beach control officer with a stockless thompson on Normandy

Although the cheap and easy M3 Grease gun, just coming into service, were soon to replace them, Gen. Thompson's room broom was everywhere on D-Day, from Navy shore parties to airborne units and soldiers wading ashore.

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Jim Martin, dressed as he was 70 years ago, will be parachuting into Normandy tomorrow at age 93. The last time he did it, he was with the rest of G Company, 3/506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Infantry Regiment. He jumped into France over Utah Beach the night prior to D-Day and fought for thirty-three days in the Normandy campaign. In September, 1944 he participated in the invasion of Holland ("Operation Market Garden") and was one of the defenders of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. The 101st Airborne Division finished their part of the war by securing Hitler's infamous Eagles Nest in Berchtesgaden, Germany.

Besides the above there were also the M1911 pistol, carried by officers, NCOs and machinegun operators, M1903 Springfield rifles that were used, with telescopic sights added, by snipers, and a plethora of light machine guns including the BAR and Browning M1919.

At the end of June 4, 1944, the Allies had sustained over 12,000 casualties.

However, the successful landings helped contributed to the end of the war and within a year in Europe, it was.

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June 6, 2014  •  04:38 PM
Read "War Babies" "Carbine" Williams seems to have little to do with designing the carbine that Winchester entered into the Army's competition to select a design. A relative of John Browning, did a lot of work on the design until he died after his appendix was removed. William's was brought in to continue the work, and took all the credit. From my reading, he was "pouty" and when he did not get his way, refused to participate, but did agree to demonstrate the rifle for the Army.
June 7, 2014  •  12:30 AM
Great to see this article. Im English and my grandfather was fighting in Nth Africa or Italy when the Dday invasion started. He fought at Monte Cassino alongside GIs. It was the one campaign he spoke little of, it was rough.
Im grateful to all Americans for helping to keep my country free.
June 9, 2014  •  01:05 AM
It's been my experience that larger guys like the iconic

and hard-hitting Garand. While the .30 carbine is also a

very popular rifle; for many, like me, it has been eclipsed

by the even more popular mini-14, and 10/22...