D-Day: The Utah Beach Landings

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Who was Leonard Schroeder? And how did he write himself into the history books on D-Day? Turns out he was destined to play a crucial role in the first wave of Allied landings on Utah Beach.

Welcome to Season 3 of Unknown History: D-Day Stories. I'm your host, Giles Milton, and today we're talking about the very first men to storm the Nazi-controlled defences of what had become known as Fortress Europe.

The great Allied fleet destined for Utah Beach had sailed through the night and now—three hours before dawn on June 6, 1944—it lay at anchor just a few miles from the Normandy coast.

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It had pulled off the most spectacular conjuring trick in history. The fleet’s 865 vessels had got within striking distance of Nazi-occupied France without raising any suspicions.

To one impressionable young lieutenant, Ross Olsen—who was aboard USS Nevada—it felt as if they "were sneaking up on the enemy." This was indeed the case: the Germans were as yet unprepared for the beach landings that were now only a couple of hours away.

"Now hear this! Stand by all troops!"

The fleet’s 865 vessels had got within striking distance of Nazi-occupied France without raising any suspicions.

The cry could be heard through the darkness as amplified voices played through the ships’ loudspeakers. Within seconds, there was frenetic activity as boat-hands began lowering the landing craft into the water.

For one 25-year-old American captain, this was the moment he had been awaiting for almost three years. Leonard Schroeder was in command of F Company of the 8th Infantry, with five landing craft that each contained 32 men.

The boats were to land on the beach in a V formation, with Schroeder’s boat in the middle of the V. His men were in the vanguard of the invasion of occupied Europe: if all went to plan, they would be the first to splash through the surf and storm the Nazi’s coastal defences.

Leonard Schroeder was a bulldozer of a man, with a thickset face and a pronounced nose. He was known as Moose—a likeable, no-nonsense team player with big hands and a big heart. He had pushed his men hard, leading them through mock landings and using live ammunition.

Before boarding his landing craft, Schroeder had a chat with his battalion commander, Carlton McNeely. “Well, Moose, this is it. Give ’em hell.”

They slapped each other on the back, but both men then “choked up” as emotion got the better of them. Each one knew they might be dead within a few hours.