A scarce map depicting the Normandy coast at Vierville-sur-Mer, better known today simply as Omaha Beach, issued just weeks before D-Day and bearing the ultra-secret “BIGOT” classification.
“But nothing was more secret—or more vital to Operation Neptune—than the mosaic of Allied intelligence reports that cartographers and artists transformed into the multihued and multilayered BIGOT maps.” (Thomas B. Allen, “Untold Stories of D-Day,” National Geographic Magazine, June 2002, vol. 201, no. 6, p. 15)
Of the five D-Day landing beaches, that of the American 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions at Omaha was by far the most harrowing. The beach was defended by the German 352nd Infantry Division—rather than a single regiment, as anticipated by Allied planners—which was well emplaced on high bluffs, with wide-open fields of fire overlooking the landing zone. Further complicating matters, many landing craft ran aground on sandbars, forcing infantrymen to wade through water up to their necks while heavily loaded and under fire; and most of the specialized amphibious tanks sent to support them were swamped before making it to land. As a result the Americans were pinned to the beach for hours and suffered hugely, with casualty estimates ranging as high as 5000. Nevertheless, by mid-morning they had breached the German defenses on the bluffs and begun moving inland.
Offered here is the western sheet of a pair of maps used by the American military to plan the Omaha Beach landing. It offers a detailed picture of the Normandy coast at Vierville-sur-Mer, including the key “draw” leading inland, a key objective of the 29th Infantry Division on the morning of June 6, 1944. The base map is a familiar topographical map, with roads and built-up areas in black, green indicating different types of vegetation; and brown indicating elevations and topographical features, including the steep bluffs overlooking the beach. Dashed lines in the water indicate depths at low (brown) and high (blue) tides. Below each map is a profile view of the coastline to facilitate navigation by the landing craft, with the practical note “Building landmarks, especially near the beach, may be destroyed before any craft land. Terrain features, therefore, are much more reliable for visual navigation.”
Below the title of each map a laconic note reads, “Map from GSGS 4490, sheets 79 & 80 and air photo examination.” This only hints at the complex, multi-layered information-gathering effort that yielded the BIGOT maps: Starting with existing base maps and hydrographic data, largely supplied by the British Hydrographic Office, military cartographers and artists added data from aerial reconnaissance surveys by Allied warplanes, including extraordinarily dangerous low-level overflights. To these were added information from a host of other sources, including reconnaissance of the beaches by commandos (“frogmen”) and reports from French Resistance fighters.
The maps were issued in a variety of formats and frequently revised as new information became available. Many copies of this variant, dated April 21, 1944, were printed on thin paper, folded, and issued in the Neptune Monograph, the definitive briefing book issued to senior American officers in preparation for the D-Day landings. The present example is on much heavier paper and was clearly issued separately, making its survival all the more remarkable.
The BIGOT classification
This map is prominently stamped in green, “TOP SECRET – BIGOT UNTIL DEPARTURE FOR COMBAT OPERATIONS—THEN THIS SHEET BECOMES RESTRICTED.” Introduced during the Second World War, BIGOT was the highest-level military security classification, above Top Secret. Some sources suggest that it was an acronym for “British Invasion of German Occupied Territory;” others, that it was a “backronym” for “To Gib,” the code stamped on the papers of officers headed to Gibraltar in advance of the 1942 North Africa invasion.
Whatever the origins of the term, great efforts were made to protect BIGOT-level material. When for example a practice landing (“Operation Tiger”) on the Devon coast was ambushed by U-Boats, Eisenhower himself ordered the recovery of the bodies of the ten known victims with BIGOT clearance. This was necessary to prove that they had not been captured alive, as their capture would have compromised the invasion plans and necessitated its cancellation.
In all, a scarce and richly-informative artifact from one of the most significant, dramatic and terrifying events in American military history.