May 1944 field orders for the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion (ECB) bearing the ultra-secret “BIGOT” classification, issued just weeks before its D-Day landing at Omaha Beach and with provenance to unit commander William B. Gara. Possibly the only known surviving example.
Of the five D-Day landing beaches, the experience of the American 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions at Omaha was by far the most harrowing. The beach was defended by a full German Infantry Division (the 352nd) rather than a single regiment, as had been anticipated by Allied planners. The defenders were well emplaced on high bluffs facing the beach, with wide-open fields of fire overlooking the landing zones. Further complicating matters, many landing craft were driven off course by strong currents and/or ran aground, 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 terribly, 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.
In the lead-up to the landings on June 6, 1944 (known as Operation Neptune), officers at all levels were flooded with briefing books, reports and field orders, requiring them to digest an enormous amount of information. Today the best-known of all these publications is the Neptune Monograph, which summarized Allied intelligence, with particular emphasis on the American sector including Omaha and Utah Beaches. Containing information of great sensitivity, it bore the distinctive “BIGOT” stamp, the highest level of military security classification, and it was distributed in relatively small numbers.
Offered here is something far more elusive, a set of orders, briefing materials, and maps grouped with a cover page titled “First Engineer Combat Battalion[:] Field Order #4”. The title page is dated “13 May 1944”, while the individual documents are dated between May 13 and May 21. All the items are signed in type by 1st ECB commander Lieutenant William B. Gara, and inscriptions on the title page indicate that this was his personal copy.
All the documents and maps bear some variant of the “Top Secret BIGOT “Neptune”” rating. The distribution list totals a mere 30, and I have to date been unable to locate another extant copy. By contrast the Neptune Monograph was issued in at least the high hundreds of copies, appears on the market every few years, and has been reproduced in facsimile.
The 1st Engineer Combat Battalion and Lieut. Col. William B. Gara
According to one unit history, the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion (ECB) is “the oldest and most decorated engineer battalion in the United States Army”. It is descended from a “company of Miners, Sappers, and Pontoniers” formed at West Point in 1846, and in one or another form served in the Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, and all major wars of the 20th Century. During the Second World War it was assigned to the U.S. Army First Division (“The Big Red One”) and participated in the landings in North Africa (1942) and Sicily (1943).
During Operation Neptune the battalion, commanded by Lieut. Col. William B. Gara (1917-2001), landed in the first wave at Omaha Beach. There it was tasked with opening a path from the beach up to “E-1”, a heavily-fortified draw in the high bluffs in front of St. Laurent (E-1 was one of five such draws at Omaha.) This entailed clearing beach obstacles, mines, barbed wire, and anti-tank ditches, all while under fire from German defenders. Working with other engineering units, the 1st ECB accomplished this task on the day of the landing, clearing the way for elements of the First Division to advance inland.
“It was miraculous, it’s very difficult to explain how it was that we were able to overcome all these miseries that took place. The weather, the failure of the bombing, the failure of the naval gunfire, the 10,000 man German divisions sitting on Omaha Beach… The good Lord first tested us and then he decided “Enough already” and he protected us. It’s a situation that if I try to analyze it scientifically as an engineer would, I’d say can’t be done.” (Gara, interview on Evergreen Podcasts, published May 13, 2021)
The 1st ECB went on to fight throughout the rest of the war against Germany. Lieut. Col. Gara ommanded the battalion throughout, earning a Bronze Star, two Silver Stars, and two Purple Hearts. After the war he worked for several companies as a “plant engineering operations manager”, before passing away in 2001. (Flint Whitlock, The Fighting First: The Untold Story of the Big Red One on D-Day, p. 342)
Field Order #4
The Field Order consists of a nine-page introductory “Field Order Number 4” laying out the overall plan for Operation Neptune, followed by detailed orders for the 1st ECB and the 20th ECB. The remaining material consists of “Annexes” and “Appendices to Annexes”, some in the form of maps or charts. Taken as a whole, there are 17 mimeograph documents totaling 59 pages, three large whiteprint maps and charts, and two manuscript maps. Per the table of contents, the Field Order is missing just one document, “Appendix No 1 to Annex No 2[:] S-2 [i.e., Intelligence] Estimate”.
The Field Order covers among other things the responsibilities of each unit at least down to the company level, military intelligence, the terrain to be encountered both at Omaha and inland, an enumeration of troops and vehicles involved, landing craft assignments, the landing schedule, supplies and signaling. The content is amazingly detailed: For example, the Appendices addressing supplies specify the precise numbers of wire cutters, shovels, picks, mine detectors, tape reels and many dozens of other items to be carried by each company of engineers.
- “Field Order Number 4” (9pp, May 13, 1944)
- “Errata Sheet[:] Field Order No. 4” (1pp, May 21, 1944)
- [Large folding map] “Annex No 1 to FO No 4[:] Proposed Plan of Employment 1st Inf Div & Attached up to PM, D-Day” (May 13, 1944)
- [Large folding map] “Appendix 1 to Annex 1 of F.O. #4[:] Engineering Operations Overlay” (May 13, 1944)
- “Annex No 2 to F.O. No 4[:] Intelligence Annex” (6pp, May 13, 1944)
- “Appendix No. 2 to Annex No. 2 to F.O. No. 4[:] Tactical Study of Terrain” (7pp, May 13, 1944)
- “Annex No 3 of F.O. No 4 [:] Troop List CT 16 Force” (4pp, May 13, 1944)
- [Large folding chart] “Appendix No. 1 to Annex #3 of F.O. #3[sic][:] Vehicle Breakdown 1st Eng’r Combat Bn” (May 13, 1944)
- [Large folding chart] “Appendix #2 to Annex #3 of F.O. #4[:] Vehicle Breakdown 20th Eng’r Combat Bn” (May 13, 1944)
- “Appendix No 3 to Annex No 3 of F.O. No 4[:] APA & LCH Assignments – 1st Engr Combat Bn Force “O”” (1p, May 13, 1944)
- “Appendix No 4 to Annex No 3 of F.O. No 4[:] LST & LCT Assignments[:] 1st Engr Combat Battalion Force O” (2pp, May 13, 1944)
- “Appendix No 4 to Annex No 3 of F.O. No 4[:] LST & LCT Assignments[:] 1st Engr Combat Battalion Force O” (2pp, May 20, 1944)
- “Appendix No 5 to Annex No 3 of F.O. No 4[:] LCI & ISI & APA Loading Assignments 20th Engr Combat Bn Force O” (1p, May 13, 1944)
- “Appendix No 6 to Annex No 3 of F.O. No 4[:] LST & LCT Loading Assignments[:] 20th Engr Combat Bn Force “O”” (2pp, May 13, 1944)
- “Appendix No 6 to Annex No 3 of F.O. No 4[:] LST & LCT Loading Assignments[:] 20th Engr Combat Bn Force “O”” (2pp, May 20, 1944)
- “Appendix No 7 to Annex No 3 to F.O. No 4[:] Breakdown of Build-up[:] 1st Engr Combat Bn” (1p, May 13, 1944)
- “Appendix No 8 to Annex No 3 of F.O. No 4[:] Landing Table[:] 1st Engr Combat Bn and 20th Engr Combat Bn” (5pp, May 19, 1944)
- “Annex No 4 Admin Order to F.O. No 4” (8pp, May 13, 1944)
- “Appendix No 1 to Annex No 4 of F.O. No 4” [:] Special Supplies Carried Ashore [:] 1st Engr Combat Bn” (3pp, May 13, 1944)
- “Appendix No 2 to Annex No 4 of F.O. No 4” [:] Special Supplies Carried Ashore [:] 20th Engr Combat Battalion” (2pp, May 13, 1944)
- [Large folding map] “Appendix 3 to Annex 4[:] Traffic Circulation Map” (undated)
- “Annex No 5 to F.O. No 4[:] Signal Annex” (3pp, May 13, 1944)
The first (“Annex No 1 to FO No 4[:] Proposed Plan of Employment 1st Inf Div & Attached up to PM, D-Day”) depicts Omaha Beach divided into sectors (“Charlie”, “Dog Green”, etc.) and the respective responsibilities of the 16thRegimental Combat Team (RCT) of the 1st Division and the 116th RCT of the 29th. Of particular interest are the “D-Day” and “D+1” Phase Lines marking projected lines of progress after the landings, both of which proved far too optimistic. The second map, “Appendix 1 to Annex 1 of F.O. #4[:] Engineering Operations Overlay”, depicts the assignments of the 1st and 20th ECB, who were assigned to facilitate breakthroughs at the draws at St. Laurent (E-1) and just to the East (F-1). Both of these maps are original manuscripts, which were likely reproduced and included in the few other copies of Field Order #4.
The final map “Appendix 3 to Annex 4[:] Traffic Circulation Map” shows again the Omaha Beach sectors, the various planned “exits” (E-1, F-1, etc.), and vehicle transit areas and other facilities. It also indicates plans for converting all roads in the area to one-way use in order to minimize traffic jams.
The BIGOT classification
All the documents, maps and charts bear the heading “TOP SECRET – BIGOT NEPTUNE” or a variant thereof. 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.
“… 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)
Whatever the origins of the term, extraordinary 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 richly-informative and possibly unique artifact, with superlative provenance, from one of the most significant, dramatic and terrifying events in American military history.