Cota had charge of plans and trained in the 1st Infantry Division from March 1941; he was its chief of staff from 1942 to February 1943, taking part in the capture of Oran during Operation torch, the invasion of French North Africa in November 1942. Promoted to brigadier general in February 1943, he became U.S. adviser to the Combined Operations branch of the European Theater of Operations. Later that year, he was assistant commander of the 29th Infantry Division.
On 6 June 1944, Cota landed with his division on Omaha Beach, Normandy. Several of the men in his landing craft (an LCVP, or landing craft vehicle and personnel) were killed by German fire as soon as the ramp went down, and Cota was the only general officer on the beach that day. With American forces almost pushed back into the sea, he was an inspiring presence. Realizing that the men were doomed if they remained on the beach, he exposed himself to German fire as he repeatedly led small parties forward. Many historians credit him with almost single-handedly preventing a disaster on Omaha that day. Cota later received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. Wounded at Saint-L™, he spent two weeks in the division hospital.
On 13 August 1944, he took command of the 28th Infantry Division, which he led through Paris in a liberation parade in August 1944, part of a show of force in support of General Charles de Gaulle to prevent a possible Communist takeover. Cota was promoted to major general in September 1944.
On 2 November, the 28th Infantry Division began an attack to capture the town of Schmidt in the heart of the Hürtgen Forest, as part of the Siegfried Line Campaign. The plan of attack was a recipe for disaster, with all three regiments of the division attacking in diverging directions; it had been imposed on the division by staff officers at V Corps. Cota protested his orders to both V Corps commander Major General Leonard Gerow and First Army commander Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges but was ordered to execute the plan. Over the next nine days, the 28th Infantry Division suffered more than 6,000 casualties. Near the end of the battle, Cota himself collapsed under the pressure of what was happening to his division.
If not for his performance on Omaha Beach, Cota almost certainly would have been relieved of his command after this debacle; as it was, Schmidt cast a long shadow over him. The 28th Division was pulled out of the line and sent south to a quiet sector in Belgium to reconstitute. On 16 December, it was manning the sector of the line known as Skyline Drive when the Germans launched the Ardennes Offensive. Although the already weak 28th Division was mauled during the German attack, it did not break. Rather, it conducted a tenacious and effective fighting withdrawal that contributed in no small part to disrupting the German timetable for the offensive. Cota returned to the United States in August 1945 to prepare for the invasion of Japan and retired from the army as a major general in 1946. He died in Wichita, Kansas, on 4 October 1971.
David T. Zabecki
Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.; MacDonald, Charles B. A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge. New York: William Morrow, 1985.; Miller, Robert A. Division Commander: A Biography of Major General Norman D. Cota. Spartanburg, SC: Reprint Publishers, 1989.