By the end of May 1944, more than 4,000 ships, landing craft, and other assorted vessels of the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force were berthed in United Kingdom ports in preparation for one of the largest amphibious assaults in modern military history. To maintain absolute secrecy about the Normandy invasion, the soldiers and sailors of the Operation Neptune armada were ordered to their ships and assembly areas on 28 May. There they would be sequestered for the next several days.1
As well as being crammed on board heavily loaded ships or within the barbed-wire-enclosed bases, the men of the invasion were frustrated. The weather turned noticeably bad, and D-Day was delayed from 4 June to an unspecified date. Some of the ships and landing craft of Force Utah, however, had already departed berths in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for their rendezvous off southern England. They had to turn around and sail back up the Irish Sea, some for as many as 12 hours, before learning the invasion had been reset for 6 June.2
The Cross-Channel Trip
At 0900 on the 5th, the first groups of landing craft from the Royal Navy's Eastern Naval Task Force departed Portsmouth and headed into the Channel. Because of rough seas and a strong tide, some of the vessels found the going extremely difficult. The ships and landing craft from Force Utah, divided into 12 convoys, also got under way that morning, and vessels of Force Omaha's five convoys began leaving their five ports in southern England around noon. Strong winds at the entrance to Portland Harbor, however, prevented one of Force O's convoys from departing until 2000 that evening.3
Once under way, the British and American convoys headed for their rendezvous point—Area Z, a circular location ten miles in diameter off the Isle of Wight that Neptune sailors affectionately named Piccadilly Circus. From there the armada of transports, large landing vessels, and bombardment ships, led by some 255 minesweepers and associated vessels, followed eight channels jutting into the middle of the English Channel. Each vessel then took one of ten 400- to 1,200-yard-wide channels—a fast and a slow lane for each invasion force.4
For the minesweepers directed to clear the channels, the going was difficult. The main challenge was keeping station and sweeping an accurate path in the dark while being pounded by rough seas. Moreover, because the eastward tide changed to running westward at mid-Channel, the small ships were to execute a new procedure for turning their sweeps over from port to starboard as the tide turned. In each channel, the vessels would successively take in their port sweeps, excepting the senior officer's ship in the van and motor launches ahead, and form a single line ahead. The minesweepers would then turn in succession and head back into the newly swept channel. When far enough north, they would turn back to the south, array their sweeps to starboard, and resume cutting the channel.5
Buoy markers left behind by the minesweepers helped the hundreds of trailing vessels find and follow the channels. But given the great number of ships and landing craft making the crossing, some things did go wrong, such as landing craft sailing down incorrect channels or being jostled out of their assigned channels by other vessels.6
As the minesweepers approached the Normandy coast in the early hours of 6 June, they began clearing five transport areas, one for each beach. Because Western Force commander Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk had been concerned about the vulnerability of his transports and support ships to coastal defense batteries, the Force Omaha and Force Utah transport areas were located about 11 nautical miles off their respective beaches, four miles farther out than the Eastern Task Force's three transport areas. The American assault troops therefore had a much longer transit to their beaches.7
The transports and large landing craft lowered all boats after arriving in the areas, and soldiers in the initial assault waves—mainly men of the U.S. 1st, 4th, and 29th divisions, the British 3rd and 50th divisions, and the Canadian 3rd Division—clambered down into LCVP "Higgins" boats or British LCAs. Those vessels' U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, and Royal Navy coxswains then had the difficult task of locating in the dark the proper assembly area, where the boats would circle while awaiting the proper time to head for the beaches. Nervous, weighed down with equipment, and packed into the small craft on a choppy sea, the soldiers were in for several hours of misery before battle.
The minesweepers, meanwhile, began clearing numerous bombardment channels closer to the beaches, and the approximately 140 warships of the multinational gunfire support force slowly proceeded to their assigned positions. The main responsibility of the battleships and cruisers would be to neutralize dozens of German batteries, many housed in thick concrete casemates, along the coast or just inland; destroyers, operating closer to shore, and some battleships and cruisers were assigned other targets along or near the beaches.8
Shattering the Silence
At 0505, two of the destroyers stationed about 5,000 yards off Utah Beach, the USS Fitch (DD-462) and Corry (DD-463), began taking fire from a shore battery. The naval bombardment there was scheduled to begin at 0550, but at about 0530, when heavy shells began raining down among other warships off the beach, Rear Admiral Morton Deyo, commander of the Force U naval gunfire-support group, "decided to jump the gun" and ordered his ships to open fire. Assisted by Spitfire fighters acting as spotters, the Utah warships were soon blasting away at their assigned targets. Their shelling was augmented by an aerial bombardment when at about 0610 nearly 300 B-26 Marauders from the U.S. Ninth Air Force dropped their payloads on German positions.
St. Marcouf, which boasted three massive 210-mm guns, was the most formidable area battery, and on D-Day the USS Quincy (CA-71) and Nevada (BB-36), later joined by the Arkansas (BB-33) and Texas (BB-35) from the Force O group, took it under fire. Two of the 210s were destroyed that morning, but the battery held out until 12 June. Unlike the other bombardment ships, the Corry found herself unprotected by smokescreens Allied planes had dropped.While she fired and maneuvered to evade enemy shelling, she evidently hit a mine, and the sinking ship was abandoned (see "Historic Fleets," p. 8).9
Gunfire off Omaha Beach began at 0530, when a battery opened up on the Nevada, and slowly built until the Force O warships began their scheduled preliminary shelling at 0550. The Texas fired her 14-inch guns at the fortified observation post and heavy battery at Pointe du Hoc, a promontory jutting into the Channel between Utah and Omaha beaches. The USS Satterlee (DD-626) and escort destroyer HMS Talybont, meanwhile, opened fire on pillboxes and machine-gun nests near du Hoc and several miles to the east at Pointe de la Percee. Ten other destroyers bombarded targets along Omaha and the steep bluffs that overlooked the beach.
Five ravines, or draws, cut into the bluffs were key American objectives and came under intense shelling. Knocking out the well-concealed enemy gun positions was extremely difficult. The casemate and pillbox apertures did not face directly out to sea but were angled, so the defenders could deliver an enfilading crossfire along the beaches, making it harder for the openings to be spotted and hit from ships. Many of the pillboxes were built into the sides of the ravines or face of the bluffs.
The village of Les Moulins, located at the base of one of the draws, received a heavy bombardment from the Arkansas, which unleashed 70 12-inch rounds at fortified defenses there. The Free French light cruiser Georges Leygues and British destroyer Tanatside similarly shelled the site of the present-day Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial—heavily defended bluffs overlooking eastern Omaha and another of the draws.10
While the Utah Beach aerial bombardment was fairly successful, the same was not true at Omaha. The 450 B-24 Liberators of the U.S. Eighth Air Force assigned the mission flew at a higher altitude, and cloud cover obscured the aircrews' view of the coastline, resulting in all their bombs landing at least a mile inland.11
Off the British beaches, preparations for the naval bombardment had been interrupted when Eastern Task Force ships sighted three German torpedo boats that had sortied from Le Havre. Allied ships tracked the boats with radar and drove them off with gunfire but not before they launched 18 torpedoes. One sank the Norwegian destroyer Svenner and another barely missed HMS Largs, flagship of Force Sword commander Rear Admiral Arthur Talbot.12
The Eastern Task Force's subsequent bombardment was highlighted by exchanges between Allied warships and the German heavy battery at Longues-sur-Mer. Just before 0600, the battery's four 155-mm guns opened fire on HMS Bulolo, Force Gold's flagship, forcing her farther offshore. Return fire from numerous Allied ships, including the British cruisers Ajax and Argonaut as well as the Arkansas, eventually knocked out three of the German guns, but the fourth continued to fire until that night. Just to the east, German guns near Arromanches exchanged fire with Eastern Task Force destroyers until about 0930, well after the initial landings on nearby Gold Beach.13
As H-hour on the American beaches—0630—neared, the Force O and U warships either temporarily held their fire or shifted to inland targets. Farther to the east, H-hour along each of the British beaches was scheduled for about an hour later, giving the assaulting troops the benefit of a longer naval bombardment.
The Most Difficult Landing
Before the bombardment had begun, a line of U.S. patrol craft had taken position 4,000 yards off Omaha Beach at the line of departure. Their responsibility was to help landing craft coxswains orient themselves during the long trip from the transport area to the beach, and each PC flew a flag indicating the section of beach she was opposite.14
To provide immediate firepower on the beaches, Operation Neptune called for tanks to precede the assault troops ashore. Off Omaha, 16 LCTs were scheduled to release 64 duplex-drive Sherman tanks (DDs), which would swim toward the coast and clank ashore at H-5. These amphibious vehicles featured a waterproof screen that could be raised and a pair of propellers. An equal number of LCTs would disgorge 32 conventional Shermans and 16 tank dozers directly on the beach at H-hour. One minute later, Higgins boats and LCAs carrying the initial assault troops would land, followed at H+3 by larger LCMs loaded with Army engineers, Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), and explosives. The many follow-up waves—comprising landing craft carrying thousands of assault and support troops, hundreds of assorted vehicles, as well as supplies and equipment—were not scheduled to begin coming ashore until H+30.15
Off Omaha, orders were for LCTs to release the DD tanks either 6,000 yards from shore or, if sea conditions warranted, on the beach. However, 27 of the 29 eastern Omaha DDs released about 6,000 yards offshore swamped, mainly because of the choppy seas and long transit to the beach. The commander of the LCTs carrying the western Omaha DDs, Naval Reserve Lieutenant D. L. Rockwell, ordered his craft to land the tanks on the shore, where they arrived at H-1. Unfortunately most of these tanks, as well as the conventional Shermans and dozers that landed at about the same time, were quickly eliminated by artillery.16
During their ride in, the Soldiers, Sailors, and Coast Guardsmen of the first waves witnessed an awe-inspiring spectacle. Before arriving at the point of departure they passed the Arkansas and Texas pounding away at coastal targets, and then 3,000 yards from shore, they overtook two groups of destroyers also banging away at German positions. Closer to shore the men in the craft passed through a line of nine LCT(R)s, each armed with 1,064 5-inch rockets, which soon shrieked over their heads toward the beach.17
The shore bombardment, however, caused serious problems for the coxswains. Dense smoke and dust along the shoreline mixed with mist to obscure landmarks. That combined with a strong lateral current resulted in many of the craft landing east of their designated section of the beach. Moreover, the initial wave's nine infantry companies were supposed to land evenly spaced apart but ended up either in clumps or isolated. With most of the troops landing on the eastern half of Omaha, the assault's western wing virtually melted away under withering fire from German artillery, mortars, machine guns, and rifles.18
Several minutes after the first troops landed, the NCDUs and Army engineers also came ashore scattered. The broad beach ahead of them was crowded with obstacles, and they immediately began taking heavy casualties. One NCDU team was killed by artillery fire as it landed on the beach; another was wiped out just as it prepared to detonate a string of charges. Overall, the NCDUs paid a heavy price on D-Day, suffering 41 percent casualties, nearly half of whom were killed.19
Of immediate concern, however, was that the demolition teams could only clear five poorly marked gaps through the obstacles and mines—not the 16 50-yard lanes called for in the assault plan. Force O commander Rear Admiral John L. Hall Jr. later wrote that "the limited time for working on the obstacles before they were covered by the rapidly rising tide and the devastating effect of the defensive fire . . . reduced the effectiveness of the demolition parties."20
The situation offshore, meanwhile, was also confused. As the tide quickly rose, the demolition teams' inability to clear enough gaps through the beach obstructions created a virtual logjam of landing craft between the line of departure and the obstacles. According to Hall, "With the strong tide, fresh wind and choppy sea this soon resulted in a mass of craft in which all semblance of wave organization was lost until the Deputy Assault Group commanders arrived on the scene, took charge of the situation, and moved the craft to seaward to give them more room and reformed the waves as best they could."21
The landing craft—ranging from 36-foot LCVPs carrying about 30 Soldiers to 160-foot LCIs with 200—were irresistible targets for German gunners, who sank many before they could reach shore. Dozens of others were knocked out on the beach, where their hulks offered temporary protection from small-arms fire for Soldiers trying to make their way forward. Gradually, as the tide rose and the beach shrank, parts of Omaha became crowded with Soldiers and Sailors crouching, lying prone, or huddled behind stretches of seawall or along the beach's shingle, its band of small stones. With the troops' advance inland held up by the intense enemy fire, success on Omaha was very much in question.
Groups of infantrymen saved the day by taking the initiative and knocking out or bypassing strongpoints, scaling the bluffs, and capturing the draws. Naval gunfire-support ships, especially destroyers, played a key role in assisting the GIs.
Beginning around 0800, individual vessels—including the U.S. destroyers Emmons (DD-457), Carmick (DD-493), Doyle (DD-494), McCook (DD-496), Frankford (DD-497), Baldwin (DD-624), Harding (DD-625), Thompson (DD-627) and British escort destroyers Melbrea and Tanatside—began closing the beach, some approaching as near as the depth of the water would allow, and providing virtual point-blank support for the infantry. In some instances, the ships fired on targets of opportunity, such as guns enfilading the beach revealed by their muzzle flashes, and in others they bombarded enemy positions radioed in by shore fire-control parties.22
Navy and Coast Guard landing craft, meanwhile, continued to weather heavy artillery and machine-gun fire to deliver increasing numbers of troops ashore. They, in turn, maintained the invasion's momentum and battled their way inland. At nightfall, the Germans still held parts of some towns behind the bluffs and controlled one draw, but the U.S. Army and Navy had won the battle on Omaha Beach.
The Vertical Assault
About four miles west of Omaha Beach, a very different sort of assault had taken place. Three companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion were assigned the task of scaling the 117-foot cliff at Pointe du Hoc and capturing the six 155-mm guns deployed there. But as they approached the shoreline in 11 LCAs, escorted by four other craft, the commanding officer of the lead vessel mistook Pointe de la Percée for du Hoc, and the boats had to make their way along the coast and against the strong current to the correct target while German machine-gunners ashore fired at them.
As the vessels neared the point, the destroyer Satterlee closed to within 1,500 yards and opened fire with her 5-inch guns and heavy machine guns on Germans assembling near the cliff's edge. Her action report dryly noted that "Results were good." All but one of the LCAs soon reached the base of du Hoc. Assisted by more direct fire from the Satterlee, the Rangers were able to scale the cliff and in a relatively brief fight capture the point—but not the guns, which the Germans had moved.
Later that morning, U.S. Soldiers found and disabled the 155s. Meanwhile, the Satterlee, working with a shore fire-control party, provided gunfire support for the Rangers until relieved at 1910. In all, the destroyer expended 1,165 5-inch rounds during the long day.23
Off Target But Successful
The original Utah Beach assault plan called for eight LCMs to release 32 amphibious Shermans 5,000 yards from shore. In the event, the Force U staff concluded it needed to make up time and wanted to ensure that the tanks would not be struck by incoming fire. After one of the LCMs was sunk by a German mine the remaining seven released their DDs 3,000 yards from shore in relatively calm water. One of the tanks swamped, but the other 27 reached the beach at 0640, only marginally off target and ten minutes behind the first waves of landing craft laden with 4th Division troops, which arrived on time.
Those 40 LCVPs had reached the point of departure as scheduled and headed for the beach line abreast. But smoke from the devastation along the shore, combined with few landmarks along the coast, led to confusion among the drivers, and again the strong current pushed the craft off course. Consequently, the leading elements of the Utah assault force came ashore about 2,000 yards southeast of their intended landing beach. This was fortunate, however, as the correct location was more strongly defended.24
Engineers and NCDUs quickly arrived at the new beach, which they efficiently cleared of obstacles in an hour. Follow-up waves of landing craft, meanwhile, delivered more troops. While artillery fire would occasionally rain down on Utah throughout D-Day, German resistance was light, especially when compared to Omaha. Soldiers and tanks were soon able to move inland and link with U.S. airborne troops who had landed the previous night.25
All Ashore in the East
The landings at Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches each varied in difficulty. By 1500, however, all of the Eastern Task Force assault brigades and their reserves had landed and were moving inland to attempt to take their D-Day objectives.
The Gold assault progressed relatively smoothly. LCTs released DD tanks directly onto the beach, and British 50th Division troops managing to get ashore quickly. Although the first wave suffered some casualties, the division secured the beach exits without significant losses, which was due in no small part to the fire support it received from destroyers and landing craft.
By contrast, H-hour at Juno (0735 for the western sector and 0745 for the eastern) was delayed by ten minutes, and many beach obstacles were covered by the rising tide when LCAs carrying Canadian 3rd Division troops approached the shore. Mines attached to the obstacles sank or damaged many of the craft, resulting in extensive loss of life and equipment. Once the Canadians made it ashore and over the beach's seawall, however, they quickly advanced inland.
At the easternmost beach, Sword, landing craft carrying the first wave of 3rd Infantry Division assault troops successfully avoided beach obstacles and mines and came ashore without a loss. Nonetheless, heavy German mortar, machine-gun, and rifle fire resulted in many casualties on and near the beach. Soon after 1000, following nearly three hours of fighting, British troops captured the formidable coastal strongpoint at La Breche. Despite the achievement and the capture of initial inland objectives, Sword was by no means secure, and German fire continued to rain down on the British along the crowded beach.26
At Day's End
By any objective assessment, the Allied navies' performance during the Channel crossing and on D-Day was an outstanding overall success. Mainly because of the Neptune minesweeping plan and efforts of the flotilla of sweepers, comparatively few ships and landing craft were lost to mines. Moreover, with few exceptions, the hundreds of invasion armada ships arrived off the coast of Normandy in place and on time. While the naval bombardment did not destroy hardened defenses, in most instances it did shock and temporarily stun the defenders.
Not everything, however, went according to plan. Most notably, the landing craft carrying the first wave of Omaha and Utah assault troops for the most part came ashore at the wrong locations. On Utah Beach, where the landing craft landed in formation along a lightly defended section of shoreline, the mistake was fortuitous. At Omaha, where the craft and troops arrived scattered and were easy targets for well-positioned defenders, it was perilous. To their credit, the Sailors and Coast Guardmen who weathered intense fire to land the follow-up waves of Soldiers and provided close-in naval gunfire support helped save the day at Omaha Beach.
The most persuasive evidence that the Allied navies had performed remarkably well was that Neptune achieved its initial objectives. The Royal and U.S. navies successfully landed the operation's assault troops on D-Day as well as began bringing ashore follow-up divisions. Although the Eastern and Western Task Forces still faced the monumental job of transporting and supplying hundreds of thousands of Soldiers for the push inland, the initial objective in the liberation of northwestern Europe had been achieved.
2. "Amphibious Operations: Invasion of Northern France," 1-10, COMINCH Reports, Joint Forces Staff College Library, Norfolk, VA (cited hereinafter as JFSCL); see also Carlo D'Este, Decision in Normandy (New York: Harper Collins, 1983), p. 110 and Samuel Eliot Morison, The Invasion of France and Germany, 1944-1945, vol. 11, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1957), p. 80.
3. "Report on Operation Neptune," vol. 2, p. 180, ANCXF Operation Neptune Reports, JFSCL.
4. Max Schoenfeld, "The Navies and Neptune," in Theodore Wilson, ed., D-Day: 1944 (Lawrence Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1994), p. 109.
6. "Report on Operation Neptune," vol. 2, pp. 180-1, JFSCL.
7. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 578.
8. Morison, Invasion of France and Germany, pp. 94.
9. Ibid., p. 96; "Report on Operation Neptune," vol. 3, p. 578, JFSCL.
10. Morison, Invasion of France and Germany, pp. 121-22; USS Arkansas, Action Report, 3-16 June 1944, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (cited hereinafter as NARA).
11. Joseph Balkoski, Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2004), pp 95-6.
12. Report on Operation Neptune," vol. 2, p. 181, JFSCL; Morison, Invasion of France and Germany, p. 183; Yves Buffetaut, D-Day Ships: The Allied Invasion Fleet June 1944 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), pp. 111-12.
13. "Report on Operation Neptune," vol. 2, 181, JFSCL; Buffetaut, D-Day Ships, pp. 112-13; Karl-Heinz Schmeelke and Michael Schmeelke, German Defensive Batteries & Gun Emplacements on the Normandy Beaches (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military/Aviation Press, 1995), pp. 25, 48; Friedrich Ruge, "German Naval Operations," in Wilson, ed., D-Day 1944, p. 131.
14. Captain Richard H. Crook Jr., U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired), "Traffic Cop," in Paul Stillwell, ed., Assault on Normandy: First-Person Accounts from the Sea Services (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), pp. 64-5.
15. Omaha Beachhead (Washington, DC: Historical Division, War Department, 1945; reprint Center for Military History, 2001), p. 31; Morison, Invasion of France and Germany, pp. 131-32.
16. Morison, Invasion of France and Germany, pp132-34;. Balkoski, Omaha Beach, p. 104.
17. Balkoski, Omaha Beach, pp. 83-84.
18. Gordon A. Harrison, Cross-Channel Attack (reprint Washington, DC: Center for Military History, 1993), United States Army in World War II, p. 313
19. Morison, Invasion of France and Germany, p. 138.
20. "Report on Operation Neptune," vol. 3, p. 578, JFSCL.
22. "Supporting Operations for the Invasion of Northern France, Western Task Force", 73-40 to 73-41, JFSCL; Morison, Invasion of France and Germany, p. 143; Harrison, Cross-Channel Attack, pp. 319-20.
23. Morison, Invasion of France and Germany, pp125-28; USS Satterlee, Action Report, 21 June 1944, NARA; "Amphibious Operations: Invasion of Northern France," 2-11, JFSCL.
24. "Report on Operation Neptune," vol. 3, pp. 653-54, JFSCL; Joseph Balkoski, Utah Beach: The Amphibious Landing and Airborne Operations on D-Day, June 6, 1944 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2005), p. 205.
25. Harrison, Cross-Channel Attack, p. 304; Balkoski, Utah Beach, p. 184.
26. "Report on Operation Neptune," vol. 3, p. 578, JFSCL; Schoenfeld, "The Navies and Neptune," pp. 114-15; Morison, Invasion of France and Germany, pp. 185-86.
National Arcives - After debarking from LCVPs, one of the
first waves of assault troops wades awore on Omaha.
'They Veered to the Left'
Ensign Richard H. Crook, USNR, executive officer, PC-553
As the operation order directed, we were offshore about a mile and a half, serving as primary control vessel in the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach. . . . Unfortunately, as the boat waves passed by us, they veered to the left in their journey toward Omaha; they didn't steer to starboard enough to counteract the current. For the most part, the landing craft wound up east of where they were supposed to be. We had no radio communication at all to tell the landing craft what was happening, and we really hadn't rehearsed with the LCVP coxswains beforehand.
Paul Stillwell, editor, Assault on Normandy: First-Person Accounts from the Sea Services (Naval Institute Press)
U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives - Listing heavily to port, the
LCI(L)-85 arrives back at the transport area. After her troops
were transferred to a transport, the craft sank.
'Shells and Machine Gun Fire Began to Hit Us'
Lieutenant (junior grade) Coit Hendley, USCGR, commanding officer, LCI(L)-85
We grounded at 0830 and put out both ramps. The water was too deep for the troops to wade ashore so we retracted both ramps and began to back off the beach. . . and made another beaching. As the ship grounded a teller mine exploded under the bow splitting the void tank. The port ramp went down and the troops began going ashore. Shells and machine gun fire began to hit us. About fifty troops got down the port ramp before a shell hit it and blew it off the sponsons and over the side. As the starboard ramp had not gone down and the wounded men were jamming the deck, we backed off the beach again.
Action Report LCI(L)-85 in Operation Neptune