The successful 6 June 1944 D-Day landings were only the opening scenes in a naval drama that continued to unfold on the beaches of Normandy. As Operation Neptune's planners had recognized, once U.S., British, and Canadian troops began getting ashore, the Allies were in a frantic race with the Wehrmacht to build up strength at the point of contact.
For the Western powers this came down to moving huge numbers of men and amounts of materiel across the English Channel while protecting the convoys from German air and naval attacks. At the same time, they needed to interdict the enemy's movement of vehicles, equipment, and personnel to the invasion area from elsewhere in Europe. The winner of this contest would be in the best position to decimate its opponent's forces, and either (in the German case) push the invaders back into the Channel or (in the Allies' case) punch a hole through the enemy's defenses and break into the open French countryside.
Rush to Build Up
By 7 June, D+1, Allied naval commanders realized their buildup was going much slower than planned. Many of the ferries and landing craft the navies had planned to use for the offload of merchant ships and LSTs had not made it across the Channel, leading to a backlog of cargo in the vessels off the Normandy coast. Knocked-out craft and vehicles crowding several landing sites, as well as continued German small-arms, mortar, and artillery fire, impeded the flow of materiel across the beaches. Adding to the problems on Utah and Omaha beaches, the U.S. Army had insisted on a selective offload—cargo and materiel discharged by order of priority. This was extremely difficult since the units ashore whose job was to straighten out the logistical mess lacked ship manifests to determine which vessels contained what cargo.1
By 10 June Royal Navy Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, overall naval commander of Operation Neptune, had convinced U.S. First Army commander Lieutenant General Omar Bradley that selective offload was taking far too long and the Allies were falling behind schedule. To further speed up the operation, Ramsay ordered LSTs to unload directly on the beaches. A drawback to this plan, however, was that the landing ships would be stranded high and dry for 10 to 12 hours before the next high tide floated them free to return to England for more cargo.
Nonetheless, mostly as a result of the discarding of the selective offload and the addition of more ferries and lighters, Allied buildup rates increased markedly. By 18 June, the Americans had landed 314,514 troops, 41,000 vehicles, and 130,000 tons of supplies. British efforts were just as impressive, with 314,547 troops, 54,000 vehicles, and 114,000 tons of supplies offloaded.2
The improvement was also due to the construction of artificial ports, code-named Mulberrries, off Omaha Beach opposite Vierville and St. Laurent, and Gold Beach off Arromanches. By D+10 the harbors, components of which had been shipped or towed over from England, were well on their way to being fully assembled. Seabees of the 25th Naval Construction Regiment built and maintained the Omaha Mulberry, where ships started unloading on 16 June. The vehicle discharge rate immediately soared to 78 in 38 minutes, while the time for unloading an LST fell to just over one hour, compared with up to 12 hours for one of the beached landing ships. For the Gold Mulberry, two roadways leading from pierheads to the beach were already in use on the 16th. There, the daily rate of discharge had risen from 600 tons on D+6 to about 1,500 tons on D+10.3
Managing the Beaches
The Allies' eventual ability to rapidly build up troops, supplies, and vehicles in Normandy owed in large part to the men and officers stationed on the beaches themselves. These beachmasters had begun landing on D-Day—many amid some of the heaviest fighting—to organize the chaos at most of the landing sites and otherwise facilitate the movement of troops, vehicles, and supplies inland. In the days and nights immediately following the assault, German artillery and aircraft attacks did not make their jobs any easier.
On the U.S. beaches, the main responsibility for shoreline operations rested with the Army, which assigned two Engineer Special Brigades to Omaha and one to Utah. In turn the Navy assigned one Naval Beach Battalion to each brigade. The beach battalions were closely associated with their parent brigades to the point they had no direct links to other Navy units. According to the CO of the 2nd Naval Beach Battalion, Commander John F. Curtin, the 1st Engineer Special Brigade, which his unit served under at Utah, "not only had the knowledge, skill, and experience necessary successfully to carry on the operation, but, as well, consistently [was] motivated by a spirit of cooperation and help, which did much to facilitate the performance of duty by the Navy."4
The Engineer Special Brigades' responsibilities included unloading vessels, driving transport vehicles, and manning anti-aircraft guns. Among other tasks, Naval Beach Battalion Sailors controlled the beaching of craft, cleared remaining beach obstacles, surveyed and mapped the shores, and repaired craft. Both organizations included medical sections for treating the wounded and facilitating their transfer to offshore ships for transport back to England, as well as communications units to help maintain a smooth flow of traffic onto and off of the beaches.
The British assigned specialized units from several services the responsibility of managing the eastern beaches. Thus, operations at Gold, Juno, and Sword were variously managed by Royal Navy Beach Commando units, Army Beach Groups, RAF Beach Squadrons, and RAF Beach Balloon Squadrons. The British operation focused on traffic control and establishing Beach Maintenance Areas, which featured storage dumps for petroleum, ammunition, and rations and assembly areas for incoming troops and vehicles.5
Defending the Anchorages
Initially, the German Navy had the potential to slow the Allied buildup. Between 7 and 9 June, E-boats operating out of Cherbourg and Le Havre were able to sink several vessels, including the LST-376 and LST-314, and damage others in the Bay of the Seine. Torpedo boats sortieing from Boulogne added to the Allied losses on the night of 9-10 June, and in the early hours of the 11th, Cherbourg E-boats sank the tug USS Partridge (ATO-138) and damaged the LST-538.
The Allies, meanwhile, struck back. On the night of 8-9 June, German destroyers set out from Brest but were met by the British 10th Destroyer Flotilla, which sank two of the enemy tin cans and damaged a third. After several German Navy vessels were sighted in Le Havre, the Allied air forces bombed the harbor on the evening of 14 June, sinking three fleet torpedo boats, 10 E-boats, and 15 mine and patrol craft. The Kreigsmarine lost numerous additional minesweepers and other vessels when Boulogne's harbor was similarly hit the next night.6
The result of these and other Allied actions effectively eliminated any significant German Navy surface threat by the end of June, and the Kriegsmarine turned to human torpedoes as their next line of defense. The Neger consisted of two G7e torpedoes, one mounted atop the other. Instead of a warhead, the upper torpedo featured a plexiglass-covered cockpit in which a pilot could control the fish; the conventional bottom torpedo was detachable. In early July this weapon managed to sink three minesweepers and fatally damage a Free Polish cruiser, the Dragon. The German Navy, however, paid a heavy price for their use—in two nights of operations 30 Negers were lost—and by mid-August it had largely ceased deploying them.7
Germany's U-boats, its most dangerous World War II naval vessels, posed a serious threat to Neptune. Prior to D-Day, some 46 submarines waited in Bay of Biscay pens to attack the Allied invasion fleet and its transports. U-boat operations, however would be severely limited by the capabilities of these boats. All were medium Type VIICs, larger subs being unsuitable for combat in the relatively shallow Channel. Moreover, of the 36 U-boats that set off for the invasion area when the landings began, only nine were equipped with snorkels, extendable tubes that allowed a boat to operate her diesel engines and recharge her batteries while submerged. The boats without the breathing gear had to periodically surface and as a result were quickly spotted, attacked, and sunk by Allied surface and air patrols.
For several days after 6 June, the snorkel boats were able to do some damage to Allied shipping, sinking three merchant ships and damaging a fourth. And a week after D-Day, a trio of U-boats sank the LST-280 and the frigate HMS Mourne as well as damaged beyond repair a second frigate, HMS Blackwood. Allied patrols, however, were generally effective in preventing the subs from penetrating the immediate area of operations. By mid-July it was clear that the U-boat effort had failed; in all, between June and August the snorkel boats sank 7 escorts, 3 LSTs, and 13 transports, while the Allies destroyed 18 of the submarines.8
The Luftwaffe also failed to mount significant opposition to the invasion build-up. In large part the weak response was due to Operation Pointblank, the U.S. and British preinvasion bomber offensive to attrite the German air force and destroy aircraft-related industries. Moreover, during and after D-Day, the Allies were able to blanket the skies over the Channel and Normandy with U.S. and British warplanes.
The most significant threat to Allied shipping came in the form of oyster mines dropped by German aircraft at night. Set off by the pressure-wave created as a nearby ship moved through the water, the mines sank four destroyers and two minesweepers and damaged 25 miscellaneous vessels in the Utah sector during the first ten days of Operation Neptune. Between 22 and 29 June, oyster mines caused the loss of five warships and four other vessels off the British beaches. Allied minesweepers had a difficult time detonating the bottom-dwelling oysters, and antiaircraft guns were inadequate defense against the mine-laying planes because the area where the explosives could be dropped was so extensive. Only after the Allies broke out of Normandy, forcing the enemy aircraft to operate from airfields and mine depots great distances from the transport area, did the mine problem become negligible.9
Supporting the Advance
After playing a key role on D-Day, the warships of the Allied Expeditionary Force stood by and provided naval gunfire support (NGFS) to Allied ground forces until the troops had advanced out of range. Initially, a number of factors complicated the mission. First, the offshore fire-support areas were extremely congested, which prevented some ships from positioning themselves in the most favorable positions for firing on assigned targets and avoiding shells from enemy batteries.
Second, many ships had difficulty establishing and maintaining contact with their shore fire-control parties. For example, on D-Day the USS Emmons (DD-457) did not hear from her fire-control party, which was due to land at H+30, until she received a brief message at 1930. But then, no further word was heard from the group, although the destroyer repeatedly tried to contact it for two days. The Satterlee (DD-626), on the other hand, reported "uniformly excellent" communications with her ground spotters. "It was as if the Shore Fire Control Party was in our C.I.C."10
Finally, because Allied aircraft observers were initially taking off from English airfields, their on-station time was very limited. This situation, of course, improved as Allies advanced southward and established airfields in France the spotters could use.
Despite these limitations, Neptune's warships did manage to provide dramatic examples of how useful NGFS can be in support of ground force operations. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who commanded the German defenders, reported on 11 June that "the effects of heavy naval bombardment are so powerful that an operation either with infantry or armored formations is impossible in an area commanded by this rapid firing artillery."11
Between 11 and 18 June, the battleship HMS Nelson used her nine 16-inch guns to engage in 20 bombardments against enemy batteries and troop concentrations. On 30 June, German armored vehicles some 17 miles south of Gold Beach came under devastating fire from HMS Rodney's 16-inchers as the British closed down Operation Epsom, one of their failed attempts to capture Caen.12
U.S. Navy ships also actively bombarded enemy positions and forces following D-Day. On 7 June, the USS Nevada (BB-36), Tuscaloosa (CA-37), and Quincy (CA-71) were among the ships that helped U.S. troops advance inland from Utah Beach by shelling enemy-held bridges and German batteries and troops. Meanwhile, other Navy ships battled with remaining enemy guns near Omaha and served as floating artillery for U.S. Rangers south of Point du Hoc.13
In the subsequent days and weeks the Navy supported the U.S. First Army's advance into Normandy's infamous bocage (hedgerow) country, but as the troops pushed southward, they encountered fewer targets suitable for naval gunfire. At the western end of the beachhead, however, were many targets. For days Allied ships dueled with large-caliber German guns ensconced in thick casemates. Moreover, the entire heavily fortified Cotentin Peninsula was within range of naval gunfire, which supported the U.S. VII Corps' drive to seal off and then advance up the landmass. That assistance climaxed on 25 June when the Nevada, Quincy, and Tuscaloosa, as well as the British light cruisers Glasgow and Enterprise and the USS Texas (BB-35) and Arkansas (BB-33) participated in a massive bombardment of Cherbourg. Three days later its defenders capitulated, and the Allies had captured their first deep-water port in France.14
Weathering the Storm
Beginning 18 June, nature proved a much more formidable adversary to Operation Neptune than the German defenders. At midnight that day, the winds picked up to 22 knots, with gusts measuring as high as 32 knots. By the afternoon of the 19th, offload operations were halted as landing craft and small vessels struggled to find shelter. Some made it ashore, but many were smashed against each other. Meanwhile, the Mulberry off Omaha Beach, more exposed to the storm's fury than its British counterpart, started to break up. The commander of a Royal Navy craft that had sought shelter in the American Mulberry described the scene there as "one of unutterable chaos."
The winds finally receded on the evening of 22 June. The next day Allied commanders surveyed the beaches and to their horror found roughly 800 craft of various types driven ashore and either completely wrecked or severely damaged. Off Omaha, losses included 5 LSTs, 1 LSI(H), 13 LCI(L)s, and about 50 LCTs, while one LCT capsized and sank off Arromanches.
The devastation obviously affected offload operations. The Allied navies immediately initiated emergency measures to salvage landing craft. Admirals Ramsay and Kirk concluded that the Omaha Mulberry was unsalvageable and repair efforts should focus on the British artificial harbor. Despite the negative effects of the storm—which, according to one estimate included more than 140,000 tons of supplies not being delivered on time—unloading commenced soon after, and the Allies were able to quickly regain their prestorm offload rate.15
Assessing the Operation
On 24 June (D+18), with the British and American armies firmly established ashore, Operation Neptune drew to a close. That day, postassault chains of command began replacing Neptune's naval hierarchy. Rear Admiral James Rivett-Carnac took control of the entire beach operation on Gold, Juno, and Sword as Flag Officer British Assault Area. Omaha and Utah fell under the command of Flag Officer West Rear Admiral John Wilkes. Offload operations along the beaches, meanwhile, continued unabated. For months, as German forces tenaciously defended and systematically sabotaged French ports, the Allied armies would depend on the beachheads for men, materiel, and vehicles.16
Operation Neptune had undoubtedly accomplished its objectives. Allied ground forces came ashore in France, secured their beachhead, and pushed inland. By 24 June, the navies had landed 715,000 men, 111,000 vehicles, and 291,000 tons of supplies in Normandy. Neptune's successes, however, came at a cost. The Allied navies suffered hundreds of men killed in action throughout the course of the operation and more than 2,000 more wounded. The navies also lost 24 warships and 35 merchantmen, as well as more than 100 vessels damaged.17
Nonetheless, with the successful landing of forces in Normandy and the eventual opening of ports in France, the Allied armies could pursue the war aims originally set down by the Anglo-American Allies in December 1941—to liberate northwestern Europe and defeat Nazi Germany.
1. "Report on Operation Neptune," vol. 2, pp. 185-6, ANCXF Operation Neptune Reports, Joint Forces Staff College Library, Norfolk, VA (hereinafter JFSCL; Christopher Yung, Gators of Neptune: Naval Amphibious Planning for the Normandy Invasion (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2006), pp. 198-201.
2. Yung, Gators of Neptune, pp. 201-2.
3. Brian Schofield, Operation Neptune, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press), p. 119.
4. The Invasion of Normandy: Operation Neptune, Historical Section, COMNAVEU, Administrative History of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, 1940-1946, vol. 5, pp.571-72 (London, 1946), http://www.idiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/rep/Normandy/ComNavEu/ComNavEu-563.html; narrative by Commander John F. Curtain, USNR, CO, Beach Battalion in Operation Neptune, 25 July 1944, http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/rep/Normandy/BeachBn-Curtin.html.
5. The Invasion of Normandy, vol. 5, pp.571-72, http://www.idiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/rep/Normandy/ComNavEu/ComNavEu-563.html; "Beach Organisations for the Invasion of Normandy, 1944," RAF Beach Units, http://www.rafbeachunits.info/html/beach_organisation.html; Yung, Gators of Neptune, pp.142-3; "Report on Operation Neptune," vol.1, p. 71, JFSCL.
6. Max Schoenfeld, "The Navies and Neptune," in Theodore Wilson, ed., D-Day: 1944 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1994), p. 116; Friedrich Ruge, "German Naval Operations on D-Day," in Wilson, ed., D-Day: 1944, pp. 113-14; 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), pp. 174-75.
7. Schoenfeld, "The Navies and Neptune," pp. 116-17; "Human Torpedoes," German U-boat, http://www.uboataces.com/weapon-human-torpedo.shtml.
8. "Report on Operation Neptune," vol.1, p. 14, JFSCL; Yung, Gators of Neptune, 192-3; Jurgen Rohwer, "U-boats," in David G. Chandler and James Lawton Collins Jr., The D-Day Encyclopedia (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), pp. 577-78.
9. Schoenfeld, "The Navies and Neptune", p. 116.
10. "Amphibious Operations: Invasion of Northern France, Western Task Force," 2-17, COMINCH Reports, JFSCL; USS Emmons (DD-457) Action Report, 22 June 1944, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereinafter NARA); USS Satterlee (DD-626) Action Report, 21 June 1944, NARA.
11. S. W. Roskill, The War at Sea, 1939-1945 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961), p. 62.
13. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War (Boston: Atlantic Monthly, 1957), pp. 406-407, Morison, The Invasion of France and Germany, pp. 156-60.
14. Morison, The Invasion of France and Germany, p. 167; Yves Buffetaut, D-Day Ships: The Allied Invasion Fleet, June 1944 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), pp150-53.
15. Morison, The Invasion of France and Germany, pp. 177-78; Commander Kenneth Edwards, Operation Neptune (London, Collins: 1946), quoted in Vice Admiral B. B. Schofield, Operation Neptune (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1974), p. 122; Schofield, Operation Neptune, pp. 122-23.
16. Office of Allied Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force, "Operation Neptune—Naval Orders [ONs],"10 April 1944, ANCXF Operation Neptune Naval Orders, Second World War Operational Archives Shelves, JFSCL, specifically, ON 19 which covers beach operations; Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, The Invasion of Normandy: Operation Neptune, vol. 5, Administrative History of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, 1940-1946 (London: Historical Section, COMNAVEU, 1946), pp. 224-25, http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/Admin-Hist/147.5-ComNavEu/ComNavEu-3.html.
17. Schoenfeld, "The Navies and Neptune," p. 119; Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, The U.S. Navy Medical Department at War, 1941-5, U.S. Naval Administration in World War II, p. 729, http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/Admin-Hist/o68B-Med/068-Med-17.htm; "D-Day and the Battle of Normandy: Your Questions Answered", in D-Day Museum, Portsmouth, UK, http://www.ddaymuseum.co.uk/faq.htm.
'Quite a Few Heated Words'
Hanson W. Baldwin, military editor, The New York Times
[Rear Admiral Alan] Kirk and [Lieutenant General Omar] Bradley and [Rear Admiral John] Hall all met on Omaha Beach on D+3. . . . Bradley was insistent they had to get more Army supplies [ashore], and Hall was sort of angry, and Kirk, you know how decisive he was and almost feisty in insisting that Hall get to it. There were quite a few heated words. I was trying not to listen, to stand out of earshot, but they were standing right next to a row of bodies of American GIs that had been brought down to the beach and covered with ponchos. I always felt this was most dramatic. Here they were, arguing about this, and here the dead are.
Hanson Weightman Baldwin, U.S. Naval Institute Oral History
Naval History & Heritage Command - Haversacks containing C2 explosives are stacked to the left front of this Utah beachmaster command post that featured a blinker light and megaphone, as well as a gasoline generator (background, far left)to power them.
'We Kept Pretty Busy'
Signalman Second Class Paul S. Fauks, USN, 7th Naval Beach Battalion
As soon as we could, we moved from the beach itself to an abandoned German pillbox that had housed an 88-millimeter gun. . . . We stood watches to coordinate ship-to-shore communications and kept pretty busy as the flow of men and supplies being landed grew progressively larger. For example, a blinker-light message might say, "This is LST so-and-so. I'm supposed to land. Would you give me directions which beach to come in to?" And we'd get an answer from the beach people and send it out to the ship. We stayed pretty busy with that, getting a little sleep whenever we could."
"My Only Job Was to Stay Alive" Paul Stillwell, editor, Assault on Normandy: First-Person Accounts from the Sea Services (Naval Institute Press)
Courtesy Richard T. Drew, www.atlantikwall.co.uk; www.normandy1944.org.uk
The Nevada's Penatrating Shot
Able to rain 105-mm shells on Utah Beach, the Azeville Battery was one of the Americans' early targets near the western end of the Normandy beachhead. On the night of 8-9 June, a 14-inch shell from the USS Nevada (BB-36) heavily damaged one of the battery's four casemates. Above: Entering through the front opening in a downward trajectory, it killed the five-man gun crew. The shell then penetrated a thick wall (above right) and ricocheted upward into a plotting room, where it wiped out a second crew. Continuing through a metal machine-gun portal (right), the shell exited the rear of the casemate. The well-traveled projectile was found in 1994, still unexploded.