The Gallant Destroyers of D-Day

By Thomas B. Allen

All artwork courtesy of the Naval Historical Center

On D-Day, as men were landing and dying on the Normandy beaches, destroyers were fighting another battle, seared in the memories of survivors. They and their lost shipmates were the seafarers of D-Day, veterans not only of the invasion's Operation Overlord but also of Operation Neptune, the code name for the battle's naval and amphibious actions.

D-Day is always the story of brave men struggling across beaches and then fighting their way inland. Another story, however, was unfolding at sea. At least 200 ships and landing craft sank off the beaches. 1 Among them were three U.S. destroyers and three British destroyers, including one manned by Norwegian officers and crew. The losses began on D-Day, 6 June 1944, and continued into July.

Among the nearly 7,000 ships, boats, and amphibious craft of Operation Neptune were 34 U.S. destroyers and destroyer escorts. 2 Many of the destroyers had begun their D-Day mission escorting the battleships and cruisers that would bombard the Normandy coast from several miles off shore. Newsreel coverage of D-Day inevitably began with the thundering barrages of the big guns, while overhead, waves of Allied aircraft headed for Normandy to pulverize what Adolf Hitler called the Atlantic Wall, "impregnable against every enemy."

Combat artist Shepler recorded this pre-invasion scene of a destroyer gunnery officer briefing gun director crews and main battery gunners with elaborate charts that targeted the enemy's 88-mm gun emplacements overlooking the Normandy beaches. 

Allied strategists believed the wall's fortifications could be destroyed by naval bombardment and aerial bombings. A briefing officer in England, describing the expected results, said, "Every grain of sand will be turned over twice before the first wave hits the beach." 3 But the naval bombardment was aimed at inland targets. The aircraft had dropped their bombs far beyond the beaches because clouds obscured targets, compounding fears of hitting Allied troops on the beach. 4

"Up to within a few hundred yards of the water's edge," says an official history, "there was every reason to hope that the enemy shore defenses might have been neutralized. Then, many of the leading craft began to come under fire from automatic weapons and artillery, which increased in volume as they approached touchdown." 5

The German shore batteries had not been silenced. Off Utah Beach, they zeroed in on the Fitch (DD-462) and Corry (DD-463), beginning the battle of the D-Day destroyers. The ships were to run parallel to the beach and then, concealed behind a smoke screen, begin closer-in bombardment support. But the aircraft that was to lay the smoke was shot down, leaving the Corry exposed. The Fitch claimed "first shot fired at Normandy" by opening fire with her 5-inch guns at 0535. (Officially, the first shot [at 0537] came from the heavy cruiser Quincy [CA-39] when she responded to fire from a German shore battery.) The Corry also started firing her guns, getting off 400 rounds as she zigzagged through huge splashes marking near-misses. Some shells hit. One sent a piece of shrapnel slicing into a gunner's shoulder. He made his way into the wardroom, where Lieutenant (junior grade) Howard A. Andersen, the medical officer, had set up an aid station.

Left: The night before H-Hour, Shepler captured in art pathfinders dropping red and green markers in advance of Canadian Minesweeping Squadron 31, supported by the U.S. destroyers Emmons and Doyle , which cleared a bombardment support lane to the Normandy coast. 

On the Fitch , Quartermaster Third Class Robert E. Powell was at his battle station—"sky lookout." He saw Germans firing small arms at the ships. On a telephone he heard someone ask, "How are the Germans doing?"

"Oh, they are doing lousy," said a confident seaman on the bridge. "They're shooting, but they aren't coming anywhere near us."

Just then a large-caliber shell exploded near the Fitch , sending up a geyser. The ship began evasive maneuvering at high speed. Looking down, Powell "could see the shells hitting the water where we would have been if we had not made a turn." 6

Nearly 300 minesweepers had cleared paths for the ships and craft carrying the men to the five invasion beaches: Omaha and Utah for the American forces, Sword and Gold for the British, Juno for Canadians. But there were still mines. At 0633 the Corry struck one of them. 7

Lieutenant Andersen was thrown against a wardroom bulkhead. He got up, saw that the ship was in two parts—"held together only by the superstructure"—and set up a dressing station on the remains of the deck. He and his two corpsmen worked on the injured and got them into a lifeboat and a raft. Only minutes had passed. The water was knee-deep on deck. The captain, Lieutenant Commander George Dewey Hoffman, ordered abandon ship. Lieutenant Paul Garray went over the side after grabbing the Corry 's flag. Andersen, about to be second-to-last man off the ship, mentally noted that the water was probably 52° Fahrenheit, which meant men in the water could last about two hours. 8 Hoffman, the last to leave the ship, saw more splashes. Germans were still shelling his men. And some would be in the sea beyond Andersen's grim two-hour estimate.

Five men in the forward boiler room went down with the ship. At least ten of the men who got off the sinking ship died of what Corry survivors call "enemy gunfire." A torpedoman, hurled into the sea by the explosion, was never seen again. 9

Nearby destroyers—the Fitch and the Hobson (DD-464)—simultaneously had to fight and save. While firing back at the Germans from one side of the ships, from the other side they rescued. Some survivors were pulled out of the sea by one of the torpedo patrol (PT) boats assigned to Neptune. The PT captain was Lieutenant Commander (later Vice Admiral) John D. Bulkeley, who had received the Medal of Honor for evacuating General Douglas MacArthur from Corregidor on 12 March 1942. 10

Off Sword Beach, where British forces were landing to seize Ouistreham, a port on the River Orne, two German Schnellboote (in English, fast boats)—called E Boats by the Allies—suddenly appeared. Each fired a torpedo. One passed within a few yards of the Royal Navy destroyer Swift and sped on to hit the Svenner , a British destroyer loaned to Norway (at the time still occupied by Germany) and manned by a Norwegian crew. She broke in half. The Swift' s captain, ignoring orders, went to pick up about 100 survivors, then returned to the station off Ouistreham. (The Swift sank on 24 June with a loss of 44 of her crew; she probably was sunk by a mine activated when a sister ship ahead of her passed over it.) 11

Right: Courtesy of the Naval Historical Center and the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division.

For a while, destroyers followed their Neptune orders, firing on specific targets. "We started lobbing shells on schedule and in our designated areas," Donald C. Derrah of the Shubrick (DD-639), off Utah Beach, remembers. "As the shelling rose in intensity, the area became obscured in heavy clouds of smoke. Only ten minutes of this and we slacked our fire for observation."

The Shubrick resumed firing, but the shells kept coming closer, fired by a German gun that could not be targeted. A Higgins boat came alongside and asked the Shubrick to take aboard men who had been hit on the beach. Again, a destroyer fought and rescued. As the wounded were being transferred, spotters saw:

[A] flash which we believe is from the battery that is after us. We just get on him—set up the problem—when Wham! . . . He has our range now and is getting pretty close. . . . Our lookouts counted the splashes near us and judge that there are about 11 guns that are firing at us. . . . Both of us are putting out a lot of fire after six or seven more salvos and we cease firing to let the smoke and debris clear away. When it cleared, they started to fire again. So did we. From later reports that we got, we did a good job. 12

The Emmons (DD-457) had started the day escorting minesweepers, clearing a path to Omaha Beach. She was about 3,000 yards offshore and waiting to begin her shore bombardment, ordered for 0550, when a German gun opened fire. Shells straddled the destroyer. She returned fire, momentarily silencing the Germans. Then she became floating artillery.

The troops were in trouble on Omaha. Many tanks and artillery pieces, expected to give the infantrymen covering fire, had not made it to the U.S. beaches. The Neptune plan had to be changed. Destroyers were ordered to risk grounding by steaming close to shore and firing their 5-inch guns as supporting fire for the men on the beach. The Emmons and other fire-support destroyers sailed as close as 1,000 yards from the beaches. (Historian Samuel Eliot Morison puts the destroyers within 800 yards of Omaha Beach.) 13 Another close-in destroyer, the Jeffers (DD-621), was shelling a German position when the shrapnel of a near-miss wounded five of her crew. 14

The Emmons lost contact with her shore-fire control party. Not knowing whether the men had been killed, wounded, or captured, her gunners shot at whatever looked like a good target. A spotter saw some German naval troops marching down Port en Bessin's main street. She sprayed them with her 40-mm battery, sending them scattering. The Carmick (DD-493) aided tanks that made it ashore on Omaha. As the tanks were trying to fight their way toward an exit called the Vierville draw, Carmick spotters watched for bursts along the edge of the bluff and used these bursts as targets, figuring that whatever U.S. tanks were aiming at was worth shooting at from a U.S. ship. 15

Jutting over the Omaha Beach landscape was a landmark that showed on the D-Day maps as the Colleville sur Mer steeple. The commander of the fire support group, believing the steeple was a German observation post, designated it a new target. The Emmons demolished it. 16 Navy gunners, aided by the highly classified top secret Bigot maps, knocked out eight gun emplacements covering Omaha Beach exits. Firing over the heads of troops, a destroyer silenced an 88-mm gun by putting two rounds through the gun shield. 17
 

  
Sometime, probably on the night of D-Day, German aircraft dropped mines along the beaches. About 0800 on 7 June the troopship Susan B. Anthony hit a mine and sank. On board were more than 2,000 soldiers heading for the invasion beaches. U.S. and British ships saved every man. Transferred to landing craft, they all got to the beaches.
23 That same day, the minesweeper Tide (AM-125) struck a mine. The explosive force lifted her out of the water and broke her hull open. She sank in minutes. 24

Off Utah on 8 June, when the Glennon (DD-620) hit a mine, the Rich (DE-695) headed for her to offer assistance. Informed that no assistance was needed, the Rich pulled away. Suddenly, a mine exploded about 50 yards off her starboard beam, knocking out her power. A second mine tore off a 50-foot section of her stern. A third explosion, probably a third mine, shattered through the sinking ship. Seaman Second Class Edwin B. Black, badly injured, thought he was going to die. His cousin, Carlie Black, though wounded himself, led his cousin Ed to the edge of the deck and helped him over the side and onto a life raft. Carlie and Ed were among the few crewmen who survived. Carlie later died of his wounds, one of at least 89 men who were lost. Ed Black has been working for decades to account for all of the 229 men of the Rich, but he still does not know the exact death toll. 25

The crew of the Glennon , assisted by other ships, tried for two days to save the tin can. Then, on the morning of 10 June, German artillery fire opened up on her. Finally abandoned by her loyal crew, that night the Glennon capsized and sank. During her own death throes, 25 members of her crew died. 26

More than a month after the Corry went down, two U.S. minesweepers, both veterans of D-Day, still were finding mines. Because they had wooden hulls, the minesweepers were safe from magnetic mines but not acoustic mines. On 30 July, Stan Broilo was eating breakfast in the galley of the minesweeper YMS-304 when "something blew me up to the ceiling. I couldn't move. My back was broken. The next thing I knew, two guys were getting a lifejacket on me. Then they dragged me and just walked off the ship. They didn't have to jump."

Someone in a British rescue boat pulled Stan out of the water. The YMS-378 also came alongside, even though she too had struck a mine. A French fishing boat hauled two other crewmen out of the water. Rescuers saved 36 of the 42 men on the YMS-304. Broken in half, she sank in a little more than a minute. The YMS-378 also sank, and her crew was saved by an intact minesweeper, the YMS-381. 27

Of the many gallant destroyers at D-Day, the Laffey (DD-724) survived the guns, mines, and torpedoes of Normandy and proved almost impossible to sink. On 16 April 1945, however, she was steaming on radar picket duty northwest of Okinawa when her radar operators counted 50 Japanese kamikaze suicide aricraft closing on her from every quarter of the compass. In 80 minutes, during 22 separate attacks, the Laffey was strafed and hit by six kamikazes and four bombs. Another bomb was a near-miss, and a seventh kamikaze splashed close aboard. When the last attack ended, she was on fire, down by the stern, and her rudder was jammed. Thirty-one of her crew were dead and another 72 wounded. Still, the Laffey remained afloat. She was towed away for temporary repairs that enabled her to steam under her own power back to the United States, where she was rebuilt. She sailed through the end of the Pacific War and survived to fight in the Korean War. 28

Mr. Allen is the author of many articles and books on a vast array of subjects, ranging from exorcism to espionage. Much of his work has appeared in National Geographic Magazine and Smithsonian, and he has written for Naval History , including "What Really Sank the Maine," in the February 1998 issue and "'Flags' at Midway" in June 2002.



   1. "Untold Stories of D-Day," National Geographic Magazine , June 2002, p. 21. back to article
   2. Norman Polmar and Peter Mersky, Amphibious Warfare (London: Blandford Press, 1988), p. 88. back to article
   3. Edward F. Prados, ed., Neptunus Rex, Naval Stories of the Normandy Invasion (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1998), p. 170. back to article
   4. Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994) p. 183; Gordon A. Harrison, Cross-Channel Attack (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1993), p. 301. back to article
   5. Omaha Beachhead (6 June-13 June 1944), American Forces in Action Series, Historical Division, War Department (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, Facsimile Reprint, 1984), pp. 35-87. back to article
   6. Prados, Neptunus Rex , pp. 48-49. back to article
   7. Information on the Corry is based on interviews with survivors and the ship's battle report. back to article
   8. Prados, Neptunus Rex , pp. 52-55. back to article
   9. The Corry lost 24 men. The fate of the crew has been scrupulously investigated and recorded by Grant Gullickson, better known as Gully, who served as a chief machinist's mate. He also became president of the reunion association, whose meetings are watched over by the Corry 's flag. back to article
  10. Prados, Neptunus Rex , p. 55. back to article
  11. "Untold Stories of D-Day," National Geographic Magazine , June 2002, p. 21; Internet Web site, http://www.eurosurf.com/hmsswift/ . back to article
  12. Internet Web site, http://www.ussshubrick.com/ . back to article
  13. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Invasion of France and Germany 1944-1945 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1957) p. 152. back to article
  14. Tin Can Sailor , October-November-December 2000, p. 19. back to article
  15. Internet Web site, see link . back to article
  16. Internet Web sites, http://www.geocities.com/bristolclass/emmonshist.html ; http://www.history.navy.mil/ac/d-day/d-day5.htm . back to article     
  17. Col. E. A. Livingstone, USA (Ret.), letter to the editor regarding Stephen Ambrose, "Normandy: Why and How?" Naval History , June 1995, pp. 4-5. back to article
  18. "Untold Stories of D-Day," National Geographic Magazine , June 2002, p. 5. back to article
  19. Tin Can Sailor , October-November-December 2003, p. 11. back to article
  20. Talley's message book with this message is in the Museum of the Invasion at Arromanches, France. back to article
  21. Internet Web site, http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-m/dd726.htm . back to article
  22. Bertrand Sciboz, French diver and underwater mapping expert. back to article
  23. "Untold Stories of D-Day," National Geographic Magazine , June 2002, p. 13. back to article
  24. Internet Web site, http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/t5/tide.htm . back to article
  25. Interview with Edwin B. Black; See Edwind B. Black, The Last Voyage of the USS Rich , vols. I and II (Pembroke: NC, 1999, 2000). back to article
  26. Internet Web site, http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-g/dd620.htm . back to article
  27. Internet Web site, http://www.ussyms425.com/minewar.htm lists two YMS ships sunk by mines on 30 July 1944; Interview with Brolio, action report, and captain's narrative. back to article
  28. Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar, Code-Name Downfall (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) pp. 104-105. back to article

 

Thomas B. Allen is well known for his writing about the intersection of espionage and military history, including George Washington, Spymaster.

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