The Greatest Invasion : Eve of D-day : June 5th, 1944

The Greatest Invasion : Eve of D-day : June 5th, 1944

D-day assault routes into Normandy

On 5 June 1944, after a one-day delay due to weather, 255 minesweepers (mostly British) left ports in southern England, led in a symbolic gesture by the Polish destroyer Orp Slazak (a British destroyer loaned to the Polish navy-in-exile; Poland had been the first country attacked by Nazi Germany). The minesweepers had the vital mission of clearing the extensive German minefields that had been laid in the English Channel. These included contact mines and magnetic influence mines, some with sophisticated ship counters and other countermeasure capabilities.

The minesweepers did this deadly work with extraordinary success, although they were aided by the fact that many German mines in the center of the English Channel had been programmed to sink, as the Germans had expected any invasion in 1944 to take place earlier than June. In addition, the Germans had held back the great majority of their new “Oyster” pressure mines, which would sit on the bottom and wait for a ship of sufficient size to pass overhead and detonate. Nevertheless, there were still thousands of German mines in the water. At 1700, the U.S. minesweeper Osprey (AM-56) struck a mine, which blew a large hole in the forward engine room and caused the ship to sink along with six of her crew. These were to be the first casualties of Operation Neptune, the amphibious assault phase of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France.

After much sometimes-acrimonious discussion between the military leaders of the United States and Great Britain throughout 1942 and 1943, and the risk that the Germans might knock the Soviet Union out of the war (and threats by Soviet dictator Stalin to drop out of the war), the Allies had finally agreed to invade northern France in 1944. The massive troop and logistics buildup necessary to do so was only possible because of considerable British and U.S. Navy success against German U-boats in 1943 and 1944.

The obvious place to invade France was at the Pas de Calais, at the eastern and narrowest part of the English Channel and the shortest distance to Germany. It had the additional benefit of a port (and was the traditional place where cross-channel invasions had been mounted going back centuries). The problem was that this was also obvious to the Germans, who expended great effort to fortify and garrison this section of the French coast. Instead, the Allies chose to invade Normandy, but executed possibly the most extensive operational deception effort in the history of warfare (Operation Fortitude) to convince the Germans that the Pas de Calais was the target.

Normandy was chosen by the Allies because it was not quite as heavily defended as the Pas de Calais, but was not so exposed to German submarine attack, or outside the range of many Allied land-based fighters as a landing in the Bay of Biscay or Brittany, nor as far from Germany as those locations. Nevertheless, there were serious problems with Normandy, especially in that there was no port; the Allies would have to land and quickly move to seize Cherbourg to the west or Le Havre to the east in order to sustain the invasion before the Germans could counter-attack. The beaches of Normandy were also subject to high tidal variations, strong currents, and frequent bad weather.

Surface weather analysis map showing weather fronts on 5 June

 Eventually, five beaches were chosen by the Allies after an extensive intelligence collection effort. This involved the use of joint U.S. Navy–U.S. Army amphibious scouts and raiders, which conducted near-nightly intelligence collection operations, reconnaissance by British X-craft midget submarines, extensive aerial reconnaissance flights (including many flights devoted to the deception effort), radio intelligence (German army and air force enigma machine codes were not as hard to break as the German navy codes), and reporting from the French Resistance inside German-occupied France. U.S. and British bombers generally avoided bombing Normandy so as not to tip the Allies’ hand, instead bombing key rail yards and lines of communication inside France, which would disrupt the German response to the invasion at a cost of many French civilians.

The selected beaches selected were given code names: from west to east, Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Utah and Omaha were assigned to the Americans and Juno to the Canadians. Gold and Sword were assigned to the British. At sea, this distinction was less clear, as there were numerous British vessels operating with the U.S. invasion forces, and some U.S. ships operating with the British-Canadian invasion forces. Of the five beaches, Omaha was clearly recognized as the toughest to take, due to its highly defensible terrain, but failure to do so would leave too large a gap between the American forces on Utah beach and the British and Canadian forces to the east, a gap that the highly capable German army would no doubt exploit.

The German Defense

Actually, the U.S. Navy had significant impact on the German’s defensive strategy. The German chain of command was too convoluted to go into here (but it was one of their big problems). However, German Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, the famed “Desert Fox” of North Africa (a brilliant tactician rather than brilliant logistician), had been given the responsibility for defending northern France from an Allied invasion, sharing battlespace in a confusing way with his superior, Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt.

Rommel reached the conclusion that because of Allied air superiority the invasion would have to be defeated at the beach if it was to be defeated at all. This flew in the face of German doctrine, which stressed mobile armored forces and von Rundstedt preferred; von Rundstedt’s plan was to let the Allies get ashore wherever that might be, and then smash them with a massive, armored assault before they could get their sustainment effort in place.

Rommel had made his reputation in mobile armored warfare and knew well the advantage of such tactics, but he also knew that tanks moving in the open were vulnerable to Allied air power. He wanted the tanks close to the beach, not held in mobile reserve far in the rear. Von Rundstedt countered that the tanks near the beach were vulnerable to Allied naval gunfire, citing the experiences at Gela, Sicily, and Salerno, Italy, where U.S. Navy gunfire had decimated German armored counter-attacks before they could get too close to the beach.

Hitler waffled between the two concepts and kind of split the difference, and Rommel received some armored forces that would be positioned not far from the beaches, while von Rundstedt kept most of the tanks far inland as a mobile reserve. It turned out they were both right: Rommel’s tanks would end up getting pounded by U.S. and British naval gunfire, and von Rundstedt’s would get pummeled by Allied aircraft.

In order to defeat the Allied landings at the beachhead, Rommel determined that the most effective weapons were mines. Extensive fortifications had been built along the entire coast of France, a project termed the “Atlantic Wall” and hyped as impregnable by German propaganda. Although the fortifications were impressive, they were nevertheless spread thin along the coast except in the Pas de Calais area. Rommel understood the Atlantic Wall was not impregnable to battleship gunfire (although it turned out many of the fortifications withstood battleship gunfire reasonably well) and he ordered a massive effort to construct beach obstacles and lay mines; thousands at sea and millions along the beach. It was the mines that would prove to be most deadly to Allied ships, the intense minesweeping effort notwithstanding.

By 1944, the Allies had achieved air superiority over France.

D-Day planning map, used at Southwick House near Portsmouth

The remaining German Luftwaffe fighters of had their hands full defending Germany against around-the-clock Allied strategic bombing. About the only useful contribution of the Luftwaffe during Operation Overlord were night flights to seed the new pressure mines into areas that had already been cleared by minesweepers, although there was no good way to clear pressure mines, except under the “every ship is a minesweeper, once” concept. A number of Allied ships fell victim to these mines. Only two German fighters were noted over the Normandy beaches on D-day and another that night, giving a demonstration of the inaccuracy of anti-aircraft fire as they were fired on by thousands of guns and not hit.

The German navy was not in a good position to do much about an Allied invasion of Normandy either. There were only a handful of German cruisers and destroyers left, and they were not survivable in the face of Allied air power. The most effective German navy weapon was still the U-boat. There were about 36 U-boats based at hardened facilities on the Atlantic coast, but only the nine that were equipped with the new snorkel device (which enabled battery recharging while the submarine was submerged  with only the snorkel above the surface) had any chance of surviving the constant Allied air coverage and numerous escorts of the invasion force.

About 30 German S-boats (Schnellboote—Allies termed them E-boats) armed with torpedoes were based in ports along the north coast of France, including just to the west of the Normandy beaches at Cherbourg and to the east at Le Havre. At Le Havre was a force that included several larger torpedo boats (akin to U.S. destroyer escorts) and a large number of mine warfare vessels (about 40). The German naval defense of northern France (which included naval coastal artillery and anti-aircraft guns along the coast) was under the command Admiral Theodor Krancke, commander of German Naval Group West.

Allied Forces and Organization

Royal Marine Commandos attached to 3rd Infantry Division move inland from Sword Beach, 6 June 1944

Different sources give different sizes for the Allied invasion force, depending on what size vessels are counted and whether only ships present on D-day itself are counted or whether everything involved in the subsequent cross-Channel reinforcement and logistics effort is included. Counting everything that could float (including landing craft carried by other ships) over the course of the entire operation, the number of ships and craft involved exceeded 6,000. In terms of navy warships, the number was much more modest, about 284. This included six battleships (three American and three British,) two British monitors (15-inch guns,) 23 cruisers (only three American units), about 110 destroyers (34 American units), plus a variety of frigates, corvettes, and smaller vessels.

The amphibious force for the invasion included 229 tank landing ships (LST); 911 tank landing craft (LCT) of different varieties, including LCT(A) armored versions; 200 infantry landing craft (LCI) of various types; 36 rocket-armed landing craft (LCT[R]); 481 landing craft, mechanized (LCM), known as “Mike Boats”; and over 1,500 landing craft, vehicle and personnel (LCV,) also generally known as “Higgins boats” after their U.S. designer and builder. (These numbers vary from source to source, but the point is that there were a lot of them.) The LCVP was the basic unit for the invasion, carrying 30 assault troops and their two officers, with a crew of three Navy, or in many cases U.S. Coast Guard, personnel (coxswains and machine gunners).

At the top of the Allied organization for the invasion was supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The overall ground commander was British General Bernard Montgomery and the overall naval commander was Royal Navy Admiral Bertram Ramsey, embarked in the specially configured command ship HMS Largs. The naval force was divided into the Eastern Task Force, under the command of Royal Navy Rear Admiral Philip Vian, embarked on the light cruiser HMS Scylla, and the Western Task Force (TF-122) under the command of Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk, embarked on the heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31).

The senior U.S. Army ground commander for the invasion, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, was embarked on Augusta with Kirk. The Eastern Task Force would execute the British and Canadian landings at Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches, and the Western Task Force would carry out the American landings at Utah and Omaha beaches. The Western Task Force included two major elements. Assault Force O (TF-124) would execute the landing at Omaha beach while Assault Force U (TF-125) would execute the landings at Utah beach. Follow-up Force B (TF-126) embarked follow-up forces for both beaches.

Assault Force O was under the command of Rear Admiral John Hall, embarked on the amphibious command and control ship USS Ancon (AGC-4). Also embarked on Ancon was the commander of the U.S. Army’s V Corps, Major General Leonard Gerow, and the commander of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, Major General Clarence R. Huebner. (The initial assault on Omaha Beach would be executed by the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division and the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division, temporarily attached to the 1st Division.)

The bombardment group for Force O was commanded by Rear Admiral Carleton Bryant, embarked on the battleship Texas (BB-35). The group also included the battleship Arkansas (BB-33), the oldest battleship in the U.S. Navy, the British Royal Navy light cruisers HMS Glasgow and HMS Bellona, the Free French light cruisers Georges Leygues and Montcalm, along with eight U.S. destroyers and three British destroyers. Force O also included a minesweeper group; four assault groups (made up of LSTs and various amphibious craft); an escort group (which also included the destroyers from the bombardment group); a close gunfire support group (made up of amphibious craft armed as gun boats); a far shore service support group; and a shore party group that included the U.S. Navy 6th and 7th Beach Battalions and Navy combat demolition units.

Assault Force U was under the command of Rear Admiral Don P. Moon, embarked on the U.S. Coast Guard–manned amphibious command and control–configured attack transport ship USS Bayfield (APA-33). Also embarked on Bayfield was the commander of the U.S. Army’s VII Corps, Major General J. Lawton Collins, and the commander of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, Major General Raymond Barton. The 4th Division would execute the initial assault on Utah Beach. (Also on Bayfield was Navy Gunner’s Mate Lawrence Berra, later better known as New York Yankees manager “Yogi” Berra, as well as the deputy 4th Division commander, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of President Theodore Roosevelt, who would go ashore on Utah Beach in the first boat of the first wave,  die a month later from a heart attack, and be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.)

The bombardment group for Force U was commanded by Rear Admiral Morton Deyo, embarked on the heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa (CA-37).

The U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37) off the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Pennsylvania (USA), on 10 November 1944. She is wearing Camouflage Measure 32, Design 13D.

The group also included the Pearl Harbor survivor Nevada (BB-36), the new heavy cruiser Quincy (CA-71), the British monitor HMS Erebus, the British heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins, British light cruisers HMS Enterprise and HMS Black Prince, eight U.S. destroyers, two U.S. destroyer escorts, and a Royal Netherlands navy gunboat. Moreover, Force U also had a minesweeper group; two assault group;, an escort group (under the command of Commander William Outerbridge, who, as commanding officer of USS Ward—DD-139—had sunk a Japanese midget submarine outside Pearl Harbor before the Japanese air attack); a far shore service support group; and a shore party that included the 2nd Naval Beach Battalion and Navy combat demolition units.

Navy combat demolition units (NCDU) would play an important role in the D-Day landings, suffering high casualties as a result. Of 175 NCDU personnel, 31 were killed and 60 wounded at Omaha beach and 4 were killed and 11 wounded at Utah Beach. The NCDU teams would be awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for their heroism in the Normandy landings.

First formed in late 1943 and led by Lieutenant Commander Draper Kauffman, NCDUs typically consisted of one junior civil engineer corps officer and five enlisted men, mostly volunteers from the Seabees, although some came from the Marine Corps or Army combat engineers. Normally, they operated from seven-man LCRS inflatable boats. Many accounts refer to them as “frogmen”; however, at Normandy, they operated from boats and on the beach wearing utilities. By the time of the Normandy invasion, 34 NCDUs had been formed in England.

For Operation Neptune, the NCDUs were augmented with three additional sailors with extra explosives in backpacks specially designed to blow the numerous German obstacles on the beach. The NCDUs were then combined with five U.S. Army combat engineers into gap assault Teams (GAT). The scheme was that upon landing in the second wave five minutes after the first, the GATs would start clearing lanes for follow-on amphibious craft to land.

The Navy personnel would clear obstacles to seaward (many of which were mined), while the Army would clear obstacles to landward (also heavily mined). Both Army and Navy GAT personnel were cross-trained to do each others’ work, and, on D-Day, often did. Due to sea state and confusion, some of the GATs actually landed on Omaha beach just before the first wave of assault infantry and met the same fate. Most of the GATs at Omaha didn’t make it to the beach.

The Army assigned two engineer special brigades to Omaha beach and one brigade to Utah beach. The Navy in turn assigned one naval beach battalion to each Army engineer brigade. The 2nd Naval Beach Battalion went ashore at Utah beach and the 6th and 7th Naval Beach Battalions went ashore at Omaha. The purpose of the battalions was to control the beaching of landing craft, clear remaining beach obstacles, quickly survey and map shores, repair damaged landing craft, and they also included medical and communications units.

Map of the invasion area showing channels cleared of mines, location of vessels engaged in bombardment, and targets on shore

Because the casualties in the landings were expected to be very high (even higher than actually proved to be the case), extensive preparations were made to care for the wounded, in which the Navy played a prominent role. Navy physicians and hospital corpsmen were assigned to the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Naval Beach Battalions and went ashore in early waves. Time was of the essence, because the rapidly rising tide would drown any wounded that couldn’t get off the beach on their own. Normandy was a rare case where wounded had to be brought closer to the enemy in order for them to initially survive.

Many of the LSTs, LCTs, and attack transports (APA) were specially configured to care for wounded. Of the U.S. LSTs, 106 of 144 had some additional medical capabilities, and 54 of them had been specially converted to handle as many as 200–300 casualties on the return trip. In addition to their normal crew and equipment, these LSTs had 147 litters in tiers, as well as a medical staff of two Navy physicians, one Army surgeon, two Army operating room technicians, and 40 Navy hospital corpsmen.

The actions of the Navy medical teams on the beach and on the LSTs were responsible for saving very many lives. The cost was high. On Omaha beach, 3 Navy physicians and 30 corpsmen were killed, while on Utah beach 1 physician and 7 corpsmen died. The Navy medical personnel would be awarded two Navy Crosses, five Silver Stars, twelve Legions of Merit, and 23 Bronze Stars. The Navy corpsmen and Army medics were known as the “bravest of the brave,” repeatedly exposing themselves to withering fire, including being deliberately targeted by German snipers.

Naval shore fire control parties, usually consisting of a naval officer, an army artillery officer, and a radioman, were assigned to go ashore in the early waves to enable naval gunfire support. Some of these teams also jumped with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions behind German lines during the pre-dawn hours, and at least one team climbed up Point du Hoc with the Army Rangers. Many of the teams never made it to shore, and those that did at Omaha beach were pinned down by heavy enemy fire and unable to establish radio contact with the supporting bombardment ships—most radios had been lost in the surf or their operators killed. Those with the airborne troops were able to call in a number of long-range naval fire support missions; in one case, fire from the cruiser Quincy obliterated a battery of deadly German 88-mm anti-tank guns.

Four squadrons of Royal Navy Seafires (operating from shore under Royal Air Force control) and five squadrons of Royal Air Force Spitfires and Mustangs provided airborne gunfire spotting during the invasion, operating in pairs (one to spot, the other to defend against German fighters) and flying in relays due to the short endurance of the Spitfires. The observation/spotting aircraft embarked on the U.S. battleships and heavy cruisers were deemed too vulnerable to German air attack and anti-aircraft fire, and were off-loaded.

However, 17 of the Navy observation squadron (VOS) pilots volunteered to quickly learn to fly the Spitfire Mk. V as part of a hastily formed squadron, VOS-7 (training was provided by the U.S. Army Air Force 67th Reconnaissance Group). VOS-7 pilots flew about 200 (one source says 191, another 209) combat sorties on 6 June 1944, providing gunfire spotting over the American beaches. This was severely hampered initially by cloud cover, smoke, and haze. Nine of the VOS-7 Spitfires were shot down and one pilot from Tuscaloosa was killed when his Spitfire was downed by flak; the other pilots survived. Four VOS-7 pilots survived encounters with German fighters. The VOS-7 pilots were awarded nine Distinguished Flying Crosses and eleven Air Medals. VOS-7 was immediately disbanded after the invasion, making it probably the shortest-lived U.S. Navy squadron, and the only one to fly British Spitfires.

The Greatest Invasion : Eve of D-day : June 5th, 1944

Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

Back To News

USS Wisconsin (BB-64) WisKy A History of the Iowa Class Last American Battleship