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Normandy, The Sailors’ Story: A Naval History of D-Day and the Battle for France

14 May 24

433 pages

Andy Field

Nick Hewitt is well qualified to write this book, having previously worked for the Imperial War Museum, before briefly being responsible for MGB-81, Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust’s restored Operation NEPTUNE veteran, and having worked with the National Museum of the Royal Navy. He also took a leading role in the restoration of another NEPTUNE veteran,  LCT-7074, the last, remaining Landing Craft (Tank), rescued from an ignominious end at the bottom of a Birkenhead dock and now the proud centrepiece of ‘The D-Day Story’ museum, at Portsmouth.

Inevitably, and rightly so, there seems to be a lot of interest in D-Day, in this, the 80th Anniversary year and on the flyleaf, readers are informed that Nick Hewitt has produced “…..The first account of the Normandy campaign to show the Navy’s vital – but all too often overlooked – contribution to Allied success…..”. Maybe not the first, as Nick Hewitt acknowledges by referring to both Commander Kenneth Edwards’ 1946 account of Operation NEPTUNE, and Vice Admiral Schofield’s 1974 account (republished in paperback this year, edited by Victoria, Schofield’s daughter). In 1944, Schofield commanded HMS Dryad, for a time the home of SHAEF and was at the centre of unfolding events.

If not the first, then probably a more comprehensive overview. Of Schofield’s book, for example, Nick Hewitt states that whilst Schofield wrote eloquently of the scale of the naval effort, he could not mention ULTRA, or fully explore all of the deceptive ploys, at the time of writing. Consequently, both his work and Edwards’ ended up playing down the risks associated with the naval campaign, ‘The Battle of the Seine Bay’, as Nick Hewitt prefers to call this naval campaign. Hewitt aims to show that this was not all plain sailing, not one day of tension, but many, and that the sailors involved were not merely taxi drivers and freight haulers but played a full and active part in the Allied assault on Europe, facing dangers and risking death to ensure the success of the invasion. I feel that he has admirably succeeded in this.

Let me get my gripes out of the way first. Only two, minor ones that I spotted, (HMS Argonaut was not a sister to HMS Ajax as suggested on page 53, and the LCM, not the LCVP was the craft capable of carrying a tank, as I seemed to read, on page 69), and neither detracted from the overall narrative.

Nick Hewitt’s book starts with a Prologue: the sinking of the Norwegian destroyer, Svenner, at 05.02 hrs on 6th June 1944. Subsequent chapters start with ‘The Long Road Back: Returning to Europe May 1940-August 1943’ and ‘Owning the Channel: Operations in Home Waters, January 1943-June 1944’. In these, and subsequent chapters, Nick Hewitt takes care to clearly make the point that Operation NEPTUNE was a tremendous undertaking and the entire operation, from start to finish, provided an insight into inter-Allied tensions and co-operation, long before 1944.

Shipyard and dockyard workers had to produce the landing craft of all types, an effort that stretched even American resources. (As an aside, and an example of the scale of this effort, last year I learned that workers in the inland city of Denver, Colorado, played their part, producing sections of landing ships, which were then transported, by rail, to the Californian coast to be assembled.)

Allied sailors risked their lives to ensure success, and were doing so, escorting, and sailing in convoys long before the first landing craft left the UK for the assault on Europe. There was no point in ferrying the troops, tanks, other vehicles, guns, and supplies across the Atlantic if there were not going to be sufficient landing craft to carry them to France. Producing the myriad of assault craft and war materials was pointless if there were not enough ‘Liberty’ ships to carry them across the Atlantic but building large numbers of ‘Liberty’ ships was a waste of resources, if they were just going to be sunk by U-Boats. So there needed to be sufficient escorts and VLR aircraft, manned by trained crews, to protect them and defeat the U-Boats. So, although Nick Hewitt wants to highlight the role of navies and sailors in ensuring the ultimate success of the invasion, he includes the contributions made by the Home Fleet, Coastal Command and Bomber Command, as well as the other ‘unsung heroes’, the “Backroom Boys and Girls”, those service personnel involved in the planning, intelligence and deception associated with ensuring the invasion was successful.

Nick Hewitt also highlights the difficulties faced in ensuring a successful invasion, including building, or converting enough suitable assault and support craft, including Thames barges, as floating kitchens, and repair craft, and providing sufficient sailors to man them, and ensure that they kept on supplying the armies ashore long after the initial assaults. Beach parties, demolition teams and bombardment ships, from the humble Landing Craft (Gun) to battleships all played their parts, whilst destroyers, frigates, MTBs and MGBs all worked to keep enemy attacks on the beachheads at bay.

The invasion itself is covered through five chapters, which detail the crossing, the American landings at ‘Utah’ and ‘Omaha’, the Anglo-Canadians landings on ‘Gold’ and ‘Juno’, ‘Sword’ and the follow-up waves and the challenges building up the logistics to support the armies ashore. The final three chapters cover the naval efforts to guard the Bay, the battle for Cherbourg and the final German efforts to inflict damage on the invasion fleets, using their small attack craft.

‘The Battle of the Seine Bay’ involved Allied sailors until September 1944, when the capture of Le Havre and Boulogne gave the Allies some proper ports to use, but only once they were cleared of obstructions and booby-traps, something that would take most of the winter to achieve. Nick Hewitt writes that, “…..Mulberry ‘B’, Omaha Beach and Cherbourg remained significant supply hubs…but they were no longer in the front line…after weeks of effort and sacrifice by Allied sailors to support their military comrades fighting in Normandy, the Seine Bay had become a backwater…..”

I think that Nick Hewitt has produced a worthy and comprehensive addition to the many and varied books on D-Day, and from a different perspective. By naming the campaign ‘The Battle of the Seine Bay’, he has elevated the importance of the naval contribution and the significance of the sailors’ contributions to the liberation of Europe.

In addition, Yale University Press are to be congratulated for producing such an informative, well-illustrated and reasonably priced hardback book. Without hesitation, I would recommend this book to members of The Naval Review.