‘The Greatest Amphibious Operation in History’ (and a great naval bombardment)

‘The Greatest Amphibious Operation in History’ (and a great naval bombardment)

24 May 24
Posted by: Cdr Michael Chichester RN
Message from the Editor

From our archives for the 80th Anniversary of D-Day, the Naval Review presents the first of a series of articles on Operation OVERLORD. This article, a retrospective on the preparations and naval bombardment from the perspective of Force E flagship HMS Belfast, was originally published in 1994 [82/2, p. 102], for the 50th Anniversary. A 15 minute read.

For the 10th Cruiser Squadron of the Home Fleet the news that the squadron would form the nucleus of one of the British bombarding forces for Operation OVERLORD was received with excitement and eager anticipation.

For our Admiral (F H G Dalrymple-Hamilton, promoted Vice Admiral on 14.6.44) and his small staff, of which I was a member, it would be a welcome change from operations in cold and inhospitable northern waters. For our flagship, Belfast, it would mean an opportunity to fire her main armament in action in very different circumstances to those in which she had last delivered a 6 inch salvo in action with Scharnhorst in the Battle of North Cape on the previous Boxing Day.

May was a busy month of preparation for the great day. The squadron carried out bombardment practices and the staff were appraised of the plans for the assault on France and the role of the squadron on D-Day. On 10 May HM King George VI began a three day visit to the Home Fleet at Scapa. On his last day the King lunched in Belfast and our Admiral joined the Royal party for their return to London in the Royal Train. On 15 May he attended the historic dress rehearsal for OVERLORD held at St Paul’s School and attended by the King, Prime Minister Churchill, General Eisenhower and all the senior British, American and Canadian officers who would be major commanders for OVERLORD.[1]

On 19 May the Admiral and staff flew from Scapa to Portsmouth in a DH Dragon Rapide of the RN communications flight, breaking our journey at RAF Valley to refuel. We found Hampshire an armed camp with troops in every village, tanks, vehicles and guns in fields and on roadsides, and traffic jams wherever we went. Hambledon I remember particularly; here this scene of military activity extended from the village almost to the Bat and Ball Inn.

The Naval briefing

Next day we attended the final Naval briefing for Operation NEPTUNE at Fort Southwick. A masterly presentation of the naval assault plans by Admiral Ramsay (Allied Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force-ANCXF) and his staff left us astonished by the huge scale of the operation and the complexity of the plan involving, as it did, the cross-channel passage of some 2,700 war and merchant ships manned by 195,000 sailors and carrying the assault load of 130,000 soldiers, 12,000 vehicles, 2,000 tanks and almost 10,000 tons of stores.

The briefing ended with a short address by the Supreme Commander Expeditionary Force, United States General Dwight D. Eisenhower. He made a deep impression. Clearly aware of his immense responsibilities he radiated confidence and inspired us with his sincere exhortation to all of us to do our best in this great enterprise.

After 50 years memories fade and only the most exciting and the most impressive events remain unforgotten. That NEPTUNE briefing was one of the latter and for good reason. We became aware that we were about to play a modest part in one of the most decisive

operations of the war, in short that we would be making history. Then there was the novelty, for Home Fleet ships had never before been involved in a properly mounted assault operation on an enemy held coast. And finally, there was Ike and the realisation that a United States general was the Supreme Commander of a “combined British and United States undertaking by all services of both nations” (Operation Neptune, Naval Orders – Summary).

Although the planning had been British and Britain had provided the sea, land, and air Commanders-in-Chief for the assault, the D-Day landings marked the zenith of the British contribution to the defeat of Germany. By June 1944 the country was reaching the end of its tether, financially exhausted and with its manpower resources stretched to the limit as subsequent historians have explained. Engrossed as we were in the challenge of the task we had been given, we did not realise at the briefing the change in the nation’s strategic capabilities and influence that the presence of General Eisenhower represented. Yet as that campaign in North West Europe developed and the United States contribution began to outweigh our own so decisively, this trend of diminishing power became more and more evident. Yalta was the final proof of our strategic exhaustion.

The plans, the Forces and the approach voyage

Back at Scapa the NEPTUNE operation orders were opened on 25 May and the briefing of our squadron officers began. On 28 May D-Day was signaled as 5 June and the varying H-hours for each assault beach were promulgated. On 31 May Admiral Ramsay issued a Special Order of the Day to the Officers and men of the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force. As each day passed, the excitement rose.

Of all World War II naval historians only Correlli Barnett has paid adequate tribute to the NEPTUNE operation orders which he has rightly described as “A never surpassed masterpiece of planning.”[2] For the bombarding forces the orders listed the ships involved, the assault forces to which they were allocated, their initial pre H-hour targets, anchor berths, times of opening fire and, of course, communications plans for the vital W/T links with Forward Observers Bombardment (FOBs) after they had landed and become operational.

The bombarding squadron under our command consisted of Belfast (Flag), Diadem, Argonaut, and the Netherlands gunboat, HNLMS Flores (3 x 5.9in guns). We assembled in the Clyde from whence we sailed on the evening of 3 June. For the passage south we took under command the cruisers Ajax, Orion and Enterprise all of which were allocated with Flores to Gold Beach. Belfast and Diadem were to bombard shore batteries covering Juno beach. In all the British bombardment force for the assault comprised two battleships (Warspite and Ramillies), one monitor, eleven cruisers, one gunboat (Flores), and 37 destroyers.

With no air or submarine threat the passage south was uneventful. Off Padstow in the early hours of 4 June we received the signal postponing D-Day for 24 hours owing to adverse weather forecasts and were obliged to retrace our steps northwards to achieve a corresponding delay.

Off Lyme Bay on the afternoon of 5 June Belfast was suddenly ordered to proceed into Portland to embark important observers. But hardly had we passed the breakwater when the order was cancelled and we were told to rejoin our force. Later it transpired that these observers might have been none other than HM The King and the Prime Minister, both of whom had been anxious to witness the landings. This well-known story is recounted by Churchill in his War History.[3] Faced with united opposition to a – romantic but somewhat irresponsible project from General Eisenhower, Admiral Ramsay, and later from the King himself, the Prime Minister finally abandoned the idea. But what a fine way it would have been for Belfast to commence her bombardment of France flying not only battle ensigns, as we did, but also the Royal Standard.

By 20:00 we had reached the assembly area south of the Nab Tower (position Z) and soon after commenced our slow cross-channel journey along our designated swept channel. The accurate navigation required was aided by one of the first Decca navigator receivers. This had been fitted in the Clyde to receive signals from the Decca chain which ASRE Haslemere had set up along the south coast for the invasion.

D-Day

As dawn broke Belfast anchored about four miles offshore opposite Juno Beach. There were ships all around us and soon heavily laden LCAs and LCTs were passing ahead and astern enroute to their assault points. Overhead there was much air activity. Since midnight 1,056 bombers had dropped over 5,000 tons of bombs on the shore batteries and communications leading to the beaches. Few direct hits on the batteries were obtained but enemy morale must have suffered severely.

Soon after 05:30 all ships of the bombarding forces, battleships, cruisers, and the many destroyers close inshore opened fire on “their appointed targets, mostly the 23 heaviest shore batteries facing the assault beaches.” They delivered “what was up to the time the heaviest rain of shells ever to be poured on land targets from the sea.”[4]

We were at action stations, at a high state of damage control and readiness and prepared for any eventuality. But throughout D-Day and indeed during our stay in the assault area enemy activity was minimal. On 12 June an aircraft dropped five bombs near Belfast and towards the end of our stay a long range railway gun emerged from its tunnel near Le Havre and opened fire only to be silenced by a few return salvos from Belfast whose gunnery officer, after carefully calculating the likely time the gun would be in the open, had returned fire accordingly.

The greatest threat to surface ships was from ‘oyster’ mines, many of which were laid at night by low-flying Luftwaffe aircraft. To counter this threat it was necessary to move slowly astern whenever shifting berth or leaving the area.

FOBs and BLOs

Every bombarding ship carried a Royal Artillery officer trained in Combined Operations as the Bombardment Liaison Officer (BLO). These officers had joined their ships in May and had taken part in the practice bombardment shoots carried out as part of the intensive pre D-Day work up.

Even more important to the successful use of ships’ gunfire against shore targets were the RA officers similarly trained as Forward Observers Bombardment (FOBs). 42 FOBs landed on D-Day with their teams of naval telegraphists and portable Type 68 MF/HF W/T transmitter/receivers with a range of some 25 miles.

Forward observation was a dangerous game. As we sat comfortably in the Bridge Wireless Office waiting for his calls for fire we could not fail to think of our FOB and his team holed up in a hedge in the bocage on the front line, exposed to the elements, struggling to establish communication with us, and sometimes under mortar fire from nearby German units which had succeeded in locating his transmissions with mobile DF equipment.

Initially on 7 June we had considerable difficulties with our FOB communications but these were gradually resolved and over the period of our stay the success of Belfast’s shoots was due in part to the good work of the FOBs involved and to the skill of their telegraphists. Thus it was gratifying on 21 June to intercept a signal on the Bombardment Calling Wave from FOB 86 to Largs (Force S HQ Ship):

“Extract from interrogation of prisoners of war report for information all ships. Prisoners of war state enemy fear naval gunfire more than any other type of artillery owing to extreme accuracy.”

In all between D-Day and 14 June when we returned to Portsmouth for a few days’ break Belfast fired 1,996 rounds of 6in in the initial bombardment and to answer subsequent calls for fire.

Glimpses of the Land Campaign

Usually embarked in a DUKW provided by our assault force, the Admiral frequently attended meetings and conferences both afloat and ashore at which the progress of the operation was reviewed, problems sorted out, and future plans explained. Fortunately I was sometimes able to accompany him.

On 26 June, a few days after the severe NE gale which had brought all unloading operations to a grinding halt for four days, we were given a tour of the battle area by The Commander, Force ‘S’, to whose area Belfast had moved from Juno on her return from Portsmouth. We visited a German strong point at Douvres which had only recently been captured. Later, we lunched at the field HQ of General Sir Miles Dempsey, GOC British Second Army. This was a tented village well concealed amongst orchard trees and furnished with every conceivable type of mobile command and communications vehicle, caravans and staff cars. With maps and state boards the staff gave us an interesting account of the battle, a fascinating experience for those, like myself, who had never before been involved with land force operations.

On 4 July we were invited to HMS Rodney whose 16 inch guns had been striking terror into the hearts of those Germans unfortunate enough to be at the receiving end of one of her salvos. General Montgomery lunched with the Captain and several Flag Officers. Later, after giving a brief but stirring talk to the ship’s company, he spoke for over an hour to the assembled officers in the wardroom.

This was another unforgettable occasion. In his direct, decisive and staccato style, armed with maps and phase lines, Montgomery explained his master plan for the Allies to break out of the bridgehead and advance to the Seine as soon as sufficient forces had been assembled. It was an impressive performance. Yet during the next few weeks the skill and tenacity of the German defence of Caen, the consequent delay in the capture of that key city, and other unforeseen difficulties necessitated changes in the master plan which in turn led to arguments amongst the senior commanders. Montgomery’s reputation suffered and for 40 years afterwards military historians and analysts were to debate, argue and take sides over his conduct of the battle for Normandy.[5] Little did we know that we were listening to the beginnings of this unfortunate affair.

The last salvos

On 8 July Belfast fired her last salvos at Carpiquet airfield to support troops engaged in the final assault on Caen which took place on that day. Thereafter, the front line moved beyond the maximum range of 6in guns at full elevation which lay along the Caen-Bayeux road to the west of the city. On 9 July we sailed for Portsmouth heartened by a welcome signal from ANCXF:

“To C. S. Ten (R) Belfast, CinC HF

From ANCXF

091720B July

  1. On your withdrawal from Overlord I wish to thank you for the great contribution you have made to the success of the operation both during the assault and since then as Commander of the Bombardment Force.
  1. The arduous service in the Assault Area during the past three weeks has called for endurance and a high standard of vigilance from all in your flagship. The successful bombardments carried out have been of great assistance to the Army.
  1. Goodbye and good luck to you and to Belfast and thank you.”

This signal says it all. Every history of the assault and the Normandy campaign has confirmed the value of naval gunfire support to the army in the heavy fighting round Caen prior to the breakout. It was indeed a great naval bombardment ranking with Algiers (1816), Alexandria (1882), and the Dardanelles (1915). 50 years on it is hard to believe that there will ever again be another one like it.

We sailed back to Scapa Flow satisfied that we had made a worthwhile contribution to the invasion of France. Within a month we were back to our usual task of commanding the escort forces of a convoy to North Russia. For the Home Fleet in 1944 variety was indeed the spice of life.

References

[1] See Decision in Normandy by Carlo d’Este (Collins, 1983) for an interesting account of this conference.

[2] Engage the Enemy More Closely by Correlli Barnett (Hodder & Stoughton, 1991). This is the title of his chapter 25, essential reading for those who wish to understand the RN role in Operation NEPTUNE.

[3] See The Second World War Vol V by Winston Churchill (Cassell, 1952) pp 546-550 for an account of this episode. Churchill records that he had cancelled the plan to embark in Belfast early on 3 June whilst in his mobile HQ in a train at Droxford station so why Belfast was sent into Portland on 3 June remains a mystery.

[4] The War at Sea Vol III, Part 2 by S. W. Roskill (HMSO, 1961) p. 43.

[5] The whole story of this strategic argument is described in Decision in Normandy (Note 1 above).