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The Navy’s Role in the Normandy Invasion
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on July 30, 2018
“Neptune is a joint British – United Stated Operation, the object of which is to secure a lodgment on the Continent from which further offensive operations can be developed.” From top-secret Neptune operation order no. BB-44, May 20, 1944.
Neptune was the British and American operation to transport men and material across the English Channel and land them successfully on the shores of Northern France. Neptune was the naval portion of what is commonly known as Overlord, or just D-Day, and frequently overlooked by historians.
The Navy had to load thousands of ships, organize them into convoys, clear the mines so the convoys could safely reach the French coast, provide the preliminary bombardment of the Nazi defenses, deliver and unload the men and material on the beaches. The training for the landing was a joint Army / Navy task but the Navy was in charge while at sea. It was an enormous task and the planning began almost as soon as the war started. But the original plan was too modest because it was limited by what was possible in 1942. The invasion of Europe did not take place until mid-1944 and by that time the planners knew from previous experience that the original plan was not sufficient. The actual planning for the much expanded operation did not begin until about six months prior to kickoff.
The original plan was for a three division assault. The expanded plan called for a five division initial assault over the beaches with two more divisions to follow later on the same day. So now seven divisions had to be carried across the Channel and delivered to Northern France. To accomplish this the British and American Navy’s required a vast assortment of ships to include many different types of amphibious landing vessels. Arguably the most important of these amphibious ships was the LST, Landing Ship Tank, and because of its importance it becomes a very important character in this story. The versatility of this large craft made it invaluable but its most important function was to ferry shiploads of Sherman's to the beach. No other craft could transport sufficient quantities of tanks in the requisite time.
Neptune was critical to the success of Overlord so “the designation of an overall naval commander was critical.” The man chosen was Admiral Sir Bertram Home Ramsay, hero of the Dunkirk evacuation, and his title was Allied Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force or ANCXF. Both Ramsey and Eisenhower were concerned about the dearth of LSTs available for Neptune but Eisenhower had another operation to consider. Operation Anvil, the invasion of Southern France, was to take place at the same time as Overlord but there were just not enough LSTs. This caused a great row between those who insisted Anvil must take place concurrent with Overlord: Eisenhower and Marshall and those who thought it should not: Ramsey and Churchill. But logistics won, as it must, and Anvil was postponed, but it took four months to resolve.
In the prolog the author says, “…this book illuminates the essential role of allied, and particularly American, war production with a special emphasis on the construction of ships of every kind…Americans learned that there were limits after all on what could be done. There was only so much steel, only so many workers, and only so much time.” Yes, tank production and ship production competed for steel. So, since America and Britain by necessity had to fight an amphibious war a limit would be placed on tanks and different classes of ships would have their production interrupted. This happened to the LST because the destroyer escort was also in critical need. This development, along with the demand from the Pacific Theater, resulted in LSTs being in short supply for Neptune. Because of the shortfall the Overlord invasion was delayed by one month.
But even though the LST was critical to the success of the mission it did need support. The reader learns that the carrying capacity of the LST was needed for the first wave but; due to their value, size and speed; they could not land on the beaches with the first wave. Another craft, the Landing Craft Tank, LCT, was used extensively to transship stores aboard LSTs anchored far offshore and carry them to the beach. The LCT was the principle mover of tanks in the first wave to the beach. The story of this versatile craft is well told by Professor Symonds and he also explains the roll of many of the other amphibious vessels required for the invasion. He really does a great job of describing the differences, capabilities and relative sizes of various amphibious craft.
Weather was a critical player as well, first postponing the invasion another day, making the transshipment and transport of men and material to the beaches very difficult. His story includes the fate of the Duplex Drive tanks that attempted to swim to Omaha Beach and the DUKWs that attempted to bring in much needed artillery.
This is a very big story and Craig Symonds does a very good job of telling it. Besides the planning, the specialized vessels and the training, he covers the principle commanders and the innovative projects designed to ensure success. Each beach had its own naval task group and Symonds provides very nice biographical snapshots of each of the commanders. Symonds includes a brief discussion of the special projects designed to provide long term support to the invading forces: The Mulberry project and PLUTO (pipeline under the ocean).
Professor Symonds also includes a long discussion of Exercise Tiger and the disaster it became at the hands of the Nazis. It was a final full scale practice landing for the Utah Beach forces and it is not often recounted in most histories of the Normandy invasion. Symonds says, “The final death toll from Exercise Tiger was 198 sailors and 441 soldiers killed…more…than died during the actual landings on Utah Beach five weeks later.” The disaster also resulted in the loss of three LSTs. This seemingly trivial number was significant and called for the immediate transfer of three LSTs from the Mediterranean with the promise that they would be replaced with new ships from the States in June. They had just barely enough for the Normandy invasion.
Craig Symonds knows how to tell a complex tale in an informative and understandable manner creating a compelling story for his readers. He relies heavily on oral histories, memoirs and letters of individual soldiers and sailors so the reader fells an intimate connection to history. Very well done and a must read for any student of World War II.