A few hours after the decision to launch ‘Operation Overlord’, the invasion fleet was in final preparations to slip out to sea. The convoys of ships laden with troops, along with their powerful escorts, concentrated off the Isle of Wight and then turned south along channels that had been swept clear of mines. The naval assembly area just south of the island was fittingly named “Piccadilly Circus”.
The crossing was accomplished without serious loss or interference by the Enemy, whose air and sea patrols had been cancelled because of the bad weather. The leading minesweepers came within sight of the French coast early in the evening of 5th June. Manned midget submarines were used to guide shipping to the correct beaches, although adverse weather and sea conditions limited the success of this part of the plan.
Troop ships had been loaded for several days, with over 150,000 men in readiness for the crossing. From Falmouth in the West through to the Thames Estuary in the East, thousands of ships of all sizes waited at readiness for the order.
Although several United States warships were used, notably the older battleships, USS Nevada & USS Arkansas, it was the Royal Navy which bore the brunt of D-Day operations. In total over 4,000 ships and a further 3,000 light crafts took part in what was the largest seaborne invasion of all time.
Naval Combatant Vessels
Landing Ships & Craft
Ancillary Ships & Craft
The Fleet opened fire at around 0530 on the early morning of 6th June. It was the Heavy Cruiser, HMS Belfast, which fired first; its target was the battery at
The heavy warship remained off the Normandy coast well into July when she retired with gun barrels worn. Soon following this lead, the Battleships turned broadside to the coast and let loose their main armament against coastal defences.
“On 4th June we loaded up with tanks, lorries and troops of the 3rd British Division and anchored off the Forts in Portsmouth waters. The rest of the 3rd Flotilla LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) assembled nearby, but weather was stormy. We were briefed that we were to be part of the assault on the French coast, only to be told later of a 24 hour delay due to bad weather.
“After a frustrating night & day at anchor, the weather abated enough and on the evening of 5th June we were on our way. The flotilla set off around midnight, along with many other craft of all sizes. As dawn broke we were one of many landing craft waiting off Sword Beach.
“The naval bombardment began with a deafening noise as HMS Warspite, HMS Ramillies and HMS Roberts opened fire with their 15" guns, ranging at enemy emplacements on-shore. LCTRs launched rockets with further bombardment from cruisers, HMS Mauritius, HMS Arethusa, HMS Danae and HMS Frobisher; these were all closer to shore as they fired their 6" main armament.
“Following this heavy bombardment, the troops began landing at about 0730 and we laid offshore until there was room to discharge our troops, tanks and lorries. Once we had offloaded, we stayed on the beach all day and overnight loading the tank deck with wounded soldiers on stretchers to take them back to Blighty. All hands did what they could to help.”
It was later reported that HMS Ramillies had carried out the fiercest and most effective shore bombardment ever known by a battleship. During the early hours of 8th June, HMS Ramillies with HMS Rodney & HMS Mauritius alongside all opened fire together with broadsides directed at enemy tanks, motor vehicles and infantry grouped in woodlands.
“We went to Action Stations at 2130 on Monday 5th, all wondering for how long…once in position off the French coast we opened fire with the main armament of 15 inch guns ranged at a shore battery of 6" artillery. During the morning we were attacked by torpedoes from an enemy destroyer and beat off several E-boat attacks. One of our escort destroyers was sunk with all hands. There were air attacks from enemy bombers, FW190s and ME109s.
“Friday 9th – About 3am we saw Rodney open up with its 16" main armament. What an awe inspiring sight! At one stage the following day Ramillies, Rodney & Mauritius were firing broadsides all together. This was at a woodland area inland where enemy tanks, guns, infantry and motor vehicles were grouped.”
On 12th June HMS Warspite was obliged to return to Portsmouth for replacement of gun barrels which were seriously worn. Despite being severely damaged by a mine off Harwich, this most famous Battleship returned to Normandy in August for further support of land actions - this time off the coast of Brest.
By 18th June the 36,000 ton battleship, HMS Ramillies, had fired over 1,000 shells from its 15" main armament, each shell weighing nearly 1 ton.
Other supporting battleships were HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson.
“As we went about our job on the LST, there were several enemy air raids and we came under shell fire from heavy artillery inland. We made more trips back & forth to various beaches carrying reinforcements and provisions. Each time we returned to Portsmouth we carried wounded laid out on the deck on stretchers, and sometimes we took Prisoners of War.”
Manpower demand for Operation Neptune was so high that several older capital ships were taken out of service to release an additional 45,000 personnel over and above normal ships’ compliments.
This was for manning requisitioned Merchant Navy vessels used as troop carriers and to manage the hundreds of amphibious landing craft in use.
Those able to record experiences declared it an awe-inspiring sight to see these capital ships light up as they unleashed such devastating firepower. Troopships heading for the landing beaches could closely witness the massive firepower softening enemy defences, then ranging deeper inland as the beach heads became established.
By the end of the first day, HMS Ramillies returned to Portsmouth to re-ammunition. Defending German forces remained unaware of the vast armada approaching them until thousands of throbbing engines were heard offshore at about 0200 hours on the morning of D-Day. On the British beaches, the surf was very rough and a number of landing craft were lost.
American Forces landing on Omaha & Utah beaches lacked landing craft, so much of the essential transport was provided and manned by the Royal Navy.
One of these seamen recalled: “As we got nearer, shells were exploding in the water and as the ramp came down just short of the shoreline, machine gun fire cut the men to pieces. Most never got more than a few yards from the ramp.”
As the GIs became locked down on Omaha Beach, it was the Destroyer USS Emmons which came in close to shore near Pointe du Hoc and engaged the heavy defences overlooking the crowded beach. Despite being ordered to disengage to protect itself, the Destroyer remained engaged and helped to reverse the fortunes of the situation on Omaha.
“In the early hours of 6th June we proceeded to disembark from the transport into six 30ft LCAs. We had been on this transport for quite a few days because they had rescheduled the Invasion from 5th to 6th. As a result of the cramped quarters and the rough seas, most of the men were already seasick. Once all our boats were loaded, we proceeded to form up for the twelve mile run into our assigned sector of Omaha Beach.
“We were like a cork in a bathtub. Everyone who was not already sick became sick. On the way towards the beach we lost two boats which were simply swamped by the high waves. The coxswains of the four remaining boats became disoriented; this was mainly due to the loss of the patrol boat which was supposed to ensure we were on the correct course for our assigned area. Also, the beach was covered in haze and smoke from the earlier heavy bombardment.
“As we neared shore the strong current forced our boats off course, taking us about two miles to the West. By the time we re-traced our proper course we saw that the two rifle companies which were supposed to land on our right flank at ‘Easy Red’ had actually landed on our beach which was identified as ‘Fox Green’. Their landing craft had the beach fouled, so we were unable to land. After circling around off the beach like sitting ducks, we finally made our run in. By this time the Germans had the beach under heavy fire.”
“After landing craft training in Scotland, mainly around Troon and Isle of Arran, we moved down to Plymouth to await D-Day. Part of three flotillas, we set out on 5th June. There were 12 craft in each flotilla, each carrying nine Sherman tanks; so that’s a total of 324 tanks along with their crews. Our top speed was 8 knots and we were heading for Omaha Beach.
“We arrived off the beach at dawn on D-Day 6th June – three flotillas in lines of 12 LCTs each. HMS Ceres was in charge of British Forces at Omaha; they signalled our leading officer to turn in single file and prepare to beach. I passed this message down the line and all craft turned in as ordered. I was on the last craft in the third line; we were the first to beach and landed the tanks and crews safely. There was a lot of heavy gunfire, mainly between shore batteries and the Royal Navy & US Navy ships behind us. We withdrew from the beach and made our way back to Plymouth with about six other craft. One behind us was sunk by gunfire and one to port was torpedoed by an E-Boat; it didn’t sink but looked like a floating scrapyard! We went to Portland to reload, taking on another nine Shermans with crews.
“We headed straight back to Omaha but hit stormy weather about 20 miles out. Parts of the Mulberry Harbour were being put together attached to blockships being sunk in strategic positions. We tied alongside one called the “Centurion”. As our vessel was rising 20 feet up and down with the heavy swell, the cook (a Glasgow lad) volunteered to jump across to the old battleship and tie our hawsers. Although all the ropes snapped, we were held by two wire hawsers all through the night. Once dawn came up we managed to beach the craft and offload. As we reversed off the beach by pulling in the anchor using the capstan, the cable snapped and wrapped around the rudder. Having lost control we bashed into bits of harbour pier which had broken away in the storm. Eventually we finished up back on the beach, with 19 holes in the vessel sides.
“By this stage the troops had moved inland and as the tide receded we were left on the sand. We set about repairs and used wooden chocks which had been on board for securing the tanks, and we used the heavy woollen blankets the troops had as standard issue. We were stuck there for the rest of the month and had to cadge food from other LCT crews. Eventually a bulldozer hauled us back into the sea and an American Tug towed us out of the harbour area. Once he’d gone, another LCT towed us back over to Southampton for repairs.
“I am proud we did our bit – to have been part of 36 British LCTs getting the Yanks ashore on Omaha, landing 36 Shermans and crews. We heard a lot of Shermans had sunk on their way in, using the flotation Duplex Drive arrangement which couldn’t cope with the heavy swell in poor weather.”
By 10th June the Admiralty was receiving congratulatory messages from ashore on the accuracy of the naval bombardment and the help this provided for the army’s advances, with special mention of support for 6th Airborne Division approaching Caen.
A major element of Operation Neptune was to effectively seal access to the English Channel at its open western end. The long established U-Boat pen bases in Western Brittany were going to be the obvious source of serious trouble for the maritime efforts off the coast of Normandy. The Channel remained sealed for the duration of the landings, although not without cost. Royal Navy operations were closely supported by continuous RAF anti-submarine efforts, notably from 224 and 311 Squadrons.
In one day – 8th June – in joint operations with the RAF, five U-Boats were sunk in the western Channel region. In all, twelve U-boats are recorded as being sunk during June; these shared roughly 50/50 between Royal Navy and RAF. On 15th June Frigate HMS Blackwood was torpedoed and sunk off Portland Bill by U-764. The same day saw Frigate HMS Mourne sunk by U-767 off Land’s End. Three days later that U-Boat was attacked and sunk off the Channel Islands.
A number of supporting warships were damaged by E-Boat action, mines and air attack. Some were sunk strategically as breakwater aids, although others retired for repair.
On 24th June Destroyers HMS Eskimo and HMCS Haida attacked and sank U-971 off Ushant. In typical and successful joint tactics, this action was supported by a Wellington Bomber of 311 Squadron which operated out of Talbenny in South Wales and Beaulieu in Hampshire.
On 25th June Cruiser HMS Glasgow in action bombarding Cherbourg was badly damaged from shore batteries and out of action for the rest of the war.
Cruiser, HMS Arethusa, was damaged by a mine whilst at anchor off the Normandy coast. This incident occurred just nine days after HM King George V1 had been on board for his historic visit to the Normandy beachheads. His Majesty has also been aboard HMS Scylla on 16th June; that ship went on to be badly damaged by a mine on the 23rd.
The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had beaten the King to Normandy by his own journey on the fast K Class Destroyer, HMS Kelvin. This took place on 13th June.
After a visit to Montgomery’s HQ at Creully, Mr Churchill returned aboard HMS Kelvin and managed to persuade the Captain to engage the shore defences. At last - the Prime Minister had seen action about one of His Majesty’s warships!
Most capital ships had returned to Portsmouth by 18th June, a job well done. On 5th July, as Operation NEPTUNE came to its end, the one millionth man stepped ashore in Normandy.
Operation Neptune had been an astonishing success. Like all aspects of the Invasion, this operation was strategically interlinked with all other efforts.
Merchant Navy personnel joined with Royal Navy personnel of every rank to take over the English Channel for that critical period in history. Despite losses, 150,000 men were put ashore during that first day – this being matched and followed day after day with increasingly more men & material to begin and achieve the freedom of Europe.