Naval Guns at Normandy
Vice Admiral Morton L. Deyo, USN (Ret)
This was written by Admiral Deyo after his retirement in the early 1950's. He intended to do a book or article on this subject, but kindly turned it over to Samuel Eliot Morison to use in Volume XI, History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II.
For additional material covering OVERLORD/NEPTUNE, see HyperWar. --HyperWar
Naval Guns at Normandy
On a Tuesday morning ten years ago, a world already too accustomed to thrills, turned on its radio and stood transfixed. The Allies had landed upon the captive shores of France. The great crusade had begun. It was June 6, 1944.
The news of it brought real, if fearful, hope to unhappy millions under the heel of the "Axis", from Europe's western border to Cathay and the scattered islands of the Pacific. Conviction and resolve were hardened in the minds of free peoples and of those who longed to be free. It gave new life to the men who fought and sweat in the far-spread theatres of the war and to those unhappy ones who starved in the slave labor camps of the enemy.
Out of every port and shelter indenting the Southern coast of England, from Bristol to the Thames, had emerged, or were emerging nearly 5,000 ships and craft. Embarked, or waiting their turn, were two million young men and they were but the vanguard of the ultimate strength of the Invasion. These men were fit and confident from many months of sound training. But they were aware of the perils awaiting them, from overhead, from under the sea from the powerful guns, obstacles and alerted enemy of Hitler's boasted "Atlantic Wall."
The women who prayed for them at home knew something of these dangers and imagined more. For agonizing weeks they could not learn when or where their men would enter the conflict. Many of those tormented women still bear the scars--ten years afterward. Tragic experience like this is an integral part of war, for friend and foe alike. But there the numbers were so great and the approach of the event had been so long heralded, it seemed that the world could not release its breath until the fate of 60 miles of tide-washed sand on France's shore had been determined.
D Day saw the greatest amphibious operation in military history. For size, complexity and intricacy of planning, it was without peer.
It was not inappropriate that its secret code name was NEPTUNE. More than one fine general who had dreamed of subjugating Britain in the past.had achieved only frustration through failure to propitiate the God of the Sea. The Spain of the Armada; the France of Napoleon; the Germany of Hitler--all these knew the arts of the soldier but failed in perception of the unique influence of wide waters upon the course of history. Sailors are seldom heard in the higher councils of land-bound soldiers.
Now, the attempt -was to be reversed, against a fortressed Europe lying in the chains of the Nazis. Two peoples, related by blood and tradition whose histories had been shaped by the oceans which guarded their shores, were united in a mighty effort to span the "Narrow Sea" from crowded bases in the British Isles. The thrust must be sudden to confuse the enemy. It must be fierce, to sweep aside the formidable defenses known to exist. It must be massive, to force an ample beachhead. But above all, it must generate an overwhelming and sustained momentum by pouring endless quantities of men and their paraphernalia across the Channel onto the tide-washed sands. Once there the widening flood of democracy must quickly burst all bounds and roar uncontrollable across France before Hitler's genius could dam the waters. Once begun, there could be no halting. For the armies of the enemy must be kept off balance if we were to escape the stalemate and frustration of trench warfare.
To achieve such momentum meant not only vast quantities of men and their massive, complex and varied modern equipment; it meant ships and craft of types and speeds and seaworthiness in numbers such as had never
before been assembled. It meant synchronizing in exact rhythm the movements of all these craft, from the time of sailing to the instant of arrival off the hostile shore. It meant training so thorough and exact that the exertions of all those enrolled would be directed smoothly to the common objective. It meant planning so comprehensive and expert that every basic need was imagined and provided for in advance, that all efforts of the various Allied Military Services and their subdivisions were coordinated and that each command knew enough of the purposes of others to avoid confusion and duplication.
Such an undertaking, conducted against formidable opposition, could be attempted only by seasoned and proven leaders, using battle-tested methods. Today there are few, if any, thoughtful military commanders who believe that a permanent and successful foothold in western Europe could have been gained earlier in the war than it was.
NEPTUNE was the kick-off, the first vital step toward the liberation of Europe. t was the amphibious phase of Operation OVERLORD. The OVERLORD plans covered everything that was to be done for three months, up to D/90 Day. By that time, September, the drive of the Seine and Paris were to be complete, the swelling armies regrouping for their march to the Rhine. But, if NEPTUNE failed, there would be no march, only a gigantic Dunkirk--disaster.
Prior to World War II, amphibious assaults conducted against strong opposition had been rejected by many experts as far too risky. But the allies were given no choice. Driven from most of Europe, Africa and Asia by the ruthless Axis powers, they could return only by fighting their way up from the seas.
Without the bloody lessons of Dunkirk, of Dieppe, of North Africa, the Solomons, Bismarcks, Gilberts, of Sicily and Italy, NEPTUNE could not have
been. As they so often have in the past, the efforts of our staunch British ally and our own complemented each other. But NEPTUNE could not be attempted until the German Navy, chiefly its fierce submarine campaign, was no longer a serious threat to endless convoys of slowly plodding obsolete merchant ships which painfully fought their way across the Atlantic. Any considerable break in that all nourishing bridge of ships meant starvation and death to the allied millions assembled in Britain, furthermore, NEPTUNE would fail unless we first controlled the air above the English Channel and the Coast of Normandy. Thus, although the conquest of the land mass of Europe was primarily a soldier's task, and indispensable factor in its success was a decisive superiority of allied navies and air forces. And finally, lack of understanding and coordination between the Army, Navy and Air Commands could easily rob us of victory.
Because of his unusual qualities of leadership, ability to delegate authority and gift for creating a climate of cooperation, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was a happy choice for Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SCAEF). His three direct subordinates, who were not only his advisors, but actually commanded the military forces, were all British,, They were: the Commander of Allied Armies, General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery; of Navies, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay; of Air forces, Air Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. His Deputy, Air Chief Marshall Tedder, was also British.
In the conduct of amphibious operations it is the practice that the Navy exercise command until the troops have been safely established ashore and the top troop commander had moved his headquarters to the beachhead. Thus, Admiral Ramsay, whose title was Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief Expeditionary Force (ANCXF) was in full operational command of the embarked forces. These were organized into two parts known as the "Western" and the "Eastern Naval
Task Forces." The former, commanded by Rear Admiral A. G. Kirk, USN, contained all the U.S. Naval units and some British, Canadian, French and Dutch. The latter included the assigned British and Canadian Naval Units and was led by Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, R.N.
The "Western Naval Task Force" comprised two complete amphibious assault forces, while the Eastern contained three. Thus the British were to seize three beaches, the U.S. two. The greater initial strength of the British was to permit them to establish a powerful left flank very quickly to counter the strong German attack expected to come from the North and East. Because of our larger manpower and productive capacity, the United States forces would overtake and later outnumber the British in the "build up."
The Bay of the Seine is a shallow bowl whose bottom runs roughly east and west for better than 50 miles, its western boundary is formed by a peninsula named Cotentin, or Cherbourg, which juts northward about 20 miles. The Port of Cherbourg lies in the center of the northern face of the peninsula. Both the east coast of the Cotentin and the bottom of the bowl present fine stretches of firm and sand beaches that can be approached directly from seawards. The bowl finally slants north eastward to the broad estuary of the Seine where LeHavre overlooks the buffeting of tide and river current.
The planned beachhead would not fill the entire bowl. The allied right or western flank would actually rest on the east coast of the Cotentin. Here would be UTAH Beach. Next to it, separated by the Carentan Estuary, would be OMAHA. Extending eastward from OMAHA were the three British-Canadian beaches named GOLD, JUNO, and SWORD. The last ended at Ouistreham and the River Orne which guarded the allied left flank.
My "briefing" in these top secret facts began on April 27th. Newly arrived
at Belfast, North Ireland, I was summoned by Admiral Kirk to Plymouth^ leaving my ships to work under the capable training commands of North Ireland and Scotland. Driving from the airfield through the historic old town of Plymouth to the harbor, many evidences of the Blitz were still unhappily evident.
Kirk and his Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Struble, both old friends, warmly greeted me on board the flagship* This proved to be another old friend the stately heavy cruiser Augusta. She had been my home from 1936 to 1939 on the China Station when serving on the Staff of our brilliant Admiral H. E. Darnell.
Being next in seniority to Kirk, I was to be his Deputy. That called for familiarity with three top problems, because Admirals afloat are as vulnerable as anyone else, and as the old chestnut has it: "One lucky shot and I am in command."
I learned that the Assault Force Commanders and their staffs had been working in England for several months. Rear Admiral J. L. Hall, USN, to command OMAHA was at Portsmouth Rear Admiral D. P. Moon's headquarters for UTAH were fortunately at Plymouth. I was to command the UTAH Naval bombardment and could happily be in personal touch with both Kirk and Moon as well as Maj. General J. Lawton Collins' 7th Corps Headquarters.
My small planning staff flew down to Plymouth from Belfast a day or so after my arrival and moved into space in the rambling rabbit warren of lathe and paper and Quonset Hut typical of military housing in wartime. It was quite adequate, if not luxurious and we got to work at once, being provided with all we needed by Admiral Moon and his most helpful staff who then left us to our own devices to contrive our own plans without interference.
The NEPTUNE Plan was nearing completion. Its scope was highly impressive.
One could liken it to a great living organism fashioned in the form of a building made up of a central portion and five wings.
In the central portion, one found all matters of general application and doctrine. Each wing represented one of the Assault Forces, each being independent and complete, yet directed and sustained from the central part.
My very able planning staff was headed by Commander J. O. South, USN, with Lieutenants Jo K. Mitchell, I. R. Chase and H. Page, all USNR, plus enlisted clerical assistants.
There was a great deal to learn before we could begin to make our bombardment plan. The Intelligence files were builky and illuminating. Probably never had so much information been gathered to prepare for an operation. Thousands of people had contributed. From the Admiralty came a wealth of basic data} depth of water, slope and gradient of the beach at different stages of tide; kind of bottom; strength and direction of current; topography, hydrography; weather; beach exits; roads; terrain and hundreds of items. All down the chain of command flowed a widening stream, digested and sorted by the intelligence sections of various commanders. Large and small mongraphs and booklets, charts and maps of varbus scales were being prepared. From Middle Wallop in England the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron USAAF were making almost daily flights to photograph the target area. Their films were studied by expert photo interpreters who revealed their secrets and passed them along to us. This became our most valuable source of information. Transparent overlays for chats and maps were made; on them were placed all enemy gun batteries, strong points and obstacles. These were kept up to date and showed us clearly what awaited us.
We found that "Hitler's Atlantic Wall" defense was based upon the theory
that no invasion would succeed unless the Allies could soon capture a large seaport. Der Fuhrer therefore had gone about making the French ports as nearly impregnable as possible. The strongest defenses were nearest the good harbors, though an attempt was also made to achieve strength in all other probable landing places. he theory was basically sound because the needs of modern military forces were far greater than ever before in terms of bulk and numbers. To supply them for long periods over open beaches on the stormy English Channel was problematical in good weather; presumed impossible in winter.
This, General Eisenhower and his advisors had soon recognized and the early capture of Cherbourg was made the primary mission of the 7th Corps U,S. Army to be landed on UTAH beach. (Of the fabulous allied artificial harbors we shall hear later.)
For many months the Nazi High Command had been expecting the Allies to attempt an invasion, but to guess its location and time of striking was too much for men whose experience was largely confined to continental conflict. The inherent mobility of seaborne forces gives them great advantages, chiefly in the ability, when geography favors to choose more than one objective and to conceal their intentions. Even when a landing has been made, the defender can seldom be sure it is the main assault, not merely a feint. He hesitates to commit his reserves until it may be too late.
The Germans leaned upon static, peripheral defenses, trying to favor the most likely places. Hitler's first guess had been Normandy, but his chief advisors insisted upon the Calais coast as the certain objective. Invitingly close to England and offering many good beaches, the Pas de Calais was a choice to tempt the Allies. Once there, the way led direct to the heart of Germany.
Also favored was the coastal region between Somme and Seine, In earlier days the British Commandos had shown their interest there, stabbing at Dieppe to suffer much and learn more. Further, the Germans conviction was strongly reenforced by certain measures adopted by the Allies.
The British, excellent in deceptive measures, had gone to elaborate lengths to focus German attention upon the Pas de Calais and other more northern objectives even as far as Denmark and Norway, Ships and craft actually to be used in the "build up" but seemingly for invasion, were assembled in the Thames Estuary and in the southeast and eastern ports. Dummy landing craft were used to further this illusion. Large numbers of dummy aircraft parked upon dummy airfields in northern England and Scotland seemed to threaten operations upon distant Scandinavian shores. Troops of the "build up" training in Kent appeared to be pointing toward the Griz Nez, Simulated radio traffic in great volume, known to be intercepted by the enemy, warned of large amphibious armies which had they existed, would have conducted the principal attack not in June but July. These Armies were pure fiction. Finally intensive air bombings in the Calais area and only moderate attacks in Normandy provided confirmation to the German military opinion which favored the narrowest part of the English Channel.
The Baie de la Seine and Cherbourg were however given high priority in some German thought; though the distance cross Channel was four to five times as great as in the Pas de Calais.
The German high command became like timorous gamblers at roulette, who after covering certain favored numbers are more conscious of the ones still uncovered. Attempting to be strong throughout the long French coast could lead only to over-all weakness.
Early in 1944, the western command was given to Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt, one of the ablest of modern generals. Under him and having direct responsibility for the defenses was the colorful "Desert Fox", Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. The fruits of his feverish activity soon became apparent to the Allied intelligence organization. Back of the selected beaches concrete structures housing large and medium guns, some of which seemed to be mobile, multiplied in number. Mostly these were back from the shore and could not be seen by approaching ships. Prominent radar towers for directing gunfire appeared in our films. Strong points, often with pill boxes, concrete protection, barbed wire and mine fields dotted the inshore fringes of the beaches. Numerous anti-aircraft batteries guarded all air approaches.
Planted in the firm sand, submerged at half tide and above, more and more boat obstacles were erected as time went on. Built of steel, or concrete, or wood, many with mines attached, they waited to snag, halt and cripple and boat "waves" which might approach them. Lastly, beginning miles off shore, concealed by the unrevealing waters, there were strewn thousands on thousands of deadly mines extending in patterns right up to shoal water. These (we were to learn) were of several varieties. Some were "acoustic", activated by the sound of the propellers of an approaching ship. "Magnetic" mines exploded when the ship's steel hull altered the earth's magnetic field in its vicinity. Most feared were the "pressure" mines, detonated by the change in water pressure as a ship passed above them.
Most of these could be destroyed by our busy mine-sweeping squadrons, though each type required a different technique, but to plague the sweepers, there were clever devices in the mines. These could be set to make them inert until a certain date, or until a given number of craft had passed over them. In consequence, our sweepers could never be sure the waters they swept would
not become lethal thereafter. As a consequence, no water could ever be considered safe. German officers close to Rommel when interviewed after the war have disagreed as to his convictions. It appears that he first believed, as did Hitler, that the Normandy coast was the most likely Allied target. But later he was more inclined toward the Pas de Calais or north of the Seine.
The Desert Fox had done well. Given another month, or two, his work would have been even more effective. Having created a hard, perhaps unbreakable shell, his next concern was where to meet such troops as might land to form a beachhead. His solution was typical of his impatient, aggressive nature. He would stop the allies at the water's edge and catch them with one foot ashore and one afloat. That is, to be sure, a time of great weakness in an amphibious assault.
Rommel thus gambled on two assumptions. First that he would learn the time and place of landing early enough to move to the threatened scene. Second, that his troops could force their way over our beaches despite Allied aircraft and naval guns. As to the first assumption, one could easily be convinced that German air and under water watchers would detect and follow so great a number of ships when they emerged from harbor (even to us that seemed almost inevitable). As to the second, the Nazis had a rude awakening in store. The Allies, of course, did not know these plans. But General Montgomery, from long study of Rommel in Africa, shrewdly guessed them. So much for enemy preparations.
From here this story deals with "UTAH Beach," chiefly with the work of naval bombardment. But in all five Assault Beach areas the problems and their solutions were generally similar, differing only in detail.
We have said that "UTAH Beach," the Allied right flank was to be upon
the east coast of the Cotentin Peninsula. That coast is shaped like a question mark. The northern section bulges south eastward around past Pointe de Barfleur, then cuts back above St. Vaast. Rocks and foul water characterize its meeting with the sea.
The stem of the question mark slopes south easterly. Right along the waterfront for several miles stretch charming settlements marked by the finely proportioned churches and dwellings typical of the blond and handsome Normans who use the hard sand of wide beaches as a highway and playground. In the southern part of the stem, the villages moved inland for about three miles, giving way to dunes. It was abreast the dunes that our landing places would be. From opposite St, Martin de Varreville almost to Magdelaine were suitable stretches where beach gradients were good, despite a tidal rise and fall of over 20 feet. From Magdelaine the stem drops abruptly south to border the Carentan Estuary, a wide place of shifting sands which is the dot of the question mark. It gives outlet to the Carentan Canal and River on the west, the Vire and Aure on the east.
Though the beaches were good, a serious obstacle would confront the troops advancing inland. Just inland from the dunes the low land had been flooded by the Germans. Several good causeways crossed the watered area. But if the enemy could seize the inshore ends of the causeways, our troops might be trapped, backed up on the sand, unable to advance.
General Eisenhower had decided this needed special treatment. Two Airborne Divisions, the 82nd commanded by Maj. Gen. Matthew Ridgway and the 101st under Maj, Gen, Maxwell Taylor, would be dropped before daylight to seize the causeways. Holding them until relieved by the first waves of the 7th Corps, they would then turn and race across the base of the peninsula.
This would isolate the Cotentin before the enemy could march in to reinforce Cherbourg--our primary objective.
The test of an amphibious operation is the character of the opposition. It seemed that Rommel's would be strong. Hence our military services must clearly understand each other. All must know the intention of the Army and must be kept informed of its exact progress as it advanced. All must understand the capabilities and limitations of Air and Naval support.
This seems elementary, and it is. But true understanding can never be taken for granted. Old misconceptions too readily masquerade as facts. The temptation is great to look through different ends of the telescope when examining the work of one's own and other services. Proof of this can be read in most of the published or spoken accounts since the war. however, human bias is by no means confined to the Military Services.
The 7th Corps Commander, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, meriting his nickname "Lightning Joe", was not one to be so criticized. His knowledge of naval capabilities was refreshing. He knew what was needed to further the accomplishment of his tasks. His understanding led to official as well as personal congeniality between himself, Moon and myself and our staffs and greatly simplified our work. A most able artillery officer, Lt. Col. F. P. Campbell was detailed by him to my staff for the planning and to remain through the early days, as well as for the later Cherbourg bombardment.
In the NEPTUNE Plan, the basic fact was that a successful crossing of the English Channel a safe landing of troops, continuing neutralization of enemy batteries and underwater mines were the direct responsibility of Naval and Air Support.
The Allies had recently gained what appeared to be adequate air superiority. This was essential to success throughout the whole campaign and they intended
to hold it, flying from bases in England until the beachhead was large enough to accommodate air fields up on French soil. Air bombing was counted upon to soften up defenses before the landing; tactical Air would interdict roads and bridges to prevent reinforcement of the defenders. But the accuracy of gunfire from naval ships; its sustained character; ;its ability to concentrate rapidly upon chosen targets, give it preference in paralyzing the efforts of the enemy during the critical time just prior to and after the landing. It then serves as artillery as requested by the Army until their own artillery is established ashore and even thereafter as long as the guns will reach.Knowing where and for the most part what the batteries and strong points were, we could station our ships and plan all procedures to best advantage. Without this advance knowledge, we should have been dubious of success.
My Operation Order dated 15 May listed 21 batteries, probably active, giving a description and location of each. With the exception of one of four 280-mm (11") guns which, very fortunately, we later learned could not bear on us, (but gave us great annoyance when bombarding Cherbourg on June 25th) the guns were mostly of medium calibre.
There were 3 batteries of 170-mm, totalling 12 guns. These were of long range and could command all water areas and approaches to the beaches. Three batteries of 155-mm, totalling 18 guns of 25,000 yards range, covered the approaches including most of the transport area. Twelve batteries of 155, 150 and 105-mms, totalling 36 howitzers of 13,000 yards range, could reach the boat lanes and bombardment ships. Five or six more 155s, whose effectiveness was in some doubt, brought the total to about 75 guns.
It was not so much the number though that was formidable, as the location and protection of these batteries which gave concern.
The most satisfactory and convincing way for a ship to silence shore batteries is to steam right in to close range and blast away. This was done with great effect in the Pacific as well as the Mediterranean. Tut the battery sites on the Cotentin had been well chosen. Few if any of the heavy and medium guns could be seen from seaward. In many cases, not even the flashes or smoke would be visible. In any event, our large ships were denied the inspiring experience of a close approach. For, paralleling the whole length of the stem of the question mark, two to three miles off shore, lay a series of shoals known as the Bancs de la Rade, Marcouf and Cardonnet. Not only did these shoals exclude ships but the adjacent waters navigable by smaller ships were known to be alive with mines.
Fortunately for the assault, the southern (Cardonnet) shoal was least dangerous. Consequently the "boat lanes" down which the landing craft would go from "transport area" to beaches, were to cross there. There was water enough between the line of shoals and the beachline to station a few destroyers, nothing larger. These would be confined to a narrow channel to be cleared of mines and well marked, we hoped, by the minesweepers during the preceding darkness.
Destroyers, powerful in action, are vulnerable and depend for defense upon speed and maneuverability. But here, nearly immobile, they must slug it out with a threatening string of pill boxes and strong points, filled with vicious 88s and 75s. At least they would be close enough to observe the effects of their own shooting, which was all they desired. Knowing the spirit of our destroyers and their excellent capabilities in gunnery, there was no hesitation in so placing them. When their ammunition ran low or casualties were high their places would be taken by other destroyers held in reserve in less exposed positions.
Our large ships would be forced to remain outside the shoals, much further than we wished them to be, but there was no help for it. They too would be confined to swept channels with consequent loss of their mobility when engaged by the heavily protected defense guns.
Our advance knowledge of the general characteristics and exact location of the batteries was of tremendous importance. For we could plan the arrangement of our ships so that the toughest batteries would be engaged by our most powerful ships.
The NEPTUNE Plan called for an approach to the Normandy coast during darkness. It seemed too optimistic to expect the enemy to be caught napping. Our spotting aircraft would not arrive until about daylight and we believed the Allied ships would be under heavy fire long before that.
To meet this contingency, we prepared a plan called "ZEBRA." Modern radar and navigational equipment had made it possible for the captains to know, within acceptable limits, the exact positions of their ships at any instant. This greatly simplified the gunnery problem and permitted us to shoot "blind" with considerable accuracy. When signal was made our bombardment group would open fire, each upon its own designated target. Unaware of which batteries were shooting, we would take all the important ones under simultaneous fire. There is something very disturbing to the receiver in the deafening violence of close bursting high power shells. At night its effect is enhanced. It would be our business to see to it that the enemy batteries were too occupied with us to turn their attention to the troop laden boats as they approached the shore. Whether we destroyed them or not we must prevent them from doing what Rommel expected them to do.
We had no illusions, however, that blind firing, day or night, no matter
how good, would destroy or permanently disable such well designed and protected batteries. No artillery, afloat or ashore, could do so without expert spotting. The spotter is the "eyes of the ship." He is in a place overlooking the target where he can report precisely where the shells are falling and their effect, This does by special radio to the ship.
Spotting is a highly specialized task for a man who must be cool and steady. He may be on the ground, near the target; afloat, where he had a close view; or in the air. Naval spotters, in sea battles or in the early phases of amphibious assault must, of course, be in aircraft.
Since the 1920s, air spotting and scouting had been an important factor in the U.S. Navy, Highly efficient seaplane units were a part of each larger ship. Far reaching were their effects on the growth of U.S. naval aviation and its acceptance by our Navy as a whole back in the 1920s and 30s.
But Normandy differed from previous amphibious objectives in the Pacific and Mediterranean in the strength of enemy anti-aircraft preparation. The Cotentin was studded with "flak towers" and all the defense positions were supplemented with AA guns. Slow seaplanes such as we normally used would not long survive over that country.
The Allies possessed no fast two-seater planes. The British offered perhaps the only solution by providing a spotting "pool" of fast fighters. In it were: four squadrons of R.N. Seafires (Naval Spitfires), five squadrons of RAF Spitfires and Mustangs (many of these would be withdrawn after noon of D-day), added to these were 17 USN pilots taken from our ships, who quickly learned to fly Spitfires. They were expert spotters. Most of the RAF pilots had no previous experience in spotting, a function which differed greatly from their normal tasks, The training they received was good, but very brief.
The greatest handicap was the short range of spitfires. Basing at Lee on Solent, roughly 100 miles from the Normandy coast, each flight would be able to remain with us a bare 45 minutes in good weather before returning . to base for fuel. They would, in fact, be at their maximum operating limit. They worked in pairs, each spotting plane having its "waves" to watch for enemy planes. There would be another pair enroute to and from base and still two more fuelling at base. That made a total of six planes for each spotting mission; a costly business and a makeshift . But lacking longer range planes or aircraft carriers, it had to do.
Ground observers we would have after the troops landed. They were called Shore Fire Control Parties (SFCP) and were attached to all infantry assault battalions. Composed of Army and Navy officers and enlisted men they would land with early boat waves and with the paratroops. As the infantry advanced these well-trained men would seek the trouble spots. With their "Walkie Talkie" they would contact a bombardment ship, describe the enemy target and its location.
These parties were invaluable once in position to observe. But enemy activities ashore could be seen only from overhead, hence the vital importance of the air spotters. But being uncertain about them, we must rely chiefly upon our own skill and the adequacy of our arrangements. We hoped that by sending our crashing salvos into the midst of all the known enemy positions, we could sufficiently terrorize their none too patriotic crews enough to distract and drive them from their posts (and into their tempting concrete shelters) during the crucial first hours. Our mission was "to destroy or silence all enemy shore batteries and defenses which threaten ships or craft connected with the landing." We were confident of being able to give them plenty to occupy their attention
until the fragile craft bearing our troops had placed them ashore and until they had been able to advance to their early objectives.
Before the middle of May, all plans for NEPTUNE were virtually complete. On May 15, the senior officers of all services went to London for the final high level briefing conference. There we assembled in St. Paul's School in the presence of King George VI and his great Prime Minister, and sat all day on the bare benches well designed to keep young boys awake. General Eisenhower has told of this in Crusade in Europe. What he did not tell was the profound effect of his own presence there. As we took these uncompromisingly hard and narrow seats, the room was hushed and tension palpable, It seemed to most of us that the proper meshing of so many gears would need nothing less than divine guidance. A failure at one point could throw the momentum out of balance and result in chaos. All in that room were aware of the gravity of the elements to be dealt with. And speaking of elements, not the least uncertainty was the weather.
The first to rise and break the silence was the Supreme Commander himself. It had been said that his smile was worth 20 divisions. That day it was worth more. He spoke for 10 minutes. Before the warmth of his quiet confidence the mists of doubt dissolved. When he had finished the tension was gone. Not often has one man been called upon to accept so great a burden of responsibility. But here was one at peace with his soul. Those who would depend upon machines to solve man's problems and win conflicts would have learned something that day. It is not machines which kindle man's spirit.
On May 19th, General Eisenhower and Admiral Kirk flew to Belfast North Ireland to visit our ships. At my suggestion they went on board three of the ships; a destroyer, a cruiser and a battleship. The strenuous training of the
past weeks had not improved the spit and polish usual to such occasions. Anchored in that fine harbor were most of the bombardment ships of OMAHA and UTAH groups, a total of about 20 United States men of war with more to join later. An equal number of British and French warships, ready to be with us, completed an imposing picture. Some were old, particularly the battleships whose proud days of supremacy had passed, hit whose usefulness had by no means ended; some were new. Ships, in war, are always in demand, there is ever a place for them.
First to be visited was U.S. destroyer Baldwin, Lieutenant Commander E. S. Powell, Jr, wearing the division pennant of Commander W. J. Marshall. With her crew paraded at quarters, this World War II destroyer looked fit and ready. The Supreme Commander was interested in everything; the powerful battery, electronic equipment, power and speed. But it was the crew which captured his chief attention. Passing between the opened ranks he frequently stopped (as we do) to ask a question of a man, or give him a word. Then from the bridge, over a loud speaker, when appropriately introduced by Admiral Kirk he gave a short, impressive talk to all hands. It is a fine thing for men to see their leaders at close range. They are entitled to it.
The venerable battleship Texas was next boarded. A veteran of World War I, she had first broken her commission pennant not long after my own proud acquisition of a half-inch gold stripe. Yet here we both were, some 32 years later, in the midst of things. Commanded now by Captain C. F. Baker and flagship of Rear Admiral C. V. Bryant she would lead the OMAHA Bombardment Group.
Lastly they visited my flagship, the heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa, Captain J. B. W. Waller, where the ceremonies were again repeated. Afterward, General
Eisenhower and Admiral Kirk remained for lunch at which my steward outdid himself, and the atmosphere was free of restraint and stiffness. One judged this to be a man whose abundant vitality and good spirits; his awareness and gift of the common touch, protected by natural dignity, recommended him as a leader. t seemed that he belonged where he was and that, with earnest humility, he knew it.
A few days later the NEPTUNE Plans arrived complete, for distribution. Complete they were; the bundle to go to each ship stood over two feet high, and only a scant week for the Captains and their key officers to master what they needed to know. Then the parts pertinent to them had been absorbed they must instruct the lower echelons until finally all hands were letter perfect.
To relieve the first confusion we rigged the Tuscaloosa's now empty hangar as a chart room. Here my staff briefed the Captains and their principal officers in the over-all plans and showed them where to look for details. Conferences were held to answer questions and clarify doubtful points. Next we took the ships to sea for a short rehearsal of our entrance into the beachhead area and of the planned bombardment in Dundrum Bay.
Upon return to port, with all the ships' companies now knowing too much for casual conversation ashore, the ships were "locked up." All communication was severed with shore except for special errands. At our last conference I told the Captains that we might expect to lose 1/3 to one half of our ships and must be mentally prepared to do so. They all agreed and accepted the prospect with a cheerfulness, which, though taken for granted, was more than gratifying. It was also brought to their attention, perhaps unnecessarily, that we were not to shoot into French dwellings unless there was good reason
to do so. We were not there to add to the sorrows of the French people, though it was inevitable that some must suffer for the good of many.
A day or two after the NEPTUNE Plans arrived, I received a visit from Rear Admiral Jaujard, F.N. a charming man of very high character and attainments, the senior French Naval Officer. He reported that his ships had not yet received the plans and asked assistance. His fine cruisers, the Georges Leygues and Montcalm, were in the OMAHA group. I could do no more than send a dispatch reporting the fact. Strict orders forbade my discussing the plans with him until his were received. It was an uncomfortable situation which he alleviated by his usual tact and understanding.
Prompted by curiosity during his visit I asked him which he judged to be the most likely area for the invasion to take place. Taking a sheet of paper from my desk, without hesitation he sketched the Cotentin Peninsula and coast of the Baie de la Seine. Asked why he chose that area, he replied by giving the various reasons which had decided our High Command in their selection. I do not know whether my face told him not only my respect for his acumen, but also some dismay that he had made a bulls eye on the first guess, as he presumably knew nothing of the NEPTUNE Plan. For if he could make so accurate a prediction what about the Germans? He must have had the same thought when his plans came the next day.
June 3rd arrived. With it came warm messages and notes of cheer and confidence from the Supreme Command; from Admiral Stark in London, Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe; from Kirk. D Day was set for June 5th. The south coast of England had become just a great camp, supply dump, airfield. All ports and openings were taxed to the utmost. Virtually all communications with the outside world, even diplomatic channels, had been stopped for weeks. Coastal
shipping had been requisitioned and civilian passenger travel had virtually ceased. The patience and understanding of the long suffering British people were truly remarkable.
Exodus from harbor would begin that night, the third. Of the American forces, we in Belfast were first to get underway as we were furthest from the beachhead, Some British Bombardment Units were in the Clyde and actually left ahead of us. But many amphibious craft would also worm their way out of southern ports that night because of their distressingly low speeds. With meticulous care each of the five assault groups had worked out the times of departure for each of its craft, which had been assigned to convoys according to speeds. Every group, every vessel, had its designated position in the surge across the channel to France.
General Eisenhower has told in Crusade in Europe the considerations governing the choice of June 5, 6 or 7th as the days when we should have first: a night crossing to hide our strength and destination; second: a moon to assist the airborne troops to find their dropping and landing points; third: about three-quarters of an hour of daylight for naval bombardment and completion of air bombing which should begin before daylight; fourth: a rising tide but a landing time not too long after low water so the beach obstacles would be exposed to our demolition parties.
These conditions would not be met again for at least two weeks if a delay beyond the 7th were necessary. Such a delay could cause total failure; secrecy would be lost; demoralization sweep over the troops; all schedules would be thrown out of gear and the build up plans disrupted.
Man boasts of his mastery over nature and the scope of his achievements in the realms of science, yet his fate still hangs suspended upon factors as unpredictable as the weather of the English Channel.
June 3rd was a busy day; many small things. Most of the Captains came over for a chat or last minute decision. Everyone was cheerful. The air was electric, like the morning of the Army-Navy Game. The last to come was Rear Admiral R. H. L. Sevan, C.B.D.S.O.MVO, FOIC North Ireland, to whom we owed so much for every conceivable assistance. Doomed to shore duty now of all times, he never permitted his cheerful mien to desert him. He came with one of his graceful, friendly messages and a "secret weapon" for me to use if the going got too tough. his proved to be a gnarled and wicked looking shillelagh for "repelling boarders." By the feel of its polished bulk, it could have crushed a thick German skull like an eggshell. This, however, had yet to be proved.
Evening came; up anchor! under way at last--for France. There were 23 of us. These included most of the heavy ships for both UTAH and OMAHA and part of the destroyers. The remainder would join in the Channel.
The heavy ships were:
UTAH Bombardment Group
Bombardment Group Rear Adm. M. L. Deyo, USN USS Tuscaloosa (flagship) (CA) Capt. J. B. W. Waller, USN USS Nevada (battleship) Capt. P. M. Rhea, USN USS Quincy (heavy cruiser) Capt. E. M. Senn, USN * HMS Erebus (monitor) Capt. J. S. P. Colquhoun, RN HMS Hawkins (heavy cruiser) Capt. J. W. Josselyn, D.S.C., RN HMS Black Prince (light cruiser) Capt. D. M. Lees, D.S.O., RN HMS Enterprise (light cruiser) Capt. H. T. W. Grant, D.S.O., RCN * HMNS Soemba LtCdr. H. H. L. Propper, RNN * Joined in the battle area because of slow speed
Of these, the venerable Nevada was by far the most powerful with her ten 14" guns, sixteen 5" and up-to-date fire control equipment. Her lack of speed was no handicap in this assignment. Quincy was next, a new ship with nine 8", twelve 5" and everything modern. Tuscaloosa, a useful cruiser of nine 8", eight 5", eleven years old, and not the latest equipment. Of the British cruisers
the Hawkins fitted with seven 7.5" and nine 4" guns but she was old. The others were smaller gunned ships. Black Prince was new but only eight 5.25" guns; Enterprise 6" but already due for decommissioning. Erebus boasted two 15" guns. She too was ancient and her accuracy of fire was questionable. Soemba was 19 years old, a gunboat with three 5.9" guns.
The OMAHA Group heavy ships were:
Bombardment Group Commander Rear Adm. C. F. Bryant, USN USS Texas (flagship) (Old BB) Capt. C. A. Baker, USN USS Arkansas (Old battleship) Capt. F. G. Richards, USN FS Georges Levgues (Flag) (9-6", 8-3.5") Capt. de Vaisseau A. Laurin, FN FS Montcalm (cruiser) Capt. E. J. H. L. Deprez, FN HMS Glasgow (cruiser) 8-3.5" Capt. C. P. Clarke, RN
Of these, the two battleships were very old and their 12" guns were short range (20,000 yards) but very effective at medium to close ranges. The two French cruisers were not heavily gunned, nine 6" and eight 4" guns.
All in all these two groups were effective forces for the general purposes of bombardment. But not more than half the heavy ships could inflict serious damage upon the sort of protected batteries opposing them. If you must break a large rock with a small hammer, you must hit it a good many times. You must also see what you are doing so you keep hitting it in the right place. That, in our case, meant plenty of ammunition and expert spotting.
It was quite natural that both the British and U.S. navies should wish to hold most of their modern heavy ships with the fleets. The older ships are slower, fit less easily into fleet work and consequently are more expendable. Yet when there is bombardment work to be done against well placed, strongly protected places, the choice of ships is important. Too many wrong choices and the troops may not get ashore.
In point of fact our destroyers were more valuable in bombardment than
many of the cruisers. Their five or six 5" guns were hard hitting and beautifully controllable. The ships could work in closer to shore, much closer at UTAH as has been pointed out, and thus attain greater accuracy. Though vulnerable, they could be more easily replaced and there were plenty in reserve. The destroyers will be named later. Departing from Belfast there were but eight of them; the others would join in the Channel where they would act as escorts. Two DEs and two ex-DE transports completed our force.
Forming up in two groups for night cruising outside Belfast lough we squared away for the run down the Irish Sea. The night was windy, overcast, black and squally. It worsened steadily. We did some dodging of darkened ships; slow sections of amphibious gunboats and rocket craft; groups of Eastern Task Force bombardment ships, detached pieces seeking their places in tomorrow's parade.
It was an uneasy night and without surprise we received at 0630 (6:30 a.m.) a signal from SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) postponing D Day until the 6th. This imposed no problem for the long legged ships of our force. We merely counter marched up the Irish Sea during the day of the 4th, got some sleep and counter marched again that evening.
But our thoughts turned to the many, many slow amphibious craft. Making five knots or less, they would have put to sea all during Saturday afternoon and evening. What a thoroughly miserable night they must have had. After extricating themselves from the exasperatingly crowded anchorages of Plymouth, Dartmouth, Brixham, Salcombe; they would have emerged into a black and tempestuous sea. Without reserve power, serious scattering was highly probable. Would all receive the message of postponement? Some would surely have to be rounded up.
Struggling back to the coast the problem of an anchorage would not be simple. Some would need fuel. Crowded with unhappy soldiers, seasick and out of their element, their fighting edge would not be sharpened by this night. One did not wish to contemplate the effects upon the entire invasion should bad weather continue for a few days more.
In the first hour of Monday, the 5th, came General Eisenhower's great decision; D Day would be the 6th. H Hour (the moment of first landing) for the Western Task Force would be 0630 (6:30 a.m.). The great spring, wound so tightly, was now released; the vast energy loosed by that fateful signal began to travel down the length of the coil, slowly, almost imperceptably, but gaining momentum. There was no turning back now; the unleashed energy must either turn into an inundating tidal wave to flood the shores of Normandy or shatter itself to pieces at the water's edge. Our first thought was the weather. It had been none too fine. A night, murky, fretful, but with an abating wind and sea. The overcast begins to thin as we emerge from the Irish Sea soon after daylight the 5th, and round the light on Land's End, rocky and rather bleak, but a welcome sigh to sailors.
Before long the Lizard comes abeam and we are changing course to the north eastward to parallel the coast of Cornwall when, all of a sudden the morning sun breaks through, right in our eyes. Before all our ships have swung to the new course, the clouds have closed in again. But that flood of sunlight works magic against the chilly mist hanging over, everything. I look down from the bridge across the tops of two triple 8" turrets onto the Tuscaloosa's long, wet forecastle. The man, gathered in small knots or busy with the endless chores of shipboard have brightened too and some begin their customary solemn faced banter. It seems like a good omen, that glimpse
of the sun. It will have a profound significance for untold millions around the world.
Meanwhile Bryant 's group have forged ahead to join the OMAHA Force making a brave show as their signal flags snap in the lessening breeze. We have changed our formation to a single column of ships. The parade is forming. The leader is HMS Enterprise which will regulate our speed all the way across the Channel to maintain twelve knots advance for our convoy.
Steaming all daylight in so vulnerable a formation and with so few escorting destroyers is possible only if Allied air superiority drives the Luftwaffe away. In addition the British anti-submarine patrols in and beyond the Channel must hold the U-boats beyond the armada's long track. Lastly the British Home Fleet far away in the North Sea will discourage any desperate break out by the German fleet, which by this time is not too formidable.
Off Plymouth, at 1045, right on schedule, the attack transport Bayfield slips into her place. She wears the flag of Rear Admiral Moon, with him is Major General J. Lawton Collins as well as Major General Barton whose 4th Division will land tomorrow. Other transports join off Dartmouth. They are the Barnett, Pickman and Empire Gauntlett. We have eight destroyers in company.
The order of ships is fixed by the order of entering the assault area. With such a multitude of ships and craft it would mean hopeless confusion to change formation of the slower convoys during the crossing. Therefore, all convoys, fast and slow ships, observe similar procedure. The reason for the endless columns, instead of more compact groups, is deference to the enemy's mines. Through the waiting peril of the mine fields numerous channels must be cleared, leading to and including all five beach areas. But the short time
available to the sweepers during darkness permits only narrow channels to be cleared and marked. It will not be easy for ships proceeding so slowly to stay in their proper channels. The tidal currents will be sweeping across them. Maneuvering or regrouping in swift water is therefore not to be considered.
During the afternoon we begin to pass many of the five knotters, long columns due in the assault area during the later hours of D Day. A heterogeneous assortment they are; cutters, corvettes, trawlers, sub chasers, large blunt-nosed L.S.T.s. The faster ones adjust their speed to the slowest. Some towed by L.S.T.s and some under their own slim power go the "Rhino Ferries," just open rafts they are, fitted with several outboard motors to push them along. In appearance neither convincing nor seaworthy, they are a makeshift to ferry cargo from L.S.T.s to beaches during the first tides when doubt remains as to the advisability of beaching the valuable 300 foot L.S.T.s. The track of our convoy is the westernmost of seven which are fed from every opening in England's southern coast.
At 1800 ( 6 p.m.) off Portland Bill our course changes to the southeastward for five hours. The weather is improving, sea subsiding, wind fresh and north westerly; ceiling a little higher but still a heavy overcast. As the late dusk of June gathers and the tracks begin to converge, more amphibious columns are passed. The numerous L.C.T.s still roll and lurch and their cramped open decks bear uncomfortable soldiers who will rejoice to set foot ashore, no matter what awaits them.
Yet as we pass these various amphibious ugly ducklings, spawned by Mars but wearing little of his aggressive exterior, we are impressed by an air of cheerfulness, even jauntiness in their crowded human cargoes. Some wave at us as we pass. One looks us over appraisingly and shouts an offer as he balances on the deck of a Rhino Ferry. "How'll you trade your tub for this ship--
about even?" God bless America and preserve its humor. As they steam and putt and chug along one feels an inevitability, a sureness of overwhelming strength and unity.
Far beyond range of binoculars stretch unending processions moving precisely according to a master plan. Across the treacherous Channel waters which have defied a Napoleon and a Hitler, tyrants who could not comprehend the sea, they proceed, heaving, gently rolling, or just grandly advancing, according to their dimensions. All are parts of an unbelievable mosaic to be spread at the proper moment across the Baie de la Seine and upon the shores of Normandy.
All day air search radars and lookouts have been busy. The few planes we have seen under the overcast have been friendly. Where is the Luftwaffe? It appears that Brereton*s 9th Air Force and the R.A.F. Tactical Air Force have seen to that, though there are few evidences of conflict. Perhaps the weather has deceived the Nazis who expected the allies to wait for more favorable conditions. That, in fact, was the case. Even Rommel was away on a scheduled visit to Hitler. German intelligence units had "cried wolf" so often they were no longer taken seriously.
Of U-boats, heavily counted upon by the enemy, we have heard nothing. The British Coastal Command guards the western approaches with ships and planes. Later they will have a field day with Nazi submarines as they swarm towards the Channel. Not one will break through.
It is six bells; 2300 (11 p.m. if you prefer) June 5th, 1944. Through binoculars we can see the second ship ahead, the old Nevada turning to starboard. Next goes Quincy and now Tuscaloosa, Then Black Prince in her turn follows us around. The subdued flashing of a marker vessel's light is off the port bow. That is the entrance to swept Channel #2. We are entering #1 and
heading almost south. Enterprise leading our column, has found the marker buoys. The seven approach lanes of the Invasion have now turned and separated into ten swept channels through which the columns will pass to their initial positions. Each of the five forces has two channels, a "fast" and a "slow" one. Channels #1 and #2 are for UTAH, #3 and #4 for OMAHA, the remainder for the (British) Eastern Task Force. The flagship, Augusta (with Admiral Kirk and General Bradley embarked) is with the OMAHA force. We are about 30 miles north of the Baie de la Seine; two and a half hours at this speed. The northwest wind is on our starboard beam and subsiding; the sea is flattening though the swell is still uncomfortable for smaller craft. The high overcast obscures the moon but its presence begins to be observed because one can see more ships than before.
Time advances swiftly. There is a sense of listening. Our flag bridge is dead quiet. On the forecastle and upper deck where the crew are now at battle stations, voices are hushed. One seems to feel the presence of millions of men; not only those afloat with us but all the less fortunate ones in Britain whose wakeful thoughts follow us through the night with anxiety and prayer. The atompshere is alive with the spirits of men. One is aware of a sort of quiet exaltation, a more than confidence, as though the Great leader above is at the helm and is reassuring us.
We begin ticking off the lighted buoys so well placed by our sweepers red to starboard, green to port. One thinks of the minesweeping squadrons far ahead, numerous and tough, moving unprotected save for a few destroyers, into the dangerous waters. With exact navigation, working in the darkness and advancing close to the hostile coast these stout sailors have cleared numerous and intricate channels, hundreds of miles of them. Channels, most carefully predetermined, must be so swept that each of thousands of invasion craft may
take its appointed place in the pattern of assault. It is not enough for them to sweep; they must mark as well. So as the minecraft have advanced on their dangerous missions, their exact formations are followed by "Dan layers" which, at regular intervals, cast over board their "Dan" marker buoys, fitted with anchor gear and special, dim lights. Vexed by considerable and uncertain currents, always threatened by detonating mines, the lights of white or green or red must still define safe water as carefully as would be expected if entering a peaceful port.
Starting about midnight Allied bombing squadrons of Fortresses, Liberators, Lancasters are to deliver a massive attack upon the Cotentin. Soon we begin to observe golden streaks of light, over the blackness where land is. These would be the flak tracers sketching faint patterns against the sky; groping for our planes from enemy anti-aircraft guns. There! One is hit! a candle of flame up high. Slowly it turns, slowly falls, shedding sparks. Before it reaches earth, the flame is gone. The enemy is alerted; soon we too must be detected. Another candle is lighted and falls. It is nearly one o'clock, a roaring of many propellers overhead. They are the airborne troops, C-47s, towing gliders all filled with men of the 101st and 82nd airborne divisions. All ships have been alerted but at first there are anxious moments lest some "trigger happy" ship open fire upon them. They are due to drop at H-5 hours. 0130 (1:30 a.m.), a risky business in such misty darkness, though the moon will be of some assistance. It will be hard for the pilots to identify the dropping points and the flak, as we have seen, is bad. Fervently we wish them well, gallant men gallantly led by Ridgway and Maxwell Taylor. More groups pass over us at intervals. We can see them against the overcast. They are to seize the outlets to the causeways across which our troops will pass to advance inland.
It is 0120 and ahead we see the slights of more marker vessels at anchor and stationed to show us "Point Mike." This is the outer limit of UTAH. Here begin the unsymmetrical, complicated, exact swept channels within which all vessels entering UTAH must move and remain in order to find some relative immunity from the mine peril, They are so drawn as to permit access to all the carefully designated positions of our bombardment ships; to clear the area where transport craft will assemble and discharge; to provide adequate channels for all the amphibious boats between "Transport Area" and the landing beaches. That this intricate and arduous task was performed so thoroughly and well deserves undying praise for the men who led and manned the sweepers. Already the leading ships have changed course to port, headed for the "Transport Area." The order of ships is Enterprise, Hawkins, Soemba (the latter to join at daylight). Then destroyers Jeffers (F), Glennon, Hobson (F) and Forrest, (see table of forces) which are to escort the four large transports, Barnett, Bayfield, Dickman and Empire Gauntlet, carrying General Barton's 4th Division troops as far as the transport area. They will then close in to their action stations.
Fire Support Unit One, comprising the heavy ships Nevada, Quincy, Tuscaloosa (my flagship), Black Prince, together with FA Unit Three Hobson (F) Fitch, Corry and Fire Support Unit Four Herndon, Shubrick, now change course to starboard and close the coast. We shall thus be interposed between the transports and the hostile shore batteries. We find the entrance to our channel, this is marked by green lights, and advance very slowly led by the old Nevada hoping not to alert the enemy to our presence, we must give the minesweepers, the 14th and 16th Squadrons under Captain Henry Plander, USN, time to complete the clearing of our intricate fire support channels.
At slow speeds the current interferes with station keeping so at 2:30 a.m.,
we make signal to anchor. In this position, we can execute Bombardment Plan ZEBRA if the enemy awakens. If he doesn't, we shall wait here, timing our advance into firing stations to take place about daylight. Our spotting planes will not arrive before daylight and we shall postpone any action until then if the enemy permits.
We are under the lee of the land now. The wind is westerly, about 18 miles per hour. The slight chop will scarcely interfere even with small craft. OMAHA Beach will not have a lee and the weather will be less favorable. For some time all eyes have been drawn in astonishment to the tall lighthouse at Pointe Barfleur. Its steady light is serenely burning, beckoning to sailors as though no bloody conflict were scheduled for this day. Perhaps the lord of Hosts has drugged the defenders like those of Jerico.
The Transport Area is about eleven and a half miles off shore near the range limit of the medium shore batteries, though well within the reach of the heavier guns. Converging upon it are numerous convoys of LSTs, LCTs, LCIs, LGMs. Altogether there are nearly 900 craft of various sizes and shapes in Force UTAH. Rough seas and the 24-hour postponement have placed a heavy burden upon the leaders of convoys. Their schedules call for exact times of arrival. Some are almost sure to be late. This could dislocate the plans. The first troops to land are to be from the 8th Regiment, Colonel James Van Fleet, of General Barton's 4th Division.
One can picture the scene as the large transports near their anchorages. Nested like fishing dories on board, the LCVPs will be hoisted out and promptly lowered into the water. These sturdy, wet, unhandsome craft will then form circles, chugging around and round their mother ships, as if in a water carnival. When all is ready a few at a time will break off and go along side their ship
whose sides are now hung with large cargo nets made of rope, spliced into squares.
The soldiers who have been waiting on crowded upper decks, their cumbersome battle equipment slung across shoulders or suspended from belts, will step over the life lines and swarm distastefully along the top of the nets. Then clambering awkwardly and precariously down, square by square, they will cling just above the black water where each will await his turn to jump into the rearing boat, landing not infrequently in a heap, he will struggle inboard, hoping some so and so won't crash on top of him.
The coxswain, when his quota of 30 armed men is on board, will shove off and rejoin the spinning circle of boats until all are loaded. Then on signal from the wave control vessel the first "half waves" for Red and for Green beaches will set forth down the swept boat lane for the "Line of Departure."
The last fateful dash from there to the beach needs long practice and good timing. Under ear shattering symphony of the bombardment, it is no mean feat to touch down at just the right place or time when the beach ahead is a featureless blur, nearly blotted out by an appalling cloud in which exploding shells and rockets or bombs churn angry smoke and sand high into the air.
Things are now becoming visible around us; dawn is early in these latitudes. It is time to move in. We make signal to get under way. No sign from the enemy; Barfleur light still beckons undisturbed while the tiny Dan buoy lights marking our swept water, blink confidently ahead. Some of the mine sweepers are now coming out and beginning to widen the channels. Their first work is completed. Well done.
The stillness is broken as Tuscaloosa's heavy anchor chain heaves up through the hawse pipe and bangs the deck plate as it feeds into the capstan.
Captain Waller reports the ship under way. The anchor comes home with a thud. All ships are ready and gain speed, advancing steadily toward stations. The old Nevada, leading the heavy ships, looks majestic and formidable in the early light. We expect all Hell to break loose any moment now and are ready for it.
"H Hour", the moment of touch down or landing of the first waves, has been set for 0630 at UTAH Beach. The time varies slightly for other beaches due to the difference in tidal conditions. Our bombardment is scheduled to begin at 0550. Our first spotting planes flying from England are due to be over designated enemy batteries -at 0518, and should be getting in radio communication with us a few minutes after 0500. Each of our ships will go to its station; fix it's position with greatest accuracy; stream a reference buoy and remain in position. Most Captains will drop anchor to hold more easily in the strong currents, but this will depend upon the direction of the current and how the ship swings. With the eastern light at our backs we shall be silhouetted and plainly visible to those on shore while they will be indistinct and misty to us. By this time anyone ashore looking seaward must have observed us.
At quarter past five the heavy ships are in exact position. Several are talking by voice radio to their spotting planes as they arrive overhead from England. The shore has emerged distinctly. The "question mark" lies before us, somewhat bold in the bulge but low and sandy along the steam. One radar stands high, looking like a huge bed spring, a "Giant Wurtzburg." Smaller ones are also visible. Enemy radar can now be detected by our instruments. They are searching for us, using different frequencies. They find us! We have some experimental equipment for causing interence. We use it, the enemy radar wanders off. There is no interference with our own radar. That is lucky.
Our ships are stationed as shown in the drawing (p, ). Our most heavily gunned men-of-war are north of the boat lane as the more numerous of the powerful enemy batteries are to the northward, Those in our southern stations covering strong points to the south can also go to the assistance of OMAHA should they be needed.
There! The enemy batteries have come to life; it is 0530, Black Prince is under fire, not very close. Tall splashes spring up and subside first short and then beyond her. Wow Quincy is having attention. They are medium calibre shells, perhaps 170's. Some ships ask permission to reply. Permission is not granted. I wish to give our planes time to find which enemy batteries are active. All our ships are now under fire. Enemy shooting improves. It is time to retaliate. At 0536 we make signal "Commence counter battery bombardment." That is 14 minutes ahead of schedule. We are glad to have the extra time.
From Tuscaloosa's forecastle inside No, 2 turret comes the shrill, ascending song of the ammunition car speeding upward from the magazines; a metallic thump as the 8" shell drops into its loading tray.
The clatter of its 260 pounds as it enters the breach. Its reverberation within the gun barrel and a hollow blow as the powerful rammer slides it hard against its seat. The rest is not heard, but now the three turrets, two forward, one aft, have swung to port and are sternly facing their target. Nine long, graceful 8" rifles rise as one to exact elevation. Two buzzes "stand by" One Buzz.! Flash - jar - lurch. Acrid smoke enters your nostrils--a feeling of released, unrealized tension. The game has begun!
Smack! Bang! One short, one over Tuscaloosa. Close ones, very noisy, violent. Geysers of water with black, ugly centers leap up as high as our mast
heads. There is some trouble communicating with the spotting plane. Flashes and smoke are seen around the point near St, Vaast. Tuscaloosa joins Black Prince, using ship shot to silence that one. It is stubborn and quite a battle ensues. Meanwhile destroyers Hobson, Corry and Fitch have been leading the first waves of landing boats down the boat lane, breaking off in time to be in their stations at 0540. Shubrick and Herndon proceed them across to the southern side of the boat lane. Only the heavy ships have planes to spot for them. The destroyers will be close enough to see their targets which consist mostly of "Strong Points" just back of the beaches. Through binoculars the boat lane to the south eastward is alive with craft approaching the "Line of Departure." The first assault wave will be 20 LCVPs, 10 for "Red" Beach, 10 for "Green." That is 600 men of the 8th Infantry Regiment. Their time of "touch down" is H Hour (0630). With, or just after them, will be 8 LCTs, each carrying four tanks. The second wave following closely, contains 32 LCVPs with two more battalions of infantry plus engineers and eight Navy demolition teams to blow up the beach obstacles. The third wave due at H plus 15 includes a dozen tanks and the 4-th two minutes later is chiefly combat engineers to clear the beaches.
What is of vital importance now is whether our engagement with the large shore batteries is preventing them from shooting into the boat lane. A number of large shells landing among tight formations of landing craft could have serious consequences, It could disrupt the order of boats; separate combat teams, throw the timing out of gear and cause great confusion. So far we can see no shells falling in the boat lane, nor are there any reports of trouble from Moon. It seems that we are successful and that the large batteries are too busy to think of anything beyond fighting us.
But as the boats draw nearer to the beaches they will come within range of dozens and dozens of vicious weapons from 88s and 75s down to waspish machine guns. These are in Strong Points scattered all along the shore and capable of concentrating upon boat lane and beach. Extending the entire length of the beaches at the inshore edge is the obstacle of a stout seawall. Back of it are the Strong Points. A typical one would be somewhat as follows: two 88-mm covering approaches from certain arcs; a French 4.7" in a Tobruk turret to cover the blind arc. There would also be a 75-mm gun and a searchlight. Guns and searchlight in heavy concrete houses or pill boxes are built into the sand dunes. They are almost immune from air attack and require a direct hit from seaward to disable them. In the interior of the strong point will be other guns such as 75-mm or 3.7" and several machine gun pits. Heavy concrete personnel shelters plus barbed wire plus anti-tank ditches and ground mines complete the picture. Several strong points near our landing beaches are reputed to have from six to eleven pill boxes; four to eight shelters; eight to 15 machine gun pits each.
To beat down these formidable defenses we have provided a 40-minute "beach drenching" (we wish it were much longer) typical of up-to-date amphibious assaults. This now begins. It is H-40 (0550).
Upon certain designated strong points each of the bombardment ships opens fire. This will give a fairly even distribution of bursting shells all along the landing area and its flanks. The large ships use their secondary batteries (5"). Nevada and Quincy also employ their big guns briefly to break the seawall in five places. On the open bridge, ears plugged with cotton, helmet straps buckled, we look and listen, bracing our feet as the 10,000 ton cruiser jumps and lurches to the blast of her guns. Everywhere to the west and south
and southeast the battle rises to crescendo and reaches its climax. Before our onslaught the enemy batteries falter. Only a few are now reported active by our planes and their shooting is intermittent.
Just before six o'clock, nearly 300 bombers (B-26s) of 9th Air Force have roared overhead and dropped many tons of bombs along the beach area. Over in the boat lane the first waves are nearing shore. Preceding them are the Support Craft Group (Lt.Cdr. Hart, USNR). They are part of our Bombardment Group Organization and operating under our Plan. But we have had no control of their training as they are part of the amphibious team. They number about 35 craft of the LCT type, fitted as gun boats and rocket launchers. Their shallow draft permits them to work in close to the beaches. Just prior to the landing, these craft will spray the strong points or Green and Red beaches with rockets while the gun boats engage such active opposition points as they can observe. The cumulative effect of the air bombing and naval shells bursting in the sand has been to virtually blot out the shore to those approaching it. A huge pall hangs in the air. From our too distant positions all is now obscured. As the moment of touch down nears, the time to lift our drenching fire from the landing beaches gives concern. General Collins has agreed with us that the longer the firing continues the better. During the beach drenching, enemy heads will be kept down. But their shelters are such that soon after the barrage is lifted they will be ready to receive visitors. If our troops are close behind the barrage, they will be upon the crouching Nazis before they can recover. Thus our casualties will be light.
It seams that the first boat waves are a little late. If so, we must not raise the barrage too soon. The signal is to be a colored rocket fired just before the touch down of the boats. With this great cloud of smoke we may not
see it. We try to obtain information and receive conflicting reports. One says we are shooting into our troops. That cannot be so. One reports the first wave late. We shall continue. We have confidence that shells will not be landing near the water*s edge but high up the beaches and beyond them. We shall hear plenty of howls if we are interfering with the advance. Finally--it seems hours but is only about ten minutes--a message comes from one of our destroyers that the troops are actually landing at 0640. Good! We lift the barrage inland and to the flanks. It seems that the strengthening current of the flood tide has carried our first wave to the south of the planned landing places. Through the smoke they could not distinguish the land marks.
Later we learned what happened. Each half wave was led by control craft, usually a PC boat, and had a secondary boat in case of casualty. As luck would have it the Red secondary boat snagged her propeller on a Dan buoy cable well up the boat lane. The primary control boat, when still about two and a half miles off shore on the dangerous Banc de Cordonnet unhappily struck a ground mine and promptly sank. Both control craft gone, the first wave faltered briefly. The incoming current swept the boats to the southward. Their beach objectives were obscured and when they finally touched shore they were some 1500 yards south of the planned position.
The result might have been serious. The beach drenching had been.centered upon one area though it actually extended a good distance to each flank. As luck would have it their landing place was far better than the selected one and less well protected. Had the current been the other way, carrying them north, a heavy penalty might have been paid. Such are the fortunes of war.
It takes close liaison of forces, sound and imaginative training and flexibility of plans to meet the many unexpected situations of amphibious assault.
The breaks in the seawall made by Nevada and Quincy's heavy guns were now of no use. But the engineers blew them in the new location without too much difficulty and the troops advanced rapidly against light opposition. At first their casualties were unbelievably small. But meanwhile our destroyers in their close in positions are receiving attention from the German guns. Fitch (Cdr. K. C. Walpole USN) and Corry (Lt.Cdr. G.D. Hoffman USN) have been under fire continuously. This was expected and they have been unrestricted as to ammunition. Butler and Gherardi are standing by to relieve them.
Giving better than they receive, blazing away with precise salvos from their five splendid 5", they held their own at first, though much outnumbered. Precious little dodging tactics are possible in those cramped waters but both use their powerful engines in spurts, ahead and astern, to throw off the enemy gunners. Fitch, with somewhat more sea room, changed her position to good effect. But Corry, under concentrated fire is hit. Compelled then to move, bad fortune slid her across a mine waiting just beneath an engine room. The mortal wound it inflicted is a first thought to come from a shell. But only a gaping hole in her bottom could break her gallant back and send her down so rapidly. Her plight is seen and quickly an avenging concentration from Tuscaloosa, Nevada, Quincy, Hobson and Fitch smother the three offending batteries which proved to total six 155s and eight 105s together with numerous 88s and 75s. Even Black Prince, though heavily engaged herself, came promptly to the rescue. But it is too late. Captain Hoffman had barely time to abandon his fine ship before she is on the bottom. Above the surface of the shallow water her control tower and foremast and two trim funnels remain erect, marking the grave of a destroyer worthy of her type, which indeed is praise enough. Fitch, coming quickly to the rescue, happily recovers most of the crew and is able to
thread her way out to the safety of the transport area where the wounded can be cared for.
Now Gherardi (Cdr. N. R. Curtis, USN) steams into the No. 5 station. Into station No. 3, more cramped then ever by the wreck of the Corry, comes Butler (Cdr. M. D. Matthews, USN) with the Division Commander embarked (Cdr. W. L. Benson, USN).
Meanwhile Hobson in Station No. 1 has been anything but idle, effectively clearing strong points from the landing beach. Cdr. __________, the Division Commander, makes good use of his time in a front row seat. Of the B-26 Bombing at 6 o'clock his report was "accurate __________ in 3 strong points 70, 72, 68 (these were on the landing beaches), but other bombs wide of mark." Of the bombardment by LCT rocket craft at 0631, his report states that the barrage was somewhat short and that "30% were in the water." In justice to these craft their problem was immensely complicated by infernal clouds, of smoke and sand obscuring the beach which must have made it nearly impossible to judge their distance offshore.
Shubrick (Lt.Cdr. W. Blenman USN) in Station No. 2 just south of the boat lane effectively engages the strong points on or near what proved to be the actual landing places. Herndon (Cdr. G. A. Moore USN) in Station No. 4, faced the guns just east of the Carentan Estuary where he joins the always valuable and highly efficient HMS Hawkins (in station No. 10). (Captain J. W. Josselyn, DSC, RN) and HMS Enterprise (in station No. 6) (Captain T. H. W. Grant, DSO, RCN). Also in that group is the Dutch gunboat HNMS Soemba (Lt.Cdr. H. H. L. Propper, R. Netherlands N.)
These ships, south of the boat lane, are placed to counter enemy threats on the southern flank of UTAH, as well as the western flank of OMAHA. This
proves fortunate and enables them to render valuable aid to hard-pressed OMAHA while still discouraging any renewal of enemy belligerence in our southern sections.
Now the boat lane is seen to be churned by the propellers of empty boats of the first waves racing back to the transport area for reloading, while eager new waves come chugging purposely shorewards. As Mitchell, Chase and I stand watching them, a heavily loaded LCT, still four miles off shore, suddenly leaps into the air above her companions. Higher than her length she rises, turns slowly, stern downward and crashes back into the bay. Another deadly mine on the Banc de Cordonnet had come to life--a sad and disturbing sight.
Looking over towards OMAHA, ten or twelve miles away, one's eyes are filled with craft of about every conceivable type, The sight brings warm conviction that, no matter what our losses, more and more will fill the gaps, a steady, limitless flow from our virile republic where men still find virtue in work, because they still respect themselves.
Our spotting aircraft, the second flight, are getting into the swing of it and the shooting is good. Their task is not easy. The flak is bad but unless they dive to three or four thousand feet the pilots cannot accurately observe nor always be sure which batteries are sill active. We have no ammunition to waste on those already silenced. Some of the German batteries shoot until they receive heavy return fire, then become silent. After an interval of one to several hours, they again come to life and must be once more silenced. This is a tedious and trying procedure.
As long, however, as their fire is directed at our ships and away from the troops, we have no complaint. That is what we are there for. Actually it
was only during the first hour or so that their shooting was accurate enough to cause concern. Is this the best that Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" can do?
The morning speeds by and the uncoiling spring attains vast momentum. Troops, vehicles, ammunition, supplies crowd the myriad craft streaming to the beach.
By 1030, the four large transports have been unloaded and stand out of the Bay. Amphibious DUKWS ("Ducks") swim to the sand and then roll on their wheels right inland to the supply dumps inland.