THE NAVY’S ROLE

In the case of an amphibious assault such as Operation Neptune (the codename for the landings on the Normandy beaches), the navy obviously had a vital role to play.

The Allied armada which crossed the Channel in the night of June 5th-6th comprised no fewer than 4,300 ships of all shapes and sizes (not counting the 2,600 barges carried by the large transport ships and lowered onto the waves close to the shore). It was made up mostly of British and American ships, though there were also Norwegian, Dutch, Polish, Danish, Greek and Free French vessels.

This vast fleet was placed under the command of the British Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay. It was subdivided into the Western Task Force under Rear-Admiral Kirk, who was in charge of landings in the American sector (Naval Forces “U” for Utah Beach and “O” for Omaha), and the Eastern Task Force under Rear-Admiral Vian, who was in charge of operations in the Anglo-Canadian sector (Naval Forces “G” for Gold Beach, “J” for Juno and “S” for Sword). Each force, composed of several hundred transport ships, auxiliary vessels and escort ships, was accompanied by a naval bombardment squadron of between fifteen and twenty warships (battleships, cruisers and destroyers).

These ships were to open fire on the German defences forty-five minutes before H-Hour, taking over from the aerial bombardments that had been carried out overnight and at dawn. During the battle, they were to provide continuous covering fire, silencing most of the coastal batteries of the Atlantic Wall and giving valuable tactical support to the infantry, sometimes getting them out of tricky situations, as at Omaha.

For their part, the troop ships carried 130,000 men and more than 20,000 vehicles of all kinds, including tanks and lorries, across the Channel to the Normandy coast in the course of June 6th.

A few dozen decrepit merchant and warships, such as the French battleship Courbet, were scuttled in a long line in front of the Landing Beaches to form breakwaters.

In all, some 150,000 seamen belonging to the war fleets and the merchant navy took part in the landing operations – a force equal to the number of troops sent into battle on land on June 6th 1944.