- Boxall-Hunt, Brian OBE, Commander, RN
- History - WW2, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By 1st June 1944 Admiral Ramsay had been joined at Southwick by General Eisenhower and General Montgomery, the Ground Force Commander, Eisenhower living in a ‘trailer village’ in the area and ‘Monty’ in a caravan. Tedder was also there, as was Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the Air Forces Commander. (Navigation training, there since the first air raid on Portsmouth Dockyard had forced re-location, had temporarily been moved to the Royal Greenwich Hospital but the embryo Action Information Training Centre – AITC – remained in the Old Stables block as it was too difficult to move it).
Two main amphibious forces, an eastern naval Task Force (British) under Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, and a western Task Force (American) under Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk USN, were formed. The eastern Task Force was to land the British Second Army under Lt. General Sir Miles Dempsey on (from east to west) SWORD (UK), JUNO (Canadian) and GOLD (UK) beaches on a thirty mile front west of the Orne river. The western Task Force was to land the US First Army under Lt. General Omar N. Bradley on OMAHA and UTAH beaches, west of the British assault area, UTAH being at the base of the Cotentin peninsula. On the success of the latter would depend the early capture of Cherbourg.
The selection of D-Day was critical and depended on the correct conjunction of tidal conditions and sunrise. This led to the traditional amphibious planning conundrum (still alive and well as witnessed in my recent role as Chief of Staff to the UK Amphibious Task Group). The army wanted a high water landing so as to reduce the depth of beach which the soldiers would have to cross; the Navy, on the other hand, wanted a low water landing so that the assault craft could beach to seaward of the beach obstacles which Field Marshal Rommel had been so busily building.
This would also help with the clearance of the obstacles, which would be dealt with before the tide rose. Whilst the initial assault forces would approach in darkness (sunrise on 6th June was 0558) the landing would be in daylight in order to avoid pilotage errors on the approach to the beaches and to aid fixing to give accurate counter-battery fire by bombarding ships. A further consideration for an early daylight landing was to ensure the army was in good order by nightfall. Airborne troops needed to be dropped by night with sufficient moon if possible for them to identify their targets. As always, a compromise was reached between dark and light, high and low water.
The decision was made that the actual seaborne assault should start 40 minutes after Nautical Twilight (which begins when the sun is 12° below the horizon) and between three and four hours before High Water. These requirements are only met on three or four days each month, and the only days in June which fulfilled these conditions were the 5th to 7th and the 18th to 20th. The 5th to the 7th had the advantage of a full moon.
On 8th May 1944 therefore, Eisenhower provisionally fixed D-Day for 5th June, confirming this on 25th May 1944. On 23rd May orders to prepare accordingly were passed to all naval authorities, and preliminary movements began to gather all the ships together, with the main focus in the Solent at Spithead, which was crowded by late May. On 25th May, on confirmation of D-Day, Ramsay ordered all ships to open their operation orders and assumed operational command of all NEPTUNE forces from Southwick House on 1st June 1944.
An extract from the History of US Naval Operations in World War Two (which perhaps reads strangely to those later used to NATO exercises) says ‘The British were accustomed to making detailed plans at top level; the Americans to issuing broad directives to lower echelons, who were encouraged to work out their own details. Admiral Ramsay’s operation orders, issued 10th April, consumed, with their 22 Annexes, no fewer than 1,100 pages’. Be that as it may, 1,213 warships were allocated, from big-gun battleships and monitors (including Nelson (or Rodney depending on which book read), Ramillies, Warspite (veteran of Jutland) and US Ships Texas, Kansas and Nevada (survivor of Pearl Harbour) and 22 cruisers, down to midget submarines. They assembled at ports depending on their assigned roles, e.g. 107 bombarding ships at Belfast and in the Clyde (the Naval force for each beach having the same letter as the beach itself, e.g. J for JUNO), and the 286 destroyers, sloops, frigates and corvettes for escort duties along the south coast. 79% of all combatants (excluding combined operations ships and craft) were British or Canadian, 16.5% US Navy and 4.5% Allied.