Sunday, December 11, 2016

Story: Normandy - Operation NEPTUNE Part 1

Operation NEPTUNE, the Naval Phase of OVERLORD

By Lloyd Williams

Troops waiting for departure aboard 262nd Flotilla of LCI(L)s for D-Day
Normandy. Tied up alongside in Southampton during a day of bad weather.
CP Photo as found in St. Nazaire to Singapore, Page 231

(Mr. L. Williams told the following story at the Maritime Museum of Vancouver in 1995. Some details were supplied by Jim Gibb.)

 Maritime Museum of BC. in Victoria. 2012

Mr. Williams says, "Operation Neptune, the naval phase of Overlord, had the primary task of landing the armies of liberation on French soil, and secondly the maintenance of waterborne lines of communication and supply."

Canada supplied 110 ships and 10,000 seamen to the enterprise, about 4 per cent of the Naval contribution. HMCS Prince Henry and Prince David, luxury liners transformed into landing ships early in the year, assembled at Cowes (Isle of Wight) with other LSI(M)s and given D-Day assignments. Prince Henry, as a Senior Officer of Landing Ships (SOLS) in Force J would carry eight assault craft of the 528th Canadian Flotilla, and Prince David, as a Senior Ship in the same force, would transport six craft of the 529th along with six Royal Marine Boats. And shortly thereafter at Cowes, after lengthy training exercises, three Canadian Flotillas of LCI(L)s arrived, the 260th, 262nd and 264th, 30 craft in all.

Then began final exercises on a very large scale, the last of which (Operation Fabius) took place in broad daylight and later under a bright moon twenty-five miles south of the Isle of Wight, and likely was observed by the enemy, thus adding the risk of a possible attack. None came and the great force of ships and troops landed before dawn "under the thunder of supporting arms" east of Portsmouth and upon the beaches of Bracklesham Bay.

Williams says, "On May 24 the King inspected all the assault ships and craft.... (Officers and ratings were presented to the King) "after which the small ships were sailed past while His Majesty took the salute."

A signal announced the King's passing by his LCI(L)s in a barge

Officers and ratings await the Royal Sail Past in Southampton.
Photo by David Lewis, St. Nazaire to Singapore, Page 230

After final preparations and anxious days of waiting the Allied strike forces were organized to cross the English Channel for mass landings on the French coast at Baie de la Seine, "the longest stretch of open shore lying within effective range" of supporting aircraft. Williams supplies details related to the size, shape and depth of the bay, and the German defences. About "the great German mine belt" he says that slits would be created in it "through which the assaulting ships could pass" (after the dropping of airborne troops at 2400 hours on June 6) along a five-divisional front.

D-Day strategy involved "a night-long smashing by aircraft" followed by Naval bombardment at dawn directed toward Germany's strongest defences. Landing craft would approach designated beaches on swelling tidal waters "over the mines" and assorted defensive obstacles arranged systematically upon the beaches. "Depths and gradients along each foot of the shore were known" and assault craft were expected to find "exact beaching positions."

Allied aerial bombardment would be closely followed by tremendous Naval bombardment (supplied by seven battleships, 23 cruisers, 104 destroyers and more, i.e., monitors, gunboats and rocket-firing ships) and then seven divisions of soldiers expected to land within the first day, then reinforcements would arrive (more than one division per day).

"No sea-borne landing even remotely comparable in size had ever been attempted under such conditions," says Lloyd Williams.

The Normandy landings: U.S. and British Forces and Transports.
Canadians Among the British. St. Nazaire to Singapore, Page 232

Thousands of ships had to adhere to a highly organized timetable - and pass through only ten narrow mine-swept lanes - in order for Operation OVERLORD to be successful. Any disruption of the flow of troops, their supplies and reinforcements could cause "the most disastrous results." The threat of bad weather caused great fear among planners. Raging seas might delay heavily-burdened landing craft and storms would hinder navigation and decrease the support of air cover. As well, Germany had 230 surface ships - including destroyers and heavily-armed R-boats - within range of the Channel crossing zone, and a dangerous force of U-Boats based on the European coast.

"At 2400 on June 5, the 260th Canadian Flotilla slipped their lines from Southampton docks and proceeded to join a stream of similar craft threading its way down the crowded anchorage of the Solent," says Williams.

The LCI(L)s felt heavy in the water at slow, station-keeping speed, but the seven craft kept pace with their 1,300 troops on board (including 250 Canadians), as did the 12 craft of the 262nd Flotilla carrying 2,100 troops, mostly Canadian. The 264th Canadian Flotilla kept in its line nearby. And nine hours later followed the Prince Henry and David,  between them leading fourteen landing ships.

D-Day crossing: LCAs hang upon davits on landing ships
Photo as found in Combined Operations by C. Marks

The 264th Canadian Flotilla was bound for the Gold Sector, and all other Canadian ships were bound for Juno Sector. Larger ships that had left the Solent later in the morning passed smaller craft on their way to their positions (e.g., HMCS Algonquin passed Prince Henry) and it was noticed by some that LCI(L) flotillas were "tossing and bucketing as they fought to maintain course" in the choppy seas. Once through mine-swept channels, the ships spread out - at distances up to seven miles from shore -to face their target beaches.

"By 5:35 the (aforementioned Canadian) vessels were swinging at anchor in the eerie half-dawn light, each an exact 300 yards from the next," says Williams.

From the Prince David were first lowered two RN craft and at 6:17 one loaded with Royal Marines headed for Nan Beach to provide small arms support. At 6:35 the second craft headed toward the beach where Marines would work in waist-deep water "clearing mines and obstacles ahead of the assault craft."

Canadians emerged next from the troop decks and climbed into assault landing craft. Loaded LCAs were lowered from the David and Henry and soon joined swarms of craft from other ships in preparation for beaching. Some assault units were assigned to land at Mike Red beach "a mile to the east of Courseulles" while others were destined for Nan White, one and a half miles farther west.

More to follow.

Please link to Story: The Mine - Difficult Manoeuvres, 1944

Unattributed Photos GH

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