Editor’s note: Planning is critical to success, but innovation and initiative during battle is a necessary part of combat. As part of CNO’s effort to apply lessons from our history to better prepare today’s Sailors for battle, we explore Operation Neptune and how Destroyer captains’ quick thinking and decisive actions helped secure victory at D-Day. Without direct orders, they used new, unplanned tactics to accomplish what needed to be done.
By Greg Bereiter, Ph.D., historian, Naval History and Heritage Command
The Allied invasion of German-occupied northern France on June 6, 1944 was perhaps the greatest seaborne assault in history. It involved thousands of transports, gunfire support ships, escorts, and landing craft of every possible size and function, and the obstacles to success were many. This month we will explore the key role played by a handful of American and British destroyers in the success of Operation NEPTUNE, the naval element of the huge invasion codenamed Operation OVERLORD, better known today as D-Day. The impact of these ships and their crews highlights the importance of initiative and agility in conducting combat operations against any enemy.
The invading Allied troops had been told that naval and aerial bombardment would knock out most of the German fortifications, but that proved not to be the case. A coordinated air and sea bombardment of the five target beaches just before the invasion did not greatly damage the Germans’ hardened defensive positions, despite the hopes of senior planners and the skill of American Sailors crewing ships like Nevada (BB 36), Quincy (CA 39), and Tuscaloosa (CA 37). Moreover, another German division had just arrived undetected by Allied reconnaissance, augmenting the 40,000 German soldiers already manning the coastal strongpoints. From the instant they left the tiny Higgins boats and stouter LCTs that put them ashore around 06:40 and 06:45 that morning, most Allied infantrymen were pinned down on the beaches.
What kept the amphibious invasion from stalling permanently was a handful of American and British destroyers, whose main job was to screen the invasion fleet from U-boats and E-boats. As the number of wrecked and burning landing craft and boats crowding the beaches swelled, Rear Admiral Carleton Bryant on board Texas (BB 35) radioed the nearby destroyers: “Get on them, men! Get on them! They are raising hell with the men on the beach, and we can’t have any more of that. We must stop it.”
Destroyers from DesRon 18, commanded by Captain Harry Sanders, together with a few Royal Navy destroyers, rushed shoreward so quickly that observers worried they would run aground. Most took up positions just 800-1,000 yards from the surf with only inches of water under their keels, and for the next 90 minutes fired thousands of 5-inch rounds into German positions behind Omaha Beach. The destroyers were so close that they were hit by rifle fire. Despite initial orders not to use over half of their ammunition in case of emergencies, the destroyer skippers decided that this was an emergency and fired almost everything they had. Carmick (DD 493) fired almost 1,130 of her 1,500 5-inch rounds at targets of opportunity, providing effective counter-fire on German positions. At one point, her skipper, Robert Beer, ordered his gunners to fire at a small area on the bluffs then under fire from the few Allied tanks ashore. After several 5-inch rounds hit the site, the tanks directed their fire elsewhere, prompting Carmick to follow suit. As Beer noted in his after-action report, “It was evident that the Army was using tank fire in [the] hope that the support vessels would see the target and take it under fire.” This wasn’t a product of planning, but of Sailors and Soldiers innovating on the spot.
Area fire by the heavy guns of Allied battleships and cruisers together with aerial bombing had failed to knock out the German gun positions, but the collective effect of aimed fire from the destroyers’ 5-inch guns took them out one by one. This enabled the troops pinned down on the beach to work their way to the coastal cliffs and fight their way to the top. By the late afternoon, though Omaha Beach was not yet completely secure, it was clear that the Allies would not be driven back into the sea – the invasion had been a success, D-Day gave the Allied forces the critical foothold on the continent and began the march to victory in Europe. The story of the D-Day destroyers underscores the importance of initiative and agility during combat operations at sea. The destroyermen’s resourceful actions on the morning of June 6,1944 directly contributed to decisive victory.