The Royal Navy at D-Day 75

Commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day
and the battle of Normandy

Operation overlord

"I am very uneasy about the whole operation. At the best it will fall so very far short of the expectations. At worst, it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war."

- Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of Imperial General Staff

Overwhelming Numbers Told

There has been no greater combined air, sea and land operation in the history of warfare than Operation Overlord – codename for the invasion of Normandy.

Over 175,000 men were assigned for the first day’s assault on Hitler’s vaunted Fortress Europe – an intermittent series of bunkers, fortifications, trenches, gun emplacements and strongpoints stretching from Jutland to Biarritz – first from the air (by parachute and glider) but mostly from the sea.

1,213 Warships

The seaborne element of the invasion – Operation Neptune – required 6,833 vessels from great battleships pounding German defences, down to small floating galleys, salvage tugs and landing craft.

The naval force was crewed by Frenchmen, Norwegians, Dutch, Poles, Greeks, Americans, but especially Britons and Canadians, who accounted for nearly 80 per cent of all the sailors taking part.

The Royal Marines bore a tremendous burden too. Of the hundreds of landing craft sent against the beaches of Normandy, two out of every three were crewed by marines.

11,590 Aircraft

Overhead was a gigantic umbrella of Allied air power – 11,590 aircraft, 443 of them from the Fleet Air Arm – flying some 14,000 sorties in the first 24 hours of the invasion. They dominated the skies that Tuesday. The Luftwaffe flew just 319 missions… and failed to shoot down a single Allied plane.

The German Navy was also largely held at bay: it could only muster a couple of dozen fast motor launches and 17 U-boats to counter the armada massed against it.

The counter-attack sank not a single Royal Navy warship on June 6. Torpedo boats did hit the Norwegian destroyer Svenner, which went down with 33 men, including one Briton.

Doubts About Success

Despite the overwhelming forces massed for the invasion, many of its chief architects were not convinced the operation would succeed.

As the fleet sailed for France, Admiral Bertram Ramsay, the operation’s senior naval planner, wrote that “success will be in the balance”. And Dwight D Eisenhower, the American largely in charge of Overlord, issued a stirring order of the day promising “nothing less than full victory” from the landings. Privately, however, he scribbled a second communique to be issued should the venture fail.

“The troops, the air [forces] and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion could do. If any blame attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”

The Allied Counter Attack

From naval bombardments and immense air attacks, to daring parachute and glider landings, the allied invasion of Normandy required a giant air, sea and land force to conduct and support the amphibious landings.

The map below shows the complex battle plan and where each unit was placed on June 6th. Hover your mouse over the map, or touch devices (hold your finger on the map) to see more.

D-Day timeline

"The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. For the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day." - Erwin Rommel

12:26am, June 6th 1944

Crossings over the River Orne and Caen Canal seized The first action of D-Day was silent, lethal and legendary. In just ten minutes, airborne troops capture vital crossings over the River Orne and neighbouring Caen Canal between Caen and Ouistreham after landing in Horsa gliders. Seizing the bridges prevents German armour from reaching the beaches without a lengthy detour through Caen. The success of the operation results in the canal crossing earning the name ‘Pegasus Bridge’ after the airborne troops’ flying horse emblem.

4:30am, June 6th 1944

Paratroopers fill the skies Throughout the night, paratroopers are dropped by the British – to the east and northeast of Caen, and by the Americans – at the foot of the Cotentin Peninsula. By 4.30am, the first town on French soil had been liberated, St Mère Église. News of the landings quickly reaches German headquarters. They demand the paratroopers are wiped out and request permission from Hitler’s headquarters - 1,000 miles away in East Prussia - to commit the armoured reserve and crush any landing. The German dictator is asleep and must not be woken. The panzers stay put.

5:00am, June 6th 1944

Germans sight the approaching armada in the Seine Bay Artillery battery commander Major Werner Pluskat, along with his men, is stationed at his command post in Ste Honorine, overlooking the Normandy coast just east of Colleville. For four hours, Werner Pluskat peered through the darkness and saw nothing. But as night slowly turned to day, Pluskat grabbed his binoculars again and scanned the Seine Bay. ‘I saw that the horizon was literally filling with ships of all kinds. I could hardly believe it’. Stunned, the artillery officer passed the binoculars to a colleague in the concrete command post. ‘Take a look’ Pluskat told him. He did. ‘My god, it’s the invasion’. Another German observer tersely reported: Tausende von Schiffen aufgespürt. Sie kommen! Thousands of ships detected. They’re coming!

5:30am, June 6th 1944

Allied warships begin bombarding German defences The Americans fired broadsides – all guns at once. The British preferred to ‘ripple’ their guns, one turret firing at a target after another. “What I saw scared the devil out of me,” said 19-year-old Robert Vogt, near Arromanches. “Ships as far as the eye could see. An entire fleet. I thought: ‘Oh God, we’re finished! We’re done for now!’” Veteran battleship HMS Warspite was the first ship to open fire, hammering German positions around Gold Beach. Her captain, Marcel Harcourt Attwood Kelsey, encouraged those not directly involved in the bombardment to watch the spectacle: “All personnel not on full action stations can come up on deck to witness a sight you will never see again in your lifetime.” Allan Snowden, on battleship HMS Rodney, found “the sheer volume of noise, the blast of the guns was incredible – you could feel it through your body even if you were quite a distance from the gun actually doing the firing. You couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for the guys on the receiving end.”

6:30am, June 6th 1944

American troops land at Utah Beach in the face of negligible opposition, but face ferocious defence landing at Omaha Beach The amphibious landings begin at the western end of the Seine Bay on both sides of River Vire estuary. On the left bank, the attackers encounter virtually no opposition from the German defenders at what is codenamed Utah Beach. To the east, beneath the bluffs at Vierville, the sands labelled Omaha Beach became a killing ground as Germans mowed down the attackers. After just four minutes, a report was flashed back from Omaha: Entire first wave foundered.

7:25am, June 6th 1944

British forces land at Gold and Sword Beaches Nearly an hour after US forces came ashore, the British followed suit further east at Gold Beach (Arromanches) and Sword (Lion-sur-Mer). Off Sword, 19-year-old telegraphist Clifford Palliser was urged by his superior on HMS Largs to “watch a piece of history in the making” as landing craft ferried men, including Royal Marines of 47 Commando, towards the shore “bobbing and weaving”. He saw amphibious tanks crawl up the beach before seemingly being knocked out “one after another” by German gunners. “It was a real surprise when, through a break in the smoke, I saw the tanks lumbering on up the beach.” At Gold, British tanks quickly overwhelmed the defences. Before 8.30am, they were racing towards the picture-postcard town of Arromanches.

7:35am, June 6th 1944

British and Canadian troops struggle at Juno Beach Juno Beach – between Sword and Gold and attacked by a combined Anglo-Canadian force – proved to be the Commonwealth troops’ Omaha; the 90-minute bombardment of German positions had failed to subdue the defenders. Some of the landing craft were impaled on the beach defences as they ran in, while Royal Marines of 48 Commando spilled ashore having been tossed around badly by the rough sea. Many threw up. “The beach was covered with casualties – some Canadian, some ours,” Royal Marines Capt Dan Flunder remembered. “The surf was incredible: beached and half-sunken craft wallowing about in it.” Tanks saved the day. An hour after the infantry landed, the first armour appeared and forced the sea wall holding the assault back.

10:00am, June 6th 1944

Hitler is informed of the invasion Adolf Hitler finally rises at his Bavarian mountain retreat, the Berghof, where he was finally told of the invasion. “The news couldn’t be better,” he told his most senior military commander. “Now we have them where we can destroy them.” Around the same time, Erwin Rommel, at home in southern Germany celebrating his wife’s 50th birthday, was informed by his bespectacled chief-of-staff Hans Speidel. The field marshal resolved to return to his headquarters 430 miles away immediately. He would not arrive at La Roche-Guyon, on the Seine 40 miles downstream of Paris, until nightfall.

11:00am, June 6th 1944

Americans finally break out at Omaha Beach After being pinned down at Omaha for three hours, American troops had finally managed to subdue the bunkers and fortifications and reach the bluffs overlooking the beach. By mid-day they were streaming inland. German machine-gunner Heinrich Severloh – history would dub him ‘the Beast of Omaha’ for shooting hundreds of American troops, perhaps 2,000 – abandoned his post to fall back. From his viewpoint high above Omaha, he surveyed the horrific scene: “For the first time I realised how many dead had been washed up on the beach below by the high waves and rising tide in our sector. On a stretch of beach about 300m long and several metres wide lay hundreds upon hundreds of lifeless bodies of American soldiers, in places several on top of each other. The wounded moved slowly in the blood-soaked water; most of them crawled to the edge of the beach – where there was an embankment about one and half metres high – to find shelter behind it.” He would be a prisoner of the Allies within 24 hours.

2:30pm, June 6th 1944

Hitler orders his panzers to crush the invasion Erwin Rommel had wanted to concentrate his armour close to the beaches and unleash them as soon as the Allies set foot on French soil… but had been overruled by Hitler who feared the panzers would be smashed by the enemy bombardment. The armour could not roll without the dictator’s approval – but it was gone 2.30pm, after the lunchtime situation conference in Bavaria, that Hitler authorised the counter-attack. The Nazi leader was in an almost euphoric mood. “He has already almost won the battle,” propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels gushed. “But we don’t want things to go too easily…”

7:00pm, June 6th 1944

The German counter-attack fails Despite throwing hundreds of panzers and thousands of men at the growing Allied beachheads, no German counter-attack got closer than four miles from the coast; the various armoured prongs were mauled by Allied air power and the guns of the fleet massed in the Seine Bay. The Germans had set off vowing: “We’ll show the Tommies.” By early evening the narrow Normandy lanes were peppered with burned-out and wrecked German armour. “All hell broke loose,” recalled Hans von Luck, commanding motorised infantry. “The heaviest naval guns, artillery and fighter-bombers plastered us without pause.” One regiment lost 70 of its 124 tanks in little more than six hours.

10:00pm, June 6th 1944

Night falls on Normandy By last light on Tuesday June 6 1944, Allied forces had a precarious foothold in occupied France. Nearly 175,000 troops were ashore. Gold and Juno beachheads had merged but there was still a gap with the troops landed at Sword, who had fallen short of capturing their (rather ambitious) objective for the day: Caen. The Americans at Utah and paratroopers had seized 25 square miles of the Cotentin peninsula, but those at Omaha had advanced little more than half a mile from the beach. The cost of the day’s fighting? Around 2,500 American dead, 2,600 British and Commonwealth fallen and pretty much every German defender of the beaches killed. News of the landings provoked a tremendous appetite for news around the world, but little joy except among the small number of French now liberated. “The invasion leaves us with mixed feelings – mostly with a sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs,” one grandmother from Hull observed. “The reaction of people on June 6 was mostly tears because so many of them had sons and husbands who would be risking their lives on the beaches of France.”

75-year commemoration

"All it seemed you could see were the boys dying on the beach." - Gunner AB Billy Swift, HMS Scourge

Each year
We commemorate

"I was a very small clog in a very large wheel. There was a whole army of people – teleprinters, plotters, switchboard operators of which I was one – a whole army of people just trying to make the operation go smoothly" - Wren Telegraphist 17-year-old Marie Scott, Fort Southwick

More than two million Servicemen were involved in Operation Overlord between June and August 1944. They were backed by thousands more personnel – both men and women – in the UK and the combined economic and industrial might of the Allied powers.

One of the most momentous military operations ever carried out

Today, anyone involved in what General Eisenhower called ‘the great crusade’ is at least in their mid-90s or older.

The 75th anniversary of D-Day will be the last major official international commemoration, attended by world leaders in the presence of those veterans, now thought to number just a few thousand.

Portsmouth is the hub for events on this side of the Channel, including a service of thanksgiving on Southsea Common on June 5, before a cruise ship carrying veterans sails for Normandy escorted by a flotilla of Royal Navy warships.

Once in France, more commemorative events will take place with veterans at the heart of proceedings, notably the inauguration of a new memorial and services in Bayeaux’s stunning cathedral, plus the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery on the edge of the town where the moving inscription reads:

Nos a Gulielmo victi victoris patriam liberavimus – We, once conquered by William, have now set free the conqueror’s native land.

Royal Navy

Petty Officer Kathleen Blower, Sergeant Clifford Coates Royal Marines and Sub Lieutenant Leonard Husband tell their incredible stories serving in the Royal Navy during D-Day.

Royal Air Force

Leonard Williams of the Royal Berkshire Regiment and RAF Aircraft Engineer Greg Hayward detail their astonishing experiences of June 6 1944.

British Army

Veteran Servicemen Ronald Smith and Dennis Osgood recall the huge amphibious operation and beach assault on Normandy.

Upcoming events for D-Day 75

D-Day 75 officially kicks off on June 5th 2019 with a huge series of events, however there are exciting activities and festivals running throughout 19 May until mid-June. More than 500 veterans are expected to attend. There will be 4,000 serving personnel, including 4 military bands, 40 aircraft and 11 Royal Navy vessels. 200 paratroopers from US, British and French armies will fall over Normandy.