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Which were the main elements of the D-Day armada?

The Allied invasion of the Normandy beaches, and known as Operation Overlord, was dependent on the success of Operation Neptune. The latter included the perilous crossing of the English Channel prior to the landing itself. The role played by the Allied Navy has often been overlooked although D-Day could not have taken place without it. Which were the main elements of this impressive armada?

Neptune was just a codename. Known as the god of freshwater and the sea in Roman mythology, Neptune was the son of Saturn and brother of Jupiter, the king of the gods. He has been depicted as a bearded man holding a trident while riding in a chariot pulled by sea horses or other sea creatures. Interestingly enough, he was also believed to be able to calm storms and control the weather. If one is to consider how important a role the weather played in the launching of the D-Day attack, it seems to have been, in retrospect, quite a spot-on choice of words on the part of the Allied planners. (Check out our post on D-Day weather to see why the latter proved to be a blessing in disguise)


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Although the German mines off the Normandy beaches were not as numerous as the Allies had feared, the minesweepers ploughed the waves during the night of June 5-6 to create ten channels and thus provide safe passage for the elements of two naval task forces: Eastern (Anglo-Canadian beaches) and, Western (American beaches). All but thirty-two of the 300+ minesweepers assigned to the operation were Royal Navy vessels. Once they had swept and marked the channels, they began sweeping the ‘transport area’, a zone located approximately 10 miles off the D-Day landing beaches where the big cargo ships would anchor. The minesweepers did not complete their work until a few minutes before dawn on June 6, after more than sixteen hours of nonstop labor!

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Allied ships at Omaha Beach

“Thousands and thousands of ships of all classes stretched from horizon to horizon”

This was the image that would forever be embedded in the memory of those who took part in the greatest amphibious operation of all-time. Between four thousand and seven thousand vessels — depending on whether or not one counts the minesweepers, patrol craft, tugs, rhino ferries, and other auxiliary craft — played a part in the D-Day assault!

Among the steel-giants of this naval force that took almost mythological proportions were 5 battleships and 2 monitors, 23 cruisers, 100+ destroyers and destroyer escorts as well as 142 smaller gunships. Add armed patrol craft and boats to the list and you get to approximately 700 warships. Following them were:

300 LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank), oceangoing ships that displaced 1,625 tons when empty and could carry 20 Sherman tanks or 30 heavy trucks, or 2000+ tons of cargo in their cavernous hold, plus as many as 40 light trucks or jeeps lashed to their upper deck leaving enough room to bunk up to 350 soldiers. Because of the LST's flat bottom, which gave it a draft of less than two feet forward when empty and under seven feet when fully loaded, it could steam right up onto a beach despite its huge size and discharge her cargo through massive bow doors. The British had pioneered this type of ship with the Winstons and Winettes used at Dieppe two years earlier, but the Americans perfected it and made it famous. The ‘Long Slow Targets’ as their sailors used to call them represented the workhorse of the Normandy Campaign and came to be regarded amongst the most important ships of the Second World War. Before the end of the conflict the US would build over a thousand of them!

200 LCIs (Landing Craft, Infantry), vessels affectionately called “Elsies” that could cross the English channel on their own and carried up to two hundred men each. They lacked bow doors and thus could not transport vehicles of any kind. However, they could come in very close to the beach and disembarked their human cargo — about a company in strength — by deploying two gangplanks on either side of the bow.

800 LCTs (Landing Craft, Tank), craft that could carry up to five tanks or heavy trucks in an open cargo bay. There were quite a few versions manufactured during the war both in Britain and the US. The key feature of this type of landing craft was that upon beaching, it could open its bow doors, drop a ramp onto the sand, and allow the trucks or tanks drive out under their own power.

500 LCMs (Landing Craft, Mechanised) or ‘Mike boats’ could carry a single Sherman tank. This is probably why the US Navy had dubbed them “the big and chunky older brother to the LCVP”. Unlike their little sister though, the LCMs were of all-steel construction, manoeuvrable and they could cross the Channel on their own.

1500+ LCAs (Landing Craft, Assault) and LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel or ‘Higgins boats’) formed the bulk of the landing craft. They had to be carried aboard larger ships, and suspended on davits. The LCVP was capable of transporting 36 men or a jeep and a squad (10-12 men) hence its official designation. Fitted with two .30 calibre machine guns aft, this craft had a range of approximately 100 miles and could reach a maximum speed of 14 knots. The draft forward was just over 10 inches, which allowed them to land on beaches that had a very gradual slope like the ones at Normandy. Unlike the aforementioned LCM, they were made of wood carefully enveloped in studded metal plates (only the ramp was all-steel). They were indispensable for the success of the initial attack.

The concept of landing craft encompassed 46 different types of vessels, ranging from oceangoing transport and cargo ships that displaced over 10k tons down to the thirty-six-foot Higgins boats that carried the soldiers to the beaches!


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