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Monday, June 06, 2011

Normandy Invasion, June 6, 1944

In case you were wondering what this day is famous for starting in 1944 try the Normandy Invasion, June 6, 1944:
On 6 June 1944 the Western Allies landed in northern France, opening the long-awaited "Second Front" against Adolf Hitler's Germany. Though they had been fighting in mainland Italy for some nine months, the Normandy invasion was in a strategically more important region, setting the stage to drive the Germans from France and ultimately destroy the National Socialist regime.

It had been four long years since France had been overrun and the British compelled to leave continental Europe, three since Hitler had attacked the Soviet Union and two and a half since the United States had formally entered the struggle. After an often seemingly hopeless fight, beginning in late 1942 the Germans had been stopped and forced into slow retreat in eastern Europe, defeated in North Africa and confronted in Italy. U.S. and British bombers had visited ruin on the enemy's industrial cities. Allied navies had contained the German submarine threat, making possible an immense buildup of ground, sea and air power in the British Isles.
A story you might not have heard, about how 22 old, mostly useless merchant ships were intentionally sunk to create breakwaters and the role of the " Naval Armed Guards" in that process from here:
Sunken "Block Ships"
The story of how a modern [artificial] port was built at Omaha and Utah beaches has already been revealed. Armed Guards on some 22 merchant ships which were scuttled [deliberately sunk] to make a breakwater played a vital part in this operation. For days they endured the early fury of the German counter-attack and helped give fire protection to the forces ashore from their partly submerged ships. This was a task which required courage and the ability to do without sleep.

Block Ships in Position with Gaps for Ship/Shore Traffic
The 22 block ships were carefully prepared for their assigned operation. The heavy [deck] gun aft was removed and four 20mm [anti-aircraft guns] and a 40mm [anti-aircraft gun] were generally substituted. The ships were stripped of all unnecessary gear. About eight explosive charges were placed in the holds and large openings were cut in the transverse bulkheads. Necessary food supplies and ammunition had to be moved topside, for the decks of some of the ships were to be under water at times.

The men aboard the 13 ships scuttled off Omaha Beach and the 9 ships scuttled off Utah Beach had much the same experiences. Crossing the [English] Channel there were the [enemy] mines and the E-boats [small fast German motor torpedo boats also known as Schnellboote or S-Boats; similar to American PT-boats]. By day German 88mm guns fired at the block ships, and by night enemy bombers came over.

Beachhead from Above with Block Ships in Position
The James Iredell was the lead ship among the block ships and she was scuttled at the appointed position on the afternoon of June 7, 1944. At 2030 German artillery fire became so heavy that the Armed Guards on this ship and on the Baialaide and the Galveston were evacuated. But they returned to their ships on the morning of June 8. The Armed Guards of the Baialaide remained at their guns until June 17. At high tide the main deck of the ship was six feet under water. The Armed Guards on the James Iredell and the Galveston recorded air attacks every night until June 15, when they were relieved. On the George W. Childs, which was scuttled on June 8, the Armed Guards had narrowly missed being hit by artillery fire as they lay off the beach on the night of June 7. Mines and E-boats had been encountered while crossing the Channel. There were three or four air attacks at night and one bomb landed 50 yards from the Childs. She was credited with two assists [in shooting down enemy aircraft]. She established a kind of open house for visiting firemen by furnishing food and quarters to countless numbers of troops and small boat crews. One of her Armed Guards was wounded by a shell fragment. Not until June 17 did the Armed Guards leave the ship.

The Courageous reported E-boat attacks en route to Omaha Beach, artillery fire upon arrival on June 7, and air attacks every night from June 7 to 12. On June 9 her Armed Guards hit a [German] plane which in turn dropped a bomb so close that the decks were sprayed with fragments. The plane crashed. The Potter was forced to seaward on the night of June 7 by [German] 88mm [artillery] fire, but was scuttled the next day. Many shell fragments landed on her decks and one Armed Guard was wounded. Her crew was relieved on June 13. Several bombs landed close to the James W. Marshall. Her Armed Guard officer remained on board until June 22 in connection with the command of all Armed Guards on the scuttled ships. But Army personnel took over the gunnery duties on the Marshall on June 13. The Wilscox had a narrow miss on June 11. Her Armed Guards were also evacuated on June 13. The Armed Guards on the Audacious remained aboard until June 18. The Armed Guards on the Olambala reported some 32 air attacks to June 16, but only one merchant seaman was wounded before the merchant crew was removed. Fragments from 88mm guns which were scoring near misses hit the decks of the Artemus Ward on June 7. One Armed Guard was wounded on June 9. Bombs narrowly missed on June 10 and 11, and shell fragments hit on the latter date. Part of the gun crew was removed on June 19. Because of a storm from June 19 to 22 [this was the great storm which wrecked the artificial "mulberry" harbors at the Normandy beachheads], the ship cracked. The last Armed Guards were not removed until June 22. The West Grama fired about 19 times and scored one assist on June 9. One Armed Guard on this vessel was wounded while at Omaha Beach. A bomb landed close to the ship on June 14. Her Armed Guards left the ship on June 18. She was credited with two assists [in shooting down German aircraft]. Flight Command reported 30 to 35 alerts prior to June 15.

At Utah Beach the George S. Wasson went through 32 raids from June 7 to 14. The David O. Saylor was forced to withdraw from Utah Beach because of heavy artillery fire which was straddling her on June 7. She was also forced to withdraw once on June 8 but was successfully scuttled in the afternoon. Her Armed Guards left on June 13. The West Nohno helped shoot down several enemy planes on June 10. Her Armed Guards left on June 18. The Benjamin Contee Armed Guards withdrew from the ship on June 14 after 32 raids. Artillery narrowly missed the Matt W. Ransom at Utah Beach. Her Armed Guards reported many alerts and indicated that from 8 to 10 rounds of [German] artillery fire were observed each day to June 15. They left two days later. The Vitruvius reported that six planes were shot down by her fire and by the shore batteries on June 10. She was narrowly missed by bombs on the night of June 11. The Armed Guards on the Victory Sword brought down six planes on the night of June 10. The West Cheswald claimed one plane destroyed. Her Armed Guards were not removed until June 19. The West Honaker was damaged by two skip bombs on June 8 and part of the merchant crew and the Armed Guards abandoned ship. Not until June 10 was she scuttled about 400 yards from the beach. Her Armed Guards left on June 14. The Armed Guard crews from the block ships were returned to the United States on the Queen Elizabeth. There was no loss of life among the Armed Guards taking part in this dangerous operation.

The Commander of United States Naval Forces in Europe highly commended the Armed Guard personnel for their participation in placing the block ships and defending the ships until relieved by Army personnel.
You want lessons in courage? D-Day at Normandy is just one example.


See "Ghost Ships of Normandy for more information on the "block ships." Block ships are an old military idea. Old merchant ships were not alone in being sunk as "block ships" - several old warships were also used. See here:
The ships to be sunk were known as "corn cobs" and the breakwaters they created were known as "Gooseberries." Other components of the artificial harbors were "Mulberries." See here:
"Corn cobs" were block ships that crossed the channel either under their own steam or that were towed and then scuttled to create sheltered water at the five landing beaches.. Once in position the "Corn Cobs" created "Gooseberries". The ships used for each beach were:
Utah Beach (Gooseberry 1): Benjamin Contee, David O. Saylor, George S. Wasson, Matt W. Ransom,[7] West Cheswald, West Honaker, West Nohno, Willis A. Slater, Victory Sword and Vitruvius.

Omaha Beach (Gooseberry 2): Artemas Ward,[7] Audacious, Baialoide, HMS Centurion, Courageous, Flight-Command, Galveston, George W. Childs, James W. Marshall, James Iredell,[7] Olambala, Potter, West Grama and Wilscox.

Gold Beach (Gooseberry 3): Alynbank, Alghios Spyridon, Elswick Park, Flowergate, Giorgios P., Ingman, Innerton, Lynghaug, Modlin, Njegos, Parkhaven, Parklaan, Saltersgate, Sirehei, Vinlake and Winha.

Juno Beach (Gooseberry 4): Belgique, Bendoran, Empire Bunting, Empire Flamingo, Empire Moorhen, Empire Waterhen, Formigny, Manchester Spinner, Mariposa, Panos and Vera Radcliffe.

Sword Beach (Gooseberry 5): Becheville, Courbet, Dover Hill, HMS Durban, Empire Defiance, Empire Tamar, Empire Tana, Forbin and HNLMS Sumatra.

"Gooseberry"
The sheltered waters created by the Corn Cob block ships. Two of the "Gooseberries[8]" grew into "Mulberries", the artificial harbours.
You might gather that there was a great deal more involved in Normandy D-Day operations than sending landing craft ashore.

Take time to remember all those who took part in the French shore beginning of the liberation of Europe from the Nazis.
From Navy Art Gallery showing the Omaha beach just before the storm that wrecked much of the logistics structure - but also shows the Gooseberries in line offshore
Also from the Navy Art Gallery, Storm on "Gooseberry" by Dwight C. Shepler, Watercolor, June, 21 1944:

There, with decks awash in the roaring sea, the sunken block ships of the great harbor of "Mulberry" successfully rode out the storm. The part of the breakwater formed by the line of sunken ships was called "Gooseberry." Though they worked about on the bottom, the ships held their place throughout the unseasonal blow of June 19-22, 1944. At the height of the gale's fury, gunners stationed on a sunken merchantman sought safety on the fo'c'sle of the H.M.S. Centurion, an old British battlewagon which was the western bastion of Gooseberry.
Top photos from the Naval Historical Center. Photos of "block ships" from "Ghost Ships of Normandy, photo source unknown (but I am ready to learn and give proper credit).

UPDATE: Interesting read from the Navy Department Library:  Miracle Harbor:
AMERICAN and British officers planning the D-Day details in England were up against a tremendous problem. It was all very well to land troops on the beaches of Normandy, but once there they had to be kept supplied with immense quantities of ammunition, food, and weapons. How were these supplies to keep flowing without a harbor?

There was a limit to what landing craft could do. The rough Channel seas and the tide that rises and falls twenty feet meant that stuff put down on the flat Normandy beaches would be swamped by the tide before it could all be moved onto dry land. And the idea of starting off the invasion by capturing one of the heavily defended French ports was out of the question. It would take too long.

The story goes that one of the officers engaged in the planning remarked casually to one of his colleagues, not intending to be taken seriously, "Well, I suppose we'll have to take our harbors with us." This remark, it is reported, started the experts on a train of thought that ended at the point where the ramps of the prefabricated ports touched the Normandy shore.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. Thanks for the post! Old terms are a hoot.
    BTW new buzzword for this type operation: Joint Theather Entry Operations just don't have the same ring as Overlord?

    ReplyDelete