Operation Neptune

06.06.14

D-Day Was The Largest And One Of The Bloodiest Invasions In History

The Allied invasion of Europe that culminated in D-Day took two years to plan and still nearly foundered on the bloody beaches of Normandy.

No military operation in history has exercised so great a hold on the collective imagination of Americans as the D-Day landings in Normandy, France. Omaha Beach, where thousands of acts of individual valor and initiative transformed an impending disaster into a bloody triumph, is as sacred a piece of ground to Americans as any place on earth, including Gettysburg or Plymouth Rock. 

Just two hours after the initial landings at 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, the intensity of fire from well over 100 well-dug-in Wehrmacht machine guns and antitank weapons positioned in the bluffs behind the beach shut down the landings, leaving the early waves of assault troops stranded with little cover and only a handful of Sherman tanks. Most of the specially designed amphibious behemoths, along with other combat vehicles and heavy weapons, had sunk in the rough surf en route to the beach. Many infantry in the first waves drowned, having disembarked from their landing craft in water over their heads. The preliminary naval and air bombardments had utterly failed to reduce the German strongpoints. “I gained the impression,” recalled the American general in command of the landing, “that our forces had suffered an irreversible catastrophe.” 

But Omar Bradley was wrong. On their own initiative, a dozen destroyers sallied forth into dangerously shallow waters in front of the beach—so close they took fire from German rifle rounds. Using American tank fire on the beach to spot the location of the main enemy emplacements, the destroyers’ five-inch shells decimated the most formidable German positions within 90 minutes. 

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Allied ships, boats and barrage balloons off Omaha Beach after the successful D-Day invasion, Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, June 9, 1944. (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty)

The infantry on the beach rallied. Improvised squads and platoons, some led by mere PFCs or corporals, began to move off the beach, sometimes using the corpses of their comrades as cover from the raking fire of the German guns, and cleared all five draws through the bluffs leading to the towns beyond. Much of the combat was hand-to-hand. And desperate. The landings resumed, and the tide of battle shifted to the Americans. By 6 p.m., there was no question the U.S. Army was on Omaha to stay. 

Over the course of the “longest day,” 10,000 servicemen—Brits, Frenchmen, Poles, and other allies in addition to Americans, who suffered the lion’s share of the casualties—were killed or wounded. Three thousand alone fell in the near-disaster on Omaha—more than on all the other beaches combined. 

The immediate objective of the landings, in military parlance, was “to secure a lodgment” on the beaches strong enough to repel the inevitable German counterattack, and hang on to the beachhead while sufficient combat power was brought to bear from across the channel in order to initiate a major armored thrust to the East to crush Hitler’s formidable war machine.

In relating the well-known story of the crossing and the landings, Symonds has an excellent eye for telling details and arresting quotes from the ordinary participants.

Soldiers have crossed the seas in ships for several thousand years to assail their enemies on foreign shores, but in terms of scale and intention, the amphibious assault on the Normandy coast was—is—unprecedented. More than 6,000 vessels of a bewildering variety of types, at least 10,000 aircraft, 2 million men, and three years of planning were required to bring it off.  Scores of best-selling books, countless documentaries, and two blockbuster feature films have told the story of the stormy, windswept channel crossing, the daring airborne assault behind the beaches, the landings, and the ensuing battle through the hedgerows of the Norman countryside. 

More than admiration and respect for brave deeds well done lies behind our now 70-year-long fascination with Operation Neptune, the cross-Channel invasion and amphibious landings that formed the first phase of Operation Overlord, the battle for Normandy. For contemporary Americans, Britons, and Canadians, there is a certain vicarious thrill in placing themselves, through the power of imagination, among their countrymen who took part in the Big Event. 

These were people, after all, who believed unreservedly in the value of what they were doing—people, writes historian Antony Beevor, who were “acutely conscious of taking part in a great historical event.” Great, indeed. The men who participated in the landings, from cooks and mechanics and landing craft coxswains, to infantrymen and combat engineers and pilots, were breaking through Hitler’s vaunted Atlantic Wall to reignite what FDR called “the great flame of democracy” amid “the blackout of barbarism.”  The whole world watched then, for it was nothing less than the fate of the world that hung in the balance. 

In our more cynical age of ambiguity and ambivalence, of low-intensity, quagmire wars that concern, it seems, only the tiny minority of men and women who are personally engaged, or who support those who are, we cannot help but be moved by the great spectacle of D-Day, by the audacity of the operation, and the unwavering commitment of millions of soldiers and citizens in seeing it through to the end.

They don’t make wars like this one any more.

Most of the notable books on this subject—one thinks immediately of Antony Beevor’s D-Day, or Steven Ambrose’s D-Day, June 6, 1944, which gave birth to the much-celebrated Band of Brothers miniseries—are tightly focused on bringing to life the individual ordeals of the participants once the invasion gets underway, and placing those harrowing, tragic, heroic, and sometimes downright bizarre experiences in the broader context of the operation.

In Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings, Craig L. Symonds, professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, takes a different tack. He spends just a quarter of his 400 pages on “the action” on land, sea, and air between June 6 and June 30, the official conclusion of Operation Neptune. The rest of his book is taken up tracing the fascinating, multi-layered story of how the invasion morphed from a cloudily conceived idea in the minds of British planners in the wake of Dunkirk, into the massively complex undertaking it came to be by June 1944.

Thus, Symonds explores at length the fascinating debates over invasion strategy by the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) and their respective bosses, FDR and Churchill; the monumental logistical challenges posed by the operation’s unprecedented demands for men and materiel, especially cargo ships and landing craft; and finally, the series of battles and campaigns in 1942 and 1943 that Symonds argues the Allies had to fight—and win—if the major invasion of France was to succeed. 

Prominent among those struggles was the battle of the Atlantic, waged against the U-boat menace. Until the U.S. Navy had vanquished the dreaded wolf packs with the help of the Enigma code intercepts and new air-sea hunting tactics, the requisite buildup of American troops and supplies in England could not be accomplished. 

The American and British air forces, for their part, had to reduce the Luftwaffe to near impotence in order to ensure air superiority over the beaches and the channel. Allied bombers also had to inflict severe damage on the transport network in France to constrict the movement of reinforcements, particularly the powerful Panzer divisions, to the beaches once the landings had taken place.

Finally, the CCS had to organize and execute an ambitious deception campaign, Operation Fortitude, to pin down German forces far from the intended landing zones. This elaborate ruse, which involved the creation of entirely ersatz armies, replete with radio traffic and dummy, rubber tanks and landing craft, ultimately succeeded in pinning down a considerable number of heavy German divisions near Calais, where the invasion was expected to take place, as well as in Norway.

From the time of the American entrance into the war after Pearl Harbor, the British and the Americans quickly agreed to a “Germany First” grand strategy, but they took very different views on the timing and the nature of the cross-Channel invasion—views that reflected their different cultures and histories. The British “envisioned any such assault as the coup de grace to be applied to an enemy utterly worn out by prolonged struggle and constant bombing … no invasion should take place until Germany was visibly faltering on the brink of collapse.” To the Americans, however, the invasion was “not to ratify a victory already won; it was to seize that victory by brute force.”

General George C. Marshall, Roosevelt’s chief military adviser, and his protégé, Dwight Eisenhower, pressed for husbanding precious men and materiel, staying clear of diversionary operations in other theaters, and for the early launch of an invasion of northwestern France. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill and General Alan Brooke, the chief of the Imperial General Staff, persistently argued for a “periphery” strategy, attacking the Germans in their “soft underbelly” in North Africa and Italy, and then invading southern France from the Mediterranean. 

The British high command found it difficult to invest in the more ambitious American conception of the operation, at least in part because of the fiasco at Dunkirk and lingering memories of slaughter at the Somme and elsewhere on the Western front in World War I. They “couldn’t help but be skeptical as the American president committed the United States to constructing 24 million tons of shipping and an army of 16 million men when they had spent their entire military careers in an atmosphere,” as British General Fredrick Morgan put it, “of niggling, cheese paring, parsing, and making do.”

But it was more than that. American hubris and naiveté rankled the British. Marshall was good at raising armies, thought Brooke, but not much of a strategist. Ike was a nice guy, and a hard worker, but he, too, lacked strategic vision. Besides, he had never been in combat. All the Americans, from FDR down, underestimated the capabilities of their adversary, and exaggerated their own. The Yanks, wrote one very senior British officer, “are new at this game and have the enthusiasm of beginners.” The Americans, for their part, found the British arrogant, condescending, excessively cautious, and, at times, ungrateful for American largesse.

The “cultural collision of Brits and Yanks threatened but never quite broke the partnership,” writes Symonds. The Brits won the early battles at the conference table, securing FDR’s approval to launch joint operations in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.  Symonds joins most contemporary  historians on both sides of the pond in asserting that this was a good thing, for the American troops were green and in need of combat experience. Besides, in retrospect, it seems doubtful American industry could have produced the sealift or the landing craft to have launched the invasion much earlier than it actually occurred.

A firm commitment to launch the assault was not reached until May 1943, when it was agreed to land in northwestern France, as the Americans had wanted. By this point, the overwhelming contribution of the United States in men and materiel to the war effort placed its military in a dominant position when it came to working out the strategic and tactical details of the campaign. 

After May 1943, Neptune’s logistical requirements dictated the pace and scope of other allied operations, not the other way around. And the invasion, Symonds wisely observes, had far reaching social implications: “For nearly four hundred years, the movement of humanity between Europe and America had been overwhelmingly westward as immigrants took passage for the New World. Now that tide was reversed, and in particularly dramatic fashion, for the American ‘invasion’ of Britain took place not over centuries or even decades but in a single year. Not only did this phenomenon test the sealift capability of the Allies, but it greatly affected the soldiers themselves, most of whom had never been outside their home states, much less out of the country.”

The final plan for Neptune “ran to 1,100 pages and specified the duty assignments of every ship, every landing craft, every vehicle, and nearly every allied sailor and soldier on almost a minute-by-minute schedule.” Symonds’s book deftly conveys a sense of the mind-boggling complexity of the operation. His emphasis on the strategic and logistical problems faced by the planners, far from detracting from the drama and power of the story, heightens our appreciation of the gravity of operation, and how difficult it was to pull off. 

In relating the well-known story of the crossing and the landings, Symonds has an excellent eye for telling details and arresting quotes from the ordinary participants. The crucial factor in the operation’s ultimate success, he convincingly concludes, “was human judgment applied at a crisis moment, often instinctively and selflessly.” 

It is those judgments and that selflessness we will reflect on today, with admiration, respect, and most of all, thanks, to all those who made Operation Neptune a brilliant, albeit harrowing, victory.

James A. Warren, a visiting scholar at Brown, is the co-author, with General Fred Haynes, USMC, of The Lions of Iwo Jima: The Story of Combat Team 28 and the Bloodiest Battle in Marine Corps History.