For the 79th anniversary of D-Day, Glenn Flickinger hosts a conversation about Operation Neptune, the naval component of Overlord, the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944. While images of soldiers struggling on the beaches are familiar to most of us, lesser understood is the role of the sailors aboard thousands of ships which delivered and supported the beach landings.
In truth, without the improvised daring of about a dozen destroyers and their Tin Can Sailor crews, the landings at Omaha Beach would have failed on D-Day, and so might have the entire Operation Overlord.
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In the early morning hours of D-Day above Omaha Beach, the landscape exploded with the ferocious assault by US Air Force and Navy bombardment.
Army General Omar Bradley had promised just such a scene while reviewing troops preparing for the cross-Channel operation.
“You men should consider yourself lucky. You are going to have ringside seats for the greatest show on earth,” he said.
It may have been a great show, but the bombardment did little to damage German defenses.
Though hundreds of Eighth Air Force B-24s swarmed the skies and battleships USS Arkansas (BB-33) and USS Texas (BB-35) pummeled the shoreline, few shells hit the fortified bunkers, pillboxes, trenches and tunnels Germans had carved into the bluffs overlooking the beaches. Instead, they fell either too far inland or short of their targets.
The consequences of this failure became apparent as GIs disembarked from landing craft only to crumple under withering enemy fire from the positions above Omaha. Survivors darted from steel beam hedgehogs and other beach obstacles only to huddle at sea walls and sand dunes while fire poured from the bluffs overhead. If you’ve seen the opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan, you have some idea what these troops from the 29th and 1st Infantry Divisions experienced.
By 0830, the landings at Omaha Beach had stalled. General Bradley came close to aborting the operation.
“What saved the day for the Allies was a handful of British and American destroyers,” argues naval historian Craig Symonds.
The destroyers were far offshore screening the invasion force from sea attack. They saw the disaster unfolding on the beach and took action.
Abandoning their positions and, in the first minutes, violating orders, a dozen ships broke full speed toward Omaha Beach, smoking pouring from their stacks. Then, as they approached within 1,000 yards of shore, they turned broadside and began pounding German gun emplacements at point blank range.
This is not how it was supposed to work. These Gleaves-class destroyers got too close—way too close—to grounding on the rising seabed. If that happened, they’d be sitting ducks, virtual practice targets for German gun crews. The ships were so close that German soldiers took aim with their Mauser rifles trying to pick off sailors one-by-one.
By the destroyers kept up their fire, even as they scraped bottom. Even as their guns glowed red and had to be cooled with water from shipdeck fire hydrants. They got so close, crews were able to fire light AAA guns and hit targets.
Meanwhile, the ships kept moving in short bursts of speed in order to avoid return fire.
Each of the ships claimed its own victories at its own points along Omaha, from Colleville Sur-Mar to the east to Pointe du Hoc to the west. Taken together, these destroyers–Emmons (DD-457), Carmick (DD-493), McCook (DD-496), Doyle (DD-494), Baldwin (DD-624), Harding (DD-625), Frankford (DD-497), Thompson (DD-627), Satterlee (DD-626), Ellyson (DD-454), Herndon (DD-638), Butler (DD-636)—allowed landing craft to make it ashore, preparing the way for the hard fighting ground troops to move inland.
Join us on June 5 at 7pm as we remember this lesser-known story of how Tin Can Sailors saved D-Day.
Image above: The destroyer USS Emmons (DD-457 ) bombarding enemy positions at Omaha Beach, on D-Day. She fired for 90 minutes and expended about 2,000 rounds of ammunition. (Watercolor by Dwight Shepler, 1944, National Archives)