Dr Tim Benbow, Defence Studies Department
There has long been a tendency to understate and misunderstand the role of the Royal Navy’s capital ships in the Second World War. A few years ago, I wrote an article (naturally with an associated blog on Defence in Depth) that explored the role of aircraft carriers in supporting the Normandy landings. It drew on a theme that I often mention in lectures at the UK Defence Academy – that to understand the role of naval power in campaigns and national strategy more broadly, you need a bigger map and a longer timeline. The summer before last, when I inadvertently offered to present a second paper at a conference, it provided an opportunity to look at the role of battleships in support of D-Day (Operation Overlord), and hence their wider role in naval strategy. This has now been published in War in History (and is available on open access).
Commanding the sea
Once again, the ‘bigger map, longer timeline’ theme struck a chord. The principal contribution to Overlord of the Royal Navy carriers and battleships (working as a partnership in which both were essential, the latter particularly at night or in the bad weather) lay in defeating the German surface navy – either by sinking it or, more likely, by posing such a threat that it was kept in port where it could not threaten Allied use of the sea. This ‘victory’ was a key pre-requisite for winning the Battle of the Atlantic (itself a pre-requisite for Overlord) – ensuring that destroyers, corvettes and escort carriers would not have to face heavy warships and hence freeing them to focus on defeating the U-boats.
The defeat of the German surface fleet was largely achieved by D-Day (otherwise the operation could not have gone ahead). Yet there was still the possibility that the German Navy could send out a force which could theoretically include two pocket battleships, two heavy cruisers, four light cruisers and escorting destroyers. This threat had to be countered. The Home Fleet operating out of Scapa Flow (with two of the five fleet carriers, Formidable and Victorious, and three of the four most modern battleships, Duke of York, Anson and Howe) knocked out Tirpitz in April 1944 and then provided cover to block any German sortie into the North Atlantic, aiming at Allied shipping.
Alternatively, an attack towards the landings in the Channel would have been countered by Operation Hermetic, which would have involved the Admiral commanding the British task force taking command of all seven battleships off Normandy and in reserve in Portsmouth, with cruisers and destroyers in support, and engaging the enemy fleet. Such an engagement would have blown out of the water any remaining scepticism about the value of capital ships. In the event, several of the German ships were unserviceable and their response to Operation Neptune (the naval contribution to the D-Day landings) was more passive than anticipated.
Supporting the landings
Unlike carriers, which supported Operation Neptune extensively but from a distance, battleships were very much present on D-Day – accounts from sailors and soldiers of the noise and smoke caused by their heavy bombardment represent one of the frequent strands of eyewitness testimony. HMS Warspite and HMS Ramillies supported Sword Beach, USS Texas and USS Arkansas supported Omaha Beach and USS Nevada Utah Beach, with HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney in reserve.
Their role here was not simply a case of ‘make work’, of finding something for them to do. While destroyers and armed landing craft bombarded the defensive positions immediately on the beaches, the heavier guns of cruisers and, especially, battleships were required to engage and neutralise the German heavy gun batteries that could have fired on the transports, escorts and landing craft. Many of these were in heavy concrete fortifications and the Allied planners concluded that large-calibre naval fire was essential to suppress, if not to actually destroy, these positions. The most threatening German batteries, near Le Havre, were suppressed, ‘to the extent that enemy return fire was desultory and inaccurate and did not interfere with Force S landings’ (Admiralty, Gunnery Review, February 1945). Indeed, they were so inactive that planned commando raids to capture them were called off. In the same way that capital ships provided an umbrella of cover that allowed the smaller and more numerous convoy escorts to do their job, so the battleships neutralising the heavy batteries allowed the destroyers and armed landing craft to perform their role of providing suppressive and supporting fire for the landing forces.
Dominating the land
The contribution of battleship gunfire went well beyond assisting the initial landings. Once the Allied forces managed to get ashore, the period of maximum danger for them then began, with the prospect of the famously inevitable German counter-attacks beginning before the land forces’ artillery was across the Channel in strength and before airstrips were ready for short-legged fighter-bombers. In this early period, battleship gunfire was essential to help defeat any counter-attacks and to support the slow Allied advance (the effectiveness of the German defence only prolonging the period in which they came under battleship fire). From the afternoon of D-Day and for several weeks after that, time and again German war diaries stress the devastating effect of battleship gunnery in responsiveness, accuracy and weight of fire. The 16-inch guns of Nelson and Rodney engaged targets at a range of up to 19 miles (over 30 km), well to the south of Caen. Rommel himself reported on the impact of battleship fire: ‘The effect is so immense that no operation of any kind is possible in the area commanded by this rapid-fire artillery, either by infantry or tanks.’ Not until 23 July, D+46, did the front in Normandy move beyond the range of battleship fire – at which point they shifted to supporting the Allied advance along the coast.
This on-going fire support was not merely a nice-to-have: it was fundamental to the Allied plan to collapse the German strategy to defend Western Europe. The debate within the German high command is well known – whether to hold their armoured reserves close to the beach, for speed of response, or further back. Those favouring the latter were accused by their critics of understating the potential impact of Allied air power on armoured forces advancing to attack the bridgehead; the suggestion was that officers with experience on the Eastern front lacked awareness, in comparison to those who had served in North Africa, of what Allied air power could do to land forces. Yet those who resisted stationing the armoured reserves close to the coast understood all too well, from experience in Italy, particularly Salerno, of what battleship fire could do to counter-attacks. The answer to that debate within the German high command is that there was no answer: station the armour close to the coast and it would be pulverised by naval gunfire and bombing… yet hold it further back and it would be cut to pieces by air power as it advanced. The Allied planners had very carefully and very successfully impaled the German defenders on the horns of an insoluble strategic dilemma. Battleship fire was very much a part of this thoroughly joint and combined plan.
The Battleship Contribution
Battleships therefore made two indispensable contributions in support of the D-Day landings. First, they played their traditional role of neutralising the enemy’s heavy warships, in the months and years before June 1944 and on 6 June, providing distant and close cover. Second, they provided heavy fire support to allow the smaller vessels of the Allied fleet to support and conduct the landings on D-Day, and then aided Allied land forces by protecting the bridgehead from counter-attacks and supporting the advance for weeks afterwards.
The Second World War saw the aircraft carrier and the battleship form a successful partnership in the Royal Navy, with the former increasingly taking the leading role. Yet as its contribution to the Normandy campaign demonstrated, the battleship still had a vital role to play.
Image credit: Imperial War Museum