The Royal Navy: The Invasion Fleets before D-Day II

Note: The unnamed CVL above Parthian class subs is an Colossus class CVL

Hands stand by their twin 4 inch gun turrets to repel any lurking enemy aircraft as HMS MAURITIUS fires a broadside at German positions in the Anzio beachhead.
A 22536
Part of
ADMIRALTY OFFICIAL COLLECTION
Royal Navy official photographer

Operation Shingle

Convalescing at Marrakesh in French Morocco after an illness, Churchill convened two conferences at his villa to discuss the situation in Italy where the hopes of a rapid advance on Rome following the Salerno landings had been foiled by strong German resistance. The first was held on 7 and 8 January 1944 with Churchill in the chair, accompanied by Lord Beaverbrook and attended by senior British and American officers. The second was on 12 January when Churchill and de Gaulle met.

Although the need for a second landing further north had been agreed in late 1943, the initial plan was cancelled in favour of landings at Anzio, code-named Operation SHINGLE, which was decided at the Marrakesh conferences. Little time was lost in mounting the operation which took place on 22 January but suffered accordingly as the force used was too small, simply the 6th US Corps of the Fifth US Army. The 6th US Corps was augmented by the 1st British Infantry Division and a British Commando brigade, which landed north of Anzio. Other forces landed at the port or to the south. Just 378 ships took part and air support was provided mainly by the USAAF with the Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force. The Germans deployed radio-controlled explosive boats and human torpedoes against the ships but with little effect while German air power was also weak in the area.

There was confusion over the objectives and instead of exploiting the initial surprise, the 6th US Corps found itself consolidating its position. Bad weather meant that the Allies had difficulty in reinforcing those ashore and by 26 January, Kesselring, the German commander in Italy, improvised a Fourteenth Army with a core of six divisions. This force surrounded the Allies, and attempts to break through saw both the British and the Americans suffer heavy casualties with 2,100 and 3,000 respectively. As the month drew to a close, Ultra intelligence warned the Allied commanders of a German counter-attack, to which they were able to respond effectively.

Fierce fighting in the second half of February saw the Germans suffer very heavy casualties with 5,389 men killed or wounded as the Allies moved heavy artillery and massive air power into position. Nevertheless, Kesselring managed to keep the Allies contained until they were able to break out and link up with the US Fifth Army on 25 May and begin the final advance on Rome.

Anzio was a big disappointment to the Allies. Churchill later wrote that he had ‘hoped that the Allies were hurling a wild cat onto the shore but all they got was a stranded whale.’ The US Navy’s official historian was equally blunt, writing that ‘putting such a small force ashore was akin to sending a boy on a man’s errand.’

The landings in the Mediterranean were not over until the Allies invaded the south of France in August, and even then there were further minor operations to re-take Axis-occupied territory. Nevertheless, Normandy was next and the Allies had learned much about amphibious operations both in the Mediterranean and in the Far East by this time. Two points were clear. The first was that the Germans might be losing the war, but they were still capable of mounting a formidable defence and still possessed the capability of fighting a highly mobile war so that large and well-equipped forces could be assembled quickly when needed. The second was that any assault had to be meticulously organized and assembled in such force that the defences could be overwhelmed, while the force ashore needed to be sustained and supported, regardless of the weather.

Nevertheless, there was much to be done and much to be learned before the Normandy landings.

St Nazaire

One idea that appealed to the British in particular was the idea of raids on enemy-held Europe. The Royal Navy had two successful raids during the First World War at Zeebrugge and Ostend, and so plans for such raids started soon after the withdrawal from Europe.

The first such raid was at St Nazaire on the night of 28 March 1942. This was the one major French Channel port that had a dry dock capable of accommodating the German battleship Tirpitz that occupied so much time of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. If the Normandie Dock (built for the French ocean liner of that name) was put beyond use, there would be no chance of the battleship being brought south from Norway to begin a career of commerce raiding. St Nazaire had been the intended destination for the Bismarck when she was sunk by the Royal Navy.

In an operation code-named CHARIOT, the destroyer Campbeltown, one of fifty Town-class ships provided by the United States Navy in 1940, was to be loaded with 3 tons of explosives and used to ram the dock gates before exploding 150 minutes later. Campbeltown was to be escorted by two destroyers, Atherstone and Tynedale, an MGB, an MTB and sixteen motor launches carrying army commandos led by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Newman of the Essex Regiment, who were to land and blow up the dock and other shore installations. In all, there were 44 army officers and 224 other ranks as well as 62 naval officers and 291 ratings. Overall command lay with Commander Robert Ryder in MGB314, with Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie in command of the Campbeltown. The two escorting destroyers were to pick up the raiders after the operation, assisted by further MTBs.

Leaving Falmouth in Cornwall before dawn on 27 March 1942, the timing of the operation was dictated by the spring tide and the need to cover 410 miles of open sea and 5 miles of the Loire estuary to reach St Nazaire. To help with the operation, Campbeltown was remodelled to look like a German destroyer and wore the German naval ensign. Despite being spotted by a U-boat, the small force was within 2 miles of St Nazaire before being picked up by German searchlights, but Ryder gained an extra three minutes by offering German identification signals; however, the small force was then extensively illuminated and came under heavy fire. Beattie continued at 20 knots, full speed for his elderly destroyer, and at 0134 on 28 March he rammed the dock gates, just four minutes later than scheduled. The ship penetrated the caisson to a depth of 36 feet.

Ryder landed under heavy fire to find that the destroyer was in exactly the right position and then ordered MTB74 to fire her torpedoes, which were also set to go off later, at the dock gates. Commandos ran ashore from Campbeltown to destroy the pumping house, anti-aircraft positions and a fuel tank, while those aboard the launches set up a diversionary raid on the Old Mole and the Old Entrance. The commandos also seized the Ile de St Nazaire, from which the withdrawal was to be made. In the ensuing fire-fight the commandos suffered heavy casualties as the Germans struck at their launches, and by the time Ryder ordered the withdrawal, just seven out of the sixteen were available.

During the withdrawal, heavily laden with wounded, they were intercepted by E-boats and an MTB sent to help with the rescue was sunk and another three damaged before the destroyers Atherstone and Tynedale were able to pick up the survivors and speed them to Falmouth. The cost of the operation was 144 men killed – 23 per cent of the raiding force – and another 215 captured, with 271 returning safely to Falmouth.

Campbeltown’s explosives did not go off on time and were not discovered by the Germans, so many German officers took their wives and mistresses aboard to see the ship. Around noon the following day Campbeltown finally blew up, taking 380 Germans with her. The next day, 30 May, the torpedoes also blew up, prompting French dockyard workers to attempt to take over the dock from the Germans, causing panic among the German gun crews who opened fire and in addition to killing eighty French dockyard workers also killed many of their own men.

Three VCs were awarded to the naval personnel involved and two to the army commandos, including their commanding officer. Commander Ryder received the VC for commanding the attack under heavy fire and ensuring that its objectives were met before ordering and organizing the withdrawal while his MGB was severely damaged. Beattie also received the VC for his coolness under fire and determination in ensuring that Campbeltown fulfilled her mission. Able Seaman William Savage aboard MGB314 showed great skill and determination as well as devotion to duty, maintaining fire while under heavy fire himself, but was fatally wounded as MGB314 attempted to withdraw. He died the following day.

Dieppe

The raid, originally known as Operation RUTTER but later renamed Operation JUBILEE, was to be launched from five ports in the south of England with Southampton as the most westerly and Newhaven the most easterly. There would be 5,000 Canadian troops, 1,000 British and 50 US Rangers, supported by 237 ships and aircraft from 74 squadrons, of which no fewer than 66 would be fighter squadrons. The heavy Canadian involvement was due to their commanding general wanting them to see action.

Given the complexity of the exercise and the lack of experience among the men and their commanders as the first of the Mediterranean landings was still some months away, an exercise was conducted to provide training and also to ensure that the arrangements were workable. This was just as well as the first exercise was a complete disaster, but ten days later all went well with the second. A date still had to be fixed and it was not until 1 July 1942 that the Dieppe operation was set for 4 July, or the first day after that date with favourable weather conditions.

The weather was bad and on 7 July the operation was postponed. General Montgomery in command of forces in the south of England wanted it cancelled as the troops involved had been briefed and he feared that security would be compromised. His objections were ignored and planning continued; he was then removed from the operation and posted to Egypt to command the British Eighth Army.

One of the changes made after his departure was that of the name to Operation JUBILEE, but more serious was the decision to cancel the planned aerial bombardment which it was feared could cost heavy French casualties. Instead, eight British destroyers would bombard the port but battleships, which could have made a difference with their guns of 14, 15 or even 16in calibre, were held back because they would be vulnerable to German shore-based artillery once they were in coastal waters. This was being overly cautious as the guns of these ships could easily fire over ranges of 20 miles, outside the range of German coastal artillery. Meanwhile, Montgomery’s concerns about security were soon justified as French double agents warned the Germans about British interest in Dieppe, while the commanding officer of the 1st Parachute Battalion was later to comment that from the start ‘security was abysmal’. In any case, increased radio traffic and the growing concentration of landing craft in the south coast ports were also detected by the Germans. The next change, as the weather continued to be poor, was that the planned paratroop landings were cancelled as the use of airborne forces was even more vulnerable to weather conditions. This decision was reversed.

In command of combined operations, Admiral Louis Mountbatten was anxious to see action and impatient for a landing on enemy territory, although this would be just another ‘hit and run’ raid. In this he was not alone. Churchill felt that there was much to be gained both in raising morale among the Allies and in showing Stalin that the British were taking the war to the enemy. In fact, by this time Stalin was already on the offensive in northern Russia, but his main concern was that the main German thrust had turned southwards towards Stalingrad.

Churchill later recalled:

I thought it most important that a large-scale operation should take place this summer, and military opinion seemed unanimous that until an operation on that scale was undertaken, no responsible general would take the responsibility of planning the main invasion…

In discussion with Admiral Mountbatten it became clear that time did not permit a new large-scale operation to be mounted during the summer (after ‘Rutter’ had been cancelled), but that Dieppe could be remounted (with the new code-name ‘Jubilee’) within a month, provided extraordinary steps were taken to ensure secrecy. For this reason no records were kept but, after the Canadian authorities and the Chiefs of Staff had given their approval, I personally went through the plans with the C.I.G.S., Admiral Mountbatten, and the Naval Force Commander, Captain J. Hughes-Hallett.

The initial plan for the attack was an unimaginative frontal assault, but this was developed with the use of British paratroops to attack the German artillery positions mounted on the headlands either side of the town and the port. There were plans for an aerial bombardment before the raid to soften up the target.

The special troops who were still assigned to the operation were Royal Marine, and Royal Navy Commandos, although the idea was not that they should lead the operation but instead they would follow the main force ashore from motor gunboats and destroy the harbour installations. There was even an ex-burglar on their strength who was supposed to break into a port office and burgle the safe, expecting to find important documents.

If security was poor before the raid, so too was intelligence about the target area. Allied air reconnaissance missed the German gun positions embedded in the cliff faces, while the suitability of the beach for tanks was assessed using holiday postcards and amateur photographs. In addition to poor knowledge of the terrain and the defences, there was little knowledge of enemy strength.

Although Mountbatten was in command of special operations, he was not going on the raid; the assault force would be led by Major General Roberts and the naval force by Captain Hughes-Hallett. Mountbatten did, nevertheless, address at least some of the troops before they embarked, as recalled by Sergeant George Cook of No. 4 Commando, which was to attack the artillery batteries at Varengeville-sur-Mer, to the west of Dieppe:

Mountbatten gave us a lecture – said he wished he was coming with us. Once we realised where we were going, I think 200 blokes thought, ‘I wish he were going instead of us.’ But yes, very nice talk. We cheered him – off he went. Then we started priming grenades, drawing ammunition. Our troop were doing the demolitions, so we drew explosives and we’d a fair amount of stuff which we packed up…Then we had a meal and we sailed – a beautiful evening, as we went down the Solent and past the Isle of Wight.

Suddenly an officer said, ‘Oh – they’ve got all the harbour lights lit.’ I looked over the prow of the boat and you could see lights on the shore. The lighthouse at Varengeville-sur-Mer was flashing, so I thought, Cor blimey – everybody awake. We’re going to have a pretty bad welcome here.

When we landed, there was some barbed wire. We’d a roll of wire netting which we threw over the barbed wire so we could run over it. The Germans were firing tracers from their pill-boxes, and Lord Lovat said, quite casually, ‘They’re firing too high.’ He was about six foot – I’m five foot four – so I thought, ‘If they’re firing over his head, there’s no danger they’re going to hit me’ – but they did fire their mortars and four or five blokes were killed on the beach.

Cook and his comrades advanced, firing. One of them shot a man out of an ack-ack tower, who ‘did a lovely swallow dive off the top’, before they reached an orchard accompanied by one of Cook’s friends, another sergeant, Geordie Horne, who was almost immediately shot dead, before Cook himself was hit in the face and shoulder.

Even before the raid began at 0450 on 19 August, the cover was blown completely as a number of the escorting warships had already engaged warships accompanying a German convoy off Puys and Berneval at 0348.

To avoid confusion, the landings were at four beaches each given a colour designation for the operation. One of these, the most easterly, was Blue Beach, where the assault started badly. After leaving the converted Belgian cross-Channel ferry Princess Astrid, the 10th Landing Craft Assault Flotilla started off in the wrong direction and eventually reached the beach sixteen minutes late as dawn was breaking and the element of surprise had been lost. The initial attacks were on the coastal batteries. The attack at Varengeville-sur-Mer by No. 4 Commando was successful, but this was the only unit to meet all of its objectives during the operation. The Royal Regiment of Canada landed at Puys, where they were virtually wiped out with just 60 of the regiment’s 543 men being evacuated from the beach after many were cut down on the ramp where the bodies piled up, while others were mown down by machine-gun fire as they attempted to cross the pebbled beach to the shelter of the sea wall 40 feet away.

Those offshore could not see what was happening ashore because the ships covering the landings had laid a dense smokescreen. This did nothing at all to protect those involved in the landings, but made command and control more difficult.

In the ensuing chaos, most of the landing craft carrying the marines were hit by gunfire on the run-in and the few men who reached the shore were killed or taken prisoner. In an attempt to regain control and end the suicidal mission, their CO stood up in the stern of his craft and signalled to those behind that they should turn back; he was then killed by German gunfire.

The RAF had allocated aircraft, including many fighters, to the operation but Squadron Leader ‘Johnnie’ Johnson leading No. 616 Squadron recalled that there was supposed to be a headquarters ship, HMS Calypso, with radar and RAF controllers aboard that was meant to be controlling air operations. On four sorties over Dieppe that day, he could never establish communications:

We could see very little except for a bloody great pall of smoke over the town, and lots of shelling going on down below. But we could do nothing about it because the attackers and defenders were all within a hundred yards of each other. We couldn’t help the army. When we got home after the first patrol, we knew that the whole thing had been a disaster, but there was nothing we could do to help them.

Withdrawal began at 1100 as the heavy fire continued. It took until 1400. When the assault force left, it left behind 3,367 Canadians who had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner, as well as 275 RM Commandos. The Royal Navy lost a destroyer and 33 landing craft, with 550 men killed or wounded. The RAF lost 106 aircraft. Compared to this, the Germans lost just 591 men killed or wounded, and 48 aircraft.

The surviving landing craft had been ordered to the main beach at Dieppe at 1030. When the first of them arrived there, it was met by a solitary soldier and it was only after he had been handed a Lewis gun with which to defend himself that someone realized he was a German soldier attempting to desert. Once the withdrawal started in earnest, the few landing craft were overcrowded and in danger of being swamped. One of them was hit by a shell and capsized, but the crew managed to get their passengers aboard another vessel.

In the inevitable enquiry into what went wrong, many tried to blame Mountbatten, but as there was no reprimand and he remained in post, it seems that it was not his fault and he did not act alone, although there is no written record of the operation being given the go-ahead. General Sir Alan Brooke was abroad at the time and many believe that had he been at home in the War Cabinet, he might have persuaded Churchill to cancel the operation; however, this is conjecture.

Some believe that the disaster at Dieppe was necessary so that lessons could be learned in time for the Normandy landings but even so, there were many avoidable failings. Either there had to be a heavy aerial bombardment before the operation, or it should have been called off. Some form of reconnaissance from the sea was necessary: this would have noted the gun positions in the cliff face, and could also have assessed whether the shingle on the beach would have damaged the tank tracks, although the latter would have required reconnaissance parties to land on the beach and take samples without being noticed. In addition, much heavier naval firepower was needed and had to continue right up to the moment when the landing craft hit the shore.

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