RCN vessels play significant role on D-Day

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Navy News / June 5, 2019

“It was still dark at about 0400 on D-Day...when things began to happen. Our force was about 35 miles from the coast of Normandy. Flares, rockets and gunfire began to light up the sky from inshore.”

Lieutenant-Commander Piers Desmond, Commanding Officer of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Algonquin, had a ringside seat when a massive armada of allied vessels put to sea on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

The mission of Operation NEPTUNE, the naval part of Operation OVERLORD, was to transport the Allied Expeditionary Force across the English Channel, land them on the beachheads, and create, maintain and protect the logistical facilities to support the liberation of Europe.

Early in the morning of that fateful day, warships, amphibious vessels, auxiliary ships and landing craft launched from Britain for the occupied French coast. The invasion force was the largest fleet ever assembled. The amphibious landing operations would involve coordinating sea, land and air elements in one of the most complex military endeavours ever attempted.

The armada assembled for Operation NEPTUNE consisted of 6,900 vessels, ranging from battleships to merchant ships, including 64 Canadian warships, and no fewer than 4,100 landing ships or craft, of which 46 were manned by the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

Canada’s total contribution was 110 vessels and more than 10,000 men – four percent of the invasion’s total naval strength. Canadian destroyers, corvettes, frigates, minesweepers and motor torpedo boats saw action on the day that changed the course of the Second World War.

Canadian destroyers Haida, Huron and Iroquois helped guard the flanks of the fleet during the crossing.

The first Canadian sailors to see action in the operation were the 16 Bangor-class minesweepers which had the crucial task of clearing corridors through the German defensive mine belt so that landing craft could reach the beaches. The 31st Flotilla commenced its work in the early evening of June 5, sweeping and marking a channel to the American landing site dubbed Omaha Beach, and completed it by dawn on June 6.

As the minesweepers turned out to sea, they could see hundreds of landing craft approaching the coast under the cover of a heavy shore bombardment carried out by battleships, cruisers and destroyers to neutralize the German shore defences.

HMC Ships Algonquin and Sioux participated in this bombardment. Their initial task was to fire at shore batteries located on the eastern side of Juno Beach and both destroyers commenced shooting shortly after 7 a.m.

The landing ships followed, and in the absence of enemy counter-fire, unloaded their landing craft filled with soldiers. Among the infantry landing ships were two converted Canadian merchant cruisers, Prince Henry and Prince David, and three landing craft flotillas. Farther west, five Canadian corvettes conveyed blockships to form artificial harbours off the beach.

Algonquin and Sioux stood off the coast until the assault troops had secured the beaches, after which they provided fire support on call from forward observation officers who landed with the infantry.

From the personal diary of LCdr Piers:

“At 0745 we ceased fire and the flight of landing craft touched down on schedule. They carried units of Royal Engineers, who had the unpleasant task of clearing away beach obstacles while under concentrated enemy fire. Algonquin was close enough inshore to watch it all in detail.

“Our direct bombardment was over and our next job of indirect bombardment would not take place until our army observation officers got established ashore. So, during the lull in our own duties, we were interested spectators of the historic events taking place right under our bows. It seemed incredible that we had come this far without a scratch.”

He described the scene as “incredible” with landing craft swarming ashore on all the beaches and mighty bulldozers ploughing up the masses of shore obstacles, racing against the incoming tide.

“Sappers were disposing of land mines. The German pill boxes and strong points which had withstood the bombardment were subjecting the shoreline to incessant fire. Buildings were ablaze, and also a few landing craft. Overhead the Spitfires and Thunderbolts roared defiance to the Luftwaffe, but the challenge was not accepted, and we enjoyed immunity from air attack. Things were going well.”

At 10:51 a.m., Algonquin was called to destroy two German self-propelled guns and succeeded with its third salvo.

“As the bridgeheads ashore became firmly established, weird and wonderful things began to happen on the beaches. Masses of equipment arrived in incessant waves. Such important items as jetties were soon under construction.”

Meanwhile, the landing ships Prince Henry and Prince David carried 14 assault landing craft to Juno Beach. Twenty-six landing craft transported second wave troops. Canadian motor torpedo boats patrolled the Seine estuary. Many other corvettes and frigates escorted landing craft and patrolled the convoy routes. RCN flotillas of landing craft transported infantry and tanks to shore and provided additional fire support for them.

Operation NEPTUNE was a complete success and when darkness fell on June 6, 1944, just over 150,000 Allied troops were in France – at a cost of 9,000 casualties, 1,081 of whom were Canadians.

As the RCN marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we remember the courage and selflessness of those sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we enjoy today.

Sources:

www.junobeach.info

www.canada.ca/en/navy/services/history/naval-service-1910-2010/stepping.html

www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/second-world-war/canada-and-the-second-world-war/warsea

Operation Neptune: From the Personal Diary of Desmond Piers, prepared by J. Misner