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Legacy of Liberation: The Royal Navy & D-Day

The Normandy Landings were as much about naval power as land and sky supremacy. Discover the story of the Royal Navy on D-Day

The Royal Navy & D-Day

The Royal Navy in the Second World War

Royal Navy convoy featuring battleships and an aircraft carrier sailing during the Second World War.

Image: HMS Duke of York, HMS Nelson, HMS Renown, HMS Formidable and HMS Argonaut in convoy (IWM (A 12958))

The Royal Navy had a very busy Second World War.

In 1939, it was the largest navy in the world. The British Empire was a maritime empire where trade flowed over the world’s seas and oceans. As such, it was much more of a naval power than it was a land power.

The Royal Navy spent the war performing numerous duties vital to the war effort. 

It patrolled the high seas, clashing with Fascist navies in the Arctic, Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and beyond.

Royal Navy ships performed vital convoy escort missions, working in tandem with the Merchant Navy to ferry food, raw materials, and military equipment around the world.

Beneath the seas, Royal Navy submarines hunted enemy warships and cargo vessels, mirroring the work of the German U-boats.

Coastal defence was a key consideration of the Royal Navy too, working with RAF Coastal Command to protect the Home Islands.

Troop transportation was also a major role of the Royal Navy. So was supporting major Commonwealth amphibious assaults, as we’ll see.

Aviation was also key to Royal Navy operations. The Fleet Air Arm was its aerial wing. By the end of the war, the Fleet Air Arm was 75,000 men strong, boasting 3,700 aircraft and 59 aircraft carriers.

But for all its power on, above, and below the waves, service in the Royal Navy was not without risk. By the end of the Second World War, over 50,000 Royal Navy personnel had lost their lives.

Operation Neptune

Operation Neptune was the naval part of D-Day.

The operation involved transporting 150,000 Allied soldiers, including Canadian, British, and American troops, across the English Channel. The troops would then disembark on landing craft and assault the five Normandy landing beaches.

While the infantry and supporting tanks were landing, the warships of the Allied flotilla would provide covering fire, hammering German Atlantic Wall coastal defences with their big guns.

How many Royal Navy ships were involved in D-Day?

Royal Navy fleet assembling off the coast of the Isle of Wight before D-Day.

Image: A small part of the enormous Allied armada assembles off the coast of the Isle of Wight in the build up to D-Day (IWM (A 23720A))

The Allies assembled a flotilla of nearly 7,000 ships for the Invasion of Normandy. The vast majority of these were Royal Navy vessels. 

The Royal Navy provided approximately 890 warships and 3,260 landing craft to Operation Neptune. The Royal Canadian Navy sent 110 ships to Normandy. 80% of D-Day naval vessels were drawn from these Commonwealth navies.

These ranged from small but important minesweepers to 44,000 tons battleships like HMS Nelson.

Also present in the Allied flotilla were Australian, Free French, Dutch, Polish and Norwegian vessels. 

Behind the Commonwealth navies, the United States sent the second largest number of warships and landing craft to D-Day. This is because the majority of the United States Navy was committed to defeating the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific.

Even so, the United States Navy was able to provide 200 or so warships for the Normandy Landing.

What did the Royal Navy do on D-Day?

The Royal Navy’s Normandy Invasion duties began before D-Day.

In the weeks and months before the invasion, minesweepers had been busy in the channel, clearing sea lanes of German mines. Midget submarines were discreetly sent across the channel to land surveyors to examine potential landing beaches.

On D-Day itself, the Royal Navy had three key priorities:

In this, the Allied D-Day flotilla was supported in the skies by an impressive air force. Nearly 12,000 Allied aircraft were active on D-Day including around 440 aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm.

Together, they were able to contain German air and naval forces, greatly contributing to the successful landings on June 6, 1944.

The German naval forces in Normandy were nearly completely stopped. Reduced to a handful of fast motor launches and U-boats, the Kriegsmarine could barely scratch the D-Day invasion flotilla.

A German counterattack did not sink a single Royal Navy warship. Sadly, the Norwegian destroyer Svenner was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 33 souls, including one British sailor.

Bombarding the D-Day beach defences

HMS Ramilies firing on Gold Beach during the Invasion of Normandy

Image: HMS Ramilies firing on D-Day Image (IWM (A 24459))

Allied warships began their bombardment of the German beach defences at 5.30 am on the morning of June 6, 1944.

The first Royal Navy vessel to fire on D-Day was the venerable battleship HMS Warspite. She hammered German positions overlooking Gold Beach which British 
troops would land two hours or so later.

A battleship like Warspite could fire as much artillery as a full British artillery regiment. 

Allied ships continued to pound the beaches as the landing craft headed toward the sea while the infantry and tanks hit the beaches.

In some areas, the bombardment was less effective. Despite suffering a massive initial barrage, the German defences on Juno Beach were left relatively undamaged, leading to high casualties for the attacking Canadians.

The naval bombardment on D-Day was ferocious. Warspite’s captain, Marcel Harcourt Attley Kelsey, invited his personnel to watch the unfolding action: “All personnel not on full action stations can come up on deck to witness a sight you will never see again in your lifetime.”

Allan Snowden, who was aboard HMS Rodney, described the scene: “The sheer volume of noise, the blast of the guns was incredible – you could feel it through your body even if you were quite a distance from the gun actually doing the firing. You couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for the guys on the receiving end.”

Landing troops

A fleet of landing craft sailing on the English Channel.

Image: Landing craft on their way to the Normandy Beaches (IWM (A 23595))

Royal Navy sailors were responsible for piloting the landing craft ferrying soldiers to Normandy’s landing beaches.

As well as transporting Commonwealth forces, Royal Navy skippers also ferried American troops to Omaha and Utah Beaches.

Eric Brown was a Royal Navy signalman who was aboard LCT 1170 on D-Day. LCT stands for “Landing Craft Tank”. These vessels were, as their name suggests, responsible for ferrying tanks to the beaches.

In Eric’s case, he was transporting American Sherman tanks to Omaha beach. He shared his experiences with D-Day Revisited:

“We arrived off the beach at dawn on D-Day 6th June – three flotillas in lines of 12 LCTs each. HMS Ceres was in charge of British Forces at Omaha; they signalled our leading officer to turn in single file and prepare to beach. I passed this message down the line and all craft turned in as ordered.

“II was on the last craft in the third line; we were the first to beach and landed the tanks and crews safely. There was a lot of heavy gunfire, mainly between shore batteries and the Royal Navy & US Navy ships behind us. 

“We withdrew from the beach and made our way back to Plymouth with about six other craft. One behind us was sunk by gunfire and one to port was torpedoed by an E-Boat; it didn’t sink but looked like a floating scrapyard!”

Landing craft were choice targets for enemy mortars and machine guns. Being aboard one was risky. 

It wasn’t just enemy fire that landing craft captains had to contend with. The choppy waters off some beaches were choppy and hid reefs and shoals; extra hazards to avoid. 

At Juno Beach, these elements combined to deadly effect. Some 30% of landing craft were lost in the first assault wave. 

The end of the Longest Day

By the end of D-Day, the Allied infantry and armour had established a small but strong beachhead. 

Over 150,000 soldiers, 5,000 tanks and armoured vehicles and 4,000 tons of supplies had been landed on the first day of the Invasion of Normandy.

Soon the fighting would push into the Normandy countryside for two more months of fierce, bloody combat.

Did the Royal Navy lose any ships in the Battle of Normandy?

The Royal Navy forces on D-Day had played a pivotal role in the amphibious assault’s success, but it was not without cost.

Some 2,400 Royal Navy personnel were killed during the Battle of Normandy. Roughly 200 of these casualties died on D-Day itself.

Remarkably, no Royal Canadian Navy personnel died on D-Day, despite Canadian sailors piloting many landing craft. Several were, however, wounded when their craft came under attack.

Altogether, the Allied invasion fleet lost over 200 ships during Operation Neptune, including three British destroyers, three US Navy destroyers, and over 60 
landing craft.

Many of the vessels had been hit by mines which still lurked in the channel. Others were picked off by aircraft, sunk by submarines, torpedoed, or struck by artillery fire from coastal defence batteries.

The Royal Navy in the Battle of Normandy

Medical unit being transported by ship to Normandy.

Image: A Medical unit being transported to Normandy as Operation Neptune continues (Image IWM (A 23890))

Operation Neptune would continue until June 30 1944.

There was still important work to be done for the Royal Navy.

It continued to provide fire support for advancing Allied armies, using its immense firepower to target enemy positions inland.

Fighting in Normandy was exceptionally tough. Casualties began to rapidly mount. The Royal Navy and its allies were tasked with ferrying fresh troops to France while carrying the wounded back to England for treatment.

The logistical effort of D-Day is staggering, and the Royal Navy played a massive part in establishing cross-channel supply lines.

It escorted vessels laying the PLUTO oil pipeline between France and the UK, for example. It also helped move and protect the enormous Mulberry floating harbours as they were assembled off the landing beaches.

Merchant vessels would continue to be escorted across the channel with their cargo holds, bursting with food, medical supplies and ammunition.
From the invasion on 6 June to the end of Operation Neptune, Allied navies landed:

By the end of the Battle of Normandy in August 1944, they had landed:

The Merchant Navy on D-Day

While the Allied naval effort in firepower and combat support, the role of the Merchant Navy in D-Day cannot be overlooked.

Without the thousands of cargo ships sailing from British ports to Normandy on D-Day and the following weeks and months, the Allies would lack the men and materiel to achieve victory.

At least 35 merchant ships were lost during the Battle of Normandy.

Royal Navy Casualty Stories from D-Day & The Battle of Normandy

Read some of the stories of Royal Navy personnel who lost their lives during D-Day and Operation Neptune, the naval component of the Normandy Landings.

Marine Robert Casson

Marine Robert CassonImage: Robert Casson

The Royal Marine Commandos went ashore on D-Day, fighting in some of the toughest engagements of the early Normandy campaign.

Tragically, some of them never made it off their landing craft.

Marine Robert Casson, born in March 1919 near Whitehaven, Cumbria, was one such Commando.

Robert had been with the Royal Marines since 1940 and by 1943, he had been assigned to HQ Staff 4th Special Service Brigade. Robert was with No.4 Commando on D-Day.

Aboard the infantry landing ships LSI 1519 and 1520, No.4 Commando was headed for Nan Red sections of Juno Beach at St Aubin-sur-Mer. 

Robert was killed as his landing crafted head for Juno on June 6, 1944, and given an impromptu burial at sea the following day.

His mother had received a telegram on July 17 saying Robert had “was buried at sea and was accorded full Naval honours”.

Despite being committed to the deep, Robert is not commemorated on a CWGC naval memorial. Instead, he is buried at Ryez War Cemetery.

So, how did this come about? 

The beaches of Normandy were hit by a raging storm in mid-June 1944. The storm caused great damage to the Allied structures on Normandy, wrecking one of the floating Mulberry harbours.

The storm appears to have washed Robert’s body ashore. He was temporarily buried in a marked grave near the St Aubin-sur-Mer before finally being reburied in Ryes War Cemetery.

Robert is buried next to his brother Joseph. Joseph served with the Durham Light Infantry and was killed from wounds sustained during the advance on Juvigny on 27 June 1944. 

Robert and Joseph were two of five Casson brothers who went to war. The other three fortunately survived.

Our thanks go to John and Mary Holland for sharing this story. 

Aircraft Identifier John Bavis Beeston Bancroft

During the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944 John was serving aboard MV Derrycunihy [MTS T72], a British cargo ship impressed as a military transport.

The vessel joined a convoy off Southend-on-Sea, with A and C squadrons of the 43rd (Wessex) Reconnaissance Regiment embarked. She arrived off Sword Beach on the evening of 20 June 1944.

The sea state combined with enemy shelling prevented unloading for three days and it was decided to move T72 to Juno Beach for disembarkation. 

As the ship's engines started on the morning of Saturday 24 June it detonated an acoustic or "Oyster" mine dropped by one of the nightly Luftwaffe raiders. 

The mine exploded under the keel, splitting the ship in two, and the after-part, packed with sleeping men of 43 Recce, sank rapidly. 

In addition, an ammunition lorry caught fire, and oil floating on the water was set alight.

Landing craft and the gunboat HMS Locust quickly came alongside and picked up survivors, most of whom were evacuated to another vessel.

The Regimental War Diary records that "Great gallantry was displayed by all troops in the two aft holds" and lists 183 men of the regiment lost and about 120 others evacuated wounded.

In addition, 25 of the ship's crew, (including Army gunners and a Royal Observer Corps Seaborne Observer), died in the disaster, which represented the biggest single loss of life off the Normandy invasion beaches.

Among their number was Aircraft Identifier John Bavis Beeston Bancroft. He is commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

The sunken after-part of the MV Derrycunihy remains as a wreck site off Sword Beach to this day.

Petty Officer James Ronald Spilsbury

James Ronald Spilsbury was born in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, on the 12th of November 1908.

By the time of the Normandy Invasion, James was serving aboard the destroyer HMS Blackwood

Blackwood and her crew had become keen U-boat hunters in their time, sinking two German submarines in 1943 alone.

Under Operation Neptune, Naval forces and merchant ships also helped transport men and supplies during the crucial post-invasion period. 

Daily convoys, controlled and guarded by the Royal Navy, ferried reinforcements and supplies from England to Normandy and then, ferried casualties and German POWs back from France to England.

HMS Blackwood, with Petty Officer James Spilsbury aboard, was part of the 4th Escort Group which carried out this vital task; guarding the Naval forces and merchantmen as they carried out these important duties.

She was on patrol in the western approaches to the English Channel on the 15th of June 1944 guarding ships carrying vital supplies to the land troops on the Normandy beachhead when she was sighted and attacked by the German submarine U-764

The captain of the U-Boat, Oberleutnant Hanskurt von Bremen, fired a brace of acoustic ‘homing’ torpedoes at HMS Blackwood and at least one, struck home.

Blackwood was hit and was severely damaged as fires tore through the stricken vessel. 

57 of her crew died as a result of the attack - including James Spilsbury. He left behind his widow, Vera, and a four-year-old daughter, Anne.

Our thanks to Gary Broad for this entry.

Discover the Legacy of Liberation with Commonwealth War Graves

The Legacy of Liberation marks the 80th anniversaries of several of the Second World War's pivotal moments

From Kohima and Imphal to the D-Day Landings, the Legacy of Liberation remembers these remarkable events.

Join us to mark these historic moments. Visit The Legacy of Liberation today to learn more.