Nick Hewitt on Normandy: The Sailors’ Story

Nick Hewitt

The author of a new book on the sailors of Operation Overlord discusses D-Day and the naval involvement.
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Nick Hewitt, many congratulations on Normandy: The Sailor’s Story. Why did you want to write it?

Thank you! I’ve been studying the naval history of D-Day and the wider Normandy campaign for most of my career, ever since I started working aboard HMS Belfast as a baby historian back in the early 2000s. The more I learned about it, the more I realised what a complex, multi-faceted effort it was, and the more frustrated I became about how over the years it had become distilled down into, as I say in the book, “one day of tension and a long exercise in logistics.” If sailors appear in recent literature at all, their role is often reduced to one of taxi drivers and freight haulers, and I felt very strongly that this misapprehension needed to be corrected.

Have we overlooked the naval involvement of D-Day, beyond the landing craft?

Yes we have, which is really very odd when you consider that Operation Neptune – the assault phase of Operation Overlord, the Allied liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe – was an amphibious landing, and amphibious landings are just not possible without ships and sailors! Sailors contributed so much. Before the landings, they secured the waters in and around the Seine Bay and they worked as part of the planning teams. On D-Day itself, as well as driving landing craft, they swept mines and marked the safe routes into the assault areas, provided heavy gunfire support for the troops ashore, and directed that gunfire from the front line or from up above, in spotter aircraft. They organised the flow of troops on to the beaches and away inland, opened up captured ports, and helped to build the artificial harbours. All of this work went on for weeks after D-Day, too: the Allied navies were not just responsible for getting the army ashore, but also for keeping a constant stream of convoys flowing across the Channel bringing reinforcements, supplies, vehicles, ammunition and fuel, and protecting those convoys from enemy attack. It wasn’t a single day – it was a weeks-long campaign, which I have called the “Battle of the Seine Bay.”

Exercise Tiger, the exercise prior to D-Day, had ended in disaster. What lessons did the Allies learn?

The convoy which was attacked was probably rather thinly screened, and there were undoubtedly errors, the most significant of which was failing to replace an escorting destroyer, HMS Scimitar, which unfortunately was involved in a collision and returned to port. But the biggest lesson from Tiger was never to discount the enemy, in this case represented by the Kriegsmarine’s fast motor torpedo boats or Schnellbooten, which the Allies nicknamed “E-boats”,. My conclusion in the book was that “the Allied navies were desperately overworked and overstretched; mistakes were inevitable but more importantly there were always going to be occasions when the enemy simply did their job better.”

To what extent was the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) in a position to cause trouble for the Allies on D-Day?

The Kriegsmarine was much diminished by June 1944, but the Exercise Tiger disaster showed that it remained a threat. The Germans still had some very potent warships; as well as E-boats, they were able to deploy U-boats, a few well-armed, modern destroyers and fleet torpedo boats, and a wide range of auxiliaries. Later on, they introduced their Kleinkampfverbände, or “Small Battle Units”: a lethal mix of manned torpedoes, explosive motor boats and miniature submarines. In short, although the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe (which also remained a threat, particularly at night) were never strong enough to win the battle, in the book I conclude that “even a significant setback could have stalled the land battle and prolonged the war for months.”

With Admiral Ramsay once again crucial in directing operations (he had masterminded the Dunkirk evacuation), why is he not included with Montgomery, Slim and Alanbrooke when we talk of the finest commanders of the war?

Sadly, I think the main reason why Ramsay has been so badly overlooked is because he died in an air crash on 2 January 1945, and so never survived to write his own account of the campaign: basically, he wasn’t around to take part in the “battle of the memoirs.” Presciently, he wrote in his diary on 30 July 1944 that ‘because it all went so smoothly, it may seem to some people that it was all easy and plain sailing. Nothing could be more wrong. It was excellent planning and execution.’ Ramsay is one of the key architects of the Allied victory, and I’ve been saying for years that there should be a statue of him alongside Monty, outside the D-Day Story museum in Portsmouth!

How many sailors and submariners were lost in Operation Overlord?

Counting casualties is never an exact science, particularly in the case of a campaign which has rarely been studied coherently before. For Neptune and later operations in the Seine Bay, the British Normandy Memorial records 2,234 Royal Navy sailors on its online roll of honour, and further 179 Merchant Navy personnel; this only encompasses the period 6 June to 31 August 1944 and does not include Allied personnel. The US Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery records a further 363 fatalities between 6 June and 28 September, and the US Coast Guard another twenty-five. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists 130 Canadian sailors who died between 6 June and 12 September 1944 and were almost certainly killed in operations in and around the Bay. More sailors died from the rest of the Commonwealth, Poland, France, Norway, and many other lands. Operation Overlord, of course, ran right through to the end of the war in Europe, so you would add in many more sailors there, who lost their lives in the attack on Walcheren, for example, or clearing mines in the Scheldt, but my book stops on 12 September when Allied troops captured Le Havre.

Was aerial superiority the difference between defeat and victory?

No – I feel like you should know me better than this by now! It was air superiority and sea power! Without total control of the sea, Neptune/Overlord was impossible – it’s not that it would have been a defeat, it could never have taken place at all.

What’s next for you?

I’m talking to the fantastic team at Yale University Press about a number of possible projects. Top of the list is a book which examines Operation Torch, the invasion of Vichy French North Africa in November 1942, and Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily which followed it the following spring. I’m also considering a new examination of the naval battle of Crete in 1941, or a return to the First World War with a study of the “First Battle of the Atlantic”, the long campaign against the U-boats. I think all of these have been a bit overlooked by recent scholarship.

Nick Hewitt is the author of Normandy: The Sailors’ Story: A Naval History of D-Day and the Battle for France, published by Yale University Press.