Normandy: The Sailors’ Story by Nick Hewitt

A tour de force and, importantly, thoroughly enjoyable.
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When one thinks of D-Day, June 6th 1944, the first images that spring to mind are of brave soldiers disembarking landing craft and rushing onto the beaches to face the machine-guns of the defending Germans. Films, such as Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day have enhanced those images. There are books aplenty on the land war that followed the invasion. Although, this was the ultimate aim of Operation Overlord, to get as many men and as much hardware into theatre as quickly as possible, what has somewhat fallen by the wayside in literature and understanding, is what it took to get the men and materiel into France.

Normandy: The Sailors’ Story by Nick Hewitt, now puts that right.

Not many laymen have heard of Operation Neptune or the Battle of the Seine Bay. Neptune being the Royal and US Navy’s mission to get the army to the beaches, overseen by the incomparable and resolute Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay. The Battle of the Seine Bay is what followed, as Allied navies continued for weeks after to keep the flow of resources from being interrupted by German ships, U-boats, E-boats and even human torpedoes. Although by this time in the war, the Allied navies pretty much dominated the sea, the threat from the Kriegsmarine was very much still there, and they were hellbent on disrupting the Allied effort as much as they could. However, despite suffering severe losses, both in shipping and personnel, the Royal and US navies kept the flow of reinforcements coming, moving thousands of men and millions of tonnes of hardware across the English Channel. It is therefore almost criminal that the Battle of the Seine Bay has been ignored for so long.

Hewitt has used personal accounts, after action reports, ship’s logs and a host of other resource material to put together what is a quite remarkable book. He describes well and in great detail, the amount of preparation and organisation that went into pulling off the largest and most important seaborne operation in history.

The research that has gone into this book is breathtaking. However, whereas other books that attempt to tell tales on a similar scope tend to fall flat; too many characters, too many maps to keep flicking back too etc., Nick Hewitt has got it spot on. At no time does the reader feel bogged down in the narrative, yet the sense of scale is always there. To achieve this takes immense skill, and Nick Hewitt has very much pulled it off. This is a brilliant story of bravery, endurance and ultimately hardship and sadness, in that so many brave sailors perished in their steadfast determination to keep the supplies flowing, leading to victory in Normandy and ultimately victory in Europe.

As Hewitt himself says, “It is all too easy, sometimes, to become distracted by the debate about which made the most significant contribution to the victory in Normandy. In the end they all mattered.” Never a truer word written.

Normandy: The Sailors’ Story is a tour de force and, importantly, thoroughly enjoyable. I advise anyone with an interest in D-Day, or the Second World War in general, to read it. Great work.

Normandy: The Sailors’ Story: A Naval History of D-Day and the Battle for France by Nick Hewitt is published by Yale University Press. John McKay is a naval historian and the author of Arctic Convoy PQ18.