This year is the 70th anniversary of D-day, which began on 6th June 1944. As part of the commemoration English Heritage is conducting a review of the remains of Operation Neptune, the cross-Channel assault phase of the invasion Operation Overlord.
Planning for the invasion and the liberation of Europe began as early as 1942 and Operation Neptune was placed under the command of Admiral Bertram Ramsey, who had played a large part in the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk in 1940.
The Royal Navy’s role in Operation Neptune is well summarised in Ramsay’s order to all the Allied naval forces under his command:
Our task in conjunction with the Merchant Navies of the United Nations, and supported by the Allied Air Forces, is to carry the Allied Expeditionary Force to the Continent, to establish it there in a secure bridgehead and to build it up and maintain it at a rate which will outmatch that of the enemy. Let no one underestimate the magnitude of this task.
Special Order of the Day, 31 May 1944 by Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay KCB, KBE, MVO, Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief
For the Operation it was assumed that the vast aerial power of the Allies would ensure that the fleet would be free from a German aerial attack. The whole armada was to be spearheaded by a flotilla of 287 mine sweepers that would clear the way for the ships behind them – 138 warships that were to bombard beach defences in Normandy itself. The troop-carrying convoy was to sail from southern English ports protected by an escort of frigates and corvettes. Thousands of landing craft had also been assembled and these too were in need of protection.
Ramsey also had to arrange for the movement of 146 Mulberry Harbour units across the Channel by using a large number of tugs. Remains of these can be seen in various places around England’s coast including Portland, Dorset and Langstone Harbour near Portsmouth, Hampshire.
In December 1943, Ramsay submitted to the Admiralty an initial requirement for 467 warships plus 150 vessels for minesweeping duties. In fact, a total of 702 warships (comprising battleships, monitors, cruisers, destroyers, sloops, frigates, corvettes, patrol craft and motor launches but excluding 25 flotillas of minesweepers) from many Allied navies participated in the Operation.
Between midnight on 6th June and 3oth June 1944, over 850,000 men landed on the invasion beaches of Normandy along with 150,000 vehicles and 570,000 tons of supplies. More than 800 Merchant ships were used during the operation and a number of these were sunk, including the SS Dungrange, carrying ammunition to Normandy, which was sunk off the Isle of Wight.
The backbone of the craft used to unload machines and men were the Landing Crafts, of which some 2468 were used in the assault and only one, a Landing Craft Tank (LCT), now remains relatively intact – the Landfall currently located on Merseyside. Of the warships that took part in the operation the most famous is HMS Belfast which is now a museum ship moored in central London.
Around England’s coast there are many wrecks of warships, merchant ships and aircraft that took part and were lost during the battle. Examples include the recently discovered LCT (2428) with its cargo of tanks and bulldozers lost off the coast of Sussex while being towed on the morning of 6th June 1944, and also a Horsa heavy transport glider ditched into the sea off the Sussex coast.
Gareth Watkins is a Projects Officer with the National Heritage Protection Commissions Team.
This assessment of the remains of Operation Neptune in England and English Waters has been developed to assist in the understanding of significant places. It will contribute to the national programme of planned designation to ensure that the full weight of statutory protection is given.
We welcome any further information regarding remains from this momentous event that led to the eventual liberation of Europe: email us.