The 14″ Guns of USS Nevada in action at Normandy
On June 6th 1944 Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. Six American, British and Canadian Infantry Divisions, three Airborne Divisions and numerous supporting units came ashore in landing craft or were airdropped into Normandy. Backing them was an immense Naval Task Force which provided naval gunfire support, screened the force from German U-Boat or surface naval forces and transported the massive ground force. It was an amazing armada.
HMS Rodney bombarding German positions off Caen
It was an armada that also is forgotten by many who read about Normandy or whose only exposure to the landings are films such as Saving Private Ryan. Today I think it is fitting to remember Battleships that served at Normandy, USS Arkansas, USS Texas, USS Nevada, HMS Warspite, HMS Ramillies and HMS Rodney.
USS Arkansas off Omaha Beach
The naval gunfire support force included Battleships, Cruisers and Destroyers as well as specialized gunfire support ships. The largest and most powerful ships were the six American and British Battleships. These ships were important in providing the heavy firepower needed to destroy the strongest fortifications and shore batteries and to fire at targets far beyond the shoreline that were vital for German reinforcements.
However the ships involved were not the modern behemoths which were built in the 1930s and since the beginning of the war but rather among the oldest ships still active in either the United States or the British Royal Navy. At one time they had all been the hearts for their navies but now old, slow and with less than modern armament and fire control systems they were regulated to supporting amphibious forces or escorting convoys.
USS Arkansas BB-33
The oldest of these venerable ships was the USS Arkansas BB-33 which was commissioned in 1912. A Wyoming Class Battleship she mounted twelve 12” guns in six twin turrets, two forward, two aft and two midships. She displaced just over 27,000 tons. She had spent most of the war escorting convoys in the Atlantic before being assigned to the Normandy landings. She stood off Omaha Beach dueling with German shore batteries and pounding the German troops who were making Omaha a living hell for the men of the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions. She would continue her valuable service off of Normandy and would do the same in to support the landings in Southern France before steaming to the Pacific where she would do the same at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
USS Texas BB-35
The USS Texas, BB-35 of the New York class had been in commission since 1914. She mounted ten 14” guns in 5 twin turrets, two forward, two aft and one midships and was slightly larger than the Arkansas. More modern she was more extensively modernized between the wars than was Arkansas and was one of the first US ships to carry experimental radar sets. She also conducted convoy operations but was used to bombard Vichy French troops and positions during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. At D-day she was in the western sector of Omaha and bombarded Point Du Hoc and cruised to within 3000 yards of the beach to clear the western exits of the beach near Vierville. She remained in the area a number of days and would subsequently support the attack on Cherbourg, the invasion of South France and then serve in the Pacific at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
USS Nevada BB-36
The USS Nevada BB-36 was the first of a new class of battleships which set the basic pattern of US Battleship design through the ratification of the Washington Naval Treaty. Her main battery of ten 14” guns was mounted in four turrets, mounted fore and aft two triple and 2 twin turrets. She was he powered by oil fired boilers as opposed to coal and was designed with a longer cruising radius to meet the demands of War Plan Orange. Nevada received major upgrades between the wars and on December 7th 1941 was moored on Battleship Row when Peal Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. The only Battleship to get underway during the attack Nevada was set upon by Japanese aircraft as she steamed toward the harbor entrance. Heavily damaged she was grounded off Hospital Point. She was re-floated and sailed to the United States where she was heavily modernized with a modern AA battery of twin 5” 38 caliber guns, and fire direction radars. She was modernized to the point that she no longer resembled the ship sunk at Pearl Harbor. After her repair and modernization she participated in the invasion of Attu Island and did convoy escort duty before reporting for the invasion of Normandy. Nevada supported the US 4th Infantry Division at Utah Beach and subsequently served with Texas and Arkansas in South France before going to the Pacific to support the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Had the war continued she would have been involved in the invasion of the Japanese Mainland.
The Royal Navy Battleships of D-Day were also elderly veterans. The eldest was the heroic HMS Warsipte commissioned in 1915 and a veteran of the Battle of Jutland and numerous actions during the Second World War including the slaughter of the German Destroyers at Narvik, the Battle of Cape Matapan and the invasion of Sicily and Italy. The Queen Elizabeth Class Battleship mounted eight 15” guns in twin turrets and was extensively modernized between the wars. At Salerno Warspite was hit by three of the earliest guided missiles, the Fritz-X type launched by Luftwaffe Aircraft. She was heavily damaged and required major repairs before returning to service at Normandy. She supported British troops at Sword Beach and later Gold Beach. She again was heavily damaged by a magnetic mine and received temporary repairs to allow her to continue bombardment duties against German positions France and Belgium before being placed in reserve in January 1945.
The HMS Ramillies was a Revenge Class Battleship commissioned in 1917. These ships were a compromise design that was smaller, slower and cheaper than the Queen Elizabeth Class but had the same main battery of eight 15” guns. The compromises prevented them from receiving significant upgrades between the wars and limited their employment. Ramillies operated as a convoy escort and was also involved in action in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. She participated in the hunt for the German Pocket Battleship Graf Spee and shielded Convoy HX-106 from the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and later took part in the hunt for the Bismarck. However she but was not engaged against any of the German ships but her presence prevented Admiral Lutjens from risking Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to attack the convoy. She took part in the initial battle between the Royal Navy and the Italians at the Battle of Cape Spartivento getting off several salvos before her slow speed forced her out of the action. She was heavily damaged by a torpedo from a Japanese mini-submarine in Diego Suarez harbor during the invasion of Madagascar in May 1942. Following repairs and the addition of extra deck armor and modern anti-aircraft guns she returned to action at Normandy were she supported British troops ashore and drove off an attack by German Destroyers. She stayed in action firing over 1000 shells at Normandy before supporting the invasion of Southern France. Too slow to be of use in the Pacific she was placed in Reserve in January 1945.
The youngest of the Battlewagons at Normandy on June 6th was the HMS Rodney which was commissioned in 1927. She and her sister ship HMS Nelson were to be the first of the post WWI super battleships and was designed as a larger and more powerful ship. With the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty the ships were “cut down” and reduced in size and speed. Her armament made her one of the most powerful battleships of period but her engineering plant was not always reliable. Since she was relatively modern she did not receive any major refits before the war and apart from a repairs to her engines in Boston in 1941 (before the US entry into the war) and a brief refit in 1942 she received no further refits during the war. With the HMS King George V she helped sink the Bismarck and would escort convoys and participate in the Allied invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Salerno before being assigned to the Normandy invasion force attacking targets near Caen. Her sister HMS Nelson was held in reserve and joined the battle on June 10th but she was not present on D-Day.
Warspite aground and Rodney being scrapped (below)
Despite their age and limitations all of these ships and their performed heroically during the war. The post war period was not as kind to the ships. Arkansas and Nevada were used in the Atomic Bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. Nevada survived and was expended as a target in 1948. All of the British ships were scrapped following the war due to their age, wear and damage incurred during the war. Warspite was being towed to the breakers when she broke a tow line and went aground. She ended up being partially scrapped in place. Mementos of all these ships remain including a gun from Ramillies at the Imperial War Museum. The lone survivor was the USS Texas which became a museum ship and memorial at the San Jacinto battlefield in 1948. She is the last of the Dreadnought ships remaining. Other more modern US Battleships have been preserved but only Texas remains from those ships that at one time ruled the waves and pounded the Germans at Normandy.
The author aboard USS Texas in March 2011
The fire support provided by these proud ships and their consorts ensured the success of the Normandy landings. Without them it is very possible that the landings would not have succeeded and many more Allied soldiers would have died and the war extended.
To these great ships and all their heroic crews…