Operation Neptune—the naval component of the 6 June 1944 invasion of Normandy, France—comprised thousands of warships, auxiliaries, and landing craft. Britain, Canada, and the United States, as well as the navies-in-exile of France, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Greece, supplied 1,213 warships to provide shore bombardment firepower for the troops going ashore, guard the transports, and conduct minesweeping and antisubmarine patrols on the flanks of the invasion corridor. These navies also provided 4,126 amphibious craft, including more than 3,500 specialized landing craft which provided the crucial troop-carrying capacity to land thousands of men, vehicles, and artillery during the invasion.
On 5 June 1944 the ships and craft began gathering in assembly areas southeast of the Isle of Wight. From there, many passed through channels that had been swept through the German defensive minefields and moved into their respective waiting areas before dawn on 6 June. Hundreds of antisubmarine escorts and patrol planes protected the flanks of these assault convoys. Between 0530 and 0550, the Allied gunfire support task groups began bombarding prearranged targets along the beaches at Normandy.
In the American sector, the landing at Utah beach began at 0630 and, despite occurring slightly south of the target area, proceeded according to plan as the U.S. 4th Division advanced rapidly toward its initial objectives. At Omaha beach, where the landings began at 0635, underwater obstacles bottled up many of the amphibious craft and the congestion provided easy targets for German gunners. It took a combination of short-range destroyer gunnery support, aerial bombardment, and desperate infantry assaults to break the German defenses. It was not until noon that the U.S. 1st and 29th Divisions crossed the beach line in force.
The British sector proceeded more smoothly. Rough seas and higher-than-expected tides hindered the clearance of beach obstacles, but excellent naval gunfire support suppressed German defensive fire at Sword and Juno beaches. The landings there, which began at 0730 and 0735, respectively, proceeded apace and the British 3d and Canadian 3d Divisions moved inland by early afternoon. At Gold beach, where the 50th Division landed at 0725, the beach obstacles were more numerous than expected and many landing craft were lost. This hindered the buildup of forces ashore and it wasn’t until nightfall that the beach was secured.
After overrunning the German beach defenses, the Allies rapidly expanded the individual beachheads, and the workhorse amphibious craft quickly reinforced the lodgment with new troops, munitions, and supplies. Superior Allied naval and shore-based artillery then helped defeat the initial German counterattacks at the same time that Allied dominance of the air hindered the transportation of German reinforcements to the region. By 25 July the Allies were strong enough to launch Operation Cobra and begin the liberation of France.