Naval Armed Guard Service: Merchant Ships at Normandy during the D-Day Invasion (Operation Neptune), June - July 1944
Related Resource: Naval Armed Guard Service During World War II
of the Chief of Naval Operations. "History of the Armed Guard
Afloat, World War II." (Washington, 1946): 176-185. [This
microfiche, identified as United States Naval Administrative History of World War II #173, is located in the Navy Department Library, and can be purchased, or borrowed through interlibrary loan.].
Losses to merchant ships [during the invasion] were much lower than had been anticipated. In fact, the operation ran with all the regularity of a well-adjusted clock. Many ships plied back and forth between English ports and the beaches at Normandy. Some ships made as many as three trips in June alone. Most ships which went [to the Normandy landing areas] in the early days of the invasion had some contact with the enemy, but losses were small. The Luftwaffe [German air force] no longer had the punch which made it the scourge of ships in the Mediterranean in 1942 and 1943. Overwhelming [Allied] might was slowly reducing the German ability to strike.
Block Ships, Mission A
The story of how a modern [artificial] port was built at Omaha and Utah beaches has already been revealed. Armed Guards on some 22 merchant ships which were scuttled [deliberately sunk] to make a breakwater played a vital part in this operation. For days they endured the early fury of the German counter-attack and helped give fire protection to the forces ashore from their partly submerged ships. This was a task which required courage and the ability to do without sleep.
The 22 block ships were carefully prepared for their assigned operation. The heavy [deck] gun aft was removed and four 20mm [anti-aircraft guns] and a 40mm [anti-aircraft gun] were generally substituted. The ships were stripped of all unnecessary gear. About eight explosive charges were placed in the holds and large openings were cut in the transverse bulkheads. Necessary food supplies and ammunition had to be moved topside, for the decks of some of the ships were to be under water at times.
The men aboard the 13 ships scuttled off Omaha Beach and the 9 ships scuttled off Utah Beach had much the same experiences. Crossing the [English] Channel there were the [enemy] mines and the E-boats [small fast German motor torpedo boats also known as Schnellboote or S-Boats; similar to American PT-boats]. By day German 88mm guns fired at the block ships, and by night enemy bombers came over.
The James Iredell was the lead ship among the block ships and she was scuttled at the appointed position on the afternoon of June 7, 1944. At 2030 German artillery fire became so heavy that the Armed Guards on this ship and on the Baialaide and the Galveston were evacuated. But they returned to their ships on the morning of June 8. The Armed Guards of the Baialaide remained at their guns until June 17. At high tide the main deck of the ship was six feet under water. The Armed Guards on the James Iredell and the Galveston recorded air attacks every night until June 15, when they were relieved. On the George W. Childs, which was scuttled on June 8, the Armed Guards had narrowly missed being hit by artillery fire as they lay off the beach on the night of June 7. Mines and E-boats had been encountered while crossing the Channel. There were three or four air attacks at night and one bomb landed 50 yards from the Childs. She was credited with two assists [in shooting down enemy aircraft]. She established a kind of open house for visiting firemen by furnishing food and quarters to countless numbers of troops and small boat crews. One of her Armed Guards was wounded by a shell fragment. Not until June 17 did the Armed Guards leave the ship.
The Courageous reported E-boat attacks en route to Omaha Beach, artillery fire upon arrival on June 7, and air attacks every night from June 7 to 12. On June 9 her Armed Guards hit a [German] plane which in turn dropped a bomb so close that the decks were sprayed with fragments. The plane crashed. The Potter was forced to seaward on the night of June 7 by [German] 88mm [artillery] fire, but was scuttled the next day. Many shell fragments landed on her decks and one Armed Guard was wounded. Her crew was relieved on June 13. Several bombs landed close to the James W. Marshall. Her Armed Guard officer remained on board until June 22 in connection with the command of all Armed Guards on the scuttled ships. But Army personnel took over the gunnery duties on the Marshall on June 13. The Wilscox had a narrow miss on June 11. Her Armed Guards were also evacuated on June 13. The Armed Guards on the Audacious remained aboard until June 18. The Armed Guards on the Olambala reported some 32 air attacks to June 16, but only one merchant seaman was wounded before the merchant crew was removed. Fragments from 88mm guns which were scoring near misses hit the decks of the Artemus Ward on June 7. One Armed Guard was wounded on June 9. Bombs narrowly missed on June 10 and 11, and shell fragments hit on the latter date. Part of the gun crew was removed on June 19. Because of a storm from June 19 to 22 [this was the great storm which wrecked the artificial "mulberry" harbors at the Normandy beachheads], the ship cracked. The last Armed Guards were not removed until June 22. The West Grama fired about 19 times and scored one assist on June 9. One Armed Guard on this vessel was wounded while at Omaha Beach. A bomb landed close to the ship on June 14. Her Armed Guards left the ship on June 18. She was credited with two assists [in shooting down German aircraft]. Flight Command reported 30 to 35 alerts prior to June 15.
At Utah Beach the George S. Wasson went through 32 raids from June 7 to 14. The David O. Saylor was forced to withdraw from Utah Beach because of heavy artillery fire which was straddling her on June 7. She was also forced to withdraw once on June 8 but was successfully scuttled in the afternoon. Her Armed Guards left on June 13. The West Nohno helped shoot down several enemy planes on June 10. Her Armed Guards left on June 18. The Benjamin Contee Armed Guards withdrew from the ship on June 14 after 32 raids. Artillery narrowly missed the Matt W. Ransom at Utah Beach. Her Armed Guards reported many alerts and indicated that from 8 to 10 rounds of [German] artillery fire were observed each day to June 15. They left two days later. The Vitruvius reported that six planes were shot down by her fire and by the shore batteries on June 10. She was narrowly missed by bombs on the night of June 11. The Armed Guards on the Victory Sword brought down six planes on the night of June 10. The West Cheswald claimed one plane destroyed. Her Armed Guards were not removed until June 19. The West Honaker was damaged by two skip bombs on June 8 and part of the merchant crew and the Armed Guards abandoned ship. Not until June 10 was she scuttled about 400 yards from the beach. Her Armed Guards left on June 14. The Armed Guard crews from the block ships were returned to the United States on the Queen Elizabeth. There was no loss of life among the Armed Guards taking part in this dangerous operation.
The Commander of United States Naval Forces in Europe highly commended the Armed Guard personnel for their participation in placing the block ships and defending the ships until relieved by Army personnel.
Supplying the Army of Liberation.
Armed Guards on merchant ships making trips between Britain and Normandy experienced just about every form of attack. Submarines and planes were supplemented by the new "V" bombs [the German V-1 missiles - the "buzz bomb" - an unguided cruise missile launched from bases in France to hit targets in England] which passed over many ships on their way to England. Mines were a constant menace, and they took a heavy toll of ships. E boats were active [German fast torpedo boats]. German artillery continued to shell the anchorages [off the Normandy landing beaches] for some days. Fortunately, there as excellent [Allied] air cover and ships were required to anchor off the beaches for only a few days before returning to England for more cargo. While the number of planes destroyed by Armed Guards at Normandy is not large, their guns made excellent records on the few occasions when they fired.
It is impossible to describe all of the action at Normandy. Attack was expected, and most ships were attacked at one time or another. Her we shall mention only ships which actually suffered damage or which inflicted damage on the enemy.
One of the first merchant ships to be hit at Normandy was the Francis C. Harrington. On June 7 she struck a mine. There were 25 casualties but no Armed Guards were injured. The Jedediah S. Smith was hit by shell fragments from shore batteries while at Normandy soon after D-Day. The Charles Morgan brought down two planes on June 9 but was hit by a bomb in her No. 5 hatch the next morning. Killed and wounded numbered about twelve, but no Armed Guards were injured. This ship was abandoned. The Will Rogers shot down one plane and helped bring down another on the night of June 8. She survived the entire Normandy operation only to be torpedoed near Liverpool in April 1945. She was beached. Shell fragments hit the decks of the John Steel prior to her departure from Normandy. On June 8 five Armed Guards and two merchant crewmen were injured on the Horace Gray when a 20mm shell exploded in her 5"/38 gun platform [naval artillery is described by bore size and bore length in calibers - thus this gun had a 5-inch bore, 38 calibers - 190 inches - in length]. Fragments landed on the Benjamin Hawkins on June 9 when a bomb landed close. Many shell fragments hit the Collis P. Huntington during the early days at Utah Beach and this ship destroyed a [German] plane. The Walter Hines Page hit a plane on June 8. The Robert E. Peary was strafed by a [German] plane on June 9 and destroyed one plane on this date. The William Carson suffered five casualties on June 9 when a shell landed inside her 3"/50 gun tub [a gun platform on the bow or stern which resembled a tub] and exploded. The Amos G. Throop was credited with the destruction of one plane on this date.
The John S. Mosby and the Helias each had five casualties from the anti-aircraft fire at the beaches on June 9. Several soldiers were killed and wounded when a German shell landed 20 feet from the Ezra Weston on June 9. This ship was sunk off the English coast on August 8 when she hit a mine. When the Armed Guard officer called for volunteers to man the aft gun, all Armed Guards volunteered even though orders had been given to abandon ship. But the Armed Guards were forced to abandon ship in about 25 minutes.
The James B. Weaver was credited with one [shot down enemy] plane on June 10. She also exploded two rocket bombs [V-1 missiles passing overhead?]. A 20mm shell injured two men, neither of them Armed Guards, on the Henry Percy on June 10. Four men on the Edward W. Scripps were hit by bomb or shell fragments.
The John Hay was one of the few merchant ships which reported firing at an E boat. Two [Navy Seabee] Construction Battalion personnel aboard were hit by flak on June 10 and one Armed Guard was injured on June 11. Fragments from German shells landed on the stern gun deck of the George G. Crawford on June 10. The Cyrus H. McCormick came through the Normandy invasion with nothing worse than one member of the merchant crew hit by a bomb or shell fragment. But she was torpedoed on April 18, 1945 while en route from New York to the United Kingdom.
On June 11 the George White field claimed a hit on a German plane. The Dan Beard survived only to be torpedoed in January, 1945. The ship was off the British coast. She broke in two parts. Only 15 Armed Guards survived. Two merchant seamen were wounded on June 11 when bombs fell close to the George E. Badger. She may have hit a plane on this date.
The William L. Marcy was hit by shell fragments from German shells on June 13 while in the Straits of Dover. She made seven voyages to France only to have an explosion, perhaps from a mine, off Juno Beach on August 7. All hands abandoned ship but she was reboarded the same day. Her Armed Guard officer thought that perhaps a human torpedo struck the ship. Armed Guard suffered only minor cuts and bruises, but one soldier was killed.
The Casimir Pulaski brought down a plane on June 14. She was missed by two aerial torpedoes by only 15 feet. Bomb fragments hit the Arthur Sewall on July 12 and flak landed on her decks on July 29. On December 29 south of Portland Bill a torpedo struck the ship. She fired at torpedoes and claimed hits. There were no serious wounds to Armed Guards, but there were casualties among the merchant crew. The Charles C. Jones had two very near misses from bombs on June 15 and one soldier was slightly injured. The Cotton Mather downed a plane on the same day. Flak landed on the decks of the Elihu Root on June 16 and bomb fragments hit the ship two days later. The William N. Pendleton was hit on June 18 by a bomb which did not explode. A fire was quickly extinguished. The Armed Guard officer and the chief radio operator were slightly wounded. The Moose Peak was credited with one plane on June 19.
On June 25 the Matthew T. Goldsboro was hit by fragments from shells bursting in the Straits of Dover. A hole was blown in the engine room 15" in diameter. She as also shelled by coastal batteries on July 22.
Several ships struck mines, especially toward the end of June. On June 28 the Charles W. Eliot struck a mine off Juno Beach and was a total loss. Two Armed Guards and two merchant seamen were wounded. On June 29 four ships struck mines. The Edward M. House, already credited with one plane at Normandy, was en route to Utah Beach. She struck a mine in the afternoon but was able to continue to the beach. There were only minor casualties. The H.G. Blasdell was towed back to England after she struck a mine. There were many Army casualties aboard the ship. Other ships which struck mines on this date were reported to be the James A. Farrell and the John A. Treutlen. The mine field was encountered about 30 miles south of Catherine Point. There were Army casualties aboard the James A. Farrell. The John Merrick avoided the mines by a turn to the right.
The William A. Jones was one of the few merchant ships to bring down a robot bomb [German V-1 missile]. She shot the bomb down on June 25 [the V-1's flew low and slow]. Merchant ships spoke of the Straits of Dover as "Doodlebug Alley" because so many of the V-bombs were observed flying over.
On July 25 the David Starr Jordan suffered 15 casualties from fragmentation bombs which landed close. Two soldiers died. One three of the wounded were Armed Guards. Perhaps the most unusual weapon with which a ship was bombarded fell upon the Joseph Story on July 23. This consisted of a package of propaganda leaflets.
The Farallon towed ten block ships to France in three months. On her return voyages to England she towed damaged ships. On August 23 a British freighter was being towed when a torpedo struck the British ship. En route to the United States with an LST [a US Navy Landing Ship, Tank] in tow on December 20, the Farallon had another close call when the LST was torpedoed. A [Navy] destroyer escort came to the scene and was in turn torpedoed. The Farallon took this ship in tow after the LST was abandoned. A [German submarine] periscope appeared only 20 feet from the Moose Peak.
Such were the principal events in the history of the Armed Guards at Normandy. The ships discussed above by no means exhaust the list. In any event, the above mentioned ships were involved in action which was typical of that to be found around Normandy. Their experiences were somewhat worse than those of many ships which were at Normandy during the war.