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Explore D Day Morning using our Interactive Painting.

Combined Operations - A Normandy Beachhead

A Normandy BeachheadLearn about D-Day by clicking on the embedded numbers in our monochrome version of the beach landing scene opposite, or just scroll down this page and let the story unfold.

It's an easy to follow introduction to Combined Operations raids and major landings directly onto unimproved landing beaches against entrenched enemy defensive positions.

Setting the Scene

The painting depicts a landing on the eastern flank of Sword beach between 7.30 am and 8.30 am (5.30 am to 6.30 am local time), an hour or so after the first assault troops ducked and dived, as they fought their way up the Normandy beaches on D-Day morning.

The German defences are still holding out. The beach and its approaches are extremely hazardous, as the lines of machine gun bullets striking the water, the huge explosion farther out to sea, the stretcher bearers going about their life-saving work and the blood stained water lapping the shore, Map of the Normandy landing beaches showing the distribution of HQ Ships, army troops and paratroopers on D Day.all testify. It was no place to tarry, unless your name was Bill Millin, who, against HQ orders, piped Lord Lovat and his No 4 Commandos off their landing craft and then proceeded to march up and down the beach to the tune of "The Road to the Isles." The Germans could easily have shot Millin dead, but they had no wish to kill someone who had clearly lost his mind!

There were five landing beaches, Sword being the most easterly, with Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah stretching out to the west for a distance of around 50 miles (80k). On D-Day alone, around 6000 vessels crossed the Channel and around 156,000 men, with their supplies and equipment, were transported to Normandy. Around 800 RAF and USAF bombers dropped their payloads on selected targets inland of the beach areas and 24,000 paratroops were dropped behind enemy lines. All the while, Allied fighters patrolled the skies in support of the invading force. Illustrated map below.

The Action Explained.

Click on the numbers embedded in the painting for an explanation of the key events and actions or just scroll down the page and let the story unfold. [Print Friendly Version of Text.      Print Friendly Copy of Numbered Painting.]

A Normandy Beachhead - the action explained.

This was the largest Combined Operation in history, which is unlikely to be surpassed or repeated because of changes in the conduct of war since WW2. The objective was to land assault troops, with their supplies and equipment, in pre-planned designated places, at the right time and in sufficient numbers to overwhelm the enemy. All other activity on land, sea and in the air was in support of this.

Because of the landing craft chosen to appear in this painting, the honour of representing the hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, which landed on the Normandy beaches, has fallen to the men of the 2nd East Yorkshire Regiment / 8th Infantry Brigade /  3rd British Division and the Royal Marines.

The assault infantry are moving off the landing beach supported by a Bren Gun carrier [25], while a colour sergeant is holding aloft the battle flag [26] of the regiment. To carry the flag was neither expected nor required by regulations, because of the risk of attracting the attention of snipers. Whatever motivated the colour sergeant that day, his action was unselfish and courageous and no doubt promoted a spirit of camaraderie amongst the troops of the EYR.

At the water’s edge [18], further infantry are dashing ashore from LCAs(a) that were lowered from the troopship SS Empire Battleaxe earlier that morning. Nearby, a Sherman tank [19] momentarily takes up a position in support of the landing troops, before leaving the beach area. Meanwhile, more LCAs [10] from the ship are making their way to the beach. She carried in her davits the 18 craft of 537 LCA Flotilla, each with a crew of 4 and space for 36 assault troops - a total of around 650 men on each full deployment of the craft. Her total capacity was 1195 fully equipped men. The Empire Battleaxe and many others ships destined for Sword beach that morning set out from Spithead the previous evening, arriving at their planned position at 5.30 hrs, two hours before H Hour.(b) At the appointed time, she lowered her LCAs into the water, much as a modern ship would lower her lifeboats during an emergency at sea.

The build-up of troops and equipment was relentless and overpowering as LCAs 770, 429 and 778 [14] poured more troops onto the landing beach. Progress was made but at considerable cost in lives. Further east along the water's edge, lie the bodies of men [21] caught in a hail of gunfire as they landed. The bodies of others, who drowned or were fatally wounded before they reached the landing beach, are washing back and forth with the tide. No beach was free of such gory images and in places the sea turned red. The wounded on the beach are receiving attention from regimental medics [20] as a chaplain kneels in prayer over a man close to death. Stretcher bearers [24] are transporting casualties to the relative safety of cover provided by an embankment and parked vehicles.

Overhead, Lancaster bombers [01] are making their way inland from the beaches to bomb heavy gun emplacements, enemy strong-points, fuel and ammunition dumps, troop concentrations, radar and communications facilities and HQ buildings; mostly targets in support of the advancing land forces. In the run up to D-Day, their primary purpose had been to destroy rail and road routes into Normandy to delay the arrival of enemy reinforcements, although their area of operation was more extensive than necessary to confuse the enemy. In this way, the Allied plans for the invasion of Normandy were not compromised. After D-Day, the heavy bombers increasingly returned to operations against strategic targets, with the exception of the largest fixed defensive installations that impeded the Allied advance in the battle grounds.

Air cover was provided by the RAF and USAF. The patrolling Spitfire [02] is one of hundreds of Allied fighter aircraft of many types, that took to the air that day. Once the beachhead had been secured and the Allied Armies had moved inland, fighters operated in support of the troops using the 'cab rank' arrangement described below. As it happened, the Luftwaffe were conspicuously absent for much of D-Day and when they finally made an appearance, they were very few in number.

The versatile Mosquito light/medium bomber [03] was used in many different roles. Here, it is responding to a request from the advancing troops for support to clear an enemy strong point, successfully avoiding the flashes of anti-aircraft flak in the process. Later, when Army and RAF "Forward Air Controllers" were operating on or near the front line with RAF radio equipment, requests for air support were channelled through them. 'Mossies' were called upon so regularly, that they circled in the forward areas like taxi cabs cruising for a fare. This was to allow them to respond very quickly to any request for assistance.

Barrage Balloons [04] were attached to many craft to deter low level strafing and bombing attacks by enemy planes. Although not clearly visible in the painting, the tethering cables were lethal obstacles to low flying aircraft. However, not everyone aboard the landing craft felt they were a power for good. Some believed the balloons could be used by enemy observers to pin-point the location of their craft thus allowing the enemy's big guns to fire on them.

On the horizon, far out to sea [05], battleships, cruisers and destroyers had completed their shelling of the beach area but remained on station to shell predetermined targets inland of the beaches or specific targets identified by observers and the advancing troops. LCT(R)s(C) had already fired their salvos onto the beaches, in advance of the landing troops, to soften up the enemy defences. In addition, salvos of spigot bombs had been fired from LCA(HR)s(d), specially adapted craft designed to clear mines from the exit routes of the beaches.  HQ ships of many types also occupied these waters at varying distances, as they received information on the progress of the invasion and intelligence on enemy activity. Much of the information came from the three Fighter Direction Tenders, converted LSTs(e) bristling with radio aerials and rotating radar gantries. The main HQ ship off Sword, HMS Largs, used this information to call on the support of the RAF and the Navy's big guns, while the smaller HQ craft controlled the flow of landing craft to and from the beaches, according to need and priorities .

The 2nd East Yorkshires were supported by ‘swimming tanks’, more properly called DD or Duplex Drive tanks [13.] They were Sherman tanks of ‘B’ Squadron of the 13th/18th Hussars of the 27th Armoured Brigade. They were transported to the beaches on Mk3 LCTs of the 14th LCT Flotilla of E Squadron, under the command of Acting Commander Kenneth Sellar RN. Prior to launching, their floatation skirts were raised and secured in place to provide sufficient buoyancy for the tanks to ‘swim’ ashore under their own power, transmitted through two propellers. They were launched about 5000 metres from shore and on reaching the beach, the propeller mechanism was detached and the tank proceeded along the beach in the conventional manner.

LCT(A) 2433 [12], of the 100th LCT(A)(HE)(f) Flotilla, was hit as it approached the beach by an errant rocket fired from a LCT(R) further out to sea. 2433's bow door sustained damage but she still managed to successfully unload her cargo and withdraw from the beach. One DD tank was sunk after being rammed by an LCT(g) while those on LCT 467 were landed directly onto the beach, after the leading tank damaged its flotation skirt and could not be launched.

The  Mk 5 LCT(A)(h) 2052 [16] and 2191 [17] were built in the USA and crewed by the Royal Navy. They were also part of the 100th LCT(A)(HE) Flotilla of Assault Group S3 Support Squadron out of Portsmouth. There were originally 8 craft in the Flotilla but only 6  reached their destination, including 2052 and 2191, the other two having broken down. They were transporting the 5th Independent Battery of the Royal Marine Armoured Support Group with their Centaur and Sherman tanks. Both LCTs received direct hits from an enemy mobile 88mm gun and became total losses. Fortunately, in both cases their tanks had already been off-loaded.

LCT(A) 2191 lost half her crew with others severely wounded. LCT(A) 2052 did not fair much better. Their coxswain was killed at his station in the wheelhouse and other crew members were also severely wounded. The dead from both craft are buried in Hermanville cemetery. Full story here.

Mk4 LCT 947(i) [15] was ‘Leader’ of the 45th LCT(AVRE)(j) Flotilla assigned to the 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers. Only one tank managed to disembark LCT 947 that morning. The second tank in line carried Commander Royal Engineers, Lt Col ADB Cocks. As the tank moved forward, the LCT took three direct hits in her bows. The tank lurched sideways and stopped in its tracks, blocking the exit. Despite frantic efforts by engineers and the forecastle party, it proved impossible to move the tank out of the way, so the remaining tanks on board could not disembark. A greater explosion soon followed, when pipes packed with dynamite on board a neighbouring AVRE 'Carpet–Layer'(k), exploded. The blast killed Lt Col Cocks and the tank commander. Despite the damage, LCT 947 turned about and returned to England with most of her original cargo and the bodies of the men, who had been killed aboard that morning.

LCI(S) 519(l) [08] was ‘Leader’ of the 200th LCI(S) Flotilla out of Warsash on the River Hamble. She carried the 200th Flotilla Officer, Lt Commander Rupert Curtis and Commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade. Amongst them, were the Commanding Officer of No 4 Commando, Brigadier Lord Simon Lovat and his piper Bill Millin.[22] Both of them waded ashore, Millin wearing his kilt and playing the bagpipes and Lord Lovat wearing a ‘Tam o' Shanter’(m) with his white Commando sweater under his battledress tunic, although, on the day, his tunic would undoubtedly have been fastened! A memorial to Bill Millin was dedicated in 2013 near to the landing beach.

Another craft of the 200th LCI(S) Flotilla was the LCI(S) 524. [06] She had beached under fire and took casualties after landing her Commandos. Having successfully withdrawn from the beach, she received a direct hit in her high octane tanks. The craft disintegrated and the fuel ignited setting the sea ablaze. Survivors, struggling in the sea, were picked up by a US Navy coastguard cutter but despite this, 8 members of her crew were lost.

Also in view are LCI(S) 506 [09] and nearby, LCI(S) 531 lying on her side. Although, originally part of the 201st Flotilla, these craft were assigned to the 200th LCI(S) Flotilla on D-Day. 506 was badly damaged but managed to take off the crew of LCI(S) 531, which was sinking.

At the rear of LCT(A) 2433 is the American built LCI(L) 269(n) [11] procured under the Lend Lease arrangements with the USA. She was fitted with communications and radar equipment and re-designated LCH 269.(o)  Her role during the assault was to direct the flow of landing craft to and from Queen Red beach.

Because of their considerable experience of recovering downed pilots and air crew, particularly from the waters around the south coast of England, the RAF Search and Rescue Launch 2687 [07] patrols off the beach in search of men in the water.

The beaches were heavily defended by gun emplacements, pill boxes and beach obstacles, the latter designed to obstruct and impede the progress of landing craft, as they approached their predetermined landing areas or, in the case of those obstacles primed with powerful mines, to destroy or disable the craft. Other obstacles placed above the waterline had a similar purpose but were aimed at tanks and other mechanised vehicles and the assault troops. An armoured bulldozer [23] is clearing steel tetrahedron shaped girders from an area of the beach.

The Royal Marine sniper [27] may well have had a German officer in his sights, whose elimination would add to the confusion and bewilderment spreading amongst the German troops defending the landing area. The Royal Marines were reputed to be amongst the best of snipers, since they had a tradition of sniping from the cross trees of sailing ships over centuries past. They had continued with sniper training, when most warring nations abandoned it, during periods of peace.

Makeshift signs [28], to warn of mine fields and other hard to see dangers, were hastily erected. The skull and crossbones captured the attention of passing troops and vehicle drivers, while the direction and distance of the danger, scrawled underneath, provided the vital information they needed, in this case about mines.

Subtext Notes

(a). LCA. Landing Craft Assault.

Purpose; To carry troops on mother ships to the area of the landing beaches. The fully laden LCAs were then lowered into the water on davits, much as a modern day lifeboat. Depending on their size, the mother ships could carry between 6 and 20 LCAs.

Specification; Size 41ft x 10ft, Speed 10 kn, Carrying Capacity 35 men.

Other Information; Built between 1940 and 1944 these wooden craft had a well to carry troops. The sides were partially armoured against small arms fire. Early flotillas were manned by RN officers and ratings but by the end of 1943 Royal Marine (RM) flotillas began to form. By the end of the war 350 LCAs had been listed as lost.

(b). H Hour.

The time of the initial assault landings for a particular beach. The times varied a little to  allow for the progress of the tide along the Normandy coast.

(c). LCT (R). Landing Craft Tank (Rocket). Purpose; To bombard enemy positions on and near the landing beaches with a devastating and intense barrage of rocket propelled bombs in advance of the first wave of landing troops.

Specification; Size 192ft x 32 ft. Speed 10.5 kn. Armaments, Arrays of rocket launchers for Rocket Projectile 3 inch (RP 3) weighing 60 lbs.

Other Information; LCT(R)s were LCTs with their tank decks covered over to take the rocket launchers. The full set of launchers was in excess of 1,000 and reloads totalling 5,000 rockets were kept below. The firepower was claimed to deliver, over a short period, the equivalent fire power of 200 destroyers.

(d). LCA (HR). Landing Craft Assault (Hedgerow).

Purpose; To clear the beaches of land mines prior to the landing of Royal Engineers who completed the task. To achieve their objective the mortars were fired as a widely spread salvo onto the landing beaches. They exploded a few feet above the beach creating a shock wave over a wide area sufficient to detonate land mines hidden in the sand.

Specification; Size 41ft x 10ft; Speed 10 kn; Armaments 24 Spigot Mortars.

Other Information; Adapted LCAs with reinforced floors, these craft carried four rows each of six spigot mortars loosely based on the Royal Navy's Hedgehog anti-submarine weapon. To achieve the element of surprise the weapon was top secret until used on the Normandy beaches. On the UK/Canadian beaches there were 18 craft off ‘Juno 2' and 'Gold’ beaches and 9 off ‘Sword’ beach. They were open to the elements and not designed for long journeys in the open sea especially in rough conditions but, nonetheless they were towed across the Channel by larger craft such as LCTs which carried the assault teams of Royal Engineers.

(e). LST. Landing Ship Tank.

Purpose; There were a number of different types and marks of this heavy duty landing ships. In its basic form it carried tanks, lorries etc and their crews. 

Specification; Size 390ft x 49ft; Speed 17 kn; Carrying Capacity 13 x 40 ton tanks or 20 x 25 ton tanks + 26 loaded 3 ton trucks + 193men although nn infinite number of other combinations of tanks, vehicles & men were  possible.

Other Information; Adaptations included the Fighter Direction Tenders.

(f). LCT(HE). Landing Craft Tank (High Explosive)

Purpose, Tank transporter. 

Specification, Same as (h) but without the armour plating.

Other Information, Both British and USA craft were part of the initial assault with their cargo of tanks having the capability of firing on enemy defensive positions while approaching the landing beaches.

(g). LCT. Landing Craft Tank;

Purpose; A number of different marks or types were manufactured that were smaller and lighter than LSTs but with a similar purpose.

Specification; Size 192ft x 31ft; Speed 10.5 kn; Carrying Capacity 5 x 40 ton tanks or 10 x 25 ton tanks + men or any combination; Armaments 2 x 2 pr or 2 x Oerliken rapid fire cannon.

Other Information; Carrying capacity figures are approximate and indicative since an infinite number of different loads could be arranged.

(h). Mk 5 LCT(A). Mark 5 Landing Craft Tank (Armoured).

Purpose; Similar in purpose to the LCT but smaller and with added 2" armoured plate over the superstructure to the rear. On British craft they carried two Centaur tanks with 95mm howitzers mounted on a raised platform to fire on enemy strong-points as they approached the beaches.

Specification; Size 117ft x 32.8ft Speed 8kn;

Other Information; Carrying capacity - an infinite number of different loads could be arranged from troops to tanks and lorries or any combination thereof.

(i). Mk 4 LCT. Mark 4 Landing Craft Tank.

Purpose. The mainstay of the Royal Navy in ferrying troops, tanks, lorries and supplies from the UK to the landing beaches. 864 were built from 1942 to 45 with 39 reported as lost at the end of the war.

Specification. Size 187 x 39; Speed 9.5kn;

Other Information. Carrying capacity varied since an infinite number of different loads could be arranged.

(j). LCT (AVRE). Landing Craft Tank (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers).

Purpose. The LCT(AVRE) was an LCT carrying Hobart's Funnies (tanks adapted for beach clearance). Otherwise see (i) above.

(k). AVRE Carpet Layer.

To minimise the risk of bottlenecks in the movement of vehicles on the landing beaches the AVRE Carpet Layer was developed by Hobart to lay a roadway over otherwise non-traversable terrain or barbed wire obstacles. At the front of the vehicle a steel frame carried a canvas/Hessian mat wound on a large bobbin. On approaching soft ground the 10 foot wide mat was fed under the tank's tracks and as the tank moved forward, the mat was laid down. To remove obstacles and natural features such as large sand dunes, the AVRE Carpet Layers carried pipes filled with dynamite. They were forced into the obstacle and detonated. The Carpet layer carried a crew of 5 and was armed with a Petard 290 mm spigot mortar as well as one 7.92 mm Besa machine gun. Once beyond the problem soil the carpet-laying frame with bobbin was removed allowing the tank to undertake its conventional duties.

(l). LCI(S). Landing Craft Infantry (Small).

Purpose. The transport of troops from friendly shores to enemy defended beaches.

Specification. Size 105 x 22; Speed 13.5; Carrying Capacity 96 fully equipped men; Armaments 2 x Oerliken rapid fire cannon.

Other Information. These wooden craft were built in 1943 and carried pennant numbers in the range from 501-600. The hull, deck and sides carried bullet proof plating. On D-Day 3 flotillas of LCI(S) were present on the Normandy beaches, they being the 200th and 201st on Sword beach assigned with Brigadier Lord Simon Lovat’s Commandos, the near 200 strong force of Lieutenant Philippe Kieffer’s Free French Commando and 41 Royal Marine Commando. To the westward, on Juno beach the craft of 202 Flotilla were assigned delivering the men of 48 Royal Marine Commando to St Aubin sur Mer at the eastern extreme of Juno beach. By the war’s end 8 craft had been recorded as ‘War Losses’ they being HMLCI(S) 511, 512, 517, 524, 531, 532, 537 and 540........5 of which being in Normandy.

(m). Tam o' Shanter.

A Scottish bonnet, often tartan with a pom pom at its centre.

(n). LCI(L). Landing Craft Infantry (Large)

Purpose. The transport of troops from friendly shores to enemy held defended beaches.

Specification. Size 160 x 23.7; Speed 14kn; Carrying Capacity 190 men + 50 men on the upper deck for very short passage in good weather. Armaments 4 x Oerliken rapid fire cannon.

Other Information. Sides and bulwark built of bullet proof plating.

(o). LCH. Landing Craft Headquarters

Purpose. Command and Control.

Specification. American LCI(L) conversions.

Other Information. The craft  carrying communication personnel who took over the troop space which was not required on such craft. 

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