Series Editor Tim Benbow sheds light on a pivotal, though surprisingly often neglected, Allied operation from the Second World War.
The first volume of Helion’s new series on the Naval Staff Histories of the Second World War covers Operation Neptune – the assault phase of the Allied operation to liberate Western Europe. In other words, this was the planning, preparation and conduct of the amphibious landings that began Operation Overlord on D-Day.
The series, as a whole, aims to make more widely available the accounts of various key battles and campaigns compiled by the Admiralty Historical Branch – either during or shortly after the war. These are hugely valuable, near-contemporary sources, which provide much detail on major turning points in the naval war and in the war as a whole.
Each volume includes a new, comprehensive introduction written by a specialist in the subject, as well as the entire text of the Staff History and any associated maps and diagrams. The second volume, on Operation Dragoon (the Allied invasion of southern France in August 1944), has also been published. The next volumes in the pipeline will look at the evacuation from Dunkirk, British submarine operations and the early stages of the Pacific War.
As general Editor of the series, I was able to ‘abuse’ my position to select the subject for the first volume. Operation Neptune was the clear choice for three reasons…
First, it was arguably the greatest, most ambitious and most complex operation launched by the Allies (or indeed any of the belligerents) during the war – and an argument could be made to extend this claim to the whole of history. It was an undertaking of breath-taking scale and it had to be got right first time; there would be no second chance.
Second, it is surprisingly often overlooked or under-rated. Many books with D-Day in the title begin just as the landing craft are hitting the beaches; their coverage moves inland even more swiftly than the invading troops in June 1944! The details of Operation Neptune, which put the forces into that position, seem almost to be taken for granted – as are the various preconditions that needed to be achieved before the operation could be launched. I struggle to explain this tendency, other than by reference to the unconscious impact of hindsight; those writing with the retrospective knowledge that the operation was a success may well overlook the difficulties of accomplishing it. There is also the general taking for granted of our command of the sea, which so often relegates naval operations in the broad consciousness of historians, politicians and even the general public.
Third, although the planning and the conduct of the operation were undeniably epic, the story is by no means simply one of huge statistics and lines on maps (though there were plenty of both!). There were elements of genius – not least the deception campaign on which so much of the strategy for the assault depended: the Allies convinced Germany that the landings would occur somewhere other than the real location, and later in the year. The result was that, even after the Normandy landings were well underway, the Germans still saw them as a diversion before the real thing, which would follow later at the Pas de Calais.
There was also imagination and innovation on a dizzying scale, exemplified by the startling idea of the Mulberry Harbours (We need a port, we won’t capture one quickly… so we will just build two in Britain in pieces, and assemble them off the coast of France), as well as the remarkable ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ – a family of specialised armoured vehicles, designed to solve a range of tactical problems of getting across and off the beaches.
Perhaps most strikingly, the story is also very much one of individuals among the millions involved. There is a plethora of fascinating, and often moving, personal accounts – written or recorded by the participants. One that I found particularly memorable was from a naval officer comparing the scene he witnessed at D-Day – smoke, gunfire, men moving over the beaches and aircraft overhead – with what he had seen at Dunkirk… Only this time, he was returning the Army to Western Europe rather than rescuing it and carrying it home.
At the highest level too, individuals mattered. Admiral Ramsay does not get the credit he deserves for leading the planning and preparation of this operation, which eclipsed his own formidable achievements at Dunkirk, North Africa and Sicily. If ever there was the case of the right man in the right place at the right time, this was it.
Much the same could be said of General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander. On the eve of the landings, when everything humanly possible had been done to ensure the success of the operation, the great uncontrollable factor of the weather intervened as a storm blew up that would make the landings and the associated airborne operations impossible. Eisenhower took the available option of postponing for 24 hours (itself a mammoth undertaking) and then the following day faced a second decision: go ahead or postpone for a couple of weeks. At this point, the clear weather promised by his forecasters should have arrived but had not. The windows at his headquarters, Southwick Park, were shaking in the wind and rain. It is difficult to think of a clearer case of the responsibility and loneliness of command as he gave the order to press on.
It would be easy to think that D-Day is a story told so often that there is nothing more to say about it. My research for this book disproved any such notion. It even provided me with one of those ‘Eureka’ moments sometimes experienced when working through primary sources, when I found the orders Ramsay issued for Operation Hermetic – his planned response to any attempt by the still-powerful German fleet to attack the invasion fleet in the Channel.
Awe-inspiring even today, Operation Neptune is finally given its due justice in this comprehensive account – a triumphant curtain-raiser to Helion’s new Naval Staff Histories series.
Operation Neptune is available to purchase from Helion & Company Ltd here.