Absent Friends? British Naval Aviation and D-Day
Updated: Jan 8, 2019
The question most often asked by students when I have given lectures or accompanied staff rides on D-Day is, where were the aircraft carriers? There does seem to be a puzzle here. By summer 1944, carriers were the central capability of the modern fleet and had repeatedly proved their value in supporting amphibious operations from Madagascar to the Mediterranean and across much of the Pacific. Yet here was the greatest, most challenging amphibious landing of the war (or indeed ever), and among the hundreds of warships involved, covering every other category of fighting ship, there was not a carrier to be seen. (One seaplane carrier, HMS Albatross, was present; she was not operating aircraft but rather serving as a support vessel for landing craft.)
So, why were the carriers absent from Normandy? I have tackled this question in an article just published in War in History; this piece provides a concise version of my answer – which in addition to resolving the immediate question also sheds light on some broader points about naval power.
There were good reasons why carriers were not deployed immediately off the French coast on D-Day. Operation Neptune was unique among wartime amphibious operations in there being an option of relying entirely on land-based aircraft. Southern England provided many air bases from which fighters and fighter-bombers could just reach Normandy at the edge of their combat radius. The location for the landings was not ideal – this distance from air bases being an important element in sustaining the deception campaign – but the air supremacy enjoyed by the Allies, together with the vast number of aircraft available to them, meant that the disadvantages of relying on such distant bases were acceptable. Even with these bases, however, there would still have been a useful supplementary role for carriers, providing a force of aircraft closer to the beaches and hence a more rapid response to any urgent need over the invasion fleet or the beaches.
Two practical considerations meant that this option was not seriously considered. First, carriers operating off Normandy would have had to steam west to launch aircraft and then east to regain their position. This loop would have cut perpendicularly across the course of the vast mass of shipping heading north-south between Britain and France, exacerbating the already formidable challenges of congestion at sea (as well as further expanding the huge minesweeping requirement). This alone would have been reason not to use carriers in the Channel, but there was another, equally valid reason: Britain only had a small force of carriers in 1944 relative to the demand for their services, and their comparative advantages were far better applied elsewhere. I will return to this point below.
However, just because a soldier or marine on Sword Beach could not see any of the carriers close offshore does not mean that they, or indeed the Fleet Air Arm, were uninvolved in Operation Neptune.
A significant contingent of Fleet Air Arm aircraft operated from air bases in southern England in direct support of the D-Day landings, spotting for naval gunfire over the beaches, and assisting the always under-resourced Coastal Command in protecting shipping and the landing forces against the threats from U-boats and German surface warships. More were deployed ashore in Northern Ireland, on the west and east coasts of Scotland, and in the Orkneys to free up RAF aircraft to operate from the south. This all amounted to a considerable commitment, requiring no fewer than one-third of the operational fighters in the Fleet Air Arm and some 40 percent of its Torpedo-Bomber-Reconnaissance aircraft.
Carriers were also committed in support of the landings – which, as is often the case with naval forces, did not necessarily involve close proximity. Three escort carriers operated with other anti-submarine forces in the South-West Approaches to counter the expected surge from U-boats based on the French Biscay coast. Two of the Royal Navy’s five fleet carriers (Formidable and Victorious) operated with the Home Fleet from Scapa Flow. Although far from the Channel, they were still involved in the operation: having neutralised the threat posed by the Tirpitz in April, they now provided cover against any attempt by the remainder of the German surface fleet to react against the invasion by attacking either the landings directly or the continuing flow of shipping in the Atlantic. The cover role is easily overlooked but is vital, in neutralising the only enemy threat that could have seriously disrupted the landings. Simultaneously, these carriers contributed to the Allied deception campaign, reinforcing the impression that an invasion of Norway was imminent, while also attacking German shipping and supporting the ongoing Russian convoys.
British naval aviation, therefore, contributed directly and indirectly to Operation Neptune in early June 1944. However, the question posed at the outset betrays a rather land-centric perspective. The contribution of naval forces in general, and naval aviation in particular, to Operation Neptune, cannot be judged solely by contemplating the location of carriers and squadrons on the morning of 6 June 1944. They had already set the foundations for the invasion of Europe over the preceding months and years, winning (with other British and Allied naval forces and Coastal Command) the Battle of the Atlantic, fighting the campaign in the Mediterranean and helping to keep Russia in the war – while also operating in support of other campaigns in the Indian Ocean and Far East.
The great bulk of the contribution of Allied naval power to the initial invasion of Europe had already been made by June 1944, although the continuing role of sustaining the subsequent campaign, in which escort carriers continued to protect shipping in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, still lay ahead. In the summer of 1944, the focus of the Royal Navy had already begun to switch elsewhere – to the Mediterranean (where several escort carriers were working up for later amphibious landings, including Operation Dragoon, the August 1944 invasion of southern France) and the Far East. The latter in particular was seeing a significant British build up. On D-Day three of the five fleet carriers (Illustrious, Formidable and Indomitable), and several escort carriers, were either deployed in the Pacific or were en route there; a fourth from the Home Fleet would follow within days of the Normandy landings. By November 1944, the British Pacific Fleet included five fleet and four escort carriers, with five more escort carriers serving with the East Indies Fleet.
Considering the activities of the Royal Navy’s carriers and Fleet Air Arm squadrons in early June 1944, therefore, explains why they were not right off the Calvados coast, yet were nonetheless closely involved in supporting the greatest amphibious landing in history. It also reveals a deeper truth about the differences between naval power and its land-based counterparts: to understand its place in campaigns, strategy and warfare you need a broader canvas – a longer timeline and a bigger map. Their role in supporting D-Day fully deserves a toast, but it would not be to ‘absent friends’.
This post first appeared at Defence-in-Depth, the blog of the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.
Dr Tim Benbow studied at Oxford as an undergraduate (at Brasenose College) and as a graduate (at St Antony's College). He also spent a year at Harvard University as a Kennedy Scholar and a year at King's College London. After being awarded his doctorate he remained at Oxford, conducting a post-doctoral research project and teaching International Relations and Strategic Studies at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including one year as a Tutor in Politics at University College. Dr Benbow spent two years teaching at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, before joining the Defence Studies Department in 2004. He was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2008 and to Reader in 2016. Dr Benbow is Maritime Historian on the Higher Command and Staff Course; Deputy Director of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies; and Director of the Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre.