On June 6, 1944, the largest logistics operation of modern times reached its decisive climax.
Today is the 78th anniversary of the Allied invasion of northern Europe, known to most as D-Day. The 78th anniversary isn’t one of the “special” anniversaries, but because of the passing years since D-Day, fewer and fewer people in the United States (and the world) know anything about its importance or relevance to today.
First of all, there were many “D-Days” during World War II, but this was the biggest and most important. It was part of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Nazi-held France, which led to the eventual liberation of Europe and ultimately the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The logistics of D-Day were given the code name Operation Neptune. That is the focus of this FreightWaves Classics article.
There is an old saying that “an army marches on its stomach.” That army must be kept adequately supplied to maintain its operational capacity. This is the essence of logistics, or what Antoine Henri de Jomini, General of the French Empire, defined as “the practical art of moving armies.” It is of no value to build up stores of manufactured goods, raw materials, weapons, and so on, unless they can be brought to the right place at the right time.
Following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, nearly the entire U.S. economy shifted to war production. The nation became one huge factory, entirely given over to the war effort. The U.S. quickly became the Allies’ primary source of military equipment. Among the many different war-related products manufactured were nearly 3,500 cargo ships (most termed “Liberty ships”), built to keep Great Britain and Russia supplied with war materiel.
That was followed by a massive build-up of soldiers, weapons, goods and military equipment in Great Britain. If the analogy of the U.S. as a national factory is continued, then Great Britain was a national warehouse.
What led to Operation Neptune?
Operation Neptune was the logistical effort to successfully make an amphibious landing of more than 130,000 soldiers and the equipment to support them on the beaches of Normandy. It required 6,900 vessels (of which 4,100 were landing craft). Planning for Operation Neptune began in early 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to the demand of their beleaguered Russian allies to an invasion of western Europe.
Operation Overlord was the seaborne invasion that the Allies hoped and planned would establish a bridgehead on mainland Europe. However, this bridgehead would have to be adequately supplied, and Operation Neptune was the codename for that effort.
The first reconnaissance raid at Dieppe (in the Normandy region of France) on August 19, 1942, ended in catastrophe. Of the 6,100 primarily Canadian troops who took part in the operation, 3,500 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. As costly as it was, that raid provided valuable lessons in what was necessary for a successful invasion.
The Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria in November 1942 sought to drive Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps out of North Africa and provide a base of operations in the Mediterranean. (Ironically, after his defeat in North Africa, Rommel was put in overall charge of Germany’s “Atlantic Wall” – the fortified coast of France.)
Although the Americans and British planned to invade France, the Allies did not have enough ships and landing craft to invade at the same time as they invaded North Africa, which delayed the invasion of western Europe. Military exercises with landing craft and live ammunition to prepare for the invasion began in July 1943.
To get the American, British, Canadian and other allied troops to the French coast on D-Day, an exceptional logistics operation had to be meticulously planned and achieved. The invasion fleet was the largest fleet of ships assembled in history.
A military saying is, ‘‘Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics.’’ In any military operation, logistical needs must be planned and then met before tactics can be developed, because logistics provide ‘‘the sinews of war.’’ Among the greatest logistical feats in history was the Allied planning for D-Day logistics.
The D-Day armada of ships was manned by 150,000 members of the U.S. and British navies. The ships crossed the English Channel in the early hours of June 6 to disgorge 130,000 men, 20,000 vehicles and supplies to open a breach in the German defenses along the heavily fortified seacoast of France.
At its narrowest point, the English Channel between France and England is 21 miles. During 1940 and 1941, the greatest fear of the Allies was that the Germans would invade England. If the Germans had been able to invade and conquer the British Isles, then pushing them back from Occupied Europe would have been infinitely more difficult.
However, the Germans did not have the ships or landing craft needed for an invasion of Great Britain, and consequently they missed their chance to fully conquer Europe. Instead, Hitler turned his armies east, and invaded Russia.
The invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941 went very well for Germany – until winter arrived. The German logistical effort failed its armies; the men did not have the proper clothing to fight in the bitter Russian winter, and were not resupplied with enough war materiel to adequately continue their advances.
The logistical failures of Nazi Germany, and the logistical successes of the Allies were among the reasons why the Allies won the war.
In regard to the invasion of France, without superb logistics, the Normandy landings would likely have ended in failure.
Of course, the Allied invasion of Normandy was not just about D-Day. Although that one day was a decisive day of the invasion as a whole, the massive and complex Operation Overlord was actually comprised of two different phases. The first consisted of the assembly of the troops and materiel in England that would be needed for the invasion. The second phase was all about the battle on the beaches and beyond – the breakout and the planned advance to Paris.
Allied casualties on D-Day have been estimated at 10,000 killed, wounded and missing in action. Of those were 6,600 Americans, 2,700 British, and 950 Canadians.
Author’s note: FreightWaves Classics thanks the National World War II Museum, the Imperial War Museum, Supply Chain Movement digital magazine and other sources for information that contributed to this article.
In addition, FreightWaves Classics salutes the Allied soldiers that participated in D-Day, “the Longest Day” of World War II, and all those Allied service members who served in World War II. We are enjoying our freedoms because of their service.