Alfred Thayer Mahan

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Pearl Harbor marked a change in the employment of battleships in American warfare. Prior to the Japanese surprise attack, large fleet-versus-fleet engagements characterized American war planning in the decades after Alfred Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Early incarnations of War Plan Orange – the battle plan for war against the Japanese Empire – reflected this doctrine and envisioned a decisive naval battle led by battleships. Deprived of the offensive force represented by battleships after the Japanese attack, however, American war planners were forced to focus on the offensive power of aircraft carriers to carry retribution across the Pacific.

Despite the change in doctrine, battleships were not sidelined in the war effort. In both the Pacific and European Theaters of Operation, battleships fell into the role of fire support of the numerous amphibious assaults carried out by Allied troops. A doctrine that developed from an pre-war infancy during Operation Torch and early Pacific operations to maturity during the final stages of the war, the firepower of a battleship’s main armament became a vital tool in securing victory against Axis forces. And just as the reverberations of the Texas‘ main armament could be felt around the vessel, the effectiveness of naval fire support from battleships has not been forgotten.

USS_Texas-5The USS Texas is one of the battleships that highlights naval firepower’s role in supporting amphibious landings. Fighting in both the ETO and PTO, she supported landing operations on D-Day, in the Mediterranean, on Iwo Jima, and on Okinawa. While each of these operations were significant, the Texas’ operations in Northern France in June, 1944 showcase the advantage, and irony, supplied by naval firepower.

Throughout the early war years, the Texas was on station in the Atlantic Ocean escorting convoys to and from Europe. With the coming of the Normandy landings, she was transferred to the British Isles in April, 1944 to begin training for the coming cross-Channel assault and her new mission: to “neutralize and destroy” the Atlantic Wall. Setting sail from Belfast Lough on June 3, the battleship set a course for the Normandy beaches.

On station off the Normandy coast, the Texas had her work cut out for her. In constructing the Atlantic Wall, the Germans had installed at least 25 major gun emplacements that posed an extreme threat to landing Allied soldiers. In the days leading up to D-Day, the commander of the vessel, Captain Charles Baker, reiterated the importance of his ship’s mission. “If we don’t knock them out it means our boys climbing those cliffs will get lead in their teeth,” the captain said.

As the Texas sat offshore of Omaha beach, her crew had front row seats to the carnage referenced by Captain Baker. Seaman Second Class Marvin Kornegay manned a five inch gun on the Texas and while he maintained his confidence in the result of the coming battle, he cringed as he watched Allied aircraft fall to the sea in the pre-dawn arial bombardment. This reaction was repeated as Kornegay watched landing craft explode from well-placed German mortar rounds.

At 0550, the Texas got her first chance that day to demonstrate the power of Allied naval fire. Targeting Point Du Hoc with her main 14 inch battery and strongpoints surrounding Omaha Beach Exit D-1 with her secondary armament, 266 shells were hurled at the Germans over 40 minutes. The Texas’ deadly fire continued throughout the day. By the end of the day, 441 shells had been fired on German positions.

Perhaps the best representation of the Texas’ gunfire support on June 6 occurred six hours into the invasion as Allied infantry sat huddled on the shore, pinned down by sniper and machine gun fire. Recognizing the significance of the defense being delivered by the Germans around what had been designated as Exit D-1, the Texas moved within 5,000 yards of the shore. Accompanied by a few destroyers, she unleashed her main guns on the German defenses and “completely demolished all structures in the Exit reducing them to rubble.”

USS_Texas-11For nearly two weeks, Texas continued to pound German positions from stations off the Normandy coast. Even as the fire missions pushed the envelope of the Texas‘ range, she did not let up. On June 15, the First Army requested naval gunfire on German strongpoints between Isigny and Carentan. This location was outside the 20,000 yard range allowed by the maximum 15 degree elevation of the Texas’ 14 inch guns, however. Unwilling to let the Army down, Captain Baker flooded the Texas’ starboard blisters to increase the main armaments’ elevation by two degrees. Twenty-four shells later, the targets were neutralized.

The effectiveness of naval gunfire during the opening of the Battle of Normandy was acknowledged by German and ally alike. On June 29, 1944, Hitler commented on the Allies’ “very effective naval artillery” noting that the naval guns “limit the possibilities of a large-scale attack on our own part.” Rommel had similar thoughts. “The effect is so immense that no operation of any kind is possible in the area commanded by this rapid-fire artillery,” wrote the German general. Even German prisoners of war admitted being terrified of the large naval guns.

Viewed more favorably, Allied personnel echoed the comments of their enemy. Observing the Texas’ devastating fire on D-Day, Ernest Hemingway wrote of the “surprise and happiness” of the Allied soldiers as they watched the battleship fire on German positions. The naval fire inspired confidence as the Allied soldiers believed no live enemy would be left after the Texas’ gunfire.

Captain Baker’s summary of the effectiveness of the naval bombardment justifies the confidence observed by Hemingway. Of the ten fire missions assigned to the Texas on June 6, no hint of ineffectiveness is provided. Rather, comments such as “[g]un silenced,” “[b]attery neutralized,” “personnel scattered,” and “fire effective” characterize the Texas’ D-Day Action Report.

There is no doubt that the experience gained during Operation Torch and Pacific assaults contributed to the successful employment of naval bombardment on D-Day. However, Captain Baker’s Action Report reveals another significant contributor. He wrote:

Spotting by Spitfire pilots was generally excellent and their often amusing comments were much enjoyed. They showed great keenness and efficiency in locating targets of opportunity although the zeal of one pilot nearly proved fatal. His strafing of an enemy command car cost him some flak damage to his plane and necessitated his quick return to his home base.

In contrast, Captain Baker described the shore-borne fire control teams as only “satisfactory” as he noted communications issues with shore fire control parties on Point Du Hoc.

Captain Baker’s comments and the results of the Texas‘ Normandy bombardment demonstrate that aircraft doubly transformed the battleship’s role in war fighting. While on December 7, 1941 aircraft ended the dreadnoughts’ monopoly of seaborne power, the joint deployment of battleships and aircraft allowed the vessels to sail into a new role of projecting power ashore in support of amphibious landings.

While the irony of the airplane’s place in the refinement of the battleship’s role in warfare is notable, it is unmistakable that the legacy of their effectiveness is still felt today. While the Iowa class battleships were mothballed numerous times, Congressional legislation required that they be maintained so that they could support amphibious operations on a moments notice. In the wake of striking the Wisconsin and Iowa from the Naval Register, the House Armed Services Committee noted the lack of any comparable replacement:

In summary, the committee is concerned that the Navy has fore- gone the long-range fire support capability of the battleship, has given little cause for optimism with respect to meeting near-term developmental objectives, and appears unrealistic in planning to support expeditionary warfare in the mid-term.

The Texas and her sisters filled a needed role throughout World War II’s theaters of operation and left a lasting impression on future generations. Ultimately assuming an unexpected role, the dreadnoughts ably fired some of the world’s largest naval guns and provided an umbrella of fire that enabled some of history’s most significant amphibious assaults. Even today, the retired behemoths are the standard bearer of naval fire support.

Sources: 

USS Texas Action Report for Period of 3-17 June, 1944.

USS Texas War Diary.

Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs: 1939-1945, Naval Institute Press (1990).

The Rommel Papers, De Capo Press (1953)

Hemingway, Ernest, Voyage to Victory, Collier’s, July 22, 1944.

U.S. House, Committee on Armed Services. Report on H.R. 5122 Together with Dissenting Views (109 H. Rpt. 452) (2006), pages 193-94.