This June marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the largest amphibious operation in history.
It is, sadly, likely to be the last time that veterans will be able to attend in significant numbers, as direct witnesses to one of the most incredible military exploits of all time.
The intention of the operation was simple - land enough forces to begin the process of liberating France from German occupation and then sweep East to link up with the Soviet Armed Forces and in turn end the war by occupying Germany.
The operation needed such vast numbers to succeed as it faced a German force of some 850,000 troops dug in across northern France, poised to counterattack and destroy any invasion force. Even after several years of war, and with total air superiority, there was still no certainty of success, and the operation was extremely high risk.
From the outset, D-Day was not just an amphibious operation. It is better to think of it as a collection of different activities and events brought together to deliver one single operation.
The numbers involved remain staggering – over 5,500 ships participated, landing some 135,000 personnel (of which some 75,000 were British or Canadian) and airdropping another 20,000 paratroopers too.
Almost 8,000 fighter and bomber aircraft were available to the allies on the day to support the operation, underpinned by an enormous logistics chain stretching all the way back to the USA.
In practical terms, the planners had to consider issues including gaining maritime and air superiority, building sufficient specialist amphibious vessels to be able to land the right mixture of troops to punch a hole through heavy defences and then secure a seaport to handle their long-term logistics concerns.
They had to think about deception and decoys and the unconventional battles too (involving the French Resistance and Special Forces) and they had to do all this against the challenges and opportunities brought about by working in a large multi-national coalition, where many participants had different priorities and capabilities to bring to bear.
How Would We Tackle Such An Operation Today?
This was a remarkably complex operation, and one that required many years of planning to deliver.
As we pause to celebrate this momentous occasion, it is worth asking how the UK would tackle an amphibious operation today, and whether D-Day was a one-off, or if required, could the British Armed Forces still conduct a substantial amphibious operation abroad?
There is no doubt that while the modern British Armed Forces remain extremely well equipped and capable, they are significantly numerically smaller than they were in 1944. This is inevitable, as there is a major difference between a peacetime 100% volunteer armed forces and those that have emerged after nearly five years of fighting a total war for existential survival.
There is also unlikely to be a repeat of the wider geopolitical circumstances which emerged during the 1940s – the combination of the existence of NATO and the EU, coupled with the reality of nuclear weapons means that the specific circumstances that led to one country militarily overrunning much of Europe will never happen again.
From that perspective, D-Day will always remain a one-off operation conducted on a size and scale that will never be repeated. But since WW2 the UK has participated in several amphibious operations, including at Suez, the Falklands and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Even with smaller Armed Forces today, this does not mean that the UK could not, hope to conduct a substantial amphibious operation in the future if it had to.
However, any future amphibious operation will be significantly different in scope and scale to those that have occurred before. The biggest change to D-Day would be the move to avoid conducting an operation that involves landing on an opposed beach if possible.
Landing troops against fixed fortifications and defences, under fire and then hoping to break through and take control of the local area is an incredibly high-risk operation with the potential for enormous casualties.
D-Day worked in part so well because the Allies intentionally invaded in Normandy, where the defences were judged to be weaker, rather than at the Pas De Calais, the closest point to the UK, because of the strength of German defences there. Even then, where significant opposition was encountered, the casualties were high. Omaha Beach will long be remembered as a site of bloody sacrifice where thousands were killed, trapped in a killing zone on the beach that slowed the attack down.
Modern amphibious operations will not enjoy the luxury of manpower scales that the planners in 1944 had – the forces participating will be significantly smaller in size and scale than previously. Planners cannot assume that enough mass will exist to charge up beaches to dislodge a stubborn foe.
Instead, future operations will probably look to land where the enemy is not expecting them to be. Much like as in the Falklands in 1982 where the UK landed in San Carlos Waters and not near Stanley, planners will look to the location that offers the optimum combination of space to land, safety from air and counter attack and which permits the establishment of a logistics store to act as a jumping off point to continue the campaign. In other words, planners will land where the enemy least expects them to be, and not try to go to the obvious locations.
They are aided in this by advances in technology, such as the development of helicopters which enable significant numbers of troops to move in a hurry to a new location, rather than a beachhead. In Iraq in 2003 the Royal Marines used airlift to get to shore rather than their traditional landing craft in the Al Faw peninsula – after all, why land in an obvious but dangerous location if the means exist to go somewhere safer?
The UK is not alone in this thinking, most major military powers now focus their thinking on delivering troops a considerable distance by air or high speed landing craft from over the horizon rather than sail in to confined waters to land troops, putting them at significant risk (as was seen in San Carlos in 1982).
For the UK this means any future operation will place a considerable emphasis on the ability to assault from a distance, using platforms like the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers to embark troops on Chinook and Merlin helicopters and fly them a considerable distance to their objective.
The new carriers have been designed from the outset to embark pretty much every helicopter in the UK inventory, along with many allied ones too. Coupled with modifications being made to embark Royal Marines, this makes them invaluable as amphibious platforms to support the wider UK amphibious shipping fleet (the Albion and Bay class, which have large flight decks but no hangars).
This significant air mobility makes it much harder for an opponent to predict where the UK may land in general, and much like in 1944, other UK assets will continue to be vital in supporting any invasion.
The Parachute Regiment offers an ability to conduct an air assault, landing Much like in 1944, there is always going to be value in landing troops behind enemy lines to cause chaos and confusion. This role, although not tested operationally since Suez remains a key asset for the UK and could be a significant asset in any major operation. The risks would be high though, and could place a major burden on the RAF airlift capability to ensure they were supported and extracted in a timely fashion.
Similarly, the role of UK Special Forces would continue to be of vital importance in both the planning and execution of the operation. In 1944 vital reconnaissance work was carried out to gain intelligence on the beaches, particularly the sand and other geographic factors that are critical to conducting an amphibious operation, as well as likely defences, enabling planners to learn where the best sites to invade would be. To this day the Special Boat Service and Royal Navy divers would play a key part in providing a similar service ahead of an invasion in the same way as their forbears did.
In the same way, the SBS or SAS could well be tasked to operate inland working with friendly resistance forces, or causing disruption or supporting airstrikes and artillery support inland. These are classic roles for the Special Forces, and are in many ways little changed from the 1940s. There will always be a need for specialist troops to go ashore and disrupt activity, and today’s forces are very well equipped for the task.
Getting troops ashore is just the start of the operation. Unlike an amphibious raid, where the aim is to cause disruption and then withdraw, a major amphibious assault is going to be the prelude to a ground holding operation followed in time by a conventional attack elsewhere.
This will require substantial logistic and support facilities to be certain of operational success. So regardless of the type of disruption achieved behind enemy lines, the planners will need to quickly identify a major seaport that can accommodate major surface ships to act as a logistics hub. In 1944 this was Cherbourg, while in 2003 it was the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.
In practical terms this means any UK led amphibious operation is likely to focus less on charging over a beach, and far more about trying to land in a manner to enable them to capture a working set of docks. This will be critical in the short term to land reinforcements and supplies – it being far easier to put a BAY class, or one of the ‘POINT’ class RORO ferries into a proper port than it would try to offload them by mexeflotte or landing craft onto a beach.
In the medium term, access to proper port facilities means the ability to ship in heavier equipment not optimised for amphibious assault – for example the Challenger 2 tank or Warrior APC. It is also much easier to ship in badly needed humanitarian aid supplies too – such as in Umm Qasr in 2003 where getting aid in early was a key priority of planers.
The last key planning element that remains remarkably similar to 1944 is that of decoys and deception operations. A major part of the planning effort was built around convincing Germany that the Allies would invade in the Pas De Calais region, involving work to convince their intelligence staff that an invasion force was being built up in the East of England. This included using fictitious army groups being formed and sending dummy radio traffic, to on the night of the invasion sending bombers out to drop chaff in sufficiently sized and spaces bundles to convince radar operators that a force was approaching.
Deception operations have continued to this day, for example in 1991 the US marines were held at readiness along with major US Navy elements such as Battleships, supported by Royal Navy minehunters to convince the Iraqis that the Coalition was going to invade Kuwait by sea. These efforts were extremely successful and played a major part in helping secure surprise when the actual land offensive began.
It is likely that any future operation would see similar use of deception tactics, and now make much wider use of cyber and social media to convince enemy forces about possible UK intentions. This will heavily involve UK cyber capabilities, about which little is publicly known, but which will almost certainly involve a highly capable suite of effects that could help shape how the operation is conducted.
One of the most impressive characteristics about the actual D-Day landing was the way the Allies managed to achieve near total air and sea supremacy, permitting them the ability to move ships loaded with troops ashore without risk of attack. Would this still be the case in the modern amphibious operation?
Gaining air superiority is always going to be difficult, particularly in a world of 5th generation fighters and advanced land and sea based air defences. But, the investment by the UK in capability like the Typhoon and F35 Lightning, coupled with the introduction to service of new anti-aircraft missiles like Sea Viper and Sea Ceptor on RN ships, as well as new anti-aircraft missiles to replace Rapier, makes the UK well placed to gain local air superiority for future operations.
Unlike in 1944, the smaller scale of the operation and the fact that it can be carried out in a far more mobile way (e.g. using helicopters), coupled with better early warning (such as through the new RAF Wedgetail platform and the Crowsnest AEW capability on the Merlin helicopter) makes it much easier for planners to achieve control of the air for the short time required to land.
Similarly, there is no need to have thousands of bombers available to attack targets – such as the major RAF bomber raid on Caen. The accuracy of modern weapon systems is significantly improved compared to WW2 – then thousands of bombers were required to be certain of damaging or destroying an area, while pinpoint accuracy was all but impossible. Today the capability of weapons like Brimstone, Tomahawk and Storm Shadow provide targeteers with an impressive suite of missiles with which to conduct attacks that not only hit the right spot on a building – quite literally down to a specific window, but also minimise civilian casualties too.
Unlike in WW2, there is no appetite for civilian casualties among UK planners – it has been estimated that over 68,000 French civilians were killed in WW2 as a result of Allied air raids over France. The improved accuracy of weapon systems means that hopefully any future amphibious operation would be far less likely to accidentally injure or kill innocent people.
One final area where any operation would be like 1944 is that it would almost certainly be a coalition operation.
While it is popular to think of the UK ‘standing alone’ in 1940, WW2 was very much all about coalition work, linking together multiple countries to work for common good.
D-Day itself saw 13 different nations participate and work together to launch the invasion.
While it is perhaps easy to look at pure statistics and decide that the UK ‘could never do a D-Day’ again based on the reduced numbers of service personnel and equipment, the reality is that any future operation would be conducted alongside other nations.
The UK is clear that coalition operations are the future, meaning that future operations could involve access to NATO assets and facilities, or more widely access to partners airbases and ports. In these circumstances the UK could expect to play a leading role in the operation but working closely with allies.
For example, in NATO, the UK has for over 50 years formed a joint amphibious force with the Netherlands, working together to help plan for the reinforcement of Norway if required.
This summer the UK amphibious warfare force, led by HMS ALBION is deployed in the Baltic as part of a multi-national operation to build alliances and deter Russia from unnecessary aggressive activity.
The heavy and continued investment by the UK in amphibious warfare capabilities, such as assault ships, but also specialist areas like logistics and port operations, means that the UK is one of the most effective nations globally for conducting an amphibious assault. While the mass may be limited compared to some nations (for example China), it remains a potent force.
To that extent, when asking whether D-Day could be done again, the answer should be a qualified ‘yes’. The scale would be very different, but so would the technology and means to deliver it. There would be fewer troops directly involved, and a direct beach landing against fixed defences would almost certainly not occur, but the wider goals of seizing land, securing a logistics base and being able to quickly reinforce for further operations would still be met.
While we may never see operations on the scale of D-Day again, the UK will remain one of the worlds pre-eminent powers capable of global amphibious operations for many years to come.
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.