During the North African Campaign in 1941 and 1942, the British found most useful two old monitors, the Erebus and the Terror, which had been originally built to support British troops in Belgium in World War I. With the Allies trying to regain a foothold on the continent in 1943, naval gunnery assets proved one of their trump cards. In the invasions of French North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, and finally Anzio, U.S. and British warships provided great assistance to Allied troops ashore.
Naval gunfire really came into its own in 1944 during the Normandy Invasion, Operation overlord. Promises that heavy bombers would substitute for field artillery, unavailable until at least two days after the initial landings, proved hollow when most bombs fell behind the beaches. Fortunately, the Allies had mustered a strong bombardment force of 137 warships, including 7 battleships, 2 monitors, 23 cruisers, and 105 destroyers. At Omaha Beach, 9 U.S. and 3 British destroyers moved as close as 900 yd to the shore to destroy German guns with counterbattery fire. U.S. Lieutenant General Omar Bradley concluded, "The Navy saved our hides." He remarked on another occasion, "I would gladly have swapped a dozen B-17s for each 12-inch gun." At Normandy, Allied warships fired approximately 141,000 rounds of 4-inch. and larger shells, a majority of which were controlled by aerial spotters. In concluding that naval gunfire was approximately 10 times as accurate as bombing, the British also noted that casualties from friendly fire were rare. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel reported to Adolf Hitler that Allied naval gunfire was so effective "that no operation of any kind by either infantry or tanks is possible in the area commanded by this rapid-fire artillery." Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt counted naval gunfire as one of the three principal factors in the German defeat at Normandy. Following the Saint-Lô breakout, British warships continued to assist Allied troops advancing along the coast into November 1944, the veteran battleship Warspite shooting until her guns were worn out.
In the Pacific, naval gunfire support proved at least as important as in Europe. In their first test in this role, U.S. warships at Tarawa destroyed nearly all the Japanese artillery positions and wire communications. However, many enemy machine guns remained operational and inflicted heavy casualties on the attacking Marines. In consequence, naval gunfire preparation for the next landing, Kwajalein, was more extensive. The official report concluded, "The entire island looked as if it had been picked up to 20,000 feet, then dropped. All beach defenses were completely destroyed."
Thus, the Japanese increasingly sited their defenses specifically to avoid naval gunfire. At Iwo Jima, their deep tunnels enabled many soldiers to escape the extensive three-day bombardment, although the big naval guns, often firing at ranges of less than 2 miles, destroyed over 60 percent of the Japanese coastal artillery in the target area. The defending general, Kuribayashi Tadamichi, reported: "The firepower of the American warships and aircraft makes every landing possible." In contesting the final Allied invasion of the war at Okinawa, the Japanese command deliberately chose to burrow into the coral ridges in the southern portion of the island to escape the fury of naval gunfire. Still, U.S. warships fired in support of troops 23,210 battleship projectiles and 261,000 5-inch to 8-inch rounds.
During the war, the tonnage of ordnance laid down by Allied warships backing invasions totaled five or six times that delivered by aviation. The Axis powers gave far less attention to naval gunfire support, although the Italians did build some coastal monitors. In the closing stages of the war, the Germans employed the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer in support of retreating German units on the Courland coast.
Only once did Japanese battleships bombard Allied troops. On 14 October 1942, at Guadalcanal, the Kongo and Haruna fired nearly 900 14-inch projectiles, mostly at Henderson Field. Given the small size of the target area, this proved the most devastating bombardment fired against U.S. troops in any war. Malcolm Muir Jr.
Buxton, Ian. Big Gun Monitors: The History of the Design, Construction, and Operation of the Royal Navy's Monitors. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978.; Lewis, Adrian R. Omaha Beach: A Flawed Victory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.; Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.; Morison, Samuel Eliot. Vol. 11, The Invasion of France and Germany, 1944–1945. Boston: Little, Brown, 1957.; Roskill, Stephen W. The War at Sea, 1939–1945: The Official Naval History of World War II. 3 vols., 4 parts. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1954–1961.
Malcolm Muir Jr.