The Fleet Air Arm played a significant role in the D-Day offensive that 80 years ago, between 6 June 1944 and 3 July 1944, began the liberation of France and laid the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front.

On D-Day, 6 June 1944, the United Kingdom, the United States and their Allies launched Operation Overlord, a combined naval, air and land assault on Nazi-occupied France.

The offensive was planned in two parts – Operation Neptune, the naval operation and assault phase, which involved moving tens of thousands of Allied troops across the Channel and landing them on the beaches while providing gunfire support, and Operation Overlord – the overarching plan for the invasion and the subsequent Battle of Normandy.

Fairey Swordfish in D-Day invasion stripes on a training flight from RNAS St Merryn ©IWM

A total of 17 Naval Air Squadrons were awarded Normandy 1944 Battle Honours for their part in Operation Neptune which remains the largest seaborne invasion in history.

With characteristic versatility, the Fleet Air Arm operated embarked squadrons of Hellcats, Wildcats, and Avengers from Escort Carriers at sea, flew Swordfish, Seafires, Spitfires and Avengers from airfields along the South Coast, and provided ‘fighter spotter’ support during the landings in France.

Grumman Avengers on operations in the Channel ©IWM

Three Escort Carriers, HMS Emperor, HMS Pursuer and HMS Tracker were positioned 150 miles west of Land’s End, their embarked squadrons carrying out ‘Channel Stop’ operations to prevent U-Boats from entering the English Channel. At RAF Harrowbeer, Devon, Swordfish of 838 Squadron provided night anti-E-boat patrols off Brittany, and Avengers of 849 and 850 Squadrons together with Swordfish from 816 Squadron operated from RAF Perranporth, Cornwall carrying out anti-U-Boat and shipping strikes in the English Channel.

In the central Channel invasion area, Swordfish of 819 and Avengers of 848 operating from RAF Manston, Kent, carried out anti-shipping and smoke laying operations, whilst two more Avenger squadrons, 854 and 855, operating from RAF Hawkinge, Kent, supported Dover Command’s anti-E-boat patrols in the Channel and North Sea.

The busiest airfield on the South Coast during D-Day was RNAS Lee-on-Solent, where 3 Naval Fighter Wing, consisting of 808 and 897 Squadrons, equipped with Seafires and Spitfires, and 885 and 886 with Seafires, was the nucleus of the Air Spotting Pool attached to the RAF, conducting fighter sweeps over beachheads and providing naval gunnery spotting and reconnaissance for battleship and cruiser shore bombardment forces.

Working in pairs, the spotters were active over all the beaches from dawn on D-Day, correcting the fall of shot on batteries, enemy positions, key bridges, and junctions inland, and fending off enemy fighters. Tragically, two Fleet Air Arm pilots from 3 Naval Fighter Wing lost their lives on D-Day itself, Sub Lt (A) Anthony Bassett RNVR and Sub Lt (A) Hugh Cogill RNVR, of 885 and 808 Squadrons respectively.

This year’s events in Normandy and Portsmouth will not only remember all those who died during the Normandy campaign but will be a tribute to the courage and inspiration of the D-Day veterans. Another veteran of the Operation that earned the respect and affection of thousands during WW2, the Fairey Swordfish, will also play a leading role. Flying in D-Day invasion stripe markings, she will be a poignant reminder of the legacy of D-Day and the spirit and determination of the greatest combined operation the world has ever seen.

Grumman Wildcats of 846 Squadron onboard HMS Tracker, embarked for anti-submarine sweeps in support of the D-Day landings in June 1944 ©IWM