Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, June 5, 2019: Overlord’s First Loss
Here we see a British Admiralty chart entitled “Iles St Marcouf to Cap Manvieux,” covering a span of the Normandy Coast in France. This chart was used by the venerable New York-class battleship USS Texas (BB-35) during her bombardment operations in support of the Operation Neptune landings, 6 June 1944, the seaside part of Operation Overlord. If you note in the top right-hand quarter of the chart is a set of two parallel lines marked with dan buoys marking a 900-meter-wide channel that was swept of mines immediately prior to and on D-Day.
In short, if it hadn’t had been for those minecraft that cleared the aforementioned path, the whole invasion would have gone a good bit different. With that, today’s Warship Wednesday is on the loss of the Raven-class minesweeper USS Osprey (AM-56), which sunk 75 years ago on 5 June 1944. As noted by military historian and D-Day guru Stephen Ambrose, the six bluejackets killed on Osprey that day were the first Allied casualties of Overlord.
The two ships of the Raven-class were basically all-diesel predecessors of the later Auk-class minesweepers (which had diesel-electric drives) and came in a tad lighter, giving them a draft that was almost two feet shallower.
Built side-by-side in 1939-40 at the Norfolk Navy Yard as AM-55 and AM-56, the much more prolific (95 hull) Auks followed them with hull numbers that started at AM-57.
Named for the large, hawk-like bird with a dark brown back and a white breast, Osprey was the second such warship for the Navy with that moniker, with the first being the Lapwing-class minesweeper AM-29 which was commissioned in 1919 then soon transferred to the US Coast and Geodetic Survey as USC&GS Pioneer.
Commissioned 16 December 1940, by mid-1941 Osprey was detailed with coastal patrol duties off the U.S. Eastern seaboard and, once America got more active in the European war after Pearl Harbor, soon found herself in England.
By November 1942, she convoyed with the USS Texas and company and later helped direct and protect the waves of landing craft moving shoreward at Port Lyautey, Morocco for the Allies Torch Landings.
After completing anti-submarine patrols off Casablanca, Osprey returned to Norfolk for a year of coastal escort assignments aimed at helping to curb the German U-boat threat off Hampton Roads. With other minesweepers, she escorted convoys from Norfolk and New York to ports in the Caribbean and along the Gulf Coast.
By April 1944, Osprey was back across the pond and assigned to the growing invasion flotilla heading for Normandy. Rommel, who had wanted to sow millions of landmines in France to seal off the beaches from invasion, was also a fan of their seagoing variants.
“The Generalfeldmarschall himself had quickly grasped the value of naval mines in his system of defense. He continually requested an increased use of this weapon,” notes a U.S. Navy history.
The German naval minefield facing the Overlord invasion stretched 120 km across the Bay of Normandy and was 16 km deep.
The Allied plan was to use 255 vessels to clear 10 channels through the mine barrage– two channels per beach– in the immediate predawn hours of D-Day, with each sweeper ship, such as Osprey, clearing paths by cutting the moored contact mines. Specially equipped trawlers would follow on the search for magnetic mines while dan-laying launches would mark the swept zone. The channels were to be from 400 to 1,200 yards in width depending on their route.
The danger of mines in inshore waters was to be disregarded during the assault, but the areas were to be searched as soon as sweepers were available.
British Admiral Bertram Ramsay noted that “There is no doubt that the mine is our greatest obstacle to success,” when discussing the Cross-Channel attack. “And if we manage to reach the enemy coast without being disorganized and suffering serious losses, we should be fortunate.”
After months of intensive practice in combined sweeping operations with MinRon 7 off Torbay, England, en route to the Normandy invasion beaches on 5 June, Osprey soon struck an enemy mine. The crew put out the resultant fires but could not save their vessel. She sank that evening.
Early on the 6th, the mine division started sweeping the coast of France in assault and check sweeps to assure safe passage channels for the landing craft and the primary naval gunfire support for the beaches.
The only loss to mines on 5 June, Osprey was soon joined by numerous other craft who could not stay in the same cleared channel as the battleships or were hit by floating contact mines, cut free in the initial sweeping. This was later compounded by the Germans air-dropping mines and sowing them at night from E-boats and coasters.
On 6 June, the landing craft USS LCI(L)-85, LCI(L)-91, LCI(L)-497, LCT-197, LCT-294, LCT-305, LCT-332, LCT-364, LCT-397, LCT-555, LCT-703 and destroyer HMS Wrestler all struck mines just off the beachhead and were lost.
The next day saw the loss of the Army transport ship USAT Francis C. Harrington, Navy transport USS Susan B. Anthony, landing craft LCI(L)-416, LCI(L)-436, LCI(L)-458, LCI(L)-489, LCI(L)-586, and the Auk-class minesweeper USS Tide (AM-125), all to the infernal devices. Meanwhile, the Allen Sumner-class destroyer USS Meredith (DD-726) was damaged by a mine and sunk the next day by a Luftwaffe bombing which split her in two.
On 8 June, the net layer HMS Minster was sunk by a mine off Utah Beach while the Buckley-class destroyer escort USS Rich (DE-695) struck two mines and sank in the English Channel off Normandy.
Through the end of the month, mines off Normandy would continue to claim another dozen landing craft and steamers, as well as the British RN destroyers HMS Fury and HMS Swift along with the Dido-class cruiser HMS Scylla, proving just how hazardous the belt laid by the Germans, had been. It is easy to forget, with the scale of Overlord, but mines caused one hell of a butcher’s bill in June 1944 off the French coast.
As for Osprey‘s sister ship, Raven would sweep at least 21 German and Italian naval mines on D-Day alone. She would survive the war and pass into mothballs with three battle stars to her credit.
Struck in 1967, she was sunk as a target in deep water off the coast of southern California.
As noted by DANFS, the name Osprey was assigned to AM-406 on 17 May 1945, but the construction of that ship was canceled just three months later with the end of the war.
Osprey would go on to grace the hulls of two later U.S. Navy minecraft: AMS-28, a small YMS-1-class minesweeper which served in Korea where she prepared a firing base anchorage for the big guns of the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) at the Inchon landings– a true namesake to her predecessor– and MHC-51, the lead ship of late Cold War Osprey-class coastal mine hunters.
As for our D-Day Osprey, her bell surfaced some time ago, but I believe is in private hands in the UK.
Still, if it had not been for Osprey and those like her, the Longest Day could have proved even longer.
Displacement: 810 tons, 1040 tons full load
Length: 220 ft 6 in overall, 215 w.l.
Beam: 32 ft 2 in
Draft: 9 ft 4 in mean
Machinery: Diesel, 2 shafts, 1,800 BHP
Speed: 18 knots
Complement:105 officers and men
2 × 3″/50 caliber guns
2 × 40 mm AA guns
8 × 20 mm Oerlikon cannons (added 1942)
2 × depth charge tracks (added 1941)
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