SITE MENU / This Article Content
J. ARNOLD, S. SINTON, illustrated by DARKO PAVLOVIC
Admiral Alan Kirk watches the D-Day invasion force. (National Archives)
Kirk's first combat assignment of World War Two was as commander of a division of destroyer escorts in the Atlantic Fleet from October 1941 to March 1942. Promoted to rear admiral, he returned to London in March 1942 to serve again as naval attache. Kirk also served as chief of staff to Admiral Stark, the commander of US Naval Forces in Europe. In February 1943, Kirk again assumed an active command when he took charge of the Atlantic Fleet's amphibious forces. He was involved in the planning for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, and supervised the training of the naval forces that landed American forces on the easternmost beaches of Sicily. Although his task force suffered heavy landing craft losses because of high surf and rock outcroppings, there were very few personnel losses.
Admiral Kirk and General Bradley arrived in the transport area off the American invasion beaches on June 7, 1944. Thereafter, Kirk conducted Eisenhower on a visit to the Normandy beaches. When the minelayer carrying the senior command ran aground off the British beaches, Kirk told Eisenhower that he would make a "kind" report of the incident and, hopefully, the minelayer's commander would escape with a mere reprimand from the Admiralty. Kirk added, "most good officers have a reprimand or two on their records." (National Archives)
Kirk's combination of diplomatic experience in London with his knowledge of amphibious warfare made him the natural choice as commander of US naval forces for the Normandy invasion. He transferred to the United Kingdom in mid-November 1943 and became involved in the planning for Operation Overlord. At this time, many senior British officers, as well as Admiral Stark, believed that Germany would soon collapse and, thus, there would be no need to invade France. This attitude made it difficult to plan seriously to accomplish Kirk's mission as commander of the Western Naval Task Force. Kirk was responsible for bringing American forces across the Channel, providing gunfire support for the assault landing, and defending the assault area from any German naval thrusts. Kirk handled this complex mission well. However, he made the fateful decision to launch the landing craft far out to sea, in many cases 11 miles from the beach. Kirk feared German coastal guns, thought to be in place at Pointe du Hoc. Intelligence officers regarded them as the "most dangerous battery in France.'' In fact, they turned out to be dummies. Meanwhile, the long trip to the beaches sickened soldiers and disrupted landing plans.
Admiral Kirk is aboard a torpedo boat off the Normandy coast in 1944. Ten years after D-Day, Kirk reflected upon the US Navy's contribution and said, "Our greatest asset was the resourcefulness of the American sailor." (National Archives)
Naval gunfire support was enormously useful during operations within the Normandy beachhead. Ten days after the invasion, a German military journal wrote, "The fire curtain provided by the guns of the Navy so far proved to be one of the best trump cards of the Anglo-United States invasion Armies." The US 1st Army relied so heavily upon naval gunfire that Kirk had to warn General Bradley not to become overly dependent on the navy because the naval guns were being worn out by their frequent fire missions and many ships would have to depart soon to support the invasion of southern France. The Western Naval Task Force was dissolved on July 10, 1944. During the Normandy campaign, besides commanding fire support operations, Kirk also supervised the landing of supplies via the artificial harbors. This also proved a difficult technical challenge. In October 1944, Kirk was elevated to command of all US naval forces in France. In this capacity, he supervised the naval forces involved in major river crossings, including most prominently the Rhine crossings in March 1945.
Promoted to vice admiral in May 1945, Kirk served on the navy's General Board until he retired the following March. Thereafter, he held a variety of important diplomatic posts, including Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1949 to 1951 and Ambassador to the Republic of China (Nationalist China) from 1962 to 1963. Kirk died in 1963.
Three cruiser commanders relax between missions. From left to right: Aaron Stanton Merrill, Robert Ward Hayler, and Walden Lee Ainsworth. "Tip" Merrill and "Pug" Ainsworth were particularly prominent as task force commanders during the drive up the Solomon Islands, while Hayler commanded the Honolulu in Ainsworth's task force and conned her through the Battle of Tassafaronga without a scratch. (US Naval Historical Center)
No naval officer serving in the Atlantic was going to shine as much as those admirals serving in the Pacific. Kirk undramatically did his duty with a high level of efficiency. Eisenhower respected his professional ability.
Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1887, Alexander "Archie" Vandegrift came from a military family. Both of his grandfathers had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Failing to gain admission to West Point, he attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He received a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1909. Until 1925, Vandegrift spent most of his service time in the Caribbean region, including duty in Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Panama Canal Zone. He participated in the 1914 Vera Cruz expedition and served three tours in Haiti. He was with the Marine Expeditionary Force in China in 1927-29 and again from 1935 to 1937. Vandegrift applied his considerable experience with amphibious landings when he worked on the Tentative Manual of Landing Operations. This document codified valuable theoretical knowledge that the Marine Corps had acquired about amphibious warfare.