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The Greatest Generation of Engineers

By Sallie Baliunas - June 8, 2004 12:00 AM

Hell broke on the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944. Waves of men and machines landed with a fury seen only once in history. The delivery of 156,000 troops, by 4,800 vessels and 2,000 landing craft at sunrise that day in the largest amphibious maneuver ever undertaken for once matched the restive coastline's frequent, unkind storms.

D-Day had at last struck. It was an assault that continued unabated through the first week as the bellies of mechanized sea monsters disgorged 50,000 vehicles and 333,000 troops from the maws of steel, wood, oil, grease and dirt.

But behind the men who fought, and some who left their lives there, were spectacular engineering projects, one of them code-named Mulberries.

That project extended back to early 1942 during preliminary planning for the invasion. By November of that year Allied forces had committed to a Mediterranean campaign first into North Africa, then northward into Italy by pushing into Sicily and Salerno. Knowing that the Mediterranean effort stretched U.S. capability too thin then for an invasion across the English Channel, President Franklin Roosevelt argued for 1944 as the date of the assault. That allowed time to plan and build resources for the liberation of Fortress Europe from the coast of northern France.

Besides fighting German troops, which held a strategic advantage in emplacements above the coastline and mechanical defenses on the coast, the Allies had to fight truculent English Channel weather, and not only for the day of the invasion but the days after to deliver more supplies and troops. The notoriously stormy Channel was clawed with gales and rain that meant Allies could not expect good weather for days at a time, questioning a trusty disembarkation on D-Day and support thereafter. That need generated the thought of an artificial harbor to enable safe delivery of material and troops for months after D-Day. In 1942 development of artificial harbors, later code named "Mulberries," began.

The Mulberry, as conceived by the British Admiralty and Lord Mountbatten, would consist of an outer line of "Bombardons," 200-foot steel structures, to create an initial breakwater. "Phoenixes," concrete caissons weighing over 5,000 tons each, followed to define a large two-square mile harbor, safe for several large ships. Finally, Lobnitz piers (named after their designer), or "Spuds" with four adjustable legs to ride the tides, would be installed, from which emanated "Whales," six-mile flexing, steel roadways afloat on "Beetles" or pontoons and leading to land. A line of derelict ships, called "Corncobs," sunk parallel to the shore - a "Gooseberry" - would help tame the ferocity of the water's edge for craft landing on the beach.

Inseparable in imagery of the D-Day landing is the extremely useful LST, or "Landing Ship, Tank," which had a shallow draft and clever ballast system to land on a beach without a harbor. Besides personnel, an LST could carry more than 2,000 tons of cargo, including approximately 20 Sherman tanks. U.S. naval yards built 1,051 of them during World War II, and offered 113 of them to Britain under the Lend-lease program.

Some were so confident that LST's could deliver the goods and men after D-Day that they disparaged the plan to build artificial harbors at great expense. The U.S. Navy commander of the landing on Omaha Beach, Admiral John Leslie Hall, Jr., remarked on the Mulberry plan: "I think it's the biggest waste of manpower and equipment that I have ever seen. I can unload a thousand LST's at a time over the open beaches. ...What's the use of building them just to have them destroyed [by the first storm] and litter up the beaches?"

But there were two reasons arguing for Mulberry deployment.

One was political. Winston Churchill and his government were chastened by the difficult experience of evacuating British troops at Dunkirk in 1940, in which 300,000 were saved from the continent but only by what Churchill called a "miracle of deliverance." Historian Russell Weigly writes, "Without the prospect of the Mulberries to permit the beaches to function as ports, Churchill and his government would probably have backed away from Overlord after all."

The second reason was practical. There was no prospect that a thousand LST's would be available to work the English Channel, because scarcely that number had been built, and many were essential to the campaign against Japanese military aggression in the Pacific, and would not be recalled.

Thus, Mulberry A in the American Sector at St. Laurent (Omaha Beach) and Mulberry B in the British Sector (Gold Beach) off Arromanches were hauled in place and operational by D-Day + 12. And the next day, June 19, Admiral Hall's forecast of freakish English Channel weather proved correct as an unusually intense storm, sustaining winds of over 20 knots and kicking waves 7 to 8 feet high, battered approximately 100 miles of coastline for three days. But Hall's prediction for the Mulberries was only half true.

By June 22 as storm winds weakened, Mulberry A had been destroyed, leaving LST's to continue delivering men and material to Omaha Beach. But that task was eased by the inner Gooseberry breakwater, which had survived the storm's rampage. Meanwhile, Mulberry B, partly dashed by the same storm, was not only repaired but serviced the forward lines in France for 10 months by delivering 4 million tons of supplies and 2.5 million men.

The remains of the massive Phoenix caissons of the wrecked Mulberry A were still present about 10 years ago when I visited Omaha Beach, sturdy sentinels marking the genius of British engineering daring in the liberation of Europe.

Good reading

Samuel Eliot Morison, The Invasion of France and Germany, 1944-1945, 2001, Castle Books, 360pp.

Russell Weigly Eisenhower's Lieutenants: The Campaigns of France and Germany, 1944-45, 1981, Indiana University Press, p. 103

Adrian R. Lewis, Brittanica Online, "Mulberry" entry.

As part of its American Folklife Project, the Library of Congress seeks to preserve first-hand accounts of participants in World War 2 (and other 20th century wars) by submitting written, oral or videotaped information or other materials. See http://www.loc.gov/folklife/vets/


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1 Comment

This is so amazing, it is a story to tell generations ahead.

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