NOSTALGIA: Engineering feats that served our soldiers so well

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ANNUALLY we hear about the D-Day landings, some things we knew, others we did not.

One particular aspect of those landings was the use of Mulberry Harbours. I have recently been asked about them so thought that this week, as many left from the south coast, I would take a look at these unusual constructions.

As with many activities during the war, while many things had been considered, some as far back as August, 1942, Sir Winston Churchill wrote to Lord Mountbatten, stating that the piers to be used on the beaches ‘must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let us have the best solution worked out’.

The idea was the allied forces would be able to provide supplies through pre-fabricated harbours, which would be towed into place on the invasion beaches.

Nothing as large as this had been planned and therefore it was necessary for many people to become involved in the research, engineering etc, of these major constructions. The breakwaters had to be capable of withstanding winds and large sea swells.

Nearly 300 experiments took place, many of these at Gosport, while various methods were explored.

Unlike today’s wars, which seem to be carried out on television, and where as much information as necessary can be gained from newspapers, journalists and the Internet; in 1943 the required information was not readily available.

Tides, depth of water, wind speeds etc, were crucial to the operation and men in small boats had to physically obtain this information to help with the various experiments to ensure these man-made harbours would be able to withstand the weather and other circumstances.

The amount of equipment required by service personnel amounted to 20lbs per soldier and this equated to each division requiring about 600 tons of supplies – per day.

The Normandy coast, which had been earmarked for the invasion, was not to be helpful in that the coastline of nearly 50 miles offered only small harbours and beaches, no areas that would enable the large amount of supplies required to be easily and safely landed.

Thus man-made harbours were going to be very necessary to the invasion plans.

Finally the idea was to build floating caissons – a watertight chamber open at the bottom and containing air under pressure – ultimately 80 were manufactured which were known as A1 class.

These were 60ft high, 204ft in length, 50ft 3in wide with a displacement of 6,044 tons. The draft was 20ft 3in and the internal walls were 9in thick with an external wall of 15in.

The actual construction did not commence until October 31, 1943, when a total of 45,000 men were put to work on 20,000 units called Phoenixes, which would swallow up an amazing 660,000 tons of concrete.

The artificial harbours were code-named Mulberry and for the first time in history, an invading army took its own harbour to war.

These A1 class units were towed by tugs into waiting areas and gently sunk into shallow water, ready for the tow across the Channel where they would be re-floated by ‘blowing’ the internal tanks by means of a series of valves.

Sadly one of these units had sunk lower than anticipated and when being moved, things did not go as planned. It swung around, settled again over a deep depression, twisted and was cracked beyond repair. Ultimately it was used by the RAF in 1945 for bombing practice.

This harbour had sunk off the Pagham coast and is still there today and used by scuba divers as yet another location to study the seabed artefacts and fish, which gather around any sunken object.

The Pagham harbour area was closed off during the war, and the local residents obviously wondered what was being constructed there.

There were many blocks of concrete appearing in various shapes and sizes. Ultimately it appeared that an area around Selsey was the main marshalling area of these new constructions.

Sections of Mulberry Harbours were marshalled off the Aldwick area, however some pieces were lost in a storm on June 4. The wreck of one is still visible 200 yards to the left of Dark Lane, Aldwick.

Many of the harbours from our coast were towed across the channel to Arromanches, where they formed harbours whose enclosed area was equivalent to the harbour at Dover. Within a week of landing and the formation of the harbours, it is estimated that 74,000 troops, 10,000 vehicles and 17,000 tons of weapons, food and fuel were safely landed.

This is only a glimpse at these feats of man’s engineering, but today if you go down to Pagham beach, there is a memorial to the brave men who were involved in just this one area of our involvement in the war.

The memorial was placed there in June, 1999, and states: “To mark the 55th Anniversary of D-Day in 1944. This plaque is erected as a memorial to mark the historical association that Pagham Beach had with the Mulberry Harbour Project in support of the liberation of Europe.” The plaque continues ‘some 50 had been assembled between Pagham beach and Selsey to hide them from enemy view they were sunk to await refloating when the invasion got under way’.

Finally the plaque records ‘The Mulberry Harbour project was without doubt, a great feat of British and allied engineering skills, many still remain at Arromanches in Normandy.”

Again, in June, 2004, a further service was held on the 60th anniversary of D-Day thus ensuring no-one forgets the debt that is owed to the people who engineered, built, sailed and used these constructions.

It is still possible for children to play around the visible harbour on the beach in Aldwick. It is such a large and detailed history I would suggest you search the Internet for more information or contact the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester, which has more information.

It is a subject worth exploring to see the strides that were taken to ensure our troops had sufficient supplies for the invasion.

One particular aspect of those landings was the use of Mulberry Harbours. I have recently been asked about them so thought that this week, as many left from the south coast, I would take a look at these unusual constructions.

As with many activities during the war, while many things had been considered, some as far back as August, 1942, Sir Winston Churchill wrote to Lord Mountbatten, stating that the piers to be used on the beaches ‘must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let us have the best solution worked out’.

The idea was the allied forces would be able to provide supplies through pre-fabricated harbours, which would be towed into place on the invasion beaches.

Nothing as large as this had been planned and therefore it was necessary for many people to become involved in the research, engineering etc, of these major constructions. The breakwaters had to be capable of withstanding winds and large sea swells.

Nearly 300 experiments took place, many of these at Gosport, while various methods were explored.

Unlike today’s wars, which seem to be carried out on television, and where as much information as necessary can be gained from newspapers, journalists and the Internet; in 1943 the required information was not readily available.

Tides, depth of water, wind speeds etc, were crucial to the operation and men in small boats had to physically obtain this information to help with the various experiments to ensure these man-made harbours would be able to withstand the weather and other circumstances.

The amount of equipment required by service personnel amounted to 20lbs per soldier and this equated to each division requiring about 600 tons of supplies – per day.

The Normandy coast, which had been earmarked for the invasion, was not to be helpful in that the coastline of nearly 
50 miles offered only small harbours and beaches, no areas that would enable the large amount of supplies required to be easily and safely landed.

Thus man-made harbours were going to be very necessary to the invasion plans.

Finally the idea was to build floating caissons – a watertight chamber open at the bottom and containing air under pressure – ultimately 80 were manufactured which were known as A1 class.

These were 60ft high, 204ft in length, 50ft 3in wide with a displacement of 6,044 tons. The draft was 20ft 3in and the internal walls were 9in thick with an external wall of 15in.

The actual construction did not commence until October 31, 1943, when a total of 45,000 men were put to work on 20,000 units called Phoenixes, which would swallow up an amazing 660,000 tons of concrete.

The artificial harbours were code-named Mulberry and for the first time in history, an invading army took its own harbour to war.

These A1 class units were towed by tugs into waiting areas and gently sunk into shallow water, ready for the tow across 
the Channel where they would be re-floated by ‘blowing’ the internal tanks by means of a series of valves.

Sadly one of these units had sunk lower than anticipated and when being moved, things did not go as planned. It swung around, settled again over a deep depression, twisted and was cracked beyond repair. Ultimately it was used by the RAF in 1945 for bombing practice.

This harbour had sunk off the Pagham coast and is still there today and used by scuba divers as yet another location to study the seabed artefacts and fish, which gather around any sunken object.

The Pagham harbour area was closed off during the war, and the local residents obviously wondered what was being constructed there.

There were many blocks of concrete appearing in various shapes and sizes. Ultimately it appeared that an area around Selsey was the main marshalling area of these new constructions.

Sections of Mulberry Harbours were marshalled off the Aldwick area, however some pieces were lost in a storm on June 4. The wreck of one is still visible 200 yards to the left of Dark Lane, Aldwick.

Many of the harbours from our coast were towed across the channel to Arromanches, where they formed harbours whose enclosed area was equivalent to the harbour at Dover. Within a week of landing and the formation of the harbours, it is estimated that 74,000 troops, 10,000 vehicles and 17,000 tons of weapons, food and fuel were safely landed.

This is only a glimpse at these feats of man’s engineering, but today if you go down to Pagham beach, there is a memorial to the brave men who were involved in just this one area of our involvement in the war.

The memorial was placed there in June, 1999, and states: “To mark the 55th Anniversary of D-Day in 1944. This plaque is erected as a memorial to mark the historical association that Pagham Beach had with the Mulberry Harbour Project in support of the liberation of Europe.” The plaque continues ‘some 50 had been assembled between Pagham beach and Selsey to hide them from enemy view they were sunk to await refloating when the invasion got under way’.

Finally the plaque records ‘The Mulberry Harbour project was without doubt, a great feat of British and allied engineering skills, many still remain at Arromanches in Normandy.”

Again, in June, 2004, a further service was held on the 60th anniversary of D-Day thus ensuring no-one forgets the debt that is owed to the people who engineered, built, sailed and used these constructions.

It is still possible for children to play around the visible harbour on the beach in Aldwick. It is such a large and detailed history I would suggest you search the Internet for more information or contact the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester, which has more information.

It is a subject worth exploring to see the strides that were taken to ensure our troops had sufficient supplies for the invasion.