Mulberry ‘B’

Continuing from my last post, D Minus One ….

Captain (later Vice-Admiral) Harold Hickling was involved with the enormous Mulberry artificial harbours, so vital to the D-Day invasion of Normandy, from the planning stages until his appointment as Naval Officer In Charge, Mulberry ‘B’, in June 1944. A fascinating insider’s account of the whole operation was included in his book ‘Sailor at Sea’ (1965). Here are some excerpts, beginning with his specifications written in 1943. Images from the Imperial War Museum.

“Each harbour is to be approximately two miles long and a mile wide and must be capable of berthing the largest Liberty ships and discharging stores at the rate of 11,000 tons a day. The breakwaters must give protection in winds up to Force 6 (half a gale). Inside the harbour floating pier-heads connected to the shore must enable ships to discharge at all states of the tide…… Each harbour is to be completed by D+14 and is to last for ninety days.”

The various units comprising the harbours….. were to be prefabricated in the United Kingdom, assembled on the South Coast of England, towed seventy miles across the Channel and put down on an enemy coast, possibly under fire, in a couple of weeks. …nothing of the sort on so gigantic a scale had ever been done before….. new and untried devices would have to go straight from the drawing board into mass production. There would be no time for tests and trials.

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Concrete caissons to be used as breakwaters, under construction at George V graving dock, Southampton. © IWM (A 25793)

There were to be five craft shelters known as Gooseberries, consisting of sunken blockships (code name Corncob), to be finished by D-day +4 and were a British Naval commitment. Out of two of them was to grow a Mulberry, the American Mulberry ‘A’ at St. Laurent, the British Mulberry ‘B’ at Arromanches. Each harbour was to consist of:
(1) A floating outer breakwater – code name Bombardon.
(2) A concrete breakwater – code name Phoenix.
(3) An assortment of piers – code name Whale.

It was a strange procession that moved southwards from Selsey and the Solent…. The Phoenix looked like blocks of flats being towed by a taxi, while the Pier heads with their ninety foot high spuds might have been Battersea Power Station taking a sea trip from Ryde; then came sinister shapes, low in the water, making the most awful grinding noises in the choppy sea; these were the 500-foot-lengths of pier roadway though they might have been the Loch Ness Monster.

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Phoenix caissons for Mulberry Harbour off Selsey Bill. © IWM (A 24115)

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A Spud pierhead unit parked awaiting D Day. These were fitted with legs to enable adjustments to be made according to the state of the tide. © IWM (H 39297)

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A section of the roadway being towed into position. © IWM (A 24160)

As each unit arrived off its Mulberry it was pounced upon by small harbour tugs and manoeuvred into its pre-arranged position…. [Lieutenant Commander] Lampen [a.k.a.] the ‘Planter’ took over the blockships and one by one sank them, the bows of one just overlapping the next.

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Block ships for a ‘Gooseberry’. © IWM (A 24683)

By D + 4 the Gooseberry at Arromanches was planted….. Lampen then started extending the Corncob breakwater with the Phoenix. It was no easy matter to hold these 6,000-ton rectangular concrete ships in a tideway with a cross-wind on their high sides, during the twenty-two minutes which, with all flooding valves open, they took to sink….. Yet with skilful handling of tugs and cool judgment our ‘Planter’ placed them not to an accuracy of feet but of inches, while experienced civil engineers looked on at this young sailor, an amateur, with mingled feelings of admiration and professional jealousy…… you couldn’t see daylight between one caisson and the next.

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A line of concrete caissons [Phoenix] forming the inner breakwater. © IWM (A 24168)

On 1st August 1944, we were working twenty-nine ships, nine of which were large Liberty ships; 11,000 tons were discharged on that day….. In addition 5,000 personnel and 600 vehicles were landed. We had reached our target.

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Ships unloading onto a Spud pierhead at the British prefabricated harbour, Mulberry B at Arromanches. © IWM (B 7236)

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 Group of Officers responsible for planning and execution of Mulberry; left to right: Lieut Cdr A M D Lampen, RN [the ‘Planter’]; Capt Hickling, DSO, RN, NOIC Arromanches; Rear Admiral W G [‘Bill’] Tennant, CB, MVO; Capt J H Jellett, RNVR; and Commander R K Silcock, RN. © IWM (A 24857)

General Eisenhower in his official report wrote…..
Through the summer of 1944 the Mulberry and beach installations represented an essential factor in the success of our operation. Without them our armies could not have been adequately supplied in the field. The men who worked them with so much gallantry and devotion deserve the gratitude of liberated Europe for their share in the Victory.

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D Minus One

It was June 5th 1944. In twenty-four hours the biggest invasion in history was due to start, an invasion that had taken two years to prepare and which, if successful, would mark the beginning of the end of the war; if it failed hostilities might drag on for years.

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© IWM (A 24096)

Early next morning, the 6th June, I said to Bill*: ‘They’ll just be touching down, let’s go up on to Portsdown Hill and see if we can hear the gunfire.’

We stood near Fort Southwick on that lovely summer’s morning, looking down on Portsmouth, on the harbour and the ebbing tide with Whale Island in the foreground and the Isle of Wight sleeping in the ground mist across the Solent.
‘Do you hear anything?’ I asked.

Bill strained his ears. ‘Yes, I can hear a woodlark singing.’
Bill was a great bird watcher. And there in the blue sky was a tiny speck happily indifferent to the sound and the fury of two powerful forces coming to grips less than a hundred miles away.

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© IWM (EA 26941)

That evening of D-day, as the armies fought their way into the bridgehead, the first units of the two prefabricated artificial harbours started on their slow and hazardous journey across the English Channel.
‘Sailor at Sea’, Vice-Admiral Harold Hickling C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O.
A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1965.

*Bill – Rear Admiral W.G. Tennant.
Hickling was put in charge of the Mulberry B artificial harbour.
More about that later…

The Italian fleet surrenders.

After the downfall and arrest of Benito Mussolini in July 1943, the Italian government surrendered to the Western Allies on September 3rd, although the armistice was kept secret until the 8th. The Italian Navy was instructed to surrender it’s fleet the following day. These extracts come from reports in ‘The Sphere’ on September 25th and October 2nd.

By the early morning of September 11, the best part of the warships of the Italian Navy had entered Valetta Harbour [Malta] to surrender, in response to Admiral Cunningham’s appeal to seek shelter in British waters. One force came from Spezia: another from Taranto. In all, by the 11th, there were four battleships, seven cruisers, and ten destroyers safe in harbour: other vessels followed later.

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The British Navy meets the Italian fleet. Artist’s impression by Montague Dawson.

It was after dawn that the British Navy came up with the Italian battlefleet from Taranto. It was steaming in line ahead with the battleship Andrea Doria in front and the battleship Giulio [Cesare] behind it: other ships were following. All were flying the Italian flag and a black flag to denote they were surrendering in accordance with Admiral Cunningham‘s instructions. They looked spick and span and were a really fine sight, with the crews of each ship standing to attention along the decks. [Oct 2]

[Later that day], a motor-launch pulled up alongside the landing-stage in Malta Harbour and, as a guard of honour formed by British sailors sprang smartly to attention, the Italian Admiral de Zara [sic] (Acting Commander-in-Chief) and other senior officers of the Italian Navy stepped ashore, to be greeted by Commodore Royar Dick, Chief of Staff to Admiral Cunningham, and Captain Rodderick Edwards, Chief of Staff, Malta.

Italian surrenderAfter shaking hands with the Commodore, the Italian Admiral was then invited to inspect the guard of honour: [here] he is seen passing through the two lines of British bluejackets with his hand raised in salute. Admiral de Zara then entered a motor-car with Commodore Dick and was driven to Admiral Cunningham’s office at Malta Naval Headquarters. The Italian Navy had surrendered exactly in accordance with the terms of the Armistice, and it was therefore decided that the Italian Admiral should be received ashore with the same ceremonial as if he were a foriegn Admiral paying an official visit in peacetime. [25 Sept]

In reality, of course, the logistics and loyalties involved in such a momentous event meant it didn’t unfold as neatly as this. An article published in the Times of Malta in 2014 gives a fascinating and more detailed account, and you can watch a contemporary British Pathé newsreel (3 m. 30 sec.) on Youtube.

Forties Fashion

During the Second World War clothes, along with almost everything else, were rationed. The adult allowance in Britain was fixed at 36 coupons a year when this advertisement appeared in 1943. It was reduced to 24 by the end of the war.

Advertisement from the Sphere magazine, 1943.

Shoppers were urged to buy the best quality they could afford because the clothes would in theory last longer, give better value for money and save coupons. This “practical” coat eliminated half the annual ration in one sale. The shoes would suck up another seven. If you exhausted your allotment before the end of the year, second-hand clothes were coupon free. So were fur coats for some very strange reason.

The price of £13. 17 shillings might seem like a bargain now but that is the equivalent of £584 today and amounted to more than two week’s wages for the average worker – although probably not for people who shopped at the upmarket Debenham and Freebody .

If you think the fashion-conscious had it tough in 1943, have a look at this page about the weekly food ration. Could you get by on that?

Ration coupons were slowly removed after the war as the British economy recovered but the country didn’t see the last of them until 1954.

Bomb disposal for beginners

The 2 lb. magnesium bomb does not explode, its only object being to start a fire. It will probably penetrate no further than the attic or an upper floor, setting light to anything within a few feet. Vast numbers of these light bombs can be carried by a single aeroplane, and many more fires started than could be dealt with by fire brigades. Householders, with a little training and equipment, can deal with the incendiary bombs and so protect their homes and defeat the enemy’s object.

Image from a 1938 cigarette card by W.D. & H.O. Wills.The intense heat and smoke from such a bomb and the fire which it will have started make close approach impossible until the atmosphere has been cooled down and the fire partly extinguished. This is done with a jet of water from a hose not less than 30 feet long. The stirrup hand pump (illustrated) is recommended for this purpose. The girl in the picture is kneeling, as smoke is not so thick close to the ground. Note Redhill container in foreground.

Image from a 1938 cigarette card by W.D. & H.O. Wills.In this picture the girl has taken sand from the container and is pouring it on to the bomb with a long-handled scoop. Sand does not extinguish the magnesium bomb, but it controls it and reduces the heat, thus allowing near approach. Note the Redhill container placed on its side in such a way that full scoopfuls of sand can easily be withdrawn. After the first scoopful of sand has been placed on the bomb, the glare and heat are greatly reduced.

Image from a 1938 cigarette card by W.D. & H.O. Wills.Removal of incendiary bomb with scoop and hoe. The long-handled scoop illustrated is necessary in dealing with incendiary bombs. It is made in two sections, the scoop on one end and the hoe on the other, and when joined together is 7 feet long. In the picture it is separated, the hoe being used to draw the bomb into the scoop, which is made strong enough to withstand the heat of a burning bomb.

Image from a 1938 cigarette card by W.D. & H.O. Wills.The burning bomb is here being transferred from the scoop into the Redhill container, which can then be carried out of the house. The container is made strong enough to hold a burning magnesium bomb indefinitely, and is so designed that the heat of the bomb will not injure the hand of the person by whom it is carried.
‘Air Raid Precautions’ cigarette cards, 1938.

As easy as that. Like putting the rubbish out. I wonder if anyone actually did this? It looks like a pre-war theory developed by someone who had never been in an air raid and it’s more likely to endanger lives than save them. How do you fight a fire in an attic where the only ventilation is the hole punched in the roof by two pounds of flaming magnesium? And what if you get clobbered by one (or more) of the other bombs from the “vast” number carried by “a single aeroplane”?

When the real action started I believe civilians were advised to head for the nearest shelter when the siren sounded and not get in the way of the professionals.

Fighter Ace

Closeup of red poppies on a war memorial wreath.Tomorrow will be the 11th day of the 11th month and, at the 11th hour, Armistice Day will be commemorated in many countries around the world. Begun as a way to mark the end of the Great War and remember all those who didn’t come home, it now includes all who have died in subsequent wars. It is sometimes referred to as Remembrance Day, possibly because of the lines repeated at every war memorial service “…at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.” So here is one story to remember on Armistice Day.

In June 1940, with the advancing German army just days away from Paris, R.A.F. pilot Paul Richey decided to take a last look at the city.

“Paris as a whole retained its irresponsible gaiety – though one felt it was even rather too irresponsible. The couples still sipped their champagne and sang the choruses of romantic songs in the boulevard cafes. Albert still bowed one in with a portly gesture and a welcoming smile at Maxim’s. The Ritz Bar was still in full swing before lunch and again before dinner. The only thing changed was the almost total abscence of soldiers.

It was as I walked down the Champs Elysees towards the Concorde one afternoon that I came upon Cobber, of 73 Squadron, sitting at a pavement table with the 73 Squadron Doctor and a well-known journalist. Over a drink Cobber told me that the rest of the original 73 had gone back to England, and that they had been re-formed, like us. He had stayed behind to help get things going, but was off in a couple of days’ time. He was on a few hours’ leave now. He said they’d had some losses – about five killed, I think – and in answer to my question told me his own personal score of Huns was 17. I noticed, but without surprise in the circumstances, that he seemed nervous and pre-occupied, and kept breaking matches savagely in one hand while he glowered into the middle distance. Like the rest of us, he’d had enough for a bit.

HurricaneThe following day [7th] a Hurricane roared down and beat up 73’s aerodrome south-west of Paris. To finish up with it did a couple of flick-rolls in succession at 200 feet, and foolishly attempted a third with insufficient speed. Naturally it spun off. It straightened out promptly enough, but of course had no height and went in. The rescue squad was shocked to find an identity disc marked with Cobber’s name on the body. So died Cobber.”
‘Fighter Pilot’, 1941.

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© IWM (C 1148)

Flying Officer Edgar “Cobber” Kain, DFC, from Hastings, New Zealand, was recognised as the R.A.F.’s first fighter ace of World War Two. He was 21 years old when he died on 7th June. He had become engaged to the English actress Joyce Phillips in April. The wedding was planned for July.

The Battle of Denmark Strait

Denmark Strait, North Atlantic, 24 May 1941.

Hood

H.M.S. Hood

In [H.M.S.] Prince of Wales, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen only a handful of men saw Hood’s end with their own eyes: the vast majority were below decks and to them the incredible news came on inter-com and by telephone, second hand. Some simply did not believe it. Prinz Eugen’s executive officer, Commander Stoos, on duty in the lower command post, hearing his captain’s voice announcing the news, said quietly, ‘Some poor fellow up there has gone off his head.’ In Bismarck’s after transmitting station Leading Seaman Eich heard Commander Schneider’s joyous shout, ‘She’s blowing up,’ and would remember the long drawn out ‘uuup’ for the rest of his life. In the after director tower Mullenheim-Rechberg heard it too, and despite orders to stick to the two [British] cruisers, couldn’t resist swinging round to see for himself. The smoke was clearing to show Hood with a broken back, in two pieces, bow and stern pointing towards the sky. As he watched, he saw the two forward turrets of Hood suddenly spit out a final salvo: it was an accident, the circuits must have been closed at the moment she was struck, but to her enemies it seemed like a last defiant and courageous gesture.

Now Prince of Wales, turning to port to obey Holland’s orders, had to go hard a-starboard to avoid the wreckage ahead, and Jasper*, through Prinz Eugen’s main rangefinder, saw on the far side of Prince of Wales a weird thing – the whole forward section of Hood, rearing up from the water like the spire of a cathedral, towering above the upper deck of Prince of Wales, as she steamed by. Inside this foresection were several hundred men, trapped topsy-turvey in the darkness of shell-room and magazine. Then Prince of Wales passed, both parts of Hood slid quickly beneath the waves, taking with them more than 1,400 men, leaving only a wreath of smoke on the surface. ‘Poor devils, poor devils!’ said Jasper aloud, echoing the thoughts of those around him; for as sailors they had just proved what sailors do not care to prove, that no ship, not even Hood, is unsinkable, and that went for Bismarck and Prinz Eugen too.
‘Pursuit, the chase and sinking of the Bismarck’, Ludovic Kennedy. Wm. Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1974.

*Lieut-Commander Paulus Jasper, First Artillery Officer, Prinz Eugen