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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Bridging the Forth

“If I were to pretend that the designing and building of the Forth Bridge were not a source of present and future anxiety to all concerned, no engineer of experience would believe me. Where no precedent exists, the successful engineer is he who makes the fewest mistakes.” Benjamin Baker.

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1887

One specially noteworthy feature about this in-all-respects-wonderful bridge is that the cantilevers …. have been built steadily out from the piers without any even temporary support from below. These mighty segments of steel arches have been built out into the air—into empty space…. Day by day fresh sections have been added on, the workmen perched on any convenient projection performing their duties at a giddy height above the flowing water. There was no scaffolding. Steam cranes were run on tramways out to the end of the finished portion of the cantilevers and then the steel plates to be next riveted on were hauled up from punts floating in the estuary below.

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May 1888

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August 1888

It is a curious thing that there is seldom so much wind at the top of the bridge as lower down. When it was too strong to work on the lower members, the workmen used to go to the top for shelter. “I went up on a breezy day this week,” writes a contributor, “and on the platform on the top of the cantilever pillars, 570 feet high, there was scarcely a breath of air. So soon as you get above the cliffs which confine the Firth at its narrowest point, the wind distributes itself, and what is a fresh breeze at the water’s level is only a faint zephyr at the top of the structure. It is a pity that when the bridge is completed the hoists which carry you soaring up, with only a couple of wires to steady the cage, must be removed, for a charge to see the view might produce a useful revenue.

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Early 1889

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June 1889

The greatest engineering work of its kind, and perhaps of any kind, the world has yet seen completed one of its stages on October 10th [1889], when the south cantilevers of the Forth Bridge—those between Queensferry and Inchgarvie—were successfully joined. Advantage was taken of the fine day to carry out this interesting and delicate operation, which had been delayed by recent cold and storms. At the last moment there was a gap of three-quarters of an inch between the bolt holes, but by means of hydraulic jacks and by lighting a fire of naphtha waste in the trough of the girder, the necessary expansion was secured. Mr. Arrol struck the first bolt, and the rest were immediately thereafter driven home.

It is of interest to record that the three engineers who created the Forth Bridge are all self made men. Sir John Fowler, who is in his 73rd year, was born at Sheffield. To him London owes its under ground railway system. Sir Benjamin Baker, although still young, has carried out important works in Canada and at the Cape. Sir William Arrol was originally a piercer in a Paisely cotton mill, and when he received the freedom at Ayr the other week he mentioned that 30 years back he entered the same town a poor blacksmith in search of employment. In 1868 he started in business in Dalmarnock road, Glasgow, with a capital of £85 saved from his wages. With this he bought an engine at £18, and a boiler at £35. For some time his staff consisted of himself and a workman. Seventeen years passed away and his staff numbered 4300, engaged on the Forth Bridge.

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1890

“It is now seven years, or nearly seven years, since the foundations of this bridge were commenced, and until two years ago we had to endure not only the legitimate anxieties of our duties, but the attacks and evil predictions which are always directed on those who undertake engineering work of novelty or exceptional magnitude. When I was carrying out the Metropolitan Underground Railway I was told it never could be made, that if it was made it never could be worked, and that if it was worked no one would travel by it. M. De Lesseps, of the Suez Canal, was warned that if the canal was made it would be quickly filled up with desert sand, and the harbor of Port Said would be filled with Nile mud….. It is very curious to watch the manner of retreat of these prophets of failure when results prove they have been mistaken”. Sir John Fowler at the opening ceremony, 4th March 1890.

Text has been edited from various newspapers of the time. Images were produced by Valentines. The letter card that provided the first five was “bought at the Forth Bridge from Miss Ewart’s Ferry Tea Rooms”. The ferries continued in business until the road bridge opened in 1964. A third bridge was added in 2017.

The Forth (Rail) Bridge still carries up to 200 trains a day.

Riding a Thunderbolt

Mentioning New Zealand’s Centennial Exhibition in last Wednesday’s post reminded me of that prolific Land Speed Record breaker of the 1930s, Captain G.E.T. Eyston. It’s one of those word association things. The reason will become clear later.

George Eyston, a tall man with neatly trimmed moustache and round spectacles, didn’t fit the popular image of a daredevil race driver, yet his career encompassed every aspect of motorsport. In a set of fifty cigarette cards entitled ‘Speed’, produced in 1938, he was the only person to feature three times.

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Speed of the Wind, unconventionally-designed car equipped with Rolls-Royce engine, has covered more miles in one round of the clock than any other. Manned by Captain Eyston and A. Denly, it achieved a distance of 1,964 miles at an average speed of 163.68 m.p.h. on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, although the track was soggy after an unusually rainy season. As the car sped round on the glistening salt, the track became softer and softer and driving became more difficult, but the two intrepid drivers carried on till the record was won.
Albert Denly (1900-1989) had broken numerous speed records on motorcycles and was Eyston’s chief mechanic and reserve driver.

Eyston_flyingCaptain Eyston is a great believer in the future of the heavy-oil engine and demonstrated on Flying Spray the potentialities of this type. In 1936 he beat the World speed record for Diesel-engined cars with a mean speed over the flying start kilometre of 159.1 m.p.h. and over the flying start mile at 158.87 m.p.h. His visit to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1937 was remarkable for the fact that he took two cars with him and successfully attacked different records with both of them, thus completing a speed “hat trick.” In appearance, the car is very like his famous long distance record breaker, “Speed of the Wind.”

The resemblance is understandable because it was, in fact, the same car with a different engine. The caption writer was a little confused. Eyston took two engines, not two cars, to Bonneville. As MotorSport magazine explained after an interview with Eyston in 1974 – front-wheel-drive was used for “Speed of the Wind”, Eyston’s very successful record car, which had a 21-litre Rolls-Royce Kestrel aero-engine and was also used with an ex-Air Ministry 19-litre Ricardo diesel engine. ….
Both engines were used at Utah, being changed out there, the c.i.-engined [diesel] set-up being named the “Flying Spray”.

Then came ‘Thunderbolt’ – and the connection to New Zealand.

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Thunderbolt is the fastest car in the World. Captain G.E.T. Eyston drove this giant car at a speed of 357.53 m.p.h. on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, on September 16th, 1938, thus breaking John Cobb’s record of 350.2 m.p.h. which was set up the day before. Thunderbolt weighs over 7 tons and is more than 30 ft. long. It is fitted with two 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce engines set side-by-side behind the driving seat. The enormous power is transmitted through a three-speed gear box to a final bevel drive without differential.

Although Cobb regained the record soon afterwards, at 368 m.p.h., ‘Thunderbolt’ was taken to the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and exhibited as a winning example of British engineering. It had a short stay before being shipped to Wellington for the Centennial Exhibition (despite the outbreak of war in Europe) where it went on display on 10th January 1940.

When that exhibition closed four months later, it was decided to keep ‘Thunderbolt’ in one of the buildings, which had been taken over by the Air Force, until the end of hostilities. By September 1946, Eyston’s record breaker had been joined in storage by several De Havilland Tiger Moth aircraft, surplus furniture, and £70,000 worth of baled wool due for export. At around 3 a.m. on the 25th the wool caught alight by spontaneous combustion, starting a fire that could be seen for miles and destroying the entire building. Thunderbolt’s charred remains lay rusting in the open into the 1950s before eventual burial in the Wellington landfill.

You can watch this newsreel of Eyston and Thunderbolt on Youtube.

 

A cast-iron lighthouse

From the ‘Wairarapa Age’, Masterton, New Zealand, 6 June 1912.

castle-point-buildMessrs S. Luke and Co. Ltd., Victoria Street, Wellington, are at present engaged in building the new cast-iron lighthouse for Castlepoint. The lighthouse, which is to be sixty feet in height, is being cast in ten rings of six feet each (each ring having twelve sections). The diameter of the lighthouse at the base is eighteen feet, and at the top ten feet. The cast-iron plates average about an inch in thickness, being slightly heavier at the bottom than at the top.
Instead of the edges of the plates being hand-chipped, they have been milled by machinery, interior platforms are to be built at intervals, with an iron stairway zig-zagging to the top. It is expected the lighthouse will be finished at the yard towards the end of the month. Then, after inspection, it will be taken to pieces, and re-erected at Castlepoint.

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And here is the result – one of the most photographed and accessible lighthouses in the country. This is the cliché shot, no tourist leaves without it thanks to a convenient wooden stairway to a viewing platform on the headland.

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These two images were taken about two and a half hours apart on a warm Spring day in October. Ten minutes later the temperature suddenly dropped and this southerly storm front was dumping hail and sleet on the beach.

Gatun Dam

From ‘The Panama Canal’, Frederic J. Haskin, Doubleday, Page & Company. 1914.

Gatun Dam proved the happiest surprise of the whole waterway. In every particular it more than fulfilled the most optimistic prophecies of the engineers. They said that what little seepage there would be would not hurt anything; the dam answered by showing no seepage at all. They said that the hydraulic core would be practically impervious; it proved absolutely so. Where it was once believed that Gatun Dam would be the hardest task on the Isthmus it proved to be the easiest. Culebra Cut exchanged places with it in that regard.

A vintage postcard of Gatun spillway, Panama Canal.

The spillway through which the surplus waters of Gatun Lake will be let down to the sea level, is a large semicircular concrete dam structure with the outside curve upstream and the inside curve downstream. Projecting above the dam are 13 piers and 2 abutments, which divide it into 14 openings, each of them 45 feet wide. These openings are closed by huge steel gates, 45 feet wide, 20 feet high, and weighing 42 tons each. They are mounted on roller bearings, suspended from above, and are operated by electricity. They work in huge frames just as a window slides up and down in its frame. Each gate is independent of the others, and the amount of water permitted to go over the spillway dam thus can be regulated at will.

A vintage postcard of Gatun spillway, Panama Canal.

The spillway is so constructed that when the water flowing over it becomes more than 6 feet deep it adheres to the downstream face of the dam as it glides down, instead of rushing out and falling perpendicularly.

A Stupendous Task

The Panama Canal opened for business just over 100 years ago, so nobody reading this can remember the world without it. We think of it as a convenient way to move between two oceans and, while we can’t fail to be impressed by the scale of the engineering involved, we forget the commercial and political upheaval it caused at the time – until we read this passage in an old school book, looking forward to its completion.

A lock canal of 40 feet deep, with a width of four or five hundred feet, estimated to cost £75,000,000, and to be ready by 1915, is now being made. The task is stupendous. The length, 49 miles, is not the great difficulty. The tropical river Chagres, whose waters rise nearly 40 feet in a day, has to be crossed many times. A vast lake for the control of this body of water has had to be made. Then the Culebra ridge at its lowest is 300 feet above sea level, standing as it does between hills 3000 feet high. This ridge for more than 5 miles has to be cut down to canal level.

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There are three pairs of locks, one pair near Colon, the Atlantic port, and the other two pairs near Panama, the Pacific end. These locks will lift vessels 85 feet, and the whole passage is expected to take no more than 12 hours.

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A vintage postcard of Pedro Miguel locks, Panama Canal, under construction.

So successful has the work of the Americans been since they began their task, that it is expected to be complete before the date fixed for opening.

A vintage postcard of Miraflores locks, Panama Canal, under construction.

There is little doubt that the opening of the canal will create a new centre that must largely modify the existing sea routes of commerce, as well as bring others into existence. All ships that use the canal must pass through the Caribbean Sea, and such a focus of trade will centralise large commercial and political interests. To protect and develop its own interests, each nation will regard its possessions in the West Indies as of prime importance. The opening of the Canal will open up the eastern coasts of the Pacific to Europe as well as to the United States, and provide an alternative route to China, Japan, and Australia. The sea journey from New York to San Francisco will be shortened by two-thirds, and to Valparaiso and South American ports by a half. The chief political result will be to make the eastern and western coasts of the United States practically one coast line, and perhaps to necessitate, in the opinion of the government of the United States, the further, as well as the nearer approaches to the canal being fortified and placed under their control. This control is regarded, if not as a necessity of existence, at least as one of full development and national security.

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Text from ‘The World’ – a school text book by McDougall’s Educational Co., Ltd., c. 1913.
Images from a contemporary fold-out souvenir letter card by Underwood and Underwood, New York.