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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

Force Mulberry
Alfred Stanford
[Commander, U. S. N. R.]

published by
William Morrow and Company
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p149  Chapter X

"Request . . . program be anticipated . . ."

"Consider completion Whale installation of immediate importance. Request phased program be anticipated in order to complete earliest possible day. Personnel here prepared to accept equipment continuously."

— Dispatch, 11 June, Naval Commander Western Task Force to Comdr. XII Fleet

It was not until D + 5, 11 June, that the sheltered waters to be provided by Gooseberry I at Utah were completed with the sinking of the West Cheswald and West Nohno. Two crescent harbors resulted from the revisions in the original plan necessitated by the misplaced first two blockships. Ironically this departure from plan drew commendation on the inspection trip of the visiting admirals for its originality and its suitability to the needs of the landing craft and coasters. No mention of the real reason for the changes seemed necessary.

Enemy shelling at Utah continued throughout the entire  p150 period, always concentrating on the blockships whenever they made a move.

Again and again it was Lieutenant Olsen's cool nerve​1 and the charmed life of the little SC 1352 that held the operation together. The SC with her crew of eighteen-year‑oldsa was always in the thick of it, leading the way in to the beach, ready to round up vanishing tugs and hold them at their stations, sometimes with threat of gunfire. The merchant crews on the blockships earned their danger money under the hard single-mindedness that prevailed; not one was evacuated until the ship was finally in position for sinking.

The mystery always remained as to why these blockships at Utah were the principal targets of the German gunners. On days when the rest of the area was relatively quiet, with the first move of the SC or with the first tug passing a line to a ship, it was only a matter of minutes before splashes of 88 fire were hitting the water.

Night air action in the Gooseberry I area brought general quarters every night shortly after dark. The antiaircraft fireworks extended for miles out into the anchorage and did not die completely down much before dawn.

Bombs once again demonstrated their weird independence of any discernible law of reason. Miraculous close misses and equally miraculous hits abounded, considering the small numbers of enemy planes. One hit on the Wason smashed Commander Dennen's cherished dinghy in its davits.

Another bomb missed sending the SC 1352 into eternity  p151 by inches. The little SC had been lying close alongside the Liberty ship Morgan for the night. Deputy CTF felt his staff needed rest of several hours and hoped the nearness to the Morgan would obscure her. A direct bomb hit on the Morgan aft, however, set off her five-inch ammunition lockers. With this, the whole after end of the ship blew up in a spreading shower of chunks of steel, wild shells, and debris. But the SC was lying so close that the flying metal went clear over her and struck ships lying further away. Several of the Mulberry staff slept through the entire affair despite the noise of the explosion and concussion.

Aided by Gooseberry's smooth water and clear weather the supply line running over Utah Beach began gaining on its required quotas. But continued nearby tank skirmishes on the north flank and harassing fire from 88's provided all too convincing proof that the enemy had not moved far from their positions. No man's land was still close to the beach. The explosion of ammunition dumps inland nearly every night was disconcerting evidence that the situation there was fluid indeed and doubtless vulnerable to counterattack.

Fortunately for beach operations the weather continued to be no problem, with broken clouds overhead and visibility up to twelve miles. Light SW to SE winds were offshore and never above force two. The beach was workable every day while the Gooseberry I line of protecting ships grew.

At Omaha, the same uneasiness about conditions ashore prevailed. But the enemy shelling and bombing had not continued so long, and never was so intense. The initial  p152 assault period, however, had encountered resistance far more severe than at Utah.

The personnel working so intensely on Mulberry, still unable to decode any battle situation reports, naturally sought information from soldiers now taking up quarters on Phoenix AA batteries and from the wounded being evacuated in hospital-fitted landing craft.

In the way events slowly percolate through the ranks of armed men, much of the Omaha story became known to the Mulberry staff. The main events of D‑day were somewhat pieced together in fragments if not in full detail. Increasingly sharp orders were issued by Captain Clark that there was to be no discussion of the battle situation, no missions ashore, and no "sight-seeing" with the binoculars. But no orders could really stop talk, and the story of the initial landing at Omaha unfolded.

The pre‑dawn air bombardment at Omaha by the 8th Air Force Liberators on D‑day through the cloud cover had failed to neutralize or really even touch the beach defenses it was supposed to wipe out. Allied bombs fell from three hundred yards to three miles inland. In an effort to miss the fringe of the Allied invasion fleet, the airmen risked missing the shore defenses.

The strong points and batteries were almost intact when the first landing craft and DD tanks​2 started toward the shore.

Smoke and grass fire, combined with haze and a stronger current than calculated, scattered the landing craft from their assigned sectors. Some part of the beach received too many troops, some were almost bare. Units were separated.  p153 Men were landed far from the objectives they were assigned to take.

The comforting thunder of naval gunfire was a morale factor, but in the early stages hits were accidental.

Evidence that the eastward current was running extra strong on D‑day was found in the fact that one of the destroyers​3 assigned to close fire support found it necessary to steer 20° to 30° off course in order to maintain her position in the firing line.

The margin of error in landing craft touching down in the assigned target area was as much as a thousand yards. But even a hundred yards could make difficult clearing the entrance to one of the draws or taking a specific strong point.

On the right, the 743rd Tank Battalion had succeeded in landing all its tanks in LCT's. But facing the fire from the Vierville draw, only half of the tanks of Company B landed, firing on the enemy's positions from the water's edge.

In the 16th Regimental combat team zone, only five of the thirty‑two tanks with flotation gear made the beach through the rough seas and cross fire. One after another dove off the landing craft ramp to sink in a few minutes.

Of Company A's sixteen tanks, two were lost offshore and three were hit on beaching. The surviving force went into action against the strong points at the draws.

The Engineer Special Brigade troops, which had the important task of clearing obstacles in half an hour, were reduced by casualties, mislandings and separation from demolition gear. Only five of the sixteen teams hit their allotted sector. At least three teams came in where no tanks or infantry  p154 could give them protective fire. Of the sixteen bulldozers, only six got to the beach and half of these were quickly knocked out.

Equipment needed for marking lanes — poles and buoys — was lost before it could be put in place. Eight navy personnel getting their rubber boat and explosives off their LCM were lost when a bursting shell hit the prima cord of their explosives. This was Team 11. Team 14 was similarly hit and lost all hands.

Support Team F, landing at 0700, received a shell hit on the bow of its LCM, throwing three men in the water. As the vessel drifted out of control, another hit, squarely on the bow, killed all fifteen men.

Men taking shelter from rifle fire behind one of the bulldozers prevented its use. In other cases where demolition teams were ready to blow their lanes, they had to hold back because of men taking shelter or passing through.

There was a story about a naval officer about to pull the igniters to explode a demolition charge. A shell fragment clipped off his fingers and the fuse.

Premature explosions of charges, when a prima cord was hit, killed and wounded nineteen engineers of Team 12 and some infantry.

These stories abounded and were typical of the confusion of the landing. Casualties in the Engineer Task Force, including navy personnel, ran to nearly half — far beyond the point at which the morale disintegration is considered inevitable.

Few of the LCVP's and LCA's carrying assault infantry made dry landings in the rough seas. Most of these craft grounded a hundred yards off the beach. The men in them  p155 were faced with neck-deep water in the runnels ahead that had to be crossed. Many reported hearing the hail of small arms fire on the bow ramp before it was lowered, then saw the sea white with machine gun fire directly in front of them. Stiff and seasick from their long journey, the soldiers leaped over the sides or dove underwater. Those who reached the dried‑out beach and lay still there, rather than crawl on to the shingle slope, suffered the worst losses.

Fortunately, if one listened to enough stories, there were cases where men did reach the shingle that first day without drawing too concentrated fire.

The worst area of the beach was in front of the Vierville draw where flanking fire poured in from emplacements near Pointe de la Percée. When one of the landing craft headed in toward this area sank about a thousand yards offshore, Rangers aboard her jumped overboard and were dragged down by their loads. Mortar fire scored four direct hits on another landing craft which got within a hundred yards of the shore. It disintegrated.

The recital of these yarns by the wounded grew harrowing to listen to for men who had for the most part no previous direct experience with a hot beach. The burned‑out LCI's 91 and 92, sunk right in the middle of the future Mulberry area, were reminders too grim to be ignored.

The 91 had been sunk by artillery fire as it tried to pass through the obstacles. It had backed out and tried a second time. Element "C," just covered by the tide, caught it. Ramps had to be lowered into six feet of water. As officers started to lead the way off, a shell burst hit the crowded deck. With clothes burning, the few survivors jumped and tried to swim to shore. Only a few minutes later the 92 came  p156 in and suffered a similar fate, with fuel tanks ignited by an underwater explosion. Both LCI's burned for hours.

Conditions for landing trucks, jeeps and half-tracks could not have been worse. If they survived getting in reach of the beach, they were either hit and disabled or they drowned out as they ran into sudden deep water.

Morale conditions became serious. Lost equipment, foundered craft, swamped vehicles gave the scene the look of disaster. The sight of men shot down ahead and of wounded behind being drowned as the tide came in was paralyzing.

In spite of all this, at several places on the long four‑mile beach front troops were succeeding in getting through.

They moved up off the shingle, across the road, and tackled the draws leading up the bluffs.

Toward the middle of the day, enemy fire had been slightly reduced. Fire from a line of destroyers cruising the beach helped the troops ashore deepen their penetrations.

A heroic force of Rangers, aided by heavy destroyer fire, came in to the Pointe du Hoc and succeeded in throwing a rope-scaling ladder upon its face with a rocket. They scaled the cliff and captured the area that had contained the six heavy 155‑mm. howitzers.

At the end of D‑day, the most that could be said was that a thin lodgement had been made, but delayed landing of equipment, armor and artillery left the force ashore in a weak and hazardous position. Penetration had been far from the planned depth. Casualties had been very high. The outcome could not be clear.

On D + 1, a part of the D‑day objectives had been reached, with the continued pouring of men and supplies onto the beaches through the unexplainable failure of the  p157 Germans to develop a counterattack. On D + 2 it was safe to say that there was a chance of uniting the force at Omaha with the force driving inland from Utah. Concentrated naval fire had all but pulverized the last remaining brick in the town of Isigny, but the bridge over the Aure River was intact.

As with the painful experiences so often repeated with Mulberry, the soldiers' plans had wildly miscarried, equipment and resources so necessary to modern war were missing, lost, or misplaced. The assault as pictured, diagramed and developed in the hundreds of pages of the assault plan, rehearsed in Exercise Fabius, drilled at Slapton Sands, never came near realization. The assault really succeeded for two simple reasons — the unplanned, unlooked‑for deficiency of enemy initiative, plus the brute momentum of the successive waves of troops. These had saved the day — at least temporarily.

Radio announcements from the States meanwhile gave their happy assurance that all was well, that hardly a ship had been lost in the assault, and that the pre‑invasion air bombardment had paralyzed all resistance. These crisply delivered statements sounded with sharpest irony over the loudspeaker rigged in the SC pilothouse beneath the bridge. Among Mulberry naval personnel there grew a fierce interest in the welfare of their brothers ashore. They took deepest pride in each incident of courage or luck. A bond of sympathy was forged such as could only be possible between mutually dependent forces. In each case events had simply not occurred the way "the book" said or the map said, and men were left to work with what they had.

It was as if someone had broken faith with them, and they  p158 were now alone in a world no one else knew or could share. Any reassuring statement about the security of the forces ashore or the advancing line made by commanders in the area was met with cynicism. The men linked it to the optimistic broadcasts from America which reported easy success and the Germans taken completely by surprise.

This bitter skepticism never left the minds of those who saw what was happening and heard the reports. To the sailor as well as to the soldier the temporary burial ground made with bulldozers at the foot of the cliffs became a sacred spot. In a strange way a new wave of determination was born in Force Mulberry which no command or even danger could have inspired.

Captain Clark had moved his staff headquarters into a larger ship than the original, the LCI (H) 414, but kept his original SC 1329 for inspection and supervision trips in the area. In the larger troop spaces and relatively huge operations room of this converted LCI, the staff, now quickly increasing in size, found places to talk over the situation between jobs, and mug after mug of coffee was consumed in the brief intervals of conversation.

The mood of bitterness and resentment was increased by frayed nerves and sleepless bodies. It was whipped at times to the point of rebellion by the gaunt, bent figure of Captain Clark, hunched over the bull horn microphone in the conning tower of the LCI or on the bridge of SC 1329. His bowshot eyes, sunk far back in his head, ranged mercilessly over every activity in the area, caught every heaving line thrown short by a sailor so weary he was staggering. Blistering, cutting invective could be heard for miles around; there was no private reprimand. Though his voice was now worn  p159 hoarse from shouting orders, his tone could still manage scathing scorn.

To his junior and senior officers he was equally harsh. When the splintered, beat‑up SC 1352 made her arrival signal at Omaha, reporting mission at Utah completed, her young captain received a dressing down for the bad condition of his ship.

"What have you been using her for?" he roared. "A garbage scow?"

To his Deputy Task Force Commander he bellowed orders to get aboard the nearest Phoenix and learn the new sinking technique.

The gentle and not so youthful Lieutenant Commander Langevin, the civil engineer who had slaved for hours over blueprints and improvised substitutes for missing equipment, finally found his legs giving way from so many hours on his feet. He asked to be relieved from the bridge, was told to get forward on the bow of the SC 1329 and be smart about it. Lieutenant Commander Langevin, his feet and ankles aching with each step, groggy from lack of sleep, with tears of humiliation in his eyes, hobbled forward.

The SC was promptly moved near a barge. With her bow still ten feet away, and the steel deck of the barge eight feet the SC's bow, Captain Clark roared, "Now jump down on that barge! Get that equipment straightened out!"

Lieutenant Commander Langevin jumped and fell in a heap. He managed somehow to get up with the help of several men on the barge.

Lieutenant Barton, beaten down by the long days and nights of his superhuman efforts at Selsey Bill, worn out by the pain of his shingles and all but blind from lack of  p160 sleep, also felt that whiplash of Captain Clark's ice‑cold scorn for human frailty. The very first Phoenix got out of control from the team of small ST army tugs that were pushing it into position. At no one point on the Phoenix was it possible to see all four ST tugs nosing against its high concrete sides.

There were the tugs to watch and also the crews at the scuttling valves. Lieutenant Barton had long had misgivings about the limits of possible precision in siting the Phoenix from his experience at the Selsey assembly area. One difficulty in particular had arisen. After the Phoenix had sunk four or five feet, just as the tide was beginning to slew it, the ledge that ran around the caisson came level with the bow of the tug. With any slight chop, the bow of the tug then began to pound on the ledge. The temptation to save the tug from what seemed sure destruction was overpowering. But if the tug let up, the slew of the Phoenix gained momentum and soon forced the other tugs out of line. Then the Phoenix was out of control in a matter of seconds.

This happened with Lieutenant Barton's first Phoenix, and his own chagrin was complete. Captain Clark decided on the spot that Lieutenant Commander Bassett would sink the Phoenix units as well as the blockships.

When Lieutenant Hoague protested that this was overloading Lieutenant Commander Bassett and was turned down, Lieutenant Barton tried again, unknown to Captain Clark. Luckily this effort was more success­ful, with Lieutenant Commander Bassett helping to position the tugs at just the right angle. The third Phoenix which Lieutenant Barton tried twisted out of control entirely, and went careening  p161 down through the moored Whale equipment, missing bridging sections by inches until it was finally recaptured.

Captain Clark's excitement and resulting orders were justified — but the damage to Lieutenant Barton's morale was complete. When the caisson was finally recaptured and secured, the bull horn of the SC 1329 reached out its iron voice for all within miles to hear.

"That is the last piece of clumsy seaman­ship you will ever commit under my command. Get off that Phoenix. Look after the ST tugs if you can."

Lieutenant Barton managed to crawl down the long iron ladder from the Phoenix and disappeared in the pilothouse of the tug. His crew, hearing the orders, brought his old MFV flagship alongside.

Lieutenant Commander Bassett now took full charge of the Phoenix sinkings as well as blockships. Chief Boatswain Pagliaro, Lieutenant Barton's Sancho Panza, stared unbelievingly with glazed eyes at the figure on the bridge of the SC 1329.

On 10 June (D + 4), the situation report showed all blockships at Omaha were in place. On 11 June (D + 5) Gooseberry I at Utah was complete. At Omaha, twelve Phoenix caissons were in position. Offshore, Commander Ard had all but completed his Bombardon floating breakwater, with over twenty moorings in place and fourteen of the huge steel objects secured.

Up till now removal of beach obstacles and mines and wrecked landing craft had prevented work starting on the Whale equipment, but D + 5 saw it finally begin with the siting of the Lobnitz pierheads for the western and the middle of the three planned roadways. Lieutenant Freeburn  p162 managed to keep his piled‑up tows of bridging equipment afloat as temporary moorings with his desperately scurrying fleet of MTL launches.

Communication with the U. K. was still bad, and tows arrived with no dispatches received at Omaha to warn the waiting crews and with inadequate routing instructions. Some tows wandered looking for Omaha, lost off the British Mulberry to the north for twenty-four hours.

There had been some losses from enemy action. The tug Griper, arriving with a Phoenix, reported that a big Phoenix had been torpedoed and sunk by an E‑boat. Whale tow 528 was picked up adrift by the tug Superman, the original tug having been mined or sunk, one mile from buoy E‑58. There were no personnel on the tow, but there were blood marks on the shelter tent. The Algorma (USAT 34) reported her Phoenix tow sunk by a mine in the swept Channel.

Work at Mulberry A ahead of schedule, but morale and endurance fading fast, Deputy CTF made a signal suggesting he remain aboard the SC 1352, refuel, and put out to sea to gather lost tows during the night, report arriving tugs sighted, and escort the next day's flock in.

With the engineer of the SC shaking his head and the young lieutenant in command of the ship murmuring about lay‑up for repairs, Mulberry A's Deputy Commander, reflecting the mood of Captain Clark, dryly asked for all engines ahead, standard speed.

The little SC stood out in the channel, taking her wounds and her people into the always mysterious darkness of the night.

The Author's Notes:

1 Olsen was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and received the Legion of Merit (when it was the highest naval decoration a theater commander could bestow).

[decorative delimiter]

2 DD tanks were equipped with flotation gear.

[decorative delimiter]

3 U. S. S. Satterlee.

Thayer's Note:

a A photograph of the crew of SC 1352, taken at some point between June 1943 and February 1946, is online at NavSource Naval History.

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Page updated: 10 Feb 22