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Chapter 10

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

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


published by
William Morrow and Company
New York
1951

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 12
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p163  Chapter XI

"Proceed in to . . . new LST pier . . ."

"Proceed in to discharge at new LST pier in Mulberry now operational. Sail back to U. K. 1800 tonight on completion."

— Visual signal from Port Director Mulberry to LST 342. 16 June 1944

The night was calm. It was pleasant to be away from the insistent throbbing roar of the Diesels in the scores of landing craft, on their endless trips back and forth from ship to shore. It was good to feel that Mulberry work, now Utah was finished, would proceed without the annoyance and anxiety of shellfire.

There were two serious matters in the minds of the four Mulberry officers talking on the bridge of the SC 1352. The first was the Army's thin grip on the beaches, and the exposed flanks until forces at Omaha could join up with the British beaches at the east and the Utah forces at the north. A devastating German counterattack seemed inevitable. After all, the Germans had sixty divisions. Evidence of German  p164 strength and willingness to commit these divisions had come through talk with visiting RN officers from the British Mulberry. Their report had it that the British Army was pinned down against heavy German armor only a few miles inland. The D‑day objective of Caen was not even yet taken — even on D + 5.

The little SC was now approaching the British assault area and Mulberry B. The heavy roll and roar of battle only a few miles inland carried plainly over the water. Every now and then the sky lighted up with pulsating sheets of orange and pale blue flame.

Overall there was an uneasiness in the night, too readily confirmed by what the eye saw to need the word of rumor.

The second factor which contributed to the anxiety was the obviously inhuman quality of Captain Clark, furiously driving men already burned out, determined to force Mulberry A into being not just on schedule, but ahead of schedule.

Lt. Macy Smith, who had been close to Captain Clark in Plymouth, reported a conversation in which RAM/P, Admiral Tennant, had expressed doubt to Captain Clark as to the usefulness of the whole Mulberry idea and great skepticism that it could ever be completed even in thirty days, much less the planned twelve. Perhaps these sentiments were not real convictions, intended only to calm down his American subordinate. On the other hand, since Mulberry for the British was chiefly an army project, it might have been a reflection of his inner state of mind.

Captain Clark had taken the remark literally. He had turned on his superior with blazing eyes — "I'll do our harbor  p165 in ten days — not twelve. I'll do it if it kills me and every man who works for me."

Could this obviously fierce determination be just burning naval ambition?

Or was it something else, deeper and more mysterious?

In the way navy thinking runs, the natural speculation would be that Captain Clark was after promotion, out to make a record. But that seemed implausible because he had just made captain in January. He was still too short a time in rank for the promotion fever to set in with any such consuming completeness. Furthermore, his scathing contempt for human frailty was not confined to his staff, but — for a career-minded officer — directed recklessly at any of his colleagues or his superiors who appeared to him to stand in the way of Mulberry progress. Admiral Tennant, RAM/P, was known to have been on the edge of asking for a court-martial, but had restrained himself, knowing the provocation of confusion and delay and out of respect to Captain Clark's driving force. No, the whole behavior could only be explained as that of a dedicated man, as sparing no one and with Spartan consistency seeking no advantage for himself. With the zeal of the early prophets, he had seen clearly and believed in his heart and his bones exactly what the planners had said: the success­ful early completion of Mulberry was a key assumption on which the whole invasion would depend. The group agreed that no other officer so far encountered on any of the staffs could have produced the result to date against the monumental obstacles.

But what next?

How long could mild, but sure, Lieutenant Freeburn take the blasting when a Whale unit foundered through no fault  p166 of his? Lieutenant Freeburn's knowledge of the intricate Whale bridging was irreplaceable. Commander Collier, the CB officer, was an engineer, to be sure, and could read the blueprints. But the job required a seaman's eye to know when and how to maneuver a section of bridging into place. The petty officers under Lieutenant Freeburn were good at their jobs but would lack confidence without him.

Lieutenant Commander Bassett, who now replaced the disgraced Lieutenant Barton on the Phoenix job, was not a navy type. He had come straight out of New York towboating, with a vocabulary as vivid and a temperament as volatile as a life on that waterfront could teach. He knew his business. If an ST tug with a green tugmaster pushing into place a half-sunk Phoenix caisson got its bow hung up and pounding on the projecting underwater concrete shell, would Captain Clark begin to ride him over the bull horn? Four positioning tugs were a lot of chickens to watch. Things had a way of happening quickly when a Phoenix began to sink. Wire hawsers snapped. Inadequate bitts pulled out of the concrete. Lieutenant Commander Bassett was as keyed up as a concertmaster in each of these sinkings. Would harsh advice from the SC 1329's bull horn be one extra straw that might break whatever thin restraint Lieutenant Commander Bassett could muster? He surely would not take a public dressing down with silent compliance.

If Lieutenant Commander Bassett blew up, who then? Lieutenant Barton's broken spirit could not be mended. Captain Clark himself would likely take over. How long then could civilian tug crews who had signed on for non‑combat duty be willing to co‑operate, swiftly and immediately?

 p167  Discussion on the bridge was brought to a standstill by a message up the voice pipe from the pilothouse that radio warnings had been received of enemy planes thought to be mining the waters around both Mulberry A and B.

The SC was now close enough to Mulberry B to make out two red lights flashing dimly on the signal yard of the control ships, indicating an immediate air raid warning.

Speed was reduced to slow ahead, and the tired vessel settled back on her wake. She was soon making her way along with a barely audible ripple at her bows.

Lieutenant Rubel, fired with the zeal of his old occupation of minesweeping, went to the chartroom to set up a one‑man all‑night watch and plot each reported mine. About the same time, antiaircraft fire started up from all the vessels in the Mulberry B area. The crackling roar and brilliant illumination of bursts and star shells suddenly filled the peaceful night. Engines were stopped and the SC drifted slowly in the current.

The splash of falling ack‑ack chunks could easily be confused with the splash of a mine that had been parachuted down. Reports of mines immediately began to pour in over the radio. It took most of the night for the antiaircraft fire to die down. In spite of the possibility of mines, and because tows might need assistance all the more on routing, engines were started up again and the SC headed up the Channel for England, hoping in the dawn to find a cluster of lost tugs, bridging and Phoenix tows to lead in.

The charmed life of the splintered and nicked SC stood her in good stead. She came to no harm, and in the false dawn one Lobnitz, four bridge trains and five Phoenix were spotted, all of them considerably out of the swept area.

 p168  With a round of hot coffee and sandwiches on the bridge the carefree days of the assembly period off Selsey Bill were relived as the rim of the sun slowly came up and the gray of dawn widened into an overwhelming pale light through the entire dome of the sky.

After rounding up the tows, by midmorning the SC had led her flock back down the Channel, past Mulberry B and into the Mulberry A area. In the daylight it was possible to check on the progress of the British Mulberry. They were far behind the American installation, less than a quarter completed.

On 13 June (D + 7) four more Phoenixes were sited at Mulberry A, adding 800 feet to the outer breakwater and making the harbor begin to look a real place intended for shipping. The row of sunken Phoenixes now began to resemble a genuine concrete breakwater wall.

Outside the harbor, Commander Ard's men moored the last of the Bombardons.

Inside the harbor, six Whale bridge units were connected and moored in the western LST pier roadway. Two more bridge units were added to the center pier roadway.

Losses to structures continued and each casualty created a problem in redesign. Tug Pinto (USAT 90) reported Eminent had lost half her bridge train. Eminent seemed glad to turn over to Pinto after the trouble and return to England.

At night enemy air activity resumed, again with more reports of mines dropped. This night the SC 1352 stayed tied up to one of the Lobnitz piers while all hands luxuriated in five hours of sleep. Captain Clark as usual, after the day's supervision from the SC 1329, retired to his staff headquarters ship, LCI 414, tied up on the other side of the pier.  p169 Here he could study plans, read accumulated dispatches and confer with various staff members.

The following day, 14 June (D + 8), two Whale units were added to the western pier and four to the center pier. Redesign due to losses in transit of the Channel required the length of each roadway to be shortened 480 feet from the plan. Fortunately, water at the end of the shortened roadways proved to be deeper than the original charts on which the design was based had indicated.

While trying to save a tow from collision, the SC 1352 interposed herself between it and an LCM on collision course. Most of the damage to the SC was above the water line, and except for a few new trailing splinters that evoked a torrent of wrath from Captain Clark, she was still fit for duty.

The weather, though at times overcast now and with some rain squalls, continued to permit full operation of the beaches.

The concern over the possibility of an explosion between Lieutenant Commander Bassett or Lieutenant Freeburn and Captain Clark did not develop into reality. An old navy custom may have helped prevent this.

Although Captain Clark during the day in the SC 1329 scoured the whole area, it was, after all, a large area with hundreds of craft. The time-honored principle of keeping clear and out of sight, with undertakings farthest removed from wherever the SC 1329 might be, gradually evolved. This skill, native to most who have grown up in the ways of the sea, proved an excellent device, although the staff on the hell ship herself were less fortunately situated to avail themselves of it.

The concern over the fortunes of the Army ashore had  p170 slowly dimmed in the paralyzing fatigue that was now really overtaking all hands. Men so long denied sleep moved automatically, occasionally stumbling over a line on deck or even running into a steel bulkhead with a sudden, if rude, awakening.

Lieutenant Barton, after a prolonged sleep on his MFV, had found a natural role. Although nominally in charge of the ST tugs, he devoted himself to the beach salvage and clearance which was still going forward. With the pleasure of showing the CB's new tricks with dynamite and torpex explosive, he seemed to be entering a new and happy way of life.

On 15 June (D + 9) five Phoenixes were sited, adding another thousand feet of protection. The outer breakwater was now complete from the center entrance westward.

Navigational lights of dim power began to shine that night from the breakwater, from the Gooseberry entrance and from the outlying half-submerged Bombardons, Duckws, Rhino ferries, and the omnipresent LCM's and LCT's churned the water from the ship to beach in a thick swath. Ashore, bulldozers of the army engineers snorted and rumbled as they broke down the sea wall and widened the beach area for quicker turn-around of duckws. Other groups wound new roads up the cliff to expedite long lines of waiting trucks.

As the day of D + 9 closed, Lieutenant Freeburn turned in for a night's rest with the center Whale roadway completely installed except for one buffer pontoon. On the next day the LST pier would receive its first ship, three full days ahead of the earliest planned schedule. Emissaries from the British Mulberry viewed the project with awe and envy. It  p171 was rumored that another change in British Naval command of the installation would occur, this time RAM/P's chief of staff, Capt. Harold Hickling, taking personal charge.

At any rate Mulberry A was an operational reality. Wonderingly, little knots of Mulberry men and CB's walked down the long steel road to the shore. It undulated ever so slightly with the wake of an LCM or an LCVP passing close. But the shoulder-high steel trusses at the sides were a guarantee of the fact that it would bear up under forty‑ton tanks and big guns. For the majority this was the first time they had actually set foot on the long considered and unreal Far Shore itself.

Men stepped off the shore ramp at the bridge end and dug the heels of their combat boots into the loose shingle. They looked up at the scarred face of the cliffs, pockmarked now with shell craters and bomb hits.

The army personnel from the 11th Port Company, who would handle the cargo and debarkation over the Whale roadways, clustered around, asking questions.

The stocky figure of Col. Richard Whitcomb, commanding the 11th Port, stood gazing at the structure in the twilight, visibly heightened with pride. This was the top army assignment on the whole beach, this was the moment he had been waiting for, from the early dreary days in Iceland and through port command in the Bristol Channel during the assembly period in England. Tomorrow would be the day. He pushed his steel helmet back on his head and sighed with satisfaction. Tomorrow astonished men would see the huge mobile guns come rolling smoothly down those steel treads, the tanks roar up out of the bowels of the landing  p172 craft and, with turret hatches open, head for shore and battle beyond Carentan and Isigny.

Captain Clark resolutely refused to join the parties of men exploring the shore, but with sunken, red‑rimmed eyes that closed now and again in spite of his effort at control, stayed seated on the conning bridge of the LCI 414. He watched the shore, unseeing, unthinking, and unresponsive.

Several of his staff ventured up to the bridge to urge him to turn in. Finally the deputy commander took him by the shoulders, twisted him around in his chair and forced him to his feet. He was seen to go down the companionway stair to his quarters, blindly and with apparent docility obeying the grip his junior officer had on his arm.

The following day, 16 June (D + 10), in spite of the excitement of the coming first discharge over the pier, Mulberry work went on vigorously. One Phoenix was added to the western breakwater and moorings, for four Liberty ships were laid inside the all but completed sheltered water. At night or in storm the small craft could tie up inside the Gooseberry, while coasters and Liberties lying at moorings behind the Phoenix could unload in sheltered water. LST's could continuously unload at the Lobnitz pierheads.

It was not until 1630 of this day, with high ranking naval and army commanders assembled, that the perfectionist Lieutenant Freeburn gave agreement that the first roadway was ready for use. At 1643 the LST 342, helped by a small ST tug, nosed up alongside the T formed by two Lobnitz piers at the end of the center Whale roadway. Throughout Mulberry all work stopped as officers and men crowded around to watch the bow of the LST ground on the floating buffer pontoon ahead and her doors groan open.

With a roar the first vehicle instantly emerged and went  p173 up the ramp of the buffer pontoon, turned into the roadway. With but a brief grin for a moment at the crowd on the Lobnitz pier, the driver sent his vehicle down the steel tracks toward shore at fifteen miles per hour as though he had been doing just this every day of his life.

The next vehicles followed in rapid succession. Meanwhile, at the other Lobnitz pier on the starboard side of the LST, the wooden superstructure ramp from that Lobnitz was lowered to the upper deck of the LST. The tightly packed vehicles there began to roll off one by one.

In thirty-eight minutes, seventy-eight vehicles had been discharged and the LST was ready for the return trip to the U. K.

The dream of Mulberry actually worked. The theoretical scheme on paper had finally been translated into actual units of steel that fitted together and now were operational on the shore that so recently had been studded with the wreckage of battle.

Grim-faced generals, who stared at the sight from under their starred helmets, suddenly fell to slapping the nearest navy man on the back as they realized the importance of what was actually happening. With the other two roadways completed and the remaining Lobnitz piers in place, it would actually be possible to berth four to six LST's at one time and simultaneously discharge vehicles dryshod to the beach.

Preciously needed LST's, instead of wasting up to twelve hours grounded out waiting for the tide to return, would already be back in the U. K., have loaded, and be halfway in on the second trip. It meant more than doubling the lift to the beaches.

More than that, vehicles would no longer lie stranded  p174 for hours in beach runnels, lost to unexploded mines still present in the sand, or bog down helplessly until bulldozers came to drag them slowly ashore. They would arrive operational, ready to move at full speed to the front with their loads of gasoline, ammunition and stores.

The men of Mulberry, most of all, found it hard to take in that here was the blueprint first glimpsed so long ago in London, now, just ten days after the invasion, a reality. There before their eyes was a broad sheet of smooth water, protected by breakwaters. Here were piers and steel roadways ready to work with a simplicity and ease no harbor in the world could match.

No ships like LST's had ever existed before. Their efficiency grew out of the fact that they were designed as a metal package around their awkward and unusual contents, rather than as conventional ships. Here was a harbor designed to complete the functional simplicity of these strange craft, for their ultimate purpose was to move their contents not just across the water but onto the shore.

There was a vast sense of relief and pride in the hearts of the Mulberry men. It had been a race against time, but as one looked out over the shimmering water and the structures it seemed clear that the Germans were now too late. Nothing could stop the swelling strength of U. S. forces soon pouring over the bouncing steel roadway to shore. For the first time it really seemed possible that the war could be won.

During 16 and 17 June, eleven LST's were docked. The average time of total discharge was sixty-four minutes per ship as against twelve to fourteen hours drying out on the beach waiting for tide. The average time of discharge per  p175 vehicle was 1.6 minutes. Some of these "vehicles" were the heavy guns to press the battle on through Montebourg and Valognes to Cherbourg. Their landing otherwise might have required hours, and then have been accomplished only with utmost difficulty over the soft sand. The advantages Mulberry provided were almost literally incalculable.

General Plank, later to command Advance Section, SOS, of the Army, and admirals from the assault area stood with Col. Richard Whitcomb and the army engineers who had been working on the new roads up from the beach. All pressed around the giant figure of Captain Clark to shake his hand.

There was, naturally enough, some cocky talk about American drive and general superiority in handling mechanical matters, particularly when visiting officers from Mulberry B were within earshot. The British Mulberry B was many days behind A and ashore the British Army was still up against German armor in strength that blocked the seizure of Caen. The American forces, broken loose, were streaming down the Cotentin Peninsula. There was talk now of capturing Cherbourg in ten days. And — the U. S. Mulberry was a reality.

Lieutenant Freeburn did not remain long in the congratulatory group watching the unloading, but soon disappeared in one of his little army motor launches to supervise the setting out of the thousand-foot anchor rodes for the western roadway still to be completed. Mulberry staff, however, generally sat on spools of wire anchor cable that were heaped up on the edge of the Lobnitz and watched with absorbed fascination.

That evening aboard the LCI 414 the results of a staff  p176 conference with RAM/P on H. M. S. Sandown were discussed. There had been always a temporary character about Mulberry. It was an emergency device for landing stores on a beach. In the military plans that looked toward the capture of Le Havre and Cherbourg before summer's end, Mulberry's serviceability had always been discounted or left out.

Now that one could see the actual tonnage pour in and the utter workability of the whole idea, Mulberry began to look better than any possible captured harbor, for any captured harbor would present enormous salvage and clearance problems, with blown‑up locks, wrecks, and mines.

The April memoranda about "winterizing" Mulberry had apparently come up for high-staff discussion in London, and the demonstration of the all but completed structure had excited the army engineers and convinced the naval commanders. That afternoon conference on H. M. S. Sandown had recommended that new Phoenix be produced and that they be double banked against winter storms. An apron of large rubble three to eight feet deep was recommended, to be dumped inside the caissons to strengthen them against storm seas. Shoring up of the Phoenix walls with 12″ × 12″ timbers "to reinforce the walls against heavy swells" was agreed upon.

All this was reviewed on the LCI 414 on the night of 17 June, and Lieutenant Commander Langevin set to work preparing new drawings for a conference on the U. S. S. Augusta, called for the next day with Naval Commander Western Task Force, Admiral Kirk.

Confidence in the man‑made harbor never ran higher.


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