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Chapter 11

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.
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Chapter 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p177  Chapter XII

"Outlook Wednesday to Friday little change . . ."

"Wind N to NW, force 3. Weather fair to cloudy. Visibility good. Sea — 2‑3 ft. waves. Outlook Wednesday to Friday little change from above."

— Weather forecast from ANCXF 18 June 1944

The papers that formed the Combined Chiefs of Staff planning memoranda for Mulberry, the famous CCS 307 series, went deeply into the matter of weather. In one of the early papers,​1 for example, these words appeared: "Gales of force seven (35 mph) are very rare during the 90 day period considered and have not been taken into account in planning the harbors."

In another part of this same paper​2 the average frequency of winds over force seven was given for the area as:

May ¾
June ½
 p178  July 0
Aug. 0
Sept. 2
Oct. 4

"From the above," wrote the planners, "it is assumed that winds over force seven may be discounted." Maximum wave dimensions against which the Phoenix could be relied on were given as one hundred feet long and eight feet high. "It is not considered practical to provide protection for conditions which create waves more than 100 feet in length."

All these calculated risks that were accepted in the design of the Phoenix, the conferences of 17 June on Sandown and 18 June on Augusta sought to modify.

It was not only the smooth functioning of the harbor machinery, the completion ahead of schedule, that dictated this, but another more subtle factor. A time of spring tides was at hand when the moon's force was at its height. Tidal range in the time of neap tides was only eleven and a half feet, but in the spring tide phase, the tide range increased. Mean high water springs were actually 23.1 feet above chart soundings. The surface of the sea at high water was now much nearer the tops of the concrete caissons and crept noticeably higher on the hulls of the sunken blockships in Gooseberry. While this occasioned no surprise because the depths had been carefully calculated for spring tides in the original surveys, the effect was strange. When one stood at the outer edge of a Phoenix and looked down at water within eight to ten feet of the top of the caisson wall, the sight surprisingly diminished the feeling of strength and security one  p179 felt in looking at the water when it was more than thirty feet below.

The MTL lines running out the long wire anchor rodes to each pontoon under the Whale bridging churned away from first light on 18 June. The CB's operating the bulldozers on the erected part of the western roadway ran their machines close to the very edge, caught the hawsers from the men on the incoming span at the first try. Then, with the bulldozer backing down, the new section was drawn snugly into place in a matter of minutes. Crews stood by to secure the telescopic coupling. The MTL's ran in with the end of the laid anchor rode while other men jumped down onto the pontoon to lash the rode fast on the twin bitts. With coupling secure and this anchor rode made fast the roadway was held from sideways slip.

The men, though weary, red‑eyed and unshaven, worked now at their tasks with sure-footed speed and a practiced sense of exactly the right tension and angle to make a section fit. Gone were the grumbling, the missed lines and the many puttering MTL's getting in each other's way.

On 18 June the western Whale roadway was completed to its western Lobnitz pier, and that Lobnitz connected with the Lobnitz which terminated the center roadway. Now two streams of traffic poured toward the shore.

Four more Phoenixes were sited that day under the dark overhanging clouds that seemed to betoken a change in weather.

Captain Clark went off in his old flagship SC 1329 to the U. S. S. Augusta for the meeting with Admiral Kirk on strengthening Mulberry. Augusta was moored nearly five miles out, and as the little SC revved up her engines to  p180 make the run quickly, through the gap in the breakwater she could be seen lifting her bow up out of the waves, then plunging back in a shower of flung spray. There had been no sea like this throughout the construction period.

During the day one was slowly made conscious of a deeper change in the weather. The drenched Negro drivers of the duckws shivered as they came in, wet down from the rough water outside. LCVP's coming in with troops from the outer transport area were running their pumps and the soldiers huddled for protection as they had in the cold storm that preceded D‑day. It was the first onshore wind from the north and it swept straight in on the American beaches.

As one became more conscious of spray dolloping up against the outer face of the breakwater, the first thought was strong reassurance. Mulberry was in place and it would protect the beaches. In spite of the soothing weather report from ANCXF of calm weather through the rest of the week, and wind not over force three, it was plain that something more was going on in the sky overhead.

Deputy Commander Mulberry A became restless in the afternoon and, after consultation with Lieutenant Commander Bassett, Phoenix siting was discontinued and the small ST tugs with their low freeboards were brought inside. Lieutenant Commander Bassett was sure it was going to blow hard.

Colonel Whitcomb sent a messenger out to the pierhead for a navy weather forecast after losing several heavily loaded duckws when waves washed over their strict and swamped them. Deputy Commander Mulberry discovered that the high tide brought the signal light of the LCI 414 well above the breakwater level. A visual signal could be  p181 made direct to Augusta. After much flashing, Augusta finally replied.

Augusta's prediction for the next day was as soothing as ANCXF's: "Cloudy to partly cloudy," it read. "Visibility fair, 4‑6 miles. Wind NE, velocity gentle — 8 to 13 knots. Ceiling 2‑3,000 feet."

To one standing on the open bridge of the LCI 414, the wind was already far from gentle — well over twenty knots. White caps outside the breakwater were breaking regularly now on the face of the darkening sea.

A signal was made to Centurion, the outer blockship in Gooseberry, where Lt. Comdr. Everett Morris, USNR, had made his headquarters as Port Director Mulberry A. Lieutenant Commander Morris in civil life had been a famous small-boat sailor and yachting reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. Better authority than Naval Commander Western Task Force was plainly needed.

Back came a signal from Lieutenant Commander Morris: "It's going to blow like stink if you ask me."

By evening Captain Clark had returned from the meeting on Augusta. He too had checked the weather after his rough trip out, but had received strongest reassurances and was inclined to discount the falling barometer as nothing more than a minor depression that would pass in the night.

By morning of 19 June, there was, however, no further doubt about it. Again in the face of reassuring forecasts, the dawn was ugly and low. Cloud scud was beginning to blow in. The wind held between N and NE. During the night the barometer had dropped from 30.04 at 0100 to 29.92. By the time morning chow was down, the strength of the wind had risen to between twenty-five and thirty knots.

 p182  By midmorning the onshore storm winds and seas had put the tops of the Phoenix all under. Even hand rails and shelters at the base of the gun platforms were awash. It would be a wise precaution to evacuate the AA troops.

This work started at 1000. By noon it was becoming a difficult feat to maneuver the SC's and landing craft alongside to get the men aboard.

In the afternoon the tide did not seem to fall as it should or the seas were getting higher, for the Phoenix caissons were now really awash. The swell inside the harbor, however, remained only a small chop.

With the wind over thirty knots, all Mulberry work was stopped. All available tugs and launches went to work to secure the Whale bridging still awaiting installation in the area between the LST piers. Noticeable seas three feet high were racing through the inner harbor now. The moorings of this temporarily secured free bridging began to part.

As the roadways began to heave and undulate in the swell, all traffic over them was halted lest vehicles ram the side trusses with a sudden lurch. It became difficult to walk down the pontoon-supported Whales, but the Lobnitz pierheads were held steady by putting an extra strain on their hoisting gear and thus raising them beyond a floating point.

Only one tow arrived during the day, and that tow had only one link left. It was necessary to beach this crippled unit. Either the other tows had been canceled in sailing as a result of better weather information in the U. K. or, more likely, they had foundered during the night in the Channel.

An additional watch was set on the pierheads. An intermediate pontoon had broken, and this set up an extra strain on the spuds.

 p183  The whole area was frantically scoured for extra hawsers and fender material to secure the ST tugs, which had no anchors of their own, the LCI 414, the two SC's and the MTL launches.

An inspection made by Captain Clark and Deputy CTF during last light revealed that some of the outer Phoenix breakwater units were beginning to show signs of collapse.

This was the first ugly intimation that Mulberry might be the scene of a fight for survival. Up till then it had been largely a question of saving gear and weathering a small blow.

As the wind continued to pipe up through the night, Captain Clark took his station on the conning bridge of the LCI 414, now held to the side of the Lobnitz pier by 8‑inch Manila hawsers. From this vantage point, with the sweeping beam of the signaling lamp, he could watch for damage to the structures and spare bridging for the third eastern roadway breaking adrift. Through the bull horn he yelled imprecations at the knots of men, struggling in the spume and darkness to secure fenders and run more lines. The staff officers split themselves up into groups supervising work at the trouble spots with hand floodlights.

Beaching craft, whose normal anchoring was by the stern to help them retract from a beach after touching down, were awkward to moor. They began dragging. Those that could start their wet motors could be heard above the gale as one by one they got under way, making for the shelter of the Gooseberry.

During the night in spite of orders screamed through the darkness and direct fire from side arms, a U. S. salvage barge and five British LCT's drifted in against the eastern side of  p184 the center Whale roadway. Their heavy steel hulls pounding against the pontoons crushed the steel and cracked the concrete. The pontoons filled and sank at one end, upheaving that part of the center roadway into a grinding mass of steel in which it was highly dangerous to work. In the helpless careening passage of the craft drifting into the side of the center Whale roadway some of the wire anchor rodes were cut, and the bridging took a severe sideways bend.

With each successive wave there was a pounding against the structure. To the frightened men on the LCT's it did not seem that either their craft or the bridging could long survive. Some jumped for the roadway, missed their footing and fell into the mass of grinding steel. Others, seeing this, dove into the water to swim for shore and were quickly lost from the feeble circle of light cast by the portable hand lamp.

Through all this scene of impending disaster lay the picture of the weakened Phoenixes. If they crumbled, the full sweep of the seas would roar in over Mulberry.


The Author's Notes:

1 CCS 307/2, para. 2b.

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2 CCS 307/2, Part II, para. 3.


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