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"LCT's being sent to Mulberry area lacking anchors, insufficient fuel, inexperienced commanding officers are crushing Whale installation. Request you immediately instruct all craft keep clear . . ."
— Urgent Priority Dispatch, CTF 128 to NOIC Omaha 20 June 1944
About midmorning the following day, 20 June, there was a patch of clear sky. The sunlight showed the shoal water near the Whale bridging being churned to a murky froth as straining tugs attempted to drag the British LCT's off the Whale. It was low tide and hard to get the tugs in close enough to be effective.
Lieutenant Freeburn and his men in the only two MTL's left afloat had run long wire hawsers out to the tugs. All hands were struggling with fender material and springlines and in every other manner to reduce the strain on the bridging caused by the surging pound and grind of the heavy LCT hulls against it.
p186 Finally Lt. Macy Smith, unable to bear the sight any longer, made a jump from one of the tugs to a passing LCVP, displaced the coxswain and took charge of the boat. He brought the shallow-draft high-powered landing craft right in close to the nearest stranded LCT. Lashing the LCVP alongside and opening the engines full, he finally moved the LCT away, inching slowly against the gale while a long line from a distant salvage tug hauled the wire hawser bar taut.
A stick of dynamite from Lieutenant Barton, who had now rejoined Mulberry forces, sank the offending LCT at a distance from the Whale bridging.
One by one this method cleared the derelicts from the center LST pier by noon, although many of the eastern mooring cables were cut in the process. It was a fine bit of seamanship. Amazingly, it was accomplished without injury to Mulberry personnel. Again and again on slippery, craft-sunk, heaving pontoon ends, men secured lines. Others slipped between the bridging and the stranded craft to cut cables or pass lines. One misstep or a moment's loss of balance could have easily meant the loss of an arm or a leg or a good chance of being completely crushed.
The patch of clear sky was quickly covered over again with low driving scud from the northeast. After noon and the turn of the tide the gale resumed with new force. The wind now blew sheets of water flat off the wave tops — indication to the seaman's eye that the wind had reached a force over forty knots.
During the afternoon, more LCT's, wandering in the gale without anchors, ran out of fuel. Rather than chance the shore, now piled high with wreckage, they let themselves p187 be blown into the Whale bridging in the hope that their people might jump to safety. Small arms fire, shaking fists, screams and curses shouted against the whistling wind were of no avail.
Captain Clark threatened court-martial and gunfire over the bull horn of the LCI 414, still tied up at the eastern edge of the Lobnitz pier. By afternoon his voice was hoarse and cracking. He had discarded his cap and his helmet. The gale tore through his now completely white hair. When not screaming at approaching craft, he would curse the efforts of his men and urge them on with bitter reproach. By 1900 that day, once more all vessels had been cleared from the pier and the bridging. But only one ST tug was left operational. Others had been driven aground or had bent their propellers. All the MTL launches were now sunk or abandoned. Lieutenant Freeburn said nothing, merely turned away and refused to look any longer.
An urgent dispatch was made to the assault area commander and to NOIC Omaha requesting craft out of control to keep clear of Mulberry structures.
Deputy CTF 128 made a hazardous trip in the faithful SC 1352 to H. M. S. Centurion, the control ship in the Gooseberry breakwater, to seek Lieutenant Commander Morris' aid as port director. The huge seas, •well over one hundred feet long, were now sweeping across the decks and superstructures of the blockships. The mooring lines of landing craft lying on the inside of the Gooseberry ships were constantly parting as the powerful scend of the breaking seas struck them broadside.
Official U. S. Navy Photograph
Huge storm wave breaks across deck of the old Centurion, outer ship at end of Gooseberry breakwater. Gun platform on top of Phoenix just visible above wave in background.
While mounting to the crow's nest in the fighting top of Centurion, a full •sixty feet above the deck, both Deputy p188 CTF and Lieutenant Commander Morris were soaked with solid water and wind-driven spume. Out into the dusk as far as the eye could see, Liberty ships were heaving and plunging at both anchors and still slowly dragging. The smudge of smoke kept back flat from their funnels showed they had steam up to ease the strain. The whole Baie de la Seine was a mass of dirty yellow-gray water, streaked and flecked with white foam and cresting seas.
On return to the Lobnitz pierhead and the LCI 414, it was discovered that H. M. S. Sandown, somewhere out in the murk, had reported her anchor carried away and fuel exhausted.
The tug Cormorant (USATA 172) was sent to her assistance off Port-en‑Bessin. H. M. S. Scawfell, Ryde and Goatfell with personnel from 108th CB's aboard were ordered to proceed to the U. K. if they could make it rather than take further risk riding out the storm.
Phoenix tows were reported in the area. They were ordered back to the U. K., but could not make it. Equipment was beached or scuttled. One Phoenix went clear adrift, to disappear in the darkness, driven by the wind — an utter menace, fatal to any ship she might crash against in her path.
A survey at dark showed four LST buffer pontoons on the pierheads torn from their keepers and gone adrift. Three intermediate pontoons connecting the pierheads were stove in and on the verge of sinking. Three of the Lobnitz piers had snapped cables and were being precariously held by their four spud legs against the seas that now rushed through the breaches in the Phoenix breakwater with unstopped force. In the Phoenix breakwater, by night three of the concrete p189 units had had their outer walls crushed in and had disintegrated to the low-water mark. Two had broken backs.
Far out in the murk, the worst possible hazard had occurred. The 200‑foot long semi-submerged steel units of the Bombardon floating breakwater had torn loose. Flung by the seas, these long narrow steel objects Commander Ard had tended so faithfully had become battering rams. It was Bombardons torn loose and flailing against the Phoenix which may well have first breached the Phoenix wall. How much shipping they sank before they finally fetched up on the shingle at the back of the cliffs can never be discovered. In the earliest planning this danger had been visualized but Bombardons were a favored project of Higher Authority,1 and to yield on this point at the time had seemed good bait for continued warm interest in Mulberry affairs. It was an ironic twist of fate that this seeming slight concession turned into a formidable engine of destruction.
The lieutenant in command of the LCI 414 became concerned for the safety of his vessel as rain squalls and darkness closed in. His ship was straining and surging at the dozen hawsers that kept her moored to the Lobnitz pierhead.
The basic doctrine of all naval regulations holds that any individual commanding officer is in the end finally responsible for the safety of his ship and her people. If that is threatened, he may disregard all orders and any authority no matter what rank.
All storms look more threatening at night, all clouds are darker and more full of menace. The wind always seems to p190 be rising. The bared teeth of a single cresting sea suddenly showing a streak of white in the void of the black darkness is ominous indeed.
Furthermore, on the purely practical side, as the young lieutenant stood on the creaking and groaning steel deck of the Lobnitz pierhead, fiercely expressing his determination to Deputy Commander Mulberry A, the whole Lobnitz structure seemed on the point of breaking up.
His proposal was to get his engines running full astern, then hit the straining Manila hawsers with an ax. With the strain that was on them they would snap like weak pieces of string. He would then hope to back clear of the Lobnitz, let the wind turn the ship and then head to sea, with Captain Clark still in the conning bridge screaming orders and imprecations at this ship and that which drifted by out of control.
Captain Clark, according to the skipper of the LCI, need not be informed until the lines were cut. He would never voluntarily leave the area, even though he could do nothing. Now his voice was a bare, hoarse croak. His orders over the bull horn were unintelligible.
Deputy CTF passed this news to Mulberry staff officers. He had confidence that the Lobnitz pierhead would stand up through the night and that it would be safer there on the steel deck than at sea with drifting derelicts and wreckage, to say nothing of high seas. Captain Clark could be coaxed onto SC 1329. Several elected to stay with Deputy CTF.
Under persuasion of a mission to Centurion, Captain Clark agreed to go aboard SC 1329 and make a run down the harbor. p191 He also surprisingly gave the captain of LCI 414 permission to cut his lines if the Lobnitz pier became endangered.
The SC 1329 departed with Captain Clark.
The engines of the LCI 414 were warmed up and gradually reached full revolutions. The roar of the Diesels became a child's whisper in the noise of the gale. A seaman swung an ax and, caught by the wind, the LCI suddenly swung away from the pier. In a few seconds she was lost in the night.
With portable battery of flashlights the Mulberry staff officers started searching for men and gathering all personnel on the clear Lobnitz pierhead in the center, underneath the wooden superstructure that was there for unloading the upper decks of the LST's. Over one hundred of the CB's were found. Orders were passed that all efforts to protect the structures be abandoned. Men must concentrate now on saving their lives.
Weary beyond all consciousness of the storm, the night or the danger, the men gratefully huddled out of the spray and stinging wind in among the heavy timbers that held the superstructure up. Many fell sound asleep on the wet steel deck.
Others in another group began to pray. Some dragged out of their uniform pockets pictures of their children, their wives or their sweethearts and passed them around in the narrow beam of a flashlight or a signaling lamp.
Meanwhile the Mulberry staff officers took stock of the situation. The first problem was morale and prevention of panic among those who could not sleep. Work must be found that was essential and not too hazardous.
In the glare of the portable lights, bodies of men in the p192 water had been seen, floating by, face down. These were Navy men. Respect to the dead required that their bodies be recovered if possible. A watch was set, equipped with short lines, boat hooks and tarpaulins to recover any bodies within reach.
The next objective was to keep the structure of the Lobnitz from wrenching itself apart during the night. On the central pierhead, only one of the cables holding the weight of the structure onto the spuds had snapped. There was a clutch release in the dynamo room between decks that could be thrown to permit the Lobnitz to be free floating and ride up and down on the spuds. If this were pulled, the motion on the Lobnitz would suddenly become violent as the fifteen-foot seas roared underneath the big platform, then rushed on to the shore. It would be precarious footing.
The rapid rise and fall of the heavy structure might easily snap off the spud legs and the whole structure go adrift. On the other hand, it was plain from the groaning and creaking that if the strain were not eased it was inevitable that the whole structure would tear itself apart and all hands be lost.
Putting the Lobnitz in "free wheeling" by releasing the clutch seemed a risk. Once pulled, the clutch could not be reset in a sea like this. It would be a wild ride. But there was a faint chance of getting through the night.
The order was passed to the dynamo room below and a tight-lipped chief petty officer pulled the lever.
Immediately the whole structure rose at its forward edge, soaring into the air, then dropped in a cloud of spray and breaking sea as the wave passed under. The men clung to the supporting timbers of the superstructure and to each other to keep from being washed overboard. In a short while, p193 many became hopelessly seasick and lay dangerously unguarded, retching. These men were secured with life lines.
Deputy CTF, once the violent motion established its rhythm, felt relief that the agonizing strain of rigidity had been removed. The free floating structure, racing up and down its sixty-foot spud legs, would hold together. Now the only hazard was men being thrown off or the steel of the spud legs wearing out under the violent friction of the rising and falling mass.
Just as the Mulberry staff officers had become adjusted to this comforting thought and had reduced the time for survival till daylight, the wooden superstructure began to weave perceptibly overhead. If that should come loose, all hands would be crushed under the collapsing timbers.
There were still coils of line and wire about, however, and some of the less seasick were now roused and driven to run stays and shrouds to hold the wooden upper deck steady.
This work was a godsend to the men able to move. An hour before dawn the superstructure had been secured. All hands then collapsed into the mass of bodies, as near the center of the deck as possible, and fell into a deep coma of sleep and exhaustion.
The sea worked its will with the unresisting steel structure. It rose and tossed and plunged. Occasional waves washed over the unconscious men. Spray drenched them with each descending plunge.
But no human knew, no one saw. There were just the bodies and the unfettered wildness of the night.
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World War II
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Page updated: 10 Feb 22