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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

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 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p121  Chapter VIII

"The success of the invasion would depend . . ."

"The success of the invasion would depend on the outcome of a race between Allied build‑up and enemy reinforcement."

— Omaha Beachhead, p6, War Dept., Historical Div. 1945

The staff group from Plymouth had the advantage over the operations personnel from Portsmouth. They knew the latest intelligence appreciations, the "hot spit," as the current expression had it. They had shared the talk of the Army unit commanders and had some up‑to‑date notion of the scheme of things.

During the sporadic air raid which dwindled into nothing more than the distant crump of a few scattered bombs falling inland, Lieutenant Smith patiently set forth the odds.

The enemy had available in northwest Europe a total of over sixty divisions, built up from fifty-three in February. He must know we were coming. This was evidence. And he  p122 had force enough to throw the Allied assault back into the sea.

In the immediate area between the Orne and Vire Rivers, where the Allied blow was to fall,​a the enemy was estimated to have a strength of five to seven infantry divisions, with two panzer divisions which could reach the area quickly.

The initial strength of the Allied assault against the enemy's prepared rim fortifications and minefields was six divisions from the sea and three airborne divisions.

Allied estimate of the enemy build‑up fixed his maximum strength in the assault area at eighteen to twenty divisions by D + 3. Air assault on bridges, rail yards and roads was relied on to slow this down, for at this same date Allied forces ashore were scheduled to number thirteen divisions.

The whole first month of the attack would be a desperate race of reinforcement whose outcome would depend on Allied ability to slow down the German movement of available forces, and at the same time keep up the flow of the planned minimums of men, vehicles and stores across the beaches. The naval responsibility to keep up this flow of American force was even more deadly clear in these final appreciations which Captain Clark and Force Mulberry's intelligence officer, Lt. Jason Paige, had brought from Plymouth. The role Mulberry must play in making this flow independent of weather interruption appeared even more crucial, if that could be, than the planners had described so emphatically in all the orders, plans and appreciations ever issued.

Lieutenant Paige, who had consorted to some effect with air intelligence, brought to the group watching the fireworks over Portsmouth harbor still further specific news  p123  that an Allied blow was expected in the Omaha and Utah areas. In his measured voice he recounted the fact that beach obstacles in the Omaha area first began to appear in numbers in April. They had increased measurably in May.

Air photos of the invasion beach at low tide showed the exposed sand studded with rows of heavy logs and steel rails slanted seaward with mine-tipped ends. Heavy gate-like structures of reinforced iron frames with iron supports on rollers, known as Element "C," were ten feet high and had waterproof teller mines on each support. Closer to shore, rows of iron "hedgehogs" about five feet high were made of three or more steel rails crossed at their centers and set in concrete. They could easily rip open the bottoms of landing craft.

Along most of the beach were rolls of concertina wire, which one might assume contained the trip-wire mines and small deadly butterfly mines, familiar through their occasional use in air raids.

Colonel Staub and Major Hursh, who were to commanded the Mulberry and Gooseberry AA defense troops and who would embark in the two Mulberry A SC's in the morning, knew a good deal of the enemy beach defense ashore, since the units from which they had been drawn were part of the Force "O" assault group. They reported at least twelve identified enemy strong points so placed behind their concrete walls and roofs as to cover the tidal flat and beach shelf with both plunging and grazing fire.

The natural inward crescent curve of Omaha Beach permitted flanking fire from dangerous cliff emplacements at either end and provided clear observation for any mobile artillery.

 p124  Each of the twelve strong points was a complex system of elements including pillboxes, gun casemates, open positions for light guns and firing trenches surrounded by minefields. The elements could be assumed to be connected by tunnels or deep trenches with underground quarters and magazines. Most of these strong points at Omaha were near the entrance of the draws and commanding the one road down to the beach. While these defenses were not continuous, they were so sited that lateral fire could overlap. There was thought to be one heavy battery at Pointe du Hoc, of six 155‑mm. howitzers mounted in casemates.

Beyond these crust defenses of the beach area, the German plan seemed to be to rely on minefields and local reserves in counterattack. Inland from the cliff edge there seemed to be no positions of consequence, according to Major Hursh.

This, then, was Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" — formidable enough to sailormen to contemplate. But the two army officers seemed confident that the heavy Allied air attack to be laid on before dawn of D‑day would neutralize this thin biting edge. It should be starting in a few hours.

As far as available German Naval forces went, rumor rather than precise intelligence was rampant. The best good uses that could be made put destroyers at five, torpedo boats at eleven.

The most treacherous enemy naval force, however, from the point of view of the lightly armed Mulberry craft and slow-moving tows were the fifty E‑boats and fifty R‑boats known to be in this part of the Channel. These fast-moving small raiders with 20‑mm. and machine gun armament could sweep in on small groups with devastating effect and get away.

 p125  In the air, the whittled-down strength of the German Air Force was considered to be 1,500 planes, of which likely not more than 600 could be used for close support in the Neptune area.​1

Conversation about these matters consumed a large part of the night. The reunion with staff members from Plymouth had not before tonight afforded any chance to piece together the total picture.

When Lieutenant Rubel announced that the whole business was just a cover plan for some other major operation in the Mediterranean against the south coast of France, there was a noncommittal air of possibility in the way the group shrugged their shoulders or hopefully agreed.

The last of the flares had faded out and sleep automatically took over. After what seemed but a moment the alarm clocks set for 0400 let loose with a shattering sound.

With the first light of D‑day, the Mulberry staff gathered up helmets, side arms, and gas masks and struggled into duffel coats and heavy parkas. The dull roar of hundreds of Diesel engines in landing craft and escort ships now filled the air as the group proceeded by jeep and by car to Lee‑on‑Solent, where the two SC's had spent the night at anchor.

The barometer was rising and the wind remained fairly strong at about force three. The sky was covered by low overcast.

Several airmen from the air station near the Lee tower, still in flying gear, wandered over to the Lee operations room for a cup of American coffee.

Yes, they had been flying fighter escort with the bombers  p126 over the beaches in the pre‑dawn bombardment. No opposition in the area except a few stray Focke-Wulf's. Because of the thick cloud cover and overcast they saw nothing of the assault or the troops on the beach. But they kept repeating over and over again: "There never was such a bombing job. Nothing could live in it. You boys will find life easy for your show."

There was a good deal of back-pounding and wishes for good luck, and the staff piled into a duckw to get out to the two SC's.

As Captain Clark went aboard SC 1329 the boys aboard broke out code flag Mike Able smartly. With him were Lieutenant Colonel Staub, in charge of AA defense at Mulberry, and Lieutenant Commander Bassett, the New York Harbor tug artist who was to help in siting the blockships. Also over the side clambered Lieutenants Paige, Stover, Vandermay and Terkuhle. The latter two were for duty aboard as Mulberry communication officers.

The deputy commander embarked in SC 1352 with Maj. M. H. Hursh, USA, the AA defense officer for Gooseberry I at Utah; Lts. Macy Smith, J. S. Rubel, R. C. McCaughlin and Ens. A. Y. Wulfrat, the last two again for communications duty.

Aboard the SC's the captain's cabin had been gutted to make room for radio equipment. Nine battle circuits would have to be guarded, with two radiomen and an officer on heel-and‑toe watch.

The living and eating space for officers and men of the ship and the Mulberry staff were in the after compartment. The SC's had nearly double their designed number of personnel aboard.

 p127  While breakfast was being served the two SC's were rafted together. Immediately afterwards all hands gathered on the fantails of the two little ships. Captain Clark looked more gaunt than ever. He scorned a helmet and wore a commissioned officer's cap, but curiously had procured a cap minus the scrambled eggs on the visor his rank entitled him to. He had even gone to the pains of procuring a black, rather than a gold, chin strap for the visor — sanctioned by a new regulation but adopted so far as anyone knew by no other officer in the U. S. Navy.

He briefly announced that Lieutenant Freeburn would remain until the first Whale tows started over the next day so that he could watch over his precious objects and the little MTL's​2 on which he would have to rely so heavily for setting out the Whale anchors for the bridging.

Lieutenant Barton would sail with the convoy in his beloved MFV flagship "provided he could keep up to standard speed." There must be no stragglers.

There was no word in Captain Clark's brief talk of either confidence or appreciation. "Some of you," he said, "have made a bad mess out of your responsibilities. There is still a chance that in the days and nights of work ahead you can make a better showing."

The ships separated and the engines slowly throbbed up to speed as the two craft headed for assembly area No. 4 off St. Helen's Roads on the Isle of Wight.

There the horned boom vessels Minster and Fossbeck showed up clearly, with little H. M. S. Gulnare, a survey ship only thirty feet long with Commander Passmore, RN, calmly steering her himself into the rough harbor chop.

 p128  It was 1230 by the time the coasters and nine army ST tugs were lined up in two‑column formation. SC 1329 took the port forward position and SC 1352 the starboard, while H. M. S. Keppel, a destroyer, and two British motor torpedo boats completed the thin escort force.

As the SW Shingles buoy passed abeam at 1447, the sun broke through, and the water looked bright and dancing for the first time in days. The traffic rounding the Isle of Wight was so dense and the old coasters had so much trouble holding speed or understanding the American instructions bawled at them over the bull horns of the two SC's, that it was 1825 before the convoy made the entrance to Channel No. 6 off Selsey and turned south for the Far Shore.

From the flagship SC 1329 to SC 1352 now came a visual signal. Captain Clark had been counting his chicks, eyes glued to his binoculars. "You have one too many tugs," read the signal.

After frantic flashing of the signal lamp Lieutenant Barton's MFV was induced to draw alongside SC 1352 and Lieutenant Barton made his confession over the bull horn. "I painted the numbers out on her bow and put some new ones in place. The Army will never be able to figure out which tug it really is. These boys just wanted to come along."

This news was duly relayed to Captain Clark while Lieutenant Barton retreated into his wheelhouse and let his bulky MFV slowly slink to the rear position of the convoy. There was no commendation or appreciation of this neat bit of thievery from the flagship; merely a curt "Signal received."

As darkness descended the real risk of the night appeared. The swept channel was uncertain; the lighted buoys were  p129 small and infrequent with barely a glow to show where they were. Convoys of LST's and smaller landing craft, wandering off course, came careening suddenly out of the dark, steering collision courses across the bow of the SC. Frantic yelling over the bull horn and flashing with the signal lamp were required before the tangle could be straightened out. Wallowing heavy-laden coasters full of ammunition and blunt-bowed, lunging LST's were not ideal craft to pick on for collision purposes.

From time to time the sky slowly became alive with arcs of red tracer in one quarter or another. Then followed sudden white, red and orange flares bursting over the dark water. On the wings of the convoy off and on muffled rapid firing of machine guns and 20‑mm. guns could be heard. This seemed to indicate an E‑boat raid. Out ahead one could see the red arcs of tracer drifting through the sky.

It was impossible to locate where the action was or what type of vessel was engaged. The general feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty during the night received its biggest stimulation from the fact that from the SC's radio shack there came no news whatever, no battle reports, no dispatches. By now radiomen were thoroughly seasick, but as all the circuits kept pouring in the coded messages, they hammered their typewriters steadily, stopping only to bend over now and again to put another contribution in the wastebasket between their knees, pressed into duty as a bucket. The two Mulberry communication officers pored over the untranslatable code strips, smoking cigarette after cigarette with growing bewilderment and anxiety.

An exchange of visual signals to Captain Clark in SC 1329 confirmed the fact that the two SC's had been given  p130 code books appropriate to small escort vessels in the sealed bags at Portsmouth rather than the task force commander's codes.

The nine battle circuits kept up their busy messages through the night in the headphones of the faithful operators. The two typewriters kept rattling on, page after page of tantalizing but unreadable material. Not a single word of the gibberish could be translated.

One grim message came together in clear toward dawn. Suddenly an urgent voice spoke: "You do not need to wait for hospital-fitted LST's to evacuate your wounded. Use any landing craft." This was repeated twice. One other voice message had come through: "LCI 88 received direct hit in the bow."

There could be a complete debacle somewhere ahead. Mulberry could have been ordered back. Heavy minefields might have been encountered. No one in Task Force 128 could know. To be cut off from all communication left any possibility open. There seemed nothing to do, however, except continue to follow basic orders. About first light the last buoy set out by the minesweepers would be reached. Then the shore would at last be within sight. Other ships could be hailed. If anything had gone very wrong there would be evidence of it to be seen. Decision on any change in course of action could be made then. If a large-scale naval battle were to develop, of course that could be seen too. Word was passed to all lookouts and gunners to observe intently their area every second.

The Channel was still rough as the pre‑dawn glow began to show in the sky. Even at the reduced speed of six knots the little SC's were rolling, pitching wildly. The forward  p131 gun crew on the 40 mm. was soaked. Every now and then ice cold spray drenched the bridge.

Inevitably one thought of little Gulnare in these steep seas. Commander Hunter-Blair, RN, in H. M. S. Minster had looked after Gulnare with a special kindly interest in the assembly period and now during the night skillfully maneuvered his big ship to create a lee for Gulnare alongside him. By letting the SC drop back into the convoy, Minster with her two horned bows and tall single funnel was possible to locate even in the deep darkness. By finding Minster and working the signal lamp to her, Gulnare's safety could be checked, and the SC might work back up to the right flank lead of the convoy again. Commander Passmore was surviving. Each dangerous search among the wallowing coasters and plunging tugs was always rewarded with a prompt signal back from the little vessel.

Minster, almost in the center of the convoy, was also keeping an eye on the other cripples, which gathered naturally, it seemed, near her reassuring shadowy bulk. Lieutenant Barton in his slow moving MFV, which had to run at maximum speed to keep up, managed to hang on nearby. The small army tugs, swept fore and aft with each wave, found some comfort in watching the white of Minster's wake as the big, rounded stern lifted over the seas.

The flares and bursts of light came at frequent enough intervals to reveal floating debris. Once the watch thought they had picked up a surfaced submarine. It turned out to be a rudderless landing craft drifting in the channel. The SC swung just in time to miss another landing craft with engine breakdown, lying dark in the water. Each such derelict had to be watched till the whole convoy was safely past.  p132 Pathetic yells to be taken off had to be answered with nothing better than a message to keep cheerful — daylight would doubtless bring rescue craft to them. Firm orders forbade any of the convoys to stop for rescue.

Slowly and meticulously each buoy was checked off — E‑2, E‑3, finally J. The course had to be watched within a degree and careful calculation of the current made every hour. Once the vague narrow channel was missed it might be impossible to find again. The thought of wandering among the minefields, bound to be thick in this area, was not comforting.

Then, just as the operation orders described, the first series of small dan buoys with code flag Charley appeared suddenly in the water alongside. Slowly out of the dawn mist, about twelve miles distant in the early light, came the shadows that were land, the coast of France at last, the haunting specter of the Far Shore. Cliffs seen so many times in reconnaissance pictures slowly appeared as the transport area was reached. This actual sight of the shore upon which so many weeks and months of worry and speculation had focused was almost unbelievable and unreal.

The regular dull roar of big guns from the three old U. S. battle­ships, New York, Texas and Arkansas, split the quiet. The flame from the muzzles was now beginning to be visible. But there was suspiciously little evidence of full-scale battle. The scene was too peaceful. It corresponded with nothing the imagination had painted.

Finally, the buoys disappeared. They just weren't there. Proceeding at slow speed, the two SC's felt their way through the vast invasion fleet. That night there must have been nearly four thousand ships under way in the area. As far as the eye could reach from horizon to horizon they lay now.  p133 Some had engines stopped. Others were moving slowly in toward the shore.

H. M. S. Keppel steamed alongside. Her skipper professed ignorance of any exact location. He could give no helpful information. The beach, still four miles distant, seemed one long smear in the early dawn.

Peering intently at the shore through glasses, there was a sudden sickening worry. Landmarks hoped for did not appear. Finally a church steeple near one of the draws on Omaha, which had always seemed sure to be knocked off in the air bombardment, appeared and gave a positive location key.

The operation orders required SC 1352 as flagship of the deputy commander to go to Beach Utah, up the coast to the right from Omaha, to supervise and survey the site for Gooseberry I, while Captain Clark in SC 1329 remained at Omaha on the same mission.

More light and warmth and the lack of any shell splashes nearby overcame the gnawing worry and made it gradually an irrational hangover from the anxiety of the night. Conversation on the bridge of the SC 1352 took an optimistic turn as a round of hot coffee and sandwiches was passed to celebrate the landfall. Thoughts returned to the news of the confident airman at Lee‑on‑Solent. Perhaps the overwhelming air attack had indeed wiped out the tough beach defense in spite of the overcast. Perhaps that accounted for the strange calm in the area and lack of fire and smoke.

The little SC kept heading in, closing the beach as her skipper, Lieutenant Dieckerhoff, studied the water ahead through his glasses.

"I make it machine gun and small arms fire in that water  p134 ahead," he announced. It clearly was. The enemy must be holding the cliff edge at many points for small arms fire to reach out this far. Nor could the air bombardment of the previous day have been anything like the final obliteration all hands wished to believe.

Just then, a YMS minesweeper working nearby astern exploded a mine. With a swelling roar of thunder, a fountain of blackened water soared up hundreds of feet. At the edge, bits of splintered hull and thick spray came slowly tumbling down. The water round about heaved in a spasm. Then all was quiet where the YMS had been a moment before.

The gyro compass on the SC went out temporarily and the automatic sounding gear refused to function. Thoughts about the YMS being possibly one of Mulberry's old headquarters ships were interrupted by a terse signal from Captain Clark. "Execute your orders," the lamp spelled out. "Proceed at once."

But where was the swept channel to Utah?

With the vivid demonstration of what an exploding mine could do so freshly in mind, the hazards of finding a course blindly along the beach for the sixteen miles to Utah were very real. The compass was adrift and there was no means of receiving messages or even transmitting them except in clear. There was a moment's hesitation in Deputy Commander Mulberry's mind before Lieutenant Dieckerhoff was ordered to proceed at "standard speed, all engines ahead."

Captain Clark was having difficulties too. As a task force commander he had, of course, reported arrival of his force to the assault area commander, Admiral Hall. His repeated message, however, was ignored. Admiral Hall never acknowledged the presence of Task Force 128. Several of the ST  p135 tugs in his section of the Mulberry group were promptly commandeered by assault commanders to rescue landing craft. Before he could intervene, one ST tug was sunk in a salvage effort and another badly damaged.

The orphaning of Mulberry that characterized the planning and assembly period seemed to be destined to continue on even into the operational period.

But as usual in Mulberry history, there was an immediate job ahead to do. Continuing study of the shore through glasses from the bridge of the SC 1352 showed distinct white puffs of smoke from phosphorus shells landing ashore. This and the dull rattle of gunfire made it clear that the battle was still in progress.

Finally a limping LCI passed close enough for a voice hail, "How goes it?"

The parka-clad figure of her skipper appeared on the bridge. "Nobody knows," he roared back through a megaphone. "It's pretty hot in there."

From the holes in his vessel's superstructure it was clear the shore batteries had worked the ship over. Even with radio communication Force Mulberry staff would be little wiser.

It was easier now to turn to the job in hand. The data on soundings and molded depth of the blockships coming to Utah were brought up on deck. Lt. Macy Smith, as custodian of all the Plymouth operational plans, rehearsed his order of business — where the assault lanes would be, who was in charge of ferry craft, what signals would be flown, what colors would designate individual beach sectors.

A mile away on the port bow another big mine let go and a USN destroyer crumpled in half. It was strange that war  p136 could be so final; so sudden in its violence beneath an atmosphere of calm.

The steady pounding of the battle­ships' big guns kept their rhythm like huge drums.

The first blockships would arrive at 1200. It was necessary to survey the Utah site. The SC's compass had to be restarted and checked with an azimuth. One searching glance showed there were too many men in the water near the destroyer to make the small SC of much use as a rescue craft.

And there were orders.

The Author's Notes:

1 Estimates of naval and air strength given here are from Battle Summary #39, Admiralty.

[decorative delimiter]

2 Small army motor launches.

Thayer's Note:

a Slightly misleading: of the five landing beaches, Utah Beach was west of the Vire (and north), on the Cotentin peninsula.

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Page updated: 10 Feb 22