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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

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 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p137  Chapter IX

"Believed to be H. M. S. Minster."

"Funnel newly sunken vessel sighted 1550 Bearing 130 degrees true from Isles St. Marcouf two point five miles distant. NOIC Utah and CG have no information. . . . Believed to be H. M. S. Minster."

— RT Priority Dispatch from D/CTF 128 to CTF 128, 8 June 1945/Baker

In pre‑invasion thoughts about the Utah site for Gooseberry I, the low sandy beach with flat marshland was always imagined as overhung by a pall of smoke while the roar of armor and confusion of battle re‑echoed out to sea. The particular area might well be hard to find on the morning of D + 1. The Isles de Saint Marcouf, lying a mile offshore at the extreme northern right flank of the Utah invasion area, were thought of as the landmark that would show up clear of the turmoil of battle.

Now the little islands did appear, true to the chart, and  p138 clear. In the sunlight streaming through the broken clouds of forenoon the distant beach was visible, too. It seemed strangely unlike the edge of a great amphibious struggle, however. At a distance of five miles little action could be seen.

The weather was fast turning gentle. The wind had dropped now to force one. It blew softly. Suddenly one noticed it was warm enough to discard fur parkas. The principal action on the beach that could be seen through the glasses was a milling group of brown soldiers clustered around vehicles in front of the low dunes. Seemingly they were without purpose, certainly not in combat.

A signal was made to Admiral Moon, USN, assault area commander, and to U. S. S. LCI (L) 95 in which NOIC Utah, Captain Arnold, USN, was embarked. By then it was noon, and after the SC had run a trial line of soundings close in. Lieutenant Mathews, who had gone ashore with the assault wave on D‑day, came out from the shore in his small survey craft. He tied up alongside and scrambled up to the bridge of the SC.

His report was that the beach and the anchorage were hot. Mobile enemy 88's, which air reconnaissance had failed to locate, and small arms fire from strong points not yet taken made life uncertain there. He reported that many of the airborne glider troops had landed in the swamp behind the beach, where most of them had been picked off. Some of them had even been betrayed by the Norman peasants. Others had landed far back of their planned area near Ste. Mère Eglise. The D‑day air bombardment had missed the beach and fallen inland because of the cloud cover. Thousands of tons of bombs had fallen harmlessly a mile or more from  p139 the beach defenses. U. S. forces as yet did not hold the entire area and the site of Gooseberry I had been shifted to the left, away from the touchy north flank.

As a matter of fact, on a trip to find Colonel Caffeya of the First Engineer Special Brigade, Lieutenant Mathews had been pinned down flat on his belly on the beach most of the morning. But he had been able to set the two buoys to mark the line for the blockships. This line ran in the correct depth of water according to plan.

Just then a casual glance shoreward revealed that group of soldiers on the beach had been lining up in formation between the two dunes to march inland to their assembly area. Amidst them suddenly there was a puff of smoke and a low shower of sand. It was too far away to see if many had been hit. As the dust settled, the scattered soldiers quietly re‑formed and continued their work until they disappeared between the dunes.

The Deputy Commander of Mulberry embarked with the obviously weary and shaken Lieutenant Mathews, and gave orders to the SC to go back to the channel off Omaha to find the first section of blockships, now due and reporting by voice radio. The blockships would need escort to the Gooseberry I site.

Offshore at Utah the bombardment force of British cruisers had been joined by the U. S. S. Texas. Her big guns now pulsed through the air at about one‑minute intervals.

At 1400 the SC 1352 hove back in sight, her bow wave curling bright in the clear light. She looked incredibly small against the trail of rusty, ancient blockships strung out behind her.

After conference with NOIC Utah, it was agreed to anchor  p140 the blockships in the outer area for the night, since bringing them into position would draw fire from the 88's. If a hit was scored on the blockships, there was the risk that the scuttling charges would explode and the ships be sunk out of position.

Commander Dennen appeared on the S. S. Wason as CO of the section, pointing with pride to a dinghy in the davits which he had found in Oban and which he felt would do as a jolly boat for him. There was much frozen beef in the refrigerators, he also reported, which, after careful calculation, he figured would be above the high water line after the Wason had been sunk.

From the bridge of the SC Mulberry officers watched two minesweepers still at their work. Every now and then a mine would blow, adding a majestic, towering fountain of spray to the smooth, otherwise unmarked sea. The sweepers were lucky and as the spray slowly subsided each time, their gray hulls could be seen still intact and maintaining constant course and speed.

Major Hursh, unable to diagnose the action through glasses, took the survey boat ashore with Lt. Macy Smith to contact army friends and get, as he said, some idea of who was winning the war.

In the SC's crew living space aft, organization details were completed for removing the merchant seamen from the blockships come the next day. There was a slight tangle as to who was to sink the blockships. Commander Dennen assumed he was, but Deputy Commander Mulberry felt Lieutenant Olsen, though junior, was more able. It was settled that Commander Dennen was to sink the first ship. Lieutenant Olsen to handle the tugs. The survey by Lieutenant  p141 Mathews showed strong currents inshore that ran directly toward the beach. The maximum strength was over four knots. It was going to be a difficult maneuver. There were only two operational tugs available for the next day. Lieutenant Olsen would have his hands full to hold a sinking ship broadside to that much current.

At 2000 there was an air raid alert and one of the merchant ship's gun crews in the anchorage started firing. The next ship quickly took up the battle until each ship soon was firing all ten of its 20‑mm. guns and the big five-inch 38 aft. In a matter of seconds the whole sky was aflame with bursting AA and arcs of red tracer. No plane could be heard or seen. The hurtling metal from the guns of the thousands of ships and landing craft in the area fell in constant splashes alongside. The wild din did not die down until after 0200.

Off and on through the rest of the brief night new waves of firing would start up, touched off by some nervous gunner in a moment of tension.

In the midst of one of the lulls in this hail of fire, Lt. Macy Smith and Major Hursh returned from their expedition to the beach.

They confirmed Lieutenant Mathews' first report that the airborne troops had landed scattered from each other and their objectives, further adding that the area behind the beach except for one road had been flooded by the Germans. The lodgement was shallow — he had been himself to a forward command post. The army plan was to move straight inland swiftly, ignoring the exposed northern flank. It could not be said safely that anyone was winning. Supplies, vehicles and armor were far below planned strength. All hands turned in for three hours' sleep.

 p142  At Omaha, during this first day (D + 1), Captain Clark with Commander Passmore in Gulnare laid out the sites for the first six ships in Gooseberry II in the morning and marked the line with dan buoys. By noon, the first section of blockships arrived.

Captain Clark threw some consternation into his staff by boarding the first blockship and relieving Lieutenant Hoague. Lieutenant Commander Bassett, Captain Clark announced, would sink the ship under his supervision. Lieutenant Hoague, who had followed every detail of the blockship fitting out with such meticulous care and who had surmounted all obstacles so well, was thunderstruck. Lieutenant Commander Bassett was probably the most skilled ship and tug handler that could have been found anywhere. But, nonetheless, it was a tough decision for Lieutenant Hoague to swallow.

The merchant captain refused to participate and the crew was evacuated, whereupon Lieutenant Commander Bassett, great master with tugs that he was, sank the first blockship neatly and accurately. Lieutenant Hoague, admiring his skill, cheerfully joined him.

During the afternoon between 1500 and 2030, three ships were sunk — the James Iredell, the Baialoide and the Galveston. There had been little interruption from shore artillery fire until the last ship in this group was sunk. Then shore batteries reached out and bracketed the ship.

The Phoenix sinking teams which had been brought over by Commander Hunter-Blair in H. M. S. Minster unfortunately had just been transferred to billets in the blockships to be ready for the arrival of the first Phoenix tows, due in the  p143 morning. Casualties due to shrapnel and shell fragments from this bombardment were inevitable.

Captain Clark was on board the SC 1329 when the shelling commenced. He had been conferring with Lieutenant Freeburn, who had come out to report a possible two‑day delay in beginning the Whale installation due to the need to remove mines and beach obstacles.

The SC 1329 was well offshore as the shells started hitting the blockships. Captain Clark ordered the SC to close with the blockships at once, regardless of risk. The CB personnel would have to be evacuated.

As the SC moved in, the cruisers, battle­ships and transports started to move out of the area. The young captain of the 1329, Lieutenant Stackpoole, did not question the order but took the ship in with four bells and a jingle. The wounded were removed; then the rest of the personnel were put on board and the SC again moved out for the night.

Back at Utah the early dawn of Thursday gave indications of a fine day. The haze started melting at 0600 and the noise of the night was over. Only the steady firing from the bombarding ships broke the quiet. Finally through glasses Major Hursh decided a heavy action was developing on the northern flank. Flashes of gunfire from tanks could now be seen in the clearing day and there was a low continuous roar, barely audible, that might be a German tank counterattack forming. The naval bombardment stepped up its cadence.

Since word had reached Deputy Commander Mulberry that Captain Clark's people had already sunk three blockships the day before, it was obvious that no further postponement of operations at Utah was possible, regardless of beach conditions and shellfire. The SC 1352 got under way  p144 with the George S. Wason. Immediately steam appeared at her anchor windlass engine at the bow, she was bracketed by two shell splashes. Another shell burst on her foredeck. Out of the sky dead ahead came a plane, zooming down at high speed.

Evidently the area was under close and near enemy observation.

The naval gunners, overnervous the neither before, seemed paralyzed now at the approach of an actual dive bomber. Not a single ship fired.

Finally from shore AA batteries two dark puffs of smoke bloomed in the blue of the sky, and suddenly with a flash of orange flame, a twirling mass fell staggering out of the sky, streaming a thin trail of black smoke behind it.

Thirty minutes later, with Commander Dennen on the blockship and Lieutenant Olsen in one of the army tugs, the Wason was in position in line with Lieutenant Mathews' two buoys. The scuttling charges were fired and the Wason careened slightly, then started to settle parallel to the beach. At this point the current caught the half-submerged hull, and the only two available tugs could not hold her. She drifted 500 feet sideways into shallow water and came to rest.

At 0945 the next ship, Matt W. Ransom, approached the site. After jockeying in the tide for over an hour with continuing harassing fire from enemy 88's, at 1110 she was at last in position near the Wason. Her charges were blown.

This time the line from the stern of the Wason to the bow of the Ransom parted, and she drifted 1,100 feet south of the Wason, instead of tight astern, before she finally fetched on the bottom.

 p145  The planned design of the harbor Gooseberry I was now thoroughly scrambled beyond all recognition. It was nobody's immediate fault. In one case there were not enough tugs; in the other the only available wire hawser had parted. Nonetheless, Deputy Commander Mulberry relieved Commander Dennen and placed Lieutenant Olsen in charge of the entire operation.

The H. M. S. Minster had been hovering near, undoubtedly with Commander Hunter-Blair observing the Gooseberry troubles through glasses. She now made a signal indicating that she was ready to lay Jantzen buoys and moorings for landing craft. The SC 1352 drew alongside and Minster, Commander Hunter-Blair thinking to cheer up the long faces on the 1352, issued an invitation to morning pink gin.

In the familiar leather-cushioned wardroom, the memory of the debacle of the first siting yielded slowly to warm British hospitality and stories of the early days of the war in net and boom defense. Officers and men in Minster had been together through most of the war, almost without change in personnel. Their friendly cordiality included careful avoidance of any advice on maneuvering the blockships. This, combined with the small glasses that were constantly refilled, created a much needed air of relaxation.

Completely apart from the surface conversations, the idea for an entirely new plan at Gooseberry I was taking form. Two smaller harbors might be made, designed around each of the two ships that had been sunk out of place.

At 1245 Mulberry staff left Minster's gangway to board the SC and get under way to meet the incoming Section II of the blockships, reported now to be nearing Omaha.

The bright warmth of the afternoon provided a few  p146 hours' nap on deck in the sun and filled in slightly the now long hours of sleepless tension. The trip to Omaha passed without incident except for the explosion of an ammunition coaster, caught by an unswept mine.

While picking up the blockship convoy off Omaha, in an exchange of signals with Captain Clark, the staff on SC 1352 learned that three Phoenix units had actually come just before midnight, eight hours ahead of schedule. Tug control at Lee was doing its job and the men on Selsey.

So far on D + 2 five more of the Omaha blockships had been sunk and three Phoenix for the western arm breakwater were sited. One Phoenix had been reported sunk off Selsey Bill by enemy action.

There was no way of telling how things were going with the Army on Omaha Beach itself. No extensive activity could be observed there except blurred swarms of men and vehicles on the shingle, obviously waiting for landing craft to bring in the rest of their components.

SC 1352 turned back toward the seemingly less civilized area of Utah with her blockships in line astern and arrived there at 1600.

Passing in to site the Benjamin Conte the SC's quartermaster pointed to a sunken ship to starboard. A bare two feet of funnel just showed, quietly awash in the waves from the SC's wake. On the gray funnel was a white square and the letter "A," the funnel markings of a Force Mulberry ship. It could be H. M. S. Minster. A sudden remembrance of her comfortable wardroom, with its black leather settee and the hearty laughter and good fellow­ship with which Force Mulberry staff had left her people only a few hours ago, came to the minds of the men on the SC's bridge. The first notion  p147 of the really treacherous, sudden fortunes of war slowly started to be born.

With the SC's engines stopped, it was unbelievable that this single funnel with ripples generally breaking against it was all that was left of so big a ship, so many people.

Signals to NOIC, to the Coast Guard rescue flotilla, to neighboring tugs and Commander Dennen on the sunken blockship Wason all brought forth the same sea epitaph — none of the hundreds of pairs of eyes scanning the area had seen Minster go. They did not know where she was.

But floating up from where her stern would lie, there were some dark objects. They could be floats, still attached to the moorings she had intended to lay, still probably on her afterdeck under water. There were no rafts, no bodies.

Signals from Lieutenant Olsen, now on the blockship Conte, indicated he wished to proceed. The insistent urgency of the war precluded further thought about Minster.

The blockship Conte was falling under considerable shellfire. Lieutenant Olsen was madly signaling that the tugs were about to desert and that the Conte was in position for sinking. After a quick check from the SC on the blockship's position the Conte's charges were fired. The two tugs, signaling that they were being dragged into shoal water, dropped their lines before she settled and made off clear of the area of fire. This time luck turned, and the final resting point of the ship did not put her out of line.

There was short time to worry about this, for a signal from the control ship of the assault area requested Deputy CTF to furnish tugs to beach four ammunition barges. Two had gone adrift and their position was uncertain.

 p148  It would be midnight before the tide was high enough to get the barges in close to shore. So after conference with the beach master and the Army, and more signaling to the control ship, the Mulberry men convinced all hands that LCM's would be better for the job. Eight of these were finally rounded up by the Mulberry staff in the SC just as darkness was closing in and the tide making full high.

Again an air raid alert, and again the fantastic roar of metal rushed into the sky barely a minute after the first ship started firing. The hot jagged fragments of falling flak were not the best type of treatment for the exposed ammunition stacked up on the barges. However, luck held and the ammunition escaped detonation. Just after midnight the SC secured for the night with all of the barges safely beached.

Exhaustion so dimmed the human brain that not only was the rising and falling roar of noise obliterated but, now that there was time to think about it, no one remembered the gray funnel of the Minster and how the waves lapped against it. Daybreak would be at hand again in three short hours.

Thayer's Note:

a Eugene Mead Caffey (December 1, 1895 – May 30, 1961), eventually served as Judge Advocate General of the Army and retired with the rank of Major General.

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