The Mulberry port at Arromanches
Here we see an aerial shot of the British Mulberry port at Arromanches. The scale of the construction is shown by the size of the Liberty ships in the bottom-right of the picture.
The picture has six numbered features
1: The two long floating piers in the centre of the picture, each nearly three-quarters of a mile long
2: A shorter pier for barges (top right)
3: Main spud pier for coasters and medium sized ships (at the end of the piers in 1)
4: 'Gooseberry' blockship (bottom left)
5: 'Phoenix' concrete caissons making a break-water (some centre bottom, some bottom right)
6: Mooring for Liberty ships (bottom right, just above a line of 'Phoenix' break-waters.
Arromanches-les-Bains is the site of the famous Mulberry B Artificial Harbour and home to the D-Day Museum, better known as the Musée du Débarquement, Arromanches, which focuses on the astounding piece of engineering that still dominates the seascape today.
“Beetle” pontoons that used to support one of the floating roadways, now stacked up in front of the museum
There were two Mulberry Harbours. Mulberry A at Omaha Beach, didn’t last long. A violent storm on 19th – 21st June destroyed much of it and it had to be abandoned, leaving Mulberry B (aka Port Winston) to handle the lion’s share of supplies for the allied forces in Normandy.
D-Day Mulberry Harbours
Down through the ages the English Channel has saved Britain from invasion by enemy forces, as the great Spanish Armada found out to their cost in 1588. It looked so easy on the map, after all the Channel is but a few miles wide!
In the early days of World War II, this same watery barrier had deterred Hitler’s Nazi troops, isolating Britain and the British as the German army went on to conquer most of Western Europe.
By 1944 the fortunes of war had turned somewhat: following successes in North Africa and southern Europe, it was now the Allied troops who were planning a return to northwest Europe across this narrow stretch of water.
The challenge presented to the Allies however was significant as the Germans had used their years in France to turn all of the Channel ports into fortresses, so much so that there was no question of capturing them in an attack either from sea or air.
And yet the Allies needed harbours in order to land the hundreds of thousands of men and millions of tons of supplies that they would need if Operation Overlord, the code-name given to D-Day, was to succeed.
And so the seemingly ridiculous idea was mooted of using artificial harbours to land and support what was to be the world’s greatest invasion. Such was the scale of the operation that two harbours would be required, each the size of Dover itself.
The harbours, code-named ‘Mulberries’, would consist of 73 individual prefabricated concrete blocks which when assembled would make up the ports, breakwaters and pontoons where ships could tie-up and unload their precious cargoes. Floating ramps would be used as roadways to allow the lorries to be driven directly on to the beaches.
The component sections of the harbours would be built in ports throughout the UK and towed across the Channel for final assembly off the Normandy coast.
The most spectacular feature of the Mulberry project was the construction of the huge, hollow blocks of concrete or caissons. Before being flooded, they each weighed in at between 1,500 and 6,000 tonnes. The largest ones measured sixty by seventeen metres, and were the height of a five-storey building.
Mulberry harbour, Arromanches Normandy Landing, June 1944 © National Maritime Museum, London
A total of 40,000 workers were employed on this gigantic construction project which required the opening of special building sites at ports throughout the UK.
In the early hours of D-Day June 6th 1944, an invasion fleet of more than 1000 ships carrying 156,000 men headed towards the coast of Normandy, and the individual sections of the two Mulberry Harbours went with them.
Tugs towed the caissons and sections of concrete and steel pontoons which would make up the 7 miles of piers and jetties. After assembly one harbour would support the American sector opposite Omaha, the other the British and Canadian beaches, opposite Arromanches.
In the first six days of the invasion the Allies managed to land a third of a million men on French soil. However one of the most crucial logistical problems posed by sending a modern, fuel-guzzling army across the Channel was the supply of petrol.
Yet again those crazy planners had come up with an equally crazy idea! An undersea pipeline would carry fuel from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg.
The operation was codenamed PLUTO – nothing to do with the Disney cartoon character, but simply the initials for Pipe Line Under The Ocean. The undersea pipeline went into service in Cherbourg at the start of August 1944.
Eleven pipelines were laid across the Channel, and by April 1945 a total of 3100 tons of fuel was being delivered daily to keep pace with the Allied armies’ advance inland.
Mulberry harbour today, Arromanches
The Mulberry Harbours of Normandy
When the sea goes out in Arromanches-les-Bains, a small village on the coast of Normandy in northwestern France, the large concrete pontoons that lie half submerged in the salty waters expose themselves in their entirety. These concrete structures played a significant role in the history of Europe, facilitating the landing of thousands of Allied troops and their equipment on the beaches of Normandy during Operation Overlord.
Mulberry harbour ruins in Arromanches-les-Bains, Normandy, France. Photo: Shandarov Arkadii/Shutterstock.com
The Allied invasion of Normandy was a massive and daring operation that required the movement of over a million troops and tens of thousands of metric tons of military equipment, including weapons, ammunition, vehicles, tanks, as well as food, clothing and other supplies. Offloading that much equipment from ships onto the beaches required a harbour, but Hitler had already secured all important harbours along the Atlantic coast, building a wall of coastal fortresses stretching from Scandinavia to Spain. This wall of defense proved impossible to penetrate, as the failed invasion attempt at Dieppe on August 1942 showed. Following the failed raid, Vice-Admiral John Hughes-Hallett suggested that if a working port could not be captured on the French coast, then one should be taken across the Channel.
The idea of a temporary, floating harbour—called Mulberries—gained immediate support from Churchill. Churchill himself had floated such an idea back in 1915, but the concept was never explored. On 30 May 1942, Churchill issued a brief and brutally straight to the point memo, describing the requirements for the Mulberry harbour system. The memo read:
Piers for use on beaches: They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered.…Let me have the best solution worked out. Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.
The Mulberry artificial harbour off Arromanches in Normandy, September 1944.
The Mulberry harbour system consisted of many components. First, a series of breakwaters were created by first sailing old ships into place and scuttling them. Next, came several huge concrete caissons six-stories high, codenamed “Phoenix”, that were towed to Normandy and sunk into place to reinforce the scuttled ships. With a sturdy breakwater in place sheltering the shore, pontoon piers were floated and a flexible road was laid over them. Altogether, over 400 towed component parts were used to created two Mulberry harbours, each containing multiple piers, one at Omaha beach for use by the American invasion forces, and another at Arromanches, for use by the British and Canadian invasion forces. By mid-June the Mulberries were almost ready when a terrible storm, the worst to hit the Normandy coast in 40 years, destroyed the American harbour leaving the Mulberry harbor at Arromanches the only functional one. Over time the harbour came to be known as Port Winston, after Winston Churchill.
In the months following D-Day, Port Winston was used to land over 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of supplies, providing much needed reinforcements in France.
Even Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect who designed Germany’s defenses, praised the Mulberry harbor. After the war, Speer said:
To construct our defenses we had in two years used some 13 million cubic meters of concrete and 1½ million tons of steel. A fortnight after the Normandy Landings, this costly effort was brought to nothing because of an idea of simple genius. As we now know, the invasion force brought their own harbors, and built, at Arromanches and Omaha, on unprotected coast, the necessary landing ramps.
Remains of the Mulberry harbour are still visible today from the beaches at Arromanches. In addition, several “Phoenix” caissons sank while being towed and can be seen at places around the UK, such as in Thorpe Bay in Southend-on-Sea, at Pagham in West Sussex, and Portland Harbour in Dorset, to name a few.
One of the concrete caissons (Phoenixes) being towed to its assembly point.
A line of Phoenix caisson units, part of the 'Mulberry' artificial harbour at Arromanches, 12 June 1944.
Mulberry harbour ruins in Arromanches-les-Bains, Normandy, France. Photo: Archangel12/Flickr
Mulberry harbour ruins in Arromanches-les-Bains, Normandy, France. Photo: Paul Gagnon/Flickr
Mulberry harbour ruins in Arromanches-les-Bains, Normandy, France. Photo: David Incoll/Flickr
Match! See that bit of red through the trees? It’s a rare, very heavy, remnant from D-Day
Or, how the Noireau river got a little piece of the Mulberry Harbour for a bridge…
Les Bordeaux bridge, once part of the WW2 Mulberry harbour at Arromanches, now over the Noireau river. The border of Calvados and the Orne is in the middle of the Noireau.
First published June 2018
The Résistance in action
In June 1944 a few days after the Allies landed on Normandy’s beaches, a few members of the Résistance quietly met in the small village of Le Pont Grat, in enemy occupied Vallée de la Vere.
They heard the invasion of 6 June just 40 miles north and battles since, but liberation had still not reached them.
They were all leaders of Résistance groups formed by remarkable Henri Laforest, who had been arrested on 10 January that year, and tortured in Alencon by the Gestapo. Henri Laforest gave nothing away to the enemy and was transported to a concentration camp. He would die of TB five days after being liberated from Bergen Belsen.
Mission to destroy a bridge
The meeting in Le Pont Grat was to plan sabotage of enemy communication lines and transport links, as requested in secret messages from the Allies. They possessed very limited munitions but great determination. Julien Bégyn known as ‘Lapin’ (rabbit) was given the mission to destroy a road bridge over the Noireau river, at the hamlet of Les Bordeaux.
Near midnight on Thursday 29 June, Julien, his brother Bernard Bégyn, Roger Bidault and Louis Dautonnel (known as ‘mitron’ baker) met with Jules Dugué and Louis Hébert of Pont Erambourg. They were accompanied by members of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans Français (FTP): Michel Trévin, with a Spanish explosions expert known as ‘Begui’ and his comrade ‘Marcel’ who had links with the Hamel des Bots Maquis. They made their way to Les Bordeaux.
A soldier, a dog and great danger
A railway line from Caen ran alongside the bridge over a viaduct badly damaged by Allied bombing. It was still guarded by a single German soldier and his dog. As the group neared the bridge the dog (a German Shepherd) suddenly approached them… But one of the group whispered “Raus, Raus!” (get away! In German) and the dog trotted back to his master without barking or even signalling their presence.
The explosives expert worked quickly. Just a few minutes after their arrival a huge explosion echoed around the valley and the metal bridge was destroyed.
Notes ‘Lapin’ made about the mission, in a notebook carefully preserved by his daughter.
A new bridge with a remarkable history
During 1945, as Normandy began to patch itself up after the destruction of Occupation and Liberation, Les Bordeaux bridge was assessed for repair. The road was then a useful link between Caen and the south.
The span of the old bridge, just over 80ft, provided an unusual solution to British army engineers who sent word up to Arromanches. There Mulberry B harbour was being decommissioned. They sent for an iron ‘Whale’.
The whale requested was a section of floating roadway used to connect the Mulberry harbour to land, for disembarkation of cargo after the D-Day landings.
Engineers at work on the roadway leading to the Mulberry artificial harbour at Arromanches 14 June 1944
The idea of a floating harbour came from British prime minister Winston Churchill, who knew creating a harbour at sea was preferable to attempting to seize a well defended port. The disastrous experience of 1942’s Dieppe Raid showed the Allies just how badly wrong an attack on an occupied port could go. They could not make that mistake again.
Creating the floating harbours
Designed by British engineers, two gigantic portable harbours were built in 1943-44 in total secrecy by 50,000 workers across the British Isles. Each consisted of 600,000 tons of concrete with 33 jetties linked by nearly 16km of floating roadway. The harbour wall, about 9km long, was made up of 146 ‘caissons’, each weighing 6,000 tons. Each harbour would cover two square miles, around the size of the British Port of Dover. Landing ships and small cargo vessels could unload directly from within the harbour, while larger vessels would transfer their cargoes onto barges.
In use just days after D-Day
The harbours were towed across the Channel and ready for use less than a fortnight after D-Day. Mulberry A was set up for the Americans at Omaha beach, and Mulberry B (‘Port Winston’) at Arromanches for the British. A terrible storm from 19 June rendered Mulberry A unusable and it was used to strengthen Mulberry B. The harbour was decommissioned after six months.
The Whale bridge at Les Bordeaux across the Noireau river in Normandy
Uses were found for most parts of the deconstructed Mulberry Harbour by a resourceful army. Decommissioned ‘whales’ were used across France as temporary bridges. While some survive as memorials, just one is still in use as a bridge in Normandy Les Bordeaux.
The rare little bridge of Les Bordeaux
After half a century of use, Les Bordeaux whale bridge was looking a little worn. In the spring of 2002 the town of Saint-Denis-de-Méré, with the help of the Conseil Général du Calvados, paid to have it carefully restored. With due ceremony Les Bordeaux bridge was placed back across the Noireau on 5 June the same year.
photos of the old bridge and post restoration local village website heritage page
Little known, this piece of D-Day history is remembered in the local villages. As part of the D-Day 70 anniversary a reconstruction was made with the loan of old military vehicles from local history enthusiast Richard Duvalleroy.
View of Les Bordeaux whale bridge from the Viaduct
Today the bridge is still in use, its familiar whale shape not instantly obvious to drivers along the D256A. But if you stop, walk a few steps and look back, you can admire a rare survivor from one of the most significant moments in all our history.
The whale bridge of Les Bordeaux Restored whale bridge of Les Bordeaux
Sources and info
A whale section from Normandy is restored and on show at Duxford, UK
Enthusiast Christopher Long’s website with information on saving WW2 military bridges and similar whales
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On the beach at Arromanches
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Mulberry Harbour at ArromanchesView all photos
Considered one of the great engineering feats of World War II, Mulberry harbours were temporary mobile harbours developed during World War II for unloading troops, vehicles and supplies during the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.
This British invention was developed following lessons learned during the ill-fated Dieppe raid two years prior, where troops discovered that quickly capturing a well-defended port was impossible.
After the Allies successfully landed and established beachheads following the D-Day invasion of Normandy, two Mulberry harbours, previously constructed in secret at various sites across the UK, were taken in parts across the English Channel and reassembled off Omaha Beach and Gold Beach at Arromanches.
The Mulberry harbours were to be used until a French port could be captured. It was not until six months after D-Day that the port of Antwerp in Belgium was captured. The Mulberry harbour at Omaha Beach was abandoned after it was damaged in a storm in late June 1944 but the use of the harbour at Gold Beach continued at nearly full capacity for 10 months after the invasion. Over 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tonnes of supplies were carried across it before it was finally abandoned.
Along with the components of the mulberries, the harbours were protected from swell and waves by block ships deliberately sunk adjacent to the harbour. Today sections of the Mulberry harbour still remain with huge concrete blocks sitting on the sand, and more can be seen further out at sea.
Even before the disastrous Dieppe raid, Churchill had started casting around for alternative solutions to capturing a port to supply the ground forces. As early as May 30th 1942, some 3 months prior to Dieppe, he sent a now famous memo to Lord Louis Mountbatten about the construction of floating pierheads: "They must float up and down with tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution."
The Dieppe raid subsequently confirmed his remarkable intuition: if the ports needed for an invasion could not be captured, then they would have to be built.
The various components would be constructed in Britain, towed across the Channel and assembled off the Normandy coast.
The Mulberries comprised floating roadways and pierheads which went up and down with the tide.
In order to avoid rough seas, huge hollow concrete blocks and old hulks were sunk in order to form a breakwater.
The task of manufacturing all these components was undertaken by the British, whose war industry was already in overstretched. And yet in less than 9 months, the British had completed the work. Huge quantities of raw materials were used and tens of thousands of men were involved in this massive scheme.
Arromanches was liberated in the evening of June 6th and the very next day the first ships were scuttled. June 8th saw the submersion of the first Phoenix caissons and June 14th the unloading of the first cargoes. Totally operational by the beginning of July, the Mulberry Harbour in Arromanches was to prove its worth during Montgomery's large-scale offensive against Caen later that month. During its busiest week, more than 18,000 tonnes of goods were unloaded each day.
The remains of the artificial port can still be seen off Arromanches and several dozen PHOENIX caissons continue to provide a calm and sheltered stretch of water. A true feat of engineering, the port at Arromanches provided the key to victory in Europe.
Mullberry Harbours - the portable temporary harbours developed by the British in World War II were vital for the Allied invasion of Normandy. Gavin Greenwood explains
Spuds, Beetles, Whales and Gooseberries were all a vital part of the massive effort to invade France on June 6, 1944. They were code names for parts of the Mulberry Harbours, strategically vital temporary harbours made from floating sections of concrete.
Although the Allied command recognised that they could successfully land a large force on the Normandy beaches with little serious interference from the Luftwaffe or the German navy, concerns remained over reinforcing and resupplying the units ashore.
Until a major port (Cherbourg) was captured that was able to handle the huge amounts of cargo and reinforcements, there remained the problem of how to sustain the drive towards the German frontier.
18 months of planning had produced an elaborate and highly theoretical resupply model that was dependent on rigid loading plans and shipping schedules. The model overtook pragmatism with its complex charts and graphs, creating uncertainty and anxiety at the highest levels.
Mulberry elements in position off Normandy. Ack-ack or anti-aircraft guns can be seen. The floating concrete caissons making up the two harbours were equipped with guns, up to 12 tons of ammunition, and a crew of up to 12 men to pilot them over the channel
The British response, largely directed and driven by Churchill, was to construct two huge artificial harbours that could be built in sections and towed across the Channel for final assembly at the main Allied beachheads.
Codenamed 'Mulberry,' the harbours consisted of floating concrete sections (Phoenixes) that when joined together formed huge quays and cargo-handling platforms for the US and the British beaches.
Absorbing some 2 million tonnes of concrete and steel, the artificial harbours also contained a complex infrastructure of pier heads (Spuds or Lobnitz to the Americans), around 16 km of floating roadways (Whales) supported by pontoons (Beetles) enclosed within a 'lagoon' of specially constructed breakwaters (Bombardons) and 70 scuttled ships (Gooseberries). Rhino pontoon ferries and DUKW ('Duck') amphibious trucks would supplement the port
The Phoenixes were built on both the River Thames and River Clyde, the Beetle pontoons were assembled in Richborough, Kent, at Southsea, Marchwood and Southampton and the pier-heads and buffer ramps at Conwy in North Wales. Once completed, the floating sections were towed to assembly areas off Selsey in West Sussex and Dungeness in Kent until their final journey across the Channel.
The Mulberry plan attracted a number of sceptics, including many from the US Navy familiar with the amphibious war in the Pacific and the mechanics of the 'fleet train' supply system that carried men and material thousands of miles from the American West Coast, over coral reefs and on heavily defended beaches.
The destruction of the US Mulberry A in a major storm on 19-20 June showed this view to be largely correct as it forced the navy to beach landing craft and unload directly onto the sand. Efforts to follow the complicated landing schedules and loading sequences produced by countless hours of staff work also proved futile and were abandoned by the frontline troops as early as 8 June.
These factors, based in the improvisational skills and energy of soldiers in the field ensured enough ammunition, food and other essentials were readily available.
In many respects the Mulberries' main role was in offering assurance to the planners. The cost and effort that went into the harbours, the remains of which will serve as reminders of D-Day until the sea reduces them to the sand they were built of, gave confidence to most of the politicians and planners responsible for the invasion.