For 70 years they have rested there, the pieces of the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanche. Now, just a part of the beachscape; on June 6, 1944, still component parts and floating in the Channel as part of a massive naval incursion.
Arromanche-les-Bains was at the west part of Gold Beach, the second of the two English beaches – the other being Sword Beach at the other side of Juno. The overnight air attack had been largely successful with a few exceptions, but the beach and shore were still populated by submerged defenses and mines. This is what the 50th Northumberland faced upon landing.
Gold Beach spanned the coast from La Rivière by Juno to Port-en-Bessin at Omaha. The landing sectors were How, Item, Jig and King. The main assault would occur on the eastern three – Item, Jig and King. How Sector served a different purpose; it contained Arromanche, a natural port. It was to be kept from damage as much as possible.
In 1942, the disastrous attack on Dieppe, in which some 3,500 Canadians died tragically due ineptitude in planning the attack, taught the Allies one major lesson: capturing a port, let alone a deep water harbour, in Hitler’s Atlantic Wall was not going to happen easily. That was when the idea of the Mulberry Harbours was born.
The key to the success of the Normandy Landings was establishing a port through which men, munitions and supplies could be sent into Europe. Constructed in England over the next two years as part of wartime manufacturing, the harbours were a massive undertaking, involving floating roads and piers, the sinking of old ships and hollow concrete constructs just off the coast of Normandy to create a breakwater, and ingenuity. When completed, the floating harbours, one at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer (Omaha Beach), the other at Arromanche, would facilitate an incredible push into Hitler’s Europe.
To accomplish this, the landings had to succeed and Arromanche was protected from the air and naval barrages to help the engineers in their work. The 50th Northumberland, made up of the the Devonshire, Hampshire, Dorsetshire, and East Yorkshire regiments, were to get to the Caen-Bayeux highway, take Arromanches, link up with the Americans coming in at Omaha Beach at Port-en-Bessin, and with the Canadians from Juno Beach to the east. They were also to take the Longues-sur-Mer battery from the rear which was causing untold damage.
Despite the fact that high waters and opposition on shore hampered the demolitions experts in their attempts to clear the underwater mines, British casualties were relatively light and with the help of Hobart’s Funnies, armoured vehicles designed to accomplish any number of functions from flame thrower, through clearing minefields to creating bridges, by 10:00 La Rivière had been taken and the Canadians were met shortly after.
Due to an error in judgement by the German commander, who pulled his troupes away from the area having fallen for a ruse, casualties of the day were light. By mid-afternoon, Le Hamel had been taken and the battery at Longues had been destroyed in a duel with HMS Ajax. By evening, some 25,000 British servicemen had landed, with only 400 fallen. Although Bayeux remained in German hands and they had been unable to hook up with the Americans, the day was largely a success. Most importantly, however, Arromanche was secure and work on the Mulberry Harbour could begin.
There were two of them, floated across the Channel in stealth and silence through the night. Mulberry A was to be built at Vierville-Saint-Laurent, Omaha Beach. Mulberry B would be constructed at Arromanche. Mulberry A was subject to heavy fire when it was being put into position and the tugs that were supposed to help had to withdraw early. Luckily, two of the boats brought to be submerged to form the breakwater were actually sunk in approximately the correct position.
What the Germans couldn’t stop, the weather tried to. High water and choppy seas posed problems, but by eight days after D-Day, 1.2km of floating roadway and the stores piers had been completed and were operational. Mistakes were made in the assembly that would later prove costly, but men and stores were now able to be taken ashore.
Then, on June 19, the worst weather in 40 years hit. Because of the mistakes made in assembling Mulberry A, it was damaged beyond repair in the storm; however, the methodical work of the British Engineers meant that Mulberry B could still be used. Parts were scavenged from Mulberry A and it was soon properly operational again. Over the next five months, 2,000,000 men, half a million vehicles, and 4,000,000 tonnes of supplies passed into Europe over Mulberry B.
The following year, the war ended. 70 years later, the components of the Mulberry Harbours still rest in the waters off Normandy. A part of the beachscape, three (and soon a fourth) generations have been born and grown up with them – free because of them and the men who landed and fought on June 6, 1944.
Today is the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings. At this hour, 6:30am, 70 years ago, the landing craft were being deployed from Sword Beach at Oustreham to Utah Beach at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula.
My eyes fill with tears as I think of it – our whirlwind trip made it so much more real. We in North America were protected from it for the most part. Our men and women served, our countries observed wartime restrictions, but we really didn’t have to live with the war. Not the way the people in England and Europe did. We don’t remember the same way either. For us, it tends to be old news, photos in history books. In England and in Normandy, there are daily reminders. They lived it and live it still in ways that we can only try to imagine. Everywhere we went, when people found out we were Canadian, expressions of gratitude – tears, a gentleness in the voice – all betrayed how very deeply they feel to this day.
We helped free them from tyranny. They will never forget.