This week the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy will be celebrated. Antony Oliver pays tribute to the designers of the Mulberry Harbour, whose ingenuity and dedication ultimately changed the course of history.
Sir Winston Churchill sent a now famous memo from his office in 10 Downing Street to the chief of combined forces Lord Mountbatten on 30 May 1942.
“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.”
This short instruction set in train a mammoth engineering design, logistics and fabrication operation that would, in just over two years, change the course of the war and shape the history of the 20th century.
The task of acting on this instruction fell to Brigadier Bruce White, then an ambitious and inventive staff captain − later a director − in the War Office with responsibility for ports and harbours for the Royal Engineers.
Prior to this White had been involved in the design and construction of two crucial military harbours in Scotland which had enabled ships fleeing the occupied French and Belgium coastlines to reach British shores in relative safety.
This experience, and the teams that were formed in the process, stood White in good stead for the floating harbour challenge that would follow under the codename Mulberry.
Challenge is the right word as although some preparatory work was carried out directly after Churchill’s memo was sent, the actual design did not start until October 1943. This followed Allied agreement to an invasion of Europe − operation Overlord − which was originally planned for May 1944. The eventual invasion date was delayed until 6 June.
Eight months of hard work
What followed was eight months of hard work by a huge team of engineers from consulting firms across the UK, many of which are now household names.
The scale and complexity of the engineering achievement in designing a harbour system capable of landing hundreds of thousands of troops, their equipment and supplies, to maintain an invasion force will probably never be matched.
On 6 June this monumental achievement will be remembered with a series of ceremonies centred around the French beach town of Arromanche which was harbour complex in 1944.
D-Day veterans will gather, perhaps for a last major celebration, and will be joined by military officials and world politicians, including, it is rumoured, US President Barack Obama.
The scale and complexity of the engineering achievement in designing a harbour system capable of landing hundreds of thousands of troops will probably never be matched.
The world has much to thank these veterans for. Working under extreme war-time conditions, with material shortages, a tight budget and limited staff and labour, the project required input from the offices of many consulting engineers to design and detail and fabricate the necessary pontoons, bridging systems, breakwaters and anchors.
The whole harbour, including 470 huge concrete caissons and 200 steel pontoons, had to be prefabricated on the British mainland and towed across the Channel ready for rapid installation on the beaches as soon as the invasion force had landed. Operationally it had to be ready in two weeks and originally it was intended to remain in position for 90 days − although this period was to be long extended eventually. More than 550 firms from across the UK were involved in the pre-fabrication of the harbour’s pontoons and roadway.
Firms central to the job of designing and fabricating the steel and concrete pontoon structures included:
- Sir Alexander Gibb & Ptrs
- Sir Cyril Kirkpatrick
- Oscar Faber
- LG Mouchel & Ptrs
- Rendel, Palmer & Tritton
- WT Halcrow & Son
- Wolfe-Barry Robert White & Ptrs
Actual design of the pontoon roadway and anchor system fell to Allan Beckett, then a major in the Royal Engineers working at the Railway Training Centre. His brief was to create a floating roadway made from 80ft by 10ft sections that could carry military equipment including 40-tonne tanks while moving with the tides and resisting storm waves.
Beckett, a sailing enthusiast, drew on all his engineering and nautical experience and ingenuity to design, test and oversee construction of the bridge decking system − known as Whale − to outperform all other options under consideration.
The key to success
Key to their success was their ability to cope with the twisting movements caused by the sea. Beckett’s unique spherical bearing designs coupled with his equally innovative anchor design made this possible and enabled the 3/4 mile long roadway − 120 spans in total − to survive the toughest storm conditions.
His achievement and contribution to the invasion’s success will be recognised by the Mayor of Arromanche this week with the unveiling of a permanent memorial, complete with a replica of his revolutionary anchor. This is situated in the newly renamed Espace Beckett and will be at the core of celebrations this week (NCE 25 April).
Beckett went on to form consultant Beckett Rankine, with whom he remained a consultant until his death, aged 91, in 2005. His son Tim Beckett, now a director of the firm, and his family, will lead the celebrations on Sunday.
The Normandy Veteran Association’s special commemorative service is to be supported by consultant Aecom, now owner of Maunsell and Oscar Faber, which both played critical roles in the Mulberry projects.
Mulberry Harbour: the complete story
The complete story of the Mulberry Harbour design and construction was recorded in NCE’s special issue to mark the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
A copy of this issue, along with Sir Bruce White’s first hand account of the period and many other historical documents can be found at NCE’s website www.nce.co.uk/dday