Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

D-Day harbour masters

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.

Shaping history

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.

Historic contribution

Mulberry Harbour

Mulberry Harbour

Firms central to the job of designing and fabricating the steel and concrete pontoon structures included:

  • Sir Alexander Gibb & Ptrs
  • Sir Cyril Kirkpatrick
  • Maunsell
  • 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

Mulberry Harbour

Mulberry Harbour

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

 

Readers' comments (2)

  • Does anyone know how these platforms were engineered?? as is, how they resisted storms...were they tied to the ground with cables??

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Hi Sean,
    I'm currently researching Mulberry Harbours for an assignment for my Masters. The book you want to look at is 'Code Name Mulberry- The Planning, Building and Operation of the Normandy Harbours.' by Guy Hartcup, its fairly old as it was published in 1977, but has diagrams and drawing showing how the parts of the Harbours worked together, I got a copy out of my local Library.
    They were actually anchored at strategic points to remain in place, so in a way they were tied loosely to the ground, like a bath plug with extra cable for high tide, otherwise they would go under and be submerged, which would defeat the object.

    The other place to look, which I am sure will interest you further is a website: http://www.mulberryharbour.com/Second/second.html , which has animated drawings showing the structures flexibility in the tidal movements.
    In regard to the storm question, they were fairly robust however as you will read in the book I mentioned above, there was a fierce storm between 16th -20th June 1944, which cause a lot of damage to the Mulberry Harbours.

    I hope that has partly answered your questions.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.