Steve Lee - Big Story

Maritime Miracle | The epic WW2 story of the Mulberry Harbours

May 05, 2022 Steve Lee
Maritime Miracle | The epic WW2 story of the Mulberry Harbours
Steve Lee - Big Story

This is a story of how the most brilliant minds came together to solve a mammoth problem at a time when Europe was ravaged by war. An invasion force of 150,000 men had landed in Normandy on D-Day but now an even bigger challenge had to be faced by the Allies. This is the story of an operation called Mulberry. How do you ship food, medicine, equipment, machinery, vehicles and reinforcements to a vast army in the middle of a warzone without a harbour. The answer was summed up in one sentence “If we don’t have the ports then we will have to take them with us!” The story has echoes of those famous maritime miracles of the Bible that many of us have grown up with. Noah’s Ark at the time of the Great Flood and the parting of the Red Sea that allowed a persecuted nation to escape the clutches of a terrifying advancing army. 

Quite fitting then, that the British wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill described this particular moment in world history with these words from the Bible as God spoke to his people “Watch and be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something that you would not believe even if you were told.” To set the backcloth to this great drama, we need to go back to the morning of August 19th 1942 when a catastrophe was unfolding a couple of hours drive from here. The raid on the port of Dieppe was a disaster. The task force was incepted out at sea and in the sky the RAF was decimated with over 100 planes shot down.

And then, as the landing craft arrived on the beaches, the bodies of young men began piling up on the ramps. Of the 6,000 troops who left England for Operation Jubilee, two thirds would become casualties. An attack on a fully defended port would never be attempted again. The carnage at Dieppe left the military strategists with a huge logistical problem as they planned for the great Allied invasion onto the beaches of Normandy two years later on D-Day. It would prove to be the beginning of the end of a war that had plunged Europe into an abyss of oppression and fear.  This Arromanches, an unassuming French seaside town that is now synonymous with the story of Mulberry. A man-made harbour the size of Dover, arrived here in kit form and was then bolted together in a week and a half. It sounds like the stuff of adventure comics but it actually happened and the remains of it are out at sea and on the beach.

Looking at all the concrete you get a sense of the sheer scale of the task. All pretty incredible, especially when you consider that there was not one Mulberry Harbour but two. Mulberry A for the Americans on Omaha Beach and Mulberry B for the British and Canadians here at Gold Beach. Giant hollow concrete blocks, called Phoenix Caissons formed the outer wall of the two harbours. 200 ft long, 60 ft high, 60 ft wide and each weighing 6,000 tons, they were built in England, then hidden on the seabed away from prying eyes, refloated and towed to France in secrecy by an armada of tugs and then sunk for a second time on the seabed here in Normandy. Simple!  The Phoenixes enabled the other components of the DIY harbours to be assembled in calmer waters. They included huge pierheads that created a deep anchorage for the American Liberty ships and the mile long floating roadways that rose up and down with the tide. 

Several of those concrete monstrosities were built at Lepe Beach overlooking the Isle of Wight near Southampton. The remains of the vast construction site is still there today. This whole section of the beach at Lepe, became a cordoned off, top-secret inaccessible area because of what was going on here. Even the men who were billeted in the woods over there had no idea what these gigantic Lego bricks were that they were building, why they were building them or what they would eventually be used for. Nearly a million tons of concrete and 20,000 men were required to do the job. 150 Phoenix Caissons were complete and ready for Normandy inside 5 months. The use of concrete meant that precious steel could be used for other critical components. Many construction companies who had previously been competitors, joined forces for this great wartime emergency. 

Balfour Beatty who would later build the Channel Tunnel and the M25 motorway around London and Sir Robert McAlpine, builders of Wembley Stadium, the cathedral of English football, were just two of them. On the afternoon of D-Day, June 6th 1944, the ambitious plan swung into action as the 400 components of the Mulberry Harbours, weighing 1.5 million tons were taken to France. It would necessitate the largest towing operation in maritime history. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as the first ship docked at Mulberry Harbour A. LST 543 from Southampton was moored to the pierhead 10 days, 10 hours and 10 minutes after the first ramps were dropped from the landing craft on the same stretch of Omaha Beach heralding the start of the assault wave on D-Day.

Mulberry A was destroyed within days but became a vital source of spare parts for Mulberry B here at Arromanches that was also badly damaged in what was later described as the storm of the century. Mulberry B, nicknamed Port Winston, would see 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies pass over its floating roadways. The success of the Mulberry Harbours turned the tide of a war, re mapping the destiny of generations of people across Europe. In the pages of the Bible we find a picture of God wrestling with the vast problem of humanity’s self-inflicted exile and separation from him. A problem that still exists today leaving us devoid of hope and anchorless in the storms of life. When that problem is multiplied, it unravels societies and ends with nations rising up against each other. Jesus Christ is the answer to this terrible mess we all find ourselves in. 

When the son of God, died on the cross he solved the problem, settled the debt, disarmed the powers of evil and reconnected two divided sides. We are on one side and God is on the other. This great salvation plan of God has constructed a safe harbour for us to come into. A place where the inner storm is stilled and individual lives are restored. The men and the machinery that passed through the Mulberry Harbour here at Arromanches between June and December 1944 helped to restore peace to a war torn world. The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is our peace. A peace that is not overcome by the conflicts of this life. Receive that peace today by inviting Jesus Christ into your life.