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D-Day's Gooseberry Fleet

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The architects of the D-Day landings in 1944 knew they had to have a harbour at which to unload the massive quantities of supplies needed to support the invasion. Ports such as Calais, Boulogne, Dunkirk, and Le Havre were all heavily defended by Germans and might well be obliterated and made useless in any attempt to seize them. The solution was to build an improvised port at the landing beaches of Normandy by sinking ships to provide a breakwater against foul weather.

The artificial Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches, Normandy.

The artificial Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches, Normandy.

The Dieppe Disaster

The need for a build-your-own port was made clear after an engagement in Dieppe.

In August 1942, Allied forces, mostly Canadian, attempted a raid on the French port of Dieppe. It was a test to see if a port could be taken by amphibious landing. The infantry in landing craft was supported by naval bombardment and many squadrons of aircraft.

It was a complete disaster. Those soldiers that made it onto the shingle beach were pinned down by fire from gun batteries on cliffs overlooking the landing area. It was a bloodbath.

A government of Canada report details the cost “Of the 4,963 Canadians who embarked for the operation, only 2,210 returned to England, and many of these were wounded. There were 3,367 casualties, including 1,946 prisoners of war; 916 Canadians lost their lives.”

Almost no objectives were reached. After the calamity, the generals and politicians tried to put a positive spin on the event, saying they had learned a lot.

The Mulberry Harbour Idea

One of the lessons was that taking an existing harbour with a frontal assault was next to impossible. Seeing the debacle of the Dieppe raid, Royal Navy Commodore John Hughes-Hallett commented “Well, if we can’t capture a port, we will have to take one with us.”

So, the brains planning the invasion tackled the engineering challenges of building artificial harbours that could be constructed in Britain in sections and towed across the English Channel for assembly at the landing beaches. One was to support the America forces at Omaha Beach, the other was to be used at Gold Beach by British and other units. They were called Mulberry harbours.

The History Learning Site describes the structures: “Each of the two artificial harbours was made up of about six miles of flexible steel roadways that floated on steel or concrete pontoons. The roadways were code named 'Whales' and the pontoons 'Beetles.' The ‘Whales’ ended at giant pier heads that had ‘legs’ that rested on the seabed.”

But, structures such as these would be susceptible to the gales and storms that frequently thunder along the English Channel; they had to be protected from these tempests. Sunken ships would do the trick.

The sunken Gooseberry ships.

The sunken Gooseberry ships.

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The Gooseberry Fleet Is Assembled

The Royal Navy needed to get its hands on the ships to be scuttled. Ports and harbours were scoured for suitable vessels. Eventually, 59 ships were commandeered and made ready for their final voyage. Four rusty and decommissioned warships joined 55 old freighters, roughly half of them American, to form what was code named the Gooseberry Fleet.

With the penchant for code names, the rusting hulks were called “corncobs.” They were stripped of anything that could be used elsewhere and that was not necessary to complete their last passage. Holes were cut through their watertight bulkheads to make it easier to sink them and the hulls were wired for the explosive charges that would get the job done. They were loaded with just enough coal to fuel their journey to the French coast.

The captains and crews of the merchant vessels were still in charge of their ships but they had no clue as to the nature of the mission for which they were being prepared.

The Gooseberry Fleet's Last Voyage

A week before D-Day, the Gooseberry Fleet was assembled at Oban on the west coat of Scotland. The crew of the corncobs were issued with Royal Navy uniforms; this was to give them protection should they be captured by Germans. In uniform, they were entitled to be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. If in civilian clothing, they could be summarily shot.

Obviously, the men figured out they would be heading into a war zone, but they still didn't know any details; these they received on or about June 3, when they took up station in the Bristol Channel. Each captain was given an envelope marked top secret that revealed they were headed for the beaches of Normandy where their ships would be sunk to create a breakwater.

The convoy set off at a plodding pace of five knots, rounded Land's End, and anchored in Poole Bay the day before D-Day. Within hours of the landings, the Gooseberry Fleet left Poole Harbour for the final crossing of the English Channel. As they approached the beaches, each of the vessels fanned out according to their assignments. Tugs were used to nudge the old vessels into place to be scuttled so their superstructures would be about two metres above the water line at high tide.

At three beaches, Utah, Juno, and Sword, the corncobs were sunk to provide shelter for landing craft. At Omaha and Gold, their job was to act as breakwaters protecting the two Mulberry harbours.

On June 19, a fierce storm swept down the English Channel from the northeast. It lasted three days and damaged Mulberry A at Omaha Beach beyond repair. Mulberry B, although battered, survived the tempest. Over the following 10 months, Mulberry B was used to land four million tons of goods, half a million vehicles, and 2.5 million men.

Eventually, the Allies captured ports so Mulberry B was no longer needed. It's bones can still be seen off the Normandy coast.

The Gooseberry blockships do their work. Rough to seaward and calm sea inside.

The Gooseberry blockships do their work. Rough to seaward and calm sea inside.

Bonus Factoid

The officer in charge of procuring and assembling and sinking the Gooseberry Fleet was Lieutenant-Commander J.E.S.R. Taylor, RNR—my father.

Sources

  • “The 1942 Dieppe Raid.” Government of Canada, February 14, 2019.
  • “The Dieppe Raid.” Julian Thompson, BBC, March 3, 2011.
    “The Mulberry Harbour.” C. N. Trueman,
  • “The Mulberry Harbour.” C. N. Trueman, historylearningsite.co.uk, April 21, 2015.
  • “Gooseberry Blockship Breakwater – WWII.” worldwar2headquarters.com, undated.
  • “Winston Churchill's Secret D-Day Weapon.” Alan Davidge, warfarehistorynetwork.com, undated.
  • “Jack and the Gooseberry Fleet.” Jane Roberts, All Hands Magazine, December 2021.
  • “The Last Passage.” J. E. Taylor, G. Allen & Unwin, 1946.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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