Mulberries, Gooseberries, Pluto and Jerry Cans: Some thoughts on D-Day

RCN - Beach Commando W, Juno Beach

Tomorrow is the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.  At midnight on June 5, 1944, there were no Allied soldiers in Normandy. Twenty-four hours later, 150,000 British, American and Canadian soldiers had been landed from the air and by sea. It was a monumental feat.

To deliver ground forces across the English Channel the Allies amassed a flotilla of 2,500 ships, 3,000 landing craft, and a fleet 500 naval vessels to protect them. Amid utmost secrecy, five separate assault forces, one for each of the designated landing beaches, assembled in twelve different ports along the English coast. The mind boggles with the details, the decisions that had to be made, the plans that had to intermesh, the sheer numbers that had to be juggled.

It wasn’t enough to deliver thousands of soldiers to the beaches. They had to be fed, resupplied and reinforced or they would be pushed back into the sea. Everything they needed for the fight had to be brought ashore across the beaches, behind the assault troops, who would still be contesting the ground. And as the fighting units pushed inland, ammunition, reinforcements and food had to be delivered to them to sustain the attack, along with fuel, plenty of it—for the Allied army was a modern mechanized force. Initially their plan was to land gas on the beach in drums, decant it there into five gallon jerry cans, and rush it up to the units at the front. American forces alone needed fifteen million jerry cans for this purpose.

Consider the humble jerry can (or, as it was known in army speak, CAN, GASOLINE, MILITARY; STEEL; 5-GALLON) as an item of inventory, what we call an SKU today. The supply system necessary to support the Allied invasion included 700,000 separate SKUs.  Imagine the management challenges this posed, in the days before computers, barcodes, and digital databases. And in June, 1944, every single item had to be hauled across the beaches in a warzone.

By the night of June 11 (D+5), it was clear to the Allies that their initial assault was a success. By then, they had landed more than 325,000 troops, 54,000 vehicles and 100,000 tons of supplies. But continued success was not guaranteed. The fighting, only a few miles inland, was intense, and the Allies were paying dearly for every yard they gained. They had incurred thousands of casualties. Most worrisome, back on the beaches, the initial arrangements were falling apart; chaos and congestion reigned. On Omaha and Utah, the two American beachheads, only a third of the planned tonnage of ammunition and supplies had been landed by D+5. Supply, not battlefield prowess, was shaping up to be the decisive factor in the Battle of Normandy.

None of the D-Day planners had underestimated the challenges of landing an entire army and its supplies across open beaches. That had always been an interim solution until a port could be secured. “All I can say” one British naval officer concluded during the planning phase, “is if we can’t capture a port we must take one with us.” And that’s exactly what they decided to do.

They made preparations to build two artificial harbours—one off Omaha Beach in the US sector, one at Arromanches near the British beachhead. The breakwater for each ‘Mulberry’, as they were code-named, would enclose an area of two square miles, within which transport and troop ships could manoeuvre, berth and offload their cargoes onto a network of sheltered wharves and jetties, all of which had to float, rising and falling with the twenty foot tides on the Normandy coast. Ten miles of connecting roadways—also floating—would link the wharves to shore.

So went the theory. It looked good on the drawing-board. The problem was it had never been tried, and it would require a tremendous engineering and manufacturing effort; each Mulberry would require more than 600,000 tons of concrete, formed into individual concrete caissons code-named ‘Phoenixes’. Each Phoenix was to be two hundred feet long, fifty wide and sixty high. Placed end to end, they would be more than two miles long. They would need to be manufactured in England and towed across the channel to Normandy after the invasion. They would need to be hidden from the Germans during production and during the crossing to France.

In the autumn of 1943, the plan was still in the design phase. Concrete and steel reinforcement needed to be procured, dry docks made available, and skilled workers found—welders, scaffolders, carpenters. In January 1944—just five months before the invasion—work had barely begun. Initially, twenty thousand workers were mobilized, but progress was too slow, and 45,000 were eventually dedicated to the task at more than 400 civilian contractors. That in itself is remarkable, for in the middle of a war, and with all the other preparations underway for the invasion, this was far from the only priority. And no one except the planners knew what all this effort was for. As the caissons were completed they were sunk in rivers and estuaries to hide them from German spies and aerial surveillance. When it came time to refloat them, on the eve of the invasion, many were mired in mud and difficult to salvage. Some were lost.

The first Mulberry components were towed across to Normandy on D+1. Assembly was swift—there was no time to be lost, with men dying a few miles inland, and the narrow bridgehead at risk of imminent German counterattack. By D+12, all the Phoenixes were in place and both harbours were in use, although the floating piers were not quite finished. Gaps in the breakwater were filled by ‘Gooseberries’, ship hulks scuttled for this purpose. A floating outer breakwater, comprised of fabricated steel structures called Bombardons, was anchored outside the inner breakwater. All five landing beaches were also protected by Gooseberry breakwaters as well, to facilitate continued direct beach landings. These efforts were paying off:  landings continued across the beaches, and on the Mulberries, as they ramped up capacity. Sheltered within a Mulberry, an LST (Landing Ship Tank in military parlance) could off-load its entire cargo of 60 armoured vehicles in under 30 minutes; tanks rolled ashore under their own power and rumbled directly for the front. By June 16 (D+10), the Allies had landed 557,000 men, 81,000 vehicles, and 183,000 tons of supplies. They had built up a seven day supply of rations and gasoline, but more was offshore, unable yet to land. On the two American beaches, Omaha and Utah, only two-thirds of the expected vehicles and supplies had been landed. With the aid of the Omaha Mulberry, they were only 25 per cent behind on D+12. But on June 19 (D+13), disaster struck. A three day storm, the worst in 40 years, destroyed the Omaha Mulberry, and damaged the one at Arromanches. Omaha’s was deemed irreparable, and from then until mid-August, when the Port of Cherbourg was opened, American forces had to be supplied over the beaches. But the availability of the surviving Mulberry at Arromanches was a great boon to the Allied cause. Over ten months, 2.5 million men, a half million vehicles, and four million tons of supplies were landed at Port Winston, as the Arromanches Mulberry was called.

This is just one example of the Allies’ ingenuity and initiative in the face of necessity. There are many more. Consider Operation PLUTO, as in ‘Pipe-Lines Under The Ocean’. To deliver fuel to its fighting forces, the Allies planned, developed the technology for, and laid a three inch pipeline from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg. It was fed by a thousand mile network in England, built at night in utter secrecy, to transport gasoline from where it was landed and stored in the west of England to Southampton. The under-Channel pipeline itself was constructed of continuous thirty mile lengths of three-inch pipe, wound onto and laid from floating drums, each the weight of a destroyer. Such a project had never been attempted before. The technology did not exist when the project was dreamed up in 1942. The Cherbourg line had a capacity of 1 million gallons a day. As their armies fought up the French coast, the Allies laid a second line of similar capacity between Kent and the Pas de Calais. Then they extended both towards the front as it advanced towards Germany.

The German army was a superb military machine, every bit a match for the Allies on a unit-to-unit basis. The Allied soldiers fought bravely and tenaciously. The cost in human terms was great. The cost would have been much greater—indeed, the outcome uncertain—without the Allies’ clear superiority over the Germans in materiel and logistics. Once this advantage could be brought to bear, the outcome of the battle, and the war, was inevitable. Planning had to be meticulous, and execution was fraught with difficulty, but both proved successful. Combined with the grit of the fighting troops, the Allied logistical effort succeeded in liberating Normandy in just over two months. The war in Europe ended eleven months after the invasion began.

On the eve of D-Day General Dwight Eisenhower issued a statement to the troops. “Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force: You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you…I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.”

Those soldiers, sailors, and airmen delivered.  We must honour their achievement and remember what WE can achieve when we set our minds to a task and commit to achieving it.

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