Monday, October 27, 2014

The Mulberry Harbor Of Arromanche

The Mulberry Harbor in Arromanche, also known as Gold Beach

We've all heard about the Allied forces landing on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Perhaps we've seen pictures or watched movies depicting what happened on that fateful date. Or if we're really lucky, we've visited the landing beaches themselves. My family and I had the opportunity to do so this past summer and it was a truly moving and unforgettable experience. As I stood on the flat and sweeping stretches of sand where so much blood had been shed I was struck by this very geography. With dramatic tides and long stretches of sand the beaches were more impressive than any picture could ever depict. I wondered about the soldiers, sailors and their equipment who stormed these beaches. What I hadn't thought about, or even known existed, were the intricately built harbors that had been built by the British to ease the beach landings. These structures were called "Mulberry Harbors".  While the actual origin of the concept for the Mulberry Harbors is disputed what is agreed upon is that these concrete and steel structures were engineering marvels that for six months, enabled the necessary men and equipment to be efficiently brought ashore and therefore power the Allied sweep across German occupied Europe.

Gold Beach and the Mulberry remnants today

The harbors were loosely based upon the World War I German strategy of using sunken ships as jetties. In the months leading up to the D-Day invasion British engineers experimented with various designs for the proposed harbors. The design was to include a series of caissons, or water containing structures, which would create  breakwaters, piers and interconnected roadways which would be used to move equipment from ships to the nearby shore. Not only would they have to hold up to the heavy weight of the tanks and other artillery that would cross their spans, they also had to withstand the heavy sea swells that were common along the Normandy coast. The caissons would be built in England then transported across the English Channel before being reassembled on the Normandy Beaches. It was an ambitious and forward thinking plan but three days after the Allied forces landed in Normandy, two sets of Mulberry Harbors were indeed constructed.

The first, located off of the American landing spot on Omaha Beach, was quickly destroyed by a fierce Atlantic storm. The second one, constructed of 600,000 tons of concrete spread over 33 jetties and spanning a total of ten miles of floating roadways, off the coast of Arromanche, or Gold Beach, withstood the storm. Over the next eight months more than 2.5 million troops, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies rolled ashore along this series of jetties and roadways.

Remnants of the "harbor" today
Today all that remains of this Mulberry Harbor is a series of sea worn concrete bunkers. At low tide they sit like old cast offs on top of the sand while at high tide they are all but invisible. When the tide is low you can walk amongst them, peering inside their hollow hulks and look at their pock marked exteriors. The day we visited was cool yet sunny and a surprisingly large number of brave soles were wading then swimming amongst them as the tide rolled in. If I hadn't seen pictures of what they had looked like, it would have been hard to imagine how they were used. A visit to the nearby Arromanches Cinema Circulaire and the D-Day Museum give you a better sense of the role these novel structures played in the war effort. At the D-Day Museum you can even see a film that provides a complete history of the Mulberry Harbors. Both are well worth the visit and provide a unique insight into an important part of history that many people (Americans at least) never learned about in history class.
If you go:

Arromanches Cinema Circulaire 
Arromanches, France
(33) 02 31 06 06 45
Open daily
5 Euro for adults, 4 Euro for children and seniors

D-Day Museum
Place du 6 Juin
14117 Arromanches
(33) 02 31 22 34 31
Open daily
7.90 Euro for adults, 5.80 for children and students
Reduced rates for military members

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