The ‘Great Gale’ wrecks the Mulberry harbours

The American Mulberry harbour at Saint Laurent sur Mer only began operation on the 17th.
The American Mulberry harbour at Saint Laurent sur Mer only began operation on the 17th.
The storm which hit the Channel from 19th -21st June was of unprecedented strength for the time of year.
The storm which hit the Channel from 19th-21st June was of unprecedented strength for the time of year.

In building their ‘Atlantic Wall’ the Germans had anticipated that any landing on the continent of Europe would have to quickly capture a port. Only a full sized port could sustain the level of supplies that an invasion force needed. So naturally the most concentrated Atlantic wall defences had been built around the ports of northern France and Belgium.

The Allies had neatly side stepped this problem by taking the ‘Mulberry harbours’ with them. Two ports, one in the American sector and one in the British, were brought across the Channel. The fully functioning ports, capable of berthing large supply ships and providing direct road access along piers to the beaches, had been established on the 17th June. Then disaster struck on the 19th.

The unprecedented Great Gale of 19th-21st June nearly wrecked this advantage. The American Mulberry ‘A’ was damaged so badly that it never operated fully again. Bits of it were used to repair the less badly damaged British Mulberry B. It was to become critical to the Allied success in Normandy. The nearest port, Cherbourg, was not captured until the end of the month, and had been so badly sabotaged that it provided little support during the Normandy campaign.

War Correspondent W. F. Hartin was caught on a boat in mid Channel on the 19th:

For two nights, as vessels dragged their anchors, plunged into one another with a sickening grinding sound and were swept by 8-ft. waves, the situation to us who were in the midst of this fury seemed touch and go. We were in mid-Channel when the full force of the north-east wind, meeting the tide, piled up a mountainous beam sea. I was in one of the Navy’s motor-launches, a sturdy patrol vessel used to most hazards of these treacherous waters.

Suddenly, three times in succession, we were nearly capsized. As every man clung to the nearest hand-hold, the water hissed along the deck, burying the starboard half in boiling foam. We looked at teach other without attempting to speak, because the same thought was in all our minds – “This is the end. She is not going to right herself.” Each time the vessel swung back crazily to port it was if she were bracing herself for the final plunge, when she would roll over completely to starboard.

Then the captain, Lieut. G. S. Parsons, R.N.V.R., saw his chance, snapped out an order to put the helm hard over, and the little ship bravely dug into the sea head-on. She shivered as she hit one wave after another, but we were comparatively safe. The story of the next 12 hours is one of relentless fight, zig-zagging across these seas, when each turn might have been fatal.

Hour after hour we tried to edge nearer our part of the French coast. and after 12 hours’ passage we managed to get an anchorage in the lee of some big ships miles from where we were scheduled to arrive. We soon realized our troubles had barely begun. In the eerie twilight of this, the shortest night of the year, we could hear above the hiss of the waves and the shrieking wind the yet more ominous sound of ships grinding together.

Landing craft out of control pounded against us. Our anchors dragged, and we lost one. We, too, were drifting, and before we could tackle the situation the ship was flung heavily on a sandy bottom and pounded by a terrifying surf. In another second we would have been rolled over, a plaything of the storm, but just in time we managed to get our engines going and headed for deeper water. The appalling sight of the beach in the dreary grey of the morning told its own tale of craft that had piled together and been ground to matchwood. Feverish salvage work was going on all round, and most remarkable of all, when we reached our appointed anchorage next afternoon, the laborious process of keeping the Army supplied had not been brought to a standstill.

Still, angry seas were flinging the small craft up and down the sides of the big ships from which they were taking cargoes in slings. It was a feat of seamanship to get these small fellows alongside without getting them smashed. It was another to get them loaded, and yet another to get the cargoes ashore. But despite the combined heroism of thousands of men, the supplies came ashore all too slowly. The tonnage landed that day was small.

It was decided that the next day – whether the weather abated or not – our giant landing ships would go in “taking all risks”, and land direct on to the storm-swept and wreck-cluttered beaches. It was realized that this would probably mean a dead loss of these ships, for it was doubtful if they could ever be refloated in a seaworthy condition after the pounding they would receive.

Fortunately, the wind died down after 3½ days, and on Thursday morning our whole invasion coast lay lapped in a glassy sea. Unloading went on apace, though not all the damage could be put right at once. The serious aspect was the 3½ days’ delay in passing cargoes to France. It took several days of intense activity to make good the depleted dumps ashore. A north-easterly gale of such ferocity – it blew in 70 m.p.h. gusts – is not recalled within the memory of the most experienced Channel pilots, and blowing, as it did, straight into the Baie de la Seine, it piled up such a sea that all calculations of tides were confounded.

This account first appeared in The War Illustrated, July 21, 1944.

An aerial view of the storm damaged American  Mulberry  'A'.
An aerial view of the storm damaged American Mulberry ‘A’.

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