June 6, 1944. The first day of the Allied invasion of France, beginning soon after midnight, was later to be dubbed the “longest day.” American, British, Canadian, and French armies stormed the beaches of Normandy and parachuted behind enemy lines to clamp onto a region of France that would lead to the liberation of almost an entire continent.
The first day was tough and saw the loss of many lives. But, ultimately, by the end of June 6 the Allied forces were content with their initial victories of capturing most objectives and pushing the Germans further inland.
The pain and suffering of the men who landed in Normandy on that first day would have been in vain, however, if it wasn’t for the forward preparation of the Allied forces. To bite the 50 miles of heavily defended coastline was not enough: they had to hold it.
The Normandy coastline was severely lacking in ports sizeable enough to support the invasion of a country. In order to reinforce the iniital occupying Allied forces, temporary harbors needed to be established until a French port was captured.
The time taken to capture a usable port was correctly estimated at three months. The Belgian port town of Antwerp was captured on September 4, 1944 and opened for Allied business on November 28.
From east to west, the Normandy beaches run particularly flat and provide little in terms of natural harbors. During their research of the area, those in command of the Allied forces quickly understood how important it would be to create temporary “pop-up” harbors if the invasion was going to take place in Normandy.
Industrial preparations began in Britain from as early as 1943. The men and women working in factories were given a new set of tasks but had no idea what they were making or where the objects were destined to go. News revealing the reasons behind their hard work broke only after the first ships had set sail for the Normandy coast.
Winston Churchill worked tirelessly to make sure the best results were achieved. He knew that in order to be hauled across the English channel, the harbors had be made in manageable pieces, they had to be easy to put back together, and they had to float.
Breakwaters (code-named “Bombardons”), piers (“Whales”), pontoons (“Beetles”), and ship landing wharves (“Spud Piers”) were designed by top British and American minds and then signed off by Churchill. They would collectively become known as “Mulberry” harbors.
Reinforced concrete caissons (“Phoenixes”) were, perhaps, the most ingenious element of the harbors. Varying in size and weighing anything from 2,000 to 6,000 tons, these giant breakwaters were designed to be sunk and resurrected at a moment’s notice, hence the name.
After being manufactured, the Phoenixes were hauled down to the southern English coastal towns of Richborough and Pagham where they were sunk. They were then refloated and hauled across the Channel towards France on D-Day.
Kenneth Bungard of the Royal Navy rode atop one of these Phoenixes on June 6. Speaking in a documentary, Bungard described his experience that day. “There’s one thing I’ve never forgotten to this day…the sound of the waves banging against the side of the caissons. It was like a huge drum…boom, boom, boom.”
Although they departed on D-Day, they did not arrive until the following day. As they approached the coastline, Bungard remembered, they saw the occasional explosion as fighting continued in areas, as well as the devastation caused from the actions of the previous day.
“We noticed, as we came into Arromanches, the bodies in the water. That was not a nice sight.”
Kenneth Bungard was part of the big flotilla of pieces of the Mulberry “B” (British) harbor set for Arromanches which would be used by the British and Canadian forces. Slightly farther west was the village of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, part of Omaha Beach, which was the designated site of Mulberry “A” (American).
In Arromanches, some coastal buildings were systematically destroyed and the concrete sea walls engineered to accommodate the harbor.
By dawn on June 9, the first Phoenix was sunk. And by June 15, so had another 115 which completed the harbor’s breakwater barrier, arcing betweeen the villages of Asnelles and Tracy-sur-Mer, east to west respectively. Barrage balloons and anti-aircraft guns soon covered the harbor to protect the vital lifeline of the Allies.
On June 19, a storm ripped through the Normandy coastline, tearing apart the harbors. Mulberry “A” at Omaha was destroyed beyond repair. The harbor at Arromanches survived and continued to be used for another eight months. Renamed “Port Winston,” the harbor saw the landing of 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of supplies.
Due to the significant usage Port Winston was reinforced, and this remarkable feat of engineering is why it can still be seen today.