D-Day Secret of Mulberry revealed in the Archives

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Filed under Library News:  Archives & Research Collections Mills

Allied preparations for D-Day were a race against timeThe story of how the pre-fabricated harbours used for the invasion of Europe were planned and built is a testament to the greatest engineering feat of its time and a best kept secret. After the Dieppe Raid of August 19, 1942, Western Allies knew that an amphibious landing was necessary.  A vital part of the solution was the construction of artificial harbours code-named “MULBERRY” which made the allied landings in France possible in June 1944.

Winston Churchill personally authorized the scheme.  On May 30, 1942 Churchill issued a directive to Admiral Mountbatten: PIERS FOR USE ON BEACHES. “They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution worked out. Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.” Investigations were started in deep secrecy looking at various ways to construct such a moveable harbour.  Two harbours would be built – MULBERRY A, for the American-led  landing on what became known as Omaha Beach, and MULBERRY B, for the British and Canadian landing at Arromanches.  Each harbour would be the size of Dover harbor.

Acquired by the Library in 1976, the Mulberry Harbours collection which spans to over 1 metre and dates from 1942-1947, consists of classified documents from the British War Office, drawings, blueprints, laboratory reports,  correspondence and over 700 official photographs with security classifications, censor stamps and War Office identification numbers on the verso. The provenance of the collection is that of Colonel V.C. Steer-Webster, a Royal Engineer who played a leading role in the invention, design, development and trials of all the Mulberry equipment and commanded the War Office branch during the Second World War. It also includes the typescripts and proofs of Mulberry: The Return To Triumph (1965), written by Michael Harrison, with proofs corrected by Lord Mountbatten. Harrison had used the Steer-Webster papers to write his book before the archives came to McMaster Library.  Of note is an original signed document with the caption “Most Secret” prepared by Hugh Lorys Hughes and dated 10 August, 1943.  It bears testimony to a Welsh engineer’s contribution to one of the greatest Allied successes of World War II . His description of “Piers For Flat Beaches” is accompanied by drawings and photographs of his concept for the harbours. 

The presence of a proto-type model in cardboard comprising 88 pieces, used by Colonel Steer-Webster in describing the construction of MULBERRY to President Roosevelt and two wooden models of a Phoenix Caisson and Kite anchor lend a visual edge to the technical data. The archive covers the progress of the Mulberry from inception to completion:  the towing across the Channel, to construction and operation on the Normandy coast which began on the morning of June 6, 1944.

Additional information can be found at http://pw20c.mcmaster.ca/case-study/difficulties-will-argue-themselves-mulberry-harbours-and-d-day-landings

written by Renu Barrett

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