Mulberry, the Red Ball Express, (and family secrets)

Jun 28, 2024 | D-Day 80 Years On

(Top: ‘Port Winston’ Mulberry B)

The D Day landings are rightly remembered for the unflinching bravery of the 150,000 men who took part. But I suggest they should also be remembered as examples of superb organization and logistics, and brilliant, innovative technology. Here are two examples, one British, one American.

Mulberry

One of the most difficult problems facing the D Day planners was how to support the huge invasion force that would be landing in France, dependent entirely on supplies delivered by ship across the stormy English Channel, when all the ports and harbors were in enemy hands. A major part of the solution was to construct high-volume floating harbors at the D Day beaches, code-named Mulberry. Two Mulberries were constructed; one was destroyed by fierce storms before it was completed, 13 days after D Day. The surviving Mulberry was completed in 21 days.

These harbors were constructed in sections in secret in England in 1943 and early 1944. Some pieces were even hidden by sinking them and then refloating them when the invasion began. Altogether there were over 400 pieces weighing 1.5 million tons that were towed across the storm-tossed Channel by an armada of tugboats at an average speed of 2 knots.

Major components included:

  • Floating ‘Bombardon’ breakwaters made of massive 200-foot-long air-filled canvas bags anchored outside the harbors as the first defense against the Channel’s waves
  • 61 old ships called ‘Corncobs’ that were towed across the Channel and sunk into position as an inner breakwater called a ‘Gooseberry’
  • Over 200 enormous floating concrete caissons known as ‘Phoenixes.’ A few of these still survive off Gold Beach. (These were constructed and then sunk off the south coast of England to hide them until needed.)
  • ‘Spud’ pier heads which were floating docks attached to anchored legs. The docks then rose and fell with the tide, sliding up and down the legs. (The tides rose and fell approximately 9 feet.)
  • Floating roadways from the Spuds to the beach made of 80-foot-long ‘Whale’ bridges on top of floating ‘Beetle’ pontoons.

The surviving Mulberry B off Gold Beach became known as ‘Port Winston,’ named for Churchill, and was used by 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of supplies and equipment over the 9 months it was in operation.

Port Winston October 1944
A Gooseberry line
Phoenix with anti-aircraft guns.
A 2.5-ton truck on a Whale. A Spud is visible beyond, with Phoenixes and a Gooseberry just visible beyond the Spuds.

The Red Ball Express

It was one thing to deliver supplies to the Normandy beaches, but another thing entirely to deliver them to the front lines.

Allied bombing and Résistance sabotage had been so successful that the French railroad network, previously one of the best in the world, had been almost completely destroyed. As a result, the Germans had to move all military supplies by road, and heavy equipment—particularly Panzer tanks—could move only with great difficulty.

Of course, once the Allies were established in Normandy and pushing the Germans back, the same was true in reverse: the Allied armies could move nothing by rail. After capturing Cherbourg no other ports were captured until Antwerp late in 1944.

The challenge was vast: the Allies deployed 28 divisions each of which consumed 750 tons of supplies every day, equating to approximately 100 lbs. per man per day.

The solution was a remarkable convoy system known as the Red Ball Express involving reserved military-only one-way roads, northbound and southbound, following the Allied armies as they fought their way north, designed and implemented by Colonel Loren Ayers.

The primary vehicles were 6×6 2½ ton ‘deuce-and-a-half’ GMC ‘Jimmy’ trucks, and Dodge 4×4 and 6×6 1½ ton Beeps. No less than 6,000 trucks drove every day, moving up to 12,000 tons of supplies. Almost all the truck crews were African Americans.

Military Policeman directing Red Ball traffic
6×6 Deuce-and-a-half
Dodge 6×6 Beep
The Wehrmacht alternative, France 1944
As the Allies advanced, the supply lines became longer. Transporting gasoline was particularly inefficient because, by the time of the Battle of the Bulge in December in the Belgian Ardennes, it took five gallons of truck fuel to carry one gallon of fuel to the tanks on the front line. But without the Red Ball Express the Allied invasion would have ground to a halt.

(In evaluating the military lessons of World War II it is important to note that the Germans, who were always short of oil but had plenty of hay, relied on horsedrawn transportation. My fictional protagonist Eleanor in my Breaking Point novels believes that if the Germans had invested less in advanced military equipment and more in trucks, the outcome of the war—in their invasion of Russia in 1941, for example—could have been quite different. A well-armored, fast-moving, heavily-gunned panzer tank waiting for a horse and cart to bring it ammunition is not a military asset.)

The Red Ball Express inspired Eisenhower to champion the Interstate highway system when he became president in the 1950s.

Family Secrets

My grandfathers setting the world to rights

My grandfather worked for the Board of Trade, a British government department that dates back to 1622. (I cannot fail to note that the board was set up by James I’s Privy Council in 1622 as a temporary advisory committee on foreign trade policy with the instruction to its members to complete its work ‘as fast as the several points shall be duly considered by you.’ Such are the ways of government that a mere 404 years later the Board is still hard at work!)

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Board was responsible for regulating ports and overseas commerce. My grandfather was a marine architect specializing in the design of ports and dockyards. He retired in 1938 but volunteered back to work when war broke out in 1939 and continued until 1946. His work was secret, and he never discussed it with any specificity, but he was almost certainly involved in the design and construction of Mulberry.

Family lore states that for weeks prior to D Day he refused to go to bed, trying to stay awake for fear of talking in his sleep. He knew where and when D Day would take place and feared he would reveal the details to my grandmother in his sleep, and she might subsequently be kidnapped and tortured by enemy spies, so that the plans for D Day would be discovered and therefore the Allies might lose the war.

Fortunately, as it turned out, she was never abducted, and therefore the Allies won after all.

I have previously dedicated my D Day blogs to the men who fought on that day but let us also remember and acknowledge those who like my grandfather served according to their skills and abilities.

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