Week 48: Mulberry Harbour
After checking into our hotel in Arromanches-les-Bains, the sounds of the waves lured us down to the beach. It was nearing dusk, quite windy, and the tide was coming in, but there were a few stragglers left on the rapidly narrowing beach. Some walked their dogs, others played in shallow puddles of water or jogged up the stairs of the sea wall. A few people took advantage of the wind by flying kites or hang-gliding silently over our heads. We sat on the sea wall and watched the sun set. There was a beautifully peaceful and serene vibe.
In those moments, it was very hard to imagine what it must have been like on those fateful days in June, 1944, as the Allied forces launched 'Operation Overlord', the code name for the invasion of German occupied Western Europe during World War 2. Instead of kites and hang-gliders swooping overhead, there would have been 1,200 planes engaged in an airborne assault. Instead of a few joggers, families and dogs strolling leisurely, there would have been over 150,000 Canadian, American and British troops storming the beach. Engineers, naval and armed forces would be hard at work, installing pontoons and floating roadways from the beach to an artificial harbour further out at sea. Instead of playing in shallow puddles of water, the focus would shift to deeper waters, where more than 5,000 vessels were waiting for word to begin an amphibious assault on the beaches of Normandy.
Arromanches is one of two locations where artificial ports were built, to allow the Allied forces to unload supplies, troops, heavy equipment, and vehicles needed for the invasion to be successful. The massive floating concrete caissons, codenamed mulberries, were built by British workers who had no idea what they were making at the time, as everything was kept top-secret. The mulberries were towed across the English Channel and kept hidden until June 6th, 1944 (D-Day). They were then used to assemble, under enemy fire, the piers and walls of the artificial harbour.
Today, large remnants of the artificial harbour can be seen further out at sea, but the most striking impact is seen when the tide goes out. That is when some of the concrete blocks, partly submerged in sand, can be seen up close. We walked around many of these mammoth, sea-weed covered structures on another day when the tide was out. Erosion has created some portals, of various sizes, that allow one to see inside them. I even walked into the belly of the one that's featured in this painting! It certainly gave me a new perspective on the scale of operations required for one of the greatest military engineering feats of all time.
"...See these children laughing
And playing in the sea,
Dries yesterday's tears."
(This was the last part of a poem on display at the Musee du Debarquement in Arromanches, a place well worth visiting.)