Thursday, June 19, 2014

D-Day+13: Silk Road

Seventy years ago today, the wind is picking up. Hitler weather is coming, the worst spring storm in the Channel in more than sixty years, one last chance to "gather together to greet the storm." The world could hardly be more perverse.


But we will win. The storm will pass.

The story of the fiasco of the first V-1 salvo is not in Michael Neufeld's Rocket and the Reich. What is, is a horror story. The Germans are good people, their academy as good as any other. And yet there came a day when, in squalid underground factories, good German Weltburgherrn found themselves the masters of slaves, and behaving like masters of slaves, not only to the slaves, but to each other. It was a moral degradation that came not because ballistic missiles had even the remotest hope of "saving the Fatherland," already past saving by anything short of unconditional surrender but because the state had given them a chance to make rockets. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, when they are given a chance to make rockets again, and do so, the ones that get to the Moon and back are made by well-paid, free labour. 

This is not, however, a meditation on the V-2, but, rather, its proper rival. The technologically utopianism of the Third Reich is a proper counterpoint to the totalising inhumanity of its genocidal vision. So what do we say about the fruit of the mulberry tree?

(Here's some Mulberry tow footage on Youtube.)

Conventionally, we start here:

I haven't found a better version of this photograph of the Lobnitz pierhead. (Actually, three, with a ramp built on them, as see below.) If you are looking at a third of this picture, you are looking at 1500 tons of steel, 200 feet long, 60 feet wide, and, per Ruppenthal, 10 feet high at the deck. It is intended to take a 4800GRT LST(1) docking, or, rather, ramming its buffer pontoon, at 3 knots and unload it on two levels in less than an hour. It is  designed to float, since otherwise it could hardly be towed across the Channel. In operation, it gets a little more complicated, since the whole thing is suspended on four ratcheting spud legs that can, but are not intended to, take the whole weight. Below decks is the motor that will lift and lower the entire assembly with the tides. 

I do not, however, want to start there. I want to start here. 

This is HMS Eagle, in a photograph from the late 1940s or early 1950s, from the personal collection of David Hobbs. Now, it is the habit of the Royal Navy to gesture in the direction of some other navy, emphasise how it is being outbuilt by this vastly larger navy, and notice that this is fairly clearly evidence of British national decline, a decline that reflects on every individual Briton.

Just an observation, mind you. It is not as though anything needs to be done about it or anything. 

It will be observed, then, that the United States is well on its way to building 32(24) Essex-class aircraft carriers (27,000t), 6(3) Midway-class aircraft carriers (45,000t), 9 Independence-class aircraft carriers (11,000t) and two Saipan-class aircraft carriers (14,500t). That is 1.262 (965,000t) million tons of aircraft carrier. Did we say that the clear implication is that the average British male was a homosexual sex pervert? Because only the French think that. Although....Anyway, it's just an observation.

Somehow, by some process that even we're not clear on (certainly it came to us at the Admiralty as a complete surprise), by the spring of 1944, Britain was building, or projected to build 4 Malta-class aircraft carriers (47,600t), 3 Audacious-class aircraft carriers (36,800), 8 Centaur-class light aircraft carriers (22,000t), 6 Majestic-class aircraft carriers (15,700t) and 10 Colossus-class (13,600t). That is 707,000t of carrier. Technically, if you were some kind of Communistic Independent Labour pacifist, you might insist on throwing the 6 war-time "I" fleet carriers and Unicorn on the scale,or the balance of pre-war American and British construction, and come up with a British-American comparison, at some distant date in the late 1940s that was crawling very close to parity --especially if the Maltas kept growing. (One design study has them up to 60,000t!) 

Why does one start a discussion of the Mulberry artificial harbours with these statistics? Because the end of the war brought the cancellation of virtually the whole of this enormous aircraft carrier construction spree. Looking back, we assume that this is the natural thing to have happened, and, to be fair, it probably was. 

But the first cancellations and delays, the ones most likely to have actually cost the Royal Navy some ships, happened in the first months of 1944, and were a direct consequence of shortages of labour and steel due to the Mulberry project. This is not something you will learn from the literature on the Mulberries, such as it is. From Michael Harrison, Gary Hartcrup and Albert Stanford  you will learn of A. Dayton Clark's relentlessly driving nature to his subordinates, and boring and morose behaviour around his superiors; you will learn that Brigadier Sir Harold Wernher, in charge of "coordinating" the Mulberries, disliked Sir Bruce White so intensely that he suggested that White was conducting a publicity campaign: "Operation Bruce White." You will learn that most people thought that Commander Lochner's* BOMBARDONS were instruments of the Devil, thrust on the project by the Admiralty for no better reason than its desire to be involved, and that the British were so dilatory and incompetent that there would have been no hope of completing the Mulberries on time without a strategic admixture of American "can do it" spirit. You will learn that the Mulberries might not have been needed, but certainly did not involve any fatal diversion of British industrial resources, requiring "only" 50,000 tons of steel and 60,000 workers at peak. (The BOMBARDONS took up an additional 25,000 tons of steel, but as most of this was American steel, it is, for some reason, all right.) 

You learn, in short, that while the British and American participants in the project might have treated each other as viciously as the German rocket scientists, had a totalitarian regime enabled them, the one thing that the Mulberries did not do was cost Britain anything substantial. Bear in mind here that with six Lobnitz pierheads, exclusive of the aprons and ramps, each Mulberry absorbed 9000 tons of shipbuilding-grade steel for the unloading areas alone.

As I say, you have to go to Roland Ruppenthal's Logistical Support of the Armies for that. It is kind of one of the lost facts of D-Day, and when you look at the Lobnitz pierhead above, it is hard to doubt. Bear in mind, by the way, that there were six of them, plus an LST berth at each harbour,  consisting of three of the regular pierheads with a ramp built on them. As you might guess, the picture at the head is actually of an LST pierhead, although identified as a regular Lobnitz pierhead.  

The number  of pierheads was limited by the number of WHALE roadways, consisting of floating, telescopic bridging elements emerging from the Everall standard railway bridging unit design family, of welding-grade steel, although only partly welded, as, again, see below. Each of the 80ft prefabricated sections is to be mounted on concrete float. WHALES are delivered in 40t and 20t sections, the former capable of taking a Churchill tank under its own power, the latter a 10 ton truck with trailer. Because of losses under tow, some sections of the WHALE causeways will be completed with Bailey Bridge sections. 

Technically, the steel-made, strange, innovative elements, the pierheads, BOMBARDONS and WHALES are the most interesting aspect of the project, but the largest and most spectacular, and most obviously useful of the purpose-built equipments are the PHOENIX reinforced-concrete caissons of which the port breakwaters are assembled. 

PHOENIXES are built by a host of contractors, some in drydocks, some in the London docks, in specially drained basins, some in improvised holes in the ground. The contractors, sometimes lacking experience in this kind of work, were at least better off than the firms making WHALE floats, some of which had previously made their living casting concrete fence posts. 

This picture of a set of completed PHOENIX caissons shows not only the antiaircraft positions briefly fitted in an excess of enthusiasm (they were very exciting places in bad weather) but the ledge at mid-height. As useful as these were for storing assorted nautical gear, they are there because the men and women who assembled the PHOENIX caissons were inexperienced in working as far off the ground as the project required. This is not the only dubiously amusing anecdote about the work force coming down from these hurried days. One authority notes that his workforce consisted of "flower sellers and pimps," another of "men from the hairdressing and tailoring trades." Both marvelled that such unworthy stuff could actually build things when paid to do so. Nor does it end there. The WHALES had to be largely bolted together, rather than welded, much less rivetted, because there are not enough skilled rivetters or welders. Nor are there enough carpenters. There are not even enough good concrete pourers, resulting in a high rejection rate of floats, although not PHOENIXES, which admittedly cannot afford to be rejected.

I have to reiterate how amazing it is that this happened at all. Most of the work was done between October and June. At one point, the PHOENIX caissons were being stored by sinking them in two "parks," off Dungeness and Selsey Bill (thereby suggesting to the Germans, it was presumably hoped, that one harbour was going to the Pas de Calais, the other to Normandy), without any clear idea about how they were to be raised. At this point it is traditional to blame the Navy, on the grounds that the BOMBARDONS were taking up all the mooring space, and that therefore Tn. 5 could hand the completed caissons over to the Admiralty and let them deal with it. The perfect blamestorm over this fiasco is completed by Stanford's account, in which the British could not even organise the required pumping force without American intervention. Meanwhile, the "50,000 tons of steel" figure on which the presumption of low impact is made comes from a December 1943 estimate. 

As Ruppenthal notes, by this time the work had been let to the contractors, and essentially neither War Office nor Admiralty really had any grip, or any means of taking grip of the work that was going on. Expeditors and recruiters were roaming the countryside looking for supplies and workers, and it was on the contractors to ensure that enough elements were completed in time to get the ports under way. Complaints that no-one was really in charge of the project reflect the fact that no-one really could be. In its speed, scope, and scale, there was no way of being in charge. If enough components made their way across the Channel under their various arrangements in June, then the crews present there would assemble the Mulberry harbours. One just had to go ahead and invade, holding faith in the idea that that was what would happen.

As it happened, the Mulberries kept on growing until the labour was removed to repair homes wrecked by the V1s. (And shelters for the guncrews, shivering under single layers of canvas on the North Downs, and mountings for guns.) Whales and their associated pontoons kept flowing because they kept sinking. PHOENIXES kept flowing because there was always room for reinforcements at the harbours. Eventually, leftover PHOENIXES would be used to repair the dykes breached at Walcheren, and again in the great flood of 1955. Summer at least brought relief to the owners of the land and facilities that had been taken over. The landslides at the corners of the East India and Surrey Docks could be repaired and the Thames let back in, and, at a more prosaic level, the owners of the oyster beds that had been pumped out and floored with  rough concrete for pontoon building could begin to rehabilitate their farms. 

So the Mulberries probably took more resources, and cost the British war effort more than is sometimes conceded. (No-one is counting lost oysters, for example.) That is not, really, the drift of this posting, which is more about the synergy of ports and net production losses. Aircraft carriers are symbolic, because of, you know, "Rule Britannia," but they are not the statistic that is going to matter in Normandy.

Let's take a step back, to the office of the Chief of the Transportation Service, Major General Charles Gross, and see things from his perspective.

First, I am going to drill down to Normandy. Here is the proposed American reinforcement schedule. 

Planned Normandy Build-Up (Ruppenthal, I: 298)

D to D+1
D+1 to D+2
Preloaded Build-up
D+2 to D+14

D+15 to D+90


This was the intent. In direct disembarkation, and in terms of maintenance, it called for the steady increase in unloading capacity on the Continent to 45,000 tons per day on D-Day +90. Almost all of this would be shipped on small coasters which would unload directly on to one or another kind of pierhead, liberating LSTs for more critical work, and allowing Liberty ships to unload at Cherbourg, on the limited number of accessible Lobnitz pierheads, and in the United Kingdom, at least until the Channel, Seine, or even Maze ports became available. (I'm making up "Maze" ports to cover Rotterdam and Antwerp, because I am disappointed that "Maze" has dropped out of usage as a designation of the Scheldt/Maass/Rhine conjoint estuary.) 

This is still not yet the point where I discuss actual performance, but I will dip into statistics taken at a later date to summarise the problem from the "push" side: 

The sharp peak in the number of ships waiting 10 days or more to unload in the  ETO begins, as you see, in May. It climbed rapidly after OVERLORD, from the already-deemed unacceptable 50 of the winter to 150 in July to 240 in October. Average dispatches to the theatre had risen from an October 1943—March 1944 average of 85 to 133 in April and to 194 in August, and unloadings simply could not keep pace. Chief of Transportation Charles P. Gross was reduced to threatening ETOUSA with a sharp cutback in sailings. From his standpoint it was a perfectly reasonable complaint. As early as the day after D-Day, Beach Commands had taken to sailing around the ships at anchor off the beaches to physically examine loads (in the absence of ship's manifests, which were not available!) and set priority unloading schedules. As anyone who has worked for a District Manager who, quite reasonably, wants critical out of stocks filled first, knows, this is very frustrating for those tasked with clearing receiving areas. Equally unsurprisingly, freighters were being used for spot storage, and 61 vessels had been retained specifically as vehicle ferries between the UK and the Continent. The Pacific theatre was, if possible, even more cavalier in its handling of freighters. Once they reached the Western Pacific, it seemed that they never left, and the President had to send an envoy to rap  MacArthur’s knuckles in Manila. (295) In fairness to the official historian of the Transportation Corps, who will not appear in a very progressive light in subsequent posts, he follows the evidence where it leads. Calcutta, Honolulu and Antwerp (once opened) are by far the most efficient ports, clearance-wise. The Army does not do a very good job..**

Discharge Rates
Overseas Areas
Net Discharge Rate
Gross Discharge Rate
Gross rate as Pct. Of net rate
All Areas
Middle Pacific
Caribbean-South Atlantic
-Middle East
North American-Iceland
Southwest and Western

But what does this mean? As Kevin Smith has noted***  war shipping has already severely constrained the Allied war effort. In the winter of 1943, due to BOLERO/TORCH but usually explained by reference to the Battle of the Atlantic, Britain's "civilian" imports reached a nadir of a 15 million tons,  annualised rate, although recovering to 25 million. this occasioned severe cuts in some areas of British war production in favour of dependence on American supply sources. If at this point in my D-Day series you are guessing that this included tank output, you are correct, but the infrablog synergy does not nearly end there. 

Yet the nadir of 1943 would not be a nadir after all. Under pressure to clear the BOLERO backlog through to France, British civilian imports would fall to 23 million tons in 1944. Smith says that this was bearable because, in 1943, surplus shipping had made up Britain's raw material stockpiles, but that does not seem entirely accurate. I think it likely that our statistics are flawed and systematically underestimate British imports. Yet it is  hard to imagine that the margin of unregistered goods, mostly made up in freight carried in uninsured stowage areas such as hatch covers, is going to make up more than a small proportion of a looming crisis. 

This brings me back, on the one hand, to artificial ports, and on the other, to cancelled aircraft carriers. Why does the Admiralty not point the finger at the Mulberries? Not because it cherishes the BOMBARDONS, but for a much simpler reason.

It, better than any other institution, except possibly Tn. 5, knows that this is the price of victory. This is what it cost to push on through to the end.

*Lochner was by his own account a polymath inventor and technical specialist before the war, and a patent lawyer after. This is a bit of a departure, since normally it is the patent lawyers who create the polymath inventors, but whatever. I am, however, left with more sympathy for the "work of the devil argument."
**Chester Wardlow, United States Army in World War II: The Transportation Corps: Responsibilities: Organization and Operations (286—7) 
***No, not that Kevin Smith, and someone should tell Google that.


  1. Go easy on those bennies, Gus: In the event the Americans at Mulberry A were first to have a pier in operation, on D+5; this remarkable achievement was at least partly due to the Americans installing Whale bridge spans as they arrived mixing up the 25t and 40t capacity spans in a single roadway and omitting up to 80% of the Kite anchors

    Anchors! Who needs'em?

  2. Eventually, everybody ran out of them. The Americans were just being pro-active and conservation minded! Or, more likely, a little green. Stanford was very cheesed off that they weren't given equipment to practice on, not being aware that it didn't really exist in time for training exercises...

    The more you read, the more insane this whole project begins to sound.

  3. Two things. What is the net clearance rate net of?

    Secondly, you point at something to do with UK imports. What is it?

  4. You know what? I'm as confused by "net clearance" rate as you are. Wardlow is clearly quoting someone who came up with a normative ship unloading rate across all theatres. Time spent berthed in theatre versus time spent actually unloading would be my guess.

    As for British imports, for now it should suffice to note that 1944 was the nadir of British wartime imports for the civil economy, and that this had a great deal to do with BOLERO.

    We will speak of this again.