Published on 09/06/2014 by David Birkett
I’ve read and watched loads of material about D-Day. Never having been a soldier, I can’t imagine the fear, noise, smells and sights that awaited those who landed on the beaches in the first few hours. It must have been a living hell for those lucky enough to survive as far as the beaches, let alone the push to safe ground; (safe being a relative term, as there were then mines and shells to dodge and minimal provisions and hygiene to contend with).
Nevertheless, many made it. Some were sent by return ship to face the long haul of recuperation, often with physical or mental scars affecting them for the rest of their lives. Some buried their fallen comrades as best they could. Those still standing faced the tough challenge of clearing the beaches or moving into the French interior. Throughout all of the trauma, grief and fear, few would have thought of a worse place to be.
Yet I think D-Day could have been many times worse than it actually was. There could have been complete chaos! What happened on D-Day and beyond was the result of years of planning, leading to the best possible outcome for the most number of people. Don’t get me wrong; even one loss of life is unacceptable. For me, the idea of ten times the number of fatalities or indeed being repelled from the beaches completely, with our collective tails between our legs, doesn’t even bear thinking about.
Minimising the chaos and the fatalities for those first few hours took years of planning. The work involved was so secret a new security classification was used (BIGOT), known only to a few people. Those that were involved in the planning knew only enough to do their jobs. You have to admire the organisational skills of those running the planning operations. For the most part they were able to ensure that the left hand of the army didn’t even know that the right hand existed, so to speak!
Let me give you a few examples. Some of the iconic post-D-Day pictures are of the Mulberry Harbours. Few knew that the vast majority of the development work was undertaken in a quiet backwater of the Scottish west coast in and around the village of Garlieston. We know now that the Phoenix caissons were eventually chosen. But let me ask this question. How many Anderson shelters did it take to build a Mulberry Harbour? Of course the answer is more than 5,000 – certainly too many to count. Why did we need Anderson shelters to build Mulberry Harbours? Because the concrete was poured in many different locations. In some cases small villages sprung up. Those involved in the construction could hardly pop down to the local hotel and book a room for the night. Even if they could have done, how would their equipment have been protected? So small villages with self-contained communities sprung up where needed. Pop along to Langston Harbour between Portsmouth and Hayling Island if you want to see part of a Phoenix caisson – just one of a number of locations where the poured concrete led to a ‘feature’ still evident today.
Let me ask another question. How many jerrycans would have been needed by D+90 if we hadn’t constructed the pipeline under the ocean (PLUTO)? Over 9.5 million! I know armies march on their stomachs – that’s another story by the way – but tanks run on petrol (we didn’t have diesel during the War). Without PLUTO we would never have been able to push into France. If you want to see a section of exposed PLUTO, visit Shanklin Chine on the Isle of Wight. Trials for PLUTO took place across the Bristol Channel in 1943 by the way.
Turning more to D-Day itself. It was vital that the landing troops had motorised transport and mobile firepower. Yet under normal circumstances, even driving though floods will render a petrol engine immobile. The clever soldiers in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers corps (REME) developed a method of waterproofing lorries and trucks so that they could be driven off their landing craft straight on to the beaches. Waterproofing was done in several stages, one as far as 200 miles from the South Coast. The last stage needed applying in the embarkation areas and removing on or near the beaches. No mean feat, even today.
Who could forget the iconic DD Tanks as they floated to land? Through choppy seas these boat-like tanks were the result of many hours of thought. There was even a patent filed in 1942 concerning the ‘skirts’. The patent was filed in 1942 and granted in 1945, and remains in the patent literature to this day.
There are many other stories worthy of discussion – too many to mention here. Every technology used during D-Day helped to save lives. In some cases the training and manoeuvres resulted in tragedy, but it’s salutary to remember that the level of detail and organisation behind the D-Day preparations played a major part in minimizing the loss of life during the campaign.
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