The Mulberry Harbours: In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day

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Images Copyright Wates Ltd.

The 6th June 2014 will mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. It will be a time to remember the significant contribution three Old Emanuel brothers, Allan Charles Wates (Emanuel 1919-1927) Norman Edward Wates (Emanuel 1917-1921) and Sir Ronald Wallace Wates (Emanuel 1917-1923) played in the construction of the Mulberry Harbours.

The Wates family have had an association with Emanuel for almost a century. Three brothers Allan, Norman and Ronald all attended the School between 1917 and 1927. The boys’ father and uncle started building light, compactly built houses to replace uncomfortable Victorian houses in the early 1900s and by 1926 Norman had joined his father and uncle in the business. Two to three years later Allan and Ronald also joined the Company which by the 1930s had moved from Streatham to London Road, Mitcham and then to Norbury. By the 1930s Wates Ltd. was firmly on the map and in the 21st century Wates Ltd. still flourishes as one of the largest construction companies in the UK.

Up to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the Company was constructing around 2000 houses per year. The Company’s Contract Department was inaugurated under the direction of Allan Wates in 1936 allowing it to expand its business, initially securing deals for the building of fire stations, drill halls, libraries and a variety of public works. These included Kingston Drill Hall and Sutton Library.

The Munich Crisis of 1938 did little to assuage those who firmly believed Czechoslovakia would not be the last in Hitler’s territorial ambitions and so by late 1938 Britain was preparing itself for a potential European conflict. At this time Wates Ltd. secured contracts from the War Office to erect camps and defence works in southern England. In collaboration with consulting engineers they also produced the designs and put into production precast concrete air raid shelters and trench linings in early 1939 including for the whole of the borough of Battersea. The Company also supported its staff in any National Service they wished to undertake including providing an extra week’s paid holiday to staff who were Territorials (reserve soldiers). Once the war began they also provided pre-cast floor slabs for a London tube station which was converted into a shelter.

At the outbreak of war the Company was handling over one hundred contracts for the War Office. At this difficult time Wates Ltd. moved to reassure its employees, “Each of us will find inconveniences, difficulties and hardships, but will tackle them cheerfully in the knowledge that each one overcome is a contribution to the national effort.”

In October 1939 the War Office wrote to the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors with a request for one hundred steel fixers and one hundred carpenters for urgent work overseas. The men were to be enlisted into a Corps of the Royal Engineers. At this time Wates Ltd. decided to offer their services to the War Office by forming the Wates Royal Engineers General Construction Company. This was later designated as 687 Company, Royal Engineers.

The Mulberry Harbours

Perhaps the most important project in the Wates Company’s history was the contract they took on for building components of the pre-fabricated harbour, code-named Mulberry, which assisted the supply of goods and military equipment in the wake of the Allied invasion of France in June 1944. Eventually two harbours were established, Mulberry A, to support the beaches on which US troops landed and Mulberry B at Arromanches, in the British invasion area. Mulberry A was largely destroyed in a powerful storm on the 19th to the 20th of June 1944.

Allied planners understood early in the war that once their forces landed in any planned invasion of the French coast they would need to be supplied with reinforcements. The disastrous results of the Dieppe Raid of 1942 led to a rethink of how the Allied forces could launch and carry out an amphibious assault of the French mainland. Their main obstacle was the lack of harbours along the stretch of coast that they eventually designated for the operation, known from 1943 as Overlord. The solution to this problem required the best engineering minds available.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote a memorandum headed, ‘Piers for Use On Beaches’, to Lord Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, on the 30th of May 1942, “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.” With this order a team of engineers were called upon to work out ways in which this could be achieved.

Between 1943 and June 1944 Wates Ltd. became one of a number of companies which set about putting the idea of an artificial harbour into reality. Wates Ltd. carried out their work on the Mulberry components at yards and docks across the country including at Goat Road in Mitcham and the West India Docks.

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At one of the construction sites where Mulberry components were built. Copyright Wates Ltd.

Essentially the harbours consisted of a line of floating breakwaters three miles out from the coast and inside them, sunken concrete breakwaters. Connecting these to shore were floating pontoons and bridges. Hundreds of thousands of men and women of the Allied forces landed at the harbour in Arromaches as supplies were delivered to Allied forces as they set upon driving German forces out of France and the Low Countries. The historian Max Hastings raised doubts in his book, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy 1944, whether the huge costs and man-power in constructing the Mulberries was commensurate with the results delivered i.e. Hastings and other researchers questioned if a smaller scale operation would have delivered similar results and more efficiently than ended up being the case with the problems which beset the Mulberries once established. But there is no doubt that the indefatigable energy of the Wates brothers and their workforce was of the highest order when one considers the huge scale of the operation, which ultimately played no small part in supporting the Allied advance, despite the difficulties it faced.

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Wates employees who worked on the Mulberry Harbour, with Allan, Norman and Ronald Wates Copyright Wates Ltd.

The following is the story of the Wates’ contribution to the Mulberry Harbour as retold in the Wates News Sheet in November 1944:

In recent weeks the story of the Prefabricated Port of Arromanches has been told and it is now possible for us as a Company to speak of the not inconsiderable part which we have played. Our connection started a very long time ago-back in the spring of 1942. Just previous to this Sir James Lithgow, the Controller of Merchant Shipbuilding, had asked us to help the Army with our experience of concrete barge building to solve some transport and constructional problems which were arising in Egypt and Persia. This put us in touch with the appropriate division of the War Office and from that time onwards we were always called upon to co-operate with them in some of the many problems with which they were grappling. We were able to be helpful in many ways-providing from Barrow floating crane pontoons and motor transport ferries and from London the beach landing mats from which and upon which, so many great operations took place-Dieppe, North Africa and Normandy. These, however, were sidelines compared with the main long term problem which faced the War Office-that of providing the means of landing on the continental shore the millions of tons of heavy equipment required for the invasion of Europe. Looking back now, it is seen that the War Office seemed always to have had in mind just the sort of conditions found at Arromanches-long flat sloping beaches which are so suitable in many ways for tank landing craft, but so unsuitable for larger ships and even coasters. To make these beaches more useful to all sorts of ships, it was necessary to construct the means of landing vehicles and other equipment from ships lying in deep water which might be nearly a mile from the shore. Many schemes were thought of in 1942 and several experiments made. The scheme which was ultimately to prove successful-the War Office scheme-was the one for which we were asked to provide the pontoons. This was a pier scheme embodying flexible steel spans supported on our reinforced concrete floats. Like all the other details of the proposal, the mere statement “reinforced concrete floats” conveys little of the complexity of the problem. These floats had the most difficult design conditions imaginable. They must be light, yet strong enough to support the weight of spans and tanks when aground. They must be of shallow draught. They could not be too beamy, otherwise they would foul the bridge in rough weather. It would be useful if they could tow as well broadside as bows on-and many other considerations. The responsibility for the reinforced concrete design was taken by Messrs. L. G. Mouchel and Partners, with whom we collaborated in order to ensure that the design should be as straightforward in production as possible, having regard to the complexity of the conditions.

These were built at Barrow in conditions of great secrecy in the autumn of 1942 and delivered to a place in Scotland where the first experimental pier was built in the early part of 1943, It must be remembered that all this was going on when the U-Boat menace was at its height and the nation’s whole shipbuilding resources were taxed to the uttermost and it is because of that fact that reinforced concrete was the material chosen, instead of steel, for the floating parts.

This pier was a great success from the outset and films of its performance were taken to Ottawa for the Prime Minister’s conference in August 1943, where the final invasion plans were decided upon. There it was decided that whilst the pier scheme was to go ahead up to ten miles, there should also be about five miles of breakwaters constructed partly to protect the piers and partly to provide protection to the beaches.

Upon the War Office experts’ return with this vast commitment-all to be completed in about five months-Brigadier Sir Bruce White, the Director of Ports and Inland Water Transport, set up two committees to give him certain advice concerning the breakwater scheme. The first was composed of many eminent engineers who were concerned with design. The second consisted of three contractors, Sir Malcolm McAlpine, Mr. Storey Wilson of Holloway Bros., and Mr. Norman Wates, whose job it was to say which designs were easiest to construct, what facilities and labour forces were required and how long the job would take. In less than a fortnight of continuous and intensive work by both committees, the report was submitted and the Ministry of Supply embarked upon their gigantic task.

The responsibilities with which we were entrusted were indeed heavy. Failure in quality or delivery in any of the various items would have had catastrophic results for the invasion. As an example, if our mooring shuttles had not been anchored in time. In all our production this was fully realised by everyone concerned and planning and production went ahead with a very keen sense of the momentousness of the task upon which we were engaged.

The Company’s commitment consisted of the provision of all the pier pontoons, some 450 in all, 12 pierhead pontoons, 500 shuttles or mooring vessels and proto-type S.L.U.G. boats. The work was carried out at West India Docks, Southsea, Marchwood, Beaulieu, Balham, Bedfont, Willow Lane and the Goat Yard. Barrow, on geographical grounds, was ruled out, but the pioneer work they did was of inestimable service. Despite the magnitude of the task we can say with pride that in point of time and quality, economy of labour and construction generally, we reached complete success in all the various craft.