The Transporting of the Mulberrys
My D-day experience actually began on 24 April 1944, after returning to Chatham Barracks from service with the Fleet Air Arm in Trinidad. Whilst awaiting a ship I went home to see my girl, and was a few hours adrift from my overnight pass, and was consequently put on Captain’s Report.
Being in the rattle, a black list man, when the tannoy called for volunteers for Party Pun and Party Game, I was first in the queue, with no idea what it would entail.
We had to fall in, in ‘rig of the day’ which was overalls, seaboots and life belts.
I began to wonder what I had let myself in for when we were issued with red lights and batteries for our life belts. When asked for my Station Card, I had to admit that it was in the possession of the Master at Arms.
They were anxious to get us off, so I was grudgingly told that it was too late to do anything about it then, but I must be quite certain to report back to the Master at Arms office as soon as the job was over. Naturally, I never did go back and ask for punishment.
We were taken to Sheerness in lorries, where we were confronted by what looked like blocks of flats with no windows alongside a quay.
We climbed the ladder and found ourselves on top of a huge, concrete, sort of egg-box type thing with no top. There was a bit of concrete at one end on which to stand.
We were towed at night round past Dover to Dungeness Bay, where we opened the sluices and part submerged it. The Germans used to shell ‘Hell Fire Corner’ of course, and we felt very vulnerable crawling along behind a tug. Our base at this time was the dear old paddle-steamer Queen of Thanet, where our kit was stowed and in theory we slept.
This routine continued, bringing these great caissons called Phoenixes round to Dungeness and Selsey Bill. They were about 60 ft high, 60 ft wide, 200 ft long and around 7,000 tons.
When we tried to pump them out to refloat them, our pumps were useless, so civilian contractors were brought in with bigger ones, and, to our great disgust, they were paid danger money just for setting foot on the things. Some stuck firmly to the bottom,
despite all our efforts, some broke in half, but most were refloated to be towed across to Normandy.
Naturally we were not told the purpose of these monsters, which were sunk randomly in Dungeness Bay, where they were visible to the Germans. Lord Haw Haw remarked that the Germans would sink them for us.
Secrecy was vital, of course, and though we could receive mail, we could not send any
out, and there was absolutely no leave.
Some of them were left sunk around Dover as part of the deception plan. For part of
the time we were sleeping on the cold floor of an empty house at Littlestone, travelling
in DUKWs to and from the shore. I have a film which shows many of the caissons
assembled in Dungeness Bay, and I can see the Queen of Thanet tied up to one of the
pier head parts. I see that I also have the Queen of Kent on my naval record for that
time. I believe that she was later sunk in a Belgian port, I think by a V2.
Owing to the hard conditions under which we were living, things began to get a bit fraught, with much discontent amongst some of the men who missed their beer and women, so the
Captain, in his wisdom, decided to give a few hours shore leave. Visions of some of
the men disappearing ‘up the Smoke’ etc., were soon dispelled when we were landed
at Ryde, lOW, for a single evening, so keeping security.
Unfortunately, a long pent-up thirst, plus many Americans also on a run ashore, culminated in a complete mix-up of men who found themselves on all the wrong ships for the night, which had to be sorted out next morning. A good time was reckoned to have been had by all,
even though no one could remember a thing about it, but at least tension was relieved.
When D-day actually began, we started off across the Channel at about four knots, towed by a tug. The 100 mile trip to Arromanches was very long, very cold and, I suppose, very dangerous. We were issued with duffel coats, but it was still freezing cold up there.
The self-heating tins of soup, and I think cocoa, were an absolute godsend.
There was nowhere to sit down, just an open top, and in any case we had to walk round all the time to check on whether the thing had sprung a leak.
There was an Able Seaman (my rank) in charge of each Phoenix, one Naval Signaller, and two Ordinary Seamen. In the middle there was an AA gun, with two soldiers to man it on the other side. It could not be fired at sea of course
The soldiers were lucky as they could get into a bit of shelter under the gun, but we were exposed to the freezing cold all that long, 100 mile trip to Arromanches.
One of them sprang a leak, and I signalled to the tug that I had to let one of the side weights go as we were listing badly.
Of course, it then rolled over the other way with the weight of the water sloshing about inside it.
So I asked the tug to go as fast as possible as we were sinking, and our pump was useless. I could have spit more, to be frank.
We got there in just about the nick of time and sank it into position.
Actually it was quite a hairy situation.
I had to get down onto the narrow ledge which ran round the caisson’s base.
In calm weather this would have been about four or five feet about the water, but owing to the list it was well awash, and the massive side of the caisson looked to me like the Leaning Tower of Pisa hanging over me.
Two of the Phoenixes were torpedoed by E-Boats from Cherbourg or Le Havre, some broke up, some were cut adrift, some went down in the gale.
As the flat front of the caisson hit the waves, it echoed like a huge drum, with a constant deep booming sound, which I can hear to this day. I remember that on arrival at Arromanches I had to give a paper to a RN Officer, a sort of evidence of safe delivery I suppose.
He could not have cared less, and I wish now that I had just put it in my pocket, as it would be an interesting souvenir today. As far as I recall, it had Phoenix, and the number of 25 the caisson at the top. He didn’t give me a receipt for it anyway. We were put on to the first available vessel back to Selsey, to bring another one across. It was a really grim time. We could not wash, shave, change our sodden clothes; we had just two gallons of water between us per trip. All our kit was on the Queen of Thanet so there was no hope of dry clothes.
We had a box of rations containing self-heating cans of soup and cocoa, boiled sweets, a few cigarettes, toilet paper, bacon wrapped in foil, which of course we had no means of cooking. We were also issued with ‘Wakey-Wakey’ tablets. As far as I recall, we were allowed a small ‘Hard Layers’ addition to our pay because of the inhuman conditions under which we were living. We never saw a newspaper, or heard a radio, and had no idea even what day of the week it was. After one of these delivery trips we landed back at Portsmouth Barracks, thinking we would get a shower and a meal, but instead we were put on a train with a warrant for Dungeness via Waterloo and Victoria.
That did it. I realised that the train would go through Woking, and was determined to get off if it stopped.
We agreed that we deserved a bath and a change of underwear, and agreed to meet at Victoria very early
next morning. So, I got off at Woking, filthy, smelly, unshaven, and the Redcaps made a beeline for me. A little porter boy saw me and I asked him if he could get me off the station quickly as I had no ticket. He asked if I was a survivor, and when I said yes, he quickly let me out of a side gate, where I fortunately got straight on a bus for Chertsey. An army officer also got on, and regarded me with increasing suspicion as we went along.
I was wearing overalls and had tucked my cap inside, but suddenly realised from his looks, that my life belt was sticking out of my pocket. I hastily alighted at St Peter’s Hospital, which was then Botleys Park War Hospital, and hurried up to Ferndale Avenue to my fiancée’s home. Her mother ran me a bath while she cycled off to my home to collect some clean underwear from my mother.
I was so exhausted I kept going to sleep in the bath. When they asked what on earth I had been doing, she said I muttered something about sailing a bloody great block of flats before I fell asleep with my face in a plate of dinner. I got the first train next morning, met the others safely at Victoria in spite of the numerous Redcaps, and clean and fragrant again, we got safely undetected back to Dungeness, where we resumed our shuttle service.
We usually came back on a tug, trying to snatch some sleep on open
decks in lousy weather. One bright spot was returning on an American ocean-going tug, where we were able to go below, and were told to help ourselves to some marvellous food, coffee and even ice-cream.
I remember seeing gliders going overhead, and one coming down in the sea, I suppose
his towrope broke or some such thing. Star shells were being fired at odd intervals,
in the hope of illuminating any E-Boats waiting to take their chance to attack.
Two of the caissons were sunk by them with torpedoes. The crews obviously did not stand a chance of being rescued, as they would have gone down like stones. There were buoyed swept channels going across to the landing beaches, and the E-Boats would tie up to these buoys and lie in wait. These great lumbering slow monsters were sitting ducks.
After we sank the first Phoenix at Arromanches, there was no vessel to bring us straight back, so we were sent to a merchant ship rigged out with hammocks to sleep, as if that was possible with all the shelling going on, and general racket. Early next morning we returned, as far as I remember, on a Norwegian merchant ship, which to our great surprise, had some
female crew members. The following occasion was on a tiny Thames-sized tug, on which we tried to doze on the open deck. I can’t remember the next one, it all comes back in bits as I
talk about it nowadays. One sad memory is our first time at Arromanches and seeing all the bodies floating about in the water. There was a big launch there and men with boat hooks fishing them out of the water and piling them up on the deck. It made me realise how lucky those of us were who came through it unharmed. On looking back, it was quite something I suppose to have had a part in the greatest amphibious operation ever known, though I must admit that I did not appreciate the historical importance of it at the time. My next posting was to a new destroyer HMS Zenith on escort to Russian Convoys, but that’s another story.
Quite a few of the Phoenixes are still there at Arromanches, and I would love to get a boat out to one of them and climb aboard again in more peaceful circumstances.
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