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We Took Our Harbours With Us

from issue #19- November 2001



by Gordon Dalgleish

Gordon Dalgleish describes escorting tugs towing seven miles of pier equipment across the English Channel to France in WWII, which allowed large ships to unload safely.

On June 11th, the S.S. Partridge was sunk with no survivors. The following day, we endured the worst storm in 40 years. Although our ship survived, some of the tugs lost their tows, which forced us to send distress signals. On June 13th we were strafed from German planes but suffered no casualties. Our ship even had a torpedo fired at it. Thankfully, it did not hit its mark.

I was a telegraphist aboard the H.M.C.S. Calgary, which was a corvette in the Royal Canadian Navy. It was our job to escort the ocean-going tugs that towed artificial harbours to France across the English Channel. The Germans did not make it easy for us. They thought that their harbours were well fortified and that they would simply shoot us when we tried to land in France. Little did they know that we wouldn’t allow that to happen. Instead, we planned to build and install our own harbour at Arromanches, France.

The project began in 1943 as the brain storm of the British War Office. They knew that the small fishing villages they could capture would not be able to handle the large ships that were bringing supplies to back up the landing.

The British engineers built huge concrete caissons that were assembled near the channel coast. They were made to float. There were six different sizes to suit various depths of water. The smallest would weigh 1,672 tons, the largest, 6,044 tons.

Seven miles of pier equipment were prefabricated in sections 480 feet long (small enough to be towed across the Channel). Some of these caissons were built like ships, as tall as large houses. Early on, Nazi aircraft spotted them but couldn’t have known what purpose they had. We were spared any attacks for the time being.

On the morning of D-Day, along with the first assault waves, Marines ran small boats toward the beaches. Instead of landing with the rest, some ships stopped off shore. German observers must have thought them insane, for they proceeded to throw lines overboard as if they intended to spend a quiet morning fishing. In reality, they were re-surveying the offshore bottom, double-checking a survey made months before by commando crews.

Late in the afternoon the first warships arrived. These sacrifice vessels ran directly up to the beach. Before the charge, they made a turn and tied up to a flag buoy already placed by the survey crews. They dropped their anchors, lowered their lifeboats and allowed most of their crew to leave. A few men stayed aboard to perform the delicate job of detonating the dynamite charges that would blow holes in each ship’s bottom.

By nightfall, there was a tight line of a dozen warships on the bottom about 1200 feet offshore sticking high out of the water. The tides rose their allotted 22 feet, but the whole thing had been planned so neatly that the highest tide never topped the vessels.

Meanwhile, a fleet of ocean-going tugs, 165 in all, had started to tow the giant caissons across the English Channel. This was the most dangerous part of the entire operation because they stood high out of the water and were perfect targets for Nazi E-boats, planes and subs. Their speed was three knots per hour. It was our job to protect them.

The next three days were the aforementioned attacks coming between June 11 and June 13. Thwarting the attacks, the caissons made it to their destination.

The caissons were designed to be sunk in five and a half fathoms of water, permitting ships of 30-foot draft to lie behind them at low-tide. It was necessary that they sink accurately into place, while a riptide was running, and within the shortest possible time. It took exactly one hour and one minute for the concrete wall to touch bottom. By the third day of having the wall in place, more caissons were arriving at the rate of four to six a day. The concrete sea wall grew. Eventually it enclosed an area the size of the Port of Dover and could be used as a place where great ships unloaded in safety.

With the wall in place, the purpose of the 15,000-ton steel floats that accompanied us became apparent. The British engineers knew that Channel waves, swelling up to 12 feet high, beat against the Normandy coast. There was grave danger that the very force of such waves might topple and destroy the concrete caissons. Ships waiting outside the artificial harbours could be torn loose from their anchors and sent careening into caisson walls. To provide a safe outer harbour for ships awaiting unloading or making up convoy to England, huge steel floats were anchored in a line a mile or so outside the concrete harbour edge. Large, dangerous waves were reduced to ripples.

At the end of the battleship line, another steel float was used as a central anti-aircraft battery, office and control point. From its main mast, signals were flown by port-control officers.

Westward of the "Old Boy" battleship was the main channel entrance, more than 600 feet wide, through which large ships could pass toward their berths. Beyond this, providing unloading facilities for as many as seven Liberty ships at once, were the concrete caissons.

Within the harbour, another invention came into play. The British designed bridge piers to serve LSTs (Landing Ship Transport) and coasters. Here, again the tides had seemed to present an insurmountable obstacle. A pier could stand above the water at high tide and would be far above the decks of the ships at low tide. A low-level pier would be under water when the tide came in. Their difficulty was overcome by devising a new type of pier that rested on hollow steel legs. When the tide was low, the legs touched bottom and rested firmly, bringing the pier floor even with the average ship’s deck. At high tide, the pier floated on its hollow air-filled legs, rising just enough to keep its floor adequately above water. The floating piers solved the problem.

Once the Nazis realized what was going on and how greatly these ports threatened their defence plan, they made frantic assaults. It was too late. We now had anti-aircraft fire from the "Old Boy" battleship and army anti-aircraft protection from the shore. Each ship and caisson flew its own barrage balloon and there was a constant cover of fighters maintained by the air forces.

It was not planned to use this port indefinitely, only until the forces could capture Cherbourg. It was hoped that the harbour could at least last through the great winter storms that lashed the Channel. The important thing, while the harbour was standing, was to get heavy equipment ashore quickly. This was something that had never been done before in any beachhead landing operation.

On Nov. 5, 1944 we had leave to go ashore at Arromanches to see the marvellous job that we all had done. Sadly, on December 29 of the same year, there were two ships lost. The H.M.C.S. Calgary took 37 survivors. Many of these men were badly burned and covered in oil. While we didn’t have a doctor aboard, we did have a sick bay attendant. We all pitched in to help.

I was proud of the participation from the many Canadian ships in the operation. They did the job so admirably.

The H.M.C.S. Calgary has had a noteworthy presence since our crew manned her. She has since rescued 30 survivors from a Greek cargo ship that was sinking in the Atlantic and played a part in the sanctions against Iraq.

I have attended two reunions of the crew of our ship. One of the reunions took place in Calgary, Alberta in 1989. The other was in 1995 in Victoria, BC where a new ship bearing the H.M.C.S. Calgary name was commissioned, not as a corvette, but as a frigate.

I lost many friends in WW II and I think of them at times like this. I still keep in touch with some of the crew that served on the original H.M.C.S. Calgary, and I will never forget them.

Gordon was injured while loading a depth charge. A dud, it dropped off the end of the thrower and landed on his knees. He spent two weeks in hospital in Chatham, England and when the swelling went down, was released. The injury did not heal, however, and plagued Gordon for many years until he finally had a knee operation in June, 56 years after the accident.




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