Took Our Harbours With Us
issue #19- November 2001
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.
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.
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
wouldnt allow that to happen. Instead, we planned
to build and install our own harbour at Arromanches, France.
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.
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,
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 couldnt
have known what purpose they had. We were spared any attacks
for the time being.
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
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 ships
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.
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.
next three days were the aforementioned attacks coming between
June 11 and June 13. Thwarting the attacks, the caissons
made it to their destination.
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.
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
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
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.
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
ships 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.
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.
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.
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 didnt have a doctor
aboard, we did have a sick bay attendant. We all pitched
in to help.
was proud of the participation from the many Canadian ships
in the operation. They did the job so admirably.
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.
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.
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
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.