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Unsung heroes

70 years on from D-Day we have finally seen the disbandment of the veterans association. Quite rightly, on June 6th every year since 1944 we have been united across the world in solemn thankfulness – remembering those who threw themselves against the German fortifications on the Normandy coast. Those who survived and those martyred to the most noble of causes. The ordinary, normal men made extraordinary through circumstance and need.


Source: Dassault Systemes

The Mulberry harbour enabled the Allies to unload troops and supplies without the need to capture a French port.

Perhaps now though we can at last address the heroes hidden in plain view ever since that truly fateful day?

The Mulberry Harbour is often mentioned as a wonderful example of audacious engineering but, unlike Barnes Wallis with the bouncing bomb, who reading this has heard or seen anything in popular culture about the men and women behind it?

The Mulberry Harbour is what made D-day possible because it is only through this that the huge logistical support essential to breaking out and pushing onwards into Europe could be maintained, and without that our forces would have been dashed against the defences for nothing. So much more than the iconic concrete caissons floated over and sunk in position, there were two complete harbours built and each consisted of the caissons, block ships, Bombardons and pier roadways.


Each ‘whale’ roadway was 80 feet long

This monumental (in every way) construction would be worthy of note just by its existence but it also withstood a freak storm that far outstripped the design spec, the only real damage being due to the Americans not securing their harbour correctly. The same team who were responsible for the harbours were also responsible for the rocket launched grappling hooks without which the cliffs could not be scaled, radar deception devices, rocket firing landing craft, and so on.

So, who was behind all this? The Royal Navy’s Directorate of Miscellanious Weapons Development, a mixed bag of engineers and scientists (including the soon to be well known novelist Nevil Shute). Never heard of them? Prior to all this they also did things like test protective clothing, for frogmen to use when defusing mines, by seeing how close they could stand next to an explosive device in a lake without being knocked out.


The Engineer published images of the temporary D-Day harbour in 1945

Then there was the testing of flexible roads strung  across water by driving a 5 ton truck along them while an MTB passed at maximum speed as close as possible. Perhaps now is the time to do a little research and then spread the word about this remarkable group? Conspicuous bravery is to be celebrated and remembered, but it does not of itself win a war. That also needs people with a completely different skill set, all be it of an equally high calibre.

Click here to read about how software firm Dassault Systemes created a full 3D virtual reconstruction of teh D-Day landings


Readers' comments (6)

  • There is an excellent book about them called 'The Wheezers and Dodgers' by Gerald Pawle. Funnily enough they were also involved with the bouncing bomb. The first trials at Chesil Beach were carried out using a Fleet Air Arm Wellington thanks to them, as it was first envisaged as a weapon for attacking moored ships like the Tirpitz. Amongst other notable acheivements were degaussing of ships for protection against magnetic mines and the hedgehog and squid anti submarine weapons.

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  • Close to my family as my father had wanted to serve in the forces during the second world war, but he was in an electrician and a reserve occupation, (later to become a Chartered Engineer). However, he was involved in "Pluto", pipe line under the ocean construction work.To complete the team my mother was working for the Ministry Labour directing labour to Mulberry Harbour construction!

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  • I believe other bloggers -and I hope our secret blogger will become aware, via our Editor may be aware that I have a V close link to Nevil Shute and HM Weezers and Dodgers: I was born in Portsmouth -my father was in the same group (his link was via Weygood Otis Elevators and his having been part of the team who designed the lifts in the Queen mary and ammunition hoists for large shells in various warships prior to WW2.

    I take the liberty of attaching two pieces -a poem about father and a description of NSN's visit to our house near Portsmouth (I was six months old and not taking too much notice) in mid 1941. My mother told me about this just before she died in 2000. Sadly father died in 1943 -of TB caught during testing of his ideas. A Life in the day of.........
    This story is true: should you know any of the characters try to recall when and where you met them.
    In the twenties there was a teenager. Not what we may now imagine by that word, but a sober hard-working upright boy. His home was poor and uneducated, and because he felt restricted he left home for "digs". He worked by day as an office boy in a Drawing Office, by night at school: and after much effort and some tears he gained very good qualifications in Engineering. (This story can be told a hundred times, but please read on.)

    He was a good Engineer, and was given responsibility because he showed that he could use, not abuse it! Then he met and courted a girl; and although she could see his shyness and reserve, she brought him out of himself sufficiently to persuade him to be engaged. His work took him to a Scottish City - she never believed him - where he designed and supervised the installation of lifts in a great new liner. The RMS Queen Mary. And he did it well. So well that, 30 years later when his son visited the Liner at her final mooring, they still worked. Our Engineer thought that he would be allowed to commission the lifts on the Maiden Voyage, but no! A "front office" man was given the job. Our man was justly annoyed and resigned. Telling the firm that, when they needed him again, which they would, they must send a Rolls Royce to collect him. They did. A couple more years passed. War clouds gathered in the East and our Engineer eventually married his girl. Their honeymoon ended on September 3rd 1939. He had poor health and eyesight and was refused admission to the Services. So he joined the Navy as a "civilian attached" for the duration. This was a time when the Navy still required its engineering officers to mess separately and wear red, not gold braid; so one can imagine the status that a "civilian attached" received. But our man was sure that in his Nation's darkest, but finest hour, all personal thoughts and advances must be secondary to the common cause - to win. And he assumed that all other men, and particularly in a body as comradely as the Services, shared his views.

    A step back in time. Summer 1939, Liverpool. Navy day. Crowds Flags, children, pretty girls, sailors in No 1's Trips round the harbour, Tours round the ships, A special attraction - the latest submarine, straight from the makers. A queue to board her, cramped spaces filled with unfamiliar people; perhaps a stolen kiss in a darkened switch-room - who knows.
    A switch accidentally tripped, and the interlock fails! Disaster!

    Torpedo tubes open, water flows in, no means to stop it.
    Cries and struggles, a few get out, but for the rest
    A fusiform tombstone. A six-month memorial in the harbour.
    An unlucky class of boat some say;
    Only made three, and all with a "T".
    That new man seems bright,
    Let's tell him to fix it
    As an engineering problem, the solution was simple:
    Duplicate the interlock; hull-to-tube and tube-to-ocean
    Why wasn't it done before?
    Mind your own business!

    Our man is well trained, so he looks for a better way.
    A ring of bolts, hand tightened to hold the tube end on?
    Slow and difficult, takes an hour to reload
    No fun at sea in a battle.
    Casts round for a solution, finds it close by
    Why not a breech block, as on a big gun?
    Sketches, calculation, report.

    "All right, Smith, leave it:
    I'll look at it if I've got time.
    Aren't you an upstart,
    Just like all civvies
    You know there's a war on
    Can't have you new men
    Telling us our business
    We've been doing "very nicely" thank you."
    Our man is hurt
    But he can't knock the system
    Pours out his troubles
    To dutiful wife
    One consolation
    He now is a father
    The future Prime Minister
    He jokingly tells her.

    He visits an author
    Who offers to help him.
    Even the Navy
    Can't stop the 'gutter' press
    The Admiral considers
    And then moves to try it.
    "But whose name is on it?
    My goodness how can they?
    Still what does it matter?
    The Country will gain."

    Now it’s testing and changes
    Trials and winter
    Wet spray and coldness
    Sickness and temper
    A weak body but a strong mind.

    "Good show", its accepted
    And all through the Navy.
    "Sorry about patents
    There's a war on you know
    Of course there's no royalty
    The Admiral gets that"
    "My widow may need it"
    He jokingly says!
    Reward to the Navy
    Scorn for our human.
    "He reads the Mirror you know!"

    Pains in the chest
    And request for some treatment
    "You're only a civy
    Look after yourself
    We're helping our own kind
    There's no room for your kind
    A bloody civilian
    There's a war on you know!"

    Our man is a sick man
    But what does it matter
    There's work to be done
    No matter who pays

    Now its periscopes
    Up and down, in half the time.
    Modifications to hydroplanes.
    "Turn the wheel against the worm?"
    They said, "it couldn't be done;"
    But the Engineer thought
    And he showed how to do it.
    The 'sub' could creep away
    After a depth charge
    How many Navy lives now saved
    From that fusiform tomb

    Red blood in his coughing
    A rest says his doctor
    "Those bloody civilians,
    They've no guts you know"!

    Cottage in the country
    Cream cheese and cowslips
    Laughter and coughing
    Relax and enjoy it
    Three months go by
    Father to child

    At last complications
    A hospital bed
    A home made soft toy
    And a card with a birthday greeting.
    "See you soon, love Daddy"
    Never did.
    The widow, she tells the story
    With tears, but pride
    The son, he's a man now
    With boys of his own.

    MJB - June 6th, 1971

    His were not hands used to toil, hardened by physical labour, strengthened by work. Hands guided and directed by arms, similarly strong. His were a writer’s hands.
    Used to the pen, paper, pencil, and sometimes causing the clatter from the keys on the Imperial on which he wrote his works. But hands that were sensitive, caring, careful.

    As well as of words, his life had been one of metal, of designs, of drafting, of calculation, of the single-mindedness that made an Engineer. Made a man (and sadly in the 30’s there were few if any women in that field) fit to challenge Nature’s Laws: to control and contain those great forces which were defined by them and to direct such to the value and benefit of mankind. All mankind.

    And it was in that capacity, as an Engineer, that he had met the young man to whose house he was invited to supper and where he was now standing. Away from his own palatial home (that befitting a published author and respected public figure) and invited to a small rented house, tucked away in one of the estates behind the first line of hills that separated the great dock-yards and port of Southampton Water from the trees and rolling landscapes of the New Forest.

    They had spent the day in discussion, in analysis of a project and its problems, in the calculations of force and reactions, of strength and materials, of routes to engage an enemy with superior technology: and to try to match it. His role was to bring experience and experiences of past success to bear on the untried but innovative solutions being offered.

    The young Engineer had been surprised at his bravado in suggesting that ‘He’ join them for supper: and even more so when the dear man, the Author, had agreed. There was the need for a call to the young wife, to tell her of her distinguished guest and to arrange for extra food. This was a time of rationing, of restriction, of a need to eke out whatever was available. But bread and potatoes were not rationed, nor was offal: and as it was the high summer, there were vegetables and fruits from garden and allotment. The meal was made.

    It was a fine early evening. June was giving way to July. The pair arrived at the house on foot after a tram ride up the hill from the centre of an already bombed city. Petrol was now rationed almost to extinction and the whole population, authors included, were being exhorted to save such for essentials. Travel from place of work to home was necessary but walking and public transport were fine! Shute thought of his story about the Corbetts: a family distressed, as were so many by the ravages of war, by bombing, by disruption, by the failure of services and the very breakdown of law and order. He had set the novel, written in the 30’s long before the start of the War, but it was now seen as frighteningly prophetic, in Southampton. He could almost have been revisiting the scene of his fiction, in the fact that he saw as they traveled to the young man’s home.

    Shute was encouraged by the tidy house. By the well planned garden area, now completely given over to vegetables. By the regulated hall, with hat-stand and phone table, and with the door with its galleon motif set in the glass. He saw blackout curtains, and chris-cross tape on the windows, saw the buckets of sand and water at the ready. He saw precision, saw a young couple at peace with each other, or in as much peace with their situation as was possible in war.

    The wife-(my mother) so young, so pretty, dressed in her best to welcome such a celebrity. ‘ John, didn’t you tell me you have a child’?
    A pause as the girl, as her eyes confirmed, Hazel, smiled with that glow of beauty that every mother in the world has when their child is mentioned.
    “May I see the baby?”
    The ‘he’s in the nursery, asleep’ was not sufficient to stop the repeat of the request: and of course who could refuse such a request from a visitor of such stature.

    There was an exaggerated ‘tip-toe’ by all three up the stairs, an opening of the door, a gasp of pleasure to see the little body, sleeping yet stirring and a move by the father to pick-up, hold for a second in his arms, to comfort and repay the mite for the disturbance. Then, the tiny bundle was held for attention.

    Those hands, the hands of a writer, were placed so tenderly around the blanketed form. One smoothed a brow, while words of affection, soft calling to the muse and the gods of children and angels, were made. And then the little form replaced where it belonged.
    ‘Another Engineer?” asked as though the author already knew the answer.
    “Either that or Prime Minister” the father said so softly and proudly as the door was closed and the three went down to their meal.
    ‘Perhaps he will be a writer and an Engineer?’

    Only the time of their lives would tell.
    And it did.


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  • Mr Blamey, Thanks very much for giving us your story and poem; I very much enjoyed the read!

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  • Whilst the DMWD did have an involvement, particularly in the early stages, the vast majority of the design and construction (including all the parts you illustrated with graphics in the article) were carried out by “Tn5” at the war office which was part of the Royal Engineers and hence the Army and not the Navy.

    Tom Adcock
    Associate Professor
    Dept of Engineering Science,
    University of Oxford

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  • I was impressed, recently, when reading "Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War "
    It demonstrates how (disruptive) innovation can be and was achieved and rapidly at low cost.
    I think it definitely shows that diffusive theories of innovation (and other "management" thinking) just limit what scientists and engineers can achieve.
    It is our (scientific) tradition rather than what politicans feel happy with (until their backs are to the wall....) - and thus needs to be celebrated more widely (perhaps the Engineer could have a blog or a research wiki on this???)

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