Monday, June 07, 2004

Obviously cribbed straight from Southern Cross is this newish blog, on all manner of worrying topics centred round Africa and the Middle East.

As for the current main subject in much of the world [well Europe], D-day, I haven't got much to add. It's strange watching the great and the good thronging through a French village - one which when I was there didn't look interesting enough to be worth the effort of rowing ashore. Admittedly that was in March last year, when everything was grey, windy and cold. And the tender has the steerage of a coracle, and would need to be inflated. We originally moored off Arromanches with the intention of exploring the Mulberry Harbour, which was soon scratch due to the less than favourable conditions, and the sheer scale of the thing - the caissons are far enough out that they appear to be a Morse signal wrapped around the horizon.

On the same trip we also went up the Caen canal to Pegasus Bridge [I have to admit at the time I didn't know what it was]. And so discovering that there's two of them. The most memorable bits were: A. How close some of the gliders landed. B. Investigating the design of a Bailey bridge. C. Suggesting that as the very small bullet holes occur in a matching pattern on the other side of the bridge, that there might just be a chance that they are in fact rivet holes. D. The general in charge of the operation lost all the Francs he'd been supplied with, whilst gambling with the local vicar. E. The Ouistreham harbourmaster's folly in charging up river at full speed to find out what all the loud explosions are about. And that's about it, as most of the rest of my memories about that trip are concerned with chaos in locks, mooring overnight on a fuel station [we were trying to get some fuel and everywhere stayed closed despite the opening times], being dwarfed by a ship going up the Caen canal, and sailing fast under the foresail only [creaming up the Solent doing 10 knots over the water, plus whatever the incoming tide was, is fun. Especially when it's in spite of my helming].

I think it's more the ideas that ideas that impressed me rather than the realisation. The mulberry harbour certainly did. And in case you're wondering what one is, here's what I wrote to friend at the time.

During the war the Germans had this annoying habit of not leaving the major ports unprotected to be captured and used by an invasion force. But to launch and supply an invasion force the allies would need the use of fairly big ports, but you can't capture them until you've already started the invasion including controlling the ports. So what do you do if you want to invade France, but can't get her harbours? Bring your own. The British army designed portable ports which could be placed on the shallow sloping sandy beaches of Normandy, and thus create new access points. The port consisted of a series of caissons forming the outside wall, with various pontoons and jetties inside, mainly following the design of a bailey bridge (big meccano). The caissons were huge hollow reinforced concrete blocks that were floated across the channel and then sunk when in position.

There were two mulberry harbours put on the Normandy coast - one English, one American, but about six weeks (I think [edit: according to the recent BBC coverage, it was June the 18th, so a couple of weeks after d-day]) after they were built there was quite bad storm, and the American one was pretty much wiped out, as they'd built theirs quicker by only doing up every third fastening (although they did have plenty of warning that the storm was coming). The British one was a bit battered (most of the damage was caused by the floating barriers which the navy had insisted upon having [mainly because they didn't like the army doing stuff in the sea, and wanted to show they're control], which all slipped their anchors).

There isn't that much left of them now cos they've had 50 years of the sea and shifting sands, plus most of the caissons got nicked to rebuild Le Harve. But the concept's still pretty impressive.
I think I'll leave it at that, as there are many other people responding to the recent coverage, and commenting on the actual events. And also it stops me naming the BBC reporter who tried interviewing, as a veteran, someone pretending to be a character from the television comedy Dad's Army, and the other reporter who said of a big gunmetal-grey ship with French flags on both ends "and here comes, now, a boat, I think it could be a French boat. I think it is a French boat, er, ship, er, naval ship. It's, er, she's moving slowing now, this French ship". Which considering it's been sitting in Portsmouth Harbour for ages, you'd think they could have done little bit more research. But the best bit of having live running commentaries came as the Queen entered Arromanches. Cue a solemn discourse on the Queen pressing a button and shutting her own window in the car. The Duke of Edinburgh left his open when he got out.

But it's very easy to be cynical, and most of the coverage was fairly good considering the nature of the programming. Speaking of cynical - I wonder who's helicopter flew over the British ceremony at Arromanches (the Queen did not look impressed)? I'd suspect Bush, but there was only one, so it seems unlikely.


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