I am trying to explain to my son, with scant success, what a mulberry was, "mulberry" being the code name for artificial harbors constructed off the Normandy coast. "They deliberately sank old ships," I explain, "and flooded hollow concrete cubes with seawater to form a breakwater and pier."
He’s having none of it. "So how does that make a harbor?"
"Wait and see," I tell him. "One of the mulberries is still partially there."
We’re on the D514 running parallel to Gold Beach, on our way to Arromanches. One of the most interesting things to me is the sheer logistical brilliance of the D-Day invasion. Starting with an elaborate deception campaign to mislead the German command into thinking that the Allies were planning to invade at Pas de Calais, the Allies also relied on the Germans expecting them to use a pre-existing harbor to stage an invasion. As a result, the harbors at Cherbourg, le Havre, and elsewhere were heavily defended. However, the Allies, who had learned at Dieppe the difficulty of gaining at foothold at a defended harbor, came up with another solution.
Unbeknownst to the Germans, some 20,000 workers in British shipyards began working around the clock beginning in the summer of 1943, building more than 150 caissons which were later used to form two artificial harbors, "Mullberry A" in the American sector, and "Mulberry B" in the British. The project consumed over two million tons of steel and concrete and required huge numbers of tugboats to tow the Mulberries into position. Although Mulberry A was destroyed during a storm before it could be completed, Mulberry B was finished and provided an effective harbor.
Remains of Mulberry B offshore at Arromanches
We stop at the viewing table overlooking Arromanches, where we can clearly see remnants of Mulberry B offshore. More than 500,000 tons of equipment were unloaded here during the summer of 1944. From this vantage point we have a good view up and down the coast. Looking west are the cliffs housing the gun batteries at Longues-sur-Mer, a commanding position on this stretch of coastline. But the most striking things are two religious memorials nearby, one of the Virgin Mary atop an immense pedestal and the other a huge crucifix overlooking Arromanches beach.
While there is a D-Day museum in Arromanches, we’re pressed for time and elect instead to view the short 20-minute film, "The Price of Freedom," shown in the wrap-around Arromanches 360° cinema just a short distance from the viewing table.
More intimate than the vast IMAX screens favored in the States, we stand in the center of the cinema and watch scenes unfold around us. Images are projected onto nine wraparound screens, producing the sense of being in rather than watching the action.
The thing that impresses me most is the quality of the 1944 footage. For example, in one sequence, taken aboard a landing vehicle approaching the beach, we look all around us in a complete circle, viewing the men in the boat, the coastline, and the other landing craft. During a sequence showing tanks moving through village, the entire theater rumbles and vibrates with the sound of the engines. There is no narration or music, only sounds that would have been heard that day.
Interspersed with the scenes of battle are images of the same areas taken recently. A meadow in 1944 strewn with bodies morphs into a pasture with grazing cows, or a view of a street lying in rubble changes into the same street today. It’s an extremely affecting film, particularly the images of the troops. We are so accustomed to seeing the romanticized Hollywood images of soldiers that it’s almost shocking to realize that these are the actual men who fought in Normandy.'
My longsuffering fellow travelers seem to have appreciated the film, too. "That was great!" Greg says as we exit the cinema. It was the sequence with the Allied warships blasting away at the German bunkers on the coast that seems to have impressed him most. "Let me show you what those ships were firing at," I say as we head westward toward Longues-sur-Mer.
Built on the cliff tops on the outskirts of Longues-sur-Mer, the Longues battery was a formidable component in the German defenses. Set in thick concrete housing, the 155-mm guns were able to fire over 25 kilometers out to sea. Even though the Allies pounded the battery during the aerial bombardment prior to the D-Day landings, the German guns inside the meter-thick concrete emplacements were barely scratched. The Germans began firing on several battleships before the HMS Ajax, positioned eleven kilometers offshore, engaged one gun in the battery in long ship-vs-cannon duel. Even though the battery was not destroyed, the pounding on the concrete housing was so intense that the German artillerymen eventually fled their posts.
The Ajax managed to score a direct hit on one gun emplacement, apparently sending a shell through the slit in the fortification at a crucial moment when the gunners had opened the door to the magazine and were loading shells into the breech. The shell from the Ajax set off what must have been one helluva explosion; it threw up immense chunks of concrete and blew the entire roof off the emplacement.
At the end of WWII, most Atlantic Wall defenses were dismantled, but the battery at Longues-sur-Mer was left intact. It is one of the few places visitors can get a sense of what Allied troops faced as they came ashore. Certainly my son and husband seem impressed; Greg explores the command bunker, with its meter-thick reinforced concrete walls, and sizes up the impressive 155-mm cannon.
The fickle weather brings a sudden rain squall and we take refuge in one of the concrete emplacements. We share it with a British couple and begin chatting the way strangers do when thrown together. The rain subsides, but I linger in the concrete shelter for a moment, imagining what it was like to be a German artilleryman on the morning of June 6th, 1944. Later, I read the account of Major Werner Pluskat of the 352nd Artillery Division, in charge of the artillery at Arromanches. He was was in the observation post on the morning of June the 6th::
"I picked up my artillery binoculars with amazement when I saw that the horizon was literally filling with ships of all kinds. I could hardly believe it. It seemed impossible to me that this vast fleet could have gathered without anyone being the wiser. I passed the binoculars to the man alongside me and said, ‘Take a look.’ He said, ‘My God, it’s the invasion."
At that moment, Pluskat later recalled, he knew for a certainty that "this was the end for Germany."