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In Arromanches, the artificial harbor that fed the Allied invasion of Normandy still lives

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Remains of the artificial harbor in Arromanches, France. The remains of the breakwater are still visible off in the distance. Photo by David Wogan

East of the U.S. landing sites of Utah and Omaha beaches lies the small French village of Arromanches. If you’re not a World War II history buff, it’s role in the war may not be familiar to you. It wasn’t for me until I visited the coastline recently. Looking back, it is perhaps the most important beach in the Allied landing in Normandy in 1944 and critical for supporting the war against Hitler.

Arromanches is the site of the artificial harbor that the British built to funnel machinery and fuel to troops Allied troops in France. As in modern wars and conflicts, the flow of resources can be a strategic vulnerability.

In planning the invasion of Normandy, Winston Churchill understood without a reliable harbor, the flow of vital resources would not make it to the troops and the invasion would stall. From this harbor goods like foodstuffs, tanks, artillery, ammunition, and fuel would be delivered to the frontlines.

Established ports were heavily defended by German troops, rendering them useless for the invasion. Churchill came up with an ingenious solution: he would build all the components needed for a harbor in England and tow them across the Channel where they would be assembled in Arromanches.

You can still see remains of the large concrete structures that formed the breakwater and there is a section of the steel causeway on display. It’s a tremendous feat of engineering.

There were over a dozen ships that were sunk to provide the first relief against the swells of the English Channel, followed by a ring of reinforced concrete shells that would fill with water and sink to the bottom of the water providing a second breakwater. Floating piers that could rise and fall with the tide provided a docking station for larger transport ships. Three causeways composed of steel sections connected the piers to the beach.

I found a quick video that shows the different components used in the artificial harbor.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 1:59 pm 08/21/2013

    Arromanches (Gold Beach) was perhaps the most important harbor for the invasion but that was because a storm destroyed the harbor at Omaha Beach. That did not stop the Americans who continued to bring supplies and men over the beach right through January 1945. The Mulberry at Arromanches did survive the storm demonstrating the engineering skill of the Brits who were responsible for it. It became known as Port Winston. Churchill did understand the importance of these artificial harbors and it was because of his understanding that the harbors were built BUT they were the brainchild of British Admiral John Hughes-Hallett. Hughes-Hallett was ridiculed by his peers when he proposed them after the failed Dieppe Raid and it was Churchill who saw that Hughes-Hallett was right.

    The Mulberry Harbors were only for Omaha and Gold but the Allies sunk ships to provide calm waters at all five beaches called Gooseberries. Altogether, the blocking ships that were sunk and the multiple elements of the Mulberry Harbors constitute an unbelievable achievement of technology and skill. The Mulberries along with the Operation PLUTO (Pipe-Lines Under The Ocean) are among the greatest accomplishments of military engineering.

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  2. 2. ErnestPayne 2:43 pm 08/21/2013

    A now unfortunately deceased friend was the Naval Constructor that designed the moorings for the Mulberries. He ensured that the British harbour had manilla hemp for the harbours. The know it all americans went with steel cables that parted in the storm. It is on such threads that victories are wond.

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  3. 3. ericjwolfe 3:17 pm 08/22/2013

    Very informative, but the invasion occurred on June 6, 1944, not 1945.

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  4. 4. David Wogan in reply to David Wogan 3:44 pm 08/22/2013

    Thanks. I’ve fired my proofreading staff.

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