I’ve just read a very interesting article on Think Defence about the relief effort in Haiti after the devestating earthquake there. It has strong historical echoes, so I thought I would sumarise it and add my own thoughts here.
The news channels are full of stories about how Foreign Governments and Non-Governmental Agencies are struggling to get aid into the country. Aside from security the problem appears to be that with no suitable port, and the one airport overwhelmed, there is no way to get aid into the country. The US Air Force has even resorted to air dropping supplies into Haiti by parachute, which is surely an option of last resort. This inability to get aid onto an island is all the more puzzling, as the US Navy and Marine Corps between them have awesome amphibious assets.
Lets take a look at another situation. Long before D-Day, the planning team putting together the plan for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe, had to ponder the problem of getting sufficient supplies into the beachead. It would be too risky to attack a port right away – ports are usually heavily defended, and capturing one would be a bloody business. The Germans were likely to render any ports useless anyway. But supplies had to be got onshore, or the offensive risked being bogged down in stalemate.
The solution? Build a new port. A team in British Combined Operations put together a plan to construct two working ports off the Normandy coast. After extensive trials in England, a blueprint was drawn up for each port to be bigger than the port of Dover. Floating Breakwaters were created to form an outer line of sea defence, and inside these old ships were sunk as blockships. 146 Concrete Caissons were assembled to form the harbour itself. Inside this the pierhead and roadways were built.
Construction began in the early hours of 7 June (D+1), and by D+8 the Mulberry harbours were operational. Unfortunately the harbour off the American beaches was completely wrecked in a severe storm on 19 June. The British Mulberry landed around 9,000 tons of supplies until the end of August when Cherbourg finally became available. Albert Speer, the Nazi Germany Armaments Minister, cited the Mulberry Harbour as the chief reason why the Allies were able to breach the fabled Atlantic Wall.
It was known at the time that the American commanders were less than keen on the Mulberry Harbours, similar to their ambivalent attitude towards the specialist ‘Hobarts Funnies’ amphibious tanks. But since the concept of a mobile, quickly assembled harbour proved so useful in 1944, how come no capability exists for doing something similar nowadays? The inability to get supplies ashore during an amphibious assault would be bound to limit options that any planners have. Modern amphibious forces only seem to have an ability to transfer stores from sea to land by landing craft, powered pontoons or by helicopter. But what if ships could dock directly in a harbour, and supplies could then be driven onto shore? Such a system could be made modular, so the port could be built as large or as small as needed.
Time and time again ideas that have proven useful in history are forgotten or discarded. The famous Bailey Bridge concept was quickly resurrected last year when floods hit Cumbria and swept away a number of Bridges. Maybe new technology emerges, but surely the same requirements exist – to cross a water obstacle, for example, or to create a port quickly?
Maybe Armed Forces consider that the Mulberry is an old concept that had its day in 1944, but that there is no need for it in the modern world. I don’t know. But I think looking at its performance in 1944, the concept still has a lot to offer. Not only could it have aided in getting supplies into the country quickly, it might have had a longer term legacy for developing what is a pretty poor country.