Rob Smith looks at a surviving relic of D-Day in East London
While the focus of this weeks commemoration of the D-Day landings is in Normandy, there are some surviving vessels from Operation Overlord in London. The most obvious is HMS Belfast, which provided the opening bombardment on Juno and Gold beaches. HMS Belfast destroyed the German artillery battery at Ver-sur-Mer, which would have threatened British and Canadian troops landing on the beaches.
You can find more humble vessels on the banks of the Thames in Rainham Marshes in London Borough of Havering. There are twelve ferro-concrete barges that were once part of the piers for Mulberry Harbour half submerged in the mud on what is now the RSPB nature reserve. They were moved there in 1953 as an attempt to build flood defences along the Thames.
Mulberry Harbour was an ingenious solution to the problem of supplying the vast amounts of food, ammunition and medical supplies needed by the Allied force landing in Normandy. While landing supplies on the beach would be possible for a short while, in the long term a harbour would be needed to unload the bigger ships, and also provide shelter in bad weather. It was envisaged that capturing Cherbourg would take weeks, and it was likely the retreating Germans would wreck the port first. The solution was to build a prefabricated harbour in Britain, tow it to Normandy in sections and then position it to create a new artificial harbour for ships to use. While it was meant as a temporary measure you can still see sections of the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches in Normandy
Mulberry Harbour sections were built all over the UK but some of the large caisson sections were built at the East India Dock in Blackwall. The site is now occupied by Tower Hamlets Town Hall, the address being – Mulberry Place. The huge caissons that formed the harbour were connected by 10 miles of floating roadway, and this is where the concrete barges at Rainham came in – they would have supported the connecting roadway. But why concrete? Well they needed to be strong, but steel was in short supply. Concrete was cheaper and easier to cast into the size required.
We owe a huge debt to everyone involved in D-Day from the soldiers who fought in the battle to the people who worked on the many ingenious schemes that made D-Day a success. It would be nice if there was a way to make sure that the Rainham barges survive as a way to help future generations remember.