June 7, 2019
The Tugboats of D-Day

Estimated time of reading: 8 minutes


During World War II there we many acts of bravery showed from both sides of the conflict; from Oberleutnant Franz Stigler’s heroic act of escorting a crippled B-17 back to allied airspace and the evacuation of Dunkirk to the great naval battles at Midway and Guadalcanal. As well as these feats there were many great warships such as KMS Bismark, HMS Hood and USS Barb, the only submarine in history to sink a cargo train, to name a few. However, one ship, or better type of ship, is often overlooked – the humble Tugboat.

In today’s Royal Navy the tugboat serves as a fleet auxiliary ship that operates in Royal Navy shipyards and bases across the UK, their role is to simply guide ships to their moorings and assist in the fine control needed to pirouette a destroyer round a narrow channel. Go back 75 years to 1944 and it was a very different story. In the run-up to Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, the Navy was requisitioning tugboats from every corner of the country for one purpose – War.

An empire class tugboat. This particular vessel is the Empire Jane and is now an artificial reef near New Zealand.
An empire class tugboat. This particular vessel is the Empire Jane and is now an artificial reef near New Zealand.

Some of the tugs were to be used to get the invasion ships out of port to form the great fleet that would set Europe free from Nazi tyranny. However many of the requisitioned tugboats were bound for Normandy; towing massive block ships, pontoon harbours and old freighters to Omaha and Gold Beaches where they would construct the Mulberry [A] & [B] Harbours – immense jigsaw puzzles of prefabricated harbour parts to provide safe and easy access for supply ships to fuel the Allied war machine in Europe.

One such tugboat was the Empire Larch: A 487 GRT tugboat in the service of His Majesty’s Merchant Navy. Unlike the majority of wartime tugs, the Empire Larch was built for the Ministry of War Transport and was outfitted as a DEMS, a Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship, equipped with primarily self-defence anti-air firepower to dissuade Luftwaffe attacks.  The Empire Larch would set off on June 6th 1944 bound for Gold Beach towing a mighty block ship – a sacrificial ship that was to be scuttled off the coastline to form a breakwater for the construction of the Mulberry [B] Harbour.

The Mulberry Harbours and Operation Jubilee

The Mulberry Harbours [A]: Located at Omaha Beach and [B]: Located at Gold Beach were originally conceived by Winston Churchill as a sketch in a 1917 memo to David Lloyd George for use on the German islands of Borkum and Sylt however the idea was dismissed and never used. In 1940 a civil engineer, Guy Maunsell, wrote to the war office with an idea of a modular artificial harbour for use in wartime however it was overlooked at first in favour of a more daring operation to attempt to seize a channel port from Nazi hands.

Mulberry [B] Harbour at Gold Beach
This operation was called Op. Jubilee, or more commonly known as the Dieppe Raid. The plan was for a naval invasion of the port-town of Dieppe to seize control of the port from the German forces stationed there to give the Allies a chance at gaining their much needed European foothold. On 19th August 1942 5000 Canadian and 1000 British soldiers, as well as 50 US army Rangers landed at Dieppe, supported by The Calgary Brigade of the 1st Canadian Tank Regiment, a strong Naval detachment (Approx. 237 ships including 8 destroyers) and Air support provided by the RAF.

Operation Jubilee had three major objectives:

  • Seize the port from German hands and hold it for a short time to prove it could be done.
  • Perform intelligence-gathering operations in and around the town.
  • Upon withdrawal, they were to sabotage key coastal fortifications.

Ultimately none of these objectives was achieved. At first landings +6 hours Allied commanders were forced to sound the retreat and begin evacuating as many soldiers as they could and at first landings +10 hours the last soldiers were either evacuated, killed or captured. Operation Jubilee was a crushing defeat for the allies. Of the 6086 men who made it ashore 3623 (nearly 60%) would either be killed in action or taken as prisoners of war. The RAF suffered heavy losses too – 106 assorted aircraft, including Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mustangs. The Navy would also suffer the loss of one Destroyer and 33 landing craft. Operation Jubilee would serve to teach Allied high command that it was not ready for a naval invasion of Europe just yet, however some believe that Jubilee is what encouraged Operations Torch and Overlord (the North African and Normandy campaigns respectively).

Following Op. Jubilee Vice-Admiral John Hughes-Hallett declared that if a port could not be captured and held then a port should be taken across the channel. Hughes-Hallett had the support of Churchill and the concept of the Mulberry Harbours began to take shape. Hughes-Hallett would later become the Naval Chief of Staff to the Overlord planners (the people who planned Op. Overlord). In the autumn of 1942 Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten outlined the requirements for mile-long piers that would be able to support a constant flow of supplies and incorporated moorings for 2000 ton supply ships. In July 1943 a committee of eminent engineers was established to advise on what parts of the Normandy coast would be ideal for harbour construction, as well as how to carry out the task – they would eventually settled on block ships and caissons for the breakwaters and defensive platforms and pontoon sections to form the moorings and the piers.

Jim Radford and the Rescue Tugs

Working closely with an art gallery, Aces High Aviation Art, I have been lucky enough to a number of veterans from WW2 including Jim Radford – the youngest participant in the Normandy invasion and well known British Folk Singer who campaigns for peace with Veterans for Peace. Jim served as the galley boy on the Empire Larch and was 15 when he set his eyes upon the horrors of Normandy. During D-Day Jim vividly recalls standing on deck of the tug and having to throw the ships vegetable peelings onto the bodies of dead and dying British soldiers lying in the water, caught in the tide. That and many other horrific sights still haunt Jim today. Jim wrote a song about his time in Normandy called: The Shores of Normandy which he first performed to the nation at the festival of Remembrance in 2014.

During the war, Jim served on rescue tugs – a lifeboat service for the ships in and around the Mulberry harbour. Should a liberty ship come into trouble the rescue tugs would come to its aid and attempt to save the ship and her crew. As the Liberty ships had a welded hull they were prone to split clean in half. Jim recalls going to one such incident – one can only imagine what he must have felt.

As with all jobs in war, there is inherent danger however the rescue tugs faced one of life’s most complex and dangerous jobs – maritime rescue. To perform a rescue the tug has to get next to the ship in distress, putting the tug in danger of being pulled down with the sinking ship. Due to their main role tugs have large bands of either wood or, more recently, rubber. These bands, or fenders, were sacrificial material that would get damaged if a tug collided with a ship it was working on in an effort to lower the risk of serious damage.

The crew of the sinking liberty ship would have to time for when a wave hit the ships, raising the tugboat up to near deck level. When jumping the crew had to make sure they landed with their feet on the fender. Jim recalls one time a sailor jumped from a liberty ship to his tug and missed the fender – knowing what was about to happen Jim tried to pull him in quick however it was in vain – as the two ships lowered and collided the sailors legs were caught between the two ships, removing anything from the waist down, almost certainly killing the sailor instantly.

There are many stories on the tugboat in WW2 and as I’m sure many will agree D-Day, and the whole invasion would have been a lot harder without them. I’d like to take a few lines to dedicate this article to all those who served on the tugboat in WW2.

D-Day Misc WW2