Or, how the Noireau river got a little piece of the Mulberry Harbour for a bridge…
The Résistance in action
In June 1944 a few days after the Allies landed on Normandy’s beaches, a few members of the Résistance quietly met in the small village of Le Pont Grat, in enemy occupied Vallée de la Vere.
They heard the invasion of 6 June just 40 miles north and battles since, but liberation had still not reached them.
They were all leaders of Résistance groups formed by remarkable Henri Laforest, who had been arrested on 10 January that year, and tortured in Alencon by the Gestapo. Henri Laforest gave nothing away to the enemy and was transported to a concentration camp. He would die of TB five days after being liberated from Bergen Belsen.
Mission to destroy a bridge
The meeting in Le Pont Grat was to plan sabotage of enemy communication lines and transport links, as requested in secret messages from the Allies. They possessed very limited munitions but great determination. Julien Bégyn known as ‘Lapin’ (rabbit) was given the mission to destroy a road bridge over the Noireau river, at the hamlet of Les Bordeaux.
Near midnight on Thursday 29 June, Julien, his brother Bernard Bégyn, Roger Bidault and Louis Dautonnel (known as ‘mitron’ baker) met with Jules Dugué and Louis Hébert of Pont Erambourg. They were accompanied by members of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans Français (FTP): Michel Trévin, with a Spanish explosions expert known as ‘Begui’ and his comrade ‘Marcel’ who had links with the Hamel des Bots Maquis. They made their way to Les Bordeaux.
A soldier, a dog and great danger
A railway line from Caen ran alongside the bridge over a viaduct badly damaged by Allied bombing. It was still guarded by a single German soldier and his dog. As the group neared the bridge the dog (a German Shepherd) suddenly approached them… But one of the group whispered “Raus, Raus!” (get away! In German) and the dog trotted back to his master without barking or even signalling their presence.
The explosives expert worked quickly. Just a few minutes after their arrival a huge explosion echoed around the valley and the metal bridge was destroyed.
A new bridge with a remarkable history
During 1945, as Normandy began to patch itself up after the destruction of Occupation and Liberation, Les Bordeaux bridge was assessed for repair. The road was then a useful link between Caen and the south.
The span of the old bridge, just over 80ft, provided an unusual solution to British army engineers who sent word up to Arromanches. There Mulberry B harbour was being decommissioned. They sent for an iron ‘Whale’.
The whale requested was a section of floating roadway used to connect the Mulberry harbour to land, for disembarkation of cargo after the D-Day landings.
The idea of a floating harbour came from British prime minister Winston Churchill, who knew creating a harbour at sea was preferable to attempting to seize a well defended port. The disastrous experience of 1942’s Dieppe Raid showed the Allies just how badly wrong an attack on an occupied port could go. They could not make that mistake again.
Creating the floating harbours
Designed by British engineers, two gigantic portable harbours were built in 1943-44 in total secrecy by 50,000 workers across the British Isles. Each consisted of 600,000 tons of concrete with 33 jetties linked by nearly 16km of floating roadway. The harbour wall, about 9km long, was made up of 146 ‘caissons’, each weighing 6,000 tons. Each harbour would cover two square miles, around the size of the British Port of Dover. Landing ships and small cargo vessels could unload directly from within the harbour, while larger vessels would transfer their cargoes onto barges.
In use just days after D-Day
The harbours were towed across the Channel and ready for use less than a fortnight after D-Day. Mulberry A was set up for the Americans at Omaha beach, and Mulberry B (‘Port Winston’) at Arromanches for the British. A terrible storm from 19 June rendered Mulberry A unusable and it was used to strengthen Mulberry B. The harbour was decommissioned after six months.
Uses were found for most parts of the deconstructed Mulberry Harbour by a resourceful army. Decommissioned ‘whales’ were used across France as temporary bridges. While some survive as memorials, just one is still in use as a bridge in Normandy; Les Bordeaux.
The rare little bridge of Les Bordeaux
After half a century of use, Les Bordeaux whale bridge was looking a little worn. In the spring of 2002 the town of Saint-Denis-de-Méré, with the help of the Conseil Général du Calvados, paid to have it carefully restored. With due ceremony Les Bordeaux bridge was placed back across the Noireau on 5 June the same year.
Little known, this piece of D-Day history is remembered in the local villages. As part of the D-Day 70 anniversary a reconstruction was made with the loan of old military vehicles from local history enthusiast Richard Duvalleroy.
Today the bridge is still in use, its familiar whale shape not instantly obvious to drivers along the D256A. But if you stop, walk a few steps and look back, you can admire a rare survivor from one of the most significant moments in all our history.
Sources and info
A whale section from Normandy is restored and on show at Duxford, UK
Enthusiast Christopher Long’s website with information on saving WW2 military bridges and similar whales