Category Archives: war
When Allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy, France on June 6, 1944 – a bold invasion of Nazi-held territory that helped tip the balance of World War II – they were using a remarkable and entirely untested technology: artificial ports.
To stage what was then the largest seaborne assault in history, the American, British and Canadian armies needed to get at least 150,000 soldiers, military personnel and all their equipment ashore on day one of the invasion.
Reclaiming France’s coastline was just the first challenge. After that, Allied troops planned to fight their way across the fields of France to liberate Paris and, finally, onto Berlin, where they would converge with the Soviet army to defeat Hitler.
When Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and his advisers pressed for this ambitious invasion of Nazi-occupied France, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was dubious.
Could it be done?
Such an operation would require more than a million soldiers – all equipped with weapons, ammunition, food and clothing – plus hundreds of thousands of vehicles, tents and medical personnel.
Getting so many people and materials from ship to shore while battling waves, tides and currents presented an enormous logistical challenge.
Churchill, recalling the failed marine campaign to capture Gallipoli during World War I, feared that Allied troops would get trapped on the beaches and be sitting ducks for the German soldiers awaiting atop Normandy’s cliffs.
So Churchill demanded that a team of engineers, scientists and military officers design a marine staging area that could actually support a successful operation.
The team’s solution was ingenious: two easy-to-assemble artificial ports where Allied ships could safely anchor to stage the massive operation.
As I write in my 2016 book on what became known as the “Mulberry Harbours,” each of these artificial ports consisted of artificial breakwaters – barriers against waves made up of sunken ships and huge concrete chambers.
Behind the circular breakwaters was a sophisticated system of floating piers anchored to the seabed.
German planes doing air reconnaissance did spot the concrete chambers, which had been filled with air to make them float before they were sunk. But, according to my archival research, they had no idea what they were seeing or how these giant containers would be used.
A floating solution
Once complete, each Mulberry Harbour – a code name that has no deeper meaning – gave Allied troops about 1 square mile of quiet, wave-free ocean from which to stage the invasion.
Nearly 200 military ships and landing crafts anchored at Mulberry Harbours in their first week, sending 12 military divisions, or about 180,000 men, straight into enemy territory.
Ten thousand of them were killed or injured on the first day, blown up by landmines and picked off by camouflaged German machine gun nests and blasted by artillery in concrete bunkers.
On June 19, 1944, a storm permanently disabled the Mulberry Harbour used by the American armed forces.
But Britain’s Mulberry Harbour continued to serve Allied forces for another 10 months as they freed all French ports from German control.
War games in the bath
Churchill became convinced of the merit of the Mulberry Harbours design while in a bath tub on the Queen Mary, as he traveled to Washington to discuss war strategy with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943.
Churchill’s scientific adviser, Professor John Bernal, floated paper boats in the prime minister’s bathtub, agitating the water to simulate waves, then used a loofah, or sponge, to demonstrate the pacifying effect of breakwaters.
“They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution worked out,” Churchill wrote. “Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.”
After D-Day, some Mulberry Harbours engineers were sent to the South Pacific with the idea that similar portable ports would be needed for the invasion of Japan. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made that unnecessary.
No similar wartime engineering feat has been tried since.
Finding shipwrecks isn’t easy – it’s a combination of survivor reports, excellent archival research, a highly skilled team, top equipment and some good old-fashioned luck.
And that’s just what happened with the recent discovery of SS Iron Crown, lost off the coast of Victoria in Bass Strait during the second world war.
Based on archival research by Heritage Victoria and the Maritime Archaeological Association of Victoria, we scoped an area for investigation of approximately 3 by 5 nautical miles, at a location 44 nautical miles SSW of Gabo Island.
Hunting by sound
We used the CSIRO research vessel Investigator to look for the sunken vessel. The Investigator deploys multibeam echosounder technology on a gondola 1.2 metres below the hull.
Multibeam echosounders send acoustic signal beams down and out from the vessel and measure both the signal strength and time of return on a receiver array.
The receiver transmits the data to the operations room for real-time processing. These data provide topographic information and register features within the water column and on the seabed.
At 8pm on April 16, we arrived on site and within a couple of hours noted a feature in the multibeam data that looked suspiciously like a shipwreck. It measured 100m in length with an approximate beam of 16-22m and profile of 8m sitting at a water depth of 650m.
Given that we were close to maxing out what the multibeam could do, it provided an excellent opportunity to put the drop camera in the water and get “eyes on”.
The camera collected footage of the stern, midship and bow sections of the wreck. These were compared to archival photos. Given the location, dimension and noted features, we identified it as SS Iron Crown.
The merchant steamer
SS Iron Crown was an Australian merchant vessel built at the government dockyard at Williamstown, Victoria, in 1922.
On June 4 1942, the steel screw steamer of the merchant vavy was transporting manganese ore and iron ore from Whyalla to Newcastle when it was torpedoed by the Japanese Imperial Type B (巡潜乙型) submarine I-27.
Survivor accounts state that the torpedo struck the vessel on the port side, aft of the bridge. It sank within minutes. Thirty-eight of the 43 crew went down with the ship.
This vessel is one of four WWII losses in Victorian waters (the others were HMAS Goorangai lost in a collision, SS Cambridge and MV City of Rayville lost to mines) and the only vessel torpedoed.
After the discovery
Now we’ve finally located the wreck – seven decades after it was sunk – it is what happens next that is truly interesting.
It’s not just the opportunity to finally do an in-depth review of the collected footage stored on an external hard drive and shoved in my backpack, but to take the important step of ensuring how the story is told going forward.
When a shipwreck is located, the finder must report it within seven days to the Commonwealth’s Historic Shipwreck Program or to the recognised delegate in each state/territory with location information and as much other relevant data as possible.
Shipwrecks aren’t just found by professionals, but are often located by knowledgeable divers, surveyors, the military, transport ships and beachcombers. It’s no big surprise that many shipwrecks are well-known community fishing spots.
While it is possible to access the site using remotely operated vehicles or submersibles, we hope the data retrieved from this voyage will be enough.
It was only 77 years ago that the SS Iron Crown went down. This means it still has a presence in the memories of the communities and families that were touched by the event and its aftermath.
No war grave, but protected
Even though those who died were merchant navy, the site isn’t officially recognised yet as a war grave. But thanks to both state and Commonwealth legislation, the SS Iron Crown was protected before it was even located.
All shipwrecks over 75 years of age are protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. It is an offence to damage or remove anything from the site.
This protection is enhanced by its location in deeper water and, one hopes, by the circumstances of its loss.
Sitting on the sea floor in Bass Strait, SS Iron Crown is well below the reach of even technical divers. So the site is unlikely to be illegally salvaged for artefacts and treasures.
Yet this also means that maritime archaeologists have limited access to the site and the data that can be learnt from an untouched, well-preserved shipwreck.
Virtual wreck sites
But, like the increasing capabilities for locating such sites, maritime archaeologists now have access to digital mapping, 3D modelling technologies and high-resolution imagery as was used for the British Merchant Navy shipwreck of the SS Thistlegorm.
These can even allow us to record shipwreck sites (at whatever the depth) and present them to the public in a vibrant and engaging medium.
Better than a thousand words could ever describe, these realistic models allow us to convey the excitement, wonder and awe that we have all felt at a shipwreck.
Digital 3D models enable those who cannot dive, travel or ever dream of visiting shipwrecks to do so through their laptops, mobiles and other digital devices.
Without these capabilities to record, visualise and manage these deepwater sites, they will literally fade back into the depths of the ocean, leaving only the archaeologists and a few shipwreck enthusiasts to investigate and appreciate them.
So that’s the next step, a bigger challenge than finding a site, to record a deepwater shipwreck and enable the public to experience a well-preserved shipwreck.
Before Anzac biscuits found the sticky sweet form we bake and eat today, Anzac soldiers ate durable but bland “Anzac tiles”, a new name for an ancient ration.
Anzac tiles are also known as army biscuits, ship’s biscuits, or hard tack. A variety of homemade sweet biscuits sent to soldiers during the first world war may have been referred to as “Anzac biscuits” to distinguish them from “Anzac tiles” on the battlefield.
Rations and care package treats alike can be found in museum collections, often classified as “heraldry” alongside medals and uniforms. They sometimes served novel purposes: Sergeant Cecil Robert Christmas wrote a Christmas card from Gallipoli on a hard tack biscuit in 1915.
The back of the biscuit reads “M[erry] Christ[mas] [Illegible] / Prosperous New Y[ear] / from Old friends / Anzac / Gallipoli 1915 / [P]te C.R. Christmas MM / 3903 / [illegible] / AIF AAMC”. More than a Christmas card, biscuits like these gave family at home a taste of foods soldiers carried and ate in battle. Archives around the world hold dozens of similar edible letters home.
Biscuit as stationery
This Anzac tile was made in Melbourne. In pencil, an anonymous soldier has documented his location directly on the biscuit’s surface: “Engineers Camp, Seymour. April 2nd to 25th 1917.”
In her history of the Anzac biscuit, culinary historian Allison Reynolds observes that “soldiers creatively made use of hardtack biscuits as a way of solving the shortage of stationery”.
Army biscuits also became art materials on the battlefield. This Boer War era “Christmas hardtack biscuit”, artist unknown, serves as an elaborate picture frame.
Incorporating embroidery that uses the biscuit’s perforations as a guide, it also includes bullets, which form a metallic border for the photograph mounted on the biscuit.
A tin sealed with sadness
During WWI, any care package biscuit that was sweetly superior to an Anzac tile might have been called “Anzac biscuit”. Eventually, the name “Anzac biscuit” was given to a specific recipe containing golden syrup, desiccated coconut, oats, but never eggs.
Anzac biscuits held in our archives evoke everyday experiences of baking and eating. In one case, the biscuits also tell a story of loss. Lance Corporal Terry Hendle was killed in action just hours after his mother’s homemade biscuits arrived in Vietnam. The tin was returned to his mother, Adelaide, who kept it sealed and passed it down to his sister, Desley.
Australian War Memorial curator Dianne Rutherford explains that the museum will never open the sealed tin, because “this tin became a family Memorial to Terry and is significant for that reason. After Terry’s death, Adelaide and Desley never baked Anzac biscuits again”.
Today, biscuit manufacturers must apply for Department of Veterans’ Affairs permission to use the word “Anzac”, which will only be granted if “the product generally conforms to the traditional recipe and shape”. Variations on the name are also not permitted – in a recent example, ice cream chain Gelato Messina was asked to change the name of a gelato from “Anzac Bikkie” to “Anzac Biscuit”.
The Anzac tile, on the other hand, rarely rates a mention in our commemorations of Anzacs at war – although school children and food critics alike undertake taste tests today in an effort to understand the culinary “trials” of the Anzac experience.
Scholar Sian Supski argues that Anzac biscuits have become a “culinary memorial”. What if the biscuits you bake this Anzac day ended up in a museum? What stories do your biscuits tell?
Lindsay will be launching a three year project about biscuits called “Tasting History” during the Everyday Militarisms Symposium at the University of Sydney on April 26.
She is recruiting participants for upcoming biscuit tasting workshops. Sign up here.