The secret war of Charles Goodeve

Gerald Pawle September 1 1956

The secret war of Charles Goodeve

Gerald Pawle September 1 1956

The secret war of Charles Goodeve

PART TWO: How they opened the door for D-day

Gerald Pawle

Assaulting the Continent called for miracles of inventiveness.

Mulberry harbor was the most famous but there were many others, including a road that ran on water

The phone rang on the desk of Commander Charles Frederick Goodeve, RNVR. in his cluttered office in Admiralty Arch early one morning in February 1942. The caller was the famous physicist Sir Edward Appleton. “I wonder if you could find time to see a man named Hamilton,” he said. “He's an extraordinary fellow ... an inventor . . . and he's got a laboratory fitted up in a bombed wing of the Grosvenor Hotel. He’s working on some ideas I think might interest you.”

At that moment Goodeve didn’t want to see anyone. Especially another inventor. For the past hectic year the thirty-eight-year-old Canadian had been in effective control of one of the war’s most secret and demanding organizations and within a few days he was leaving for the United States. With the resounding title of Deputy Director of the Royal Navy’s Department of Miscellaneous Weapon Development, it was his job to sift the best scientific and inventive brains of the world for new weapons that would keep the Allies a step ahead in what Winston Churchill had dubbed the “wizard war.” Not only that, his fledgling department had the sometimes more difficult task of convincing conservative Admiralty brass hats that some weird-looking and untried gadget might shorten the war if. granted official acceptance. Once an idea was accepted, Goodeve’s third responsibility was to steer it into production through a maze of drawing hoards, mock-ups, trials, modifications and industrial bottlenecks.

Inventor, cajoler, expediter, prophet and midwife—this son of a Winnipeg clergyman had to be some part of each. His success in this strange role is reflected by the brilliant achievements of the DMWD and of the associated scientists and collaborators with whom he was in constant touch. Success like the development of the Oerlikon gun, plastic armor, the Hedgehog mortar that killed fifty U-boats, the rocket-firing landing craft, components of the Mulberry harbors, and the introduction of the frogman. Goodeve’s personal reward was a knighthood from George VI.

In the previous issue of Maclean’s the story was told of the birth pangs of DMWD and of its early successes with revolutionary devices to fight off the Nazi bombers and U-boats and to protect Britain from the threatened invasion. Now the emphasis was on new weapons to carry the fight to the enemy.

The phone call from Sir Edward Appleton was in its own way a turning point in the war. Like a pebble thrown into a pond it set up ever-widening ripples that eventually washed ashore on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. it’s probable that only Goodeve’s admiration for the scientific genius of Appleton made him decide to squeeze time for a call on the inventor Ronald Hamilton into his frantic schedule before taking oil' for the U. S. Picking up an associate, he grabbed his cap and a taxi and set oil' for the Grosvenor.

When they asked for Hamilton at the reception desk they were shown upstairs and into a wing that ran out over part of the Victoria Station roof. Enemy bombing of the rail terminal had made it almost uninhabitable, and as they pushed through the door into the long corridor they noticed plaster peeling from the walls. Over everything hung the musty odor of disuse, and their footsteps echoed loudly on the hare boards of the floor.

From one of the suites of rooms leading off the corridor a man emerged and came forward to greet them. Shortish in height, with a goodlooking sensitive face, he appeared to he in his middle forties. He carried his right arm stiffly, and Goodeve noticed that he had a withered hand.

“I'm so glad you were able to come,” he said as he led the way down the corridor, “I'd like you to see some of my models. I've had to build my own experimental tank. Not a very neat job, I’m afraid, but it was a lot cheaper than getting people to build one for me. No money to spend on frills here.”

He laughed a little harshly. Glancing at him again Goodeve saw the tired lines around his eyes, and suddenly he sensed that Hamilton was under considerable stress.

They came to the homemade water tank — and Goodeve marveled at Hamilton’s ingenuity. It was fully two hundred feet long, and was fashioned out of nothing more complicated than a vast expanse of linoleum and a double row of old bricks. Overhead ran electric cables, and these supplied power to^a number of strange model craft Moating on the surface of the water. The whole thing could not have cost more than a few pounds, and Goodeve thought ruefully of the astronomical sums spent on more elaborate experimental tanks fulfilling a similar function.

Hamilton spoke again and the tiredness had gone out of his voice. ”1 have discovered something which may revolutionize warfare. If certain laws are obeyed the surface of a liquid can be made to behave in many ways like that of a solid. You can lay a sheet of canvas on water and roll a wheeled object over it in just the same way as you could if the canvas was laid on the ground. Look at these pictures . .

Goodeve stared, fascinated, at the photographs Hamilton handed to him. On a carpet of thin chestnut fencing stakes, supported only by a tarpaulin, a boy was riding a motorcycle across a stream.

"My son Peter helped me with these experiments. Even carrying a passenger he could cross the water at high and low speeds quite comfortably. Now, you see what this means, don’t you?”

He turned hack to the tank.

"This theory of mine—I call it Rolling Dynamic Buoyancy—can solve one of your greatest problems in the amphibious assault. My Moating bridge gives you the link between the ships and the shore. Perhaps you’d like to examine this model...”

Goodeve leaned over the tank. There, Moating on the water, was a miniature roadway made of strips of wood and canvas and anchored by wires fore and aft. Hamilton began to run a model truck across it, and the hinged sides of the bridge turned up to form a narrow lane which extended three quarters of the truck's length ahead and astern. As the truck passed over each section the sides of the bridge dropped back again to their original recumbent position. Inspecting it more closely Goodeve realized the brilliant quality in Hamilton’s design. A given load was spread through tension fore and aft. All the stresses and strains had been so cleverly and accurately worked out that not an ounce of material anywhere failed to bear its appointed part of the burden.

Hamilton dived back into his work room and produced a sheaf of drawings.

"You will see here that there is no problem over transporting the bridge. It rolls up like a length of wire netting, and it will unroll just as easily in the water; the sea will take all the weight.”

'‘What loads have you got in mind, and how far can this bridge of yours be extended?” asked Goodeve.

"It should easily carry a ten-ton truck a mile to the shore. As I see it, we can make the bridge in one-thousand-foot sections of Douglas fir planks. To support them we shall need flexible steel cables with a breaking strain of at least nineteen tons.”

“How are you going to apply the tension on your cables?”

“I think we may have to experiment a little further in that direction.” said Hamilton. "To keep the tension constant during the rise or fall of the tide I don't see why we shouldn’t use a simple hanging weight. If variation in the tide is not important an ordinary winch would probably do.”

Goodeve glanced again at the model Moating in the tank. "What happens if a truck breaks down on the bridge?” he asked.

With a fleet of amphibious trains the Allies could invade Berlin

'That shouldn’t cause any real trouble,” said Hamilton. "You saw the hinged sides rise up out of the water when the track was pressed down. They formed a sort of shallow boat around the truck which traveled along with it. If the truck stops in a choppy sea the depresskm will gradually fill with water, of course, but it will be several hours before that part of the bridge becomes waterlogged. There will be plenty of time to tow away any vehicle that has broken down. Normally, of course, the bridge is self-emptying. As soon as the load moves away, all the sea water flows out again over the fiat sides.”

There were more questions from the DMWD officers, and then, as they were turning to go. Hamilton made a gesture toward the tank.

"I don't suppose you would be interested in the other things I’m working on here, hut my Train Ship could bring the war in Europe to an end if they would give me the money to develop it. I call it Horatio. The idea came to me when I was doing the preliminary work on the bridge.”

He moved to the far end of the tank and pointed to a long object in the water. It was the strangest ship Goodeve had ever seen. Enclosed in an endless belt was a train of twelve electric locomotives, and when Hamilton switched on the power they began to move rapidly along a track mounted on the inside of the belt. Picking it up and carrying it forward over the roof of the train as the craft gathered speed.

“I have used an entirely new method of propulsion. This craft you see is driven by skin friction. The scale model corresponds to a full-sized Train Ship 370 feet long and weighing 3,000 tons . .

Hamilton paused, staring at Goodeve intently as if in search of encouragement.

"It will be able to travel at tremendous speeds over land or water. You will see from these drawings that the carriages are connected by large universal joints. Between each section are hydraulic jacks which can be locked when the train reaches a certain speed in the water. They will hold the whole train rigid, in the form of a girder. Then it will ride the waves like a sledge racing over rough ice.”

"What will happen if you run into a gale? In certain conditions surely the length and height of the waves will impose undue strain on your girder. You will then get a dangerous sagging effect, won’t you?” Goodeve asked.

"Not at all,” said Hamilton, abruptly. "Releasing the jacks will give complete articulation; the Train Ship will then ride the waves like a piece of seaweed. When the main swell is large and steady I can adjust the shape of the train, to allow for the combined harmonic motions of the train itself and the swell, simply by releasing or locking the jacks. They also steer the Train Ship; you will only have to extend them slightly to one side or the other for the train to turn in a circle.”

A silence fell on the long corridor, broken incongruously by the dull rumble of a very different type of train as it entered the station below them, and Goodeve looked again at the strange, futuristic object in the tank. Reflecting on the engineering skill that had gone into the creation of the floating bridge it occurred to him that Hamilton’s weird amphibians might not be so impractical after all. One day, they, too, might be entering a London terminal.

“You talked about winning the war with this invention of yours,” he said. "What is in your mind?”

Hamilton smiled a little wryly.

"You probably think this is all very farfetched,” he said, "but theoretically it is possible to produce a vehicle, working on this principle, that will travel over

water at a speed limited only by the strength of the materials used in its construction—a vehicle that can move not only over firm land and sea, hut over ice. snow or marshes. From this country, and from as far away as the U. S. and the commonwealth a fleet of these highspeed amphibious trains could converge on the very heart of Germany. Some could act as mobile battering rams, flattening by kinetic energy a path across occupied Europe for other trains to follow. You could have destroyer trains, remote-controlled and carrying enough high explosive to lay waste whole cities...”

Goodeve saw other things in the gloomy corridor of the Grosvenor that afternoon. Among them was a torpedo unlike any so far devised for submarine warfare.

“Hercules here is another of my pet projects." said Hamilton. “He's a versatile chap. Works on the same principle as the Train Ship. He’ll do over one hundred miles an hour under water, and he can climb ashore and overcome any beach defenses . . .”

Hamilton paused. “I'd better not start telling you about Hercules, though,” he said. “I’ve kept you far too long already.”

Goodeve looked at his watch. Afternoon had merged into early evening. They had lost all sense of time, and he remembered that he still had much to do before midnight.

Hamilton led the way down the damaged staircase, and as they hailed a taxi in the dark street Goodeve said to him. "Send me all your data on the bridge. 1 think we can do something with that . . .” The cab circled to head around Grosvenor Place, and Goodeve leaned forward to wave a farewell. But Ham il.ton had already disappeared, back to his strange experiments in the gloom of the deserted wing.

Before Goodeve set out for the U. S. he was convinced there were remarkable possibilities in several of Hamilton's unusual projects, but the Wheezers and Dodgers—as DMWD was popularly called—had to concentrate on immediate requirements. Any effective link between ship and shore could play a vital part in the coming invasion, and it seemed to Goodeve that the floating bridge was a practical proposition. He instructed his staff to persuade Hamilton to drop his Train Ship researches, and the inventor was taken onto the strength of DMWD as a consulting engineer. Finding a code name for the bridge project was not difficult. When the prototype of the bridge was wound up on its spindle and ready for launching it looked just like a monster Swiss Roll.

To lay the thousand-foot sections of roadway on the surface of the sea special barges equipped with cranes would be needed. The sections of Swiss Roll would be carried to their destination in landing craft; six thousand feet from the shore the crane barge would be anchored and from this seaward base the floating roadway would be unwound to the beach. Hamilton then designed a curb that could be placed in position after the bridge had been anchored. To his delight he found that this device would steer a truck perfectly. The driver could, in fact, negotiate the floating roadway blindfold, or with his hands off the steering wheel, and no amount of skidding caused by the waves placed the vehicle in any peril.

Other experiments were carried out to test the stability of the bridge in rough seas. A Motor Torpedo Boat was brought into the tidal basin where the Swiss Roll lay and while a truck started down the track in one direction the MTB, at high speed on an opposite course, raised sevenfoot waves which hurled themselves against the frail structure. The truck rode the waves like the most seaworthy of boats and Goodeve was able to report jubilantly: “I am satisfied the bridge will be unharmed by storms, and will be usable in all but the worst weather.”

At this stage Hamilton himself began to have doubts about his invention. Never a calm man, he was living on his nerves. He drove himself at such a pace that the strain inevitably told on him. When he was tired and on edge he lost his selfcontrol, making slighting bitter criticisms of his closest friends and helpers.

His greatest handicap, however, was his inordinate passion for inventing whtch, oddly enough, surpassed his interest in the successful completion of any of his projects. With the Swiss Roll this tendency grew to a positive mania, and as the summer of 1942 wore on the trials and never-ending modifications at Portsmouth produced continual rows, culminating in a violent scene on the eve of the first full-scale demonstration of the bridge to a host of very senior officers.

Hamilton decided late that day that further modifications must be made before the Swiss Roll was shown to the VI?s and. on his own initiative, gave orders for the bridge to be dismantled. When Goodeve arrived and found what was happening, he was furious. He went to the dockyard, ordered the dismantled part of the bridge to be reassembled, and left it under armed guard. He then warned Hamilton that he w'as not to re-enter the dockyard that night.

Hamilton was in a frenzy. Bitterly he accused Goodeve of sabotaging his plans, and he threatened to sue him. Reasoned argument was impossible with Hamilton in this hysterical mood, and Goodeve went to bed.

The demonstration next day was, in fact, a complete success, but for some time afterward Hamilton refused to be consoled. He refused—for a time at least —to have anything more to do with DMWD's plans for the bridge.

The Wheezers and Dodgers had to go ahead without him, and additional trials solved such problems as the drag produced by cross tides, the rolling up and retrieving of the sections of the Swiss Roll from the water, and the resistance of the floating roadway to cannon and machine-gun fire.

Hamilton’s floating bridge was eventually used in combination with the artificial Mulberry harbor plumped down off Arromanches to supply the Allied invaders. The inventor was given a reward of almost twenty-five thousand dollars after the w'ar but he didn't live long to enjoy it. He died in 1953 at the age of fifty-four.

Goodeve's department was drawn into the fabulous plans for the Mulberry harbors at an early date. The originator of the scheme was Vice-Admiral John Hughes-Hallett. now a Conservative MP. The Allies had to find a way of laying down two prefabricated harbors each the size of Gibraltar in little over two weeks.

The broad concept eventually embraced an outer breakwater, an inner one composed of huge concrete caissons called Phoenix units which could be towed across the Channel and sunk by opening release valves, and a series of floating piers — “Whales,” they were named — running out from the beach to pier heads, at which ships could berth and unload their cargo into trucks. These pier heads were mounted on stiltlike legs and were designed to rise and fall with the tide, which at times rose twenty-four feet.

The experts realized that for the outer protective breakwater they needed some sort of wall in the sea which need not be carried right down to the sea bed; it had only to extend to the point where the waves lost their energy. Therefore they must build a floating wall.

At this stage, scientist Robert Loch ne r. of DMWD. thought of his I.ilo air mattress. He asked his wife to sew a metal keel on it and they launched it in their pond. Mary Lochncr began making miniature waves with the lid of a cookie tin. The experiments came to an abrupt end when she lost her balance and fell head first into the water, but by then I ochner had seen enough to know he was on the right lines. As soon as he got back to the Admiralty he drew up plans for more accurate models. When these were tested they showed clearly enough that a floating barrier would suppress waves.

It was an exciting discovery. In one bound the Wheezers and Dodgers had eliminated all the machinery, the pipes, and the huge ships which would have been needed to operate the “Bubble breakwater"—a plan close to Churchill's heart which aimed at suppressing waves by the release of high-pressure air bubbles. A new' code word began to appear in the progress reports reaching the Overlord planners, for the floating breakwater was given the title of Lilo.

l.ochner had a nagging feeling that the basic design might be improved. He was worried about the obvious vulnerability of the fabric sides of the high air bags that would hold up the breakwater. When he got home in the evenings he would fill the bath and experiment with different shapes of rigid-sided models. The results were not immediately encouraging, but he kept on trying.

The three full-sized Lilos over which workmen now swarmed in the dock at Portsmouth were unlike any floating object ever seen. They were two hundred feet long, and twelve feet wide. The gigantic air bags were divided into three compartments, running the full length of the Lilo and separated from each other by canvas walls proofed with rubber. The keel consisted of a hollow' tube of reinforced concrete eight feet in diameter. and when flooded with water it weighed seven hundred and fifty tons.

The army of workers in the floating dock were baffled by the grotesque thing they were creating. They guessed that it had something to do with the Second Front so stridently demanded in crude lettering on walls and hoardings. Its purpose they were unable to decide, but they were unanimous on one point—it would never float!

By the middle of August 1943 the Prime Minister was in Canada, and the British and American planning staffs summoned to the Quadrant Conference were working together on the problems of Overlord. Suddenly word reached the Admiralty that a team fully conversant with the progress of the Bubble harbor and the Lilo breakwater was to fly to Quebec immediately. Before setting out I.ochner told Lieut. Robin Byng to proceed with tests of a new rigid-sided breakwater.

When the DMWD team reached Quebec and drove to the Chateau Frontenac they found to their dismay that a meeting on artificial harbors was due to start in fifteen minutes. Sleepless and unshaven they grabbed their papers and plunged into technical consultation with a large U. S. contingent of army and navy officers. The Americans were keenly interested in the revolutionary British plans.

On the last day of his stay Robert I.ochner was summoned to the White House to give a twenty-minute talk on the floating breakwater to Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt. A signal had arrived stating that the tests on the rigid-sided models completed before the departure from England had proved successful. Churchill was still intrigued with the compressed-air idea and before I.ochner began his talk he enquired a little aggricvedly, “What about my bubbles?” General Sir Hastings Ismay remarked tactfully that the trials were still inconclusive.

That night a signal went to England. It was from the Combined Chiefs of Staff, and announced that Mulberry was to be a British responsibility. The DMWD team flew home to find that the latest tests of the rigid models had exceeded all expectations. Should they go ahead with the sea balloons? Or should they stake everything on an equally untried floating monster made of steel?

On September 13 the plunge was taken. Although they decided to go ahead still with the trials of the Lilo prototypes, which were expected to provide valuable information on mooring problems, • the major effort would be concentrated on the design and construction of the radically different steel units.

At first this improved version was called Hard Lilo, to distinguish it from the rubber-and-concrete structure now awaiting trial in the Channel, but eventually it was given the code name of Bombardon.

The full-scale Bombardon breakwater required ninety-six hollow-steel objects which, viewed end on, looked like monster Maltese crosses. They would be two hundred feet long, and just over twenty-five feet wide, with a draught of nineteen feet. On launching, the bottom and side arms were flooded with sea water to give the necessary stability. To support this weight the top half of the vertical arm contained a nest of watertight buoyant chambers.

When Field Marshal Montgomery, as military commander of Overlord, decided in January 1944 to provide for an assault by five divisions instead of three the date for the invasion was put ahead a month, from May 1 to June 5. To the Wheezers and Dodgers the postponement came as a welcome relief. Before work could begin on building the full-scale Bombardons required for the two Mulberry harbors they had had to carry out more than three hundred separate experiments with scale models.

Throughout the overture to Overlord the activities of the Wheezers and Dodgers were manifold. For months past they had been developing a variety of devices to confuse the enemy’s radar from the moment the invasion fleet sailed. There were rockets and shells that emitted coils of aluminum wire to baffle the range-finding of the German coastal batteries. To draw the enemy fire away from major targets another group of objects was produced simulating forces that did not, in fact, exist at all. Different types of reflectors again made quite small craft look like battleships on the radar screen, while cruisers appeared no bigger than fishing vessels. They designed special radar marking buoys to keep the Allied bombarding ships dead on course during their night approach to the French coast.

Not all the DMWD experiments had resulted in success. A notable and exasperating failure had been the “Strength Through Joy." This had been developed by the rocket team under Commander Nevil Shute Norway, the famous novelist. It consisted of two large projectors connected by hydraulic pipes to a remotecontrol cabin rather like a squirrel’s cage which contained a sight and a joy stick. The operator strapped himself in this cage and could swing the rockets to any angle he chose. When a prototype of this weapon was being trucked to Portsmouth for trials it stopped over on the Horse Guards Parade so that Goodeve and other senior officers could inspect it. One or two admirals joined them, and the press of high brass became thicker. Finally Winston Churchill left No. 10 Downing Street, to take a look himself.

wmmmmmmmwmmmmmmmmmm* I ANSWER to Who is it? on page 34 Hume Cronyn, Canadian || actor who is married to actress Jessica Tandy. É 1

Churchill climbed into the control cage, swung the rockets around. “A very impressive weapon,” he announced. “Order a thousand of them.”

Someone hesitantly mentioned that the weapon had not yet been tried out. The Prime Minister reddened. "I said, order a thousand of them.”

The thousand were duly ordered but trials at sea uncovered a technical snag that the experts could not surmount. The Wheezers and Dodgers lived in fear for months that Churchill would check up on the progress of the deliveries.

As D-Day neared the Army asked for some means of speeding up the transfer of men and their equipment from troopships to the decks of the landing craft. Scrambling nets, they had decided, were far from satisfactory. DMWD designed a tube from which stretched a long, rubberized canvas chute. The far end of this could be held quite easily by two men standing on the deck of a landing craft; all that the soldier needed to do was to clamber in, feet first, and hurtle to the bottom. They called it the Pleiter Skelter. On a full-dress test by soldiers in full kit one man tore a strip clean down the canvas tunnel with the foresight of his rille; the rest of his platoon, following close behind, all fell straight into the sea. This defect made good, the tube was put into service on troopships.

The Wheezers and Dodgers were satisfied that the trials of the Bombardon had been a complete success. Robert Lochner. however, could not altogether rid himself of doubts about the safety margin that had been set. But there was no time now for changes. When the invasion fleet put to sea the first sections of the floating breakwater sailed with it from Portland. At the same time the testing climax was at hand for many other devices dreamed up by the unorthodox crew of DMWD. Goodeve by this time had been appointed to a civilian post in the Admiralty with the status of a rear-admiral and Commander Denys Richardson had replaced him. Goodeve, however, kept a watching brief over DMWD until the last.

Five hours before zero hour a force of small craft left Newhaven and headed toward Dieppe, towing a number of DMWD's radar foxing devices. Twelve minesweepers flying “magic” balloons which confused the radar images went over with the heavy ships forming the bombarding force. When the cruisers opened up on the distant shore batteries the minesweepers circled in the smoke screen to draw the fire of the enemy.

The assault force included forty-five Hedgerows—a fearsome bank of rocket bombs installed on small landing craft. One Hedgerow commander got so close to the beach that he saw his bombs blow a tremendous breach in the sea wall, and as he withdrew he watched Allied tanks forging through the gap.

Soon after seven a.m. on the beaches the cliff-scaling gear developed by DMWD went into action. Three companies of the U. S. Rangers stormed ashore at Pointe du Hoc, three miles west of Omaha Beach, where an almost sheer cliff confronted them. The Rangers shot up their rocket grapnels and, under covering fire from two destroyers, they rapidly scaled the cliff face.

When the first waves of troops were ashore work began on the Mulberry harbor. The placing of the Bombardons was carried out by a fleet of carriers; by D-plus-6 the floating breakwater at Mulberry A was complete, and within twenty-four hours the Bombardons off the British harbor were also safely moored.

For the first two weeks the blockships and the floating breakwaters provided practically all the sheltered water used by the invading forces. During that period a great host of men and vast quantities of stores were successfully landed, and a supply position was established on shore sufficient to secure the bridgehead against any counterattack that the Germans might launch.

At Arromanches Ronald Hamilton’s Swiss Roll was in continual use as the Royal Navy’s own pier for bringing ashore men and supplies. 1 he floating bridge had. however, already played a far more important part in the success of the invasion—as an instrument in the cover plan for misleading the enemy over Allied intentions. The knowledge that this highly mobile type of sea bridge was in production was one of many factors that contributed to German indecision over the likely point of assault.

On July 23 Churchill visited Mulberry B and on his return to England he paid his own eloquent tribute: "This miraculous port has played, and will continue to play, a most important part in the liberation of Europe.”

In the making of that port — and in the invasion itself — Charles Goodeve’s Wheezers and Dodgers had played their full part. ★

Many revolutionary devices as yet untested in war were developed by the DMWD. Gerald Pawle will write about these weapons of the future in the next issue of Maclean’s.