In the M.T.C., driving for the Ministry of Supply, Miss Gwen Croft was one of the unknown number of men and women who helped to make possible the great prefabricated harbour that was towed over to Normandy for the Invasion.
On the evening of April 21, 1944, my friend Miss Eileen M. Ward and I were told to prepare to leave the next morning for Southampton, on a very hush-hush job. We spent the evening getting things ready, and next morning, before leaving London, we were warned that on no account were we to divulge to anyone the nature of our task. Well, that was easy; we had yet to discover it for ourselves! We arrived at Southampton about lunchtime, and were told to report at King George V Dock, where we were warmly welcomed by the man in charge.
We entered what was supposed to be an office. Dirt and papers were everywhere. We discovered later that finding it impossible to work satisfactorily in a tiny hut, these people had decided that the railway offices were more suitable, and they had moved in a day or so before our arrival, and there was no time for cleaning up. But then there was hardly time for them to eat. We concluded that something must be done, and whilst Miss Ward took her car into the town for brooms, buckets, soap and disinfectant, I swept up as much dirt as I could find and lit a fire in a room containing a cooking-range. Between us we cleaned up, much to the amusement of the staff. But that wasn't what we had been sent to Southampton for.
Later, over a cup of tea, they told us that we had been fixed up in a hotel at Brockenhurst, a very delightful spot. And the job? It was to drive around men in charge of various parts of the building and construction of Mulberry! Hence all the secrecy. Conveyance had been almost impossible to find for these men who had to go from place to place where Mulberry's parts were being built: the caissons at Marchwood, the pontoons at Bosham and elsewhere.
The pierheads built at Conway (Caernarvonshire) were towed to Southampton, where the spuds (anchors) were fitted. These were 60 feet high. It was indeed a fascinating sight to see the little tugs towing huge pierheads down the river, then pushing this way, pulling that, and finally guiding them gently alongside the quay. As soon as they were alongside the workmen were on deck with their equipment. Not a second was wasted. Speed and yet more speed was the cry, and from daylight until dark the work went on.
When we were not driving we did our best to eliminate the hasty sandwich lunch washed down with a cup of almost cold tea. We managed to get hold of stools and tables, and arranged them in what we now called our kitchen, bought crockery and cutlery and proceeded to serve a decent meal to the staff, 198 in all. It was surprising how many other people happened to find their way to the office kitchen when the teapot was on the go!
One day I crossed to the Isle of Wight, in connexion with rehearsal of troop-carrying craft, and was amazed at the sight of so many ships, little and big that smothered the sea. We almost had to squeeze our way through them. Sometimes Jerry would come over during the day, but he always kept his distance, at a great height – spotting, so the men said. There were heavy raids at night but not once did they hit the docks.
Every man now was working at top pressure, for D-Day was in the air. There were plenty of guesses at the date, and nobody seemed keen on being in Southampton on the particular day – especially on the docks! We knew by this time what Mulberry was for and how it would look when completed. We were shown over one of the completed pier-heads. Its stairways and passages were very narrow, and the crew had great difficulty even in getting into their bunks. Down below there were steel supports everywhere, and at each corner was encased mechanism that worked the spuds up and down; when the pier-head was in position the spuds were lowered, anchoring it.
We were very glad to get up on deck again, though the siren was going and everyone was thinking the same thing – Jerry was sure to make a mass attack soon and this might be it. But it wasn't; only one enemy plane approaching, and the All Clear soon sounded. A few days later I went back to London for 48 hours and when I returned to Southampton the sea was still covered with ships, and the pier-heads were still in the King George V Dock. But early the next morning everything was gone – and my part of the job was finished.