D-Day and Crystallography

The events of June 6, 1944 and the ending  of WWII in the European front are all very well known. The press and  the electronic media will cover them in detail. However, in the context of the International Year of Crystallography (IYCr2014) what is less known is the personal connection between the planning of the landing of the allied forces in the beaches of Normandy and crystallography. Any connection? Are you kidding? Yes, there is!

Previously, the most  infamous amphibious landing in military history at Gallipoli  in WWI ended up in disaster. It was the only precedent for attempting to put large number of troops ashore without first capturing the port. The shadows of this debacle had provided in England the impetus  for the formation of various special units  under the umbrella of ‘Combined Operations’ (CO). To make ‘Overlord’ (the code name for the operation) a success there needed to be detailed knowledge about the nature of the Normandy shore, which included among many other pieces of information: i) safe approach for the ships and landing craft, free from mines and rocks; ii) the range of tides; mean high and low water marks; underwater obstacles;  iii) fortifications on the beaches; iv) beach gradients and dimensions, as well as exit routes from the beaches that would support tanks and heavy equipment; and v) local topography of the hinterland. As late as September 1943, no specific or current information about this issues was available.  All the data had to be gathered  without alerting the enemy to preserve the vital element of surprise.

Cover of the biography of J.D. Bernal by A. Brown. 'Sage' was a truly polymath of knowledge and was involved in the politics and social actions of his times (1901-1971).

Cover of the biography of J.D. Bernal by A. Brown. ‘Sage’ was a true polymath of knowledge and was involved in  the birth of protein and virus crystallography ( nurturing several Nobel prizes in the field)  and the politics and social actions of his time (1901-1971).

Lord Mountbatten and the high command of Operation Overlord had full confidence in John D. Bernal, ‘Sage’, who had proven himself invaluable in other strategic decisions and operations in earlier stages of WWII. It is not that he knew the answers  but rather that his muti-faceted, brilliant, scientific mind would ensure that no potential pitfall would go undiscovered. By early October 1943, Bernal was fully engaged in attacking the myriad of imponderable problems that the landing forces would have to face.

What I found most amazing about the involvement of ‘Sage’ on providing solid data on the beaches of D-day was his approach. The first time he looked at the maps and charts of the proposed operation Overlord beaches in Washington at the end of August, he recalled  a holiday visit ten years earlier to the beaches of Arromanches in the Normandy coast of France. He remembered the turbid water caused by a suspension of peat. This personal impression led him to read ‘Le Guide Bleu‘  of French beaches, a source of information disregarded by the British Naval Intelligence. This lead to consultations with London geologists and other more obscure sources.

Obviously, a critical unknown factor about the beaches chosen for landing was whether they could support the weight of armed vehicles, and particularly whether trucks and tanks would be able to drive across them without getting trapped in the wet sand of unknown texture or firmness. So Bernal, in his unique brilliancy, decided to consult obscure volumes in the British Museum and the Oxford Library about the geology and beach structure of the shores searching into the most remote sources, going back in time to the  adventures of William the Conqueror (Norman King of England 1066-1087) near Cherbourg. He got an unlimited pass to both libraries and consulted every volume of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of Caen, starting in 1840, with special attention to the description of summer excursions of geologists, botanist, zoologists about the marshes of the surrounding country side.

One of the most valuable readings of Bernal were the contributions to the proceedings of Abbe Hue, a local priest, who was fascinated by the geology of the Bay of Calvados, who reported finding a Roman coin dating back to 230 A.D. From these and many other ‘scholarly’ readings Sage developed a picture of the region as a wooded valley with rocky edges on both sides. He dug into many other obscure sources, among them a twelfth century Norman epic, and detailed analysis of the names given to topographical features such as a low-lying promontory named ‘Hable de Heurtot’, the latter suggesting an earlier harbor.

With all these clues, Bernal suggested to the high command the gathering of more detailed information from air sorties to develop nautical charts after multiple reconnaissance flights at low altitude during moonless nights. During the three months before D-Day , 200,000 sorties were flown over enemy territory; many to divert suspicion but the majority to gather data to prepare for the landing.  Samples were also brought back to England from many of these beaches by heroic expeditions  by Scott-Bowden (Royal Corps of Engineers) and his accompanying sargent  Ogden-Smith. Of note is an expedition, a Pilotage Party, by the British Engineers to ‘Pointe du Hoc’ that would be a deadly obstacle for the Americans fighting to get a stronghold on Omaha beach. The observations and data gathering under guidance and leadership of Sage charted the basic topology of the shore line and then went on to characterize the waters  at La Baie de Seine, and the Bernieres and Calvados reefs that had caused many crushed hulls over the years. There was also the development of reliable tide tables for the coast and many other details. By the end of January, he submitted the final approval reports for the proposed beaches selected for operation Overlord, providing entry and exit routes for the heavy equipment (trucks and tanks, mainly)  taking into account the the mined areas and the topology and character of the different access beaches.

A detailed account of all this effort is given in A. Brown’s biography of Bernal (Chapter 12, see figure) and I refer the interested reader to this source for further information on the extraordinary life and accomplishments of J. D. Bernal. I do not think that the electronic resources available cover this aspect of Bernal’s biography nor the thorough geological and engineering preparations that undoubtedly contributed to the success of the operation.  True to his experimental and scientific character, Bernal wanted to see personally the beaches, promontories and terrain that he had so carefully charted before the invasion. Thus, he arranged to visit France on D-day+1 and was approved to go even though he had to dress in an appropriate military combat outfit that made him to look rather ‘unmilitary’ (see the above reference for details).

By staying an extra day in France, he managed to visit the land marshes  near the port of Courseulles and did find tanks and heavy equipment  stuck in the ditches as he had imagined it would happen. Nonetheless, it was clear that by D-day+1 the operation had been a success. He returned to Portsmouth and was rather pleased to see that all the preparatory work done at the ‘Combined Operations’ unit had resulted in a successful military operation.  His notebooks and reports speak of  the obstacles encountered on the beaches corresponding ‘in almost every detail to expectations’ from the provided charts. Taking into consideration the difficulties inBernalsPicasso-Muraltroduced by the unpredictable weather, he concluded that the methods and intelligence developed were adequate for the task.  The official reports of the high command of operation Overlord  concluded: 1) The element of surprise offset the rough weather encountered by the troops; 2) the heavy preliminary bombardment did not cause heavy material damage but affected the human defenders, effectively neutralizing the defenses. 3) although they were not effectively cleared and caused considerable damage to the incoming troops, the underwater obstacles were not sufficiently dense or effective to jeopardize the operation. In short, Overlord was a ‘planning triumph’ (1).

In summary, a prominent crystallographer and scientist of his time, played a major role ‘behind the scenes’ to the success of the events that took place seventy years ago today and that changed the course of history. May these brief lines be an homage to him and to so many anonymous others that worked on the herculean undertaking of preparing for the events of D-day.

(1)  Brown, A.  J.D. Bernal. The Sage of Science. (2005). Oxford University Press. I treasure my personal copy of this biography that I purchased on my visit to Birbeck College, May 12, 2006 as I was preparing my play ‘Bernal’s Picasso’ relating the historical encounter between J. D. Bernal and Pablo Picasso, on Nov. 12 1950 as recorded by the drawing of Picasso at Bernal’s flat at Torrington Sq. in London (see image).

Further details can be found at my website: www.uic.edu/labs/caz/picasso/
















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About Cele Abad-Zapatero

Biophysicist, Protein Crystallographer, Drug Designer and Science Writer. Licenciado Degree, University of Valladolid, Spain, 1969. Physics, Mathematics. Graduate work, University of Salamanca, 1969-1972. Biological Sciences. Fullbright Scholarship for Graduate studies in the USA (1972). Ph. D. University of Texas at Austin, 1978. Biophysics Postdoc with M.G.Rossmann, Purdue University, 1979-1985. Group Leader-Associate Research Fellow, Abbott Laboratories-Retired 2008. Adjunct Professor to the Graduate Faculty, University of Illinois at Chicago. current
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