Ghost Ships at Normandy

89 Ships of a motley fleet of Merchant Vessels were the first craft on the Normandy beaches, sunk off shore to form breakwater.

By Joseph Israels II (Copyright 1944 by New York Tribune Inc. reprinted in Mast Magazine, November 1944)

If the Germans spotted Captain Joe Wollitz’s convoy or a handful of others like it on D-Day minus one, the sight must have puzzled them mightily. Here were nearly a 100 American and British freighters, from ancient tramps to comparatively new Liberty ships, staggering into the choppy English Channel at a bare 5 knots.

A low-flying plane or a spying sub or E-boat would have noted even more puzzling facts. Most of the ships had something wrong with them. Some had gaping torpedo holes in their sides. The sterns of others were twisted by collisions or crippling mine explosions. But they steamed and chugged along with a mystifyingly heavy naval escort of planes and destroyers, their own anti-aircraft guns constantly manned against air attack.

By the end of D-Day plus one, 89 ships of this fleet of merchant ghosts had successfully carried out one of the most difficult and dangerous operations on the Normandy beachhead. They had been sunk 1,000 yards off the hottest beaches, in shallow water.

Their upper decks formed a steel breakwater, calmed the Channel chops and swells and allowed the thousands of smaller landing craft to hit the beaches safely with men and materials.

The British and American Merchant Marine captains, like Joe Wollitz, who maneuvered their limping craft through deadly fire from shore batteries and leaden hail from German bombers swallowed many a lump in the throat when the time came to set off the demolition charges that sank their vessels.

These men, and their merchant crews from all the waterfronts of the United Nations, loved their ships. But with the same sure performance with which the Merchant Marine made the invasion itself possible by carrying the millions of tons of war sinews and the millions of troops to England and France, the seagoing pack mules sacrificed themselves to back up the ingenuity of military engineers who saw no other way to protect our men as they stormed the beaches.

Captain Wollitz, who lives in New York, is only 32. He is slim and dark. He lacks the squinted, weather-beaten face of older sailors, but when his dangerous job off Normandy was over, he filed a terse report ending in “assignment successfully completed.”

He had been two years on the unlovely but highly serviceable United States Lines’ motorship Potter when he set sail last March on that ship’s last voyage. Built in New Orleans 25 years ago, his ship was pretty well worn out with the millions of miles that had slipped under her hull and the millions of tons that had been stashed in her holds.

But the Potter and the 21 other American and 67 British ships of the derelict convoy had one last gesture to make. Sunk fast in the sands off Normandy, they were among the very first Allied ships to touch French soil in the invasion.

Last winter those who planned the invasion studied the treacherous tides and choppy seas of the Channel and decided some sort of shelter would be essential to the safe operation of landing craft.

The British admiralty, remembering the famous flock of ships used so effectively at Zeebrugge and St. Nazaire, proposed a line of sunken ships as practically a portable breakwater. The navies of the United Nations didn't have the ships to spare. The old reliable Merchant Marine was the answer.

Shipping authorities on both sides of the ocean thumbed their registers and damage reports for a batch of ships serviceable enough to make the hazardous trip but ancient or damaged enough so that their loss would not be wasteful.

Captain Wollitz and his crew on the Potter knew nothing of this when they loaded in New York last March. It seemed strange that the loading authorities put 2600 tons of sand ballast in the lower holds before filling the rest of the cargo with war materials.

“You don’t ask too many questions in the Merchant Marine,” Captain Wollitz says, “but every man aboard knew we weren't carrying sand to England for British kids to play with. The WSA told me ‘It’s a special job.’ But that’s all I knew.

“Engine trouble sent us back twice before we finally cleared for Liverpool. The crew grumbled and squawked -- I’d worry if they didn't. They were a swell bunch. Sixteen nationalities among them, from Danes and Canucks to Chinese and Yugoslavs. We had engine trouble all the way across and we were glad not to see any submarine action because they had removed our heavy guns in New York and we had only the antiaircraft to depend on.

“In Liverpool they unloaded our cargo and then we waited. We were used to that because in wartime you spend what seems like half your life waiting. Then one day they told me the details of our assignment. I asked if we did this with our regular crew. They said ‘yes’ and I wondered if the men would stay with us. But the next day WSA men came aboard. We called the 38 members of the crew together in the saloon and gave it to them straight.”

Captain Wollitz admits this was a dramatic moment. The men were told their tired, slow old wagon would be up in the very front of the invasion, wide open to pounding by shore batteries, planes and German ships. Adverse winds and tides might make them spend hours getting in the right position. Anyone who wanted to quit would be paid off and no blame attached.

Who was staying with the Potter? Thirty-eight hands were raised in quick assent. Captain Wollitz grinned in relief.

In the next few weeks of waiting they did strange things to the Potter and the 88 other doomed ships. The frugal British stripped the vessels of everything not actually needed to carry out the assignment.

All the ack-ack guns were moved to mounts high on the superstructure so that the ship could continue to throw her flak curtain even after sinking. Everyone’s spare clothing was sent ashore and cabin furniture stripped to a chair and a bunk per man.

'Wired for Sound'
“Then the explosive experts came aboard and wired her for sound,” Captain Wollitz continued. “They put just enough in the charges to open her up below the waterline and not enough to blow her part. It gave me a queer feeling to know that all you had to do was pull a switch and the ship would sink.

“We moved on to a convoy assembly port and found more condemned ships. We had a conference of captains ashore and each of us got an envelope marked ‘Not to be opened until signaled by Convoy Commodore.’ We formed up then, our own batch of cripples and half a dozen other groups each escorted separately.

“We were a pathetic sight down by the head and stern; rusty, smashed and limping. Convoy speed was five knots and some of them couldn't even make that. I guess we drove those escort ships crazy dropping behind and spurting ahead, losing positions and stopping to repair broken steering gears, etc. But we made it.”

Mast Magazine, November 1944

American Merchant Marine at Normandy June 1944