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Engineering D-Day

Jeffrey Syken

“Reybold, this is an air and amphibian war; because of the nature of air and amphibian operations, it is distinctly an Engineers’ war
Douglas MacArthur

When Gen. MacArthur informed Maj. Gen. Eugene Reybold – U.S. Army Chief of Engineers, at the outset of American involvement in WWII that the conflict would be an “Engineers’ War,” it was with 20/20 foresight. From the wilderness of Alaska to the plains of North Africa to the shores of France to the coral jungles of the South Pacific, Gen. MacArthur’s hypothesis would be proven correct. Airfields, bridges, roads, ports, railroads, bases and the pipelines necessary to ensure victory were made manifest with a speed and efficiency that amazed even the enemy. Perhaps this was most evident with the creation of the B-29 bases in the Northern Marianas where on Saipan, Guam and Tinian runways (and all the infrastructure necessary to maintain on-going operations for the bombing of the Japanese home islands) were carved-out of the native coral and jungle in record time, hastening the victory over Japan. The maxim that “every battle is won before it’s fought” bears witness to the exemplary work of the military engineer who had their “Finest Hour” on the sixth day of the sixth month, 1944.

American ingenuity was at its best during WWII where in France, Army Engineers put into operation a road network of 4K-miles involving the construction of 145 major highway bridges. For the Ledo-Burma Road, nearly 700 bridges had to be strung over treacherous, snake-filled rivers. In Italy, engineers spanned the treacherous Volturno River with pontoon bridges while under enemy artillery fire. Seeking to deny the Allies a port from which to unload men, material and equipment, Cherbourg Harbor was systematically destroyed by the retreating Germans. Three months after D-Day, the reconstructed port was handling 20K-tons per-day, to the astonishment of the former German garrison commander. The failure of the Dieppe Raid, in August 1942, demonstrated the difficulties involved in securing a port for the invasion of Europe and gave Hitler confidence that, without securing a port, the Allies would be unsuccessful in their attempts to breach his “Atlantic Wall.” Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and armaments minister, stated that the creation of the artificial harbors used by the Allies for the D-Day invasion was “Simple Genius,” blindsiding the Germans and making the two years, 13 million cubic-meters of concrete and 1.5 million tons of steel employed in Atlantic Wall defenses redundant.

The artificial “Mulberry” Harbours created for the D-Day invasion are, perhaps, the best known of the D-Day “Engineering Feats” and required the greatest effort concerning resources (i.e. design, construction, materials, manpower etc.). However, there are many lesser known aspects of “Engineering D-Day.” Some had been used elsewhere in the war prior to D-Day such as glider assaults and flail (a/k/a “Crab”) tanks for exploding mines and/or radar jamming and LSTs loaded with rockets to bombard shore defenses. Even so, there were many other unique examples of the engineers’ art in the build-up to the Normandy invasion, some meeting with success while others failed miserably. An example of the latter is “The Great Panjandrum” – a rocket-powered wheel meant to destroy enemy shore defenses. Others, such as the “DD” swimming tanks met with mixed success on D-Day. One of British General Percy Hobart’s “Funnies,” such specialized tanks would play a key role on D-Day and thereafter. “Operation Pluto” would provide the Allies the fuel needed to maintain the breakout from Normandy via pipelines and “breathing bridges” would allow railway rolling stock to be off-loaded from LSTs directly onto the beach. Fortunately, “Operation Downfall” – the invasion of Japan, never took place. Had it been necessary, it would have dwarfed “The Longest Day.”

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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