Sam Jolley, Assistant Curator, writes: In Spring 2020, just before the world shut down, the Royal Engineers Museum were grateful to receive support from the Friends of the National Libraries to purchase an important Second World War collection.
Colonel Vassal Charles Steer-Webster (1897-1970), Royal Engineers, was the Deputy Director of Experimental Engineering. This department was tasked with devising a means to land troops and supplies on the Normandy beaches less well defended than those with harbours. The result was two floating harbours, both similar in size to Dover Harbour, prefabricated in the dockyards of Britain, towed in sections across the Channel and constructed on the Normandy beachhead by Royal Engineers. Colonel Steer-Webster played a leading role in the design, development and trials of the Mulberry Harbour and was in almost daily contact with Sir Winston Churchill during its construction and development.
The collection of Colonel Steer-Webster is a unique and significant archive of photographs, documents, medals and models relating to the design of the Mulberry Harbours owned by one of the principal designers. Of particular interest are the 150 black and white photographs of aspects of the Mulberry Harbour in construction and use, and 71 photographic slides that include design drawings and images of the final harbour. There is also an extensive scrapbook of the tour of Canada Colonel Steer-Webster made to show the Canadians how essential the Mulberry Harbours were to victory and that their casualties had not been in vain.
Steer-Webster’s Army career spanned both World Wars and the collection includes items from his service during the First World War - even the bullet removed from his buttock, invaliding him out of the infantry and into the Royal Engineers.
It is a unique record from a significant British Engineer working on one of the most urgent and innovative construction projects of the Second World War. Acquisition by the RE Museum has ensured the collection will become publicly available for the first time, and is now accessible to researchers in our redeveloped Research Room.
The long-term redevelopment plan for the Museum’s visitor experience includes the redesign of our First and Second World War Galleries. As an innovative solution to the logistical challenges of the Normandy Invasion, the Mulberry Harbours will feature prominently in the story told by this redesign. The Steer-Webster Collection will demonstrate the technical ingenuity of this remarkable feat of engineering in a way that the Museum’s current galleries lack.
Additionally, the Museum is committed to STEM learning, both within its own Schools’ Learning Service and the Corps of Royal Engineers, and are currently developing a Mulberry Harbour outreach session. The photographs and models from the Steer-Webster Collection will contextualise a subject that can be quite difficult to grasp or visualise for those without an engineering background.
As one of the Corps of Royal Engineers’ most famous and successful operational endeavours, this Mulberry Harbour archive needed to be with the Royal Engineers Museum. Thank you to the Friends of the National Libraries for helping us to make it publicly accessible.