Remembering D-Day: The Little Boat that Changed the War 70 Years Ago

Jun 6, 2014 by Mike Bibb

“Our only possible chance of stopping the Allies will be at the beaches.” – German General Erwin Rommel, Spring 1944

In uttering his proclamation, Gen. Rommel didn’t consider the significance of one of America’s “secret weapons” – Higgins Boats. He would later acknowledge the importance of the flat-bottom water crafts during the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings and the genius of the man who invented them.

Adolph Hitler was equally impressed, calling Andrew Higgins “the new Noah.”

The Early Years

Andrew Jackson Higgins was born in Columbus, Nebraska, August 28, 1886, the youngest of 10 children. After being expelled for fighting on school grounds his junior year at Creighton Prep High School, he left Nebraska and found work in the lumber industry in Mobil, Alabama.

A natural entrepreneur, Higgins became manager of a lumber-importing business in New Orleans and in 1922 formed his own Higgins Lumber and Export Company.

As a complement to his lumber company, he also developed and produced wooden shallow-draft swamp boats.

While his importing business eventually failed during the Great Depression, his boats remained in demand by oil drillers, hunters, and trappers. He also manufactured tugs and barges for private and commercial use, as well as motorized craft for the U.S. Coast Guard.

It wasn’t until 1938 when the Marine Corps earnestly began searching for a better way to amphibiously land men and equipment onto a beachhead that the Higgins shallow water, open-top, front drop-ramp designed boats received serious Navy and Marine Corps scrutiny.

Higgins Boats established new thinking in naval warfare: The requirement for established harbors was no longer necessary to mount a coastal assault. The little boats could deliver troops and materiel practically anywhere they were needed.

During World War II, Higgins Industries also produced landing craft and speedy torpedo boats, as well as torpedo tubes, gun turrets and smoke generators. Over the course of the war, approximately 20,000 boats were produced in seven Higgins’ factories, deployed to both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters.

An astute businessman at heart, Higgins was also an honest and patriotic American. After a deal had already been agreed by the Navy, Higgins realized he was making too much money and demanded the contract be renegotiated to lower his bid because he believed it was immoral for him to be getting rich while American troops were dying at the hands of the Nazis and Japanese.

 

Operation Overlord

On June 6, 1944, almost three thousand Higgins Boats and assorted landing craft were loaded with soldiers, equipment and supplies in the largest military amphibious assault in history – “Operation Overlord.” Each Higgins Boat carried about 30 troops. Multiple resupply trips from larger ships would bring additional soldiers and provisions to the five D-Day invasion beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword.

During the next few days the French coast at Normandy was flooded with almost 200,000 American, British and Canadian forces, as well as 24,000 paratroopers and glider troops who made airborne landings. Within two weeks, 557,000 troops, 81,000 vehicles and 183,000 tons of supplies had been offloaded onto the secured area. Much of the work being done with the use of Higgins Boats.

The handwriting was on the wall. Retaking of the European Continent had begun and the fall of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich was less than a year away. Gen. Rommel’s massively armed Atlantic Wall was incapable of stopping the Allied onslaught.

Following success of the D-Day invasion and desperate to deter further bloodshed, Rommel advised Hitler that he thought the war was lost and Germany should petition for peace. Hitler ranted against the suggestion and ordered Rommel to counterattack with five infantry and Panzer tank divisions. In his manic delusions, Hitler failed to realize three of the divisions were no where close to Normandy and the other two were pinned down by the Allies. Consequently, no counterattack occurred. The following month, Rommel was involved in the failed July 20 attempted assassination of Hitler. In a twisted act of “kindness,” Hitler allowed Rommel to commit suicide instead of death by firing squad.

Germany’s last serious attempt to stop the Allied advance occurred during the “Battle of the Bulge,” Dec. 16, 1944 – Jan. 25, 1945. While the Allies suffered heavy loses, the German counter offensive was repelled, leaving much of Hitler’s army and air force in shambles.

With the Allies advancing on Berlin from the west and the Russian troops closing-in from the east, Hitler faced the inevitable; the end was near.

Rather than be taken prisoner, he reportedly placed a 9mm pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.   German High Command surrendered a short time later.

It was an eerie quirk of fate that a hard-working Louisiana swamp boat builder helped advance the demise of a prestigious German general, his insane boss and a military machine that had rolled over most of Europe.

As a tribute to the ingenuity of Higgins, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower would later comment “Without Higgins Boats we could never have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”

Higgins Boats filled a significant niche during the D-Day assault and provided an invaluable service toward ending the war in Europe.

Andrew J. Higgins was granted over 30 patents during his lifetime and received numerous awards and citations for his contributions to the war effort. He died in New Orleans on August 1, 1952 – 27 days short of his 67th birthday.

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