Tugboat M/A Alpo
Legendary M/A Alpo alias DR18 alias USAT-335
Winston Churchill as a godfather
After the bitter defeat of Dunkirk in 1941, Sir Winston Churchill decided that the disaster would not happen again, and started the planning and preparation work of two artificial portable harbours (Operation Mulberry) to be used in the next attempt, i.e. the upcoming Normandy campaign (Operation Overlord).
For the relocation and erection of the port, a total of approx. 150 tugboats were needed to move the necessary elements across the English Channel to the French coast. The Americans would make half of the tugs and the British the other half. This is how the story of a glorious US Army small tugboat ST-335 was born. The construction of the vessel began in the fall of 1942 and the small tug with a ship profile voted as the most beautiful of all time in the shipping magazine – nicknamed “Mickey Mouse” or “Mickey Duck Tug” based on Walt Disney’s cartoons – was completed at the shipyard of the United Boat Service Corporation in the City Island of the Bronx, New York, in the spring 1943. From there it was to be transferred to Europe, England, on the deck of a large Liberty class freighter with another similar tugboat.
First trip: 1944, Bloody Omaha
On 6th of June in 1944, ST-335 participated in the Normandy campaign (Operation Neptune) together with 175,000 soldiers and 50,000 different vehicles, transporting gigantic parts of the shipyard over the English channel to the French Calvados coast, Omaha Beach, the US area of responsibility. The first tugs arrived to the area already 12 hours after the campaign began, i.e. around 6 pm.
Although the ship was made only “for one trip”, considering the possibility of inevitable loss, the ship had a modern and efficient (400hp) 6-cylinder Atlas Imperial 6HM2124 four-stroke diesel engine manufactured in Oakland, California. ST-335 survived unscathed from its demanding part in “breaking the Atlantic barrier” and liberating Europe, and ended up in the surplus stocks of the US Army after the war. There, it was available for purchase to anyone interested.
Mines in the Gulf of Finland
After the war, the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea were the most mined sea areas in the world, where German, Russian and own mines posed a danger to the marine traffic. The mines had to be cleared as required by the Moscow Armistice Agreement. So the Ministry of Public Welfare bought 24 tugboats to Finland, among them ST-335 (Wilhelminahaven, Schiedam, Holland), which was now tasked with mine clearance and named Dieselraivaaja No. 18 (DR-18). The clearance ended in 1951, when the DR-18 was left free for other tasks.
ALPO tugboat of Toppila, Oulu
New tasks were being sought for diesel excavators in peacetime work. Rauma shipyard converted twelve small “74-foot” ST-class tugs for civilian work, mainly into harbour tugs/harbour breakers. The changes were big, and the bow deck of DR-18 was raised and the ship got an ice bow. The beautiful side profile of the M/A Alpo became even more beautiful when the “vertical beak” became a real “beak” that was three meters longer. The new bow made it possible to move smoothly in up to 20 cm thick solid ice. In Oulu, in the busy port of Toppila, M/A Alpo served from 1952 until 1990, when the new ship J/M Tuura took the place of Alpo. With less maintenance Alpo began to deteriorate and the bottom of Toppilansalmi started to attract the old man. M/A Alpo had been put “lying down”, so to speak.
In 1999, the former great seaside town of Oulu decided to give up the tugboat Alpo, beloved and known by many city dwellers. At the same time the operations of Toppila port were decided to be closed down! M/A Alpo was sold at auction with sealed bids. With the enthusiasm of a few devotees, the honorable M/A Alpo ended up in the ownership of Toppilan Möljä Oy, a company established for the purpose of the private sector, in August 18, 1999. This was the beginning of the renovation that would continue to the next millennium, and is still going on… The actual rescue of the ship was executed by Vesa Nummela, who single-handedly, without help, saved the Atlas Imperial engine in cold conditions, and got it running again, making it possible for ST-335 to sail back to Normandy and attend the 60th anniversary of the Normandy campaign in the spring 2004.
Second trip: 2004 Bush and Putin’s Conciliation – Omaha
After four-years renovation, with limited private funds and benevolent donations, on 22 May 2004, M/A Alpo finally set off on her second journey towards Normandy on May 22, 2004, onboard a completely inexperienced amateur crew. The trip was the longest two-way sea trip ever made by a ST-class small tug! The journey was full of events and the first night we experienced a 26 m/s storm in the dark. Fortunately, the full and heavy fuel tanks saved the ship from capsizing in giant side waves. A book has been published about the trip (and the history of small tugboats): “Small tugboats in Finland – M/A Alpo from Normandy to Oulu and back”, Juha Kämäräinen, ISBN 952-91-8695-9. It wasn’t possible to go ashore on Omaha, because Presidents Bush and Putin also wanted to do their part to honor the 60th anniversary of D-Day, and extensive security measures prevented us from accessing the beach. Otherwise, the trip was a great success, being an absolutely unique experience for all participants! Of course, the journey was also difficult for the inexperienced crew and financially burdensome for Toppilan Möljä. In the continuation, the city of Oulu had promised a berth for Alpo. However, we did not get one, which led to a situation where the number of actives decreased and only “the four faithful ones” continued maintaining the ship.
Third trip: 2024, D-Day 80th Anniversary
After 18 years of negotiations with the city, M/A Alpo has finally, through Toppila Möljä Oy, taken control of a waterfront plot in the port of Toppila, with the opportunity to build a 75 m long pier at its own expense, which would enable M/A Alpo for the first time to operate in a full-scale in the legendary former seaport of Toppila. In addition, with the gradual retirement of the old owners, the majority of the shares of Toppilan Möljä Oy have been transferred to new owners, real seafarers, with much broader shoulders. With this, a new plan has been announced: M/A Alpo will be the only ST-class small tugboat in history that has passed through the wind and blizzard to Normandy three times – and twice from Oulu!
Navigare necesse est
Dear interested party: If you are interested in the trip, participating in it, or otherwise participating in M/A Alpo’s traditional activities, or if you or your community have the opportunity to somehow support this company and the maritime manifestation of Finnish essence, either mentally or materially, get in touch! Welcome aboard. We are excited!
P.S. To get into the mood, listen to, for example, the theme song of the same name from the 1962 black-and-white film “The Longest Day” performed by Paul Anka on Spotify.
Written by Antti Väänänen.