When we think of D-Day, we all have mental images of troops waiting aboard landing craft at sea, landing on the beaches of Normandy under heavy gun fire, of the paratroopers who were the advance wave, or of the military cemeteries and their rows of pure white headstones and crosses that herald the tragic ending for so many.
D-Day is synonymous for most of us with northern France and the start of the Allies changing the tide of the war.
However, what about where they left from?
D-Day was months in the planning and preparations, all of which took place in the UK. The troops, vehicles, equipment didn’t just amass without organisation, it all had to be assembled, equipment constructed, troops had to be trained, detailed military plans were made, and all of it had to be hidden from the enemy. The south of England was taken over in the preparation for D-Day, and traces of this have been left behind all over the country.
A BRIEF OUTLINE OF D-DAY
Operation Overlord, the name given to the establishment of creating a second front on the continent, was agreed upon in 1943 by the Allied commanders. Unable to take place until the necessary equipment had been built and the troops trained and assembled, large scale deception operations were established to encourage the Germans to think that an invasion would take place in the Pas de Calais region of France (Operation Bodyguard), Norway (Operation Fortitude) or Bordeaux (Operation Ironside). These left the Germans very unprepared for the invasion when it eventually came.
The actual invasion was delayed by a day due to bad weather, but the invasion was launched on the 6th June on the orders of Eisenhower, when thousands of ships filled the seas, gliders filled the skies and hundreds of paratroopers landed behind the beaches of Normandy. Operation Neptune, as the day was called, was the biggest seaborne invasion in history.
British, Canadian and American troops all landed on the beaches nicknamed Juno, Omaha, Sword, Gold and Utah in what became known as ‘The Longest Day’. There was fierce fighting and a great many deaths, but the Allies slowly forced their way into France and over the coming months, liberated Paris and ended the war.
For a very exciting and hour by hour account of the invasion, ‘The Longest Day’ written in 1959 by Cornelius Ryan is a must read.
1. THE D-DAY STORY, HAMPSHIRE
Recently revamped after receiving a large grant, the D-Day story is a Hampshire museum dedicated to Operation Overlord.
Located on Clarence Esplanade, Portsmouth, from where so many troops departed, it features the experiences of everyone involved in the D-Day landings, not just the military, telling the story in three parts – preparation, the Battle of Normandy and its legacy.
The museum also houses the Overlord Embroidery, 83 metres of hand stitched panels telling the story of the D-Day landings, which was created in 1974 after five years of painstaking work.
There are plenty of hands on interactive displays, and exhibits include Monty’s famous beret, a beach armoured recovery vehicle, spy equipment and a huge variety of paraphernalia used in the landings. Plans are underway to include an actual D-Day landing craft, due to be displayed near the museum later this year. The museum runs a regular series of events including autism friendly viewings, touch tours, spy challenges and much more.
2. SOUTHWICK HOUSE, HAMPSHIRE
Southwick House is a Grade II listed manor house, just five miles north of Portsmouth in Hampshire. It was from here that D-Day was launched, being the advance command post for SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. General Eisenhower, Admiral Ramsay and General Montgomery were all based here.
It was in the library of Southwick that Eisenhower made the decision to delay the operation by 24 hours due to the inclement weather, and it was from here that the entire operation was orchestrated until early September 1944, when operations were moved to France. The giant plywood map, used to plot the positions of the ships during Operation Neptune, the naval element of the invasion, was fortunately retained at the house and put back to its original D-Day positions.
The house is still owned by the military, with the Defence School of Policing and Guarding now using the building as their headquarters. The house is likely to be sold in 2025, so it would be a good idea to visit while there is still time. Visits can only be made by appointment, by emailing DSPG-HQ-Information@mod.uk
The village of Southwick, which was entirely taken over by Allied Command, holds a celebration each year to remember its involvement in D-Day. Called the Southwick Revival and held annually on the closest weekend to D-Day, the village puts on a festival which includes exhibitions and visits to the map room.
3. HMS BELFAST, LONDON
HMS Belfast is the only British ship and one of only 3 remaining ships from the bombardment fleet of D-Day, the other two being in the USA.
She was the flagship for Bombardment Force E, supporting the troops landing at Gold and Juno beaches and was the second ship to open fire on the German defences, taking out the gun battery at Marefontaine. In total she spent 33 days supporting the landings and fired over 4,000 six inch and 1,000 four inch shells.
Now permanently anchored on the Thames as a museum ship, it is a wonderful place to visit to see what life was like on board during D-Day and for the rest of her career until she was decommissioned in 1963.
You can explore the whole ship from the engine rooms in the bowels to the guns on the decks, clambering up and down ladders to find the ships kitchens, laundry rooms, heads, living quarters, sick bay and even sit in the captain's chair.
There is a re-enactment of being in a gun turret and firing the shells, where you watch a short film of what was happening, hear the guns, get covered in smoke and smell the cordite.
4. SLAPTON SANDS, DEVON
Photograph © Nilfanion
Slapton Sands, on the south coast of Devon, is a long golden stretch of sandy beach. Currently a popular place for tourists, 75 years ago it was the setting for Exercise Tiger, a rehearsal for D-Day and the scene of one of the worst disasters of WWII.
The beach was chosen for its resemblance
to the beaches of Normandy, particularly Utah beach which was to be stormed by American forces. Locals were evacuated from the area and American troops arrived in their thousands to conduct the exercise in strictest secrecy. The week long exercise culminated in tragedy on the final day when miscommunication and a nearby German submarine fleet caused the death of over 700 soldiers.
The incident was hushed up until after D-Day, and remains the greatest loss of American life during the war in a single incident, other than Pearl Harbour.
Today the disaster is commemorated with a stone monument and a Sherman tank raised from the seabed. Slapton Sands now has a nature reserve with a freshwater lake, and the whole stretch of coastline has been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Official Website >>
5. CHURCHILL WAR ROOMS, LONDON
Underneath the streets of Westminster is the underground bunker from where Churchill and his cabinet plotted the events of the war that led to the Allied victory, including the D-Day landings.
Adapted from furniture store rooms and reinforced, the bunker grew to six acres in total before the end of the war in 1945.
A warren of corridors, bedrooms, kitchens, typing pools and more, staff housed down here barely saw the light of day for the duration.
The rooms have been left exactly as they were the day the lights were switched off in 1945 and you can visit the cabinet room which is laid out for a meeting, and the map room, where huge maps cover every wall and which was Churchill’s favourite room.
You can also see the room which was disguised as Churchill’s loo, but was in fact a small room with a transatlantic telephone in, where he could plan D-Day with Roosevelt without anyone knowing what was going on. The war rooms also have a fascinating and comprehensive museum on Churchill’s life. Official Website >>
6. BLETCHLEY PARK, BUCKINGHAMSHIRE
An old 19th century manor house and estate in Buckinghamshire, this was the nerve centre of the code breakers during the war.
People such as Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman and Hugh Alexander were based here when they cracked the code from the Enigma machines and shortened the length of the war by several years. ‘Colossus’, the worlds first computer, was developed here to help crack the codes.
What took place here remained a secret until the 1970’s, and the huts the code breakers used were scheduled for demolition until 1991 when a trust was formed to preserve the site. Now a tourist attraction which also includes the National Museum of Computing and the National Radio Centre, this is an incredible place to visit and well worth a trip. Official Website >>
7. IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM DUXFORD, CAMBRIDGESHIRE
Britain’s largest museum of aviation, Duxford in Cambridgeshire was originally used as an RAF airfield during WWI, then played a prominent role in the Battle of Britain in 1941. Used by the American air force fighter units to support bombing raids in Germany, it was from here that American fighter aircraft flew to support the D-Day landings.
The site is now of great importance to British aviation history, with 31 listed buildings, many of which are still in use, and houses permanent displays as well as the American Air Museum. Exhibits include a Spitfire, Lancaster and Tiger Moth, with regular flying displays and events take place every year. Official Website >>
8. BEAULIEU, HAMPSHIRE
Beaulieu Palace is an estate on the Beaulieu River on the south coast of Hampshire. Originally built as the gatehouse to Beaulieu Abbey in 1204, the Palace changed hands and was extensively extended over the years until it became the major tourist attraction that it is today.
Famous for housing the National Motor Museum, the Abbey, Palace, Top Gear World, impressive grounds and gardens and a monorail, what is overlooked is the tucked away Secret Army Exhibition.
During WWII, Beaulieu was home to a training school for the SOE, the Special Operations Executive, where 3000 agents were trained in the ‘dark arts of warfare’ such as burglary, forgery, sabotage and silent killing, before running secret missions behind enemy lines.
Sent into France before D-Day, they supported the operation with their acts of sabotage and resistance, usually at great personal cost.
It is a wonderful exhibition showing the tools of the spy trade with fascinating gadgets and devices on display.
Read more about visiting Beaulieu >>
9. TYNEHAM, DORSET
Tyneham is a small village on the Jurassic coast of Dorset. Just before Christmas in 1943, the residents received notification that they were all to be evacuated from their homes, as the village and surrounding lands were being requisitioned by the War Office to use for training troops in preparation for D-Day.
225 people left their homes, leaving a poignant note on the door of the church, “Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.”
The expectation was that the village would be returned to its residents as soon as the war was over.
However, in 1948 the MOD put a compulsory purchase order on the land, and has owned it ever since, using it to practise manoeuvres and shelling. The village has fallen into total disrepair and is now known as a ‘ghost village’. The old manor house has been completely demolished, but the church and school have been renovated and the remaining cottages are very ramshackle and decrepit.
It is a fascinating place to visit, to see a village frozen in time. It is open most weekends and over the school summer holidays, always check the website before setting out though as the land is still used regularly by the MOD.
10. STUDLAND, DORSET
Six weeks before D-Day, troops gathered in Studland Bay on the south coast of Dorset, for a practise run of the invasion, called Operation Smash, in front of Churchill, Eisenhower and King George VI.
Studland was chosen as its beaches were so similar to the ones in France that would be the focus of the invasion.
The dignitaries gathered in Fort Henry, a purpose built observation concrete bunker and watched the largest live ammunition exercise of the war unfold. On 4th April 1944, British infantry made amphibious landings while fighter-bomber planes and cruisers and destroyers all pounded the heathland behind.
It was the first time that the new DD tanks were used (Duplex Drive tanks designed to float on water). However, a change in the swell of the water meant that seven of these tanks sank to the seabed, with the loss of six lives. These tanks still remain on the sea bed.
Despite the setback, it did mean that lessons were learnt that then saved more lives on D-Day itself. The whole area of Studland beach is littered with relics of WWII, with pill boxes, gun emplacements, dragons teeth and rusted metal still to be found in the area. Fort Henry is still there too, open and accessible to all. Official Website >>
11. IMBER, WILTSHIRE
Before WWII, the War Office had purchased great swathes of land on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, including much of the village of Imber, to create the largest military training ground in the UK.
This meant that the residents of Imber were mostly tenants and so in 1943, the army requisitioned their homes and forced them all to leave the village, giving them just six weeks’ notice.
The area was used as a training ground for American troops rehearsing for D-Day. Although they had expected to be allowed to return after the war, the villagers were never allowed back.
The village is now another ‘ghost village’ and is currently used for intensive urban warfare training. Many of the original buildings have fallen into such disrepair that the army have built new, basic houses to help them continue with their training. All that remains in good order is the church, which was renovated in 2008 and still opens a few times a year.
Access to the site is becoming more and more limited with each year, as the MOD are concerned that visitors are ignoring all of the signs to keep away from the danger zones and putting themselves at great risk, as the buildings are not stable and there is the risk of unexploded ordnance around the site. Read about a visit to Imber village >>
12. LEPE, HAMPSHIRE
Lepe is a small village on the south coast of Hampshire in the New Forest. Used as a secret manufacturing point, the breakwaters which formed part of the Mulberry Harbours used in the D-Day landing were made here.
Mulberry Harbours were critical to the success of the invasion, providing a deep water harbour from which used to protect supply ships and provide port facilities to offload troops and equipment. It was also used as an embarkation point for troops and equipment leaving for Normandy.
Hundreds of troops, vehicles and ammunitions were hidden in the wooded area and narrow roads around Lepe and nearby Exbury House. PLUTO, the pipeline under the ocean, which transported the fuel to France and beyond for use in the invasion, left the mainland here at Lepe.
The area now has a beautiful sandy beach, cliffs covered in pine trees and wildflower meadows, which form part of Lepe Country Park. There are also plenty of relics left over from its role in D-Day, and the area still has the concrete floors of the site buildings, construction platforms, beach hardening mats, bollards, slipways and gun emplacements.
13. WILTON HOUSE, WILTSHIRE
Wilton House, a large estate with an impressive history that goes back to 871AD, is located just outside Salisbury in Wiltshire. Home to the Earls of Pembroke for over 400 years, the manor house was requisitioned in 1940 by Southern Command until 1949.
Much of the advance planning for D-Day took place here, primarily in the famous Double Cube room, which became the top secret Operations Room, where Churchill, Eisenhower and Montgomery were regular visitors. (Eisenhower's flag, which was hung at Wilton House while he was in residence, can be found on display in Salisbury Cathedral.)
Wilton House and gardens are open to visitors for much of the year and are a lovely place to visit. The house is a wonderful example of Palladian architecture; the grounds are beautiful and contain a Japanese water garden as well as an adventure playground for children.
The estate also holds regular exhibitions, and regular events are held here ever year, including antique fairs, Easter egg hunts, charity runs and various supercar events.
Read more about Wilton House >>
14. ROYAL SIGNALS MUSEUM, DORSET
Blandford Camp in Dorset is the current home of the Royal Corps of Signals, a combat army corps responsible for providing communications in the field. Known for being the first into battle and the last out, the corps played an active role throughout WWII, including D-Day.
Before D-Day, they took part in Operation Fortitude, a deception plan to deceive the Germans into believing that the invasion would take place near Calais instead. They were so successful that Hitler wouldn’t remove his troops from Calais until several weeks after D-Day, thinking the Normandy invasion was the deception.
Royal Signals were also amongst the first troops to land in France on D-Day, were critical in taking Pegasus Bridge and in one crucial event, one signals corporal was awarded the Military Medal for laying and maintaining the field telephone under enemy fire across the Caen Canal Bridge.
The museum has an exhibition focusing on these events, as well as a lot more about the history of the corps. Official Website >>
15. WEYMOUTH AND PORTLAND, DORSET
The towns of Weymouth and nearby Portland, on the Jurassic coast of Dorset, were host to over 500,00 troops and 150,00 vehicles in the final year of the war.
They were major embarkations point for troops leaving on D-Day, particularly for the American troops headed for Omaha beach. Weymouth has a memorial to the troops on its seafront, and holds an annual veteran’s festival.
A new D-Day museum has recently opened on the Isle of Portland, Castletown D-Day Centre, an ‘authentic recreation of a busy wartime dockyard of men and equipment being loaded onto landing ships’, an immersive museum which also contains a restored Sherman tank, a spitfire, guns equipment and uniform. Official Website >>
16. RAF BENTLEY PRIORY, LONDON
A non-flying airforce base, RAF Bentley Priory was the headquarters of Fighter Command during WWII, particularly the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Used as a location to plan the airborne D-Day landings, it was in an underground bunker here that Churchill, Eisenhower and King George VI spent D-Day itself, watching the events unfold.
An 18th century stately home, the site was bought by the RAF in 1926 and remained with the RAF until 2008 when the site was developed for housing. However, part of the building was retained as a museum and can be visited today, with the grounds now a nature reserve. The museum focuses on the Battle of Britain rather than D-Day, and the bunker is sadly long gone, but the D-Day connection is not neglected and the site is an interesting and informative one to visit. Official Website >>
17. DOVER CASTLE
The tunnels under Dover Castle had played a key role in the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk in 1940, and they were put to use again for the D-Day landings, when they were part of Operation Fortitude.
This operation was designed to fool the Germans into believing that an Allied invasion would come from Dover to Calais, rather than the south coast to Normandy. As well as the dummy ships, tanks and soldiers which were put on display to be seen by the enemy aircraft, teams of British and Canadians worked around the clock in the tunnels, sending fake coded radio messages all over the UK. The operation was a huge success, as even two months after D-Day, the Germans believed that the main attack would be in Calais, so they kept many of their troops there, rather than move them to Normandy.
Dover Castle is owned by English Heritage, and it makes for a full day out with a medieval palace, Great Tower, World War I command post, underground hospital, a Roma lighthouse and an Anglo-Saxon church. Official Website >
18. RAF UXBRIDGE
The Battle of Britain Bunker in Uxbridge, near London, was the primary command post which coordinated the Battle of Britain in 1941.
It also had an integral role in the air command for D-Day, coordinating fighter operations. The map which is on display in the command centre deep underground, is the map used for the D-Day operations, although the rest of the command room is laid out as it was in 1941.
The bunker has an excellent museum attached, with some fascinating exhibits. There is plenty for kids to do, with detailed explanations of the Dowding System used to control the battle in the skies, and an exhibition on its role in D-Day. Read about a visit to the Battle of Britain Bunker >>