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
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
Photograph © Nilfanion
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.