SOUTHWICK - THE D-DAY VILLAGE THAT TIME FORGOT
The village of Southwick, near Portsmouth on the south coast of Hampshire, has a long and varied history. Home to an 11th century priory, it is better known for its role in World War II when it became the 'D-Day Village' as it was from here that Eisenhower and his Generals coordinated the 1944 invasion and the military took over the entire village. This momentous occasion is remembered with an annual event, the Southwick Revival, when the whole village celebrates the role it played in the turning point of the war.
The coastal city of Portsmouth is a sprawling urban mass of concrete around a huge natural harbour. It is not the most beautiful of places, as it suffered heavily from bombing raids in the war due to its importance to the British Navy, and it was rebuilt haphazardly and without much thought for aesthetics. Just north of its blocks of flats and motorways however is the small village of Southwick, hiding quietly between B roads and amongst fields, rivers and woodland.
Southwick is one of those rare villages which is a total anomaly in the 21st century as it is still a feudal village, run by a Squire. The whole place, with just a couple of exceptions, is owned by the one family, who have been in charge since the 16th century. A traditional village centred around a village green, a mix of half-timbered medieval, Georgian and Victorian homes, there is a large manor house, an early medieval church, a village hall, a village shop, tea room and two pubs, which is truly an abundance of facilities for such a small place.
Although a village being owned by one landlord in this day and age seems like an anachronism, it clearly has its advantages, as the village is immaculate. None of the traditional homes, some of which are over 500 years old, seem to have been ruined by PVC conservatories and tacky extensions (from the front at least) and they all have their front doors painted a deep red, a stipulation of the landowners and one which creates a pleasing, cohesive look to the village.
Traditional iron lampposts haven't been supplanted by their modern concrete replacements and the village green still has a gleaming cast iron pump. Picket fences border some of the thatched cottages, there are roses climbing over front doors and colourful blooms in hanging baskets and planters.
Once a year in June, this quiet little village opens up for the Southwick Revival on the weekend nearest to D-Day. The village fills with vintage vehicles, re-enactors, military historians and enthusiasts with a vintage fair, market, music and the pièce de résistance for the lucky few, a trip to see the actual D-Day map, still on the wall of Southwick House. The buildings are decorated with bunting, flags and blackout tape across the windows, visitors dress in 1940s clothing, and the whole village takes a celebratory step back in time to 1944.
So why does this event take place at Southwick? It all centres around the manor house, which is ironically one of the few buildings that the Squire no longer owns.
The Royal Navy training school of HMS Dryad was based in Portsmouth, which suffered from nightly bombing raids during the Blitz. Students were getting no sleep at all as they were up all night helping the people of Portsmouth and so were sleeping through lectures when they should have been training. The Admiral who ran HMS Dryad mentioned it during a game of golf to his friend Lt. Col Thistlethwayte, who happened to own Southwick House, most of the village of Southwick and more land besides.
Thistlethwayte said he could use some of the spare rooms in his house for the trainees to get a good night's sleep. The trainees stayed there in dribs and drabs, until 1941 when the whole of HMS Dryad was bombed, and they moved lock, stock and barrel to Southwick House. The Royal Navy bought the house as a compulsory wartime purchase for £40,000 and in 1943 it became the Advance Command Post for SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force).
General Eisenhower did not arrive in the village until June 1944 - most of the planning for D-Day was done elsewhere such as Norfolk House in London and Wilton House near Salisbury, but it was in Southwick House that they conducted the actual operation. Ramsay, Montgomery and their staff filled the house and grounds. One of the local pubs, The Golden Lion, became the unofficial Officer's Mess and the village was filled with Nissen huts and thousands of military personnel, vehicles and equipment.
The D-Day Map at Southwick House
The famous map was installed in April 1944. Made by the International Model Aircraft Company in Wimbledon, they were asked to produce a large wooden map of the whole of western Europe including Scotland, Norway and Spain - anywhere that the allies could have landed. This was to ensure that no-one could find out exactly where they were planning to invade.
The huge map was delivered to Southwick House in April 1944. The delivery men were asked to just erect the parts showing the coast of Normandy that you see there today, and to burn the rest in the grounds. After doing so, they were informed that they had to stay on the base and could not return home, as they now knew where the invasion would be. They were kept at the base until September of that year in what must have been an exciting, if baffling, few months.
The highest level of clearance was needed to access the map room. WRENS who worked there have said that they hated the map as it was constructed of a rather solid wood, so by the end of a shift they would have bloodied thumbs from pushing the tacks in. They also said that you could barely see the map, which filled a whole wall, as there was a thick layer of smoke in the room from all of the pipes, cigars and cigarettes being smoked by stressed generals and their staff. The room was filled with desks, people, noise and heat as they couldn't open any windows and risk being overheard; it must have been a difficult and tense place to work.
The map is technically a chart rather than a map and its focus is Operation Neptune, the sea approach. The red lines show the convoy routes in operation throughout the war, the silver areas are minefields - those with black lines through them are German mines rather than British. Where the red lines become green in the middle of the channel is where the minesweepers had to make a path for the boats carrying troops - each beach had one route in and one route out. The discs on the map show the weather.
The weather was crucial to D-Day and was the axis on which everything hung. The Allies needed a low tide that was beginning to rise and a full moon for the airborne troops to be able to navigate. D-Day was originally planned for 5th June and some troops had already left England, the whole operation was already in motion. On the 3rd June Group Captain Stagg, a meteorologist, received weather reports from around the world, saying a storm was coming in which would worsen and he informed Eisenhower, who was responsible for the final decision.
Two rooms down from the Map Room in what was the library, but is now the bar, he consulted his generals who were all in disagreement. Eisenhower had to deliberate long and hard whether to delay it for 24 hours, even though it was warm and sunny at Southwick and storms must have seemed unlikely. He did delay it and soon the storms rolled in with torrential rain and gusts of wind lashing the house. On the 4th June he was given a report by Stagg that there would be a short break in the storm and that the weather would be 'good enough'. With the storm still raging he said "OK, lets go" and at 4.19am on 6th June, D-Day commenced.
The Southwick Revival Weekend
A visit to the map room is the focal point of the weekend, although tickets are scarce and many people don't manage to get one (see here how to get a ticket.) Even if you can't get a ticket though, there is so much else going on that it is a wonderful day out, especially if you are lucky enough to visit on a sunny day.
The whole village is transported back to the 1940s, with most people in vintage clothing, visitors and reenactors alike. Both days of the weekend start with a motorcade of vintage vehicles, which are then parked down the sides of the roads for the rest of the day. There are military talks, plays, live firing, demonstrations and all manner of talks and activities from the living historians.
One field was turned into a vintage fair with coconut shies, hook a duck, swing boats and other assorted entertainment for kids. Another was filled with military vehicles and enthusiasts all displaying various aspects of life in the war. There was a real Spitfire in the centre, where people could climb aboard and sit in the cockpit. The Memorial Hall is turned into a tea room, there are pop-up pie stalls and the Village Stores has people queuing down the street for fresh burgers in their garden.
A vintage market was filled with stalls selling assorted goods, clothes, uniforms and all sorts of eclectic memorabilia. The church had a comprehensive display of life in the village during the war.
There was a fly past on both days -on the day I visited we had a Hurricane flying overhead, a British single seat fighter plane that sounded magnificent as it swooped over the heads of everyone congregated in the streets and village green gazing skywards, the announcer atop the church tower with his binoculars to tell us all when it was on its way with much excitement in his voice.
1940s music filled the air from several live performers, with appreciative crowds gathered round and there were free trips on the vintage buses and steam vehicles around the village. Both pubs did a brisk trade, with gardens and bars filled with happy crowds of servicemen, land girls, nurses and farmhands.
There was a fully equipped bomb shelter surrounded by crumbling bricks and explosion damage, a wood-timbered barn filled with models of Operation Neptune, made by a charity which helps army veterans with PTSD focus on modeling as therapy. The beautiful Victorian school room was converted from its current role as an architect's office to a traditional school for children to see what it was like to go to school during the war.
It was the little details I liked the best though.
Most of the houses had tape over their small paned windows, were covered in bunting or Allied flags and one had a washing line with 1940s clothing hanging on it, giant bloomers flapping in the breeze. Some had boxes collecting pots and pans for the war effort outside their front doors. Hay bales were used for those waiting in line for a ride on the steam vehicles, and sandbags were stacked up on street corners.
I joined the people who were sitting on the walls and hay bales along the main road and just watched the world walk by. There was the woman with a vintage wicker pram, her baby sitting up wearing a traditional knitted bonnet. A boy dressed as a chimney sweep casually cycled up and down the roads, obligingly stopping for photos, and a photographer in his tweed flat cap and knitted sweater took photos using an old fashioned tripod.
One man approached and introduced himself as Sid the Spiv, with a pair of nylons trailing out of his battered old suitcase, offering me black market watches. A Winston Churchill was regularly stopped, a cigar in his mouth and making the V for Victory sign for photos with visitors. Men in uniform from all Allied countries would walk past discussing the vehicles lining the roads, and women in dresses with Victory Rolls in their hair strolled past in animated discussion.
There are a lot of smiling faces and the sound of laughter intermingles with the band playing wartime classics. It is a fantastic day out and feels like history has come to life in this small Hampshire village.
The event takes place every year - sign up to their email list to be notified of future dates and ticket sales.
Visiting the D-Day Map in Southwick House
As Southwick House is home to the Defence School of Policing and Guarding which is the training centre for the Service Police of all of the British Armed Forces, it is an active military base and therefore not easily accessible. It is possible to visit throughout the year if you email in advance to request a special visit, fill out lots of forms and pay something for the visit.
The best way though, is to visit during the Revival Weekend. You still have to get a ticket as only limited numbers are allowed in, but you get driven in on a vintage bus, a talk about the map and a visit to the Military Police Museum.
The tickets are harder to get than Glastonbury tickets - they certainly were for me - as you are told in advance the precise time they go on sale and have to sit at your computer constantly refreshing the page and trying to grab some tickets for one of the time slots before everyone else does. It took me an hour to get two tickets, but it was well worth it.
Make sure you are on their email list so you will be told exactly when tickets go on sale, and make sure you are at your computer, payment ready, to book tickets the split second they go on sale.