Dorset is the coastal county west of Hampshire. Many American troops were stationed here prior to D-Day and the Liberation, with training and exercises taking place across the whole county. This often involved using live ammunition and sometimes required the evacuation of local residents.
Poole, Weymouth and the Isle of Portland were all key D-Day embarkation points, and hundreds of thousands of US military personnel left from these three ports alone. A memorial on Weymouth Esplanade and another in Portland’s Victoria Gardens commemorate their departure for Normandy. Two well-preserved Phoenix caissons, towed back from France after the war, stand in Portland Harbour. In 2018, six life-sized sculptures, representing four servicemen and two Portland dockyard workers, were placed on top of them. RAF Tarrant Rushton (now private farmland) was the departure point on 5 June 1944 for six Horsa gliders, each towed by a Halifax bomber, carrying men from the British 6th Airborne Division on a mission to capture the Pegasus bridge at Caen.
One of the largest collections of armoured vehicles in the world, the Tank Museum outlines the development of the tank from its beginnings to the present day. There are six large halls, one of which is entirely devoted to World War II and contains tanks from several of the combatant nations, including the feared German Tigers, and some examples of “Hobart’s Funnies”, the tanks modified in outlandish but effective ways by Major-General Percy “Hobo” Hobart and his team, to combat the Atlantic Wall defences during the Normandy landings. Several of the tanks are still in working order. Visitors can go behind the scenes to see vehicles being restored, and there are regular talks, events and exhibitions.
Studland Beach was the site of a major D-Day rehearsal, Exercise Smash, that took place on 18 April 1944. King George VI, Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower witnessed the action from the safety of a nearby concrete bunker, Fort Henry. Live ammunition was used and the exercise was an opportunity to try out the new floating tank. Tragically, several of the tanks sank, resulting in the drowning of six men. The area is now part of a National Trust walk on which various World War II defences can be seen, including Fort Henry where a memorial plaque commemorates those who died.
In December 1943 the last inhabitants of picturesque Tyneham left their homes, relinquishing their village to the army as a part of a wider area used for military exercises. The villagers were promised that they could return when the war was over, but it never happened. Tyneham was compulsorily purchased and, despite years of lobbying by villagers and others, the Ministry of Defence refused to relinquish it. All the buildings are now in ruins except for the church, a poignant memorial to a lost way of life. Public access is permitted on most weekends and a few other times; dates and details can be found on the website.
Top image: The deserted village of Tyneham © Thomas Faull/Shutterstock