The county of Hampshire, which lies in the middle of England’s south coast, has long historical ties to the navy and played a significant role in the lead up to the Liberation in Europe.
Portsmouth, the home of the Royal Navy, sits almost directly opposite the Cotentin peninsula, and was a major D-Day embarkation point. In June 1940, General Eisenhower moved his headquarters to Southwick House just north of the city. To the west of Portsmouth, the town of Gosport, and to the east Hayling Island, were both important sites in the building of the Mulberry harbour components that were towed across to Normandy. Portsmouth was heavily bombed throughout the war, as was the nearby port of Southampton. In 1940, the Spitfire factory in the Southampton suburb of Woolston, where the plane had been developed, was targeted and completely destroyed by the Luftwaffe.
The New Forest, a unique mixture of heathland, woodland and river valleys, was an ideal area for training in the build-up to D-Day, and many exercises took place there. Three kilometres across a strait of the Channel known as the Solent is the Isle of Wight, one of the sites chosen for Operation PLUTO. The pipeline joined the island at Thorness Bay before connecting to Shanklin and Sandown on the island’s southeast coast. From here, fuel was carried under the Channel to Port-en-Bessin, close to Omaha beach.
Located on the seafront close to Southsea Castle, the D-Day Story Portsmouth is a museum entirely dedicated to Operation Overlord, both the events leading up to the invasion and the day itself. It’s a large and varied collection, with many personal artefacts – letters, paintings, photographs and maps – as well as military hardware. There is plenty of child-friendly interactive and audio material that helps bring the events to life, and the museum’s excellent website is crammed with a wealth of detailed historical information. The Overlord Tapestry, 34 embroidered panels depicting the unfolding events of D-Day, provides a vivid and colourful climax to the displays.
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A half-hour walk northeast from the D-Day Story museum takes you to Quay House on Broad Street. This handsome Art Deco building was used as offices in the 1930s, but in the preparations for D-Day it became the Embarkation Area Headquarters for the Portsmouth sector. Military personnel at Quay House played a vital role in ensuring the campaign ran efficiently, organizing the launches of the Allied troops from four areas across Portsmouth. Recently converted into flats, it can only be viewed from outside.
Eight kilometres north of Portsmouth near the village of Southwick is Southwick House, the final command post of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). Admiral Ramsay and General Montgomery moved here from London at the end of April 1944, General Eisenhower on 1 June. A large plywood map of the English south coast and the French coastline from Calais to Brest still adorns the Map Room, where meetings were held and plans finalized. It was at Southwick House that James Stagg presented the weather report which delayed D-Day by one day. Eisenhower’s personal headquarters – an office tent and a trailer for sleeping in – was hidden from sight in nearby woods. Visiting the house can only be done by prior appointment; contact the Defence School of Policing and Guarding at DSPG-HQ-Information@mod.uk.
The highlight of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum is undoubtedly HMS Alliance, an Amphion-class attack submarine of the type used in World War II, although this one wasn’t launched until July 1945. A tour of the submarine takes you through several areas, including the control room, accommodation space and the galley. The museum itself is also worth visiting, especially for its two midget submarines, one of them a British X-Craft similar to those used for surveillance of the Normandy beaches in January 1944, and in guiding landing craft onto Juno and Sword beaches during D-Day.
The Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar on the Gosport peninsula was founded in 1753 to treat British servicemen. During D-Day and its aftermath it was a key treatment centre for soldiers injured in action. Around 1347 casualties arrived here within three months of the first Normandy landings. Run by the US Military during 1944 and 1945, staff treated both Allied soldiers and German prisoners of war before transferring them to other hospitals around Britain. In 2013 the Ministry of Defence sold the 25-hectare site to a private developer, but there are occasional tours organized by the Haslar Heritage Group. The nearby Haslar Royal Naval Cemetery (entrance in Clayhall Road) is where many of the wounded from D-Day who did not recover are buried.
Hayling Island, along the shoreline of Langstone Harbour, was one of the places where Mulberry harbours were constructed. A wrecked Phoenix caisson, almost broken in half, can be seen just north of the entrance to the harbour. The island is also where Combined Operations Assault Pilotage Parties (COPP) was based. This top-secret unit carried out clandestine reconnaissance missions investigating the beaches and in-shore waters of both Sicily and Normandy. Canoeists and frogmen set out from boats or submarines to gather vital information that would help in the planning of the amphibious landings. A World War II Heritage Trail, beginning near Hayling Island ferry landing, highlights the island’s most important World War II sites, including the recently erected COPP memorial.
The New Forest was a hive of activity throughout the war and in the run-up to the Liberation. Ashley Walk, a remote northern part of the forest, was the site of a major bombing range where most Allied bombs, including the famous Dambusters bouncing bomb, were tested. The forest was also home to several clandestine bases, some of which, like the Hydrographic Survey, were located at requisitioned houses along the Beaulieu River. Members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) received their final training at the Beaulieu Estate before deployment as secret agents in Europe, while the nearby estate village of Buckler’s Hard was where motor torpedo boats were built, as well as dummy landing craft used to deceive the Germans about Allied landing plans. Lepe Beach, close to the mouth of the Beaulieu River, was a construction site for Mulberry harbours and the point from which the PLUTO pipeline left the mainland to connect with the Isle of Wight. Many remains of the workings lie scattered along the shoreline. Balmer Lawn Hotel at Brockenhurst was used as an Army Staff College before becoming the divisional headquarters of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and an occasional meeting place for key Allied commanders. There were twelve airfields in the New Forest, including four Advanced Landing Grounds, temporary sites built specifically to support troops in Normandy. A memorial to the airfields can be found at the former site of one of them, Holmsley South.
Top image: The New Forest National Park © Helen Hotson/Shutterstock