D-Day is known the world over as the epic opening phase of the liberation of Europe, the beginning of the end for Hitler and his regime. The largest seaborne invasion the world has ever seen has been immortalised in film and television, and everybody knows the scene – the landing crafts riding the waves to the Normandy beaches under heavy fire. It happened on the morning of the 6th of June 1944, and later that day, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons:
“So far the Commanders who are engaged report that everything is proceeding according to plan. And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred.“
And what a plan indeed! It was a plan that had taken years of hard work and planning. It was daunting enough getting tens of thousands of men over to France, but then they had to consider the weather, tides, and what would face them the other side. An operation to fool the Germans had already taken place, paving the way for Operation Neptune, the invasion. As early as 1940, the War Office had decided that Southampton would be a suitable base for a seaborne invasion of France. In 1942, the landing craft and vehicles began arriving as Southampton was designated ‘Marshalling Area C’.
The South Coast of England became the focus for the invasion plans, with Hampshire at the heart of it. ‘Marshalling Area C’, the place that had given the world the Spitfire, would now play another vital role in the Second World War. It is known that Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower had met at least once at the South Western Hotel to discuss the plans for the invasion, as the building had become the HQ for Combined Operations during the operation.
Southampton became an enormous military camp. Thousands of troops were camped on Southampton Common, there was a camp on Hoglands Park, schools and other public buildings were taken over and used by the Allies, and in roads and side streets there were vehicles and guns, hidden by trees and camouflage. In the days before the invasion, the men were released from the camps and vast columns headed for their positions. Vehicles and weapons had been loaded, the landing crafts sat waiting for the men at various places including the docks, Northam, and Town Quay, where there were three separate embarkation points.
Sections of the Mulberry Harbours, the temporary portable harbours that were vital in the aftermath of the invasion, were secretly constructed in Southampton’s King George V Graving Dock, which at the time of its opening in 1933 was the largest graving dock in the world. The Ordnance Survey offices in London Road printed up-to-date maps of Northern France and Belgium, and these maps were used by the Commanders of the operation.
Straying a bit further away from Southampton, there was an embarkation point at Warsash, and this is where the 1st Special Service Brigade under Lord Lovat set off from. This was the unit that contained Bill Millin, who became known for his musical exploits on the 6th of June. ‘Piper Bill’, then aged just 21, got off the landing craft at Sword Beach wearing his kilt and, under fire, waded through the water and up the beach, playing his bagpipes the whole time, as his comrades fell around him.
In all, about two-thirds of the British force that landed at Normandy in the initial assault on the morning of the 6th of June 1944 had sailed from Southampton. The Gateway to the World had become the Gateway to Normandy.
In the days after D-Day, Southampton continued to play an important role in support of the invasion. Soldiers continued to stream from the camps to the docks, having taken the places of the men who had already gone off to fight. A steady stream of troops and vehicles were ferried from Southampton to the Normandy beaches. In the opposite direction, arriving in town were the Allied wounded, as well as German prisoners of war. Nearby, the fuel terminal at Hamble became part of Operation Pluto, the impressive feat of engineering which saw the construction of an undersea pipeline to transport fuel from England to France. There is an anti-aircraft gun down at Hamble, which was fitted on top of the original concrete structure in 1989 to pay homage to the original gun that protected the terminal, which was removed after the War.
One of the camps on the Common was transformed in to a prisoner of war camp. Many Germans were captured after D-Day and brought to Southampton, before being dispersed across the country. The same had happened during the First World War.
The success of D-Day came at a cost. This became evident when the wounded came streaming back in to Southampton. Many of these men were unloaded at Town Quay, and were then taken by train to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley. In 1944, the US Army took over the hospital, the largest military hospital in the world at the time of its opening in 1863, and after D-Day, around 68,000 casualties were treated there, including 10,000 Germans.
D-Day of course paved the way for the Allies to fight their way to Germany. Meanwhile, in the East, the Russians advanced. Back in Southampton, the work was far from done. On the 25th of October 1944, a little over twenty weeks after D-Day, the one millionth US soldier to pass through Southampton did so. His name was Paul Shimer Jr, and I wrote about him here: The Millionth Yank.
In December 1944, some American troops decided to carve their names in to a brick wall on Western Esplanade, opposite the ‘Arcades’. Some seventy-three years later, many of these names are still visible. Each American soldier would pass through a counting machine at Southampton docks, and less than three months after the one millionth American soldier passed through, on the 16th of January 1945, the machine counted the two millionth.
By the time the War in Europe ended in May 1945, some eleven months after D-Day, approximately three and a half million military personnel had passed through Southampton.
Southampton excelled in its role as a military camp, and as an integral part of a launch pad for the largest seaborne invasion the world has ever seen. For years before D-Day, Southampton was prepared. For months after D-Day, Southampton helped provide the support the liberation of Europe needed. Today, all over the city, and in the surrounding areas, are reminders of this incredible achievement.