New Forest – D-Day 1944

In military parlance, D-Day is the day on which an operation is scheduled to be initiated. The best known D-Day in history is June 6, 1944 (codenamed Operation Neptune), the day of the Normandy landings and the start of the effort by the Allied Forces to liberate mainland Europe from Nazi occupation during the Second World War (codenamed Operation Overlord).

Planning for Operation Overlord commenced in May 1943 and by May 1944, 2,876,000 allied troops had been assembled across southern England. They awaited orders as they practised for a major invasion event of which they had no detailed knowledge. They spent hours at firing ranges, underwent physical conditioning, and became familiar with different landing craft. There were assault exercises at beach training sites where the men practiced exiting landing craft. They crawled under barbed wire while live fire passed over their heads and engineers were trained to demolish beach obstacles and blow up mines – it was a hive of activity as the invasion force waited. General Dwight D Eisenhower wrote of the build up, “All southern England was one vast military camp, crowded with soldiers awaiting final word to go…. The mighty host was tense as a coiled spring…coiled for the moment when its energy should be released and it would vault the English Channel in the greatest amphibious assault ever attempted.”

The New Forest played an integral role in the D-Day operation in view of its strategic position and close proximity to the major ports of Southampton and Portsmouth as can be seen from the 1944 Allied Invasion map – the area is circled in green.

Allied Invasion Force Map D-Day

The Balmer Lawn Hotel in Brockenhurst, which had been used as a troop hospital in the First World War, was requisitioned initially as an Army staff college and subsequently became the divisional HQ of the Royal Marine Infantry Division. Prior to D-Day in 1944 it became the location for many meetings between General Montgomery and General Eisenhower as they finalised their invasion plans. Some of the “Orders for the Day” were reputedly issued from the Hotel for the D-Day invasion.

Exbury House and estate was also requisitioned. It was occupied as a shore station by the Royal Navy in 1942 and became known as HMS Mastodon. Among its various roles, it was from here that part of the planning was undertaken for both the ill conceived Dieppe Raid of 1942 and the D-Day landings in Normandy. As the invasion plans progressed, operations at nearby Lepe Beach and the surrounding area came under the control of HMS Mastodon whose main responsibility was the administration of victualling, arming and training crews for the landing craft that were to be used in the amphibious assault. During the build up to the invasion in 1944 the estate was also used as a holding camp for up to 300 men housed in nissen huts constructed within the grounds. The author, Nevil Shute, was a Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander in WW2 and was billeted at Mastodon. His novel, ‘Requiem For A Wren’, was set in part at Exbury.

Bridge widening near Brockenhurst – Imperial War Museum

Bridge widening near Brockenhurst – Imperial War Museum

As the Forest became a hive of activity during the build up to the invasion, its pleasant country lanes and tracks took a heavy pounding as all kinds of military hardware arrived awaiting eventual transport across the English Channel. The damage to roads and bridges in the New Forest which were only ever intended to serve light traffic soon became a major issue as these military movements took their toll. During early 1944 a major programme of road widening, junction improvements and bridge strengthening commenced as part of the essential preparation for the movement of troops and equipment to their marshalling areas, which were located short distances from the New Forest embarkation points at Lepe (recorded as Stanswood in the loading orders) and Lymington, both of which came under marshalling area B. There were marshalling areas all across the south coasts of England and Wales and Hampshire had three – Area A around Portsmouth, Area B in the New Forest and Area C around Southampton. These marshalling areas became known as “Sausage Camps” because they were indicated on maps as a sausage shape. One of the main criteria for these areas was that they should be as wooded as possible to prevent detection from the air, making the New Forest an ideal location for these large encampments of troops. Roads in their proximity were closed to civilian traffic.

Bucklers Hard and the Beaulieu River saw intense activity. Early in the war the river had been closed closed to private craft and Buckler’s Hard became a repair facility for naval minesweepers and MTBs. As D-Day approached it became a construction site for dummy landing craft for the secret ‘Operation Quicksilver’. This involved large numbers of dummy Landing Craft Tanks (LCT’s) and the idea was to simulate the assembly of an invasion fleet in East Anglia and its gradual move down the coast to Dover and Folkestone to deceive the German forces into thinking that the invasion would take place at Calais.

Beaulieu River and Buckler’s Hard also played a big part in the build up to the D-Day landings with many craft and thousands of Army and Navy personnel gathered in the area. Just downstream from the village over 50 concrete pontoons for the Mulberry Harbours were built at Lepe. These Mulberry harbours were portable temporary harbours developed to facilitate rapid unloading of cargo onto the French beaches during the invasion. An indication of the scale of the operation can be seen in the following Imperial War Museum video clip showing completed Mulberries being stored a few miles around the coast in Southampton Water.

After the success of the initial D-Day assault the Mulberries were towed in sections across the English Channel and assembled off the coast of Normandy. There is a rumour that the “Mulberry” code name came about following a meeting at HMS Mastodon (Exbury House) underneath a Mulberry Tree but this may well be an urban myth!. In view of the shortage of labour it is also interesting to note that around 600 Irishmen helped in the construction of the Mulberry units and had to be housed and fed locally.

Mulberry construction site in Hampshire (possibly Lepe foreshore)

Mulberry construction site in Hampshire (possibly Lepe foreshore) – Imperial War Museum

Troops and vehicles left from Lepe. Vehicles were loaded onto ships after being driven onto temporary wharves leading to pier heads. Pier heads and were constructed and used as mooring points for ships and landing craft. Tanks and other heavy vehicles were loaded directly from the beach after concrete beach hardening mats had been placed over the foreshore to stop them sinking into the shingle. Nowadays, the remains of this massive operation can still be seen at Lepe Country Park, less than half a mile from the car parks. Tides and winter storms over the intervening years have taken their toll but it is still easy to see the scale of the operation as can be seen from the following slide show.

Second only in daring to the concept of the Mulberry Harbours was Operation PLUTO (Pipe-Lines Under The Ocean). A reliable supply of fuel for the advancing Allied forces following the D-Day landings was a top priority and an integrated network of pipelines was devised to carry the fuel from oil terminals in safer areas of the UK, mainly Liverpool and Bristol, down to Dungeness in Kent and the Isle of Wight and from there over the Channel to Calais and Cherbourg. The Cherbourg pipeline ran from Lepe across the Solent and the Isle of Wight and then under the English Channel to France. This was the first line and was laid on 12 August 1944 stretching over 70 nautical miles from Shanklin Chine on the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg. The pipeline consisted of specially developed three inch diameter cable and was laid from large cylindrical drums, known as Conundrums, which were towed by tugs.

As the 6 June approached, the New Forest (Marshalling Area B) had camps for thousands of troops and vehicles situated at Cadland Estate (Fawley), Stubbs Wood (Beaulieu), East Boldre, Brockenhurst and Setley Common, all of which were in easy reach of their embarkation points at Exbury on the Beaulieu River and along the foreshore between Lepe and Calshot at Stanswood Bay. The roads and woods around the area were crammed with troops, tanks, guns and army vehicles of all kinds. Many of the troops ate, slept and lived in or under their vehicles as they waited for their orders. The troops who embarked from Stanswood Bay were used in the assault on Gold Beach (Arromanches). This assault force was named ‘Force G’ in the overall operation.

With the invasion imminent, the Beaulieu River was filled with a variety of landing craft, including gun landing craft, flak ships, rocket landing craft, tank and infantry landing craft. The vessels moored in the river moved in turn to Lepe beach where they loaded troops and supplies before beginning the anxious wait for Operation Overlord to be launched.

D-Day exercise off the New Forest coastline (May 1944) – Imperial War Museum

D-Day exercise off the New Forest coastline (May 1944) – Imperial War Museum

Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) were speedily constructed in the Forest at Bisterne, South Baddesley, Winkton and Needs Ore Point to support the invasion force. These were used on a temporary basis by the RAF to provide aerial support to the ground troops once they had landed in Normandy and as they advanced into France, the ALGs moved across the channel. In addition, USAF Fighter Bombers were based at airfields at Beaulieu HeathIbsley and Stoney Cross and flew missions in support of ground forces on D-Day, as did the RAF from Holmsley. All planes used for the invasion had their wings and fuselage painted with alternating black and white bands for the purpose of increased recognition by friendly forces in order to reduce friendly fire incidents.

USAF P38 with "invasion stripes" being readied at Stoney Cross

USAF P38 with “invasion stripes” being readied at Stoney Cross

Due to deteriorating weather conditions, the assault was delayed by a day but in conditions still far from ideal, the airborne assault began just before midnight on 5 June 1944 and the roar of hundreds of aircraft engines could be heard over villages near the New Forest airfields. People rushed outside in their nightclothes to watch the airborne armada which seemed endless silhouetted against the clouds as it passed overhead. This mixture of bombers, fighters and tow planes for gliders containing paratroopers took off from bases all across southern England and totalled over 1200.  The commanding officer at Stoney Cross noted in his diary on the night of June 6 1944, “This was the day we had all been waiting for – planes by the hundreds took off and landed at our field from dusk until dawn”. No one could have been left in any doubt that the invasion had begun.

On the morning of June 5, the ships and boats assigned to the assault forces embarked from various ports along the coast of the UK. They sailed for the assembly area, which was nicknamed “Piccadilly Circus” just south of the Isle of Wight. After a long night crossing the English Channel in heavy seas the seaborne assault began early on the morning of 6 June (D-Day). During the day the Allies landed around 156,000 troops on the Normandy beaches. Casualties were heavy particularly in the American sector at Omaha Beach but the invasion was successful and thousands more Allied troops were to follow over subsequent days, weeks and months. By the end of August 1944 more than three million Allied troops had landed in France – most had departed from ports along the Hampshire and Dorset coasts, including the New Forest.

The rest, as they say, is history.