Dorset's key role during D-Day: how the county was involved in the Longest Day (From Bournemouth Echo)
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Dorset's key role during D-Day: how the county was involved in the Longest Day
IT was 1941. After the shock of the Blitzkreig, the retreat at Dunkirk and the triumph of the Battle of Britain, the Allies were now planning for the big offensive to strike back at Germany.
That year the Nazis were preoccupied on the eastern front in battles with Russia.
But Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was already thinking a long way ahead.
He told Lord Mountbatten, as Chief of Combined Operations: “The south coast of England is a bastion of defence against Hitler’s invasion.
“You must it turn it into a springboard to launch an attack.”
That is what this part of the country became.
And no part of Hardy’s Dorset or neighbouring Hampshire remained untouched as the invasion assembled in 1944 in readiness for that attack.
Blandford housed the US Army 22nd General Hospital and US Army units. Nearby Langton House was HQ of 1st (US) Infantry division.
Breamore House near Fordingbridge was used by General George Patton as his headquarters in the run up to D-Day.
Bournemouth was a “defence area” and all civilian visits were banned.
Most hotels were requisitioned for military use. Aircrew trained in dinghy survival in the Pier Approach baths. Anti-aircraft guns were sited on high buildings like Beales. King George IV reviewed airmen in the Pavillion.
Bovington, home of the Royal Tank regiment, saw much training from the beginning of the war. To counter the possibility of enemy landings from both sea and air, mobile columns were set up to operate in a 45 mile radius of Bovington.
Montgomery addresses troops at Bovington. Picture courtesy of Imperial War Museum
Christchurch aerodrome was a base for the Air Ministry Research Establishment’s special duties flight and USAF Thunderbolts. Camouflaged factories built planes and gliders and converted Spitfires into Seafires.
Hengistbury Head and Mudeford were armed with coastal defence artillery batteries.
In Hamworthy, the first Royal Marine Commandos trained at amphibious warfare centre HMS Turtle. Bolson’s and Newman’s shipyards built landing craft around the clock (the largest number in Britain) and RAF Hamworthy was a seaplane base.
Holton Heath housed Royal Navy cordite factory and West Moors a military petrol depot.
Horsa gliders line-up at Hurn Airport.
Hurn Aerodrome, then in Hampshire saw radar trails and paratroop training and was a base for Typhoons, Mosquitoes and B-26 bombers. Tarrant Rushton and Hurn held key positions because they lay closer to the Normandy drop zones than any other major airfields.
Lulworth Camp was an armoured fighting vehicle school and suffered several air raids. Shot enemy planes crashed at Kimmeridge, Winfrith Heath and Bindon Hill. At Bovington Camp, troops trained for tank warfare.
The New Forest saw over 100,000 men under canvas and thousands of military vehicles parked along its quiet country roads. Airfields like Holmsley, Ibsley and Beaulieu enjoyed their own finest hour.
Churchill tanks arrive in the New Forest. Picture from John Leete.
Poole was the embarkation point for tens of thousands of troops. GIs were billeted in homes, the US Coastguard had a base and the US army took over quays, yards, and yacht clubs. Over 100 anti-aircraft guns protected the town.
Shaftesbury saw the establishment of a military hospital where the Guys Marsh young offenders institute is now.
RAF Sopley was a radar tracking centre. USAF Thunderbolts were based at nearby RAF Winkton.
D-Day preparation: routine stop and check in New Forest. Picture from John Leete
St Leonards Hospital near Ferndown was set up to treat casualties from France. Radio contact with French and Dutch Resistance was maintained from a bunker under the St Leonards public house.
Studland Bay was the venue for practice beach landings, leading to a mock invasion in front of the King.
Swanage beaches were mined and swathed in barbed wire. Hotels and homes became barracks and billets.
The White Horse Inn was the US Red Cross centre and the Grosvenor Hotel hosted the King, Montgomery and other VIPs. The town suffered many air-raids.
Gliders from Tarrant Rushton carried the first Allied troops on D-Day to Pegasus Bridge. Night flights dropped supplies for the French Resistance and Special Operations Executive. Injured troops were flown back here for transfer Blandford hospitals.
Woodland around Verwood hid troops and equipment, and sandpits at Stephens Castle were quarried to build Mulbery Harbours.
US troops were billeted at Wareham, Corfe Castle, Lytchett Minster and Upton.
Weymouth and Portland saw the biggest embarkation of men and equipment, primarily American. Nearly half a million men and 140,000 vehicles passed through these two ports. Portland was described as the “biggest little port in the world” by the Americans.
They were headed towards ‘Bloody Omaha’ where the heaviest losses were suffered.
Wimborne billeted British troops.
Farrs House was an officers’ mess.
Canford Bridge was an ‘immigration post’ to keep civilians out of restricted Poole. A US field hospital was set up at Kingston Lacy Park. Worth Matravers housed a radar experimental station which provided vital technical back up.
Weymouth and Portland: Weymouth and Portland formed a major embarkation point on D-Day, with more than 20,000 troops left in the first fleet.
The US 1st Division – the ‘Big Red One – was one of the first assault groups to leave from the port, bound for Omaha Beach.
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