June 6, 2019, marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. Due to its proximity to occupied France, Sussex played a prominent part in the build-up of the D-Day operations.
This article and next week’s article will focus on some of the crucial roles that Chichester and its immediate surroundings played in the run up to and during D-Day.
It was in early 1943, over a year before D-Day took place that Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Morgan was chosen as Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC). Morgan was tasked with leading the Anglo-American planning staff who were responsible for drawing up the main outline of Operation Overlord (the code name for the Battle of Normandy).
His first report stated: “An operation of this magnitude has never previously been attempted in history. It is fraught with hazards, both in the nature and magnitude, which do not obtain in any other theatre of the present world war. Unless these hazards are squarely faced and adequately overcome, the operation cannot succeed. There is no reason why they should not be overcome, provided the energies of all concerned are bent to the problem.”
In the lead up to D-Day the whole of Sussex was inundated with allied troops, equipment and vehicles, preparing for Operation Overlord. Operation Overlord began with Operation Neptune, the code name for the Normandy landings more commonly known as D-Day. In Chichester District multiple sites were used by the military including Lodsworth, Singleton, Funtington, Boxgrove, Cowdray Park, Petworth, Westbourne and many more.
Military authorities relied on the generosity of landowners and contributions of major landowning estates in the county to undertake the required preparations for D-Day. The problem of finding suitable accommodation and training areas for the huge numbers of incoming troops was a major concern for planners.
Petworth Park was home to three camps with a total capacity of over 3,500 men and several hundred vehicles. Based at Petworth were the 27th Armoured Brigade who were specially trained for beach operations. Their equipment included the highly secret amphibious D-Day Sherman Tank, a specially designed tank that could propel to shore if launched from a vessel.
Goodwood House was utilised by the 6th, 23rd and 121st General Hospitals Royal Army Medical Corps in the run up to D-Day. They were tasked with making preparations for caring for the high number of expected casualties. This included packing tents ready to be erected as temporary hospitals over on the continent.
St Richard’s Hospital, like many other hospitals along the South Coast, prepared for D-Day by reducing the number of civilian patients within their care, and relocating them into hospitals inland, in preparation for accepting wounded soldiers expected from the continent. The Graylingwell Psychiatric Hospital also dedicated two wards for D-Day causalities.
Throughout 1943 and early 1944 Allied troops from Britain, Canada and the US undertook training in landing exercises across the south coast, including at the Witterings and Bracklesham Bay.
Landing craft troops learnt how to beach and un-beach, tank crews learnt how to manoeuvre their cumbersome vehicles ashore, and ordinary troops learnt general assault procedures that would prove vital later in the year.
L Harris of Selsey kept a wartime diary and records in the run up to D-Day on Saturday, June 3: “The place is crowded with troops of every description. There is a feeling of tension everywhere, as there seems every indication that preparations are being made to send troops for the invasion of Europe from the beaches here. We are not allowed to go near certain parts without permits, and today I have heard –someone must have been talking – that the American sailors yesterday were paid in French money.”
Prior to D-Day established airfields were already present at Tangmere, Merston and Westhampnett. Advanced landing grounds (ALG’s), or temporary airfields were also constructed in Funtington, Apuldram, Selsey, and Bognor and were designed to support the invasion of Europe.
Construction of the airfield at Apuldram started in March 1943. Three hundred acres of farmland had been requisitioned. Two metal track runways were constructed, along with four hangers and tented accommodation. From 1st April 1944 the airfield was home to three Czech Spitfire Squadrons. On D-Day Spitfires based at Apuldram gave cover to troops landing on the beaches.
At Church Norton in Selsey land that had been used as a private airfield was commandeered. Two cross over runways were constructed in early 1943. On D-Day squadrons based at Selsey provided air cover of the beaches.
The Funtington ALG was completed by September 1943. A short section of road had been closed, trees felled and hedges removed in order to construct the airfield. No buildings had been included in the planning, as it was proposed that personnel would instead live under canvas or in requisitioned local farm buildings. The control facilities were housed in specially built mobile caravans. On
D-Day No 122 Wing’s Mustangs escorted Coastal Command Beaufighters on anti-U-boat attacks. Later in the day they were given the task of escorting bombers towing troop-laden gliders destined for Normandy.
By Amy Roberts collections officer, The Novium Museum
Sherman Duplex Drive amphibious tank | Pic: Imperial War Museum