This week’s article continues to focus on the crucial roles that Chichester and its immediate surroundings played in the run-up to and during D-Day.
Mulberry harbours were developed during the Second World War. These were floating artificial harbours which raised and lowered with the tide. They made possible the unloading of large supply ships which required deep water and weren’t able to come in close to the shore. Mulberry harbours were invaluable in the aftermath of D-Day.
Many caissons, which formed part of the Mulberry harbours, were sunk and stored off the coast of Pagham prior to being required in D-Day operations. Sinking the structures ensured they were hidden from spying eyes. Once required, the structures could be floated and towed across the Channel in sections ready for assembly.
To begin with, re-floating of the structures didn’t go according to plan as the pumping equipment brought in was not up to the task, but the next day further pumping equipment was brought to site and the structures could be floated successfully. Unfortunately, not all of the caissons could be salvaged.
The tugs to transport the sections to Normandy were not ready and one of the caissons had to be re-sunk. In the process it broke its back and sunk back into its original position. The remains are still located off the coast of Pagham.
In their dairy entry for Saturday, June 3, L Harris of Selsey writes of the Mulberry harbours, not knowing of their function: “The sea off here is full of fort-like erections, stretching from the shore almost to the horizon; nobody seems to know what they are for; they appear to be touching each other, and the whole gives the appearance of a factory town with tall chimneys all along the waterside.”
From April 19-21, 1944, the future American president, General Dwight D Eisenhower, stayed at The Ship Hotel (now known as Chichester Harbour Hotel) in North Street. Eisenhower was appointed in late 1943 as Allied commander for the European theatre and in early 1944 he joined the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). It was at The Ship that Eisenhower met with various officials and inspected nearby bases in preparation for D-Day operations.
By late May, 1944, all troops destined to land in Normandy were sealed in camps throughout the south coast in order to reduce the risk of potential security leaks regarding the impending mission.
The last major rehearsal for D-Day, Exercise Fabius, took place at the beginning of May,1944. Not only was this the last but it was also the largest exercise to take place before D-Day.
It was made up of six separate exercises and saw 25,000 troops land at a number of designated beaches on the south coast; the US 1st and 29th at Slapton Sands in Devon (Fabius 1 – in preparation for OMAHA Area landings), the 50th British at Hayling Island (Fabius 2 – in preparation for GOLD Area landings), the 3rd Canadian and Royal Berkshire Regiment at Bracklesham Bay (Fabius 3 – in preparation for JUNO Area landings) and the 3rd British at Littlehampton (Fabius 4 – in preparation for SWORD Area landings). Fabius 5 and Fabius 6 involved practising loading and unloading men and supplies for support missions.
Troops taking part in Fabius 3 embarked from Southampton and Gosport and landed at Bracklesham Bay.
The exercise was postponed by 24 hours due to bad weather and when it did finally begin it was hampered by rough seas. A great ‘canvas town’ sprung up surrounding the villages of Bracklesham and Witterings to house the troops.
The strategic planning for D-Day operations was carried out in two locations, Southwark House, just North of Fareham, which dealt with the ground attacks and at the Tangmere sector operations room at College Hall, Bishop Otter College, now part of the University of Chicheste, which directed the airborne attacks. On D-Day and the days that followed the Tangmere operation room at College Hall controlled 56 squadrons from a total of 18 airfields.
In the early hours of June 5, General Eisenhower gave the order which would officially launch D-Day, after days agonising over the weather. The exact wording he used is now hotly debated. But he set in motion the greatest taskforce the world has ever seen.
The operation began on June 6, when Allied planes and warships bombarded German positions along the coastline, weakening their defences in order to make it easier for landing troops to get onto land.
A total of 156,000 Allied troops landed by sea and by air onto five beachheads in Normandy. The exact number of those that lost their lives during D-Day remains unknown, as accurate record keeping was difficult under the circumstances. However, research by the US National D-Day Memorial Foundation has estimated a total of 4,413 Allied personnel lost their lives on D-Day.
To mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day, a memorial was erected at West Wittering Beach car park in 1995. The memorial is dedicated to those who trained in the area and who lost their lives in the liberation of Europe.
The Novium Museum currently has a display in the First Floor Gallery about the role the Chichester area played in the D-Day preparations.
By Amy Roberts collections officer, The Novium Museum
Pic: Imperial War Museum