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Chichester's Role in D-Day

By Amy Roberts

By Amy Roberts, Collections Officer at the Novium Museum

6th June 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. Due to its proximity to occupied France, Sussex played a very 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, Westborne 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 Richards 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 that in the run up to D-Day on Saturday 3rd June '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 3 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.

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 the 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 3rd 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 19th - 21st April 1944 the future American President, General Dwight D Eisenhower stayed at The Ship Hotel (now known as Chichester Harbour Hotel) on 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 practicing 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 the 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 Chichester 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 5th 1944 General Eisenhower gave the order which would officially launch D-Day, after days agonising over the weather. The exact wording he used is now very hotly debated words which would launch the invasion. It was with these words that he set in motion the greatest taskforce the world has ever seen.

The operation began on June 6th 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.