By Alan Readman
“Okay, we’ll go!” With these words, spoken to his Chiefs of Staff at Southwick House, near Portsmouth, at 4.15 on the morning of 5 June 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, set in motion the greatest armada the world had ever seen. The day following came to be known as D-Day, the 75th anniversary of which we commemorate this year.
To mark the occasion, a book published twenty-five years ago by West Sussex County Council titled D-Day West Sussex, written by Ian Greig, Kim Leslie and Alan Readman, has been reprinted. It was researched from local and national archives and from the recollections of people who had lived through those days. Through this book, the contribution of West Sussex to the D-Day story was told for the first time.
D-Day has been described as the most crucial single event of the Second World War. Success for the Allies would hasten the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation; failure would give Hitler the freedom to launch his V1 and V2 attacks on England and strike back at Russia on the Eastern Front.
In West Sussex the build-up of the assault forces had become apparent early in 1944. In February, the 30th US Infantry Division arrived in the Chichester district. Its 120th Infantry Regiment was billeted in Bognor and Felpham, with its HQ in the Victoria Hotel at the Aldwick Road end of Victoria Drive.
The impact of the American presence on British society is well known. “Over fed, over paid, over sexed and over here” was the quip of the day but in reality local people offered homely hospitality that was greatly appreciated by troops from overseas. In Chichester, Bishop Bell held receptions for American officers in the Bishop’s Palace and, elsewhere in the city, canteen facilities were opened for visiting troops. At Middleton-on-Sea, they gathered at “Mom and Pops Canteen”, run by Mr & Mrs Vigur.
Visits and inspections by the D-Day Commanders took place. The Bracklesham Bay Hotel hosted Eisenhower, Montgomery and Churchill while they observed landing rehearsals at Bracklesham and Climping. King George VI visited Petworth Park. Its tented and hutted camp was home to over 4000 soldiers, including the 27th Armoured Brigade with its amphibious Sherman tanks, which a few weeks later would prove their value on Sword Beach.
Eisenhower also stayed at the Ship Hotel in North Street, Chichester, while inspecting the many airfields and advanced landing grounds in the area. He was guest of honour at a formal dinner in the Officers Mess at RAF Tangmere, attended also by the legendary air ace, Johnnie Johnson, then Commander of a Wing of Canadian Spitfires at Funtington.
The Operations Room of RAF Tangmere was in Chichester at Bishop Otter College. A special Observation Gallery was erected from which senior officers could look down on plotting tables, manned round the clock by specially trained WAAFs. On D-Day this room was the nerve centre for the operation of 56 Squadrons from 18 airfields taking part in the invasion. That day, the three Czech Spitfire Squadrons based at the Advanced Landing Ground at Apuldram gave cover to landing forces on the beaches and, flying from dawn to dusk, carried out more sorties than any other RAF station.
The county’s aviation role was varied – including receipt of the wounded from the landing beaches, who were flown back to airfields at Ford and Bognor for treatment at hospitals in Chichester.
Of the county’s many associations with D-Day, perhaps the most extraordinary were the Mulberry Harbours, the pre-fabricated ports towed across the Channel on D-Day+1 to supply the invasion army. Their design owed much to the inventiveness of Lieutenant-Commander Robert Lochner, a young Admiralty scientist from Linchmere. Some of the principles came to him in his bath and were put into practice in his garden pond at Rats Castle.
The components of these artificial harbours were assembled off the coast at Pagham and Selsey prior to the towing operation. It was all top secret but that didn’t stop locals speculating as to what was going on. The consensus in Bognor was that they were prefab buildings for a new off-shore housing estate. In Bosham, they said they were the start of a cross-Channel concrete bridge. Only in October would they discover the truth, that the harbour when erected at Arromanches played a vital part in the invasion, earning Churchill’s accolade “this miraculous port”. Remnants of a wrecked section, that came adrift in a practice assembly, can still be seen at low tide, embedded in the sand at West Beach on the Aldwick foreshore, our own souvenir of the D-Day activity in West Sussex.
Bognor, Littlehampton and Worthing were directly under the flight path of the 6th Airborne Division as it headed for Normandy on the night of 5-6 June 1944. There was little sleep for residents of those towns. Next morning, the Army camps were empty and the streets clear of invasion vehicles. The people of West Sussex, who had observed the build-up at close quarters, now knew that the long-awaited liberation of Europe was underway.
Copies of the ‘D-Day West Sussex’ book, reprinted in 2019 (with minor amendments) for the 75th anniversary, is available at £7.95 from all West Sussex libraries and the Record Office, 3 Orchard Street, Chichester (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with any queries).