Group Captain James Stagg was a meteorologist charged with one of the most important weather forecasts ever made. Seventy-four years ago this week, he presented General Eisenhower with a prediction that would temporarily halt the largest seaborne invasion in history.
Conditions that summer were far from ideal. Stagg somehow had to persuade Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord, that the Allied invasion of Normandy must be delayed for one day. A brief break in the weather over June 6 would offer just enough time for the assault that would eventually lead to the liberation of Europe.
Portsmouth was central to D-Day and remains a Navy stronghold. In 1944 it was the headquarters and departure point for military and naval units for Sword Beach in Normandy. Eye-witnesses said there were so many craft in the Solent it looked possible to walk across to the Isle of Wight.
The newly refurbished D-Day Museum in Portsmouth is right on the seafront, an area that would have been a hive of nervous activity in 1944. It has just been re-opened following a £5 million re-fit and now tells the story of what happened here from a military and personal perspective.
The only museum in the UK dedicated to the invasion, it attracts visitors from all over the world. At its heart is the 83-metre long Overlord Embroidery, a textile display inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry.
You might expect guns and weapons to be on display here but some of the most interesting exhibits are less obvious. A pencil used to sign the invasion order, a miniature stuffed parachutist, like the 500 “Ruperts” dropped over Normandy to confuse the Germans about the exact location of the airborne part of the attack.
Eisenhower was stationed just north of Portsmouth, at Southwick House, which is still a military base to this day. However, I’m driving west, bypassing Southampton on the M27 and heading to the New Forest. My mode of transport pre-dates D-Day and was
famously described by Eisenhower as one of the three tools that won the Second World War (the others being the Dakota transport plane and beach landing craft).
The current Wrangler Overland model is designed with considerably more creature comforts than the original but it is still unmistakably Jeep. Unfortunately for the troops, satellite navigation, Bluetooth and heated leather seats weren’t on the options list 74 years ago.
A retro-looking four-wheel drive, the Wrangler is great for attacking a muddy track but less content on Tarmac. It’s heavy and the old-school 2.8-litre diesel engine struggles to keep up in modern traffic. A new, lighter version is due out in the next few months and will also be available with a 2.0-litre petrol engine.
Performance isn’t an issue on the A337 across the New Forest – this must be one of the busiest roads in Hampshire. Caravans, wild horses and cyclists add to the congestion, while a 50mph speed limit operates along much of the route. Lyndhurst is a major bottleneck, before Brockenhurst brings everything to a standstill.
It’s nothing compared to the build-up around D-Day, or Operation Neptune as it was codenamed. Hundreds of thousands of troops were assembled across the south of England and the woodland here provided great cover. The Balmer Lawn Hotel in Brockenhurst was the divisional HG of the Royal Marines and a meeting place for Eisenhower and the British Army’s General Montgomery, who was in charge of all ground forces.
Roads were only designed to carry light traffic and most were soon badly damaged by heavyweight military hardware. Bridge-strengthening and road widening schemes were hurriedly implemented across the New Forest, a marshalling point known as Area B on invasion maps.
Further south, Buckler’s Hard is part of the Beaulieu Estate, now best known for the National Motor Museum and historic Palace House. Two hundred years ago it was a ship-building centre for the Royal Navy, providing warships for the Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Situated on the banks of the River Beaulieu, Buckler’s Hard was then a repair yard for Navy minesweepers during the Second World War. As D-Day approached it switched to building dummy landing craft. These were moved around the coast to East Anglia, simulating an invasion fleet that would confuse the Germans.
Downstream I discover the pretty village of Lepe, where more than 50 concrete pontoons were built for D-Day. These Mulberry harbours were towed to France and helped with the rapid unloading of equipment during the crucial early phase of the invasion.
Lymington quay was used an embarkation point for troops, with ships sailing out of the Lymington River and into the Solent. A couple of miles to the east, the North Solent Nature Reserve contains ancient oaks, growing down to marshland at the water’s edge. Troops that slept in this area in June 1944 may have heard redshank, skylarks and warblers too.
On an isolated stretch of coastline nearby, down the end of a long, sandy track is Pitts Deep Cottage. The 18th century house was once an inn “famous for selling good brandy” - perfect for smugglers who gained access to the shore via a channel known as Pitts Deep.
Now run as a self-catering lodge, it’s perfect for beachcombers and romantics alike, people who like to wake up listening to curlews and the sound of the sea. You can throw a pebble from the garden into the waves; just shut the gates to keep wild ponies and donkeys at bay.
Now you can relax on the boarded sun terrace, light up a barbecue and wave to the passing fishermen and yacht owners. Seventy-four years ago here, you would have witnessed an armada of boats heading out to sea in the moonlight on a mission to liberate northern Europe.
theddaystory.com; hostunusual.com (Pitts Deep Cottage); beaulieu.co.uk
Jeep Wrangler Overland 2.8 CRD auto
ENGINE 2,776cc four-cylinder
TOP SPEED 107mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 10.6sec
FUEL ECONOMY 34.1mpg (EU Combined)
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