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D-Day 70th Anniversary - Operation Overlord and Hursley
On 6th June 1944 British soldiers of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division landed on a stretch of Normandy beach designated "GOLD".
This was to be the start of the largest amphibious landing the world had ever seen, as allied soldiers came ashore on four other beaches and airborne troops landed further inland. For the military planners this was "Operation Overlord" but to history it will forever be known as "D-Day".
As the 70th anniversary of this momentous event rapidly approaches it may be of some interest to know that Hursley Park played it's part in both the build-up to "D-Day" and in the subsequent advance into Normandy.
In 1943 a programme of construction began to build camps for the soldiers before embarking for Normandy. Using the cover of the trees two of these camps (C-12 and C-13) were built along the treeline from Home Farm to Merdon Castle. For a brief period aerial photographs showed tell-tale white chalk marks from the construction of the water tanks and huts before they were camouflaged and hidden from view. To cope with the weight of the anticipated armoured vehicles the lane from Standon to Merdon was metalled creating the road we see today.
The camps were designed to accommodate 4,500 soldiers and their vehicles with a permanent staff providing food, equipment and fuel to the soldiers as they passed through. Many of the soldiers staffing the camp were coloured American servicemen, the US army was still segregated at this time. Initially the combat soldiers who arrived were primarily Americans but by May 1944 soldiers of the British 50th (Northumbrian) Division, including the 8th Armoured Division, were moved to Sector C, sub-section W, which stretched from Hursley to Romsey and the edges of Southampton. The Headquarters of the Division was under the treeline just to the north of Home Farm.
The roads through and around Hursley became a military one-way system and along the straight mile to Romsey soldiers were camped under the trees waiting for the orders telling them when, and where, the invasion was to begin. In a strange irony, the bell-tents in which they stayed were the same World War 1 issue that had been used by the many soldiers who had passed through Hursley Park Camp between 1914 and 1918.
At the end of May the camps were sealed. Nobody was allowed in or out as final preparations began. For the Supermarine staff at Hursley special orders had to be written allowing them to continue to commute to work, the government even laying on an aircraft to fly parts for the Spitfires to the various dispersed locations should the roads become blocked with the military vehicles. On 2nd June, as the tension mounted, Supermarine Staff were reminded to not pick up hitchhikers on their way to work.
On the eve of the original date for the invasion (5th June) senior officers of the British and American armies met for a final party in one of the Hursley Nissan huts in Ampfield Wood. Soon after, the men began to move towards Southampton where they were to board their designated transports for the invasion.
As the British left they were replaced by a seemingly endless stream of US units who moved into the Hursley Camps for final preparations before joining the invasion force as it began its break-out from Normandy.
Although primarily designed for the liberation of Europe, the Camps were to remain in use well after the end of the war. At one point in 1946 German Prisoners of War, attempting to escape from Ganger Camp (nr Hilliers in Romsey), were able to steal US uniforms from the Camp in a daring attempt to fly back to Germany, only to be caught when they were mistaken for AWOL US Soldiers!
Other huts were handed over to the No.2 Bomb Disposal unit who, with the assistance of trusted German POWs, were responsible for diffusing unexploded bombs across the south of England in the post-war era. The camps also served as a satellite base to the large Polish Resettlement camp at Hiltingbury. At one point the Polish Military archives were brought to Hursley as Cold War tensions made the British reluctant to pass details of their wartime allies to the, then Soviet controlled, Polish government.
Today very little remains to indicate that the thousands of servicemen were ever here. Other than a few footings from the huts, some broken concrete from water tanks and the occasional serviceman's name carved on a tree you would never know.
- Hursley Park, Winchester, Hampshire, England