Seventy-five years ago, the pebble beaches of West Sussex crunched not under the feet of welly-booted dog walkers and flip-flopping sunseekers as they do today, but by thousands of pairs of soldiers’ boots, tank tyres and landing craft.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine the scene as you strolled along any prom or coastal walk, from Bogner to Newhaven, in the last days of May, 1944: on every road, above in the sky, on the beaches, close inshore and littered across the nearby fields and park greens, and you would have seen army trucks, jeeps and tanks, aeroplanes, platoons of GIs and Tommies on the march, a mass of tents and Nissan huts, the rumble of motorised armour, the chug of marine diesel engines – and distinct American and Canadian twangs mixed with a myriad of British regional accents.
The US Army 188th Field Artillery Group, 951st Battalion Field Artillery and 105th Medical Battalion were at Arundel. The 15th Scottish Infantry were at Cowfold, the 3rd Battalion and 120th Light Infantry at Felpham, and 51st Heavy Regiment at Rudgwick. And these made up just a fraction of the impressive military build-up occupying Sussex.
Some 2,800 men from the British 3rd Infantry Division were camped on Stanmer Park in Brighton.
Sussex was the perfect D-Day launch pad.
Just 104 miles of English Channel separate our county from the Normandy landing beaches and it was from here that the assembled allies prepared in the weeks ahead for one of the most momentous, daring days in human history. It was the largest seabourne invasions in world history.
The British left from Shoreham and Newhaven for Sword Beach, while the Canadians and the Americans disbursed to ports up and down the south coast to their rendezvous with hell fire on the code-named Utah, Omaha and Juno.
After a false start, this massed rank of brave men finally departed Sussex and made an courageous b-line for danger on the eve of June 4th – a courageous mission to liberate Europe and tens of millions from the tyranny of Nazi rule.
Amid the rank and file spotted by the Sussex public in the lead-up to D-Day were key commanders and even King George VI, who inspected the 27th Armoured Brigade at Petworth Park.
General Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the operation and later to become US President, travelled to Chichester in mid-April, staying at the Ship Hotel in North Street. From here he inspected nearby airbases and was made guest of honour at a special banquet in the officers’ mess at RAF Tangmere.
Aware German spies were among the international gathering, lies and deception were deployed and strict laws banning troops from talking to members of the public were enforced.
And Worthing was the backdrop for one of the biggest D-Day deceptions.
It was deliberately rumoured that General Montgomery, The British commander-in-chief, was to address troops on Broadwater Green. German spies took the bait and made their way to Worthing – though the man they believed to be Monty was in fact his double, Clifton James, a little-known local repertory actor with a remarkable resemblance to the General.
James gave an outstanding performance standing on top of a tank, fooling any listening German spies into believing he was not on an urgent mission to rally the allies, instead giving off a relaxed air that plans were still in their early stages.
From Sussex, James was flown in the lead-up to D Day to Gibraltar – a decoy trip that was deliberately leaked to Nazi spies in Spain, and which led the enemy to believe, along with the laid-back performance in Broadwater, that the Allied invasion – confidently expected by the Germans to be across the Straits of Dover – must still be some way off.
Book on D-Day and West Sussex reprinted to mark 75th anniversary
Sussex is peppered with D-Day sites and its role in that historic day 75 years ago multifaceted.
The day itself wouldn’t be particularly successful: just two of the beaches were linked and all five beach heads were not connected until June 12.
But it was a foothold, and the number of troops arriving was astonishing: 132,000 Allied forces landed before midnight on June 6, with two million eventually going. Thousands of sea vessels participated, many of them from our own coast, and 11,000 aircraft.
A book that details West Sussex’s contribution is being reprinted for this anniversary milestone.
It can be bought from any library in West Sussex, or the county council offices in Chichester.
D-Day West Sussex: Springboard for the Normandy Landings was first printed 25 years ago to mark the 50th anniversary. It has 120 pages and is full of images and first-hand stories from the D-Day preparations in West Sussex.
By the spring of 1944, the Americans were arriving at a rate of 150,000 a month, bringing with them 750,000 tons of supplies.
It was difficult to keep all the activities a secret but one of the best kept was the role of Littlehampton on D-Day.
The small port town was the base of Ten Commando, or X Troop, which was made up of volunteers from various regiments of the Allied forces – including Germans with extreme anti-Nazi views – Eastern Europeans and Jews.
Banded together as merciless, trained killers led by multi-linguist maverick Captain Bryan Hilton-Jones, they initially carried out raids on German defences along the French coast in the winter of 1943/44 to confuse the enemy as to where the invasion would take place.
In the build-up to D-Day, they would speed march from the Black Rabbit pub near Arundel to Littlehampton – and one night woke Arundel residents during a practice assault on the castle.
By June 6, 1944 they and most of the other troops that had briefly called Sussex home had departed for France to liberate Europe and make a date with history.
Many would never return. \lsdpriorit