Memories of D-Day: British civilians witness D-Day

Women watch tanks moving to their embarkation points, near Portchester (The News, Portsmouth - 2887)

Women watch tanks moving to their embarkation points, near Portchester
(The News, Portsmouth - 2887)

Most civilians knew that D-Day (or the Second Front, as it was referred to at the time) would happen soon. They did not know exactly when it would take place, or where the Allied troops would land. Many people saw the troops preparing to leave, or witnessed aircraft flying overhead on their way to Normandy.

Mrs M. J. Cope remembers how D-Day was announced in school:
“ My memories of D-Day are still very vivid although I was only a 12 year old schoolgirl at the time. The school was fortunate in having a radio, which in those days was quite unusual and I remember the whole school filing into the assembly hall, each carrying a chair, and sitting in complete silence while listening to the reports. We later had a chart up in the school hall and plotted the progress of the Allied Armies.”
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

Mrs J. Godsell was half-way through an exam when she heard that D-Day had happened:
“ I was sixteen at the time, a girl Probationer in the General Post Office, and on that day [6 June 1944] sitting the Civil Service Exam. We had a break for lunch and took a walk outside, and there for everyone to see on the placards was ‘Allied forces land in France’ – the big breakthrough at last. We returned to the building, congregating ready to return to the exam, great excitement abounded as we talked of the landing and I said ‘it’s smashing, now the war will soon be over, when one of the girls unknown to me said ‘It is alright for you. My brother has gone over in that lot’. Can you imagine how I felt in my moment of rejoicing that I had forgotten the boys involved. I felt dreadful.”
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

American troops at a roadside halt, somewhere in southern England (The News, Portsmouth - 2960)

American troops at a roadside halt, somewhere in southern England
(The News, Portsmouth - 2960)

Although only a boy, Mr Thomas R. Hiett saw the troops at Southampton before they left for D-Day, and then had to bring news of soldiers’ deaths to their families:
“ At the time of the Allied invasion of Europe I was employed as a telegram boy at Southampton, mostly at the Docks Post Office. I was one of the few people allowed free access to the embarkation area at Southampton. I delivered telegrams to ‘C’ Assembly Area HQ at Glen Eyre House, Bassett, Southampton, where I was allowed to walk around whilst waiting for an answer. I saw large rooms covered in maps of the south of England with all the camps and convoy routes shown. On the eve of D-Day, June 4th, I could not find anyone at the naval barracks. Finally one matelot arrived. I said ‘Where are they all gone?’ He said they had embarked. I went home and told my parents to listen to the News next morning. I got up the next day: nothing. Unknown to me they were still lying in the Solent due to the 24 hour postponement [due to bad weather]. On June 6 the town was deserted and I was on a district round. The distant rumble of guns could be heard in Southampton. At 11 a.m. I had the first death telegram. The lady came to the door. She was horrified. I muttered ‘No answer’ and fled. I could hear the crying all down the road. Good God, how many more?”
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

Mrs Nellie Nowlan was working for the war effort when she saw the troops on their way to Normandy:
“ I remember D-Day, 6th June, very well. I was 18 and working in Plesseys’ Underground Tunnel at Redbridge, Wanstead, making Spitfire vacuum pumps. I was walking to the top of the road towards East Ham High Street to get my 101 bus from Woolwich when I heard such a noise and thundering. I reached the High Street and thousands of lorries and tanks loaded with soldiers were making their way to Woolwich and waving their hands. Mrs Larkins from Larkins’ sweet shop was throwing them packets of cigarettes and chocolate and peanuts. They were catching them and saying ‘thank you darling’. The older people were standing by the curb crying and saying ‘Good luck boys, God bless you’. I walked across the road to get my bus. They all gave me the wolf whistle. I smiled and waved my hand. Needless to say, I was crying too.”
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

Policemen checking civilians’ identity cards as part of the security clampdown before D-Day (The News, Portsmouth - 2823)

Policemen checking civilians’ identity cards as part of the security clampdown before D-Day
(The News, Portsmouth - 2823)

Mrs Margaret L. Smith was a young girl, and only half understood what was happening, but the seriousness of the events was soon brought home to her:
“ I was thirteen and a half years old at the time, living in a small village 17 miles north of London, and had to walk three miles to school in Watford. A crowd of girls used to gather along the way, and I can remember the sky being full of aeroplanes pulling gliders, there were hundreds of them. The father of one of my friends was in the Army and she said ‘My dad is up there in one of those’, and we all started waving scarves, hats and hands and shouting ‘cherio Dad’ to all the planes as they flew very low over Watford. To most of us it didn’t mean very much to see all the planes up there. But the next week Kathleen came to school and said her father had been killed that day. I remember feeling very sad. My own father was partially blind and so was unfit for the Army, and for the first time ever, I thought I was glad he was blind because his illness had kept him home with us.”
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

Mrs Mary Strong and her sister both suffered the uncertainties that were shared by many women whose husbands were in the services overseas:
“ My younger sister and I, both naval wives, lived together during the war, sharing each other’s joys and sorrows. There came a quieter time when we were both confident that our men were in home waters and my sister’s husband managed to get word to her that he would meet her under the clock in Glasgow Central Station. Lying awake in the early hours of the following morning I heard footsteps at the door, and running downstairs met Phyl coming in. She burst into tears as she had waited all day in Glasgow station and her husband hadn’t turned up, so she made the journey home again as she knew no-one in Glasgow.
I worked in a radio factory’s office and one of my perks was a radio on my desk so that I could listen to the news bulletins. A few days later (on June 6th) I switched on as I started my day’s work. Over the air came General Eisenhower’s voice, telling the French people that the Allied armies had landed in the early hours. I reached for the phone and called my sister (she also worked in an office). I said ‘here is the answer to where our men are’ and held the phone to the radio.”
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

Miss Norah Grocott witnessed some of the preparations for D-Day:
“ One late afternoon, early in May 1944, we heard a terrific noise of traffic coming along the road outside the drive. The road was full as far as the eye could see, of Army vehicles of every kind, shape and size. There were tanks, armoured cars and lorries, and one or two infernal machines, with huge rolls of chains wrapped around enormous rollers on the front. These were, of course, for beating over minefields, though their purpose escaped us at that time.
From a leading armoured car, an officer descended, and addressed my brother-in-law. He announced he was sorry to trouble him, but he was taking over the available ground around the house for an ‘indefinite period’. My brother in law was rather taken aback by all this, and I recall, was bold enough to ask if ‘All this was really necessary. ‘Yes sir’ said the officer. I remember I put my oar in by saying ‘In actual fact, we have no choice, have we?’ ‘No ma’am’ said the officer, with a slight smile. I think it had dawned on us all by then that this was something bigger than all of us! It was.”
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

Mrs Cecilia Hodgson, a Gosport housewife, writtes (in 1974) of seeing the troops on their way to embark for Normandy:
“ I was living in Gosport, Hampshire on D-Day, in Anns Hill Road, which leads to the Harbour and Portsmouth. My husband had just been called up to serve in the Royal Pioneer Corps, and my brother was away at sea, in the Royal Naval Reserve, so there was just me and my little girl left.
We were in the kitchen at the time, and I think she had been having her nap, when all of a sudden we heard a terrible rumbling and clanging down the road. So I picked up my little girl in my arms and rushed to the front door to see what all the noise was about, and there they were, these great big tanks, rolling towards us. They were Canadian soldiers, all in their war gear, on their way to the Harbour and the Channel, but of course we did not know their destination, though I guessed. And as they went by, my little girl of one year old started waving and cried out “’Anks Mummie! ‘Anks, look Mummie”, as she had only just started to talk, she could not say “Tanks”. But the soldiers heard her and waved and grinned at us back. She is 30 now, but I’ll always remember that afternoon and the way she called out.”
[Warren Tute Collection]

Photographs courtesy of the D-Day Museum, the Imperial War Museum, US Navy/US Coast Guard, and The News, Portsmouth. Images may not be copied without permission.