Memories of D-Day: Preparing for D-Day

A church service on board a US landing craft, 4 June 1944 (US Navy)

A church service on board a US landing craft, 4 June 1944 (US Navy)

The forces involved in D-Day had been preparing for months, even years. In the weeks before 6 June 1944, final training exercises were completed and the troops were moved to camps near the southern coast of England, in position to embark onto the ships that would take them across to Normandy. Meanwhile, these ships gathered at ports along the coast.

In mid-April 1944, 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry moved to a tented camp about five miles from Southampton, as Eric Broadhead describes:
“ Life on the whole was pleasant. It was summertime at its best. Our evenings found us in Southampton, where the servicemen outnumbered the civilians by seven to one. The walk from Southampton back to camp was a pleasant one, and often I and my mates would stroll back talking of home, parents, wives and sweethearts and of the day that must surely dawn soon, the day when we sailed for a destination that only a few men knew. We discussed our ideas of where it would be, but the question was when? Sometimes the question got on our nerves. We all had our own theories as to when it would be. Around May 10th, a drastic move took place. The camps were sealed, our training was over. The days that followed were strange to be sure. Barbed wire skirted the camp area, armed guards too. We received no mail, but were still allowed to write home, subject to strict censorship.”
A few days later, the troops were told more about the planned invasion.
“ Our briefing took place in a Nissen hut which was heavily guarded. Inside was similar to a schoolroom and a huge map on an equally huge blackboard. On the map we could see a small strip of coastline, the names of towns and villages were false, New York, Istanbul etc. So we learned little as to the exact whereabouts of the assault. All we knew was that our objective was to capture the beachhead and press on to high ground and above all, hold our ground until armoured divisions were ashore.”
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

Mr Mackenzie was a Sergeant in the Royal Signals. He describes the period before embarking at Tilbury:
“ We were issued with a new AV battledress (stinks, awful) and two 48 hour ration packs, 20 cigarettes, a life belt (such as you learn to swim with!) and two ‘spew bags’. We are also paid 200 francs, so it is France after all. My own feelings are very mixed. Sometimes I feel that I am going to certain death, then at other times I think I shall make it. I shall soon know, for we are on our way to the Docks. It seems the local population don’t realise that they are witnessing the beginning of what may well be the greatest moment in the history of war. Eventually we get onto the ship, a Belgian trader called ‘Leopold’. When I saw the hold that had been allotted to us, my spirits sank to zero and I think this was my ‘most miserable moment’. We had the bottom hold, right in the bows, with only one exit which joined all other exits after the first stairway had been mounted. We were crammed like sardines. Twenty-eight feet below water, what a chance if we were hit, either by shell, bomb or torpedo!”
AV battledress = clothing treated with “anti-vermin” chemicals.
spew bags = sick bags, which were issued to the troops in case the crossing was rough (as it turned out to be!).
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

Piper Bill Millin entertains Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade, Warsash, 5 June 1944 (IWM H 39039)

Piper Bill Millin entertains Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade, Warsash, 5 June 1944 (IWM H 39039)

Robert Millan watched the Allied fleet assemble in the Solent, before D-Day:
“ I was a signalman in the Royal Navy. I was sent with my best mate, a freckle-faced Yorkshire lad called Foley, to the busy signal station in Gosport called Fort Gilkicker, to augment the regular signal staff prior to the invasion of Europe.
The build up was tremendous, a spectacle never to be forgotten. The Solent waters gradually filled up with every type of naval craft, from battleships down to corvettes and motor torpedo boats. Meanwhile with all the constant reading and sending of signals by 10-inch signal lamps, my mate and I were suffering terribly from conjunctivitis. When we complained about the long 24 hours stretch of duty to the chief yeoman in charge of our watch, we were consoled by how lucky we were; that all that lot out there in the Solent (pointing out to the massive gathering of ships) were going to die, while we would survive. So we had to crawl back into our shells and get on with life as it was.
Then it all happened. I was off duty the night of 5th June, and about 9pm noticed a steady stream of naval craft underway, making for the open sea. As daylight dawned, the whole sea area seemed still. Everything had gone, apart from one ship, H.M.S. Alresford, anchored nearby, and an array of small craft, mostly used for ferrying duties. The invasion had begun. It was indeed D-Day, 6th of June 1944.”
[Frank and Joan Shaw Collection, D-Day Museum]

Mrs K. Currie (then Miss Kay Martin) was a Wren at Fort Southwick, just north of Portsmouth:
“ Fort Southwick was the Combined Headquarters, Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth, and stood on a high road overlooking Portsmouth Harbour. Down below, a long way down, was a network of tunnels and various departments, plotting room, cypher office, teleprinters, wireless office, telephone exchange and so on. On the morning of D-Day, I, as a Wren, had been on duty as a telephonist. A buzz went round as news of the invasion filtered through the tunnel, as it was affectionately called.
But it was the run-up to D-Day which is printed deep in my memory after all these years. All around the area, inland, the troops were camped in woods and anywhere where there was space for them. Each in turn was moved on towards the embarkation area, and another took its place, like a game of draughts. Then the telephone number which was for ‘X’ Regiment one day, would be for ‘Y’ Regiment the next day. It was all a bit confusing, and difficult to keep up with!”
[Frank and Joan Shaw Collection]

British troops wait for the order to leave for D-Day (The News, Portsmouth - 2891)

British troops wait for the order to leave for D-Day (The News, Portsmouth - 2891)

Diana Granger was a Wren Petty Officer Quarters Assistant stationed in Southsea:
“ I was a Wren housed in one of the seaside hotels in Southsea, overlooking the Solent, very near South Parade Pier. June 6th dawned. We Wrens woke up to the sound of military boots marching along the pavement across the road from the hotel. We soon looked out of the windows to see some of the first of the men preparing to land on enemy territory. Their progress followed a regular pattern – men carrying arms, men carrying pickaxes, more arms. At regular intervals a stretcher was carried (this sight giving us deeper thought than that accompanying our wild cheers). By now, the sash windows at the front of the hotel had been thrown up to help us shout our encouragement, and we knew the big day had started.”
[Frank and Joan Shaw Collection]

Major K.P. Baxter, a British Army officer serving in 5 Beach Group, describes his experiences on the way to Normandy:
“ From the sealed camp at Rowlands Castle, we were driven under security escort to the docks at Portsmouth. Our waves to passers-by were cheerfully returned with a ‘see you tomorrow’ air, as none thought that this was anything but a routine exercise.
Once in the docks we were rapidly embarked on the Empire Battleaxe, an LSI [Landing Ship, Infantry] equipped with assault landing craft suspended in davits on both port and starboard sides. This vessel was one of a small group carrying the assaulting companies of infantry together with specialised units making up breaching teams and beach signal communications.
The ship was well into the Channel when we were issued with further maps, photographs and the last briefing instructions, this time with full place names instead of code references, and any doubts amongst the many guesses as to the true landing areas were finally dispelled.”
Landing Ship, Infantry = a large passenger ship, converted to carry many troops and their assault landing craft.
Assault landing craft = small landing craft, officially known as a “Landing Craft, Assault” (LCA).
[Warren Tute Collection, D-Day Museum]

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.