Over the centuries, Portsmouth Harbour has witnessed the preparation and departure of many military and naval expeditions. None has been on such a scale and required such concentrated effort as Operation Overlord in June 1944.
Preparations for Operation Overlord led to restrictions on the movement of the people of Portsmouth. In August, 1943, Southsea seafront was declared a restricted zone, and on April 1, 1944, Portsmouth was part of the 10-mile deep coastal strip, from the Wash to Land's End, closed to all visitors. By the spring of 1944 southern England was fast becoming a huge armed camp, as men, vehicles, stores and ammunition moved to their marshalling areas. Portsmouth was the headquarters and main departure point for the military and naval units destined for Sword Beach on the Normandy coast. Taking advantage of the natural woodland cover, the troops camped to the north and east of Portsmouth.
Looking down from Portsdown Hill there were so many ships and landing craft to be seen that it seemed as though it would be possible to walk from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight across their decks. The troops were sealed into their camps on May 26 so that the final briefings could begin. Then as D-Day approached, the men began to embark for the cross-channel assault from Southsea beach, the naval dockyard, Gosport, Stokes Bay and numerous other points along the south coast.
Southwick House, just to the north of Portsmouth, had been chosen as the headquarters for the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower. Terrible weather delayed D-Day by 24 hours, but then Eisenhower announced his decision to launch the invasion with the famous words - "OK, let's go." On the morning of June 6 the people of Portsmouth awoke to find the vast armada of ships had gone. The streets hitherto choked with military traffic were deserted. Simple messages had been chalked on the roads by the departing troops: "Thank you, Cowplain," "Thank you, Waterlooville." D-Day had come.
The following is a list of some key sites associated with D-Day in the Portsmouth area:
1. Southwick House: Here the Allied commanders, led by US General Dwight Eisenhower - the Supreme Allied Commander - decided that D-Day would be on 6 June 1944.
2. Fort Southwick: Tunnels underneath this Victorian fort housed the Combined Operations Headquarters, which co-ordinated and monitored the progress of the D-Day invasion fleet.
3. Christ Church, Portsdown: On 4 June 1944, the headquarters staff of British 2nd Army (which controlled the British and Canadian troops who landed on D-Day) held a service here.
4. Queen Alexandra Hospital: “QA” played an important part in the treatment of the wounded troops who had been brought back from Normandy.
5. Hilsea Barracks: The Barracks and the nearby Hilsea College (now City of Portsmouth Boys' School) were used by American troops.
6. Airspeed, Portsmouth Airfield: The factory and headquarters of the Airspeed company, which designed the Horsa glider. The Horsa was used by both American and British airborne forces on D-Day.
7. Newcomen Road, Stamshaw: Six days after D-Day, the Germans launched the first of many V-1 flying bombs against Britain. Two of these weapons fell on Portsmouth. The second landed in Newcomen Road, killing 15 people and injuring 82 others.
8. HMS Excellent, Whale Island: This naval base played an important role in the Allied naval preparations for D-Day, particularly in preparing for the naval gunfire bombardment that preceded the landings.
9. Portsmouth Dockyard: Many of the specialist ships and landing craft used on D-Day had been modified at the Dockyard. Parts of the Mulberry Harbours (the artificial harbours that were used by the Allies for landing troops and supplies in Normandy) were built there. It was also an embarkation point for troops.
10. Portsmouth Harbour Station landing stage: Another site at which Allied troops boarded ships to take them to France.
11. HMS Vernon, Gunwharf: This was the base for part of Force S - the naval force that landed 3rd British Division on Sword Beach - and for Motor Torpedo Boats, which on D-Day protected the flanks of the landings against enemy naval attack. This site is now Gunwharf Quays shopping centre.
12. Quay House, Broad Street: This was the Embarkation Area Headquarters for the Portsmouth sector. Its role was to co-ordinate the loading of troops onto the ships at the four Portsmouth embarkation sites (which included nearby Camber Quay). Until recently, this building was known as Wightlink House.
13. Commercial Buildings: This building, on what is now Lord Montgomery Way, was the headquarters of Force S, which carried 3rd British Division to Normandy. The building now has the Cafe Parisien on the ground floor.
14. Fratton Station: Wounded troops from Normandy were transferred onto hospital trains here, to be moved to hospitals outside the city.
15. St Mary's Hospital: This hospital had an important role in the treatment of casualties from Normandy.
16. St James’ Hospital: This hospital was used for the treatment of more lightly wounded troops and burns cases from the fighting in France.
17. Fort Cumberland: The Inter-Services Training and Development Centre was established here in 1938 to conduct experiments in Combined Operations techniques (landing troops on enemy shores).
18. Langstone Harbour entrance: The shores of Hayling Island were used as a site for the construction of components of the Mulberry Harbours. Many landing barges were moored in Langstone Harbour in the lead-up to D-Day.
19. South Parade Pier: Temporary piers were built from scaffolding alongside South Parade Pier for use by troops embarking onto the vessels that would take them to France.
20. HMS Dolphin, Fort Blockhouse: The “X-Craft” mini-submarines that were based here were used for directing the Allied fleet in its final approach to the British and Canadian beaches.
21. Haslar Royal Naval Hospital: Another important hospital for the treatment of wounded troops from Normandy.
22. Beach Street, Gosport: Near today’s Gosport ferry pier, this was one of the sites in Gosport for the embarkation of troops, particularly tanks and other vehicles.
23. Camper & Nicholson, Gosport: This yacht-building company building a variety of naval craft, including Motor Torpedo Boats, parts of landing craft and components for the Mulberry Harbours (artificial harbours).
24. Stokes Bay: This site was used both for the construction of the Mulberry Harbours (artificial harbours) and for the embarkation of troops.
25. HMS Daedalus: A variety of Allied aircraft were based here, at Lee on Solent airfield. They supported the naval and ground forces on D-Day and afterwards.
26. Royal Naval Armament Depot at Priddy’s Hard, and other Royal Navy supply bases in Gosport - the Royal Clarence Victualling Yard, and the RN Armament Depots at Frater and Bedenham - were all vital for supplying the Allied invasion fleet.
27. Hardway, Gosport: Many of the huge numbers of vehicles required by the Allied troops in Normandy boarded ships from Gosport. The concrete "hard" can still be seen today, now in use by the local sailing club.
28. Vospers, Portchester: This local firm built naval craft, such as Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs), that were involved in the naval operations for D-Day. They went ahead of the main Allied fleet as it crossed the English Channel, and protected its flanks.
29. Movement Control Headquarters, Fareham: This headquarters controlled all movement of troops in the area around Portsmouth and Gosport, as they prepared to board ships for Normandy.
30. Marshalling camps for troops: The area to the north of Portsmouth was covered with many temporary camps for the thousands of troops assembled locally for D-Day.
31. RAF Thorney Island: This airfield was used by RAF Typhoon fighter-bomber aircraft, which took part in the Normandy fighting. Slightly further away, airfields around Chichester such as RAF Tangmere played vital roles.
32. HMS Northney: Several Royal Navy bases on Hayling Island bore this name. They were used for the training of landing craft crews in the years leading up to 1944.
33. Hayling Island seafront: In May 1944, the seafront was used for amphibious landing rehearsals by troops of 50th British Division.