How the English City of Portsmouth Played a Pivotal Role on D-Day

Whereas the precise combating occurred in Normandy, victory would by no means have been achieved in France with out assist from Britain’s south coast. 

Standing on the waterfront in Portsmouth, with the uneven waters of the harbor glowing like crumpled aluminum foil in entrance of me, it’s tough to make sense of the scathing feedback of earlier guests concerning the English seaside metropolis. American novelist Henry James as soon as labeled Portsmouth “soiled” and “boring.” Jane Austen claimed “its vile sea breezes” had been “the smash of health and beauty.” Present British prime minister Boris Johnson famously quipped it was “full of medicine, weight problems, and underachievement.”

But whereas Portsmouth would possibly lack the dreaming spires of Oxford or the cosmopolitan buzz of London, the town has performed an epoch-defining position in international historical past. Its fabled dockyard was as soon as dwelling to the world’s best naval port. Right here, within the 18th and nineteenth centuries, intrepid explorers and admirals sallied forth from the closely fortified waterfront on their solution to the empire’s distant shores. However Portsmouth’s greatest check got here in 1944, when it took heart stage because the operational nexus and launchpad for D-Day, the biggest seaborne invasion in historical past.

In preparation for the landings, high Allied commanders, together with Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bernard L. Montgomery, transformed Portsmouth into their army headquarters. Items of Mulberry Harbors—transportable piers later towed throughout the English Channel and reassembled in France—had been secretly constructed at close by Hayling Island and, beginning on June 6 and persevering with by way of the summer time of 1944, over 170,000 troops and an estimated 43,000 tanks and army autos embarked for Normandy from the town’s wharves and quays. 

1000’s of troops departed Portsmouth for Normandy on June 6, 1944. (AFP by way of Getty Photographs)

Not coincidentally, World Battle II historical past is the explanation I’m right here right this moment. Returning to my native UK from Canada for the primary time for the reason that COVID-19 pandemic started, I’m eager to reconnect with the sights and sounds of the area I as soon as referred to as dwelling. I grew up close to Portsmouth in a small city in northwest Hampshire within the Nineteen Eighties. My father—who handed away within the early weeks of the pandemic, aged 95—joined the Royal Air Drive the day after D-Day. Whereas he didn’t play any direct half within the Normandy landings, he and his era had been indelibly formed by the tumultuous occasions of Operation Overlord and its aftermath. By visiting Portsmouth, I hope to get a greater image of what residing by way of these unsure occasions was actually like.

It’s sunny and heat as I thread my approach by way of the redeveloped outlets and eating places of Gunwharf Quays in a metropolis longing for normalcy after the ravages of the pandemic. The strict lockdowns of 2020-21 weren’t Portsmouth’s first containment. In 1943, throughout secret preparations for D-Day, the British army declared the town’s seafront a restricted zone. Guidelines had been tightened in April 1944 when a 10-mile strip working alongside England’s whole south coast was closed off to guests. For a number of months, civilians outdoors the zone couldn’t enter, whereas these on the within had been forbidden from leaving. 

By this level, Portsmouth had already endured quite a few air raids. The town was hit over 60 occasions between 1940 and 1944 by German bombers, destroying roughly 10 p.c of properties and killing practically 1,000 folks. Like many postwar British cities, the panorama that re-emerged within the Nineteen Fifties and ’60s was haphazard and never all the time fairly. 

Latest constructing initiatives—a lot of them new to my eyes—have been extra inspiring. The sail-shaped Spinnaker Tower, a 558-foot-tall commentary spire on the harborfront, may have been shipped over from ultramodern Dubai. The Anglican cathedral, prolonged within the Nineteen Nineties, is an encouraging instance of methods to efficiently brighten up a darkish Twelfth-century church with out wrecking its historic integrity. I pay a quick go to to the cathedral’s hushed inside to admire the D-Day memorial window put in in 1956 that depicts motion scenes from Dunkirk and Normandy in vivid stained glass. Backlit by the morning solar, it displays vivid kaleidoscopic patterns onto the encircling partitions and pillars.

Ten minutes later, whereas navigating my approach alongside the coast towards the grassy expanses of Southsea Widespread, I bump into the Royal Garrison Church, Portsmouth’s most poignant monument to the Blitz. Throughout a 1941 firebombing raid, the constructing suffered in depth harm, shedding the roof of its nave. The roof was by no means changed, however the adjoining chancel survived intact and right this moment shows stained glass from the Nineteen Eighties honoring wartime troops from the Royal Artillery and British Eighth Military.  

The troops’ service is honored in a window at Portsmouth Cathedral (above) and the fallen at the city’s war memorial (below). (Brendan Sainsbury)
The troops’ service is honored in a window at Portsmouth Cathedral (above) and the fallen on the metropolis’s warfare memorial (under). (Brendan Sainsbury)

(Brendan Sainsbury)
(Brendan Sainsbury)

Nearly each city and village in the UK has a warfare memorial, however I’ve hardly ever seen one as magnificent because the one in Portsmouth. Drawing me like a guiding beacon throughout Southsea Widespread as I head south, I fixate on its tall classical obelisk guarded by 4 lions and enclosed by low partitions inscribed with the names of round 15,000 naval seamen misplaced at sea in World Battle II. Bookended by two barrel-shaped pavilions and fronted by a well-manicured garden, it appears grand with out being ostentatious. Except for myself, the one different guests are two murmuring women who stroll sedately previous the countless names, looking out maybe for an uncle, a father, or a grandfather.

Past the memorial lies Portsmouth’s greatest lure, the D-Day Story, the one museum within the UK devoted to the Normandy landings. Inaugurated in 1984 however considerably upgraded in 2018, the museum’s most conspicuous sight—a large touchdown craft referred to as LCT 7074—was parked completely outdoors the unassuming redbricked façade in August 2020. The vessel, which efficiently delivered 9 tanks to Gold Seaside throughout Operation Overlord, is the final surviving touchdown craft from D-Day. After the warfare it loved a much less illustrious second profession as a floating nightclub in Liverpool earlier than being rescued and restored.

Inside, the museum is break up into three sections—“Preparation,” “Battle,” and “Legacy.” Newsreel pictures, dramatic images, and audio of troopers who fought on the frontlines add emotion and particular person testimony to the invasion’s well-known details. As a modern-day observer, I discover it inconceivable to not be moved by these males’s palpable sense of concern blended with bravery and heroism.

The shock exhibit comes within the “Legacy” part, which consists nearly totally of the Overlord Embroidery, a 272-foot-long hand-stitched fabric that illustrates the occasions of D-Day in excellent element. With its vivid pictorial storytelling, it attracts apparent comparability with the Bayeux Tapestry, the 950-year-old embroidered fabric throughout the Channel in France made to commemorate Norman king William the Conqueror’s invasion of Britain in 1066 (D-Day in reverse). The query is: will the D-Day embroidery nonetheless be round in 950 years’ time for Thirty first-century guests to peruse?   

After tea and scones within the museum cafe and a fast reconnaissance of Southsea’s seafront, anchored by the South Parade Pier from the place dozens of ships set sail in 1944, I backtrack to the dockyard and hop on a four-minute ferry experience to Gosport. 

Situated on the opposite facet of Portsmouth harbor, Gosport is the previous dwelling of HMS Dolphin, a Royal Navy submarine base and shore institution decommissioned in 1999. A number of info boards alongside the waterside esplanade recall its wartime operate. Nevertheless, the actual motive I’ve come right here is to go to its sprawling Royal Navy Submarine Museum and digest the story of the X-Craft, D-Day’s forgotten heroes.  

X-Craft had been midget submarines with five-men crews designed within the early Forties to infiltrate enemy ports, lay explosives, and chart coastlines undetected by the Germans. In January 1944, the midget sub X-20 obtained shut sufficient to Omaha Seaside to dispatch divers who secretly swam ashore and picked up sand samples in—no kidding—condoms. 

The sole surviving X-Craft midget sub, X-24, is displayed at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport. (Geni)
The only surviving X-Craft midget sub, X-24, is displayed on the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport. (Geni)

4 days earlier than D-Day, X-20—together with one other sub, X-23—left Hayling Island to behave as advance guides for the approaching armada. For 96 hours, the crews endured harmful and cramped circumstances to reconnoiter the Normandy coast and lay guiding beacons. At one level, one of many subs obtained so near Sword Seaside the crew spied German troops taking part in an impromptu sport of soccer by way of the periscope.  

Whereas X-20 and X-23 had been scrapped after the warfare, one X-Craft has survived. Hidden within the museum’s entrails is X-24, a sub that noticed lively wartime service alongside the coast of Norway in 1944. Sticking my head momentarily inside its 52-square-foot inside is sufficient to induce a gentle wave of claustrophobia.  

Again on Portsmouth’s harborfront, because the late summer time solar illuminates a good-looking line of taverns that one way or the other managed to outlive the wartime bombs, I take a final take a look at the cranes, masts, and ferries of this nice maritime metropolis and nurture a brand new appreciation for its wartime heroics. Whereas the battle for France might need been fought on the seashores of Normandy, victory would by no means have been attainable with out the steely, behind-the-scenes efforts of my father’s era and their position in planning D-Day from Britain’s south coast. 


Portsmouth Harbour station is a straightforward 90-minute journey from London on South Western Railway. The D-Day Story museum and Royal Navy Submarine Museum—throughout the harbor in Gosport—are each open every day.

The place to Keep and Eat 

The Duke of Buckingham gives inn-style lodging a brief stroll from Gunwharf Quays. Rooms are small however cozy. The resort additionally sports activities a standard English pub. Abarbistro, positioned near the cathedral, serves attention-grabbing small fish plates and Sunday roast dinners. 

The Sally Port Inn in Previous Portsmouth is a historic pub with connections to World Battle II frogman and bomb disposal professional Lionel “Buster” Crabb, the supposed mannequin for James Bond. 

What Else to See and Do 

Together with an X-Craft, the Royal Navy Submarine Museum is dwelling to HMS Alliance, a decommissioned A-class sub laid down on the finish of World Battle II. Additionally value a go to is Portsmouth’s historic dockyard, the place you’ll be able to see the stays of King Henry VIII’s warship, the Mary Rose, and climb aboard HMS Victory, the flagship of British admiral Horatio Nelson. The aptly named Victory was essential in defeating a mixed French and Spanish fleet within the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 in the course of the Napoleonic Wars. 

This text was printed within the April 2022 concern of World Battle II.


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