“We go”: 75 years on, Hampshire is ready for D-Day

2019 will mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings and the Ministry of Defence has announced that Portsmouth, in Hampshire, will host Britain’s commemorations.

Set to be at the heart of the nation’s tribute in June 2019, key visitor attractions now linked to the anniversary commemorations are the D-Day Story, Southwick House, and Southwick village – as well as the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, and Portsmouth Cathedral.

Hampshire played a pivotal role in the D-Day landings of 1944, and there will be a range of exhibitions and events taking place across the county during 2019.

Recently revamped at a cost of almost £5-million, the D-Day Story museum in Portsmouth will provide one of the main focal points for the year.  It tells the story of the day from a personal perspective, featuring peoples’ stories and artefacts, but also holds several surprises – including how a pigeon played a major role.  Using modern technology to bring moments from that historic day to life, it reveals how in the days before mobile telephones and other modes of communication, it was left to Gustav the pigeon to bring first news of the invasion back to the UK!

The D-Day Story was originally opened in 1984 to provide a permanent home to the Overlord Embroidery, a 20th century version of the Bayeux Tapestry.  Sandra Lawrence was commissioned to produce this remarkable interpretation of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, a monumental 83-metre-long work of art that toured the world before finding its permanent home in Portsmouth.

Another permanent reminder to be found in the city centre is the D-Day window at nearby Portsmouth Cathedral, which was unveiled in 1956, as a memorial to Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay who commanded the seaborne forces at Dunkirk in 1940, and Normandy in 1944.  There are two windows in the Cathedral commemorating these incredible achievements.

Elsewhere, beneath the northern slopes of Portsdown Hill, overlooking the naval base of Portsmouth, the village of Southwick, with its thatched roofs and half-timbered cottages, remains largely unchanged since June 1944 when this little Hampshire settlement was the unlikely hub of Operation Overlord.

Stained Glass Artist and Sculptor Helen Whittaker of Barley Studio – who earlier this year collaborated with David Hockney to create the stained-glass window for Westminster Abbey to celebrate the Queen’s reign – has been commissioned by Colonel Jeremy Green (Retired) to design a window for the Service Police Memorial Church at Southwick Park to commemorate D-Day.

Over the last six years, a Southwick Village D-Day Revival, has been staged in the village each June.  The 2019 event is scheduled to take place over the weekend of June 8 & 9.  Further details can be found at https://www.southwickrevival.co.uk/d-day/; and information about the D-Day Revival Map Room Tours can be found at https://www.southwickrevival.co.uk/d-day-revival-tours/.

These tours follow in the footsteps of the tens of thousands of visitors who make their way each year to an elegant manor house in the village.  Southwick House is where General Dwight D Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, made his fateful and momentous decision committing three million men and 2,727 ships to the operation, which turned the tide of World War II.

Once the magnificent family home of the Thistlethwaytes, Southwick House became the headquarters of the main allied commanders, Admiral Ramsay, General Eisenhower and General Montgomery.

The story goes that, by 1941, the bombing in the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard had become so bad that the house was used to accommodate students from HMS Dryad.  Colonel Thistlethwayte enjoyed the company of the admirals, whom he invited to join some of the game shoots on the estate – unaware that they were taking note of the splendid position of the beautiful Georgian house, which was just a stone’s throw from Portsmouth but sheltered behind the hill and its forts.  Subsequently requisitioned, and then compulsory purchased after the war, it never returned into the ownership of the Thistlethwaytes.

Fort Southwick was one of several Victorian fortresses perched on the crest of Portsdown Hill, and was chosen to become the strategic planning centre for a large-scale mainland invasion of France.  Below ground there was a network of tunnels, lined with steel, where commanders met and made plans, which were then sent-on to nearby Southwick House for “the top brass” to make their vital final decisions.

A tour of the House includes the library (where Eisenhower famously announced “We go” at 4.19am on June 6, 1944); a drawing room; and – the highlight of any tour – the map room which, to this day, still houses the original ‘D-Day Map’, and can be visited by prior arrangement.

The sense of history is still very much alive within the fabric of this building, where two of the toy manufacturers from Chad Valley who installed the wooden map were held under house arrest under The Official Secrets Act; and where the likes of Eisenhower, de Gaulle, Ramsey, Montgomery, and The King listened to weather reports, to decide on the date of the invasion.

The map itself took centre stage; and – 75 years later – still does to this day.

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