D-Day at Lepe
Troops, vehicles and supplies bound for Normandy
On the 6 June 1944 thousands of troops with their vehicles and supplies left Britain for the beaches of Normandy.
This was D-Day, the start of the great campaign to drive the German army out of France and to bring the Second World War to its end. The D-Day invasion, code named Operation Overlord, one of the most remarkable feats in military history, was under way. It had taken over two years of planning, and was one of the best kept secrets of the war.
Lepe played three important roles in the D-Day landing
- as a major departure point for troops, vehicles and supplies
- as a construction site for part of the prefabricated floating Mulberry Harbour
- as the mainline base for the P.L.U.T.O pipeline
During the build up to D-Day troops and supplies were marshalled along much of the Hampshire coast. Lepe and the surrounding area came under the control of the shore station HMS Mastodon, the headquarters of which were at Exbury House. Many hundreds of troops with their equipment, vehicles and ammunition were hidden along the narrow roads and in the woods of the area
Operation Overlord was kept so secret that local people were unaware of what was going on and were issued with passes allowing them to go about their daily business. Even the local milkman had to sign the Official Secrets Act before he was allowed to deliver milk to the site canteen.
The site now occupied by the Country Park was a hive of activity. There was a camp of twenty-one army huts situated in the grassy areas above the cliffs and a construction works camp behind the Mulberry Harbour construction site. The present day Restaurant and Information Centre stand on a site once occupied by a barracks and a cobblers shop, where army boots were mended. After the troops left, the barracks were used as a hospital for the wounded brought back from France. Anti-aircraft guns were positioned on the cliffs above the Restaurant, in front of the Coastguard cottages and in other locations. On a number of occasions the guns were fired at enemy aircraft and at V1 flying bombs - the infamous “Doodlebugs”.
Troops and vehicles left from Lepe. Vehicles were loaded onto ships after being driven onto temporary wharves leading to pier heads. The four-legged metal structures that you can see today, were code named “Dolphins”. They were part of the pier heads and were used as mooring points for ships and landing craft. Tanks and other heavy vehicles were loaded directly from the beach after concrete beach hardening mats had been placed over the foreshore to stop them sinking into the shingle.
The troops that left that day had spent the previous weeks in camps all around the Solent coastline. The roads and woods around the area were crammed with troops, tanks, guns and army vehicles of all kinds. Many of the troops ate, slept and lived in or under their vehicles, only moving when they were sent out on exercises practising for D-Day. It is not known which Regiments left from Lepe, but we do know that men from B Squadron Royal Dragoon Guards, 1st Battalion Hampshire Regiment, HM Royal Marines and Canadian troops including 3rd Canadian Armoured Division were based in the area before they departed for Normandy.
The D-Day invasion would fail if the army was not kept fully supplied. This was likely to be a major problem, as the retreating German army were expected to destroy all suitable harbours. It is not known who first thought of the solution to this problem, but someone suggested that if a harbour could not be found, one would have to be built and then floated across to France. This idea eventually led to the construction of the floating Mulberry Harbours that were towed over to Normandy in June 1944.
It was the enormity of the task that was so staggering. By twenty-one days after D-Day the harbour needed to be capable of handling up to 12,000 tons of stores and 2,500 vehicles each day. That meant that a harbour the size of Dover had to be constructed and floated across the channel!
The floating harbour was to be assembled from a variety of component parts manufactured on the south coast. Several construction sites were chosen. Lepe was one of them, the beach at Stanswood Bay being used in the manufacture of six type B2 Phoenix concrete caissons. These caissons were huge, concrete boxes, 62m (203’6”) long, 13.41m (44’) wide and 10.67m (35’) high, each weighing up to 6,000 tons.
They were divided internally into two rows of eleven compartments, separated by concrete walls 30cm (12”) thick. Building the caissons was a mammoth task that, at Lepe, employed seven hundred men.
The completed caissons were winched along the beach and launched into the sea at high tide. They were then towed away and “parked” along with others made elsewhere, on the seabed at Selsey or Dungeness. When they were needed they were re-floated and towed to Normandy.
A total of 147 Phoenix caissons, of six different types, were towed across the Channel. They were used as the outer wall of a breakwater, composed of sunken ships. This breakwater was of vital importance as it provided the sheltered conditions without which the other units of the harbour could not be assembled and used. The Mulberry Harbours proved very effective. By the end of October 1944 28% of stores, 20% of personnel and 15% of vehicles landing in the British sector had passed through the artificial harbour.
The advancing army required constant supplies of fuel. To meet this P.L.U.T.O. -Pipe Line Under The Ocean - was developed. This pipeline ran from Lepe across the Solent and the Isle of Wight and then under the channel to France. P.L.U.T.O. was made up of 7.5cm (3”) diameter welded steel, which possessed enough flexibility to be wound onto very large drums.
It was floated out on huge drums, named HMS Conundrums, that resembled giant cotton reels. Each of the drums was 27.4m (90’) long and 15.8m (52’) in diameter and carried 70 miles of piping. The pipeline eventually extended 770 miles and supplied the army with 172 million gallons of fuel.
Today at Lepe you can still see plenty of evidence of wartime activity.
If you walk along the beach or track, about half a mile east of the car parks you will come across the extensive concrete and brick structures were used for three different tasks: construction of the ‘Mulberry Harbours’ (caissons), caisson launching, and for embarkation of men, vehicles and supplies.
- The Concrete Road was built to take troops, supplies and materials from Stanswood Lane to the construction and embarkation sites on the beach. The concrete blocks it was made from were brought in by horse and cart.
- Concrete Floors are all that remain of the site buildings used by construction workers and the military. They are dotted about in the Country Park area.
- Water Tower Base used for water purification, required because so little fresh water is available on site.
- Construction Platforms where the caissons were constructed. Today, although parts are storm damaged, the platforms run for 374 metres and are 11m wide and 1.3m high. The platforms were large enough to construct all six caissons simultaneously, reflecting the urgency of the work.
- Beach Hardening Mats which resemble huge bars of chocolate, were held in place by a series of iron hooks. They were laid out to strengthen the beach enough to take the weight of the tanks and other vehicles being driven onto landing craft.
- Dolphins forming part of the pier head used to load ships departing for Normandy.
- Bollards used to tie up the ships that were being loaded for the invasion.
- Concrete Slipways run from the rolling track walls to the sea. These were used to launch the caissons at high tide.
- Winching Gear Bases used to winch the caissons for launching.
- Trigger Release Gear Site used to house the trigger release gear which held the caissons in position until they were ready to be launched.
- Rolling-track Walls that run either side of the construction platforms, carried the timber rails used to move the caissons. Each caisson was carried on eighteen 2m carriages that rolled along the rails on 75mm steel balls. The completed caissons were winched along the walls to the launching area.