Drifting eerily in the cold, dark dawn, thousands of troops waded out into the sea holding their guns aloft towards the flotilla of boats waiting offshore.
It was the early hours of June 6, 1944, and the start of Operation Overlord, one of the most audacious military strikes Britain ever launched against the Germans during World War II.
Dunkirk has become the blockbuster movie of the year telling the story of the rescue of allied troops from the beaches of Normandy.
But here in Hampshire we have a wealth of memorials to an earlier military op that was just as outstanding, just as brave, just as incredible as the one featured in Dunkirk.
Operation Overlord was the code name for the D-Day landings, Churchill’s great vision to liberate Europe and help end the war. It has been celebrated as being one of the most courageous feats of the World War II, a master class in planning and execution.
It was at the Trident Conference in Washington in May 1943 Operation Overlord was first given the green light.
General Dwight D Eisenhower was appointed commander of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAF), while General Bernard Montgomery became the commander of the 21st Army Group, which was all the land troops involved in the invasion.
Normandy was the landing point. The Americans were to land at Utah and Omaha, while the British were given the beaches code-named Sword and Gold, with the Canadians taking Juno.
For over two years under a cloak of secrecy thousands of troops were installed along the Hampshire coast living in camps hidden away in the depths of the New Forest.
General Dwight Eisenhower, who took overall command of the operation, revealed: ‘All southern England was one vast military camp, crowded with soldiers awaiting the final word to go. The mighty host was as tense as a coiled spring, coiled for the moment when its energy should be released and it would vault the English Channel in the greatest amphibious assault ever attempted.’
Their vehicles and ammunition were kept carefully hidden, away from the eyes of spies, or enemy aircraft. Lepe Beach became a vital part of Op Overlord, coming under the control of HMS Mastodon which had its headquarters at Exbury House.
Mulberry Harbours were constructed along Lepe Beach. Mulberrys were portable temporary harbours which could be taken with the allied troops to aid their landing at Normandy.
Several southern construction companies helped with the building of the Mulberrys. They were built of a floating outer breakwater, there were inner type B2 Phoenix caissons and several floating piers. Floats called Beetles and Whales connected the harbour to the beach – these were built at Beaulieu River and Marchwood near Southampton.
Dolphins were the specialised parts which formed the piers and pier heads.
As the countdown to D-Day started vessels began arriving at Beaulieu River, including gun landing craft, rocket landing boats and infantry landing craft. They stayed at Beaulieu until they moved to Lepe Beach.
On D-Day vehicles were loaded onto ships after being driven onto temporary pier heads, while tanks and heavier vehicles were driven straight onto the boats directly from the beach.
Thousands of troops took their place in the boats – for some it would be the last time they left England.
At Lepe you can still see remains of the Mulberry Harbours and structures used to launch Op Overlord giving you an idea of just how vast the scale of Operation Overlord was.
Walking along the track towards the car parks you will see the concrete floor of the site buildings used to construct the Mulberry Harbours.
The base of a water tower where fresh water was made for the workers and the soldiers is still visible.
Walking along the beach you can see construction platforms where the caissons were built. The platforms run for 374 metres and are 11m wide and 1.3m high.
A series of iron hooks held in place beach hardening mats which were used so that heavy machinery, including tanks, could drive across the sand and shingle.
Concrete bollards where the ships were tied up can still be seen along the beach out at sea, while slipways run from the tracks showing where the caissons were launched at high tide.
During the months leading up to D-Day there were numerous rehearsals of the mission between the South Coast and the Isle of Wight all carried out in complete secrecy.
As D-Day neared more troops made their way down to the South Coast in readiness to board the boats. They were a mixture of British, American and Canadian troops.
Diana Evans, then a 21-year-old Wren switchboard operator at Fort Southwick near Portsmouth, remembers: ‘You could see all these ships beginning to line up for D-Day and all these lanes around Portsmouth were full up with tanks and people and men sleeping everywhere – they were coming in as a blessed battalion and they were all sleeping under tents and on the side of the road wherever they could get. And then all of a sudden they were gone.’
A huge spying operation was also taking place during the preparations for Op Overlord. Fake news was fed to the Germans who believed the invasion was going to take place further up the coast.
Even the troops themselves did not know where they were headed. They were briefed using maps that had no detail of the places they were going, many did not learn of their final destination until they were at sea.
Among the by now 1.5 million troops hiding out in the New Forest ready for the order to go were ‘Force 50th’ which was the 50th ‘Northumbrian’ Infantry Division. Also present were the Westminster Dragoons, who claimed to be the first unit ashore on Gold Beach in Normandy on D-Day.
There were fears the landings would have be aborted because of the heavy seas due to a storm, but finally the go-ahead was given on the evening of June 5, 1944.
Eisenhower told the troops in a letter: ‘You are about to embark up the Great Crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.’
On the evening of June 5, 1944, a thousand bombers left to attack coastal defences in France. Further planes took airborne troops to drop behind enemy lines. Over 132,000 started their journey by sea on June 6 to reach the beaches by 6.30am, taking the Germans completely by surprise.
Fighting was heavy – out of 10,000 Allied casualties on the first day 4,414 died. The Germans lost 1,000 men.
The Mulberry Harbours proved crucial to the success of Op Overload. Acting as breakwaters off the beaches they allowed all the troops and the heavy artillery and vehicles to be landed. Mulberry A was built just off Omaha Beach, while Mulberry B was constructed at Gold.
To form them old ships and caissons were sunk in lines. The caissons were hollow inside enabling them to be floated so they could be moved into position. When they got to where they were needed they would be flooded with water and sink.
The Normandy landings were the largest seaborne invasion in history. Nearly 5,000 landings and assault craft arrived on the French beaches.
The operation bought the end of the war forward and was credited with delivering a huge psychological blow to Hitler.
The cost of the D-Day landings were high in human terms. The Americans lost 20,668 men, the First Canadian and Second British Armies lost 15,995, with 57,996 wounded and 9,054 missing.
Lepe Beach is now part of Country Park which is open during the daytime. The restaurant there used to be barracks and a cobblers for the troops waiting to leave on D-Day.
There is a plaque laid in memory of the men from the 4/7th Royal Dragoon Guards who left from Lepe Beach and lost their lives on the beaches of Normandy. ■