Today marks the 68th anniversary of the D-Day landing, a turning point in the Second World War that swung the odds into Allied favour.
Twitter will be full of historians describing the events on the Normandy beaches, Pegasus Bridge etc etc. Whilst I will no doubt post a few of my customary factoids on my @TourGuideGirl feed, I thought it best to devote a blog post to an unsung hero of Operation Overlord.
I grew up in Portsmouth, it is justifiably famous as the premier base of the Royal Navy and scene of countless events of historical significance. Yet, just over the hill to the north, lies a tiny little village called Southwick. Quaint, unassuming and quiet, Southwick played a massive role in the run up to D-Day but is frequently forgotten when the events of the 6th of June 1944 are recounted.
My fascination with the area started at the age of 11, when I joined the HMS Dryad Royal Naval Volunteer Band as a clarinettist. In the centre of the naval base is a beautiful Georgian building called Southwick House, although we knew it as The Wardroom.
The band often performed at Mess Dinners in the Wardroom, and between sets we’d retire from the main dining room for some refreshments into one of the other rooms in the house. I vividly remember the first time I poked my head round a door into the Map Room. As a pre-teen, although my love of history was growing, my breadth of knowledge wasn’t wonderful, but some of the members of the band started to tell me more about the history of Southwick House and its significant role. Fifteen years later (crikey,) and I’ve been able to do my own research and fit it in with other events of the war.
It’s a brilliant story. The squire of the Southwick Estate was an eccentric chap called Colonel Evelyn Thistlethwayte. In the early years of the war he frequently invited various Admirals to while away a few spare hours on his estate to join him in some pheasant shooting. These Admirals made a note of the spectacular situation of the house whilst firing at dozy game birds and by late 1941 the entire Estate was requisitioned by the Navy to house the Royal Naval Navigation School, which had had to be relocated from the heavily targeted Dockyard in Portsmouth.
Just south of Southwick Village is Fort Southwick on the crest of Portsdown Hill, part of a defensive line including four other forts built in the 1860’s in case of an impending French invasion. I learnt much of Fort Southwick’s wartime role from my time as a tour guide at the Fort next door, Fort Nelson. Whereas Nelson was adapted and used as an ammo store, Fort Widley used to billet WRNS and Fort Wallington as the military telegraphic HQ (also relocated from the dockyard,) Fort Southwick eclipsed them all. Fort Southwick was chosen to be the underground nerve centre of the planning of a large scale mainland invasion, with a labyrinth of steel lined tunnels being added below the original Victorian tunnel system.
Southwick House, a stone’s throw from the fort and already inhabited by the Navy, was a natural choice for the main HQ building. The Navigation School was moved yet again, and the Allied Commanders moved in.
The old drawing room became the Map Room, and Chad Valley toy company made a huge plywood map of the English south coast and Normandy that filled an entire wall.
Nissen huts and mobile homes sprung up around the house. One mobile home was used by General Montgomery, although his main billet was the nearby Broomfield House, where he entertained George VI, Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower among others. Prince Philip was also present in Southwick at the time as a Naval Lieutenant, and when he accompanied the Queen on a visit to Southwick in 1973 he was seen pointing out his favourite wartime pub to her. This pub is the Golden Lion, (not to be confused with the Red Lion a few doors down) and was partially converted into an officer’s mess at the time. You can go to the Golden Lion and have a pint in the very same spot as Eisenhower drank beer with Monty. Why the Golden Lion isn’t constantly full of history buffs is a question that baffles me.
For months in early 1943 Southwick was buzzing with activity. It was a huge undertaking to organise thousands of sailors and troops from Britain, America, Canada and various other Commonwealth countries. 6,939 Naval vessels were involved in the invasion and the shipping of 7,000,000 tonnes of equipment from the US had to be organised. It is from Southwick that General Eisenhower, General Montgomery and Admiral Ramsay wrote their famous letters to the troops on the eve of battle, and it was from Southwick House that Eisenhower took the decision to postpone the invasion for 24 hours on advice from the specially built weather station built in the grounds. Monty and Eisenhower remained at HQ at H-Hour of D-Day, Monty departing for Normandy that afternoon and Eisenhower following him the next day, having spent the day orchestrating the invasion by land, sea and air. Thousands of troops who had been billeted in the surrounding villages and in Portsmouth and Southampton had disappeared overnight, but they had left hundreds of chalk ‘thank you’ messages on walls and pavements to the locals who had looked after them so well. Within a day or two the wounded were returning to the south coast, this time accompanied by Axis POWs. And so Southwick returned to being a sleepy little chocolate-box village, just as it had been for centuries. Only a few people venture to visit, despite it’s illustrious history and roll call of famous former residents. Fort Southwick remained with the Navy until 2003. I remember visiting it often to watch my dad on parade with the Royal Naval Reserves. It’s now privately owned and almost impossible to get into. Access is limited, the last time I checked the only access given was to a ghost hunting expedition. I sincerely hope the current reclusive owner is looking after the place! I believe he wants to turn the redan into flats. Southwick House and it’s environs also remained naval property, being compulsorially purchased when the war was over. As HMS Dryad it was the Maritime Warfare School until 2004, when it was decommissioned. I cried when it closed as HMS Dryad Royal Naval Volunteer Band, who I’d been a member of for eight years also had to disband. We played a final event to march the sailors out. The site has since been turned into a tri-service military police training centre. It’s not impossible to visit Southwick House and stand where great general and admirals stood and planned the greatest invasion in history. Details of access can be found here: http://www.ddaymuseum.co.uk/d-day/visitor-information The Golden Lion serves brilliant food with (so my husband tells me) excellent beer brewed on site. I highly recommend a trip to the D-Day Museum in Southsea, Portsmouth after that for their excellent exhibitions, including a replica Mapboard in case you can’t get into Southwick House. You’ll find the museum next to Southsea Castle.