By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
Seventy-five years ago, on 6 June 1944, Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy to begin the campaign to free the occupied countries of Europe from the tyranny of Nazi Germany and bring about the surrender of the Third Reich. Many books have been written about D-Day and the Normandy battles, so this article does not attempt to recount the events of the invasion but instead looks at the part played by Aldershot in the lead up to D-Day and during its aftermath.
At the start of the Second World War, Aldershot’s resident formations, the 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions, had been mobilised immediately and sent to France. In their place came soldiers from Canada, with the first units arriving in December 1940, and for the remainder of the war Aldershot was the main base for the Canadian Army Overseas. Although the most numerous, the Canadians were not the only overseas troops in Aldershot, which at various times hosted units from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, along with soldiers from occupied European countries including Poles, Free French, and the Royal Netherlands Army. British units in the garrison included the Royal Engineers, Royal Army Service Corps, Royal Army Medical Corps, and the Officer Cadet Training Unit in Ramilles Barracks. In Farnborough, the Royal Tank Regiment was in Elles Barracks and there were more Canadian units in Southwood Barracks.
Five miles north-east of Aldershot was RAF Hartford Bridge, now Blackbushe Airfield, from which 140 Squadron RAF, an elite reconnaissance unit, had the dangerous task of flying photo-reconnaissance missions. Using Mosquito planes stripped of guns but armed with a battery of cameras, they flew over enemy territory at great risk to get the pictures which were vital to the planners of D-Day. Other missions from Hartford Bridge included attacks on enemy transport, raids in V1 sites, and ‘mis-information’ sorties as part of the deception plans to prevent the enemy knowing the site of the invasion.
Aldershot was one of the centres for the build-up of forces for D-Day, so as the date of the invasion grew closer it was a hive of activity. Gunner John White, serving with 25 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, arrived at Barossa Barracks on 4 May 1944. “Aldershot was always crowded even in peace time,” remembered Gunner White, “but now, grossly overcrowded as it was with 8 Corps troops, life socially became distinctly uncomfortable, queues for cinemas, bus, train and even public houses if you could find one open.” Roads became ever more crowded as military transport movements increased. Along Queen’s Avenue trucks were parked under the trees and on the grass verges, Queen’s Parade was full of transporters, lorries and motor-bikes, and the parade grounds in the barracks were crammed with vehicles and equipment. Interviewed in 1993, Mr Hutton, who served with the 9th Royal Tank Regiment, remembered arriving in Aldershot six weeks before D-Day and being stationed in Lille Barracks, with the regiment’s Churchill tanks lined up along Lynchford Road. The tanks were sealed to make them waterproof for the landings, and the effectiveness of this was tested at Hawley Lake.
So many tanks from Aldershot and Farnborough were taken to Hawley Lake for waterproof testing that for weeks there was a continual stream of vehicles travelling north along the Farnborough Road to the Clockhouse junction, now a roundabout but in 1944 just a crossroads, where they had to turn sharp left onto the road through Cove to Hawley. However, the bend was too narrow for tanks to manage the sharp corner, so having made an initial turn they would reverse and then go forward again to get around. With so many vehicles making this manoeuvre the road surface was repeatedly being badly damaged, frequently worn down to its stone chippings foundation, and it was constantly having to be repaired.
To the south of Aldershot, the Hog’s Back was lined for five miles with tanks direct from the factories. Colonel D F Spankie, of the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps, recalled that they “were confronted with a two-pronged problem. On the one hand we had dispersal in order to minimise damage resulting from bombing and fire, while at the same time we had to face up to moving vehicles quickly to embarkation areas in the vicinity of Southampton for transporting to Normandy when required. I consider we were very fortunate, as the German Air Force failed to mount any serious bombing raids.”
In the week before D-Day activity in Aldershot reached a peak. Raymond Gibben, who was a teenager in 1944, remembered “that particular week because a couple of Canadians that we knew came to our home … they didn’t say very much but we knew that something was happening. And about the 3rd or 4th of June … there was a continual roar through this area of tanks, you could hear the tanks, you could hear the vehicles continually moving, and you could hear this roar.” Sheila Clapperton was a telegraphist in the old General Post Office, and she remembered “as D-Day approached the town was full of men and vehicles, and one Saturday night our civilian dance hall was suddenly besieged by men in khaki … I often think that Saturday dance was rather like the ball held before Waterloo.”
This activity came to an abrupt end as the massive assembly of men and equipment departed Aldershot for the south coast. “Within two days [of the Saturday dance] the town was empty and silent”, recalled Sheila Clapperton. Raymond Gibben had a similar experience: “I remember coming down the Queen’s Avenue and it seemed as though it was a ghost town all of a sudden, because there was just nothing there. You thought to yourself, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s it’.”
The units from Aldershot joined thousands of others assembling on the south coast. The Allied Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had his headquarters in the mansion at Southwick Park, about five miles north of Portsmouth. There he made the decision that the D-Day landings would be on 6 June, when a break in the bad weather in the Channel was predicted. On that morning the huge assault force landed in Normandy, British forces on beaches code named Gold and Sword, Canadians on Juno beach, and the American forces on Omaha and Utah beaches.
The first intimation for the people of Aldershot that the invasion was underway was on D-Day morning when they witnessed the awesome sight of an aerial armada passing directly above. Raymond Gibben was one of those watching:
“We stood outside the house and we were watching the continual stream overhead of Dakota aircraft, and Halifaxes, and Stirling bombers towing gliders … We knew that was when they were landing, that was the very day, when the troops were being dropped over there, and we saw all that from here.”
Private Denham Meek was a Canadian Laboratory Technician at the Connaught Hospital, having arrived in Aldershot just 10 days before D-Day. Interviewed in 1987, he had equally vivid memories of that time:
“I won’t forget D-Day, or the day before D-Day. I can remember standing in the lab knowing something was happening, because as far as we could see, north, south, east and west, there were Dakotas and gliders. It went on all day long, it never stopped from early morning until late night. We knew there was something going on, because they didn’t move that many planes, but it seemed as if most of those planes went over Aldershot … There was about 18 hours of constant planes, Daks and gliders.”
After that came another period of unnatural quiet. “There was nothing much after”, said Raymond Gibben, “it all seemed to be a bit of an anti-climax because the place seemed very quiet”. Private Meek said “we sat and waited for three or four days”, knowing that this could not last as his hospital would soon start to receive casualties from the bitter fighting taking place across the channel.
Meek did not have to wait long, as the first wounded men arrived on D-Day plus three. “We were at the Connaught Hospital, having been there 13 days,” Meek remembered, “a very inexperienced [team] to receive a hundred patients an hour, which is what we started receiving.” Many of the wounded were suffering from severe burns and needed constant treatment to prevent their blood coagulating:
“My job for a complete 72 hours was to do Haemoglobins endlessly, endlessly on those people every hour, to make sure that they were not concentrating their blood. As soon as they did they received plasma, simply as a dilutant. I worked for 3½ hours, then ate for half an hour, worked for another 3½ hours, and ate for half an hour, and I did that for 72 hours without a stop. By the end of the 72 hours my eyes had given out and I was shaky …
The casualty was grabbed in France, bleeding stopped, given the simplest first-aid treatment and evacuated to an airfield where they were put into quarters with the Red Cross, and there was a steady circuit of Dakotas from France to Farnborough airport. From Farnborough we had a circle of ambulances, they used a different route coming and going, and those casualties reached us. A casualty could reach us within two hours of being wounded, the mud on him was still wet often, and so the degree of medical attention was extremely rapid.”
Among the many wounded who reason to be grateful for the expert medical care of the Aldershot military hospitals was Canadian soldier Ron Chabot, who was serving with the Fort Garry Horse. They landed on D-Day in Sherman Duplex Drive tanks which were equipped with flotation devices and “swam” ashore. Ron was proud that “of the Fort Garry’s all but three of their tanks got in”. Having survived the landing Ron was wounded in the fighting in Normandy, flown back to England, and was taken to the Connaught Hospital. There he met Vera Francis, a young Aldershot woman who was a hospital visitor. Ron and Vera fell in love, and they were married on 7 February 1945 in St Patrick’s Garrison Church. Vera sailed to Canada in 1946, and the Chabots made their home in Sudbury, North Ontario. However, Vera never lost touch with her family in Aldershot, and she and Ron gave their account of their wartime experiences to the Aldershot Military Museum during a visit back home in 1985.
D-Day was not the end of the war, and there were to be many months of hard and bitter fighting ahead. It was not even the first time Allied forces had invaded mainland Europe, as Allied armies had been fighting through Italy since 1943. However, the D-Day landings were of an unprecedented size and their success, brought about by meticulous planning and the courage and fighting abilities of the soldiers involved, marked a decisive turning point in the war. In this, as in so many aspects of Britain’s military history, Aldershot played its part and we can reflect with pride on our local contribution to this great enterprise.
The map room at Southwick Park. Photo courtesy of Mike Gardiner.
Article originally published in the The Garrison, Summer 2019
Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.