80th Anniversary of D-Day: Southampton’s Key Role

by MAT

Eighty years ago on 6 June 1944, D-Day, Operation Neptune,  a component of Operation Overlord, swung into action as the Allies launched their invasion of Europe on the Normandy beaches, and Southampton was key to one of the largest ever amphibious landings in history. Volunteer Roger Burns looks back, from a Southampton perspective, at preparations for this momentous event, at D-Day itself, and the following period, selecting contributory aspects to the overall success of taking the war to Germany.


The Planning

The Allies at one of their periodic conferences, in May 1943, finally agreed a cross-channel invasion for the following year, to be undertaken primarily by British, Commonwealth and American forces, but also with some Polish and French personnel. They also agreed that Russia would attack from the north so as to stretch German forces, and a few weeks later from the south of France.


Choice of suitable embarkation ports along the English south coast was paramount and Southampton was an obvious choice, to serve as the key port due to its location opposite Normandy, its double tides, extensive docks significantly enlarged between the wars, and an effective railhead into the port. There was also local engineering expertise, such as the Spitfire and other production factories, and nearby Portsmouth docks. A further consideration was that it was ideal to act post D-Day as the bridgehead for the subsequent continued transfer to Europe of troops, mechanised transport including trains, supplies, reception of casualties and German prisoners-of-war, and repatriation of troops from Europe. As much of the troops, transport, and supplies would be American, agreement was soon reached that the Americans would control the port, aided by key British personnel. Consequently, Southampton was designated the 14th Major US Army Port Southampton, as generally described here.

Extensive resources were necessary, and a wide variety of specialist skillsets from over 5,000 military personnel contributed to operations within the port, as did some 700 civilian personnel. An impressive trial in July 1943 cleared the way for the ability to deploy 50,000 troops and nearly 7,000 vehicles daily by D-Day. Troops, while training and waiting for D-Day, were housed in camps within and nearby to Southampton. American Military Police helped to control traffic movements of civilian and service vehicles. A significant presence of Medical Corps were also assembled around Southampton, of which more later.

Southampton had endured extensive Luftwaffe bombing soon after the war had started, with parts of the docks hit, and consequently the port had remained idle for some two years. Despite British misgivings for selecting Southampton due to potential risk of further bombing which subsequently proved unfounded, the docks were eminently usable by the military. Supplies and troops from America were landed at west of England and Scottish ports, further away for the German bombers and rail services were used to transfer these to where needed. A key resource in the choice of Southampton as the premier D-Day port was that the docks were owned and operated by the Southern Railway which had some 60 miles of track with the docks, connecting to the rail network, fully discussed here.

Maintaining the morale of thousands of American troops was not forgotten. The American Red Cross (ARC) was already active in other parts of the country but it was mid-1943 before they were established in Southampton. The ARC operated in three sections, Military and Naval War Service, Camp Service, and Club Service. It was the latter which ran clubs in the City for British and American service personnel, with an iconic facility known as the Red Cross Clubmobiles, serving tea and thousands of donuts within the docks and service camps.


D-Day through 1945

On D-Day itself, the local population was unaware that the invasion had started as they had become accustomed to the movement of troops around the City and it was not until a news broadcast at 10.00 that they realised what had happened, being summarised here.

Operational Statistics during this period underwent anticipated change as the peak transfer of troops and supplies reduced, casualties and prisoners-of-war disembarked at Southampton, troop ships arrived at the port, and salvage work increased. Medical units crossed to Europe, many of them arriving from America but a significant number were based in Southampton to care for returning casualties. Almost a year after D-Day on 8 May 1945, VE Day was celebrated, Germany having surrendered the previous day, and port activities turned to repatriating American troops and then in January 1946 Operation Diaper started transporting across the pond those who had married American troops.

The operational history of the Southampton port in the war refers also to associated ports under the umbrella of Southampton. Portland was used by the Americans, with a historic speech on the occasion of the unveiling of its memorial.  Another worthy of mention is Hamble, as it, and Fawley on the opposite bank of the Solent, transhipped huge quantities of fuel to Europe, vitally essential to making their advances across Europe. This article includes reference to PLUTO, a remarkable triumph, and a section of one of these pipelines, Figure 1, is on display at the Shipwreck Centre and Maritime Museum on the Isle of Wight.

Figure 1 – Section of a PLUTO pipeline, 100m dia., 280mm long
Source: Maritime Archaeology Trust 
Made of hardened lead with two layers of 2mm steel strip, reinforced with galvanised steel wire.
It has some black plastic tape in 3 places.

An operation such as this required not just large numbers of personnel but, importantly, inherent capability of those in key positions. As operations ran down, recognition of the achievements from the port resulted in plaques awarded to the City who in turn gave the Americans Freedom of the City.

Much of the above research was undertaken under the umbrella of MAT’s Project D-Day: Stories from the Walls which to the delight of staff and volunteers was in 2021 Highly Commended in the award category Engagement and Participation as part of the Archaeological  Achievement Awards that are coordinated by the Council for British Archaeology.


Further reading, audio, video & 3D models:




3D models:

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