Soldiers to mark Swanage’s vital role in D-Day success

Eighty years after D-Day, the moment when Allied forces landed on the beaches in France pushing back German troops during World War Two, commemorations are planned across Purbeck.

Studland and Corfe Castle will be lighting beacons to mark D-Day at 9.15 pm on Thursday 6th June 2024, while in Swanage on Saturday 8th June 2024, soldiers from the 11th Signals Regiment will parade through the town with a remembrance service at 10.50 am at the Swanage war memorial.

Advertisement 
Plaque to US 26th infantry regiment

Stone plaque at Swanage war memorial, dedicated by the 26th Infantry Regiment Association remembering the US troops time in Swanage

King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Famously, Studland Bay was used to rehearse the landing of troops on the Normandy beaches in France with King George VI, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and senior military officials including Commander of the Allied Forces Dwight D Eisenhower all visiting to watch the military manoeuvres in April 1944.

Royalty, senior politicians and the top brass all arrived by train at Swanage station and stayed for various nights at The Grosvenor Hotel (now demolished) in Swanage, before being driven over to Fort Henry in Studland to watch the troops preparing for D-Day.

This was deliberately low key and hush hush, although it’s hard to believe that a large proportion of Swanage residents didn’t know what was going on in the centre of the town!

However it was the arrival of American troops in November 1943 that caused more of a stir in Swanage.

Members of 'A' Company 26th Infantry Regiment US Armybilleted at Craigside in the High Street opposite Purbeck House Hotel
Swanage Museum

Members of ‘A’ Company 26th Infantry Regiment US Army, billeted at Craigside in the High Street opposite Purbeck House Hotel around 1943 – 44

D-Day timeline

  • November 1943 – American troops start arriving in Swanage and other parts of Purbeck
  • 12th February 1944 – King George VI arrives at Swanage station and is met by General Montgomery and Admiral Ramsey who are driven over to Fort Henry at Studland to witness Operation Savvey, an overnight exercise in preparation for D-Day
  • 18th April 1944 – D-Day rehearsal Operation Smash in Studland Bay, witnessed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and top military officials including Commander of the Allied Forces Dwight D Eisenhower
  • April 1944 – American troops depart from Swanage station, heading to Devon
  • 5th June 1944 – Allied troops depart from the South Coast including Poole Harbour, with hundreds of boats and ships clearly seen from Swanage, heading towards France
  • 6th June 1944 – D-Day – Allied troops arrive on the beaches at Normandy in France
American soldiers in front of Durlston Globe in 1943-43 Bill Allen, Renoldo Sobenvillez and Wes Mullen
Swanage Museum

American soldiers in front of The Globe at Durlston in 1943-44. Left to right: Bill Allen, Renoldo Sobenvillez and Wes Mullen

The build up to D-Day

Earlier in the war, British troops had requisitioned homes and buildings in Swanage and surrounding villages, as they built sea defences around the coast.

Scientists also arrived as part of the team developing Radar but in May 1942 most of the research work was moved to Malvern in Worcestershire.

During 1942 and early 1943 German bombing raids had destroyed homes and businesses in Swanage and killed 20 civilians.

Nigel Humphries 1946
Nigel Humphries

Nigel Humphries pictured in 1946 aged nine years, just two years after watching from the top of Swanage Downs, a flotilla of ships leaving the Dorset Coast heading for Normandy in France

Nigel & Gillie Humphries 2024
Nigel and Gillie Humphries

Nigel Humphries in 2024, who now lives with his wife Gillie in Corfe Castle

“The Yanks had arrived”

A local boy who survived one of the air raids was Nigel Humphries. He was born in July 1937 and lived at Highwarden in Durlston Road in Swanage with his older brother Robin.

In his unpublished book, Rations to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Nigel remembers how the mood of the town lifted when the Americans arrived:

“The Yanks had arrived like a bright ray of sunshine beaming down on our dismal shores and it seemed to us children that their sole purpose in life was to make us happy.

“We watched bemused as they piled laughing and joking out of their trucks and into Sandringham. That was the requisitioned house next door which they quickly made their own.

“There was no British reserve for them. They were round to our house in no time, loaded with food items that we had only ever heard of, never seen and certainly never tasted. One I remember in particular being tinned peaches, a favourite of mine to this day.”

Another vivid memory for a seven year old boy was being invited into the large Victorian house called Sandringham on Durlston Road, where the GIs were staying:

“One thing I noticed was that the walls were covered in pictures of girls. Large posters with larger than life models smiled down from every wall. To our amazement these girls had no clothes on. Pouting lips and bare bottoms and bits I had no name for, so I asked:
‘What are these?’ I enquired, pointing in all innocence at the totally naked figure.
‘They are teddies,’ one of the guys informed me.
‘What did you call them?’ I replied, needing confirmation.
‘They are teddies buddy, and very fine ones if I may say!’ he replied with learned insight.
‘They are not quite like my teddy bear at home,’ I thought.

During the five months, while undertaking training for D-Day, the Americans were often at a loose end and would often travel over to Bournemouth and the entertainment of the town, however they also found plenty to do in Swanage.

Near to Nigel’s home at the end of Belle Vue Road was the La Belle Vue Hotel, which no longer exists but at the time became a popular bar for the American troops. Nigel writes:

“Mr and Mrs Barratt the publicans. must have been overwhelmed by the sharp increase in trade, as the Americans made it their own. The Barratts had a daughter with medium length blond hair who always wore slacks.

“She became very attached to one of the Americans and before long, Swanage had one of several GI brides. Sadly in June 1944 the guy went off to Normandy, leaving a little dog called Carolina and later a war widow right on our doorstep.”

Sandringham on Durlston Road

Highwarden (left) where the Humphries family lived next door to Sandringham (right) which was occupied by American GIs and their posters of naked women. It all goes on in Durlston!

American GI Bill Lee in Swanage 1944
Andrew PM Wright collection

American GI Bill Lee in Swanage in 1944

“We were brash, different and full of bravado”

While many of the soldiers who stayed in Swanage didn’t survive the war, happily there were many who did and returned years later. One of them was Bill Lee, who at the time was a 23-year old American GI from Illinois, billeted with the 26th Infantry Regiment in Swanage.

He made a nostalgic return to the seaside town 45 years later, although he has since died. Speaking in 1989 to Swanage Railway volunteer Andrew Wright, Bill said:

“The people of the Isle of Purbeck were an important part of our lives and we needed that. We were brash, different and full of bravado but they took us in as part of their families – and for that we will always be grateful and never forget.

“Our brash, happy and outgoing exteriors were veneers – a cover because we did not want to get hurt at a time when close friends were being killed – there one minute and gone out of our lives the next,”

Ex-American GI Bill Lee returns Swanage 1989
Andrew PM Wright

Former American GI Bill Lee returns to Swanage in 1989

Andrew PM Wright

Bill Lee in 1989 visiting the American military cemetary overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy

D-Day 80th anniversary events

Thursday 6th June 2024

Studland

  • 2 pm to 4 pm: D-Day exhibition at Studland village hall
  • 6.15 pm: Service of remembrance at Fort Henry
  • 6.30 pm: Bells of St Nicholas will ring as part of national bell ringing event
  • 6.30 pm onwards: Gather at Old Harry Bar for tractor trailer ride to Ballard Down
  • 9.15 pm: Beacon lighting on Ballard Down

Corfe Castle

  • 9.15 pm: Beacon lighting on Challow Hill
  • 9.15 pm: Reading of D-Day proclamation in The Square

Friday 7th June 2024

Studland village hall

  • 2 pm to 4 pm: D-Day exhibition
  • 7 pm to 8 pm: Studland resident Sarah Ferguson presents Dad’s Longest Day

Saturday 8th June 2024

Swanage

  • 9.30 am: 11th Signals Regiment based in Blandford – liberty parade Kings Road, East Kings Road and Gilbert Road. Welcome address on Shore Road
  • 10.20 am: Liberty parade along Institute Road, lower High Street, Kings Road, East Kings Road and Gilbert Road
  • 10.50 am: Service at Swanage war memorial
  • 11 am: Commemorative service
  • 12 noon: March along King’s Road to Argyle Road
  • Open invite to Swanage Royal British Legion in the High Street, with displays on D-Day history

Studland village hall

  • 10 am to 12 noon: D-Day exhibition
  • 7 pm: Party with The Boogie Bumpers, an eight piece swing band
Swanage Railway Trust chair Frank Roberts with D-Day 80 plaque
Andrew PM Wright

Chair of Swanage Railway Trust with the commemorative plaque to the American soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division’s 26th Infantry Regiment

D-Day 80 plaque Swanage station
Andrew PM Wright

The unveiling of the plaque with Swanage Railway Trust trustee Robert Patterson (right)

Swanage Railway commemorative plaque

Ahead of the D-Day 80th anniversary, Swanage Railway unveiled a plaque paying tribute to the American soldiers who boarded a train from Swanage station to Devon on their way to Ohama Beach in Normandy.

Swanage Railway Trust trustee Robert Patterson said:

“The billeting of the American GIs in Swanage is an important part of the town’s history and it was clear that the Swanage Railway should commemorate this, as well as the role that our railway played and the sacrifices made by the young men as they fought for our freedom.

“The Swanage Railway transported the American GIs, and their equipment, to and from the town as well as being an important link for the soldiers to happier times – away from the harshness of training for war – by transporting them on weekend passes to Bournemouth and London.

“The plaque is an important reminder of the sacrifices that many young men made for our freedom – particularly the young American troops who made friends in Swanage but subsequently lost their lives during the attack on Omaha beach in Normandy on the morning of D-Day in 1944.”

D-Day 80 plaque Swanage station
Andrew PM Wright

Scenes from 80 years ago were recreated at Swanage station

D-Day 80 plaque Swanage station
Andrew PM Wright

Recreation of the American GIs heading from Swanage station to Devon in April 1944

“They were cheerful and gave me the thumbs up”

Growing up in Swanage, the late Albert Weekes was a 15 year old junior porter at Swanage station in 1944 who remembered the sunny April day that the American GIs left by train from the seaside town bound for Devon ahead of D-Day 1944.

Speaking in 1991 to Swanage Railway volunteer Andrew Wright, Albert Weekes said:

“The first Americans started arriving at Swanage station and waited in the goods yard, by the old cattle dock, and on the station forecourt with their kit. They talked, smoked and chatted as they lay on their kit bags and waited for the train to come in.

“Boarding their long train, the GIs leaned out of the train windows as they left for D-Day. They were cheerful and gave me the thumbs up and I smiled and returned the gesture. I always wondered what happened to them and whether they came back.

“American GIs used to come to Swanage station and sit on the platform. I suppose they felt that sometime they would be boarding the train and going home to the United States.

“When the American GIs left Swanage, it was as though the world stopped turning – it was hectic while they were in the town and then all the activity stopped.”

Craig-y-don on Belle Vue Road

Craig-y-Don in Belle Vue Road was requisitioned during World War Two and housed many of the American GIs

Swanage Downs

Just in front of Craig-y-Don at the top of Swanage Downs was a communication bunker, the remains of which are still visible in 2024

Swanage Downs

From the top of Swanage Downs in June 1944, Nigel Humphries recalls seeing ships in Swanage Bay and as far as the eye could see

“Something momentous was about to happen”

For about six weeks little happened in Swanage and then Nigel Humphries remembers being taken over to the requisitioned house Craig-y-Don and onto the top of Swanage Downs. He said:

“As well as the panoramic views from Craig-y-Don over the English Channel, we could also see the radar station just below the large picture windows, but the area was strictly ‘off limits’ as the Americans would say.

“That was until the memorable day in early June 1944. We were told to stop what we were doing, and to go with our parents to the cliff top.

“They took us past Craig-y-Don, through the barbed wire-covered secure gates to the other side of the radar installation. There, with others, we witnessed possibly one of the most amazing sights of the twentieth century.

“Before our eyes, Swanage Bay was filled with grey ships and boats. In fact grey ships large and small were anchored as far as the eye could see. They could be seen as lines right over to the Isle of Wight in the east and as far as the shore at Bournemouth in the north.

“There were landing craft, transports, supply ships and warships all at anchor and smaller craft could be seen shuttling between them, their wash trailing behind.

“Our parents and a few other grown ups stood there awestruck and even us children sensed that something momentous was about to happen.”

Peter Lovett with his daughter and grandson
Andrew PM Wright

Peter Lovett (centre) now aged 99 with his daughter and grandson

D-Day 80 plaque Peter Lovett Swanage station
Andrew PM Wright

Peter Lovett lucky to land unopposed on Juno Beach

“It was a rough passage”

Guest of honour at the unveiling of the plaque on Swanage station on Monday 27th May 2024, was Swanage resident and D-Day veteran, 99 year old Peter Lovett.

Peter was living in the North of England when he enlisted but later he moved to Swanage to run a guest house in the High Street in 1964. Speaking to Swanage Railway volunteer Andrew Wright, he recalled the grim scenes when he arrived in Normandy:

“I was 19 when I landed. I was King’s Liverpool Irish Regiment. I was number seven beach group and I landed second wave assault on Juno beach.

“Although I landed in a LSD (amphibious ship) and the rest of the battalion came up on, I think it was, on one of the old ships. The beach was of course five miles long, and although I landed unopposed where I was, further down they got a hammering.

“You have to remember that the job of the assault troops was to get ashore and get inland – it wasn’t their job to clear the beach. It was the job of the second wave to come along and clear the beach.

“The beach group – maybe you’ve seen on the newsreels – the beach group men only had a two inch white band around their helmets and they were the only troops allowed to remain on the beach. But the beach group consisted of about 2,000 men all together. You had about a 100 engineers and a 100 anti aircraft guns – that’s artillery – and an infantry battalion.

“Initially about eight or nine beach groups were trained and then there was the 5th King’s further down the beach, a border regiment. They formed a beach group further down.

“I landed at 8.30 (in the morning). I found out it was 8.30 and I found the number of the landing craft purely by one of these nerds who follows up with the number of the landing craft and who was on it, so I was able to identify and I came in on Mike Green beach (section of Juno Beach), I think, and the landing craft came in on the same beach.

“How we got there I don’t know. I know it was a rough passage and we were glad to get off it. And when we did get off it there were dead Canadians in the water and although I landed up to my waist in water, you had to push the dead bodies to one side and there were bodies on the beach which we recovered later on.

“But following up tanks ran over them and we had to get them all out of the sand later and identify them for the records.”

American military cemetary overlooking Omaha Beach Normandy
Andrew PM Wright

The American military cemetary overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy

As many as 4,400 Allied troops died

On D-Day, up to 7,000 ships and landing craft were involved, delivering a total of 156,000 men and 10,000 vehicles to the five beaches along the stretch of the Normandy coastline. Of the 156,000 men landed, 73,000 were American.

As many as 4,400 troops died from the combined Allied forces on D-Day alone. Some 9,000 were wounded or missing.

Total German casualties on the day are not known, but are estimated as being between 4,000 and 9,000 men.

Thousands of French civilians also perished, mainly as a result of bombing raids carried out by Allied forces.

While progress was slow, eventually the Allied troops made progress against the German occupying forces, liberating Paris in August 1944.

Listen to Swanage D-Day veteran Peter Lovett

Further information

  • Live events on the BBC commemorating D-Day: 80 Years On
  • Programmes about D-Day: 80 Years On available on BBC iPlayer
  • Wartime Purbeck by Bob Bunyar available at Swanage Bookshop, Station Road
  • Swanage An Illustrated History by Jason Tomes available at Swanage Bookshop, Station Road

Share this story

Contact us

Do you have anything to add to this story?

We like to keep everything up-to-date, so if you know more, please help us by getting in touch.

Advertisement 

Top stories

Most recent

Daughter of Purbeck SAS hero to lay memorial wreath in France A woman from Harman's Cross in Dorset will take part in a moving ceremony in France to mark the 80th anniversary of the worst ever massacre of SAS operatives. 9 hours ago Miracle as school pupil survives 60 foot fall from Old Harry 19 hours ago Burglar jailed after stealing from Swanage and Wareham businesses 1 day ago South Dorset election candidates to be quizzed in Swanage 2 days ago Man in Swanage has jaw broken in violent assault 3 days ago