Archaeological Aspects of D-Day: Operation Overlord

By Wills, Henry | Antiquity, December 1994 | Go to article overview

Archaeological Aspects of D-Day: Operation Overlord


Wills, Henry, Antiquity


The September Editorial (68: 477-9) noticed how the Normandy invasions olD-Day 1944 are, and are not, archaeologically visible. The author of the pioneering book on the pillbox defences of Britain in the Second World War explains what little there is surviving in southern England. Static defences, we see, leave traces in a way a mobile attack does not.

After the Battle of Britain in 1940, 6 June 1944 is the most important date of the Second World War in the history of Europe. Now, half a century later, memories are roused by commemorative exhibits in museums both sides of the Channel. But what of the sites, where many toiled at the preparations for the greatest amphibious operation of all time and soldiers trained for the tough task in front of them? There is just time to collect the memories from those who took part, but very little for the archaeologist to find and preserve. Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire -- on the front-line South Coast of England -- made an effort to mark D-Day, with an eye on the tourist business, causing people to look at local events of 50 years ago.

Salisbury Plain was a main training area for troops from the Allies. To launch Operation Overlord, vast quantities of stores of all varieties were necessary, and depots were opened throughout southern England; it is these, together with the dozen of camps to house troops in training, that have left traces on the landscape. After 50 years these have become faint, but at Dinton the RAF Maintenance Unit was extended and large sheds built, which can still be seen from the road. At Lockerley was built the largest supply depot by the US Army, with 14 miles of sidings and dozens of large sheds. After a period of use by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps it closed in the 1950s and now nothing but slight earth disturbance remains. This is true of many camps which consisted of Nissen huts. Post-war the curved corrugated iron buildings were removed for use on other sites by farmers and builders. Concrete bases, paths and roads often remain, and where not covered by earth, give a picture of the extent of war-time development. At Wilton House near Salisbury, where much of the detail planning for Overlord was carried out and many Nissen huts were built on the estate, one did survive for many years, used by the local radio club. Also on the Wilton Estate, at South Hill, the remains of a vehicle service depot is slowly disintegrating; the two inspection pits are still to be seen, filled with rubbish, as is the check-out! The petrol filling-station is completely buried further up the hill, but some steps lead to a long-vanished Nissen hut. It was along this avenue of trees that the road was widened to accommodate two rows of parked vehicles under the canopy of the beeches. The road was closed to all but essential users, one of whom told me that there were over 300 vehicles at this one location. There are hut bases in the woods around, but the insignificant cable insulators on the trees give away the area's busy few months of 1944. It is the small traces left that give clues to sites today.

At RAF Old Sarum, taken over during 1944 as a conversion depot to waterproof vehicles for the landings, the hangars were used for a 'SNUG' process which enabled them to be driven ashore from landing-craft.

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