June 3, 2024


Sitting in the archive room and turning the pages of the visitors’ book for 1944, I thought about the sense of anticipation, of fear and hope that must have lain within those who knew and those who guessed about Operation Overlord. The desperation to see the war over and done with.

In reality there were a number of D-Days during the years of World War Two: North Africa, Sicily and Italy, for example, but today the acronym is most strongly associated with Britain and the date June 6th 1944. It stands for Day- Day: effectively used as a military countdown shorthand and one that was extended by 24 hours from June 5th when D Day was supposed to take place to the 6th because the weather in England on that day was simply so appalling.

The D-day forces included sailors, soldiers, and airmen from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland and others. Whether you look at June 6th as the beginning of the end or the culmination of a finely planned campaign of action, it was nevertheless a finely balanced moment in time not to mention a point of great vulnerability as the Allied forces sat in the landing craft before scrambling up the beaches.

Whilst surprise is a valuable weapon in war, there was no way it was possible to hide the coming attack from German intelligence. To try to obfuscate the truth, the allies ran “fake news” operations to confuse the Germans on when and where the landings would take place. As a child I remember my father telling stories about my Grandfather, a Major General in the Royal Engineers, working on fake camps and battalions and I remember Granny saying she had rented a cottage down in Devon which I assume was to be near her husband as the “stretch of coastline closely resembled the Normandy beaches and was the perfect practice ground to perfect beach invasions”.

My grandfather worked with General Patton who visited the cottage and once even kindly played soldiers with my father (we still have the toy soldiers set) and showed him his silver revolver.

Elvira de la Fuente – Agent Bronx

In order to keep out the allies, Hitler had created an Atlantic Wall – a series of ‘impenetrable’ defences stretching 1,670 miles from Norway to Spain. Just before and on the morning of the 6 June, the Allied forces bombed Calais to give the illusion they were readying for an attack at the shortest crossing point from England to France before they launched the real landings in Normandy in Northern France, chosen simply because there was no port and, as one of the furthest crossing points from the southern coast of England, it would also be considered one of the least likely.

In all, the D-Day invasion was the largest naval, air and land operation in history. Within a few days some 326,000 troops, 50,000 vehicles and 100,000 tons of equipment landed in France. They constructed two artificial harbours to solve the port problem and transported 7,000 tonnes of vehicles and goods over to them each day.

General Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) had been appointed commander of Operation Overlord with some extraordinary and possibly rather challenging allied Generals responsible for the different parts which made up the whole under his command. To foster the alliance and promote camaraderie, he gave a short speech to all the troops involved including a last minute talk to the paratroopers of the US 101st Airborne Division as they prepared to take off from their base at Greenham Common, some eight miles from Highclere.

The records at Highclere at the time simply state: ‘The chief excitement here today has been the launching of the Invasion and we are very keyed up to know how it is likely to progress.”

Evacuee children at Highclere

Now, eighty years later, we are once again preparing to remember and say thank you to the men who took part in those momentous landings. I suspect, like so many before them, that they were hoping that their children and grandchildren might therefore be able to enjoy a more peaceful world.

There were many threads to life at Highclere before and during D-Day and we are looking forward to our October History Festival which will tell some of these stories, from the double agent Elvira de la Fuente, the Norwegian Royal family, the evacuee children, the Canadian troops camped here, the USA troops at Greenham Common and the planes that crashed on the Estate and sadly did not make it home.

We still live in the hope of a safer and happier world.