D-Day 65th anniversary
A DD Valentine tank
Six weeks before D-Day, troops gathered in Studland to rehearse the epic operation. In front of the king, they used live ammunition to make the practise runs as realistic as possible, but the testing of a new type of tank ended in tragedy.
Mounting a huge operation on the scale of D-Day required months of intense planning, and practice runs - some of which involved the use of live ammunition.
On April 18 1944, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, King George VI and General Dwight D. Eisenhower – Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces and in charge of the military operation – met at Fort Henry on Redend Point at Studland to watch the combined power of the Allied Forces preparing for D-Day.
Fort Henry as it appears today
The VIPs were kept safe in Fort Henry. Built in 1943, it was a specially constructed concrete bunker and observation post.
It was 90 feet long with walls, floor and ceiling all three feet thick, and was considered a safe place for such VIPs to witness the rehearsal of the Normandy landings.
Studland Beach and Shell Bay, near Poole, were chosen because they physically resembled the beaches of northern France.
Also the surrounding area was largely unpopulated – many people had been moved away (as in the case of the whole village of Tyneham on the Lulworth ranges) so it was considered safe to fire into land without the risk of harming civilians.
But first the beach had to be made safe: in the time before the outbreak of World War II, Studland had been identified as one of several possible access points for an enemy invasion, so had been fortified in defence.
In preparation for Exercise Smash, as the rehearsal operation was named, mines were removed from the beach to give the military safe access.
Using live ammunition
The use of live ammunition in a rehearsal run was not regular practice, but military leaders, aware of the huge scope of their planned undertaking, wanted it to be as realistic as possible for the soldiers.
The exercise was the largest real ammunition practice of the whole war period.
The VIPs watched bombing practice and assault landings from the safety of Fort Henry, observing the troops and hardware in action first hand.
The tank on land
Exercise Smash also saw the testing of a new variation of tank.
The DD (Duplex Drive) Valentine was a 'floating' unit that could leave its landing ship at a further distance from shore than other tanks.
The DD Valentine tank came out of a need to provide cover for soldiers as they mounted their first attacks on enemy land, and a need to keep the landing ships as far from shore – and as safe from enemy attack - as possible.
Dorset writer and historian Rodney Legg says their use was over ambitious.
He says: "They were 'swimming tanks', and a man called Ron West, [a former soldier] from Bournemouth, told me he got trained in them.
Looking out towards Bournemouth
"He told me how frightening they were because the soldiers [inside them] were just so afraid they would get hit by the slightest bit of shrapnel which would tear through the tank's canvas skirts and it would drop to the bottom of the sea like a stone.
"The tanks had to be unloaded into the water at the closest point that the bigger tank carrying landing craft could get, which was quite a way off-shore.
"They may also have encountered a bit of choppiness in the water, and [during Exercise Smash] four or five of them did indeed go down like stones.
"Six men were drowned."
Rod says the tank was a clever idea, but their use for real during D-Day produced mixed results.
At 'Omaha' beach over 100 tanks were lost this way - a fact which contributed to the high casualty rate suffered by the Allied Forces there.
Two of the DD Valentines that were sunk in Exercise Smash, on April 4 1944, are still submerged off Studland, 15 metres under water.
The memorial, placed in 2004
In April 2004, a small memorial to the men lost in the tanks was unveiled alongside Fort Henry.
It's one of the few physical reminders of Dorset's significant involvement with D-Day - one of the largest military operations the world has ever seen.
last updated: 03/06/2009 at 12:13