- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Elsie Horton
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 29 February 2004
In 1944 I was a Wren on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth. We worked at Fort Southwick, an underground complex below the Portsdown hills, behind Portsmouth. I was a watchkeeper in the Signals Distribution Office. All signals coming into C-in-C, or initiated by one of his staff, had to record and distribute - either to officers in the complex or to ships and shore establishments in the Portsmouth command, which stretched from Newhaven to Portland.
In the spring of 1944, increased numbers of personnel appeared - not only Wrens and naval officers and ratings, but army and RAF people and several US soldiers and sailors (who did not work directly with SDO staff). We were changed from four watches to three watches, which meant extra hours. All leave was cancelled. On buses, within a few miles of the coast, paybooks had to be shown (identity cards for civilians) - only those who lived on the Isle of Wight were allowed to visit there.
Portsmouth Harbour was a solid mass of ships and landing craft of every description. Every little river along the South Coast had its share of LCTs and LCAs. Every roadside had its contingent of parked Army lorries and tanks, with the soldiers camped alongside. Fareham Common was covered by and Army camp. When we were free of an evening, we liked to take a walk, in any direction, and have a chat with these boys, who would often make us a cup of tea.
Night watch on Saturday 3 June: the first couple of hours passed in the usual busy way, ships passing to and fro. Then at about 22.00 hours a signal gave news of a convoy sailing from the West Country, its destination 'Far Shore'- a nomenclature soon to be familiar, and translated as the coast of Normandy. This was followed throughout the night by similar ship movements; it was obvious that the 'Second Front', so long awaited, was at last taking place. By studying all the signals, it was possible to work out that the D-Day was planned for Monday 5 June. Alas for the best-laid schemes of men, the weather played havoc with the plans. I can’t remember when I found out that, because of forecast storms, the invasion had been postponed for 24 hours. I would guess that I learned the news just before the end of the watch.
The next day, June 4, was my 20th birthday. My friend Brenda and I celebrated by having lunch at the Red Lion in Fareham.
Going to battle
On the Monday I was on late watch, approximately 14.00-22.00. As all the signals relating to D-Day were secret, only a few were aware of impending events. We were relieved by the night watch and returned to our quarters in Fort Wallington in the 'liberty boat' (a battered old bus). We had eaten at Fort Southwick so it was straight to bed. While everyone else slept, I had a sleepless night, listening to the roar of planes overhead, and thinking of all the men, soldiers, sailors and airmen on their way to battle, and what they might face.
Normandy Invasion announced
The next morning, on arriving at Fort Southwick for the early watch, it was strange to look down over Portsmouth and see the harbour, which had been so full, now empty of all shipping. Only the victory was still there - was it a hopeful signal? It was quite a relief, when I arrived in the tunnel, that it had been announced on the BBC news that troops had landed on the coast of Normandy, and I was free to talk about it. That first week or so was extremely hectic, as we were the only UK base in WT contact with the invasion fleet. We had to learn a whole new language - codenames, etc.
In our free time, walking around Fareham could be quite interesting. There was a constant stream of lorries, full of young soldiers, on their way to embarkation points, and of course they all waved. After a while we learned to be careful, after we found we’d waved to a lorryload of German prisoners (and they had the nerve to wave back!) We saw some very peculiar vehicles go through, each one obviously designed for some specific purpose. Another common sight, both before and after D-Day, were 'Queen Marys', very long, low articulated vehicles, which were used to transport crashed RAF aircraft.
It was amazing that in only a few weeks life settled down into routine. Convoys continued to come from both east and west, made up of both naval and merchant ships, Mulberry harbour parts, landing craft and heavy battleships and cruisers on their way to bombard the French coast. And, as aircraft continued to cross the skies, we saw our first flying fortress.
VE Day 1945 (8 May) brought a flurry of signals from politicians, commanders, etc. I Particularly remember that from General Eisenhower, addressed to all those he had commanded. He said that after the war, there could be arguments as to who had made the greatest contribution to victory, but those who had taken part knew that only co-operation and a joint effort had brought about the desired result. A thought worth remembering in these fraught days!
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