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D-Day at Lepe

Posted on 6 June 2014 by

Spending the early hours of D-Day at Lepe beach seemed like an obviously good idea, despite the early start. The combination of wild, churning landscape (the official policy here is not to replace sea defences as they are destroyed) and strange man-made ruins is always intriguing, and more so today than usual.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which saw the beginning of the end of Nazi occupation of Western Europe. So far as I know none of my close relations was directly involved in the invasion – my maternal grandfather was a shipwrights back in the UK, my paternal grandfather was depth-charged in a submarine off Norway in 1941 and my father’s step-father was stationed in North Africa. However, D-Day has been a clear part of my consciousness for as long as I can remember.

The area where I live in Southern England was vital to the D-Day operation. The New Forest played host to a number of airfields as well as large numbers of American soldiers. While troops departed most famously from Portsmouth there were also embarkations from Lepe beach, just west of Southampton and at the bottom tip of the New Forest, of troops, hardware and supplies. There are signs of Lepe’s involvement clearly visible today, albeit in ruin. They make for a uniquely interesting insight into that pivotal time, providing to my eyes at least a far more meaningful monument to the great endeavour than any number of ordered memorials.

Heading east from the car park and walking along the shingle for about a mile you’ll suddenly come across a number of structures, left tumbled along the shoreline without signage or explanation, as though recently spat out by an unsatisfied sea. Broken slabs of concrete that look like vast chunks of grey chocolate – beach hardening material to allow tanks and other vehicles to embark without sinking into the sand; bare, rusting structures jutting out of the sea like frames of rotten teeth – the “dolphins” that formed part of the important pierheads; cracked concrete paths to allow easy passage to the water, two great iron bollards to which ships would be secured. Without prior knowledge it’s impossible to imagine what on earth these things mean. Even knowing their purpose and history it’s difficult to picture what the scene would look like 70 years earlier, much less what was waiting on the other side of the English Channel.

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