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News > OP updates > D-Day: an OP remembers

D-Day: an OP remembers

The approaching 80th anniversary of D-Day prompted John Sweetman (OP 1953) to share his memories
22 May 2024
OP updates
Troops aboard their landing craft await to leave Portsmouth harbour the day before D-Day
Troops aboard their landing craft await to leave Portsmouth harbour the day before D-Day

In December 1940, my mother and I (aged five) abandoned a damp Anderson shelter in North End for lodgings in Soberton in the Meon Valley. I travelled by Southdown bus to Droxford School, where my recollections include walking in a crocodile round the playground on Friday afternoons wearing a gas mask, and, the result of rationing restrictions, enduring stodgy, unappetising lunches. Ever since I’ve studiously avoided tapioca, rice and semolina. Another suitably sharp memory was of a teacher wont to rap you with the edge of a ruler on the knuckles if your pen was not pointing directly over the shoulder.

We soon moved south to Soberton Heath, where air raid warnings drove us to take cover in a rickety, homemade, so-called shelter which made the Anderson resemble Fort Nelson.  War came closer, when a battery of anti-aircraft guns was stationed in a field close by. Their ear-splitting discharges made rest impossible, and sceptical locals claimed that all they achieved was disruption of nesting birds in adjacent trees. The contingent did bring an element of social life to the village by erecting a marquee for weekly dances. 

More serious activity occurred in the weeks before D-Day. Troops began to gather in nearby Liberty Woods and the buses from Wickham to Droxford running northwards through the area were suspended. For me, that meant a long bike ride to and from Droxford School during which I and my cycling companions passed camouflaged military vehicles under every tree or patch of cover along the A32 Alton road. 
Naturally, we village children made friends with the soldiers beyond the wooded security boundary, but the acrid smell of the metal cooking stoves and tarry tang of bell tents pitched on land across the road remain distinctive memories.

I recall being given a Gordon Highlanders cap badge, now long lost, and eager conversations about the week’s football results from the wartime reorganisation into League North and League South. Portsmouth and Southampton, their ranks boosted by ‘guest’ players stationed in the area, competed in the latter. 

A mile north of the camps stood the football pitch used by Soberton United football team, uniquely marked out annually in creosote. A large crowd gathered there on Sunday afternoons to watch a mixture of amateur and professional players from the camp perform, the star attraction being the Brentford FC centre forward, Len Townsend, the goal posts being adorned with camouflage netting. During mid-week pick-up ‘matches’, I attempted to emulate the legendary Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper, Ted Ditchburn. A 21-1 drubbing, though, brought crushing humiliation and immediate banishment.

Another local Service connection was the home of naval officer Capt. Bernard Warburton-Lee, posthumously awarded the VC during the 1940 Narvik campaign, in which my brother took part. I frequently trudged past his house en route to the River Meon armed with a jam jar vainly hoping to catch tiddlers.

In the adjacent village of Newtown stood The Rookesbury Hall, where the troops put on film shows. One memorable session involved Tarzan outwitting German paratroopers in his jungle home, another the ukelele-playing comedian George Formby foiling a plot to destroy a warship. There must have been American troops in the camp, because we learnt to chant, ‘got any gum, chum’. 

Our rented abode in Forester Road had primitive plumbing: a chemical toilet located at the end of a shrub-lined path, providing a particularly unpleasant approach during dark nights and drenching downpours. Drinking water was drawn from a well, beside which my father received a telegram from the dockyard curtailing his leave – a sign that something was afoot. 

The camp rapidly emptied and news of the D-Day landings came shortly afterwards. Post-war I discovered that my uncle had served in a cruiser, which bombarded Caen. A chief petty officer, having gone on deck as the warship took station, he remarked that ‘Eisenhower (the allied commander) was dead lucky. It (the Channel) was like a mill pond’. The sea-sick troops bobbing along in landing craft, many from the Liberty Woods, would have begged to differ.

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