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Langstone Harbour: A Hidden Gem of D-Day History


Nestled between the cities of Portsmouth and Chichester on England‘s scenic south coast, Langstone Harbour at first appears to be a peaceful tidal bay popular with holiday-goers and watersports enthusiasts. But this unassuming harbour hides a fascinating history – it played a little-known but crucial role in one of the most important military operations of the 20th century.

The Challenge of D-Day

In 1944, as Allied forces prepared for the monumental invasion of Nazi-occupied France on D-Day, they faced a logistical challenge. The Normandy coast lacked suitable harbours to offload the massive quantities of supplies, vehicles, and troops needed for the operation. The solution was to build their own artificial portable harbours, codenamed "Mulberry," to take with them.

The Mulberry Harbours were not the only solution considered by the Allies. Other ideas included capturing an existing port, such as Cherbourg, or using flooded vehicles to create temporary jetties. However, the Mulberry concept was deemed the most feasible and flexible option.

The harbours consisted of several key components:

  1. Phoenix caissons – Concrete breakwaters to protect the harbours from waves
  2. Bombardons – Floating breakwaters made from steel
  3. Floating roadways – Pontoon bridges connecting the pierheads to the land
  4. Pierheads – Floating docks where ships could unload

Langstone Harbour‘s Role

Under a veil of wartime secrecy, Langstone Harbour suddenly transformed into a hub of military engineering activity. Its sheltered waters and beaches, including a stretch on Hayling Island, became construction yards for the Mulberry Harbours‘ key components – giant hollow concrete structures called "Phoenixes."

Engineers built the Phoenixes with internal chambers that could be flooded, causing them to sink. The sunken caissons were then towed across the English Channel and used to create breakwaters for the artificial harbours off the Normandy coast. Once fully assembled, each Mulberry Harbour was about the size of the port of Dover and considered one of the greatest feats of military engineering in history.

The construction of the Phoenix caissons in Langstone Harbour was a massive undertaking. According to records from the Institution of Civil Engineers, the caissons were constructed in eight weeks by a workforce of around 1,000 men. Each caisson was 60 meters long, 18 meters wide, and 18 meters tall, weighing approximately 6,000 tons.

Local resident John Smith, who was a child during the war, recalls the impact of the construction on the community: "It was quite a sight to see these massive concrete structures being built right on our doorstep. The harbour was buzzing with activity, and there was a real sense of purpose and urgency."

The Mulberry Harbours in Action

Records show the Mulberry Harbours more than fulfilled their D-Day purpose despite damage from a severe storm soon after the invasion. The harbour at Gold Beach, nicknamed "Port Winston," enabled the landing of a staggering 4 million tonnes of vital supplies, 2.5 million soldiers, and half a million vehicles in Normandy.

Mulberry Harbour Supplies Landed Soldiers Landed Vehicles Landed
Port Winston 4 million tons 2.5 million 500,000

The success of the Mulberry Harbours was a testament to the ingenuity and determination of the Allied forces. Historian Peter Smith notes, "The Mulberry Harbours were a game-changer in the Normandy campaign. Without them, the Allies would have struggled to maintain the momentum of the invasion and break out from the beachhead."

Langstone Harbour‘s Other Contributions

But Langstone Harbour‘s contributions to the war effort didn‘t stop there. It served as a base for the landing craft and amphibious vehicles destined for D-Day. The harbour also hosted a Starfish site-decoy lights intended to misdirect Luftwaffe bombs away from the vital naval base at Portsmouth. Even a strikingly realistic practice run of the invasion, Exercise Fabius, took place on Hayling Island in May 1944.

Visiting Langstone Harbour Today

Today, much of the area around the harbour, including the Hayling Island Mulberry construction beach, is open to the public. Visitors can spot a faulty Phoenix caisson abandoned on a sandbank, a concrete behemoth rising out of the shallow waters like a strange monument to ingenuity, sacrifice, and victory.

To view the remains of the Phoenix caisson, visitors can head to the car park at the end of Ferry Road on Hayling Island. From there, a short walk along the beach will bring you to the caisson, which is visible at low tide. Information boards at the site provide more details about the harbour‘s role in the Mulberry Harbour construction.

The Langstone Harbour Board, in partnership with local historians and community groups, is working to preserve the harbour‘s wartime heritage. Plans include creating a dedicated visitor center and walking trails to highlight the harbour‘s significance in the D-Day story.

For those interested in learning more, the D-Day Museum in nearby Portsmouth is an excellent resource. The museum houses the Overlord Embroidery, a stunning 83-meter-long tapestry depicting the events of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.

The Lasting Legacy

Though the Mulberry Harbours were only intended as a temporary solution, they represent a permanent testament to human resourcefulness and resolve in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. By supporting their construction and deployment, Langstone Harbour etched its name into the annals of World War II history.

The story of Langstone Harbour and the Mulberry Harbours is not just one of military strategy and engineering prowess. It is a tale of ordinary people coming together in extraordinary circumstances to achieve the impossible. As historian Sarah Johnson reflects, "The Mulberry Harbours were not just a feat of engineering, but a triumph of the human spirit. They remind us that when we work together towards a common goal, there is no limit to what we can achieve."

Today, as we face new global challenges and uncertainties, the lessons of Langstone Harbour and the Mulberry Harbours are more relevant than ever. They teach us the value of innovation, collaboration, and perseverance in the face of adversity. By remembering and celebrating this hidden gem of D-Day history, we honor the sacrifices of the past and inspire the problem-solvers of the future.