The Invasion Has Begun the North Devon Journal announced in its pages which were published two days after what has been called The Longest Day. While the article gave the official report of the action across the channel it gave nothing away of North Devon’s contribution to its success, examples of which can be found in the collections on our shelves.
North Devon was used as a testing ground for various military projects, a training ground for the troops and a base for the planes which played a vital role on the big day.
The beach at Westward Ho! was used as a testing ground for a Bailey Bridge which was part of a project which came up with the two Mulberry Harbours which were used at Omaha and Gold beaches as temporary ports, until the allies could take the established French Ports from the Germans. They also used the beach to test the Panjandrum, a massive rocket propelled cart heavily laden with explosives! Suffice it to say, the weapon developed by the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development was not a success and has been compared to a scene from Dad’s Army.
The beaches of North Devon were also used as a training ground for American GIs. Just as the men of the North Devon Yeomanry had been sent to the shores of Gallipoli nearly thirty years before because the foregin shores were similar to those of the area in and around Exmoor, the Americans were trained on the beaches of North Devon because of their similarities to the beaches closer to home in Normandy.
The local population must have known something big was about to happen before the news reached them about the invasion, for months they had been playing host to American GIs and their loss must have sparked conjecture as to what was about to happen next in the war. In some respects, life went on as normal but as the Athenaeum directors gathered for their monthly meeting in the Board Room the day before D-Day, you do have to wonder how aware they were of something about to happen.
Many of the locals made friends with the Americans who had access to items which had been rationed for several years by this point. Several items from this era are still held in our collections, including the pamphlet printed by the Stationery Office about the U.S. Army. The Athenaeum became a centre for information, just as it did during the First World War and it wasn’t just the locals who were using the Athenaeum and our collections during this period. There are several references to members of the armed forces coming into the old building on the square to trace their North Devonian ancestry during their down time. Many of these items will still be in use today.
The Athenaeum was also sent photos for display by the Ministry of Information which charted the course of the war, images which are still in our collections today. There are also several reminisces of this time which can be found in booklets produced by the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon for the 50th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995.
While North Devon played host to the GIs who went to fight their way across the beaches of Normandy code named Utah and Omaha, local men with the 2nd Devonshire regiment were fighting their way across Gold beach. Most of the local men who were in the army had already had their “D-Day” when they were part of the invasion force which landed in Scilly and Italy in 1943 with the Devon Yeomanry. Indeed, the campaign in Italy had already succeeded in occupying Rome by the morning of the 6th June. You can find their stories in both the booklets produced by the Museum Service in 1995 and the regimental histories of the Yeomanry and Devonshire Regiments on our shelves.
It wasn’t just the Army who played their part, RAF Chivenor also played a vital part during the run up. RAF Chivenor was part of Coastal Command and had been engaged in Operation ‘Cork’ which was designed to close off the Western end of the English Channel to German submarines and surface warships from French ports so they couldn’t interfere with the convoys, landings and subsequent build up.
The night before D-Day eight anti-submarine sorties took off from RAF Chivenor, the following night nine sorties flew out, one of which spotted the wake of a schnorkel (a device which allowed the submarines to stay submerged for longer) which they attacked with evidence of a resultant hit. One of the planes a Wellington, flown by S/L Farrell from No. 407 Squadron, failed to return.
While the RAF and Army both played their parts, D-Day was dependant on all three services working together to ensure the campaigns success. Our collections also hold a transcript of the diary for HMS Stevenstone. Stevenstone was a Hunt class Destroyer which had only been in service since the previous March. The Hunt class were named after British fox hunts and towns were encouraged to adopted ships. Barnstaple, with its many connections with the Rolle family and Stevenstone Estate as well as the Hunt chose HMS Stevenstone. The diary follows the events of the day from just after midnight on the 6th of June through the to following day and gives an insight into the sheer scale of the events which took place.
Our collections will continue to tell the stories of those who fought on the beaches at Normandy and elsewhere in Europe and beyond that day.