‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them’. It’s 80 years since the historic actions of D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history, and Laurence Binyon’s poignant war poem written for those that fell still resonates. Information on the operation is still being discovered, artefacts unearthed, and stories told. Hampshire played a pivotal role, but less known is how Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, was involved. It may have been a place of fun and relaxation for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, but during WWII, the house was used as a convalescent home for injured soldiers and now it has been uncovered, the beach was used as a practice for operations in Normandy.

Curator of collections and interiors Christopher Warleigh-Lack and his team are just starting to get further details after information was discovered by Christopher’s predecessor, Michael Hunter.

‘There were 1,400 men who trained on Osborne beach. It was completely secret, so secret it has only just come to light,’ says Christopher. ‘Even from Osborne House you can’t see the beach. It was ironic that the wounded soldiers being cared for had no idea what was going on beneath their windows.'

Great British Life: Crew working on a tank's propellers on the beach at Osborne. Crew working on a tank's propellers on the beach at Osborne. (Image: Courtesy of English Heritage)

A grainy photo shows tanks approaching the beach at Osborne from the 79th Armoured Division. Called DD’s after the two propellers (duplex drive), they later became known as Donald Ducks. The tanks were fitted with a collapsible screen made from waterproof canvas that provided additional buoyancy to the tank when afloat. These modified tanks made an important contribution during the first assault on the D-Day beaches.

‘The area was chosen as it was Crown Estate and was protected by other sections of land. They were able to launch at Stokes Bay on landing craft that would have carried ten of these Donald Ducks. They crossed the Solent and then 1,000 meters out would lower these floating tanks into the water. It’s sheltered from the wind, but the Solent is incredibly tidal so they could only do two practices a night.’

The beach is an area of outstanding natural beauty and what was the changing room for the soldiers convalescing is now a cafe. ‘People can sit and look out at history,’ says Christopher. ‘Of course, Queen Victoria’s bathing machine is also there which is pretty fabulous.’

Great British Life: A tank being launched from a landing craft in Osborne Bay, the most difficult and dangerous manoeuvre. A tank being launched from a landing craft in Osborne Bay, the most difficult and dangerous manoeuvre. (Image: Courtesy of English Heritage)

What would she have made of it all? ‘Well, her daughter became Empress of Germany and was the mother of the Kaiser, the family had close connections. The fact that it was to fight Germany would have been quite heartbreaking.’

Osborne is in the process of carrying out conservation work and opening new spaces with the hope to display some information from the practice landings. ‘It’s an important part of our history that needs to be told,’ adds Christopher.

Great British Life: The beach at Osborne today. The beach at Osborne today. (Image: English Heritage)

Christopher’s grandfather, Bruce Lack, was a meteorologist for the army in the Second World War and arrived in Normandy two days after D-Day.

‘He predicted the weather, so armies would know when to move. One of things he had to do was track down where the German guns were - with weather conditions and sound you can work out distance and location. He walked into a ruined building one day and there was a German officer of the same rank as him. The two of them saluted each other and then walked away.'


Great British Life: LCT 7074 - the last remaining intact landing craft. LCT 7074 - the last remaining intact landing craft. (Image: The D-Day Story, Portsmouth)

D-Day in 80 Objects

To commemorate the 80th anniversary, a fascinating online exhibition of items from D-Day which includes artefacts from museums in Normandy and America, has been launched by The D-Day Story in Portsmouth.

‘It’s a way of bringing items together in a way that you could not physically do,’ says curator Andrew Whitmarsh.

Working with museums including the National Army Museum, Royal Armouries: Fort Nelson, Pegasus Bridge Museum in Normandy and The US National World War Two Museum, 80 objects have been chosen, many with unique stories.

Artefacts include a gallantry medal awarded to Gustav, a pigeon, for bringing the first news of the invasion back to the UK, a drawing from soldier John Jenkins sent to his family in Portsmouth showing a humourous portrayal of the reality of life at war, and details of LCT 7074 – a unique survivor and the last remaining intact landing craft which can be seen at the museum overlooking the Solent alongside Clarence Esplanade.

Great British Life: Gallantry medal awarded to Gustav the pigeon. Gallantry medal awarded to Gustav the pigeon. (Image: The D-Day Story, Portsmouth)

Andrew particularly likes those that have personal stories behind them. ‘There are some that are more about the scale of the preparations and the technical achievements in terms of developing special equipment. But there are also objects that relate to an individual person; those are the most powerful as people can relate to them.

'Because of the affect D-Day had on the Second World War, its impact is still felt today. It’s a single event that has millions of people connected to it. As a historian, I am regularly reminded talking to veterans, and these days the families of veterans, how important these events were to them. There are lots of people in the area that saw the preparations for D-Day. Officially the troops and civilians were not supposed to interact for security reasons but there were some places, particularly in Gosport, that the local people briefly met the troops waiting to embark.'

The museum is encouraging people to take part and to share their own objects using the hashtag #DDayin80objects. ‘After June 6, we will share some of them; it’s a way that we can get people involved,’ says Andrew.

D-Day in 80 Objects will run until the December 31, go to theddaystory.com


Great British Life: Crossing on board the landing craft to the launch point in the Solent. The entrance to the River Medina and Cowes can be seen in the distance.Crossing on board the landing craft to the launch point in the Solent. The entrance to the River Medina and Cowes can be seen in the distance. (Image: Courtesy of English Heritage)

First hand account

Harry Cripps from Gosport, served in 1st Battalion, Hampshire Regiment. He landed on Gold Beach at the start of D-Day and was wounded on the beach. He describes: ‘We were up to our necks in water, and we had so much weight, but I was fortunate. I was five foot ten and it came up to my chin. Well, some of the others were smaller, and they just disappeared. Then we had another backwater to cross, which was also deep. There was a big sewer, which I made for, there were two or three of us, we got behind these ramps, little did we know but they were mined. About seven of us and a couple more joined and in amongst us was our company sergeant major. He said “we’ve got to make the ridge”, so we made a dash for this ridge, which was five or six foot high, and about 17 of us sort of got together there. Well, we were stuck there for about half an hour because we couldn’t move. We were about the only ones that really had weapons left that were any good. He had a Bren gun and I was number two, so we went over the top to see what we could see, and the next thing I knew I was hit. I laid there from about seven o’clock until five o’clock in the afternoon.'

After being evacuated as wounded - he arrived back in Gosport. 'I couldn’t tell you what time it was. All I know is waking up, seeing a sign The Old House At Home. That was Chapel Street and I lived in Grove Cottage, which was just up the top of that road, with my brother. I thought I was dreaming.'


Great British Life: Shirley Whittle's family flag which was adopted by 2nd battalion Grenadier Guards. Shirley Whittle's family flag which was adopted by 2nd battalion Grenadier Guards. (Image: The D-Day Story, Portsmouth)

Little flag of hope

This small, battered flag was given to a tank crew from the 2nd battalion Grenadier Guards by the family of Shirley Whittle, age four, who lived in Bedhampton. The tank and its crew were parked outside the family’s house for several days before departing for Normandy. The crew adopted the flag and it flew on the tank for months until near the end of the war. In May 1945 it was lost in battle but when the crew returned later to the site, miraculously it was as found. Crew member Lance Corporal J Sorenson regularly wrote to the family and said, ‘the flag has become a talisman to us and we have all pinned our faith in that little bit of England.’

It is one of many objects held by The D-Day Story that relate to friendships between civilians and troops about to leave for France. Local people would chat to the troops, make them cups of tea or meals and sometimes let them have a bath. The civilians no doubt realised that the waiting soldiers were about to risk their lives on their behalf.

What’s on

June 5

Commemoration on Southsea Common featuring veterans' stories, reflections, and musical performances from Portsmouth. Tickets are sold out but the whole thing will be broadcast live by the BBC.

June 8

Portsmouth will host its Armed Forces Day celebrations on the slightly earlier date to mark the D-Day 80 commemorations. The event is open to all on Southsea Common and includes a display by the Red Arrows, military parades and vehicles and live music.

June 6

Memorial Service at the D-Day Stone, Portsmouth followed by beacons being lit on both sides of the English Channel at 9.15pm - one at HM Naval Base and another from Southsea Castle. For more details go to visitportsmouth.co.uk