Developing the story of D-Day

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Nearly 70 years ago, Portsmouth and the surrounding area was alive with activity.

Thousands of soldiers were camped out, living with their platoons in the South Downs and the New Forest. The dockyard was full of workers frantically pouring concrete into cases, with no clue what they were going to be used for.

A section of the Overlord embroidery at the  D-Day Museum in Southsea. ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (131514-429)

A section of the Overlord embroidery at the D-Day Museum in Southsea. ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (131514-429)

It was the Second World War, Britain planned an invasion of Normandy in France to push German troops back and a lot of the preparation took place on the south coast.

This week saw the 69th anniversary of what became known as D-Day, when more than 156,000 soldiers took part in one of the biggest maritime operations in history.

Today the D-Day Museum stands on Southsea seafront as a reminder. Andrew Whitmarsh, 40, lives in Southsea and is the museum’s development officer. He says: ‘It’s so appropriate that the museum is here because Portsmouth played such a big part in D-Day. We are trying to tell the story of D-Day nationally and look at its role within the city.’

The museum also houses one of the longest embroideries in the world, designed by artist Sandra Lawrence – the Overlord Embroidery.

Andrew explains: ‘It charts what happened before, during and after D-Day. It’s something amazing that we have locally.’

Next year the museum is celebrating its 30th anniversary and 70 years since D-Day. Andrew believes it’s more important than ever to highlight how much it played a part in the local area.

He says: ‘Airspeed, which designed the Horsa gliders that went over for D-Day, had its headquarters in Portsmouth. We had the dockyard and the naval base being heavily involved in what happened.

‘Thousands of soldiers left from here to go over to Normandy, so it was important they were based here in the run up to it.’

He adds: ‘Many of them were stationed up behind Portsdown Hill in the woodland, some for several months. The military commanders met at Southwick House to make the final decision about D-Day.’

Troops from the UK, USA and Canada made their way across the Channel, often crammed into tiny boats and suffering sea sickness. But it was nothing compared to what hit them when they reached the other side.

To commemorate D-Day there were several veterans at the museum on Thursday. Members of the Normandy Veterans’ Association regularly talk to visitors and will be there during August too.

Andrew says: ‘People get a much better picture about what happened when they hear their stories.’

The museum is in the middle of planning what will happen for the landmark anniversary next year. There are also plans in place to redevelop the museum over the next five years.

Andrew explains: ‘We want to take out the old exhibitions, as they are looking a little long in the tooth now, and pretty much start from scratch. But this is all dependent on whether we get the funding from the Heritage Lottery fund.

‘We think the story of D-Day should still be told. People still love the museum but we want to improve it. We want to the tell the story much better than we can at the moment.’

He adds: ‘We want to bring in stories of individuals, because there’s quite a lot out there, as well as looking at the big picture.’

Speaking to the veterans is a big part of the renovation.

Andrew explains: ‘They won’t be around forever and we want to hear their stories while we can, and remember them. Some of the things they experienced were quite traumatic, but they know so much about what it was actually like.’

Andrew hopes the forthcoming changes will bring a new generation through the doors. ‘We want to make sure it appeals to all ages and interests. When it opened quite a lot of young people were interested in it and they would have known somebody in their family who remembered D-Day, but now young people don’t have that connection. We want to make sure the museum works for them.’

This includes setting up a youth advisory board so young people can have a say in how the museum works – and they are still looking for young people to take part.

Andrew says: ‘They can tell us how it should look for a younger audience. We are also hoping to run a drama project and include a local angle in it.’

The D-Day operation was a pivotal point in the Second World War, and Andrew believes it’s more important than ever to remember the events that took place on that day.

He says: ‘If it had gone differently then it wouldn’t have just affected the people at the time, it would have affected the course of history. It would be affecting us here today.

‘It was a moment when history depended on the actions of lots and lots of individuals. People were sometimes literally having to do what was expected of them, even if that meant putting their life on the line.

‘It was very dangerous and their decisions could have killed them. They were prepared to do that for family, friends and country.’

Andrew adds: ‘It’s a moment for Portsmouth to remember because it’s a time when the city played a part in world events.’

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Veteran’s story

Frank Rosier was just 18 when he landed on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944 as one of 156,000 troops in one of the biggest maritime operations in history. He was part of the Gloucestershire Regiment, which was originally formed in Portsmouth in 1694.

Now 88 and living in Cowplain, he’s the secretary of the Normandy Veterans’ Association and regularly talks to visitors at the D-Day Museum.

When he joined the association there were more than 500 members – now there are barely 50.

He says: ‘It’s always difficult to say actually what we did or I did. I did it with everyone else as a team. I was 17 when I joined the army, they gave me a gun and it was all a bit of a game. Before D-Day I had never seen a dead person.

‘When I got off that boat for a few seconds I was in shock, absolutely horrified at what I saw. Before that it was all games, if you had a red dot on you, then you were dead.’

Frank believes it was the British humour that got them through.

He says: ‘It was a very, very rough sea and we only got through by larking about. That’s the brilliant thing about British soldiers – their humour. And they still have it today.

‘When we got there it was run, run, run. There were 30 men in a platoon and we were like a family, but if they were hit we just had to keep going.’

D-Day was something he will never forget.

Frank explains: ‘We were just boys, and the boys that lie in the fields of Normandy must never be forgotten. We are here because of them and some of them only had a short life.

‘We need to remember them that way, and I will never forget them because they did such an important job.’

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