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Veterans visit ‘nerve centre’ of D-Day landings 75 years on

Southwick House outside Portsmouth was vital in the painstaking planning of Operation Overlord.

Southwick House was the nerve centre of planning for the Normandy landings (Ben Birchall/PA)
Southwick House was the nerve centre of planning for the Normandy landings (Ben Birchall/PA)

Veterans have returned to the mansion used as the nerve centre in preparation for the D-Day landings to mark 75 years since the liberation of Nazi-occupied western Europe.

Southwick House in Hampshire hosted the likes of future US president General Dwight D Eisenhower and General Montgomery as allied troops massed in south-west England.

Within its walls, commanders laid out the plans for Operation Overlord that would eventually bring an end to the war in western Europe.

On Thursday, former servicemen returned to the grade II-listed Georgian building as part of a series of events to commemorate 75 years since D-Day.

The map room that was vital in the planning of the invasion remains untouched – with a map of the south coast of England and the Normandy beaches covering an entire wall.

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The huge wall map in the map room at Southwick House, Southwick Park, where the Allies planned the D-Day landings (Ben Birchall/PA)

Southwick was also the battle headquarters of Admiral Ramsay, the commander-in-chief of the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force for the Normandy landings codenamed Operation Neptune.

Still present on the walls are the weather charts compiled by the RAF’s meteorologist, which prompted General Eisenhower to postpone the D-Day landings from June 5 to June 6.

It meant avoiding the worst of a heavy storm which was building over Scotland.

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Veteran Ron Smith, 94, says he can remember the D-Day landings ‘as if it were yesterday’ (Ben Birchall/PA)

Ron Smith, 94, Percy Lewis, 96, and Leonard ‘Ted’ Emmings, 95, were among the veterans to visit the map room.

Mr Smith was on board landing craft tank 947 which came under heavy shelling as it approached the beach, killing three of the soldiers in board.

He told the Press Association: “I can remember it very, very well – I can remember it as if it was yesterday.”

He said the officer had told them only on the night of the invasion that they were going to France and “you won’t need a passport”.

The craft was forced to retreat to England because the tank was unable to exit the ramp.

Describing the devastation he witnessed on the beach, Mr Smith said: “I don’t reckon a winkle survived on that beach.”

He added: “The beach was just one heap of explosives – it was amazing the way the tanks went off. If I go back to France it’s as if the war ended yesterday.

“I wasn’t voluntarily a hero. If you were on the landing crafts you did what you were ordered to do,” he said.

Mr Emmings served on a landing craft which was intended to land 36 Canadians on Juno Beach, although it was hit by a mine before it made it to shore.

He said he could not believe how many Canadians were killed.

“They came over here, they trained over here, they died over here. They never made it across the beach,” he said.

“Your mission was ‘whatever you do, you’ve got to get your troops off – it doesn’t matter what goes around you, your job is to put the soldiers on the beach.”

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Veteran Percy Lewis, 96, in the map room at Southwick House in Hampshire (Ben Birchall/PA)

Mr Lewis served as a signaller in 1st Battalion Buckinghamshire Regiment and 1st Battalion Black Watch and was wounded by mortar fire during the Normandy campaign.

He said: “It was terrible. We landed and there was dead bodies, blown up tanks all burning and there’s nothing you can do.

“We just sat on the sand dunes – eight of us – all night until the rest of the battalion came off the next morning.”

Upon his return to the front, he fought in France, Belgium and Holland before being captured and sent to the Stalag XIB Fallingbostel prisoner of war camp in Germany.

He was liberated in April 1945.

He added: “We were dead scared but you had a job to do, you knew you had to do it so you just did it – or else. Once you got over the feeling of fear you just accepted it.”

Press Association

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