A Friendly Invasion For D-day's 50th

December 26, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

SOUTHAMPTON, England -- Southern England is mobilizing again for D-Day, this time for the invasion of 50th-anniversary tourists.

From Dorset to Hampshire to Sussex, guides are being trained, tours booked, itineraries mapped, museums spruced up, parades planned, monuments polished, profits projected. About

150 separate events are listed in the "official" D-Day guide.

President Clinton and Queen Elizabeth II are expected to come with full panoply of ceremony, and so are the heads of 11 other countries and up to a half-million more prosaic visitors.

A sense that this might be the last great assembly of the men and women who took part pervades planning for the anniversary. The young soldiers and sailors, Marines and airmen of June 6, 1944, are in their "twilight years," as one youngish planner put it.

Twenty-seven thousand Americans are already booked for formal D-Day tours in southern England. Thousands more will come independently, many on cruise ships, including the Queen Elizabeth 2.

Marylanders on the way

At least 300 Maryland veterans of the 29th Infantry Division who took part in the assault on Omaha Beach and the battle for Normandy already plan to come.

Half a century ago, 3.4 million troops assembled in this hedged and verdant coast. About a million and a half were Americans.

The soft, rolling countryside hardened into a vast military depot for Operation Overlord, the greatest amphibious assault in history, the military adventure that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called the Great Crusade. In December 1943, Ike had just been told that he would be the supreme commander of Overlord.

U.S., British, Canadian, French, Polish and Czechoslovakian troops were encamped in practically every wood, copse and thicket, mostly in hastily erected tent cities. They

trained for Normandy on the shore of the English Channel, the 29th Division at a Devon beach called Slapton Sands.

The pleasant coastal cities, Southampton, Portsmouth, Weymouth, Bournemouth, Poole, resorts mostly, but also cruise and cargo ship and fishing ports then, bustled with olive drab vehicles and soldierly activity. Their docks and harbors were filled with virtually every kind of ship, from tank landing craft to minesweepers to battleships.

They planned it here

At Southwick House, a handsome Regency-style mansion that maintains a somber vigil on a Hampshire hilltop, the original invasion map occupies a whole wall in what was General Eisenhower's operations center. The war clocks remain stopped H-Hour -- 6:30 a.m. for Americans, 7:30 for the British.

At Southwick House, Ike and Gen. Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, land forces commander, and Adm. Sir Bertram H. Palmer, naval commander, planned the invasion.

It was in the Southwick House war room on June 5 at 0415 hours that General Eisenhower said "OK, Let's go!" or perhaps "OK, we'll go" or even "We will sail tomorrow," depending on which historian one believes.

The next morning about 156,000 soldiers stormed the beaches or parachuted behind German lines. They were borne to Normandy by a fleet of 7,000 ships. Ten thousand aircraft flew something like 13,000 sorties; 22,000 vehicles were landed, from jeeps to Sherman tanks.

There were 10,000 casualties, 2,000 dead on Omaha Beach, where the 115th and 116th Infantry Regiments of the 29th Division of the Maryland-Virginia National Guard went ashore. The 175th Infantry -- mostly Marylanders -- landed the next day.

For three pounds (about $4.50), D-Day veterans can tour the Southwick House headquarters of Operation Overlord -- still a Royal Navy school -- and thatch-roofed Southwick village and the Golden Lion Pub where Ike and Monty passed many mornings in the spring of '44.

Americans welcome

Americans will certainly be as welcome in southern England in 1994 as they were in 1943, perhaps more.

Frances Fee, an official of the Southern Tourist Board, estimates each U.S. visitor will spend 73 pounds a day, about $109. Each British visitor, mostly day trippers, is expected to spend 12 pounds ($18).

"You're talking about millions of pounds," she says, "a real boost to our economy."

By this time in 1943, 750,000 Americans were in Britain and the buildup was accelerating. They were welcomed, with some slight reservations. At the D-Day Museum in Bovington near here, returning Americans can hear themselves characterized in the old quip in a D-Day documentary film: "Over-fed, overpaid, oversexed and over here."

John Torrance, a 68-year-old retired firefighter who spent World War II on a British destroyer, remembers returning home unexpectedly to Bournemouth.

"I came around the corner of the road and I ran into my sister walking along with a b-i-i-g GI. She squealed and hugged me and said, 'This is Gene.'

"But she married a Canadian, and I just visited her in Toronto," Mr. Torrance says. "I don't know what happened to Gene.

Jealous of GIs

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