Iris Crowfoot – Crossing the Channel this Summer?


I’ll be taking my sons to France when school breaks up for the summer holidays. Living so close to Portsmouth, the only way to travel is by ferry and when we get to Caen, how can we resist visiting the D-Day landing beaches? Well, I’m afraid one son has developed an aversion to military history and has to be bribed with sweets and ice-cream to go within ten miles of any beach named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno or Sword. I’m glad the other is still happy to spend hours crawling through restored landing craft, visiting gun batteries and reading the memorials with me.

It seems to me that the small boys of Hampshire fell into similar groups in 1944. Some still lick their lips seventy years later when they describe the donuts, chocolate and gum shared by the soldiers as they prepared for the invasion. Others have told me about the generous camp cookhouses where a plate was always put out for a visiting child whenever the soldiers ate. However, Brian Sacree wasn’t interested in food: growing up in Winchester, he spent the war observing the soldiers and airmen as they prepared for battle.

No. 4 Commando was billeted in Stanmore and had an assault course in the grounds of Winchester College. Brian and his school-friends would watch the ‘green berets’ exercise and after they had gone, copy them zooming down the rope slide across the river. He remembers the US Air Force Piper Cub spotter planes parked among the trees of Chilbolton Avenue and taking off from the playing fields where Kings School is now.

Brian got into Peter Symonds Grammar School and joined the Junior Training Corps (JTC). On their field days, the JTC boys had to practice defending Farleigh Mount, and Brian laughs when he remembers the Rifle Brigade firing smoke bombs from 2” mortars into the Peter Symonds trenches to cover their advance. You won’t
be surprised to read that he joined up at Peninsula Barracks as soon as he left school and enjoyed an interesting army career serving in the UK and Egypt.

Listening to Brian reminiscing about climbing St. Catherine’s Hill to watch Spitfires on their test flights and going to see a Horsa Glider which had come off its tow-rope on Twyford Down, made me wonder what else an observant school boy might have seen in the skies above Hampshire in 1944.

Three squadrons of 368th Fighter Group USAF arrived at Chilbolton Airfield on March 15th 1944, bringing their mascot, a black and white terrier called Calvados, with them. From then until 6th June, D-Day, they flew two or three missions a day, with Calvados curled up in the cockpit of a P47 Thunderbolt. On a typical mission, 48 fighter bombers would take off in less than seven minutes then fly across Hampshire to the Continent. Their dive-bombing and strafing missions destroyed 27 enemy-run locomotives and three Seine River Bridges.

A young mother who lived in Winton Cottage, Chilbolton said of D-Day: ‘I remember that morning. I was hanging out the nappies and the sky was white with [aircraft]. They were painted with black and white stripes and they just went overhead in endless formation; they just went on and on. So of course, we knew it had begun.’

Chilbolton pilots were the first across The Channel, supporting the landing vessels and ground troops as they reached Normandy, and the first to return. By afternoon, General Quesada had ordered them back to search out and attack enemy artillery firing on Omaha beaches. Next day, the situation was critical and continuous fighter-bomber support was requested on Omaha beachhead. 368th Fighter Group flew 35 squadron strength missions between 4am and midnight. Chilbolton ground crews supported them, armourers loading bombs and mechanics covering the largest bullet holes with fabric, letting the small ones go to a later date. By the following day, the situation on Omaha was materially improved and General Quesada said, ‘History may show that you saved the day.’

Calvados participated in the organised chaos at Chilbolton and became a D-Day casualty – he was run over by a weapons carrier. However, ‘Due to the skill of the Group Surgeon, assisted by the three Squadron Flight Surgeons, he survived. They spent hours putting that mutt back together.’ And when the 368th Fighter Group finally left Chilbolton Airfield on June 19th, to become the first group to be based on the Continent, Calvados went too.

Iris Crowfoot – [email protected]