Atypical view from a footbridge over the M3 during the Friday rush hour: the southbound traffic is crawling and the tired commuters and lorry drivers heading for the docks must be longing to reach the coast.
The scene can’t have been so very different in 1944, when the Winchester bypass was ‘repurposed’ as a tank park. One of the first dual carriageways in the country, it was perfect for the job: the US Army lined up the tanks on one carriageway and camped on the other. GIs off-loaded the tanks at Alresford Railway Station then parked them between the trees which still line The Avenue, as a staging post to the bypass. I doubt the tank drivers were as eager to push onwards as a motorist in a modern traffic jam, but as tension built up to D-Day, they must have been keen to get moving again.
The construction project for D-Day included many other Hampshire roads leading up to the embarkation points. In December 1943, the County Surveyor, Brigadier “Archie” Hughes, received instructions to widen the A32 to Droxford, the A272 to Winchester and a huge amount of road improvements in the New Forest and Hambledon area – all to be finished by 1st May 1944. What would a modern project manager do? Say it couldn’t possibly be done and negotiate an extension, of course. Brigadier Hughes must have objected, for the deadline was moved out – a meagre fortnight to 15th May.
Considerable areas of land had to be acquired very quickly and it is the land beside the A272 that interests me. The gardens of six cottages at Cheriton were ‘gifted’ to the project and two more at Bramdean, garage frontage at West Meon, arable land, pasture and copses were compulsorily purchased. Front gardens, farm hedges and fields were cut back and re-fenced and mature trees were sadly felled to allow the military convoys through without obstruction. The council widened the road to 22 feet (to allow for two-way traffic), improved junctions and built refuges for broken-down vehicles. In some places the road had to be reinforced to take the weight of the tanks (a Sherman weighs over 31 tons).
Who was doing all this hard labour? Most of the young, able-bodied men were serving in the forces, after all. Women joined the road crews, as well as older labourers whose work was now considered to be of national importance. As D-Day approached, convoys from the training camps converged towards the Marshalling Areas, their tracked vehicles scouring the road surfaces as they changed direction, and gangs of road workers were on hand to shovel material back into the holes. After D-Day, security restrictions were relaxed, and Italian prisoners of war joined the teams repairing our roads. And as we know, there were no major delays in getting the vehicles, soldiers and materiel to the embarkation points, either on D-Day or in the months which followed – all credit to Brigadier Hughes and the men and women who worked for him.
By February 1945, Brigadier Hughes was objecting again – the Winchester bypass was still blocked by tanks and workshops had been constructed beside, and in some cases over, the road surface. Summoned to a meeting at the War Office, he was informed that £30 000 had been spent on the workshops, hutments and camp equipment and that the senior officers who had been party to the agreement were serving in France and therefore unavailable for questioning. ‘Quit moaning,’ in other words. This story makes the M3 smart motorway roadworks seem tame in comparison, doesn’t it?