The American 1st Infantry Division (Articles)
The American 1st Infantry Division were based in Swanage and many of the surrounding areas – including Canford Heath and Weymouth. After having arrived from prolonged tough fighting in Italy. Their destination was kept a secret – even from the troops – until the very last moments. The relationship between the people of Swanage (which is the most beautiful idyllic coastal town that you could find anywhere – with tall rolling hills – high chalk cliffs – very rugged coastline to the West of the town – and idyllic calm crystal clear waters in the bay of Swanage itself) – was a good and very memorable one. This bay – was to be used for the rehearsals by the UK forces in preparation for D-Day. Far back inland– are the old ruins of Corfe Castle – itself the scene of great battles – going back nearly a 1000 years. But far later – at Studland – just on the clifftop in an area of the bay that sweeps past Swanage – Canadian engineers built Fort Henry – in concrete and reinforced steel. It was from here – Eisenhower, Churchill, Montgomery and King George VI viewed the rehearsals for D-Day. This rehearsal itself had its own casualties. Live ammunition and bombs were also used for the rehearsal.
Nevertheless – Swanage, Canford Heath and Weymouth were the main places of residence for the American 1st Infantry Division – from November 1943 – where they were continuing with yet further training in South Dorset for the specific purpose – of preparing for the greatest invasion in the history of the world – that was to be the beginning of what was called ‘ The Second Front ‘ – which – if the invasion was successful – was expected to bring about end of World War II in Europe.
On that day – the first day of the invasion – D-Day – Tuesday, June 6, 1944 – over 156,000 troops – mainly comprised of US, UK and Canadian troops – successfully landed along a very wide area of the beaches of Normandy – Northern France. They were accompanied as it were – by approximately 7000 ships of all types – and proceeded by 14,000 aircraft flights (those numbers arrived at from some aircraft making two runs at the Normandy coast). Some of these figures are debated but these figures are arrived at by some historians – and generally within relatively similar parameters agreed by all.
Huge numbers of troops in various assault and assorted landing craft and other ships left from Poole Harbour (reportedly watched with very great shocked surprise – at this sudden and unexpected vast and continuous movement of craft) – by the very early morning farmers working the fields in the Purbeck Hills nearby (5/600 feet hills overlooking Poole Harbour), and by other early risers about their business.
Weymouth, further West on the South Coast of Dorset also featured prominently in the participation of D-Day landings in Normandy with many British and American soldiers having left the shores of England from from here and the adjacent port at Portland. A memorial was erected on the esplanade, opposite the Royal Hotel, recording that 517,816 troops and 144,093 vehicles embarked at Weymouth between June 6, 1944 and May 7, 1945. (Reference: www.roll-of-honour.com/Dorset/WeymouthCitizensMemorial.html).
The details – are too many and complex to be explained in this introduction.
*In terms of its objectives – D-Day proved to be a success, but not without very great loss*
They had broken through – ‘ The Atlantic Wall ‘ – which was believed to be impenetrable – until this day.
This then opened the door – to considerably more than 2 million troops – who came from the UK, the US and Canada and a number of other nations – the nations of which will be detailed elsewhere. Nearly all of these troops were first registered in Bournemouth, in Dorset – from there many were then based in Dorset – and the rest were spread out over much of the South of England (although in some other parts of the UK as well) – with many of these troops leaving on D-Day from such large ports as Southampton and Portsmouth, further East along the South Coast. As they went across The English Channel – they would be taking with them – an absolutely vast arsenal of military equipment – that had been assiduously built up for years – all over the hills of Dorset and other South Coast counties – hidden under camouflage all along the South Coast of England.
So getting back to the American 1st Infantry Division – not only did they not know the day that they were to embark across the English Channel before dawn – they did not know the destination either.
Their destination – was none other than Omaha Beach.
Contrary to some people’s opinions – the stories that I have read – and listened to and discussed first hand in-depth with the people concerned – from young and old – very many stories in all different circumstances – was that the American 1st Infantry Division – were well liked – and some who have chronicled these times described it as ‘A love affair between the people of Swanage and the American 1st Infantry Division’.
Some of them – returned many years later – or wrote long letters according to their situation – to thank the people of Swanage for their hospitality – and for them to be thanked in return – for the incredible contribution that they made to The Freedom of Europe.
Needless to say – when I say some of them returned– that is those from the ones that survived.