Emsworth and Westbourne honour D-Day

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Five-page special in the Observer on Thursday, May 22

D-Day was the vital turning point of the 20th Century. It is crucial that we remember it – the guiding principle behind an impressive range of events put together by Wemsfest to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the start of the Normandy landings.

D-Day commemoration

D-Day commemoration

Julian Sluggett, Wemsfest’s creative director, is delighted to be masterminding a wide-ranging programme to mark a momentous moment in history, thanks to a generous grant of just under £100,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with support also from Hampshire County Council.

The scale of D-Day was breath-taking, as Julian says. Around 10,000 Canadian troops camped in woods just north of Westbourne as they anxiously waited for the off. Nearby were US troops. There were also Free French in the area.

“I get the feeling that just in our neck of the woods there must have been something like 50,000 troops – a huge number of soldiers being kept away from Portsmouth because of all the serious bombing that was going on there.

“I am sure the public knew that there was something very big going on. In Emsworth itself, it was very difficult to cross the road because of all the lorries going past, carrying gravel to Hayling Island where they were building one of the Mulberry (mobile) Harbours (which were taken across the Channel as a crucial part of the post-landing plans).

“People must have generally accepted that there was going to be a second front. The Russians were saying ‘Let’s get on with it!’”

And there was real sense of urgency, something Julian has tried to capture in his play Tomorrow Will Be Too Late, an evocative tale of the build-up to D-Day and its particular impact on the local areas.

Drawing on real-life accounts, Julian has created three fictional families – one working class, one middle class and one upper class – as a way of showing how preparations for the Normandy invasion changed the lives of people in both West Sussex and Hampshire.

“It really was a vital turning point in the history of contemporary Europe. World War One left us with huge casualty lists and left Europe in a mess. The way that the Germans were treated led towards the development of the opportunities for Adolf Hitler to start to spread his poison.

“D-Day was the biggest invasion force ever assembled in the history of the world, and it is important that young people recognise the importance of this extraordinary event towards the creation of a peaceful post-war Europe. D-Day was an event that was just massive in terms of changing history, and so much of it was prepared around this area.”