Exercise Fabius and its legacy in Bracklesham

This article was contributed by William Brooks, general secretary of East Wittering Local History Group

Wednesday, 19th June 2019, 5:27 pm

H-Hour. The dawn was as monochrome as an old family portrait. Chill drizzle and dull grey light had welcomed the dim silhouettes of battleships, cruisers, transports and rocketships as they rode the incoming tide toward the foreshore. The overburdened men began to clamber down the scrambling nets into their pitching assault craft below as a strong westerly whipped the shallows into a frenzy. The periphery of their vision detailed the invasion bay, brilliantly lit by flares and flashes of every hue, and engulfed on the flanks by dense clouds of billowing smoke.

Into the chest-deep waters they plunged, navigating a maze of offshore steel and wood obstacles as they did so. Hot on the heels of their advancing tank platoon, the men of the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment pushed in on their first objective: a local farmhouse. With sudden force the front door to the property swung open to reveal Mr. Ray Balchin, owner of Culimores Farm, to the bewilderment of the invaders. Having watched his beloved hedges get ripped to pieces by the mechanised onslaught, Mr. Balchin decided he could stand by no longer. A torrent of profanity-laden abuse rained down upon the dumbstruck squadron like proverbial machine gun fire. After several seconds of silent astonishment, one infantryman replied “Thank Christ… You’re English!”. These were, in fact, not the beaches of Normandy. This was Bracklesham in West Sussex, May 1944.

This scene belongs to Exercise Fabius, rather than Operation Overlord, which would be launched a mere 33 days later. This final, full-scale dress rehearsal for the Normandy Landings was so extensive in its lead-up that rumours circulated wildly amongst the soldiery the night before that this was to be the real thing and they were bound for the French coast.

The six Fabius exercises conducted in May 1944 constituted the greatest amphibious military operation in history at the time, with ‘Force J’, as it was codenamed, assigned to ‘invade’ Bracklesham during Fabius III. The Force was comprised chiefly of elements from the Canadian 7th and 8th Brigades, along with extensive support from the Royal Navy.

Surviving Naval Orders from the time detail how an armada of 230 landing crafts, and thousands upon thousands of soldiers, descended upon the unsuspecting villages while the Home Guard dutifully patrolled the streets in order to ensure any early-rising locals remained indoors, but naturally, the curfew could not entirely deter prying-eyes.

The account of Shirley Salter recalls the frozen horror etched on her mothers’ face as she witnessed the treasured rhubarb bed get trampled into nothingness by the stampeding infantrymen swarming across their garden. A similarly amusing 1993 interview with Maurice Henly tells of two young Canadian soldiers, earmarked as ‘casualties’, laying haplessly on his front lawn while awaiting an evacuation that never came. They remained there until nightfall.

As the men cascaded from the Bay and into the villages, Winston Churchill observed the awesome spectacle from the Bracklesham Bay Hotel. Unbeknownst to the Prime Minister, a violent undertow at Flotilla 262 had begun a dangerous groundswell that would claim the lives of several men as they were swept under the water.

The whole affair was concluded by teatime. In its wake, a befuddled populace began to emerge from their homes to witness the trail of devastation the Canucks had brought ashore with them. The beach huts at Earnley marshes had proven no match for the fearsome Churchill Flame Tanks. Nor had the unoccupied bungalows on the seafront provided any difficulty at all for the Sherman Crab Tanks to negotiate; they simply went through them. The broken roads were littered with abandoned tanks, lorries and jeeps,

while almost every available lawn had been provided with trenches of varying lengths and depths. Even garden sheds had been captured during the advance. Debris was everywhere.

“There’s a tank at Pooh Corner!” reported one eager schoolboy the next day. “Go on, you’re joking!” came the reply from his sceptical classmate, Laurie Crisp. “Oh no, I’m not. It’s on the beach an’ the Army left it there ‘cos it broke down. My Dad says the engine got flooded with salt water and it’s useless”. That afternoon, when school finished, a lively precession of local youths made a bee-line for the end of Joliffe Road. Sure enough, there stood a Churchill tank on the sand.

Before they could claim their own spoils of war, the turret door opened to reveal a rival group of older boys already staking their claim to the steel behemoth. Not to be denied, a vicious stone throwing match ensued, with those in the turret only able to keep their heads down or surrender. Eventually, they wisely chose the latter option. Thus, for the next few years the abandoned tank became a plaything for the local children – the object of imaginary battles, and sometimes just a place to fish from at high tide. It reads like a scene from a Richmal Crompton short story, but in fact, the Churchill Tank at Pooh Corner was just one of several physical reminders of the ‘friendly invasion’ that stood for years after war’s end.

Today, 75 years later, what remains most of all are the wisps of youthful memory that still surround the event - vivid, fascinating, yet at times tantalisingly elusive. In 2010, the East Wittering Local History Group unveiled a memorial plaque dedicated to the men who took part in Fabius in an attempt to preserve its legacy for future generations. Speaking to the Chichester Observer at the ceremony, Keith Smith said: “Over the years our local area has developed so much. The newcomers are completely unaware of what happened here”.

By sunset on June 6, 1944, a thin line of infantrymen from the Canadian 3rd Division were digging in underneath a chalky mauve sky. They had advanced six miles inland, further than any other Allied Division, and won a precarious toehold into Hitler’s Fortress Europa. The first paragraph in the liberation of Europe had been written that day. But the among its footnotes the trampled rhubarb patches and devastated beach huts of Bracklesham find their place in one of the most significant military victories in history.