Second World War

D-Day Anniversary – Portsmouth

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Last year I shared some of my experiences exploring Omaha Beach, to mark the anniversary this year I thought I’d share some of my photos from a D-Day commemoration I attended in Portsmouth five years ago.

I was actually in Portsmouth on another historical pilgrimage of sorts; one involving a rather famous ship that once sailed into a rather famous battle with a rather famous naval commander on her quarterdeck. Portsmouth has undeniably strong connections to the history of the British navy going back centuries, but it also played a critical role in the D-Day invasion. It was here that British forces assembled before departing for Sword Beach in Normandy. There is a museum in Portsmouth dedicated to the D-Day landings and it is a central point for British commemorations of the invasion. As luck would have it I was there for the 65th anniversary.

There was a strong turn out of Second World War military vehicles. My favourite display was this mobile canteen.

Vintage WW2 Mobile Canteen on display © Lemuel Lyes 2009

Vintage WW2 Mobile Canteen on display
© Lemuel Lyes 2009

I had met a couple of off duty policemen on the train down from London who were on their way over to the commemorations in Normandy, where they were joining friends who owned a vintage military vehicle. They were friendly chaps who shared a couple of beers they had brought with them and chatted about their upcoming trip. The D-Day anniversary is a big day in the calendar of military vehicle enthusiasts, many of whom also dress up in historical uniforms and fall in alongside other reenactors. The historical re-enacting community attracts people for all sorts of reasons, I had dabbled in it myself when I was a teenager and some of the most dedicated reenactors that I met were those who had spent small fortunes making sure that their vintage jeep had all the historically correct accessories – to the point where it was inappropriate to not dress the part to complete the display.

Jeep on display at Portsmouth © Lemuel Lyes

Jeep on display at Portsmouth
© Lemuel Lyes 2009

Spitfire on display at Portsmouth © Lemuel Lyes

Spitfire on display at Portsmouth
© Lemuel Lyes 2009

British Army personnel and vehicles © Lemuel Lyes 2009

British Army personnel and vehicles
© Lemuel Lyes 2009

There were modern military vehicles next to those of yesteryear – many serving members of the British military were in attendance. One of the highlights of the programme was a demonstration by the infamous Red Devils, the daring display team of the Parachute Regiment. They were particularly daring on this occasion as strong winds threatened to disrupt their acrobatic display.

Red Devils display over Portsmouth 2009 © Lemuel Lyes

Red Devils display over Portsmouth 2009
© Lemuel Lyes

Red Devils paratrooper © Lemuel Lyes

Red Devils paratrooper
© Lemuel Lyes

Red Devils paratrooper with Union Jack © Lemuel Lyes

Red Devils paratrooper with Union Jack
© Lemuel Lyes

Red Devils landing at Portsmouth 2009 © Lemuel Lyes

Red Devils landing at Portsmouth 2009
© Lemuel Lyes

Incredibly most of the paratroopers, all of whom were combat veterans, managed to land in the designated field, which was surrounded by a large crowd of onlookers; however one unfortunate member of the display team was caught in a gust of wind and flew overhead, managing to avoid the mass of spectators and instead found a cactus hedge to cushion his fall.

Paratrooper "misses the drop zone" © Lemuel Lyes

Paratrooper “misses the drop zone”
© Lemuel Lyes

It was remarkable really, to have the quick thinking to make the right decision in an unfortunate situation and thus avoid putting others in danger even if it meant an undignified landing. If it was me then lets be honest – I wouldn’t have been jumping out of a plane in the first place – but if I had jumped out of the plane then by the time I realised the landing was screwed up I would have careered straight into the crowd, critically injured half a dozen people and taken out an ice-cream truck. Needless to say, the quick thinking Para wasn’t mocked but instead applauded – and held his head high.

Red Devil paratrooper after crash landing © Lemuel Lyes

Red Devil paratrooper after crash landing
© Lemuel Lyes

There were two particularly moving aspects of the commemorations for me. One was the attendance of so many D-Day veterans. It was a privilege to share the occasion with them. The other standout moment for me was a fly past by an RAF Hercules, which dropped one million poppies as a tribute. For a moment it looked like it had released them too early but they had calculated the wind strength and direction perfectly and for a moment everyone was quiet and the sky was crimson.

Poppies dropped from RAF Hercules over Portsmouth during 65th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings © Lemuel Lyes

Poppies dropped from RAF Hercules over Portsmouth during 65th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings
© Lemuel Lyes

Souvineer poppy from 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings Lemuel Lyes Collection

Souvineer poppy from 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings
Lemuel Lyes Collection

As I’m a collector by nature I couldn’t help but retrieve a couple of the poppies as mementos.  There were plenty to go around, they were scattered all over the place.  I’m sure that some of them even landed in the cactus hedge.

© Lemuel Lyes

16 replies »

  1. I was just thinking of you yesterday (This is spooky) and had it on my list to come see if you were alright. Looks like you were just busy! This is fantastic! I don’t think our area has ever had anything to even compete with this display! I love reenacting, I believe it’s the best way to teach history!

    • I was very fortunate to be in Portsmouth to see the commemorations back then – it isn’t something I’d normally get to experience either! I agree, reenacting can be a great way to learn about history. The biggest event in my part of the world is an airshow at Wanaka which is held every other year. I’m not involved in the reenacting community myself these days but really enjoy seeing the old vehicles.

  2. I enjoyed the news clip this week of the tandem jump by a Red Devil and D-Day veteran. Fantastic that you were present for some of the commemorations five years ago, especially if by chance! I visited Portsmouth with my parents in 2012 on the trail of family history – my great grandfather served for a time on the Victory – and was fascinated by the various landmarks and museums right along the waterfront.

    • Oh wow, how incredible to have such a strong family connection to the Victory! She was the key reason I visited Portsmouth, ever since I was a child I wanted to stand on those decks.

      I agree – there were some other fascinating spots along that waterfront. The historic dockyards were great but then there was also the forts and a historic church that lost its roof during the Blitz. I had never given much thought to Portsmouth’s role in WW2 until I visited in person. Would love to go back one day!

      • It must have been surreal for you to finally visit Victory. Such a beautiful ship and icon of another time; they do a fantastic job maintaining her. My g-g-father was based at Eastney Barracks where the Royal Marines Museum is and is buried in a cemetery not far from there. It was fantastic being able to visit this very prominent city in my family history. Shame it’s all so damn far away eh?

      • It sure is a shame! I’d love to be able to pop away for a weekend trip to places like Portsmouth.

        The Victory is such a treasure, it seems so remarkable it has survived all these years, and you are right, they really do an incredible job maintaining her.

  3. An excellent and very cool military display – looks like it was a fantastic experience. As, indeed, would be visiting HMS Victory. I’ve never been on board her. An awesome ship to visit! Portsmouth has so much history on so many levels.

    • The Victory was right at the top of my must see list – and I’m very glad I managed to make it happen.

      Previous to visiting Portsmouth I had only really read about its Napoleonic era history, and hadn’t realised just how bad the bombing was during the Second World War. The Royal Garrison Church was the most striking example – it lost most of its roof during one of the raids and has been kept ‘as is’, surviving as a reminder of what the city endured.

  4. I am a history geek, also a Uk Portsmouth-born “chap” now living in California, and know all about the places you are talking about. Just last week me and my American wife had a “little” problem with some modern “enemies” in San Bernardino where I happen to reside! Wonder what the folks of years gone by would have done about these people?

    • Growing up in Portsmouth you would’ve been exposed to a lot of fascinating history! Yes, that problem seems to be a pervasive one through military reenactment groups. It’s a shame as there is a lot of merit in what some of them do, and that is so often ruined by others who always want to be the ‘baddies’, and frequently for the wrong reasons.

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