I stood staring at one of the largest and most compelling maps I’d ever seen, from floor to ceiling it covered an entire wall. I love maps and I could have stared at this plywood map for an hour. Its maker was not a standard mapmaker. A Midlands toy company had created the map and the men who installed the final section were sequestered to prevent them from revealing the map’s secret, one of the biggest secrets of the 20th century.
My location: Southwick House on the south coast of England. This large white country mansion about six miles north of Portsmouth was appropriated for the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, the place where the main allied commanders during World War II made final decisions for D-Day. The map showed the entire south coast of England and the north coast of France, filled with lines and boats and pieces telling the story of what has been called the greatest armada in history, nearly 7000 vessels. The red lines indicated the swept channels, the red circle, the assembly area south of the Isle of Wight. And most poignant, the large black sign saying “6th June 1944 – Set For D-Day H hour.”
Today the house is the main residence for commissioned officers serving at the Defence College of Policing and Guarding for the Royal Navy, Royal Military, and RAF Police and the Military Provost Guard Service. The building was refurbished in 2001 but the historic map was kept in its place. While the room’s furniture does not reflect the set-up of 1944, the three adjoining rooms, including the officers’ mess, offer a glimpse into the setting of those anxious days when dire decisions were made that would impact world history. The plaque on the wall in the officers mess reads: In this room at 4.15 on the fifth day of June 1944 General Dwight D. Eisenhower the Supreme Allied Commander made the historic decision to launch the assault against the continent of Europe on the sixth day of June despite the uncertain weather conditions…”
Since the building sits on a current military base, visitors must schedule an appointment, check in at the main gate, and receive an escort to the building. I visited the house on a beautiful sunny day and tried to imagine the lashing wind and rain that pummeled the house as the commanders were trying to decide whether to give the go ahead. The house’s bucolic setting in the quiet countryside belies what must have been a clattering, busy scene in the hours leading up to D-Day.
The main gate of the base sits just outside Southwick village, a quintessentially quaint thatched-roof English village with a historic church, St. James without the Priory Gate, at its center. And, a sign on the wall of the village pub, the Golden Lion, proudly proclaims the pub’s association with history. It reads that the barmaid who served the place in 1944 confirmed that General Eisenhower drank half pints of bitter there and that General Sir Bernard Montgomery, commander of all Allied ground forces during the invasion, drank grapefruit juice.