Dan Snow on a Forest at war - New Forest National Park Authority (2024)

Dan Snow on a Forest at war


Dan Snow is a much-loved historian and television presenter and has lived with his family in the New Forest since 2009. Read below an interview with him by Jacqui Ibbotson and Debbie Aslin of Culture in Common. You can find out more about the New Forest’s role in D-Day and events marking its 80th anniversary here.

Q: As a military historian, what do you think marks out the New Forest in relation to the rest of the country in the lead up to D-Day?

What strikes me as so amazing is that the New Forest has got a wonderful history and reputation, right from the Norman hunting grounds, as this great wilderness.

But then briefly in 1944, this wilderness becomes an extraordinary centre of military activity. It becomes this industrialised landscape you still see the impact of today; the road widening, the classic remains and bits of concrete that we still see around the place and then the airfields. Those airfields in June 1944 were some of the busiest airfields in the world. We suddenly saw massive troop concentrations, tanks parked in the undergrowth, massive equipment stores and thousands of ships.

It was indeed the biggest number of ships and boats that’s ever been put to sea – 7,000 floating craft in all. I’m reminded of a story from a local man about looking out on the boats: he said you could walk from Lepe to the Isle of Wight just on vessels parked there for D-Day. It would have been this incredible scene, even miraculous to our gaze today.

Q. I understand that many of the troops in the first wave were inexperienced. Do you have any comments about how the invasion was managed and those plans and decisions that were made?

It was sadly inevitable that many of those troops were going be inexperienced given the nature of war to that point and given the nature of British and American and Canadian military expansion and how rapid it was.

I’m always struck that no stone was left unturned. Every single little aspect of those landings had been thought through from new weapon systems to the training that they received, to the airborne landings, to the disinformation campaign. It’s bizarre, in fact, that they hadn’t given this much thought to what happened next, and I think arguably, some of the problems they had in Normandy after the landings were because they thought more about the landings, than they thought about fighting the Germans once they had arrived in France. The main thing to get right was the landings. There’d be no second chance.

‘In that one day he probably saw more of life than I’ve ever seen in my whole life.’

Q. You have met a lot of D-Day veterans through your work. Are there any particular stories you can recall that made a particular impression on you?

I’ve been fortunate to meet many D-Day veterans. I met a man from Portsmouth and he said that the hardest thing was taking a fresh load of troops from the troop ship onto the beach, knowing what was waiting for the men.

It’s one thing being unloaded on a beach, having to fight for your life and get up the beach and survive and it’s something else, driving into that beach, risking everything, having a breather, turning around again and going back into it. The rhythm to that was very, very difficult, he said. To cope with and get your head around seeing another fresh load of young men going into battle was very traumatic for him. That was a real memory.

One Australian I met flew his Spitfire from the New Forest, and he flew once at dawn and once at dusk, he didn’t see any [enemy] aircraft at all. He flew across the channel up and down the beach and flew back. Then he flew across, travelled up and down the beach, flew back and that was his June 6th, 1944.

So, he flew the entire length of D-Day beaches twice on D-Day at fairly low level just looking at everything. I thought in that one day he probably saw more of life than I’ve ever seen in my whole life. I think what an extraordinary thing. They were just very remarkable men.

Q. When you visit the D-Day beaches in Normandy, does it put a different perspective on the invasion when you’re there and actually seeing the landscape?

I’ve been so fortunate in my career to get to go to historic places that you read about. And it has a very powerful effect.

Even in our era of clever online tools and satellite imagery and maps and video, there is such a powerful effect of going somewhere and walking the landscape and feeling it and that feeling of the sand under your toes, as it were.

When you go to Omaha, you instantly realise how terrifying a problem it must have been with those high bluffs overlooking the beach. Of course, beyond other beaches you get the low-lying meadows which would have been flooded by the Germans. You get the bocages with the tight hedges and narrow little lanes and very stoutly built Norman farmhouses are all built like fortresses. So going to those places is just so revealing.

In the lead up to D-Day, how long were Allied troops here for and did the locals all know what was going on? Did they know what was happening and what all of these events were going to be leading up to?

I think about the number of American and Canadian troops stationed on the New Forest and the way they interacted with local people was so fascinating. I am reminded that Barack Obama’s grandfather was one of those Americans that was in the Forest for that brief amount of time. Not his Kenyan grandfather, but his mother’s father. But yes, he was stationed in the New Forest. There were people from all over the world gathering here.

In my experience talking to locals and reading the accounts, people were very respectful of the need for privacy and so they just accepted the comings and goings at night and the noise of lorries and, of course, the roaring of aircraft.

And we shouldn’t forget how many aircraft crashes there were. For example, at a couple of sites, you can still smell the aviation fuel in the ground. The Allies tried to pretend that there was a plan to invade from Kent and they built lots of fake landing craft and tanks. There was a deliberate attempt to make the population feel like there were more troops based there than there were.

As a local resident, are there any D-Day sites in the New Forest you would urge people to visit and see for themselves?

In the New Forest, I love the Beaulieu airfield. That’s very special, where you can still see some outbuildings in the airfield, and some of the Second World War campsites around it, with some stone-built structures around. Like many people, I taught, my kids how to ride a bicycle on that airfield. Obviously, I love going to Lepe beach.

Or there are still reminders on the Beaulieu River itself. There’s an old wooden landing craft beached on the mud flats and gates of steel and concrete curve which are slowly being eroded.

And so, there’s the idea that this place that we’ve always thought of as this natural, bucolic but unspoilt setting was in fact this centre of a modern industrial war. And then how that shadow moved on, how suddenly the New Forest had returned to its former self and how transitory it all was.

Dan Snow on a Forest at war - New Forest National Park Authority (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Laurine Ryan

Last Updated:

Views: 5729

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (57 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Laurine Ryan

Birthday: 1994-12-23

Address: Suite 751 871 Lissette Throughway, West Kittie, NH 41603

Phone: +2366831109631

Job: Sales Producer

Hobby: Creative writing, Motor sports, Do it yourself, Skateboarding, Coffee roasting, Calligraphy, Stand-up comedy

Introduction: My name is Laurine Ryan, I am a adorable, fair, graceful, spotless, gorgeous, homely, cooperative person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.