England’s 'biggest little port in the world,' then and now

England’s 'biggest little port in the world,' then and now

Before and after of D-Day landing spot.
Modern-day photo of a D-Day embarkation point at the Portland harbor in Dorset, England on May 12, 2019, blended with an image of jeeps being driven into the open doors of a tank landing craft at the same location in preparation for D-Day in June 1944. Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division, known as The Big Red One, dubbed Portland the biggest little port in the world.

By William Howard

Stars and Stripes

WEYMOUTH, England — Soft sandy beaches, fish-and-chips shops and tourist boat tours now occupy the Dorset seaside that played a key role in moving almost half a million Allied troops to France 75 years ago on D-Day.

American troops arrived in Dorset in the summer of 1943 from Africa and Sicily and basically took over the county. They spent almost a year training for the Allied invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II.

“The local community had sort of been starving and putting up with rationing for years and years and then there’s all these Americans with their K-rations and all this wealth,” said Steve George, co-founder and curator of the Castletown D-Day Centre. “We’ve interviewed lots of people and what they all say is how generous the Americans were when they were here.”

Huge camps were created overnight, roads were paved and straightened, embarkation docks were built all over the harbor and parking lots went up along the roads. Some of that infrastructure is still used today.

On April 18, 1944, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, King George VI and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower met at Fort Henry, an observation bunker in Dorset overlooking Studland Bay, to watch the combined power of the Allied Forces preparing for D-Day. The concrete bunker had 90-foot-long walls and a 3-foot-thick ceiling and remains intact to this day as part of Studland Beach Second World War walk.

Operation Overlord then saw 144,093 vehicles and 415,585 troops embark from harbors in Dorset to beaches in Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division, known as The Big Red One, went to Omaha Beach as one of the first assault groups to leave from Weymouth and Portland. They called Portland “the biggest little port in the world.”

British and American troops, personnel from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Poland all took part in the Normandy landings.

The American Stone of Remembrance was unveiled in Dorset in August 1945, overlooking the Portland harbor from a nearby hillside and marking the route troops used to their points of embarkation.

“It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, flowers appear on the American Stone just because of the impact the Americans had during the war,” George said. “The bonds that were made, friendships were forged which are still never forgotten to this day.”