|Oyster beds now bird reserves on Hayling|
History is one of my passions and setting three novels on Hayling Island, opposite the Isle of Wight, gave me chance to explore the Island’s history which goes right back to prehistoric times. Hayling has been famous for its salt beds – they think that’s why the Romans came – and its oyster beds, now transformed into amazing bird reserves.
But Hayling also has a very proud history during WWII. Five little ships left Hayling in May 1940 to rescue the army stranded in Dunkirk and I tell part of that story in my first Hayling novel, Hidden. I had the opportunity to go onto one of these little ships, the Count Dracula, which was an amazing experience.
The Island had a long line of defensive pill boxes, some of which are still standing today.
Part of the Mulberry Harbour was built in the waters around Hayling. This was the artificial harbour which was towed over the Channel after D-Day in 1944 and put together off the coast of Normandy like a huge jigsaw puzzle. It was capable of moving 7000 tons of vehicles and goods a day. There are still a couple of bits offshore in the sea near the ferry end of the Island.
But perhaps the biggest role that Hayling Island played in WWII was the setting up of the COPP : Combined Operations Pilotage Parties. Their job was to cross secretly to Normandy and survey the beaches under the noses of the enemy in the months before D-Day. I was very pleased to find out that the COPP was set up at the Hayling Island Sailing Club at Sandy Point, two minutes from where my family lived for 25 years.
The story of the COPP has been told in the ‘Discover Hayling’s Heroes’ booklet.
This was a group of less than 200 men who would be responsible ultimately for saving the lives of thousands of servicemen through their extraordinary bravery. Their job was to reconnoitre the Normandy beaches prior to D-Day to ensure the success of the landings. Little is know about the work of these men and their role in helping to end the war.
Setting off from the Hayling beach one moonless night, December 31st, because as Churchill rightly pointed out, the Germans would be too busy celebrating New Year to notice anyone on the beaches, the men had to change into huge rubber suits, weighed down with equipment, go ashore, take samples and measurements and get away without being spotted. This was only one of countless nerve wracking expeditions carried out by COPP. But as one man, Jim Booth, said, “When you’re a young man and part of a good team of like-minded extroverts, you just think it’s all an exciting adventure, and you never imagine you might not survive.”
A memorial to the COPP is currently under construction on Hayling beach, on the south coast facing France.
Wherever you walk on Hayling there are reminders of the role this little Island played in WWII, with abandoned supply stores, anti-tank barriers and memorial plaques to those who lived and died here.
My Hayling cycle is complete. The third novel, Stuffed, comes out next March. But although I am halfway through a completely new novel, not set on the Island, I still love coming down here to write and walk on the beaches and refresh my London lungs. If you haven’t been yet – do give it a try one day.