Monday, 20 August 2012

Hayling Island, D-Day and the COPP by Miriam Halahmy

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.


Louis Berk said...

Also worth remembering that the island contains one of the few remaining WWII heavy anti-aircraft sites at Sinah Warren which are in a condition to actually show their use.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Quite right Louis - in fact this blogpost could have been twice as long but I was rather keen to say something about the COPP as it is so little know about.

Sue Purkiss said...

Have never been to Hayling, but it does sound lovely - and very interesting, too.

Vanessa Harbour said...

This was fascinating to read. My mum was a WRN at Lee on Solent and she was there the night before the D Day Landings. She said she walked along the beaches/grass and said you couldn't see them for men. She was handing out sweets and cigarettes to the men. She said she always felt guilty because she had a wonderful time whilst serving at Lee.

Miriam Halahmy said...

That's very interesting Vanessa. Its only in the past couple of years I've realised how important little Hayling was over D-Day. My Mum nursed in the Navy during the war and did her training at Haslar Hospital in Portsmouth.

Anonymous said...

I was born at The Hut,Elm Grove,Hayling Island in 1928 & I have just come across an item in a book I am reading which says that Hayling Island was deliberatly lit up during the war as a decoy to lure the Luftwaffe plans away from Portsmouth. I was living in Portsmouth during the blitz until April 1941 when our family were bombed out & I don't recall anything like this being talked about.Does anyone have any more info about it please ?
Thanks for any info.
Alan Tindal.

Andrew Griffin said...

You can learn more about the missions undertaken by COPP - they started in the Mediterranean as far back as the spring of 1943 and ended in the Far East helping fight the Japanese right up until VJ Day - at there is also a Facebook page.
The memorial area has been improved two years on with a seating area and some cosmetic work to minimise the intrusion of the council's cycle path's into the site. And yes the decoys were on the island's western shoreline - some work has been done by the National Monuments office to locate the sites. Hayling was hit several times including the Sinah gun site (the building next to the golf club lake has been saved from collapsing but is not open to visitors). There was also a direct hit on houses in the Mengham area in April 1941 which killed a number of civilians. I think a lot of the German bombs probably fell in the sea as a result of the decoys but whether the Islanders knew of their role in protecting Pompey at the time is a good point. They had to be lit manually so someone knew.
PS Haslar Hospital is in Gosport and overlooks the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour… about to be redeveloped.