The timeline is late May 1944, 75 years ago this month, in the lanes, fields and woods around Christ Church Portsdown and the countryside and rural villages of Southern Hampshire, unbeknown to the local inhabitants, highly secret and classified plans were being activated that were to culminate in the largest and most audacious sea invasion in history, Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe. A massive build up of troops, trucks, jeeps, armoured vehicles and artillery had moved into prearranged harbour areas and camouflaged locations, all destined to land on the Normandy beaches as part of the Second Front in mainland Europe. These troops belonged to 2nd British Army and 1st US Army, both Armies were created in a build up which started in early 1943 to achieve the liberation of occupied Europe by seaborne landings on the beaches of Normandy on D Day 6th June and then in the following months to push the Germans out of France and the Low countries to fulfil the defeat of Nazi Germany. (This was achieved on 8th May 1945 – VE Day.) The formation badge for 2nd Army worn by all its troops, was designated as a White Shield superimposed by a Blue Cross and vertical Gold Sword. The wooded Queens Enclosure near Cowplain was occupied as was Purbrook Heath and surrounding wooded areas. Security was tight and as the invasion date grew closer, roadblocks and check points were set up on roads into the coastal area and movement was restricted. The General Officer Commanding 2nd British Army, chosen by General Montgomery after a successful North African and Italian campaign, was Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey, he was a Monty man, knighted by King George VI in France later that year. Dempsey had his main Headquarters in Fort Southwick, one of the Victorian Forts on Portsdown Hill, the tunnels below the fort contained the invasion communications hub, he also occupied Fort Widley which overlooks Cosham and what was then Alexandra Military Hospital near the main route then into Portsmouth and the hundreds of ships and landing craft building up in the Naval base and the Solent. It is no surprise then that Miles Dempsey, an avowed Christian, chose Christ Church Portsdown in arrangement with the Vicar Richard Gillman to hold a Knights’ Vigil Service with his senior officers and Headquarters Staff, prior to the invasion. The invasion day coded as D Day was planned for Monday 5th June, so the church service was arranged for Sunday 4th June. Due to bad weather in the English Channel D Day was in fact postponed 24 hours until 6th June by General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander for the invasion, based at Southwick House just a few miles north of Portsdown and the church.
Peter Rostron , author of The Life and Times of General Sir Miles Dempsey – Monty’s Army Commander tells us in the Prologue to his book published in 2010:
“On the evening of 4 June 1944, the congregation at Christ Church, Portsdown, was unusually large. Built in 1874 overlooking the English Channel on land donated by the Army , the large, airey church was used by garrisons of the nearby forts to hold their own services and conduct military burials. On this evening there were so many soldiers worshipping that they overflowed into the area outside. The two officiating priests were The Revd RBS Gillman, vicar of Christ Church and the Revd JWJ Steele, Senior Chaplain 2nd Army. As they entered the church the congregation stood, led by the tall imposing figure of their General in the front pew. Lieutenant General Miles Christopher Dempsey had arranged this service for the officers and men of Headquarters Second Army on the eve of the planned date for the largest combined military operation the world has ever seen – D-Day, the invasion of Europe… Now Dempsey, a devout Christian, called on his men, in the service known as “The Knight’s Vigil”, to dedicate to Almighty God the task which lay before them. Accompanied by his Chief of Staff and his Deputy, he led them in that evocative prayer which he had known thirty years before at Shrewsbury College : “Teach us good Lord to serve Thee, as Thou deservest; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to ask for rest; to labour and not ask for any reward save that of knowing that we do Thy will”. With characteristic modesty, Dempsey asked that someone other than himself should read the lesson. His example during this voluntary act of dedication, before the great armada set off expressed many of the fundamentals of his personality: strong religious belief, selfless integrity, professional dedication and extraordinary humility”.
We at Christ Church 75 years on from that significant and historical event still remember Miles Dempsey and his soldiers of 2nd Army along with Naval and Air Force elements that were in a supporting role. Plans are in hand to build The Normandy Memorial above Gold Beach in Normandy, one of the three beaches assigned to 2nd Army, inauguration of the Memorial by the British Prime Minister and French President is planned for early June when many events will also be taking place in Portsmouth.
A Parade Service takes place at Christ Church Portsdown each year on the Sunday nearest to 6th June attended by uniformed Groups, Service personnel and Veterans, under the two magnificent D Day, 2nd Army windows unveiled by General Dempsey on 6th June 1948, our permanent legacy at Christ Church of which we are justly proud. The windows depict the two warrior saints St George carrying the Shield of 2nd Army and St Michael defeating evil, both figures surrounded by the formation symbols and flashes of the 2nd Army Divisions and Brigades involved and combined operations units. This year the D Day Parade Service will take place at 10.30am Sunday 9th June. Additionally we are also going one step further, on Tuesday 4th June 2019 at 7.00pm in the evening on the 75th Anniversary of that wartime Knights’ Vigil service we are going to repeat the event in tribute and remembrance of General Sir Miles Dempsey and his British, Commonwealth and Free French soldiers of 2nd Army.
Keith Fisher (with acknowledgements to Peter Rostron)