From Suffolk to Normandy: East Anglia’s role in D-Day preparations

Less than a mile inland from the sea, on the east coast of Suffolk, just to the north of the Sizewell B power station and lying beneath a 1950s pine plantation, a hidden chapter of Suffolk’s WWII history is beginning to come to light. In the Goose Hill woods, archaeological excavations carried out by Oxford Cotswold Archaeology, as part of the Sizewell C development, have uncovered evidence that highlights the significance of this small section of coastline throughout the years of the war, from early concerns about imminent German invasion, to vital preparations for the Normandy landings in 1944.

To mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day, we’re looking a little more closely at what this small section of the Suffolk coast reveals about the role East Anglia played in WWII.

hisotoric photograph of boats and blimbs in the channel, taken from the French coast
British forces during the invasion of Normandy 6th June 1944. Copyright: © IWM

Despite being many miles away from Normandy, the stretch of England’s coastline around Sizewell and the Goose Hill woods played a vital strategic role both in the run-up to Operation Overlord in 1944, and as an important part of Britain’s coastal defences throughout the war. During the early years of the war, the East Anglian coast was heavily fortified as it was feared that the region’s flat beaches would be vulnerable to invasion from German forces occupying ports in Belgium and the Netherlands. Barbed wire, mines, anti-tank blocks and ‘dragon’s teeth’ girders were laid along Suffolk’s beaches, larger anti-tank ditches criss-crossed strategic points further inland, and a series of pillboxes and gun platforms were constructed at key locations across the landscape.

Anti-tank blocks on the Suffolk shoreline

D-Day refers to the largest airborne assault and amphibious invasion in history, when the Allied forces invaded the beaches of Normandy on 6th June 1944 as part of Operation Overlord – the battle for the liberation of France and mainland Europe from Nazi Germany during WWII. It involved the combined efforts of the armies, navies, and air forces of 12 nations, with over 150,000 troops landing on five beaches on 6th June, and many thousands more arriving in support in the days and weeks that followed. If the operation had failed, the consequences would have been catastrophic for the Allied Forces’ war effort. Ultimately it proved to be a turning point in the fight against Germany, allowing the Allies to gain a foothold in Europe that eventually led to victory in 1945.

In the Goose Hill woods, our excavations have revealed the remains of four ‘Suffolk square’ pillboxes that were probably built during this period. Two were well-preserved with only partially collapsed roofs, but the others showed clear signs of having been used for later target practice (see photo). A network of large anti-tank ditches zigzagging along the coastline is also still visible in the woods today, and our investigations have identified the location of several small corrugated-tin-lined dug-outs that were probably used as mortar firing positions. These features demonstrate the substantial modifications made to the coastline during the initial phases of the war, when fear of invasion was at its highest.

record photo fo Suffolk Square pill box as part of Sizewell C mitigation works
Suffolk square pill box

However, most of the archaeological evidence found at Goose Hill relates to later in the war, once the threat of imminent invasion had receded. During 1943-44 the area between Sizewell and Dunwich instead became an important training ground for British troops, particularly in the months before the Normandy landings in 1944. We know that several key training exercises were carried out in the region to prepare troops for Operation Overlord.

One such exercise, known as “Exercise Bump”, is recorded as taking place in April 1944 in the area surrounding the Goose Hill woods. This was a ‘live fire’ exercise, where live ammunition was used to mimic real combat conditions as closely as possible for the soldiers who would soon be sent to the front line in Europe. We know from a number of battalion war diaries that Goose Hill was at the centre of the action during Exercise Bump, but it was exciting to find possible evidence of this action during excavation of the remains an earlier building known as the Summer House that once sat on a slight rise in the landscape. Numerous bullet casings clustered around the doorway to the building, and the structure itself showed signs of possible blast damage, suggesting that it might have been used as a strategic position by the troops involved in the exercise.

duck board in archaeological trench
Duckboard

Beyond the remnants of this particular exercise, there’s certainly wider evidence for the presence of WWII military encampments lurking beneath the woods at Goose Hill – we’ve recorded the remains of several WWII Nissen huts (prefab concrete block and corrugated tin buildings that could be built very rapidly), and have exposed stretches of defensive trench systems dug for military exercises, with one containing an almost perfectly preserved section of wooden duckboard. Alongside this structural evidence we’ve recovered many smaller items of military equipment such as ammunition boxes and clips, war department issue batteries and signage, sandbags, radio communication cables, bayonet ends, and two metal ‘Tommy’ helmets. The remains of vehicles have also cropped up, including a tank that had been used as target practice. A single military issue field compass, used by an artillery officer to calculate the direction of mortar fire, was also found lost among the trees.

Several large refuse dumps that were probably created after the war have provided us with some of the more everyday items used by the personnel stationed around the Goose Hill woods over the course of the war. We have found tins of canned fish and self-warming stew, and a full range of military issue enamel plates and bowls, as well as some finer porcelain tableware, including chipped teapots for that essential British cup of tea. Plenty of glass bottles for wine, beer and whisky have been recovered (including one full bottle of Greene King beer!), alongside bottles for mango cordial and American-made cola, and more locally sourced lemonade and mineral water from Talbot&Co of Ipswich. More personal items including aftershave bottles, Vicks vaporub, numerous bottles of Brylcreem, ink wells and the occasional penny have also been found amongst the military detritis.

WWII era beer (we think!)
WWII era beer (we think!) recovered from the site

Whilst the coastal defences and structural remains found at Goose Hill highlight the significance of the landscape of the Suffolk coast during WWII, it is these smaller archaeological finds from Goose Hill that really provide us with a window into the everyday lives of the men involved in the war effort, beyond that of the official details logged in the war diaries of each battalion. They were using Brylcreem to smooth their hair, Vicks vaporub to clear their noses, and drinking mango cordial and beer in their downtime. Inkwells might have been used by the soldiers to pen letters home, and perhaps somewhere someone was cursing the loss of their new field compass.

It is sobering to think that just two months after ‘Exercise Bump’ took place on Goose Hill, some of these same men were landing on the beaches in Normandy. Hopefully, some of the skills and lessons they learnt on this stretch of Suffolk coastline successfully prepared them for the horrors they would encounter in their contribution to the liberation of mainland Europe.

Work is still ongoing in the Goose Hill woods, and it is likely that our excavations will continue to unearth further snapshots into the lives and daily operations of those stationed in the area during WWII.

Ed Tolley (Supervisor), and Dr Hannah Bullmore (Assistant Supervisor)

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