A D-Day secret?

Ken Rimell relates a disturbing story of what we might have deployed if the invasion faltered

This story emerged several years ago from a reliable source. It seemed at the time that the end result would have been catastrophic to say the least, had it taken place, but my source was adamant that it was true.

The planning for D-Day in 1944 took many avenues for it to succeed, the allies had taken almost everything into consideration for its ultimate result, but for two major factors, the weather and the throwing back of the allies into the waters of the Normandy beaches, and operation Overlord grinding to a halt with a massive loss life. The story came out during a reunion of Hawker Typhoon pilots in the late 1980’s when one of the pilots, a former Wing Commander, mentioned there was an ‘alternative’ solution had the day fared badly for the liberating forces. Typical of these reunions it was after a few drinks that these pilots could recall those days sharing them in the knowledge it was with fellow airmen in a convivial atmosphere, but this story has a certain credibility, and not a line shoot.

Typhoons at RAF Selsey 1943

Operation Overlord was the name given to the beginning of the liberation of France, with landings all along the Normandy Coastline by the allied forces, the strategic planning, carried out at two major locations here in the south with Southwark House, just north of Fareham, dealing with the ground forces attack while a few miles away in Chichester at what was once Bishop Otter College, the airborne assault was directed. This location was ideal for there were so many airfields in the area, nine at one point, packed with fighters and fighter bombers. During the run up to D-Day and from mid 1943 ALG’s were built (Advanced Landing Grounds) in the area, where runways were made of a special metal sheeting known as either bar and rod or summerfelt tracking. These were capable of coping with the weight of such aircraft as Typhoons, Spitfires, Mustangs . The panels were easily put into place, pinned with spikes and supported with the rapid growth of grass passing through the metal holes, thus holding the runways firmly in place. This story will deal with the Hawker Typhoon and the squadrons in our area operating from some of these makeshift landing grounds at the crucial time of war.

Villages such as Apuldram, Funtington, Selsey, Westhampnett and Bognor, were soon home to the airfields that housed these squadrons adding to the list of the more permanent airfields such as Tangmere, Ford, Thorney Island, Merston, that were already well established. Operating from the south coast region meant the Typhoons flying time over enemy territory would be greatly extended, and even further with the addition of extra fuel tanks that could be jettisoned should the need arise. It was these extra fuel tanks, teardrop in shape, that was to cause a major concern at one of the airfields here in the south.

It was in the winter of 1943/44 that a large deep pit was dug at one of these airfields and cordoned off. Speculation that the hole was to be an Emergency Water Supply, were soon dispelled when a fleet of RAF lorries complete with a large RAF guard appeared early one evening and ushered any peeking eyes well away. One eyewitness, who had escaped the security order noted a huge number of these fuel tanks were strapped to the lorries cargo area. In the ensuing hours and well into the dark the job of offloading this cargo went on and lowering gently into the pit. By morning the hole and its cargo was covered by earth, but still cordoned off. According to the story these drop tanks didn’t contain fuel but were filled with the deadly mustard gas, a safeguard should the allied landings show signs of failing and an order directly from the War Office to drop them on the enemy was tasked to one Typhoon squadron.

Drop tanks on Typhoon

To a degree I overlooked the matter for several years but at a following reunion some time later my informant hove into view, the intervening years had seen the onset of what looked like dementia, so my appeal for more information, from this now elderly gentleman on this extraordinary claim was met with a blank expression, or was it that he didn’t want to elaborate further? While the story is quite feasible I wanted to know which airfield here in the south housed that deadly cargo and was it ever recovered after the war, but my question was unanswered and the mystery remained.

Driving past the former airfield at Merston in the late 1980’s I spotted a team of military personnel in the centre with heavy plant and machinery. I wandered over to see what was happening and found it was an army bomb disposal unit tasked with removing wartime pipe mines on the runway intersections. These mines were buried so that in the event of an invasion the runways could be blown up and prevent their use by an enemy force. The commander in charge told me that they were making sure that the Canadian forces, tasked with the job in 1946, had in fact done the clearing properly. Not knowing which airfield held that deadly gas pile I mentioned this to the army commander and after setting off charges to destroy several long sticks of pipe mines that had been overlooked in 1946, they went off in search of this noxious and deadly substance, but nothing was found. The same applied when pipe mines were dealt with at airfields at Tangmere, Thorney Island and Ford leaving other airfields, such as the ALG’s, that didn’t have pipe mines to be not searched by the army bomb disposal teams that may still house this terrible weapon.

To me this story has a certain credibility, with such few people being involved with its possible application at government level it could be true, on the other hand it could be a good story dreamt up by a retired RAF Officer to fuel the ever expanding myth about special wartime activities, a sort of James Bond. But the look in his eyes when telling the story, and in some detail, there was a ring of truth in what he was saying. The fuel drop tanks fitted to fighter and fighter bomber aircraft at the time were made of either light metal or, to save vital metal, of papier mâché, a glue impregnated paper. How they were prepared for storage underground at this mystery location is       unknown, whether they were removed as secretly as they arrived and destroyed after the war is also unknown, leaving speculation that they might even be still lurking deep in a Sussex field. Thankfully they were never used in anger and the allies secured a foothold in France and on to victory, but the thought of their use sends a shiver down my spine at the outcome had push come to shove, more so if they are still evident somewhere in a Sussex field!

This article originally appeared in Sussex Views May 2017 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.