To land thousands of men on an enemy held beach would not only require thousands of vessels to transport them; it would also require sufficient facilities in Britain to load and launch vessels from. The major ports along the south coast were all used to load large troop transports, supply vessels and of course the warships of the supporting naval forces.
But the ports would not be sufficient to load men and equipment onto all of the available vessels. Bottlenecks would develop around all of the ports if all the men, vehicles and supplies were routed through them. Fortunately there were alternatives available along the length of the south coast.
When Winston Churchill ordered the creation of a Commando force to “develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast”, he set in train initiatives and ideas that would see much of the infrastructure required for D-Day in place before an operations team for the invasion had even been created. Combined Operations was formed in July 1940, initially under the command of First World War Naval hero Admiral Roger Keyes, and from 1941 under the famed Lord Louis Mountbatten.
In May 1942, Mountbatten ordered the construction of 11 purpose built hards to serve landing craft and ships that would support his Commando operations on the European coast. These 11 were all constructed in the Portsmouth Command area (between Portland and Newhaven) and complete by July. These included six hards in the Solent:
4 hards at Stokes Bay Gosport (G1 – G4 Hards).
1 hard at Lymington (A Hard)
1 hard at Lepe (Q Hard)
The first use that some of these hards would see was in the Dieppe Raid of August 1942. Meanwhile, the first phase was expanded with a second in June, and a third in early 1943 that eventually saw a further 57 hards built along the south coast and in the Thames Estuary, as well as a further 12 projected hards in Wales and 8 in Scotland. In the Solent this added:
4 hards at Southampton (S1 – S4 Hards)
1 hard at Stanswood Bay (Q2 Hard)
2 hards in Portsmouth Harbour, Gosport (G5, GH and GF).
The vast majority were complete by spring 1943, although three – including G5 at Gosport – were abandoned, bringing the total number of hards available on the south coast to 65 by summer 1943.
The construction of the hards was shared between the Admiralty and the War Office. The War Office dealt with land requirements, including link roads built to connect the hards to the public highways, whilst the Admiralty were responsible for the construction of the hards themselves. That said, all of the work was actually delegated to civilian contractors hired by the military.
The hards were built specifically to serve two types of assault vessel; Landing Craft Tank (LCTs) or Landing Ship Tank (LST). In purpose, these vessels were the same; designed to land tanks and other vehicles directly onto a beach. LSTs were significantly larger and had bow doors, whilst LCTs had a single bow ramp. In addition a variety of other flat bottomed vessels (such as the smaller Landing Craft Infantry or Landing Ship Infantry) could be accommodated on the hards. Most of the beach hards in the Solent were ‘all-tide’ in that they could be used at all times of the tide, although the nature of landing craft meant that a vessel beaching at high tide would remain beached during low tide and would have to wait for the next high tide to refloat again.
Design and Facilities
The hards very simple structures; little more than slipways into the water that the landing craft could beach on. Some made use of existing slipways, but were suitably reinforced for military purposes. In the Solent, the Lepe, Stanswood Bay and Stokes Bat hards were all built on sand and shingle beaches. To create a tough all weather apron that would not erode or shift like a soft beach and that heavy vehicles could drive onto to reach the vessels, concrete was laid above the high water mark and in the intertidal zone beach hardening mats were used to create a solid surface. A number of designs for beach hardening mats were submitted to the Directorate of Fortifications and Works; the final version was of a reinforced concrete design, using steel rods to strengthen blocks approximately 70cm by 40cm and 15cm thick. The rods were also used to interlink with the neighbouring block, creating a continuous and well secured surface. The blocks were given a griddle pattern on the surface for improved grip, which has led to their common name of ‘chocolate blocks’.
Just offshore of the ramps, mooring dolphins were built in the water. As well as securing the vessels, the dolphins were used to support ramps allowing men to embark onto the upper decks of the landing craft. Onshore, accommodation was provided for the hard crew. In the early hards, this consisted of an officer and 11 men; later hards show evidence of several dozen men and some members of the Woman’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS or Wrens). Living quarters, piped water and electricity were all provided, as were latrines, which were considered very important when Wrens were present!
To service vessels beached on the hards, workshops and operational beachmaster offices were built. Refuelling facilities were also established at every hard, as it was felt desirable to be able to refuel the landing craft at the same time as loading, thus saving time before they undertook operations.
Trials at Lymington in October 1943 showed several problems in carrying out night operations using oil lamps. A new system of electric lighting was trialled at Stokes Bay in November and electric lighting was eventually adopted at all the hards.
The Solent hards were in regular use throughout 1942 and 1943 for training exercises and other operations. In the build up to D-Day they were in near continuous use; the loading table for Q2 Hard at Stanswood Bay shows that the moment a ship departed its mooring, another took its place. The hards at Lymington and Lepe were mainly used to embark troops bound for Gold Beach, whilst the Southampton hards were used by Canadain forces bound for Juno Beach. Gosport was used by a mix of troops bound for Juno and some for Sword Beach. Many men and vehicles embarked several days before D-Day and remained at moorings in the Solent until they set sail for France.
D-Day did not mark the end of the hards' role in Operation Overlord. A thorough plan had been drawn up for the resupply of the Normandy beachhead and the Solent would be key to that operation.
The Solent’s role in reinforcing the beached cannot be underestimated. Between 7 June and 31 July 1944, 650,519 men and 137,249 vehicles made their way to France on ships, landing craft and landing ships that sailed from Southampton, Portsmouth and the hards (this is in addition to the 73,114 men and 9,188 vehicles that left the Solent to take part in the initial assault). In the same period, 34,222 prisoners and 53,423 wounded soldiers came back to the UK through the Solent ports and hards.