Review: D-Day Story, Portsmouth

Set back behind the Tudor bulk of Southsea Castle, just east of Portsmouth harbour, the D-Day Story Museum does what it says on the label – showcases the events leading up to the Allied invasion of France on June 6 1944, codenamed Operation Overlord. There’s been a museum here since 1984, but a major Heritage Lottery Fund grant enabled a complete revamp before being officially opened by HRH Princess Anne in 2018, in time for this year’s 75th anniversary of D-day.

Entrance to the D-Day Story
The D-Day Story

What is there to see?

Simple hessian & straw dummy figure with a parachute
One of the paradummies dropped
behind enemy lines to cause
confusion. The Brits called
them ‘Rupert’. The
Americans called them ‘Oscar’.

The focus of The D-Day Story is the liberation of Europe told through personal possessions and through the words of the people who took part, all of which makes this a museum that appeals on a multitude of levels. I was moved by the everyday artefacts and photos that have been donated, many by local people. The family who gave a flag to the tank soldiers parked outside their house and got it back, somewhat tattered, after the liberation of Normandy. A pristine sick bag, rarely found, given the bad weather of June 6. And the official thank you letters to children for donating pocket money towards a tank or a Spitfire.

But there’s plenty of military information and artefacts too, starting with explanation of why Normandy rather than Pas de Calais which was closer. Various methods of deceiving the enemy; campaign challenges; and the essential role played by the French Resistance in helping the Allies.

How is it presented?

A mix of ‘talking heads’, static displays, interactive games and touch screen activities that will appeal to all ages and levels of interest. The first section, Preparation, covers the period from the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 to the eve of D-Day, 6 June 1944.

I particularly liked the section Ready to Go, where visitors ‘meet’ six characters with different roles to play in the forthcoming assault. Tension builds as the costumed actors talk about the anticipation of the task ahead.

Moving into the D-Day and Battle of Normandy section, we hear the thoughts of troops on board a landing craft, before a spectacular audio-visual section projects archive film of the landings onto a wall map of the beaches.

 

Are there many vehicles and weapons to see?

Not a great deal at the moment (spring 2019), but visitors do see a rare example of a Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle or BARV¹, and small weapons inside the museum.

But in late 2019, a D-Day landing craft tank LCT 7074 will be brought to Southsea sea front, in preparation for public access in spring 2020. The Sherman and Churchill tanks which used to be on show in front of the museum, will be displayed on board the 59-metre long LCT which carried 10 tanks to Normandy for D-Day.

Anything else that sets The D-Day Story apart?

The final section on Legacy is given over to the extraordinary Overlord Embroidery. Think Bayeux Tapestry but in multi-coloured applique panels stitched over five years by members of the Royal School of Needlework. Commissioned by Lord Dulverton of Batsford, it’s stunning in its vibrancy and detail, and measures 83 metres in length.

Beneath each panel, background information and archive photos give an extra insight into the scenes portrayed, from military leaders and soldiers, to Resistance workers, civilians and even the owners of the café beside Pegasus Bridge.

Any online resources available to the public?

The D-Day Story Collection includes military equipment, uniforms, documents, maps, oral history interviews and photographs. Approximately 15% of the collection is currently available online with more being added over the coming months. Some of the items are on display in the exhibition, but others are in store and searchable via the main website.

¹ There’s another BARV at the REME museum in Wiltshire


Declaration: I was visiting as a commissioned journalist. Complimentary entry, but no guide.  Just a personal tour.

 

Factbox

Website:
The D-Day Story

Getting there:
Follow the brown signs from Portsmouth to Clarence Esplanade (PO5 3NT). There’s a Pay-and-display car park beside the museum.

Entry Price:

Adult £10.00
Seniors £8.00
Students (5-17) £5.00
Normandy Veterans and Under-5s Free

10% discount for online bookings

Opening Hours:

WINTER (Oct – Mar) SUMMER (April – Sept)
10am to 5pm Daily 10am to 5:30pm Daily
Closed 24, 25 and 26 December

 

There's something for everybody
The D-Day Story scores highly for being family-friendly and engaging for all ages; less so if you are hoping to see lots of weapons and equipment. But whatever your level of knowledge and interest, you can't fail to learn something or be moved by the exhibits. (See 'About' for review criteria explanation)
EXHIBITS 90
DISPLAY 90
TECH 60
VALUE 95

Gillian Thornton

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A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Gillian is a specialist on French destinations, writing for Francophile magazines and women's titles. She won Best Cultural Article 2018 in the France Travel Media Awards. Gillian has travelled extensively to the French and Belgian battlefields of WWI and WWII, where every museum, memorial and cemetery has its own story to tell. She also travels to other parts of Europe and beyond, researching features for a wide range of magazines and for the over-50s travel review site www.silvertraveladvisor.com

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