‘What are these lovely shells, Mum?’ Little Minnow held out a hinged pair to me, as we walked along the tide line of Lepe beach on Saturday. ‘Clams – they’re bi-valves,’ I said, not really concentrating. He looked confused. ‘You need two of them, working together, to protect the fragile creature inside.’ That was better. He scuttled off to probe the tide-wrack for some more.
We were walking past the bollards used to tie the ships up as they were loaded for the invasion in 1944. Big Minnow jaywalked along a groyne, pointing out an oil tanker turning into Southampton Water on its way to the Fawley refinery. Fawley was used as a storage depot during WWII: bomb-proof underground pipelines were used to supply airfields throughout the south of England. Little Minnow held out a palm full of shells to show Big and he jumped down to pick up more for the collection.
Looking over the fence running behind the beach, we saw gas pipeline signs snaking through the nature reserve. These give a clue to Fawley’s other great contribution to the war effort – preventing the invasion from being stalled by fuel shortages. Petroleum tankers would have been bombed by the Luftwaffe if they tried to dock in French ports and so the Pipe Line Under The Ocean (PLUTO) was developed. US tankers could unload their fuel at Fawley instead. PLUTO took it from Lepe across the Solent (15 minutes by windsurfer in the stiff breeze last Saturday), on to a pumping station on the Isle of Wight, and 70 miles across the Channel to Cherbourg. ‘Our pockets are full,’ whinged the minnows. ‘Can we put some shells in yours?’
Meanwhile, Pike was having a wonderful time photographing concrete tetrahedrons – winching gear bases for the Mulberry Harbour components constructed at Lepe – casting their geometric shadows along the shingle. Hardening mats, used to strengthen the beach to take the weight of the tanks and other vehicles being driven onto the landing craft, created photogenic square patterns in the sand. ‘No you can’t put those shells in my camera case. They’ll scratch my lenses,’ Pike said, when the minnows asked.
The family walked back towards the car park, pockets rattling. Whatever were we going to do with all those clam shells? Then we read the plaque on a war memorial
4th/7th ROYAL DRAGOON GUARDS
On 3rd June 1944 the Regiment left from here to land on D-Day 5 minutes before the main assault on GOLD BEACH in Sherman amphibious Duplex Drive tanks for the campaign in NW Europe
In proud memory of our comrades and the 124 who did not return to these shores
-and used them to write T H A N K Y O U on the beach.