I took a scenic route into Alresford this afternoon – along the A272 and up through Cheriton. The trees were just turning colour and I couldn’t resist picking up a couple of shiny conkers as I walked along Sun Lane. ‘There used to be far more trees around Alresford and Tichbourne,’ Maurice Russell used to reminisce. ‘They were all cut down for the war effort.’ But was this nostalgia, or the germ of an interesting story?
I’ve written about the ‘hards’ constructed at Lepe for the launching of the invasion forces in Operation Seashell , and I’ve discovered since that the construction project for D-Day also included the roads leading up to the embarkation points. In December 1943, the County Surveyor received instructions to widen the A32 to Droxford, the A272 to Winchester and a huge amount of road improvements in the New Forest and Hambledon area – all to be finished by 1st May 1944. What would a modern project manager do? Say it couldn’t possibly be done and negotiate an extension, of course. The County Surveyor must have objected, for the deadline was moved out – a meagre fortnight to 15th May.
Considerable areas of land had to be acquired very quickly and it is the land beside the A272 that interests me. The gardens of six cottages at Cheriton were ‘gifted’ to the project and two more at Bramdean, garage frontage at West Meon, arable land, pasture and copses were compulsorily purchased. The front gardens, farm hedges and fields were cut back and re-fenced and mature trees were sadly felled to allow the military convoys through without obstruction. The council widened the road to 22 feet (to allow for 2-way traffic), improved junctions and built refuges for broken-down vehicles (which became lay-bys like the one I photographed above). In some places the road had to be reinforced to take the weight of the tanks (a Sherman weighs over 31 tons). It seems that Maurice’s memory served him well.
Who was doing all this hard labour? Most of the young, able-bodied men of Hampshire were serving in the forces, after all. Women joined the road crews, as well as older labourers whose work was now considered to be of national importance. As D-Day approached, convoys from the training camps converged towards the Marshalling Areas, their tracked vehicles scouring the road surfaces as they changed direction, and gangs of road workers were on hand to shovel material back into the holes. After D-Day, security restrictions were relaxed, and Italian prisoners of war joined the teams repairing our roads. And as we know, there were no major delays in getting the vehicles, soldiers and materiel to the embarkation points, either on D-Day or in the months which followed – all credit to the Hampshire County Surveyor and the men and women who worked for him.
This story may explain the trees lost along our highways, but does anyone have memories they can share of other trees felled ‘for the war effort’?
Hampshire’s Highways Under Military Occupation, Malcolm Walford