The great D-Day dry run: How a top-secret operation in a tiny Highland village helped the Allies smash Hitler’s legions (with the help of 8,000 sheep, 50 pigs and some VERY reluctant evacuees)
In the winter of 1943, the quiet farming communities of the Tarbat Peninsula were shocked to find themselves unexpectedly caught up in the war raging on a distant continent.
At a packed town hall they received orders from the Admiralty announcing that 15 square miles of land would be ‘requisitioned’ for military purposes.
A total of 900 people per month were allowed to evacuate their homes, while more than 40 farms had the same time to move or sell their livestock, equipment and crops.
The operation was carried out with such a degree of secrecy that even those living a few kilometers away from this new restricted zone had no idea what was happening.
The real reason was kept quiet – even from the evacuees.
Pictured: Troops of the 48th Royal Marines at Saint-Aubin-sur-mer on Juno Beach, Normandy, France, during the D-Day landings
Portmahomack village and beach, on Tarbat peninsula, Easter Ross
The isolated location of Portmahomack was ideal for the covert nature of the operation
The truth was that the beach west of Portmahomack was found to have exactly the right layout to make it the ideal place to practice for the D-Day landings.
The long-prepared invasion to win back Europe from Hitler would prove the turning point in World War II and is considered one of the largest military operations in history.
But part of D-Day’s success relied on six months of covert operations carried out 80 years ago on a piece of coastal highland that doubled for the Normandy beaches.
The residents who were hastily removed from their homes would only discover much later that it was not that their country needed them so much as it needed their countryside.
The Admiralty scoured the country to identify suitable training areas for D-Day, according to local historian Dr James Fallon, who wrote a booklet about this unknown evacuation.
‘They put in a lot of effort. A whole lot of criteria had to be met before an area could be considered,’ he explained.
The Tarbat Peninsula, in Easter Ross, with its beaches to the north and steep cliffs to the south, seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
For those living there, it was a matter of going along with the war effort, whether they liked it or not.
Build-up of Allied forces landing at Omaha Beach, Normandy, on the D-Day landings
Troops and equipment en route, in preparation for the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy
A fleet of landing craft passing a landing ship during exercises before the invasion of Normandy
The affected area stretched from east of Hill of Fearn and north of the coastal town of Hilton to southwest of Portmahomack and Rockfield.
Two schools were also closed. Most people found accommodation with relatives nearby, but the biggest headache belonged to farmers, most of whom had no choice but to sell all their livestock.
A special auction market was hastily set up in Dingwall to sell the 8,000 sheep, 1,000 cattle and 50 pigs – and secrecy required that only select buyers from across Scotland and the north of England be invited.
Crops, including wheat, barley, oats and potatoes, were picked by Italian prisoners of war, the Women’s Land Army and even members of the Home Guard.
Evacuation is a word more commonly associated with bombed cities.
In the village of Inver, then little more than a row of thatched cottages on a dirt road overlooking the Dornoch Firth, children like Marion Fleming were used to walking the fields and the beaches. She and her mother, brother and sister were sent to live with her grandmother in Tain.
‘I think there was some resentment, some confusion. Where were we going? Where would we go to school? And we had to be on our best behavior with my grandmother,’ she would later recall.
She and her friends found the busy market town a forbidden place: ‘It was horrible.
‘There was traffic and pavements, no beaches to play on, just a small back green. The Inver children had no road sense, we didn’t need it – there were two cars in our village.’
Special Service troops from 47 Royal Marine Commando land at Gold Beach near Le Hamel on D-Day
She added: ‘There was a corner in Tain nearby where many evacuees lived.
“My uncle used to call it Hellfire corner because every time he drove around it, he’d say, ‘Hellfire, I missed another one!’
In his work, Evacuation Tarbat Peninsula 1943-44, Dr Fallon revealed that the elderly were particularly upset by the move, with Captain de Courcy Ireland, commanding officer at Fearn Airfield, reporting that some of the Inver villagers refused have to leave.
“When threatened with violence, they claimed to have the flu and retired to bed,” he wrote. “The authorities brought a fleet of ambulances and carried the people out.”
However, there were benefits to moving, such as running water and electricity. John Ross was seven when his family moved to Invergordon, a military town buzzing with soldiers.
He said a few years ago: ‘It was as different as chalk and cheese. Invergordon muffled.
At home I saw a train about once a year when we went to Tain – in Invergordon they went by every day. I couldn’t get over the electricity; flick a switch and a light goes on.’
But the excitement of new experiences was tempered by anxiety. He added: ‘We wondered if we were ever going to go back, and if we were, what we would go back to.’
British troops land on Queen Beach, Sword Area. The picture has been colored to commemorate the 74th anniversary of D-Day
Farmer Billy Innes, who was eight at the time of the evacuation, would long remember the day the troops arrived.
‘They dug, put up barbed wire, got ready. They made a dugout in the hill with seats around it.
‘It was where I tasted my first cup of coffee. They always made coffee up there.’
On December 12, 1943, the army moved in. It was a long, hard winter – ideal, as it turned out, for the dire conditions that erupted on June 6, 1944.
Around 15,000 troops from Assault Force ‘S’, the combined army and navy force that would take part in the D-Day invasion at Sword Beach, were based around Inverness and Invergordon.
While the fishing town of Portmahomack itself was not evacuated, it was isolated by closed roads and military checkpoints.
The Tarbat Peninsula was used as a live firing range for infantry of the Third Division, and support vessels firing from the sea.
Tarbat was a key training area for armored units, including the secret new ‘swimming tanks’ which eventually provided vital counter-fire against enemy guns on the Normandy beaches.
Not only were the exercises near Portmahomack essential to the success of D-Day, but some believe they helped mislead the Germans into believing that the Allies planned to strike further north, perhaps even into Norway, where the Nazi army retained six divisions, which weakened them. defense force in Normandy.
DR Fallon records the atmospheric picture of the evacuated zone described by a teacher, Mrs Macdonald of Balintore, who passed through every day on her way to Tarbat Old Primary School and did not see a person at the farm or a yard, not a sheep or cattle. animal anywhere, not even a rabbit scurrying out of sight, and deathly silence over everything except for the intermittent gunfire. It was quite eerie, especially as daylight faded.
Soldiers standing up for the invasion of Normandy
Stories of the Tarbat evacuation have long since passed into local legend: the collie dog who found his own way back to Inver van Tain and lived there alone until his master returned, befriended and fed by the soldiers; the old lady who lives near the exclusion zone who survived a shell that came through her roof while drinking her tea.
Although the army was prohibited from entering any evacuated home, many evacuees worried about their property until the troops finally moved south in April 1944 and residents were allowed to return the following month.
They found the land cratered by shells, the roads and fields overturned by tanks and the trees riddled with bullets.
Fences and dikes were broken, there were no livestock and everything had to be replanted. Even the wildlife fled. For the next 20 years, farmers would dig up live unexploded shells in their fields.
Nevertheless, most people were excited to be back, especially the children. Marion Fleming recalls: ‘I remember the breathless excitement. I think I would have died if I hadn’t come home, I was so homesick.’
Two inscribed rocks commemorating the evacuation were unveiled for the first time on 6 June 2004 to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
The twin stones at Inver and Portmahomack are a permanent reminder of how a quiet corner of Scotland endured a mock battle to help win a war.