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New information panels mark 80th anniversary of ‘The Big Drop’ between Welford and Boxford in 1944





On March 23, 1944, a huge top-secret training exercise played out between Boxford and Welford ahead of the D-Day landings.

And Boxford farmer, Alan Baylis, witnessed the whole thing as an eight-year-old schoolboy.

Jenny Smith and her father, Alan Baylis, standing in the field where it all happened 80 years earlier
Jenny Smith and her father, Alan Baylis, standing in the field where it all happened 80 years earlier

Now, he and his daughter, Jenny Smith, have created a three-mile circular walk featuring four information panels.

“I think people are unaware of what happened here, so it’s nice for people to have a link with the past,” said Mrs Smith, who secured a grant from the North Wessex Downs National Landscape Farming in Protected Landscapes Programme to bring the project to life.

One of four information panels installed in April to commemorate 'The Big Drop'
One of four information panels installed in April to commemorate 'The Big Drop'

Known as ‘The Big Drop’, close to 3,000 troops and equipment of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment and 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion parachuted from Dakota C-47s on farmland east of RAF Welford and north of Boxford.

The field where ‘The Big Drop’ happened 80 years ago
The field where ‘The Big Drop’ happened 80 years ago

A glider display also took place — many manufactured at Elliotts of Newbury.

Information panel commemorating 'The Big Drop'
Information panel commemorating 'The Big Drop'

Mr Baylis observed the rehearsal with his four-year-old brother, mother and father from a nearby bush.

“We were here around half past one. All these soldiers came marching through,” he said.

Alan Baylis looks over the field where ‘The Big Drop’ happened 80 years earlier
Alan Baylis looks over the field where ‘The Big Drop’ happened 80 years earlier

“About a month later, the Base Commander came by with a newspaper saying the rehearsal had taken place somewhere in England. That’s all it said.”

Information panel commemorating 'The Big Drop'
Information panel commemorating 'The Big Drop'

The Base Commander had requested to use his father’s farmland in November 1943.

Explaining how the exercise came to be, Mr Baylis said: “He came back in January or February and said the exercise was going to be on March 23.

“He couldn’t tell my father any more than that, and even if he could, he wouldn’t.

“He then told my dad a week before ‘if you want to get the boys off school, they can see something they’ll probably never forget.’

“Dad was under the impression someone pretty big at the top was coming. I think he thought it was the King.”

Information panel commemorating 'The Big Drop'
Information panel commemorating 'The Big Drop'

Instead, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and General Dwight D Eisenhower attended.

Churchill arrived at Newbury Racecourse and Eisenhower in a jeep.

Information panel commemorating 'The Big Drop'
Information panel commemorating 'The Big Drop'

They gave speeches and inspected troops of the elite 101st Airborne Division.

On June 6, the same troops were dropped behind enemy lines in Normandy. Many never returned.

Alan Baylis remembers seeing ‘The Big Drop’ as an eight-year-old boy
Alan Baylis remembers seeing ‘The Big Drop’ as an eight-year-old boy

Mr Baylis remembers his father was out tending to his chickens the night before when he saw Eisenhower’s convoy driving between local military bases, bidding the troops farewell.

Mr Baylis also recalls awaking to the sounds of low-flying aircraft departing RAF Greenham Common for Normandy in the early hours of June 6.

“When we came down to breakfast about two or three hours later, the headmaster said he’d just heard on the news that the Allies had established a bridgehead in Normandy,” he added.

Information panel commemorating 'The Big Drop'
Information panel commemorating 'The Big Drop'

“I thought the war was exciting; you never realised the implications at the time.

“We were told to hate Hitler. That was it.

“We are so indebted to these lads who lost their lives.”

But it was a BBC documentary about Churchill many years later which re-aroused Mr Baylis’ interest in the Welford rehearsal.

He wrote to the producer who sent him a letter and a package containing archival footage.

One of four information panels installed in April to commemorate 'The Big Drop'
One of four information panels installed in April to commemorate 'The Big Drop'

The self-guided walk lasts about two hours and follows public rights of way and a new footpath.

The display boards include archive photos, personal testimonies and QR codes to newsreel coverage.

Parking is available in Boxford and Leckhampstead.



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