Top-secret D-Day mission that changed World War II unearthed by North Wales 'mud fanatic'

Soldiers from 47 Commando last week took to the Cornish coast to retrace their WWII predecessors' steps for the 80th anniversary of their D-Day landing on Gold Beach
-Credit: (Image: Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)

A top secret mission that changed the outcome of World War II was unearthed by a North Wales scientist and has now been turned into a BBC documentary. Wetland scientist Christian Dunn, a self-confessed “mud fanatic” came across the little-known tale when on holiday in France.

The daring foray, conducted behind enemy lines, helped ensure the success of the D-Day landings. Carried by commandos with a unique skill set, it’s been described as “one of the most remarkable feats of the Second World War”.

As the country gets ready to mark the 80th anniversary of the Allied invasion of mainland Europe in 1944, research by Prof Dunn brought to light the involvement of a branch of science he specialises in. “I was on holiday with my family in Normandy and, being mud-obsessed, I wanted to collect samples from beaches where the landings were made,” he said.

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“I then began researching the history of the beaches and stumbled across a forgotten story of how soil science played a key role on D-Day.” Prof Dunn, professor of wetland science at Bangor University, has since written about the subject and made a documentary for BBC Radio 4. Called “The Beaches”, the programme will air at 1.30pm on Sunday, June 2, and be repeated the following day.

He said: “Before the D-Day landings on 6 June, 1944, a lot of work had been done to select the beaches the Allies would land on – eventually the Normandy coast was chosen. However, the French Resistance are believed to have smuggled out some geological maps of the area – one of them dating back to the Roman Empire – which suggested there was soft clay and peat under the sand of the beaches.

“Peat is a type of wetland sediment created over millennia, which can be very unstable. The Allied scientists and planners needed to find out where these clay and peat deposits were along the beaches so they didn’t land on them on D-Day.”

As aerial photographs weren’t accurate enough, a group of commandos were trained in wetland and soil science. In the months before the landings, they had to swim to the beaches, from small boats or submarines, to collect sediment samples. These were analysed in London and the results were used to inform the landing sites.

“I find the bravery of these men incredible,” said Prof Dunn. "But for me there’s an emotional attachment with the story: they were collecting samples in pretty much the same way as I do now - though fortunately, I’m not usually risking being tortured and shot when I do so.” Sign up now for the latest news on the North Wales Live Whatsapp community

Recording the documentary took Prof Dunn over to the Normandy landing beaches, where he re-enacted one of the swims undertaken by war-time commandos did. He also collected samples in the same way, using kit specially made by equipment manufacturers Royal Eijkelkamp for the programme.

“I’m a wetland scientist, and spend a lot of my time wading around in mud in my wellies,” said Prof Dunn, also associate director of the Bangor Wetlands Group. “But to think my area of science helped ensure the success of the climactic battle of WWII, is rather sobering. So too is the fact the scientific principles underlying the mission are still being taught to our students today.”

Recording the reenactments, and joining in with them, was BBC audio science producer Harry Lewis. He said it was fascinating story with so many colourful characters. Sign up for the North Wales Live newsletter sent twice daily to your inbox

“Working with Christian was a brilliant experience,” he added. “He’s so incredibly passionate about science and history he makes the story come alive – to be honest, I never thought anyone could make mud so interesting!”

  • The Beaches will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 1.30pm on Sunday, June 2. It will be repeated at 4pm on Monday, June 3, before being available on BBC iPlayer.

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