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Brancaster Estate and the D-Day landings

Sand drifts on the beach at Brancaster Estate, Norfolk
Brancaster was seen as similar to the beaches at Normandy | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

On 6 June 1944, the Allied invasion of Normandy was launched. Codenamed Operation Overlord, it was the largest joint land, air and naval invasion in history. In the run-up to the event, the hunt was on for a beach that matched those on the Normandy coast. Brancaster was one such beach and played a vital role in preparing for the Second World War landings. Discover more about the part it played in D-Day, along with the ship that was used as target practice.

Why Brancaster was chosen for D-Day training

Doubts were expressed in the run-up to D-Day about whether it was possible to land the Allied amphibious tanks on the Normandy beaches, due to the soft sand. However, Combined Operations Assault Pilotage Parties (COPP) discovered that the sand at Brancaster Estate was almost identical to the blue-grey sand on the proposed landing beaches, so the 79th Armoured Brigade came to Brancaster to practise landing.

The practice landings were a success, showing that tanks could be deployed on D-Day.

Bombing practice for RAF pilots

The area around Brancaster was also used as a practice bombing range for the Royal Air Force, and one of the targets can still be seen from the beach today: the wreck of the SS Vina, a cargo ship that operated on the Baltic trade routes before it was requisitioned for the war.

Aerial shot of Brancaster Estate, Norfolk
Brancaster played an important role in Allied forces' D-Day training | © National Trust Images/Ian Ward

The SS Vina

Naval blockade ship

In 1940, the SS Vina was requisitioned as a naval vessel under the command of Captain Pickering and brought to the port of Great Yarmouth. The plan was that it would be deployed as a blockade ship.

This involved the hull of the vessel being filled with concrete and wired with explosives. In the event of a naval invasion by enemy forces, she would be sunk, preventing entrance to the port. This never happened, though, and in 1943 the SS Vina was towed away and anchored off the coast at Brancaster.

RAF target practice

In 1944, the SS Vina was purchased by the Ministry of War to be used as target practice by RAF pilots testing out new shells. Afterwards, she was dragged to a sand bank in the entrance to Brancaster Staithe Harbour, where, full of shell holes, she subsequently sank.

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