Geologist's Top Secret D-Day Research Uncovered

By David Prudames | 02 June 2004 | Updated: 06 June 2014
Shows a black and white photograph of Professor Fred Shotton, dressed in a jacket, collar, tie and glasses, and leaning against some rocks.

Photo: Prof Fred Shotton's research into the geological make up of Normandy beaches helped allied commanders decide which were the best to use on D-Day. Courtesy Lapworth Museum.

In 1944 as soldiers trained, supplies were gathered and plans were laid for the greatest military invasion in history, a University of Birmingham geologist was carrying out top secret research on samples of sand.

Prof Fred Shotton was given the task of investigating the geological make up of possible invasion beaches in northern France and his work proved fundamental to the D-Day landings.

An archive of top secret materials, which has been rediscovered at the University of Birmingham’s Lapworth Museum, offers a fascinating insight into Prof Shotton’s work and the meticulous scientific planning that went into the Normandy invasions.

Containing maps, photographs and documents, the archive is set to go on display at the museum from Saturday June 5 in preparation for the 60th anniversary of the momentous events.

Shows a map of a coastline, showing geographical features including rivers and gradient. There are also numerous notes written in red ink all over it.

Photo: the information gathered by scientists and specialists was to prove essential on D-Day. Courtesy Lapworth Museum.

"The archive material is fascinating and even includes the transcript of an interrogation of a geologist who was a member of the German army," said Jon Clatworthy, Curator of the Lapworth Museum, which is part of the university’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Although he died in 1990, anecdotes and tales about Prof Shotton’s work have kept his memory very much alive. One such story involves a flight over northern France in spring 1944.

"Fred told the tale of his excursion in a modified De Havilland Mosquito aircraft over occupied France - he was able to lie on the base of the fuselage observing the beaches through a specially fitted glass panel," said Jon Clatworthy.

Shows a black and white photograph of Shotton as a slightly younger man, dressed in uniform and standing as if to attention. He is wearing a hat, glasses and sporting a broad grin.

Photo: Prof Shotton began the war working supplying water to troops in north Africa. Courtesy Lapworth Museum.

Many dangerous sorties were undertaken as part of the scientific preparation for D-Day, including visits to the beaches in order to obtain samples of the sand and deposits for analysis.

"On one of the excursions to the beaches a piece of equipment used to make boreholes to obtain sediment samples called an auger was left behind," said Jon.

"Obviously no-one wanted the Germans to know which beaches they might use for the landings, so there was some discussion of a plan to drop augers on all the beaches from Norway to Biscay until it was realised that there weren't enough augers!"

During their work, Fred and his team worked out that the geological make up of the beach at Brancaster in Norfolk was the most similar to that of the Normandy beaches.

Shows a black and white photograph of a large army vehicle that has sunk sideways into mud on a beach.

Photo: among the experiments overseen by Prof Shotton and his team was testing the effect of bombing on sand and whether army vehicles could still pass over it. Courtesy Lapworth Museum.

It was then bombed so experiments could be carried out on the craters to see how they were affected by the tide and whether vehicles could pass over them without becoming stuck in mud under the thin shifting cover of sand.

"Fred was an acclaimed scientist who specialised in the deposits and the ecology of the UK during the ice ages of the last 1/2 million years," added Prof Ian Fairchild, Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Birmingham.

"Up to 1943, Fred was involved in water supply for troops in north Africa and after the landings he looked into the water supply needed for camps in Northern France, the location of new airfields and the likely problems in crossing the Meuse and the Rhine."

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