It is no exaggeration to say that D-Day, the 6th June, 1944, is a day that changed history. With the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, a day which began ‘Operation Overlord’ and the invasion of German-occupied France by the Allies, it is important to recall the essential role that Kingston and the surrounding area played in those momentous events.
Many people are unaware of the extent to which the Borough of Kingston and the surrounding district helped contribute to the tremendous success of D-Day. Here are six interesting facts about the Kingston area and its role in D-Day:
One: Kingston’s main public swimming pool in the 1930s, the Coronation Baths, was located in Denmark Road, just a short walk from what is now the University’s Penrhyn Road and Knights Park campuses. One of the closest-kept local secrets of the Second World War was that the pool, which had underwater lights, was taken over by the Admiralty in January, 1944, and was used for training many of the frogmen who carried out a particularly hazardous mission in the very early hours of the D-Day invasion morning. Wearing specially-designed rubber diving suits, some 120 divers were trained to swim underwater to enemy defence obstacles and plant special explosives, which helped clear a path for Allied landing-craft to safely reach the Normandy beaches.
Two: The complex military and logistical planning for Operation Overlord and D-Day was one of the most secret Allied operations of the Second World War. It was overseen by American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied invasion forces. Intriguingly, ‘Ike’ Eisenhower lived and worked in Kingston from 1942-1944.
With his main headquarters located in Bushy Park, near Teddington and Hampton Court, Eisenhower (see photo) rented Telegraph Cottage in Warren Road, at the top of Kingston Hill, where he would snatch time to relax and go for occasional horse-rides in Richmond Park. Eisenhower’s presence in Kingston was a closely-guarded secret, as it was feared that the Germans would attempt an assassination had the news leaked out.
Three: The Bushy Park camp was known as ‘Camp Griffiss’, named after Lieut-Col. Townsend Griffiss, who had been first U.S. airman to die in Europe after America’s entry into the war in 1941. The camp was a major military base for both the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force from July, 1942 to December, 1944. Much of Eisenhower’s detailed planning for D-Day took place at the camp which, at its peak, had some 4,000 personnel working there. Although many service personnel lived in the grounds of Bushy Park in huts, numerous officers were billeted with local families in the Kingston area. Interestingly, most of the camp’s huts remained standing until as late as 1963.
Four: Although much of the press in Britain could not go into detail about the actual military events of D-Day, or reveal which areas of the country had contributed to Operation Overlord and precisely how, newspapers were nevertheless allowed to carry very general reports on the landings over the next 3-4 days after D-Day. In Kingston, the local Surrey Comet published an editorial on 10th June recognising the enormity of the landings and their significance: ‘This lodgement on a broad front has constituted a unique operation of war, an immense venture which has been years in planning and which is of an intricacy so vast that only very few can have the least realisation of its amazing complexity’.
And, by July, the Comet was able to report that the Queen’s Royal regiment, the West Surreys (which had local Kingston men in its ranks) had arrived in France a few days after D-Day and ‘were almost immediately engaged in very heavy fighting near Tilly sur Seulles’. For several days they took part in resisting powerful German counter-attacks in the Tilly area, an action that was vital to the overall success of the Allied invasion.
Five: A huge armada of many vessels and landing craft were used on D-Day, a key one being the L.C.T. (‘Landing Craft Tank’). This was an amphibious assault craft for landing tanks or heavy guns on beachheads, and many of the L.C.T.s went in just before the main landings took place to lay down covering fire. One such L.C.T. on the early morning of D-Day was commanded by Sub-Lieut. Richard Offer, R.N.V.R., a former pupil of Tiffins School in Kingston. He gave a vivid account of what he experienced to the local Surrey Comet. Mines were dodged successfully, he said, but the craft came under heavy fire and two shells hit his vessel. Yet, despite a ‘whacking hole’ in its side, the craft managed to get back successfully to England. Another LC.T. was under the command of Lieut. W.E. Fairiey, RNVR who, prior to the war, had himself been a Surrey Comet reporter. He commented to the paper: ‘The number of ships off the beachheads and going backwards and forwards across the Channel was simply staggering’.
Six: It is estimated that about 130,000 men bravely swept onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, with many men killed or seriously wounded in the first waves of the assault. One of these was the son of Mr. and Mrs. W. Harper of Surbiton. In early July, 1944, they were officially notified that their son, private Robert Harper, a commando, had been killed in action with the first wave of assault troops on D-Day. Born in 1915, he had been educated at Christ Church School in Surbiton, and became a brickmaker at Tolworth brick fields before he was called up in 1940. Before he was killed, he had been stationed in Iceland and in the Shetlands.
The 75th anniversary of D-Day and its associated commemorative events helps remind us how the bravery and sacrifice of such local heroes enabled the eventual liberation of Europe from fascist tyranny.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey
(Images: Wikimedia Commons)