Even after 75 years, we are familiar with images of jubilant crowds packed on to the Mall and outside Buckingham Palace to celebrate the end of the Second World War, clamouring for a sight of the Royal Family and words of inspiration from Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The cheers of 500,000 revellers in the streets that day – and night – have echoed through the eras that followed, along with George VI’s praise for London and the nation as “war-battered but never for one moment daunted or dismayed”. Churchill’s victory speech similarly paid tribute to “every man, woman and child in the country [who] had no thought of quitting the struggle. London can take it”. And the Royal Parks at the heart of the capital, as so often in Britain’s history, formed the backdrop to momentous events of national and international importance.
However, you might be less aware of the valuable and sometimes intriguing role played by our parks during the Second World War, and just how vital one particular site was in helping to secure Allied victory.
From ornament to use
On the very first day of Britain’s entry into the war, 3rd September 1939, members of the public had to retreat to air raid shelters constructed in St. James’s Park when the inaugural warning sirens sounded. Hyde and Greenwich Parks also provided sanctuary, the latter offering three shelters that could house up to 500 people. The war made for some strange sights as the parks became places of utility rather than beauty: anti-aircraft guns were set up in the Flower Garden at Greenwich, requiring some of the tree-tops to be shorn, and military encampments littered Regent’s formerly-ornate landscape to house personnel. Every effort was made to support the Home Front – even the railings that surrounded Kensington Gardens were melted down to make munitions. Land was set aside in Hyde Park to grow vegetables as part of Britain’s ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, designed to counter dwindling food imports from overseas; as well as being an important boost for morale, the initiative led to a 66% increase in agricultural output as public and private gardens across the land were converted to allotments. Following the devastation of the Blitz in 1940-1, gun emplacements stretched along the vast western expanse of Hyde Park now known as the Parade Ground; they included 64 rocket launchers.
However, the parks also served more sophisticated purposes. From 1939 onwards Hyde Park hosted civil and military defence parades in front of MPs, huge crowds and rolling cameras. The displays of the latest equipment and demonstrations by Air Raid Precautions (ARP) workers, with as many as 6,000 personnel addressed by Winston Churchill, were useful propaganda. On the other hand, there were decidedly more secretive undertakings elsewhere, including at Richmond Park on the outskirts of London. There, in a large Georgian house called Pembroke Lodge, a group known as the ‘Phantom Squad’ was based. Formally called the GHQ Liaison Regiment, this special reconnaissance unit was tasked with providing precise real-time details of Allied and enemy positions as battle raged. Interestingly, one of its members was David Niven, who despite going on to become a famous actor looked back on his wartime work as “wonderful days which I would not have missed for anything”. Yet none of these activities was more vital or more covert than the goings-on at Bushy Park – perhaps the unsung hero of the Royal Parks.
The path to victory at Bushy Park
To see the deer grazing peacefully at Bushy Park today, it’s hard to imagine this area once being home to almost 8,000 US troops during the Second World War. In 1942 Camp Griffiss was established in the north-east corner of the park; it was named after Lieutenant Colonel Townsend Griffiss, the first American officer to die in Europe during the conflict. Although the troops believed there had been a mix-up and the base was actually intended to be built at Bushey in Hertfordshire, the park’s central Chestnut Avenue provided an ideal landing strip for aircraft. There were sports pitches and even a cinema here for entertainment. The National Physical Laboratory, whose work had led to the development of the pioneering Spitfire plane, was also based at Bushy and made important advances in aerodynamics and marine technology throughout the war.
It wasn’t until 1944, however, that Bushy played a crucial part in bringing the war to an end. In February General Eisenhower moved the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) to the park, taking over some of Camp Griffiss. This is where the initial planning of Operation Overlord took place – the top-secret mission to invade the European mainland that launched on D-Day, 6th June 1944. This marked the decisive turning point in the fighting, setting the Allies on course for VE Day less than a year later. At an inconspicuous distance from London, Bushy offered the ideal setting for high-level discussions. Wire camouflage was placed over the park’s 400 huts, five office blocks, Diana Pond, Heron Pond and Boating Pool to hide both its military function and decorative features from enemy aircraft. Immediately after D-Day, members of the aforementioned Phantom Squad based at Richmond Park were deployed to scour the French countryside for every British, Canadian and American unit to report back on their location.
Only after the war did locals learn of the significance of Bushy in bringing about victory. A memorial plaque was laid by the RAF in honour of their American comrades, bearing an inscription from the French literary colossus Victor Hugo: “It is through fraternity that liberty is saved”. For the 50th anniversary of D-Day the park entrance used by Eisenhower was reopened and is now called the Shaef Gate. Although the wartime buildings were demolished in 1963, a brick pavement has been laid on the site of Eisenhower’s office as testament to his clandestine presence at a fateful point in Europe’s history.
The remains of those days
Although the air raid shelters are sunk underground and the defences long gone, there are still traces of our wartime history in the Royal Parks. The landscape of Regent’s, for example, was forever changed after more than 300 bombs reigned down on it, including incendiaries and V2 rockets. Areas that once undulated in the 18th century fashion now lie flat because the park was used to bury bomb rubble and was then resurfaced. Even decades later there were occasional ground collapses resulting from the shifting subterranean remains, which lie 10ft deep in some places. And artefacts are still being found: in 2018 a large unexploded bomb was discovered in Hyde Park’s Serpentine lake, while last year an archaeological dig at Greenwich Park uncovered not only a lost air raid shelter but a tiny lead soldier that had been left inside.
The legacy of World War Two is also formally marked in our parks through powerful and poignant memorials. Most recently, the RAF Bomber Command Memorial was installed in Green Park in 2012, commemorating more than 52,000 aircrew from Commonwealth and European Allied nations who died in the war. This tribute joins the Canada Memorial in Green Park, the Norwegian War Memorial and Holocaust Memorial in Hyde Park, and the Eagles Squadron Memorial for American fighters in Grosvenor Square Gardens as moving reminders of the shared sacrifice made in the Second World War. The Bomber Command Memorial also continues the historic tradition of military sculpture set among natural beauty that characterises so many of the Royal Parks.
These physical sites of remembrance also call to mind the important role played by the central Royal Parks in commemorative events for the public over several centuries. Our green spaces provide a tranquil setting for occasions that reflect on the tribulations and revel in the triumphs of human endeavour, and we hope they will continue to do so for many generations. On 10th June 1945 a farewell parade was held in Hyde Park for Civil Defence Workers who could now stand down, including police, firemen and wardens. They were addressed by the King, who proudly told them that “Your path of duty has been the way to glory”. As we remember VE Day and the path to victory in 2020’s unusual and trying circumstances, George VI’s words assume an added resonance for us. Not only will we meet again, we will celebrate again.
Banner photograph: Winston Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall on the day he broadcast that the war with Germany had been won, 8 May 1945 (H 41849) © Imperial War Museum