General Bernard Law Montgomery was especially chuffed to be back in his old stomping grounds, St Paul’s School for boys in Hammersmith, west London, where he’d been a pupil from 1902 to 1906. The school had been commandered to serve as the headquarters of the 21 Army Group. What filled him with so much pleasure was that he was now ensconced in the High Master’s office with its distinct terracotta facade. From here he would go on to mastermind Operation Overlord which culminated in the D-Day Normandy landings on 6 June 1944. He lived across the road in Latymer Court where ‘A’ mess was established.
It was in the boardroom that the Allied commanders, led by General Dwight Eisenhower and Montgomery planned the invasion and liberation of German-occupied Europe, including the D-Day landings. King George VI and the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, visited them here to approve the plans on the 15th May 1944. Operation Overlord started on the beaches of Normandy, on the 6th June.
Codenamed ‘Operation Neptune’ and often referred to as D-Day, it was the largest seaborne invasion in history with 160,000 troops crossing the English Channel in one day. The operation began the liberation of German-occupied NW Europe, and laid the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front.
Back to school
In September 1945, the school buildings were returned to St Paul’s. The pupils had to remove war-gaming paraphernalia and maps from the board room. These important documents are now on display in the school’s Montgomery Room at its present location in Barnes across the river from Hammersmith. Montgomery returned to the school in 1946 to unveil a plaque created in his honour and it read:
“In this school where he had been as a boy, General Sir Bernard Montgomery planned the invasion of Europe 1944 and in this his room the final touches to those plans were given in this building. Also was held on May 15 the briefing conference of all the senior allied commanders in the presence of his majesty the King and of the Prime Minister, the right Honourable Winston, Spencer Churchill. In war, fury; In defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity; In peace, goodwill”
A Lucky Escape
On the evening of Sunday 16 July 1944, over a month after D-Day, a German V1 flying bomb landed on St Mary’s church next door to the school, completely flattening it. Congregation member William Jackman, who had been attending church only shortly before it was hit, later said: “With the congregation departed. The church warden and myself remained to clean the communion vessels. The [air raid] sirens had already sounded and we felt strongly impelled to leave the task we were doing and return home, locking the silver vessels away partially clean. Within fifteen minutes the tragedy happened, reducing the church to ruins.
“In the mercy of God our lives had been wonderfully preserved. The silver vessels suffered no harm, being locked away in a strong iron safe (which was undamaged), and they are still in use in the new church.”
Today the only building surviving from the D-Day invasion is the High Master’s quarters which has now been turned into an hotel, the front gardens was converted into a public park with its plain trees the surviving witnesses. The school’s place in world history is marked by a circular plaque outside the gates.
Military vehicles, wartime music, food and drink and a children’s obstacle course are just some of the commemorative activities lined up in Montgomery’s former tactical HQ where he plotted the downfall of the Nazis. Even Hitler was reported to have been fast asleep as allied forces parachuted into Normandy. It had all seemed just like child’s play.
75th D-Day anniversary takes place at St Paul’s Gardens, Hammersmith Road w14 0QL from 11am – 5pm on 8 June 2019