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Pivotal role played by St John’s in D-Day landings

The Normandy invasion was one of the largest military assaults in history

D-Day – a major turning point in the Second World War - was organised by army officers in the Senior Combination Room at St John’s College.

On 6 June 1944, 156,000 British, US and Canadian troops landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified coast of the Normandy region of France. Codenamed Operation Neptune and now known as D-Day, it was the largest seaborne invasion in history.

It began in the pre-dawn hours of June 6 and the combat between Allied troops and German forces – the Battle of Normandy - lasted until August 1944 and resulted in the Allied liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control.

The invasion was one of the largest military assaults in history and required extensive planning.

D-Day landings viewed from a ship

A LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of the U.S. Army's First Division on the morning of D-Day at Omaha Beach.

"For three days at the end of March 1944 the room played a very significant role in the preparations for the Landings"

Although it was kept a closely guarded secret at the time, it has since been revealed that a key part of this planning happened in the Senior Combination Room (SCR) in Second Court. The long narrow room, which measures 93 feet in length, was the ideal space for extensive plans to be pored over on the floor.

Dr Frank Salmon, President of St John’s College, explained: “The Normandy Invasion may seem a million miles from the sedate atmosphere of the Combination Room of St John's College but for three days at the end of March 1944 the room played a very significant role in the preparations for the Landings.

“Cambridge was chosen as the location for 'Exercise Conqueror', in which the British Army's 30th Corps then stationed in East Anglia, plotted their part in the Invasion of Gold Beach.  The officers stayed and held most of their meetings at Trinity College, but it was necessary for a physical model to be studied - for which a long, narrow space was required. So, for those three days, the Combination Room at John's housed a model of the Normandy beaches which was central to the organisation of the operation.”

The plans were obviously made in secret and very few members of College knew what was being discussed in the SCR.

In 1967 Sir Francis Harry Hinsley (known as Harry), a St John’s Fellow, future Master of John's and himself a cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park, received a letter from Lieutenant-General Gerard Corfield Bucknall, a Senior British Army officer who was instrumental in planning the D-Day landings, in which he is finally able to discuss the plans made at St John’s.

The Combination Room

A photograph of the Senior Combination Room at St John's, taken during the 1950s

"The exercise was complete and had successfully achieved our aims on 31 March"

Bucknall’s letter said: “On 28 March 'Exercise Conqueror', based on a beautifully constructed model of Normandy and its beaches, began. The main study covered the assault phase with naval and air co-operation, and merged into developments to follow.

“The exercise was complete and had successfully achieved our aims on 31 March. The extensive and sympathetic assistance and co-operation, and the warm hospitality of the University and College staffs was deeply appreciated. Indeed ‘Exercise Conqueror’ could not have succeeded without this help.”

Commemorations to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings took place to honour the sacrifice of those who died in the D-Day landings. Veterans and world leaders gathered in France to pay their respects.

German casualties on D-Day have been estimated at 4,000 to 9,000 men. Allied casualties were at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead –  including at least two Johnians; Philip Johnson Draper, captain, Royal Engineers, killed in action in Normandy, 6 June 1944 age 22, and David Haig-Thomas, Commando, who was killed in Normandy June 1944 age 35.

 

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