Churchill's Secret Reigate

A DVD of my 2010 illustrated lecture is available here.

Brief summary© Grace Filby 2010

Throughout history, Reigate and the North Downs have played an important part in the defence of Great Britain. Just 20 miles south of London, this unbeaten stronghold has the strategic advantage of extensive views southwards, stone, chalk and sand quarries, luxurious mansions, ancient underground tunnels and hidden byways disguised by plenty of tree cover.This was all familiar territory to Winston Churchill, who became Prime Minister soon after the start of World War 2. Over several decades he had visited the town as a guest. As well as visiting socially for weekends along with leading figures in society, he had chosen Reigate for meetings with key Navy personnel and Cabinet Ministers. When the Royal princes were at risk during an assassination plot in the 1920s, it was Reigate Priory that was chosen as a secret hideaway; Winston Churchill was spotted by the local policeman on guard duty at the back gate.

Reigate Hill was an ideal choice for a WW2 defence post in case of an invasion. It also became the countryside HQ of the Army's South Eastern Command. It was here that General Bernard Montgomery was stationed in November 1941, later to mastermind the British and Canadian Army's role in the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy - the largest amphibious invasion in history that began 6th June 1944.

As a vital communications centre, a gas-proof and bomb-proof bunker was secretly mined by Royal Engineers from the Welsh coalfields.The location was the old chalk quarry by Crabtree Bottom, the lane behind the Yew Tree Inn and just below the old Fort. This was along the lines of the labyrinth of tunnels in the white cliffs beneath Dover Castle. With its corrugated iron archways and galleries, airlock doors and emphasis on ventilation, Reigate's Battle HQ design became the inspiration for another bunker in the South Downs near Newhaven.

The South Downs' bunker, which was constructed for the Navy, is well documented and restored as an important National Heritage site. Bunkers were equipped with teleprinters and staffed by signals personnel. Motorbike dispatch riders were regular visitors and the whole area was heavily guarded. Even Reigate's prize-winning carrier pigeons were commandeered into service.

Being so accessible to London, local people became closely involved in the country's war effort. King George VI's Honorary Surgeon Major General Philip H. Mitchiner was a former Captain and Governor of Reigate Grammar School, and leading light in the Royal Army Medical Services, also lecturing on subjects such as the importance of maintaining calm and order during air raids or gas bombing. A former patient of his, Myra Collyer (nee Murden) started off in the Home Guard and then volunteered for the WAAF, where she spent nearly a year working in the Cabinet War Room whilst still in her teens. She was then posted to photographic intelligence HQ, RAF Medmenham as Sarah Churchill's shorthand typist. A contemporary of Myra's at Reigate County School For Girls was Jean Metcalfe, who became one of the BBC's first female announcers during the war. Jean Metcalfe's grandfather, by then living in Reigate, was the Prime Minister's personal barber! Young Eric Hurst, already a radio expert in Reigate, became closely involved in maintaining the equipment for signals intelligence at HQ Bletchley Park. He and his family were country neighbours of Baron J. Arthur Rank, the wealthy miller, film producer and founder of the Rank Organisation. Nearby on Reigate Heath lived Captain W E Johns, the author of the Biggles books which inspired many a young man to sign up for the RAF as a pilot.

Numerous personnel arrived in Reigate from elsewhere. Eric Sykes, a young RAF signals engineer from Oldham was stationed in a tent in the beautiful landscaped estate of Gatton Park, home of Sir Jeremiah Colman of mustard and orchid fame. Now an internationally famous comedian, Eric had often walked down Reigate Hill to the town, awe-struck by the great contrasts compared with his northern upbringing. There are stories from local residents of the great surprise of finding that the lake at Gatton was being used for secret trialling of the amphibious military DUKW vehicles. United States military leader General Eisenhower visited Reigate for meetings to coordinate the roles of the British, Canadian and US Allies. He was accommodated nearby in the exclusive Gatton Road area.

After the troops had moved out and the war came to an end, there were still remnants of wartime evidence in Reigate. Basements of country houses, commandeered by the War Office, were concreted in. Sadly, the beautiful historic gates and railings at the entrance to Reigate Priory were severely damaged by an armoured vehicle. They had previously welcomed royalty and leading personalities such as Winston Churchill whereas now they were left to rust in the undergrowth for another half a century. The Great Doods Pigeon Loft had, unfortunately, suffered great losses during the war and the remaining birds lived out their days.The subterranean communications HQ concealed in the hillside became a source of fascination for local caving enthusiasts and Boy Scouts, until eventually the three or four entrances were sealed off discreetly for safety reasons. Still a remarkably peaceful and healthy environment close to London, Reigate town later became home for a Martin Bormann 'doppelganger'. He was evidently somehow involved in Churchill's top secret operations which successfully retrieved 95% of the "Nazi Gold".

The finale to my unpublished research was a specially commissioned, light-hearted poem - with thanks.

VIEW OVER REIGATE by Barrie Singleton

When The Conqueror came to these shores
With his French names for food, and his laws
He endowed his Earl mate
With the gift of Reigate
Said: “I bet that’ll please ‘er indoors.”

But the people were true to their birth
Sons and daughters of this English earth
In good weather or rain
They would plod Pilgrims Lane
Knowing little of Mouton or Boeuf.

Then when Wren built St Paul’s he used stone
Of a type for which Reigate was known
Truly apt for his apse
Warding off all collapse
As time’s passage so aptly has shown.

More time passed and we faced Hitler’s war
We were threatened by sea, sky and shore
But this warrior land
Brooks no new foreign hand
Reigate’s grit was the key to endure.

Welsh miners exclaiming “duw duw!”
Drilled tunnels for Monty’s HQ.
Soon South Eastern Command’s
Subterranean band
Were installed ‘gainst what Gerry might do.

Such a contrast twixt Chevy and 3-ton
Ontario’s sons-with-a-gun
Found in Reigate a home
For their drawl and their chrome
And with our lads - in war - they were one.

Over years Reigate homed London Mayors
A King’s Surgeon, Professors and Sirs
Eric Sykes (not a joke)
And some ordinary folk;
Secret Princes? A policeman concurs.

Since they rammed out the A217
The motorist needs be forgiven
Racing by Crabtree Bottom
In Yew-shade, forgotten
As on to ‘elsewhere’ they are driven.

North to London and South to the sea
Reigate’s heights survey every degree
As if Fate had decreed
In our hour of need
Churchill's Reigate would keep Britain free.

by Mr Andrew Glass and Major-General Jamie Balfour

I wish to thank BVP Productions and Reigate Park Church for recording my 2nd lecture on January 30, 2010. Both events raised funds for CHASE children's hospice and awareness of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust travelling Fellowships, with audiences of 90 then 140. Thanks to Mr Randolph Churchill, Major General Jamie Balfour and the Churchill Fellows and Churchill Centre members who supported either occasion when I gave this free lecture. Many friends and local residents also contributed to the research and delivery of this unpublished material, along with my table-top display which included a tiny autograph book signed by J Arthur Rank with some words of wisdom - and the actual BBC microphone through which Mr. Churchill announced VE Day.

I accredited contributors of photographs and memorabilia in my illustrated lectures and these were unscripted so I hope I didn't miss anyone. Special thanks to Mr Lewis Montague for gallantly reading an extract from comedian Eric Sykes' autobiography about wartime memories of Reigate, to Mr Sykes for his warm wishes, to Mr Barrie Singleton for the penning of a poem (see below), to Mr Nick Wells for technical support and company on an exploring mission on the steep slopes of Reigate Hill and to a nearby mansion with further evidence of wartime utmost secrecy and deception, to Mrs Sue Wylie regarding the Chesney Gold Medal and to my parents, Audrey and Denis Ward for their detailed background research over 50 years.

I am indebted to Mr Hugh Lunghi, who was stationed briefly in Reigate and also accompanied Mr Churchill as his Russian interpreter at conferences with former Soviet leader, Stalin. Mr Lunghi kindly corrected a little-known historical point about the biggest battle in history, which was, in fact, in Russia. Mr Ed Stonard and Mr Andrew Glass also nobly added their skills to my presentation of these lectures. There are many others whose input is greatly valued and fondly remembered.

On a sombre note, 30th January is the anniversary of Adolf Hitler's rise to power, when he habitually addressed the German public about his beliefs: racial hatred and war-mongering. His plan was to confiscate the Jewish wealth for Nazi Gold.

However, 30th January was also the birthday of wartime US President Roosevelt, on which he often hosted a glittering fundraising birthday ball with the intention of preventing polio around the world. So in 2010 I would like to thank my entire audience for their generosity and warm appreciation, and especially for singing me a fine rendition of "Happy Birthday" too!

Grace Filby, Reigate

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