College prepares for wartime anniversary

A special church service for staff and students at Clifton College will be held this month to mark the 80th anniversary of the D-Day Landings in the Second World War.

    Much of the detailed planning of this top-secret operation took place at the college, which had been taken over by American troops.

  While the  servicemen were planning the world’s largest-ever sea-borne invasion, senior students from Clifton College continued their studies – albeit in makeshift classrooms more than 130 miles away from Bristol.  Clifton’s headmaster had made arrangements for for them to stay in guest houses and hotels at the sea-side resort of Bude in north Cornwall so they could escape the Blitzes on Bristol. Meanwhile, boys from the  prep school were moved into Butcombe Court, an 18th century house in north Somerset.

    The first American soldiers started arriving at the college in 1943 and by D-Day their numbers had grown to more than 300. They were joined by General Omar Bradley, who arrived from the Mediterranean where he had commanded troops in Sicily.

  General Bradley took over the housemaster’s drawing room in School House on the corner of Guthrie and College Roads.   Another housemaster’s study was used as a planning room while classrooms were put to military use.  Clifton College’s Council Room became known as a ‘War Room’ filled with maps, charts and files of intelligence data.  

   The Wilson Tower, named after a former headmaster of the college, became a high security listening post with its top floor receiving messages from the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) along with information coming in from the Enigma code-breakers at Bletchey Park, Buckinghamshire.  

Another floor of the Wilson Tower became a map room where details of the American part in the D-Day Landings were compiled.  Ordnance logistics were brought together by clerks working in the college’s library.

The character of this part of Clifton changed with the presence  of  American servicemen.  The college’s boarding houses in the large Victorian residences nearby became billets for the troops. The school’s cricket field, known as The Close, became an airfield.

The soldiers were  regular visitors to Clifton Zoo around the corner.  They helped to spread the fame of one of the zoo’s most popular residents, Alfred the Gorilla, by sending picture postcards of him back to their families in the States. Alfred, who arrived at the zoo in 1930 from the Congo, could often be seen walking around the zoo grounds wearing his trademark woolly jumper, accompanied by one of his keepers.

 In November 1944 the college buildings were officially handed back to their owners. Four months later the teaching staff returned to Clifton with their students.

 However, that was not the end of the college’s link with America. 

General Bradley was back in England in 1953 to represent President Eisenhower at Queen Elizabeth 11’s coronation in London.  He found time to return to Clifton College and asked the staff that America’s national flag, affectionately known as  ‘Old Glory’ should be flown from the Wilson Tower every American Independence Day. This is a request that the college faithfully honours to this day. 

Maurice Fells