Happy New Year to you and yours! Welcome to 2024 – the year which marks the 80th anniversary of the great undertaking we now know as D-Day. It will be the last major commemoration that sees those who have living memory of those epic events involved and feted. Veterans of D-Day are fast becoming a rare breed and we now rely on those who were children and teenagers at the time to share their recollections. So I thought I would use the blog for the first six months of this year to focus on different aspects of the D-Day preparations that took place here in Cornwall.
The first Americans had arrived in 1942 in the county and they were mainly naval personnel or Construction Battalions (the SeaBees) centred on Falmouth. During 1943 as numbers grew soldiers and airmen joined them. RAF St Mawgan was built primarily for American traffic, and they then asked for a further airfield at Davidstow (against local advice!) From May 1943 large concentrations of troops descended upon Bodmin, Camborne and Launceston and by the end of the year had seemed to spill into almost every town and village in the county.
The invasion was meticulously planned and any plans need maps and documents such as troop movement details or loading tables for embarkation. The Americans chose a country house just outside of Truro as the secure centre for handling, holding and distributing such top secret paperwork.
The ancient forest of Moresk was noted by the Domesday Survey of 1085 to be one of the largest woodlands in Cornwall stretching along the slopes overlooking the Truro and Tresillian rivers. The place where the holly bushes stopped became known in Cornish as Pencalenick and a farming settlement developed. By Georgian times this had turned into a large country house, but when purchased by the Williams family of Scorrier in 1879 for £49,000 the Georgian house was suffering extensively from rot. Michael Henry Williams then decided to tear it down and build a new house. This was completed in 1881. It contained many Tuscan features said to be the work of the craftsmen who were constructing Truro Cathedral at the time and was surrounded by an elaborate Italian garden.
Pencalenick House was to remain a Williams family home until 1932 when Lady Harriet died. Francis Trelawny Williams inherited the estate upon reaching his 21st birthday in 1936 but the outbreak of the war saw the estate requisitioned by the War Office and in late 1939/early 1940 it was used as a training ground for the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. After Dunkirk it was turned into a Hospital treating the wounded and exhausted troops who had returned to Falmouth in Operation Aeriel – the evacuation of France in June 1940. It remained an Emergency Hospital and took a large number of patients in August 1942 when the Royal Cornwall Infirmary was bombed.
The American 1st Engineer Special Brigade Headquarters and the 531st Engineer Shore Regiment were pulled out of Naples, Italy in November 1943 and came to Cornwall via Oran and Greenock. They travelled down through Britain by train and arrived at Pencalenick on 9th December 1943. With accompanying signal, medical and quartermaster units that was a movement of 198 officers and 3148 enlisted men. With the requisition of Pentewan Beach and The Winnick as a military training ground the 531st moved to Heligan and Duporth Houses with some units based as far away as Par and Treliske, leaving the 1st Brigade Headquarters at Pencalenick.
They embedded in over Christmas and January and planning for the invasion began in earnest in the second week of February when a security room was set up in Pencalenick House for the study of top secret material. Only a very limited number of people were given the security clearance to view the D-Day plans and those of the exercises leading up to it. These were known as BIGOTs. BIGOT, which stood for the British Invasion of German Occupied Territory, was chosen by Churchill before America came into the War (Churchill set up a group to start planning the invasion two days after the fall of France in June 1940) and remained the security classification even when Eisenhower took over the planning role. Everyone with knowledge of the D-Day planning work - Operation 'Overlord' - was security cleared and was listed on what was known as the 'BIGOT list'. This list was co-ordinated from the fifth floor of Selfridges in London.
Thus you had to be authorised to enter the security room and could not remove anything from it. The documents it contained included the plans, the loading tables and maps as well as the latest intelligence on the far shore. 173 officers and men of the Intelligence (S2) Section were assigned to the operation and security of just that one room – all of them BIGOTed. There were two armed guards on the door 24 hours a day. Other US servicemen guarded the house. The perimeter of the grounds was protected by British servicemen. The Americans considered it the most secure location in Cornwall.
Amongst the room’s visitors were General Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill who met with other key planners such as General Montgomery at several top-secret invasion planning meetings held at Glynn House near Bodmin (which I’ll deal with in a later blog).
One of the American troops stationed at Pencalenick left his calling card by etching his name onto a tree in the grounds. It reads “H Uffleman USA 43”. I have been unable to find out any more about this character, so if anyone knows any more details or likes to take up the challenge then please do let me know what you know or discover.
One of the units based at Pencalenick was a Detachment from the 165th Signal Photo Company who were involved in the reproduction of photographs prior to D-Day. They were also tasked with documenting the invasion and so the men were often seen practicing with various cameras around the grounds of the estate. As what was inside the house was top secret, these photos outside are one of the few surviving records of life at Pencalenick in 1944. Bob Norris was one of the photographers and he returned to Pencalenick in 1994 prior to going to Normandy for the 50th anniversary and shared some of his photographs. Milo Catayla appears in some of the photos but many of the men remain unknown. Those of the British troops shows the firepower that was used to protect Pencalenick. If any of your relatives served at Pencalenick, then please do get in touch and share their story.
Once the Americans had embarked for Normandy the house was used as a prisoner of war camp for Italian officers who spent some of their time restoring some of the Italian features of the house and gardens. After standing idle for several years after the war the house and some of the land were compulsory purchased by Cornwall Council with the Duchy of Cornwall buying the rest of the estate. In 1952 the house was opened as a school and today it continues to operate as an educational establishment catering for secondary students with an Education, Health and Care Plan providing a specialist curriculum for young people with complex needs.