It is now seventy-five years since the surrender of France left Britain facing the threat of invasion. First Poland, then Denmark and Norway and finally the Low Countries and France, all had fallen to Nazi Germany. All that remained was the British Empire – nearly five hundred million people which at the time was just under one-quarter of the world’s population. With neither the United States nor the Soviet Union involved in the war, it was down to them to fight on alone. As my recent article in History Today discusses military contingents from the Dominions played a significant role throughout the summer months forming part of the defensive barrier that was hastily assembled in Britain to counter and German attack. Their presence was prominently highlighted in newspapers and magazines to emphasise both the military capability and political unity of the only remaining alliance still facing Adolf Hitler.
As the article reveals Canadian troops had taken the lead role in supporting British forces from their initial arrival in the country in December 1939, first making preparations to deploy as part of the expedition to Norway and then later landing a brigade in northern France as part of Winston Churchill’s attempt to retain a fighting redoubt in Brittany. At the end of June they arrived in Oxford having been assigned a new key mission as part of the country’s defence. The previous month one of the Canadian brigades not involved in the French campaign had moved to the Northampton area to reinforce British forces spread thinly along the east coast of England between the rivers Thames and Humber. Now, with operations in France at an end and the threat of invasion imminent, the entire division reformed at its bases in southern England. The Canadian commander, General Andrew McNaughton, had previously identified Oxford as offering a strategic advantage to the country’s defenders and with the situation worsening the southern Midlands area, with its central position, was also accepted by senior British commanders as the most suitable ‘position of readiness’ for reserve forces.
A small recce party was sent north early in the afternoon of 19 June 1940 to meet with a Colonel Griffith, the assistant Quarter-Master General in Oxford, who was to help them identify suitable areas to place up to three infantry brigade groups, one reserve group and the headquarters. These officers were instructed that “billets or built-up camps were not desirable; park lands where tents or bivouacs could be erected were required in order that the mobile columns could get under way as quickly as possible in the event of emergency and in which vehicles and personnel could be dispersed and with natural cover”. By the evening they had already identified possible sites and eventually a triangular area was confirmed incorporating Woodstock – Bicester – Waddesdon but not including Thame, Abingdon or Witney. Once final arrangements were confirmed – there was so little military transport and drivers available that it had to be hired from civilian companies – the Canadians began their move and by lunchtime on 23 June the first sections of the divisional headquarters had travelled the 48 miles from its previous base at Farnborough to the home of Brigadier-General Alfred Miller, Shotover House in Wheatley.
The main move began shortly afterwards with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade Group leaving Aldershot and by the day’s end it had made camp at Wotton Park about 12 miles from Aylebsury. This was described in the unit’s War Diary as “an estate which at one time belonged to a Duke of Buckingham”, although it was now owned by Major Michael Beaumont MP, and “a delightful, though isolated location”. Whilst one of the House’s larger buildings, the Kitchen Wing, was made available as the headquarters and for the officers to sleep in, the men initially bivouacked in the grounds. The draft Canadian history noted that during the transfer “at every village and road junction along the highway the civilian population turned out to wave and cheer the convoy, while at frequent intervals along the road men and women stood by with jugs of tea and lemonade”. There was some concern, however, that the long columns of lorries would cause congestion on the roads and could be susceptible to ambush from saboteurs so the decision was made that only one group should travel each day.
The following day 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade Group moved to Blenheim Park at Woodstock with its headquarters up and running by noon and all of the defending slit trenches dug by that evening. The Duke of Marlborough’s home was already hosting boys evacuated from Malvern College and the clerks of MI5 would later also use the famous hall. In the unit’s diary it was noted that their host, who had “been most generous” had also “asked that he be given as much privacy as possible”. The gardens were therefore made out of bounds, the Woodstock Gate was closed and the troops, who were allowed out of the camp with passes to visit the town, were reminded not to scale the walls on their return. The next day the move was completed with the divisional reserve headquarters being established at the Wheatley Bridge Hotel. As they reached the end of their respective journeys all of the troops were served with a hot meal and then “made arrangements for spending the night as comfortably as possible under the trees”.
McNaughton lost little time in briefing his senior officers on their important mission telling them that ‘Canadian Force’, as they were now called, would be “a mobile reserve with a 360 degree front; and may have to operate anywhere in Great Britain from the South coast, to Scotland, or in Wales”. As the situation was reviewed it was also made clear to those at this conference that at this point, along with two tank battalions from IV Corps and a few other scattered light armoured units, this was the only mobile force available anywhere in Britain. This was likely to be the case for at least ten days as the reorganisation took place of the other British and Commonwealth units scattered across in the country and they were therefore alone in being available to respond to a German attack. McNaughton’s assessment was that whilst there might be a diversion in the south, perhaps paying specific reference to London, the main enemy effort would most likely come further north and involve a seaborne landing in the area of the Wash supported by an airborne landing on the adjacent Isle of Ely. Much larger airborne attacks would follow covering a huge area across the Midlands and involving 10-15,000 troops with the aim of paralysing the country’s industrial production. Defeating this would be the Canadian focus.
Part 2 can be read here.
Dr Andrew Stewart is Reader in Conflict and Diplomacy in the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London. He is currently Director of Academic Studies at the Royal College of Defence Studies and is Co-Director of the Second World War Research Group based in the Defence Studies Department. He tweets at @WW2Hist.