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World War 2 In Peterborough

1939 – 1945

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The Town played a vital role with industry, airfields and a major railway centre. The flat landscape meant there were many airfields including RAF Peterborough, Westwood, which was a major RAF training centre. Local people volunteered for Military Service but those in ‘reserved occupations’, (jobs important to the war effort) were not conscripted but often spent their spare time in Civil Defence e.g. Home Guard and Auxiliary Fire Service. Businesses set up their own firewatchers while first-aiders and plane spotters were essential. National Service became compulsory for unmarried women aged between 20 and 30, then up to 50 in 1943, unless they had children under 14. Many joined the various women’s forces and nurses were attached to all the Services. Women worked in factories making war machines, ammunition, clothing or parachutes. Engineering industries such as Perkins Engines and Baker Perkins switched to wartime production supplying engines, guns, torpedoes and manufacturing machinery. Amidst this, dancing at local hotels and cinema-going were popular and there were several cinemas, showing films three times a day.  Foreign servicemen became familiar sights on the street. They included including Americans, French and Poles, many of the latter remaining in the city at the end of the war. Peterborough was not a prime target for bombs, so the city received 1496 London evacuees. Brick air raid shelters were built in the city centre. There were 644 Air Raid Alert warnings and bombs were hitting Bridge Street and the Lido. Raids of high explosive and incendiary bombs continued to 1942. Peterborough Cathedral was hit by incendiary bombs but damage was limited by the quick reaction of the fire-watchers.





Milton Hall and the Jedburghs

1943

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Built towards the end of the 16th century, Milton Hall is the largest private house in Peterborough.  Once home to the Fitzwilliam family, it is now resided in by the Naylor Leyland family who inherited it from the 10th Earl. The Hall was used by the military during both world wars, a hospital being established in World War I and initially in World War II, the Czech army occupied part of the house and stable block. In December 1943, 300 volunteers from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) were brought together and trained at Milton Hall.  From there they were sent to join small teams to arm, train and co-ordinate foreign resistance fighters in preparation for the D-Day landings in Normandy in May and June 1944.  Codenamed the Jedburghs, the volunteers came from army forces based in Britain, France and America with small contingents coming from Holland, Belgium and Canada.  Between D-Day and VE Day they carried out 101 operations in Europe. In May 1996 surviving members attended a special service at Peterborough Cathedral where a memorial plaque was unveiled to commemorate the 37 men who lost their lives during operations in Europe and the Far East.





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Outbreak of the Second World War

1939-1945

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The Second World War (WWII) was a war that lasted from 1st September 1939 to 2nd September 1945 ( though there were related conflicts which began earlier and some that went on later). The vast majority of the world's countries were involved and eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities. It included the genocide of the Holocaust, bombing that destroyed towns and cities, massacres of soldiers and civilians, starvation and disease for millions and ultimately the first use of nuclear weapons. The Allies:                                                                                                                                                                                                                      In 1939 the Allies consisted of Poland, France, the United Kingdom and dependent states, for example British India, and the independent Dominions of the British Commonwealth: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. In 1940 they were joined by the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece and Yugoslavia (after the German invasion of North Europe). In June 1941 the Soviet Union joined after being invaded and in December 1941 the United States joined after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (though they had been providing materials before this). The Chinese had been in a prolonged war with Japan since 1937 but officially joined the allies in 1941. In 1945, the Allied nations became the basis of the United Nations. The Axis:                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The Axis consisted of Germany, Italy and Japan. The Axis members agreed on their opposition to the Allies but cooperation and coordination of their activity was not great.





On the Roman Road System

100-200AD

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The Antonine Itinerary was a catalogue of the road network in England and Europe during the second century. It recorded the names of important towns and the distance between them. This would have been useful information to anyone travelling through the country, in particular any military troops. Durobrivae, the Roman town at Water Newton, has its first reference in the Antonine Itinerary. It was part of Route 5, a journey from London to Carlisle. It was recorded as the stop between Cambridge and Ancaster, being 35 miles from Cambridge and 30 miles from Ancaster.





Airbases in World War 2

1940s

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As the East of England is very flat and because of its relative closeness to mainland Europe, many airfields were established or enlarged during the Second World War, roughly one every seven miles. Several of these were around Peterborough, amongst them were: RAF Peterborough (now the Westwood area of the city) was used as a training base for pilots. American servicemen were stationed there during the war and post-war French airmen were also trained there. It was not used for operational missions but was bombed several times. RAF Wittering, established in 1916 as a fighter station for the Royal Flying Corps. In 1938 it became a fighter base, with Spitfires and Hurricanes based there taking part in the Battle of Britain. It was bombed at least 5 times, one attack in March 1941 resulting in the deaths of 17 servicemen. Post war it was a home for the British nuclear deterrent and a base for Harrier jump jets. The American Air Force also had bases in this area, including at the villages of King's Cliffe, Polebrook and Glatton from which they launched daylight bombing raids over Germany in their B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. Clark Gable, the Hollywood star did his military service from Polebrook in 1943, flying combat missions as Major Clark Gable. In his time off duty he was very popular with the female population of Peterborough!  Peterscourt in Midgate was the base for the American servicemen when off duty, being known as, 'The American Red Cross Club'.  





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Thomas Hunter, the Lonely ANZAC

1916

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Thomas Hunter was born in County Durham in 1880 but emigrated as a young man to Australia where he worked as a coal miner. At the outbreak of the First World War, he, like many young men enlisted, in his case in the 10th battalion of the 10th division, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) forces. He fought at Gallipoli and then in the trenches of France and Belgium. In 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, Sgt Hunter was badly injured, so severely that he was shipped back to England for surgery. He was put on a train for Halifax with other wounded but on the journey his condition worsened badly so he was taken off the train at Peterborough and brought to the infirmary where, sadly, on the 31st of July 1916, he died. As he died away from home and his comrades he came to be known as the 'Lonely Anzac'. His death touched the hearts of Peterborians, in a way he came to represent their young men away fighting. A public subscription fund paid  for his funeral and a memorial. The mayor and civic dignitaries led the funeral procession to the Broadway Cemetery and the entire town came to a stop to pay their respects. A two metre tall granite cross was placed on his grave, and a brass plaque to his memory mounted in the military chapel in the cathedral. Every year on ANZAC day, April 25th, a civil ceremony is held at his graveside, attended by the mayor, civic dignitaries and a representative from the Australian High Commission.





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Execution of Edith Cavell

1915

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Edith Cavell is the World War I British nurse who is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers in Brussels from all sides without distinction. Along with Belgian and French colleagues she helped over 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. She was arrested and tried with 33 others by a German military court. She was found guilty of ‘assisting men to the enemy’ and shot by a German firing squad on October 12, 1915. Edith had attended the Laurel Court girl’s school in the Cathedral Precincts 1885-6 as a ‘Pupil Teacher’. In modern terms she was a cross between a teaching assistant and a sixth former. She learnt to speak French fluently whilst at Laurel Court, which equiped her for working in Belgium. Initially she worked as a governess and later as nurse. There is a memorial to Edith Cavell in the south aisle of the Cathedral.





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