Bishop Otter College
D-Day: Bishop Otter College
Explore the role of Bishop Otter Campus during D-Day
The University played an important role in D-Day as Bishop Otter College was occupied by the RAF from August 1942. Providing the Sector Operations Room for RAF Tangmere, the college was heavily involved in the preparations for the invasion of Normandy, and during D Day itself controlled fifty-six squadrons. Low fighter cover across the beaches was controlled from the Operations Room located in what is now room E124.
Photo: WAAFs pictured in front of New Hall during the Air Ministry Occupation. University of Chichester Special Collections.
RAF Tangmere and the Operations Room at Bishop Otter College
On 16 August 1940, the Stuka raid on RAF Tangmere was one of the most serious yet to have struck England. This surgical strike against the station destroyed 13 aircraft and resulted in the tragic death of 10 RAF servicemen and three civilians. On top of this, almost all of the pre-war hangars, the station workshops, stores and the water pumping station were destroyed, with widespread damage in evidence across the station and vital services put out of action. Despite the attack, the airfield remained operational, and the servicemen and women at Tangmere rallied ensuring that the Luftwaffe did not escape the engagement unscathed.
In his diary, local man William Birch described the shock of those raids: “bombs and planes were falling all around us! It was hell let loose. The concussions are nerve racking and the strongest buildings rock like boats in a swell! Furniture jumps and windows rattle. One has to experience it to understand the awful fear which grips me.”
The damage done to the station meant that an alternative location for the Operations Room had to be sought, namely one that was further from the station and less vulnerable to attacks. Initially, the Ops Room was moved to St James’s Infant School in Chichester. Extensive alterations were necessary: it had previously held 213 infants, who were relocated to St John’s School for the duration of the RAF’s occupation of the premises. Chichester had been relatively untroubled by Luftwaffe raids up to this point, and so the town served as a good base.
Nevertheless, as the strategic realities of the war changed, this became a bottleneck in plans to give RAF Tangmere ever-greater responsibilities. Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory was promoted to Air Chief Marshal in November 1942, and enlarged the boundaries of RAF Tangmere’s sector to include Northolt Sector, immediately to the north. Suggestions were made to rename the new Tangmere-plus-Northolt sector “Pompey”, “Sussex”, or “South Downs”, though none of these suggestions were taken up, and the sector kept the name of Tangmere to avoid the confusion of retitling.
Enlargement necessitated a new Operations Room, and whilst Chichester remained a good option, they needed more space. The lower expense of converting Bishop Otter College in Chichester as well as the ready supply of accommodation for staff whose roles had been increased ensured that it would be the new home for Tangmere’s main Ops Room. When the College was requisitioned by the Air Ministry in 1942 it was full, with 135 students and also around 80 who had transferred from Portsmouth Training College which had been destroyed by bombing. They were evacuated to Bromley in Kent and the College continued its work throughout the war years. In their absence, the Air Ministry made good use of the College, housing WAAFs and then, eventually converting the Gymnasium into a new Ops Room, which opened on 15 February 1944 and remained as a sector operations room until the end of 1944.
Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory took a personal involvement in the project, calling it “the most important area of my command.” His tactical shift to “striking back” against the Nazis in mainland Europe and the build up to the massive combined efforts of Operation Overlord increased the strategic importance of the sector, the station, and its temporary home in Bishop Otter College.
Our team of technicians have a broad range of specialist expertise and support our lecturers and students in areas of printmaking, textiles, painting, sculpture and ceramics, woodwork installation, and the setting up of displays and exhibitions.
Letter from College Magazine, 1943
The College was relocated to Bromley, Kent to continue operating. Image from Bishop Otter College Chichester Magazine, 1943. University of Chichester Special Collections
“Bishop Otter College has had an excellent year’s work under the admirable leadership of Doctor Meads and the staff. The Council has, however, to record a big temporary uprooting brought about by the war. Not long before the new academic year began the Air Ministry requisitioned the whole of our premises in Chichester. Prolonged discussions took place between representatives of the College (including the Secretary of the Board of Supervision), the Board of Education and the Air Ministry. An appeal was finally made to the special tribunal presided over by Lord Soulbury.
In the end, the urgent needs Of the Air Ministry prevailed. While all members of the College cannot help being greatly disappointed, they have shown a loyal appreciation of the position. The Board of Education found other accommodation at Bromley, and Bishop Otter College is now installed in the buildings belonging to Stockwell Training College, formerly the residence of Bishops of Rochester, but greatly extended and adapted for Training College purposes, that College having been evacuated earlier in the war to Torquay.
Bishop Otter College is now flourishing at Bromley, and already friendly relations have been formed between the College and its neighbours. The Secretary of the Council (Mr. Fisher) pays regular visits to Bromley. I went there at the beginning of the Autumn term, and members of the Council are anxious to keep as close a relationship between Chichester and the College in Bromley as is possible. The work of moving out of Chichester and in to Bromley was very exacting in all sorts of ways, and it is impossible to speak too highly of the splendid way in which the Principal and the staff in all its departments overcame the difficulties and cleared up at Chichester and started in at Bromley. “
Extract from Bishop Bell’s Foreword in the Bishop Otter College Chichester Magazine, 1943. University of Chichester Special Collections
Preparations for D-Day in Sussex
The coast was abuzz with troops, vehicles and supplies in the weeks leading up to D Day, as the vast organisational effort to coordinate the landings took shape. Strict secrecy was ordered, with signs warning local residents from fraternising with troops. So too were preparations ongoing at sea, as transport ships gathered, and the Mulberry Harbours (specially developed for the landings) were prepared for use. A glimpse of the preparations can be seen in this short extract from the diary of one Selsey resident, who recorded their thoughts in secret:
“Saturday, June 3rd, 1944
I am almost afraid to write this. I expect if the police knew, I would have to destroy it, but there is no fear of anyone seeing it. We have huge notices all over the place warning us that careless talk means the death of our soldiers and sailors, and other notices telling us to keep off the roads and to obey the orders of the military and police. The place is crowded with troops of every description. There is a feeling of tension everywhere, as there seems every indication that preparations are being made to send to send troops for the invasion of Europe from the beaches here. We are not allowed to go near certain parts without permits, and today I have heard—someone must have been talking—that the American sailors yesterday were paid in French money. While I write loads of ammunition are passing. We feel like living on the edge of a volcano.
The sea off here is full of fort-like erections, stretching from the shore almost to the horizon; nobody seems to know what they are for; they appear to be touching each other and the whole gives the appearance of a factory town with tall chimneys all along the waterside.”
L Harris, War Diary, Selsey 1939-1945 (1945), p.22.
Eisenhower in Chichester
General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, visited Chichester to inspect preparations for D Day in 1944.
During his visit, he stayed for three days at the Ship Hotel (now Harbour Hotel) in North Street. On 20 April, Eisenhower visited the Advanced Landing Ground at Apuldram, meeting with Air Chief Marshal Sit Trafford Leigh-Mallory and addressing the pilots and crew at the airfield. Afterwards, he moved on to Bishop Otter College in Chichester, where the Operations Room for RAF Tangmere had been established. The following night, General Eisenhower was thrown a formal dinner at the Ship Hotel, at which he was guest-of-honour.
75 years later, that event was recreated to help raise funds for the Save Tangmere Tower Campaign, to rescue the now dilapidated Control Tower. The guests of honour at the gala dinner in 2019 included His Grace the Duke of Richmond and Gordon and Air Marshal Edward Stringer, alongside Chichester MP Gillian Keegan, Mayor of Chichester Martyn Bell and the chairman of Chichester District Council Elizabeth Hamilton.
You can watch some footage from that event here:
Photo: The Crucible of War: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Airforce vol.3 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), p.301
RAF Tangmere and D-Day
On D-Day, the fighter squadrons massed at Tangmere and the aerodromes and advanced landing grounds in the Tangmere Sector were tasked with providing low cover over the assault area and landing beaches (high cover was detailed to the Americans).
These patrols lasted for 50 minutes and were meticulously scheduled. First off, fighters from Horne, Deanland, Friston and Shoreham patrolled. Next over were Selsey and Chailey, and then Tangmere and Ford. The bustling schedule highlights the extraordinary role of the Tangmere Sector in supplying the necessary aircraft and coordination for these patrols. During each 50-minute period, two wings (six Spitfire or Mustang squadrons) maintained low cover over the entire beach and shipping areas throughout daylight hours. These patrols were flown between 3,000 and 5,000 feet or below cloud level. Each operational wing was to act independently to guard either western or eastern areas as assigned. Within each independent wing, the squadrons were to patrol in loose fours.
The western area took in both Utah and Omaha beaches, which were patrolled by one squadron each. The third squadron from each wing was to provide flank protection to the northwest of Utah beach and was particularly responsible for protecting the naval bombardment ships. The area of patrol extended three to five miles inland and 15 miles out to sea to provide cover to the beaches and to shipping. Wings patrolling in the eastern area were to devote two squadrons to patrol the entire length of the three British beaches, Sword, Juno and Gold. The third squadron was to patrol northeast of Sword beach, providing flank protection and guarding naval vessels.
As well as having a crucial responsibility for Operation Neptune (as the assault phase of Operation Overlord was known), the Tangmere Sector Operations Room was involved in coordinating air defence over a large swathe of England, notably in its anti-fighter and anti-Diver (V-1 rockets) operations. It made use of 456 Squadron Mosquitoes based at Ford to provide night fighter cover against both menaces.
Photo: Sketch of Operations Room by Elisa Blacker, WAAF. University of Chichester Special Collections
D-Day at Bishop Otter Poem
This poem appears in the journal produced by the RAF while they occupied Bishop Otter College. They continued the College magazine in their own humorous style, and this poem about the experience of D Day in the Operations Room for RAF Tangmere gives a sense of the good-natured bravery with which they went about their vital duty.
D Day at Bishop Otter College
Here in this place, where ‘D Day’ moves are planned,
Calmness prevails; no noisy demonstration,
No outward show, to give an intimation,
Of what we know and feel, this Sixth of June.
The Operations Room is quietly manned
By democratic peoples: sisters, brothers,
Calmly composed, controlling lives of others;
And….. which the Hun would fail to understand,
The tennis-court’s still booked this afternoon,
The Tables show the sky is thickly dotted
With aerial might of every Allied Nation,
God’s answer to His people’s supplication
Is seen in each swift silent movement plotted.
From: The Bishop Otter College Journal, RAF Edition No. 2 (September 1944). University of Chichester Special Collections
Photo: Sketch of Filter Room by Elisa Blacker, WAAF. University of Chichester Special Collections
Poem about Signals Work
Not everyone involved in the Air War was a pilot, nor even ground crew. The signals crews and WAAFs at Bishop Otter College played a crucial role in supporting, coordinating and facilitating the fighting that went on. This poem gives a sense of the experience for those in and around the Operations room at Bishop Otter College, mentioning the experience of Radio Telephone Operators (RTOs):
Though We Are Earthbound
Though we are Earthbound, on each watch we fly,
With you we fight and fire, we kill and die.
Our pencilled logs record your airborne fate.
With call, command or curse our phones vibrate.
Each Hun you conquer is our victory too,
When you shout ‘”Mayday” we bale out with you.
Our Spitfire’s a cabin, our weapon too is lead,
But pencil cannot strike a German dead.
So we must be content to stay a cog
In all this vast machine, and merely log
The heroism of each daring flight,
Writing and listening – writing, day or night,,
Till the last enemy is put to rout,
The Tangmere RTO’s are “listening out.”
A.C.W. Stanmore, ‘A’ Signals.
From: The Bishop Otter College Journal, RAF Edition No. 2 (September 1944). University of Chichester Special Collections
Letter from Principal of BOC, 1945
“To-day that atmosphere is one of quiet thankfulness for the miracle of Victory in Europe. Linked with our thanksgiving for this stupendous achievement, there is also deep gratitude that the College buildings at Chichester have survived intact to await our return although, for many months before and on D Day itself, this was the secret centre from which all the most vital invasion operations were directed. I am told that the buildings are to receive a memorial plaque for the part they have played. Thus the material College—the things that are seen—has made its contribution to the national purpose. And what of the living spirit of the College—the things that are not seen—banished to Bromley in 1942? In the summer of that year, the College was faced with the alternative of transferring to the Old Palace in Bromley, or of disbanding completely till the war was over. The College Council, after much anxious discussion, decided that the standards of our national conduct, together with the nation's growing need for teachers, would not permit disbandment, even had there existed any inclination to play with the idea. So the transfer to Bromley followed, and, after some months of comparative tranquillity, we entered in 1943 upon a period of constant Alerts, of air raids mild and serious, followed by the Flying Bombs of last summer and the devastating Rockets of the autumn, winter and spring. Then came proof that the College spirit still lived on in Staff and students. Excellent service was rendered to the community especially on the occasions when the College became a Rest Centre, members of its Red Cross Detachment carried on their training and work, and all maintained a steadfast front whenever danger threatened. Indeed I have been made to feel so proud of the spirit of the College on so many occasions during its sojourn in Bromley, and especially in this last so trying year, that, to Mr. Churchill's sonorous " Advance Britannia" I want to add " and Bishop Otter College too," before we voice with him " God save the King."
Extract from Dr Mead’s Report in the Bishop Otter College Chichester Magazine, May 1945. University of Chichester Special Collections