World War II in Tunbridge Wells

Jo Dadley

11th November 2021

What do you think of when you think of Tunbridge Wells?  Affluent, middle class, conservative?  “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” has come to epitomise the image of middle class respectability that the town possesses today.  However Tunbridge Wells at the end of the Second World War was a very different place.  It was very run down; all the buildings were in need of renovation and repair and no money was available to do it. 

During the war, the town was overrun with soldiers and army personnel and consequently, by the 1950s the damage to the infrastructure was to be seen everywhere.  Tunbridge Wells was in the front line against the serious risk of German invasion.  It was designated to be the Regional Centre for Government due to its strategic location half way between the coast and London.  More than 25,000 soldiers were stationed here to defend the Kent and Sussex coastline and later, in 1944, in preparation for D Day.

Bredbury- Mount Ephraim Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge Wells was also chosen because of the number of very large houses here.   One of these was Bredbury on Mount Ephraim.  This was the Regional HQ of No 12 Civil Defence Region – it would have been of prime importance in the event of an invasion.

A number of the large houses on the leafy Broadwater Down were also commandeered by the army for offices and accommodation. The man in charge – Lt. General Bernard Montgomery, later to become Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery of Alamein lived at no 10 Broadwater Down during 1941 where he was visited by the good and the great including the PM Neville Chamberlain and the King, George V1.

Just off Broadwater Down in an area now known as The Wilderness, there was a secret government project in 1940. This was an underground bunker, consisting of a series of tunnels, built by the Royal Engineers which was intended to be used as a communications centre for regional government.   The tunnels were occupied briefly by the 12th Corps Signals but abandoned due to flooding.  The remains of the bunker are blocked up and overgrown. They not accessible to the public.

More detailed information and images of Broadwater Down and the underground bunker can be found here:- https://www.blighty-at-war.net/tunbridge-wells-bunker.html

Drawing of former Dunorlan House (Source:- Wikipedia – courtesy Tunbridge Wells Museum)

Large properties were also used to house nearly 6,000 Evacuee children and a nursery for orphaned babies. Others were used as a field hospital, officers’ mess and accommodation.  The big house in Dunorlan Park, pulled down in the 1950s, was occupied by troops who used the ornate statues in the garden as target practice. Ironically it became the HQ of the War Damage Commission after the war ended.

Plans for the Regional HQ included a large building in Hawkenbury, built in 1941, to be used by the Civil Service. Underneath was a bunker consisting of 8 floors underground to be used as offices and accommodation.  It was never used as we were never invaded and the wartime building was replaced in 1963 by new offices which housed the Land Registry.  The bunker was also demolished.

One of the most bizarre legacies of the war was the removal of Signposts in 1940.  All road signs were removed throughout the county in order to confuse the Germans in the event of invasion.  The signs were not replaced for many years after the war which caused great confusion.

Some bombs did fall on the town – German planes flew over the town during the Battle of Britain and sometimes dropped any unused bombs on the way back to the coast.  The bandstand and the café in Calverly Park were among the buildings destroyed.  However, despite many buildings being damaged, Tunbridge Wells was fortunate in that only 15 civilian lives were lost.  

The Victoria Cross Grove

Among the town’s war memorials is The Victoria Cross Grove in Dunorlan Park.  This commemorates ten brave men associated with Tunbridge Wells who have won the Victoria Cross. Those commemorated include Charles Davis Lucas, whose act of bravery during the Crimean War was the first to be recognised by the Victoria Cross, and five heroes from both World Wars.  The grove of 21 oaks was dedicated on 8th May 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of VE day.  In 2006, to mark the 150th anniversary of the institution of the Victoria Cross medal and the 400th anniversary of the spa town, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council commissioned the then Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, to write a poem called “Remembrance” and sculptor Charles Gurrey to install a memorial sculpture incorporating some of the words from the poem.

Remembrance

memorial sculpture by Charles Gurrey

The clattered branches, then the freezing gaps;

The breaking leaf-buds, then the speckled sun;

The life-lines, then the lists of names and dates;

The men who breathed, and then the history.

Lest we forget, this grove memorial

Keeps every season new but stays the same,

So hero hearts survive as what they were

And we can honour each one as we should.

The battle, and then the haven with its hush;

The courage, then the bird song and its nests;

The sacrifice, then shade the wind slides through;

Remembrance, and then the march of time to come.

Andrew Motion

After the war ended, the town made a big effort to move forward as life returned to normal but it took many years for the damage of wartime to be repaired and for the town to be restored to the genteel respectability that we associate with it today.

Jo is a Blue Badge Guide based in Kent