The village of Barham, near Canterbury, can never claim to have played a pivotal role in the Second World War — but it did play host to at least two distinguished visitors in 1942 and 1944.
One visit is well documented, but the other it appears is much less well known. One was by the wife of a president — the second was by a famous soldier who would one day become president.
Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the US president Franklin D Roosevelt, was touring Kent on 30 October, 1942, with Mrs Clementine Churchill to see bomb damage and the war effort of such organisations as the WI. She visited blitzed Canterbury — which was bombed again just the day after her visit — and stood on the cliffs at Dover to look through binoculars across the Channel to the German-occupied French coast. She was quoted in the papers at the time as saying: “I think it’s rather exciting to be so near the enemy.”
During her trip to Barham that same day, villagers told her that the latest piglet of the village’s pig club had been named Franklin, their prize rabbit was Eleanor and a young rabbit was called Elliott (her son’s name).
The village’s next famous visitor — as recalled by someone who was a young participant at the time — was none other than General Dwight D Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force.
With the blitz of this country ending and the tide of war turning in the Allies’ favour, plans began to develop for Operation Overlord, the Normandy landings of D-Day. From April, 1944, the east coast, the south and west coastal areas of England and parts of south Wales were divided into a number of concentration areas for troops known as marshalling areas, one or more of which served an embarkation area. Many parts of the country became a hive of military activity — thousands and thousands of men and machines, ready and waiting for the big day.
Such was the scene over the long, hot Whitsun weekend of 27-29 May, 1944. What happened next was recalled in the East Kent Gazette by Kathleen Brummitt, who was then a bubbly 16-year-old member of 636 company Girls’ Training Corps, Sheerness. The weekend was to make an impression on her young life that she never forgot.
That Whitsun, Kathleen and about 30 other girls were to go on a trip to the countryside around Barham.
“As our bus left Canterbury and began its journey through the countryside, a hush fell on our eager chatter,” she recalled in 1999. “All eyes were staring at the mass of camouflaged vehicles, tanks, jeeps and so on, parked in every available space along our route.”
Their arrival quickly caught the attention of a dozen or so American servicemen, staring at the cottage where the girls were staying. After the girls’ commandant and first officer explained to the troops who they were, the servicemen wandered off, waving.
That evening, the girls decided to go to the Saturday night “hop” in the village, and found the hall surrounded by a dense throng of US and Canadian soldiers. A path was cleared to the door and the girls, with some trepidation, went inside. Kathleen was soon asked to dance by a tall American, who asked what she was doing next morning.
When she told him church parade, he indicated that if she could make her way to the top of the lane between the houses and the church between noon and 1pm she might “see a certain VIP” who would be visiting them. Pledged to secrecy, he would tell her no more — and said she shouldn’t tell anyone else either. So she immediately broke the news to her friends!
After church, the girls ran excitedly back to the cottage to change into their summer dresses and race back up the lane. As they turned into the little-used narrow road and glanced over the hedge, they saw an extraordinary sight — a khaki-coloured sea of soldiers as far as the eye could see, sitting cross-legged.
Two American guards tried to stop their progress, but Kathleen said: “This is our country. Why shouldn’t we walk along the road?” Her reply did the trick and the girls were allowed on, when they spotted two large cars coming slowly along the lane and were amazed to see Eisenhower in the back seat. He smiled at the girls and waved.
Kathleen recalled: “We skipped along beside the car, until it turned through the gate, with the general still nodding, waving and smiling at the six of us.”
He then addressed the 2,000 soldiers. “My mood changed in seconds,” Kathleen said, “from wild elation at seeing Eisenhower to a sad, lost feeling, as I looked at the soldiers and realised that many of them would die.”
Andrew Rootes and Christine Rayner
This was first published in Vol 35, No 2 of Bygone Kent. To subscribe to Kent’s only local history magazine, click on https://bygonekent.org.uk/