New photographic research has revealed intriguing details about the role played by Belhus Park during the Second World War.
More than 300 aerial images of the Grade II-listed estate in Thurrock, Essex, dating from 1929 to the present day, were analysed as part of a study to help guarantee the park’s future conservation.
The park was originally the site of the Manor of Belhus, which was constructed in the 14th century. The grounds were landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the 1740s.
During the Second World War, a military camp was developed there in preparation for the D-Day landings.
The newly analysed photography reveals the changing nature of the camp between 1944 and 1946. The earliest of the wartime images, taken by the RAF in April 1944, shows Marshalling Area S, the temporary home to part of follow-up force ‘L’, which landed on British-held beaches in Normandy just after D-Day.
The force included members of the 51st (Highland) Division, which embarked from ports such as Tilbury on the Thames Estuary, reaching Normandy on 7 June 1944.
Visible in the photograph are more than 300 small circular bell tents, most likely soldiers’ accommodation, many of which are concealed by parkland trees.
Also noticeable are small hubs of tents and buildings possibly used for washing and food facilities, as well as two sports pitches. The house itself would have served as the base of the camp.
It is not known if the park was used as a training camp before 1944, nor how long troops had already been stationed there. Historic England is appealing for information.
Later images, taken in July of the same year, show the bell tents gone, and new small buildings and oblong tents erected. There appear to be more vehicles on the parkland, too, and new small ditches near the tents, which were possibly weapons pits.
Two years later, in May 1946, military activity at the site had changed dramatically. The small and oblong tents had disappeared, replaced by a larger camp layout with regimented rows of tents grouped and spread throughout the parkland.
Rectangular ground marks visible in the 1946 image suggest more than 400 tents had been erected in the park at one time, with more than 90 still in position when the image was taken.
Once again, however, the purpose of the camp is unknown. Historic England speculates that it could have been used to house soldiers awaiting demobilisation. It may also have seen use as a POW camp.
Military buildings remained in the park until 1955, although all had gone by 1961. A concrete road constructed during the war had largely been built over. The house itself was demolished in 1957, having suffered bomb damage during the war.
Commenting on the research, Amanda Dickson, Aerial Investigation and Mapping Investigator, said: ‘It’s been fascinating to see the development of the Second World War military camp at Belhus on the historical RAF photographs, and to wonder about the many lives and stories of the military personnel based there during the war.’
She added, ‘I am particularly curious to know about those people who were living and operating within Belhus Park just before an RAF aeroplane flew over and took the photograph on 1 May 1946. I’m looking forward to members of the public sharing their own stories and hopefully providing that information.’
If you have any information about or media relating to the personnel stationed at Belhus Park, the military activity there between August 1944 and May 1946, or the extent of the bomb damage, you can contact Historic England via their website. For more details, please visit https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/enrich-the-list/.