A Second World War army camp where troops were preparing for the D-Day invasion is shown in RAF aerial photographs shared by historians researching an Essex heritage site. Historic England has analyzed over 300 photographs of the changing landscape of Grade II registered Belhus Park at Thurrock from 1929 to the present day, and has now published some of them.
RAF aerial footage taken in April 1944 shows a military camp in the park, with tents and temporary buildings. Known as Marshalling Area S, the park temporarily housed part of the follow-on Force L, which landed on British Normandy beaches in the days after D-Day.
They included members of the 51st (Highland) Division who embarked from ports such as Tilbury in the Thames Estuary, reaching Normandy from 7 June 1944. Camp headquarters would have been based in the former mansion, Belhus House, which was demolished in 1957.
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Over 300 small circular bell tents were used as accommodation for the soldiers, many of which were hidden from overhead view by trees. The photographs also show small cores of tents and buildings which may have been used for washing and eating facilities or possibly sergeants quarters.
A soccer field and another smaller sports field are visible to the north of the park. The east-west path from Belhus House to the edge of the park, visible on an 1897 Ordnance Survey map, appears to have been hardened and improved, perhaps to support the volume of military vehicles traveling through the park.
It is not known whether the park was used as a training camp before 1944 or how long some of the troops had already been stationed there. Images taken in July 1944 show that many small bell tents had disappeared, but more had been erected, along with new buildings and oblong tents.
There appears to be more vehicles in the park and new small ditches located near the tents which could be weapons pits. Bomb craters are visible in aerial photographs of the park, but there is no obvious damage to the roof of the mansion in the 1944 images.
Photographs from May 1946 show the layout had changed, but ground markings indicate that up to 400 tents had been erected in the park at one time. It is not known whether this post-war camp was used to house soldiers awaiting demobilization, or as a camp for displaced persons or a camp for prisoners of war.
The buildings remained in the park in 1955. By 1961 they were all gone.
Amanda Dickson, aerial surveyor and mapping surveyor, said: ‘It was fascinating to see the development of the Second World War military camp at Belhus, in historic RAF photographs, and to wonder about the many lives and stories of military personnel based there during the war. I am particularly curious about these people who lived and operated in Belhus Park just before an RAF plane flew overhead and took the picture on May 1, 1946.”
To share images or memories of the Belhus Park estate, email [email protected]
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