In 1943 when Britain was in the grip of World War II, the decision was taken by the Allied leaders to invade France. As plans were made for Operation Overlord, there was a need for somewhere to train over 150,000 men.
The war cabinet selected suitable locations, and within weeks residents of these villages were given formal notice to leave their homes. Of the villages specifically requisitioned for D-Day, two can still be visited today, Imber in Salisbury Plain and Tyneham in Dorset.
Tyneham and Imber are two small villages 60 miles apart in the south of England, with similar origins and a strikingly similar fate. For in 1943 they were reluctantly abandoned by their residents and handed over to the military for training D-Day troops. Although both were due to be returned to the residents after the war, neither village was. So today these once loved communities stand derelict, tumbling down and subject to the ravages of time.
Although potentially rather forlorn and neglected, these villages offer something unique to the historian as they have not been subjected to modernisation, commercialisation or anything else that comes along in the name of progress. They offer a faded snapshot of village life in 1943 and enable the onlooker to imagine just how life might have been 80 years ago in rural England.
On the south coast of Dorset, only a few miles from the tourist traps that are Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door, is the village of Tyneham and the nearby coastal bay of Worbarrow. The area shows evidence of occupation from the Roman times, of fishing communities from the Iron Age and is included in the Domesday Book of 1086. The village changed hands several times and was passed down through the generations until it was bought by the Bond family in 1683, and they retained ownership until the Second World War. Living in a grand manor house, they owned most of the properties and buildings in the village, which included a 13th century church, a school, a rectory, farms and cottages.
Off the beaten track and isolated, the villagers continued the traditions of the generations before them, living a peaceful and sheltered existence until November 1943, when each household received a letter from the War Office, giving them just 6 weeks’ notice to quit their properties and move out .
Vast tracts of nearby land were already being used by the tank corps, and more space was needed in the run up to D-Day to cope with the influx of extra troops and equipment.
The residents packed up their lives, said their farewells and had all gone by the week before Christmas, with the last one, Evelyn Bond, leaving a poignant note pinned to the church door:
"Please treat the church and houses with care. We have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly".
The Bond family received £30,000 compensation (nearly £1,000,000 in today’s money) as they owned most of the village. Many of the others were only compensated for the value of vegetables in their home garden plots. They were moved to council houses, some at the other end of the county.
One can only imagine how they must have felt, although they were reassured that their homes would be returned to them as soon as the hostilities were over, and there was a resigned acceptance for many with a feeling that they were doing their patriotic duty for the war effort. The whole area was fenced off and the troops moved in.
The image of what they had to leave behind is one of a rural idyll but it is important not to over romanticise the site. Villagers were tied to the Bond family in a near feudal set up, working for the family, living in tied properties, working in their farms.
The class system was firmly entrenched here with few opportunities to escape it. The arrival of motorised farming equipment meant that there were fewer jobs available on the land and the arrival of the motor car and public transport meant that more people could access nearby towns for less arduous employment.
Servant numbers working in the big manor houses across the country were waning and their numbers had dropped even more sharply with the advent of WWII, as staff left to join the military or work for the war effort. The fishing industry at Worbarrow Bay was in decline due to fishing trawlers operating out at sea from nearby Weymouth. The school had closed in 1932 due to a lack of demand.
The villagers had no running water or electricity, having to queue at the village pump for water and some walked 12 mile round trips to the nearest town, Wareham, for their supplies. It was a blessing for many to be moved to new homes that had all the modern conveniences, including running water and electricity.
However, the fact that so many of them were desperate to return after the war shows that for all its negative points, it was still a home they loved, and that the benefits of living there far outweighed any comfort to be found in their new lives. They had lived within a close knit community, surrounded by family and friends, far away from the troubles of the outside world, in a beautiful unspoilt location by the sea. It is said that many of the older residents died of shock and broken hearts soon after they left their homes.
The War Office reneged on the deal and the villagers were never allowed to return.
A son of the Bond family, who had spent much of the war as a prisoner at Colditz, was shocked to find out on his return that his family were now living in Corfe Castle. There were several campaigns over the years to return the village to its former inhabitants but none ever succeeded.
As time passed, much of the village had gone, the inhabitants had moved on or died and their homes were crumbling away. The land is still part of the Defence Training Estate at Lulworth and is still used for live firing exercises and manoeuvres.
Old photographs from TynehamVillage.org
I visited on a weekend in May, when the sun was out and spring was in the air. It’s hard to find, down a steep and sharp bend on a winding single track country road, with lots of cars reversing as they realise they’ve missed the turning.
A drive down the hill with stunning views over the valley leads to a large and busy car park, as this is a popular place, especially on a sunny day. However, the car park is the only evidence of tourism in the area. Local byelaws mean that loos are the only facilities available for visitors, as any form of commercial enterprise is forbidden.
The village itself is the star attraction. Only two buildings still remain fully intact, the church and the school, both of which were restored by the army around the 1980s. The Elizabethan manor house is sadly long gone, demolished in the 1960s, with its remains in a cordoned off area of the woods.
Everything else has been left to the ravages of time and most buildings are simply ruins, with tumbled-down walls, weeds growing in the cracks, empty windows looking out over the wilderness. A few walls of top floors remain, where you can see the rusted bedroom fireplaces; some still have their metal grates.
The school and church are both small museums full of memories of village life. The school was particularly fascinating, with names still above the pegs written in faded copperplate script, photos of the pupils who had been there and a nature table covered in the dusty ancient treasures of children who had found their delights in the natural world around them.
The rest of the village is softly crumbled walls, lush vegetation and the odd stark remnant of a previous life. The whole village is maintained by the army, with grass cut and paths kept clear, ponds cleared of vegetation, striking just the right balance between making the site accessible and keeping its feeling of wilderness.
Ancient trees were covered in blossom on that spring day, the small ponds teemed with life and the stream flowed, all oblivious to the absence of the inhabitants that had created and nurtured them.
There is a 1920s phone box outside what was the post office, complete with 1940s posters plastered inside as well as a telegraph pole standing proudly over the ruins. Small information panels tell you who lived in the cottages, what their profession was and often include a black and white photograph, helping you to visualise the lives of the people who had lived there so contentedly.
You can wander at will and explore the whole village at your own pace, following the tracks and ruins to see where they lead you.
The farm is the other side of the car park to the main village, and is in the process of being restored. The stables are intact, dusty and full of hanging cobwebs. There is an oil lamp still on the windowsill, a saddle slung over a stall, a 1940s radio set under a thick layer of grime and neglect. Relics of the village are assembled in a display against the backdrop of the valley views, a rusted collection that includes the mangled shells of exploded ordinance.