Dunstable Yesteryear - 'BBC's Down Your Way' comes to town

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Dunstable found itself spotlighted, in 1952, by the long-running BBC Radio programme Down Your Way.

A principal focus of interest for the broadcasters was the Meteorological Office, situated in fields at the foot of Brewers Hill Road. It had been moved from London in February 1940 to avoid the possibility of German bombing and its masts and building had been concealed under three acres of camouflage netting.

Its work proved particularly vital in the weeks prior to the D Day invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. The weather forecasters at Dunstable provided the Allied commander, General Eisenhower, with information which led to him making a momentous decision to change the invasion date, thus avoiding a gale which could have caused disaster.

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The 80th anniversary of D Day, on June 6, is about to be commemorated in various ways locally. Dunstable’s special role in the events of 1944 particularly interested the Down Your Way broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, who had achieved fame for his war-time reports. He is seen in this photo interviewing Ernest Bilham, a climatologist who was a director of operations at Dunstable during the war. Mr Bilham’s team provided the crucial weather information to Group Captain James Stagg, who was in direct contact with General Eisenhower.

Richard Dimbleby interviews Ernest BilhamRichard Dimbleby interviews Ernest Bilham
Richard Dimbleby interviews Ernest Bilham

Ernest Bilham was a quiet academic man who was seldom seen outside his office but would deal firmly with anyone who tried to interfere with his team’s work.

He was one of the very few people who knew the most closely guarded secret of the war – the landing-place for the Allied invasion – and was also in contact with the code-breaking station at Bletchley. There was a fear that he could become a target for kidnapping by German paratroopers so his home at Comp Farm, Eaton Bray, was placed under armed guard in the months prior to D Day. He was also issued with a military revolver, which caused some wry amusement for his family who had little confidence in his ability to use it.

Mr Bilham retired before the Met Office closed in Dunstable in 1961 and he and his wife went to live in Pitstone. He died in 1957.

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The Met Office site is now covered by houses and the school nearby is called, appropriately, Weatherfield.

Radio mast at the Met Office 1952Radio mast at the Met Office 1952
Radio mast at the Met Office 1952

The photo of the weather station masts was taken in 1952 by Dunstable photographer Bruce Turvey. The trees in the background are recognisably those which still line the Green Lanes.

Yesteryear is compiled by John Buckledee, chairman of Dunstable and District Local History Society.

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