When the Nazis Bombed Thatcham
Older Newbury locals will be aware that this market town suffered its share of punishment by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. A tragic incident occurred one afternoon on 10 February 1943 when a rogue German bomber dropped eight high-explosives and terrorized the streets of Newbury with turret gunfire. This sudden and devastating attack claimed fifteen lives, including three schoolchildren. It also destroyed St. John's Church, St. Bartholomew's almshouses and the Senior County School.
Yet, few people are aware that Newbury's neighbouring town of Thatcham also became heavily targeted. This smaller town was bombed even worse than Newbury during the summer of 1940.
The first bombardment of Thatcham commenced in July 1940, resulting in minor injuries and cases of shock among the residents. The worst was yet to come. One afternoon on 16 August 1940, enemy raiders unleashed two high-explosive bombs fifty yards south of Thatcham House, close to where the Burdwood Centre is today. Lieutenant Colonel Vernon Watkins Urquhart happened to be standing in his front garden. One of the bombs struck the vicinity and a piece of shrapnel pierced his chest, killing him instantly. He was on home service at the time. The blast also inflicted considerable damage to his house. His wife was resting inside but was thankfully unharmed.
Why did these attacks happen? The reason for this is as follows.
The United States Army requisitioned the royally acclaimed Newbury Racecourse from the British Military in August 1942. This then became the G45 Ordnance Depot, one of the largest supply dumps in the United Kingdom. The 'G' designation stood for 'general' because, in addition to storing military supplies, this site held scores of foodstuffs, clothing, cigarettes, furniture, medical equipment, gasoline and building materials. Thirty-seven miles of railway track was laid across the course to connect it with its sister site at Thatcham.
The Thatcham branch of the depot stood west of Thatcham Railway Station and stretched to where the Nature Discovery Centre is today. Lt. Urquhart served as its Commanding Officer until his untimely death. Collectively, both sites comprised almost nine million square feet of open and closed storage space and serviced up to 125,000 troops per day during the summer of 1944. Both depots performed a vital role in supplying petrol for the Allied invasions of North Africa and Normandy. Together with the RAF-USAAF airbase located at Greenham Common, these sites formed a concentrated military presence in West Berkshire. This did not go unnoticed by the Nazis.
By Spring 1949, ownership of Newbury Racecourse had (finally) been transferred back to the Racing Authorities. All military surplus was sold at auction. Hundreds of yards of concrete and metal had to be bulldozed and the damaged grounds re-turfed. RAF Greenham Common remained in service for many decades, playing an active role during the Cold War until its eventual closure in September 1992.
Meanwhile, the Thatcham G45 Depot outlived them all. The site was returned to the British Military after the War and continued supplying airbases throughout Berkshire until 1999. The Kennet Heath housing estate now stands in its place. Anyone who lives here or passed through this estate will have noticed the military-themed street signs. Among these are Battalion Way, Horse Guards Way, Cavalry Close and Military Drive. They help preserve the legacy of this area's rich wartime and military heritage. But the most significant is Urquhart Road.
Urquhart was the only fatality of Thatcham's Blitz. The road which runs through this estate was named in memory of this fallen officer.
Maps showing the former G45 Depot underdoing reconstruction in 2003 (top), and the Kennet Heath housing estate which stands in its place today (bottom). Image Credit: Google Earth / Non-Commercial Use.