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Out of Time: The 508th in Wollaton Park

9 April 19 words: Ashley Carter

For the first edition of our brand new regular feature - which explores lesser known stories from Nottingham’s history - we take a look at when, during World War II, Wollaton Hall was used as a base for the 508th Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division as they prepared for D-Day... 

As the tide of World War II turned, a series of disastrous military defeats that saw the German military machine decimated in Russia, North Africa and over the skies of England. With eyes turned toward a final victory in Europe, plans were hatched for the final push to rid the world of the Nazi threat for good. That plan was known as Operation Overlord, a codename for the Battle of Normandy, during which the Allied forces would launch a cross-channel invasion with over 160,000 men into Nazi-occupied Europe. The strategy for D-Day was underway.

The concept of the paratrooper was a relatively new one on the global stage of war. Often among the most rigorously trained and skilled soldiers, airborne units had some of the highest casualty rates throughout the conflict. One of the most feared was the 508th Infantry Regiment of the American 82nd Airborne Division, known as the “Red Devils” or, perhaps more aptly, the “Fury from the Sky”. Before going on to play an integral role in the success of D-Day, the more than two thousand strong unit - most of whom were under the age of twenty - were stationed in Wollaton Park for a number of months.

Their time stationed there, pitched in endless rows of tents, was spent doing all the training they could while battling the British weather, running exercises every day from 6am until 6pm. Drills were limited to map reading, first aid and smaller tactical sessions, with a palpable sense of anxiety and frustration rising from their inability to complete more than two practice jumps due to the incessant rain. Among their number was twenty four year old Captain William H. Nation, who had originally been drafted into the U.S. Army from his home in Arlington, Texas in January 1941. During his time in the city, Nation spent a large amount of his downtime capturing footage of his fellow troops playing bowls on the grounds of Wollaton Hall, exploring Nottingham Castle and the Old Market Square, then still equipped with trolley buses. His footage still survives, offering a priceless glimpse into a unique time in the city’s history.

Surviving letters and diary entries show that the residents of Nottingham took to Nation and his fellow paratroopers as if they were their own flesh and blood, welcoming them into their pubs, churches and even their own homes; keen to share what meagre food they had available during rationing. The warmth was reciprocated, as the American’s handed out their cigarettes and chocolate. On one afternoon in May, just over a week before D-Day, 7,000 residents even turned out to watch the 508th  play a game of baseball against another regiment at Meadow Lane.

Their stay was not without incident, however. One diary entry tells the story of a paratrooper who spent a decent chunk of his pay packet buying a bike from a young Nottingham boy on the banks of the Trent. Seeing it as the best way to view the city, it was only when he found the local police waiting for him on his return to base that he discovered that the stolen bike was never the boy’s to sell in the first place. On another occasion, a hastily written order was sent around the entire division informing the soldiers that deer were not to be killed and eaten, causing several of the unit’s cooks to speedily remove venison stew from the menu. Dozens of local girls found themselves left with more permanent memories of their presence, with more than a few of the children sired during their short stay never finding out who their real fathers were.

Of the 2,056 paratroopers that had left Nottingham, only 995 returned

But on one summer day, the pubs of Nottingham suddenly found themselves empty of their, now regular, American patrons. The order had been given that Operation Overlord was imminent, and Wollaton Park became closed off to outsiders. The mood within the camp changed immediately; their focus shifting away from girls, beer and baseball, and on to the task at hand: the largest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare.

They were as prepared as they could be, despite the disadvantageous weather conditions, with Brigadier General James M. Gavin commenting that the men looked “as good as any new outfit that I have ever seen, if they cannot do it, it cannot be done." On the eve of their departure, Colonel Lindquist, who commanded the unit throughout the entirety of the war, sent the following message: “I hope that a month or so from today we will be back here preparing ourselves for our second mission. Until then, a happy landing on the Continent, good hunting and good luck.”

The 508th  played an integral role during D-Day, jumping into Normandy at 2.15am on June 6 1944 and securing several key objectives, but they paid a heavy price. First Lieutenant Robert Mathias became the first American officer to be killed by German fire during D-Day, and the 508th  suffered extremely heavy losses. Of the 2,056 paratroopers that had left Nottingham, only 995 returned. Wollaton Park remained a training base for the unit as they embarked on two further drops, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge, during which their involvement was vital. It was here that Captain Nation, the man responsible for capturing so much footage during his stay in Nottingham, was killed in action by a 88mm German shell. He was 25 years old.

During their short stay in the city, the paratroopers of the 508th and the residents of Nottingham formed an inseparable connection that has survived over the years. Locals were proud to have U.S. troops stationed in their city, grateful for the role they were playing in turning the tide of the war, while the paratroopers enthusiastically explored a city and culture so wildly different from their own.

Their stay at Wollaton was far from being the only role that the hall played during World War II, also finding itself, at different times, a home to over 1,000 Dunkirk evacuees, a prisoner of war camp and a new location for Radford Boulevard Boy’s School (who counted Alan Sillitoe amongst their number). But it was doubtlessly the men of the 508th that left the biggest impression, a fact that is remembered with a memorial that, since its erection in 2010, pays honour to the young men for whom Nottingham was the last place they ever called home.

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