Broadcaster Richard Dimbleby came down our way in Dunstable

Richard Dimbleby at the Dunstable Met Office
Richard Dimbleby at the Dunstable Met Office

Broadcaster Richard Dimbleby and his team descended on Dunstable in 1952 to present BBC Radio’s enormously popular Down Your Way programme, which featured a different British town every week.

He’s seen here in front of a very tall microphone, talking to Ernest Bilham (right) at Dunstable Meteorological Office.

E.G. Bilham, deputy director of the Met Office in charge of forecasting, had been a custodian of Dunstable’s best-kept wartime secret.

He was a key man in interpreting the weather data gathered at Dunstable and, crucially, it was this information which affected the date of the Allied invasion at Normandy. General Eisenhower was persuaded to put off the D-Day landings for 24 hours because Dunstable was forecasting bad weather in the Channel and there was a real fear that this could sink the shallow-bottomed landing craft.

It was a momentous and risky decision because the fleet was already assembled and could have been spotted by the Germans. Richard Dimbleby, who made a famous broadcast with the Allied forces at Normandy, would have been particularly interested.

Mr Bilham was one of the very few people who knew the planned date of the invasion, so in the months prior to D-Day he was surrounded by the tightest security.

His son Peter, 81, now living in Thresher Close, Luton, has many memories of those war-time dramas. The family had moved from Kensington to Eaton Bray in 1939 when the decision was made to relocate the Met Office to fields off Drovers Way, Dunstable, away from the threat of London bombing. The transfer was completed, amid great secrecy and atrocious weather, between 1500 and 1600 hours on February 4, 1940, when the teleprinters were switched over from London to Dunstable without any interruption to regular weather forecasts.

The Bilham family had made their home at Comp Farm in Eaton Bray which, at that time, was in a fairly isolated spot. As the war progressed Mr Bilham was visited there by numerous British and American officers. Two telephones were installed, one for normal use and one “scrambled” for secret messages.

There was a military guard at the farm and Mr Bilham was issued with a very large revolver – a precaution which caused some wry amusement in the family because, said his son, he was a rather unworldly academic person and would not have had the faintest idea how to use it.

He would have been in regular contact with Station X, the secret code-breaking centre at Bletchley. Messages being interpreted there including information about weather conditions in occupied Europe, which was included in the data assembled by the Dunstable forecasters. In fact, Ernest Bilham had been sent on a mission to Cracow in Poland just before the outbreak of war. It was Polish intelligence which first made the British aware of the German’s Enigma code machine whose workings were famously unravelled at Bletchley.

Another source of forecasting information was the result of data-gathering missions flown over enemy territory by Lancaster bombers. Because these had to be made regularly over the same routes, they were particularly hazardous and there was a real shortage of aircraft. Peter Bilham says his father mentioned this to some American generals and a fleet of Flying Fortresses was made available almost immediately.

Peter, privately educated until going to Dunstable Grammar School, often persuaded his dad to take him to the Met Office buildings in Dunstable. He recalls travelling there via a minor road off Chiltern Road and going through a small artificial wood at the top of what is now Brewers Hill Road, then an unmade track. Security passes had to be shown to guards armed with Tommy Guns before continuing to the Met Office buildings. These were concealed from the air by three acres of camouflage material supported by pylons which gave the impression that it was a hill surrounded by farmland.

Nevertheless, bombs were dropped in the vicinity. They damaged some bungalows at the top of Lancot Hill.

Ernest 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.

He wrote a number of text books about climate, clouds and meteorology, as well as a more light-hearted volume called “Here Is the Weather Forecast”.

Peter Bilham, after some years working in agriculture, became a garage proprietor including, among others, the business near the Travellers Rest crossroads. The Comp farmhouse is now the home of Mr and Mrs Mike Williams.