My Grandfather was Lt. Gen. John C.H. Lee, who commanded the W.W.II Service of Supply for the entire European Theater from Cheltenham, England between May 1942 and October 1944. I recently visited the town, and below is part of a letter I wrote to Col. Van R. Mayhall, who commanded the Guard Company of the headquarters. He gave me some tips before my trip, which helped me find some of the places I visited, so I wrote a report.
Much of what happened for me was prearranged by email. Some was completely serendipitous. Hope you find it interesting.
I traveled by train from Paddington Station, London, to Cheltenham on the morning of Wednesday, 11 Aug.1999. After a cab to the Municipal Offices Building on the Promenade, I was greeted by His Honor, Mayor David Banyard, and we quickly went back outside, joining most all the staff, to see the Solar Eclipse. While it was basically overcast, there were thin spots in the clouds, and we experienced the 90-95% crescent in these gaps. It was sufficiently masked to look right at it, briefly. But it did get pretty dark overall, and the birds did become very quiet.
Our tour began with a walk down the Promenade to the Old Fountain, where we found the Statue of Neptune, guardian of the famous healing mineral waters of the Cheltenham Spa. He pointed out the differently-colored right arm on the sculpture, and in laughter told me that it had been broken off, and stolen, by rowdy tourists so many times that the Council had eventually decided to stop having it recarved, and had had a mold made, so that many copies could be cast in concrete. They never quite matched the color or texture of the original stone, but it made it possible to get a new arm back on the Old Man of The Sea almost overnight.
The town's major business is tourism, so we next visited the new Mall adjacent to the Promenade, with this most ornate giant clock; half timepiece, half child's very-busy-object of fascination. On the second level were the offices and studios of the town radio station. I regret that I did not record the call letters, or frequency of this local voice, but Mayor Banyard had a wonderful idea, and they went with it. Their news director went on the air, and with the DJ asked their listeners if anyone had a grandparent or older friend who had been involved with the Service Of Supply, or who had known General Lee. They announced that his grandson was in town on holiday, and would enjoy speaking with anyone with a tale to tell. They repeated the bit later in the day, but unfortunately no one called in. But I was very grateful for the gesture.
We then walked to the Town Hall, where there were many formal functions, dances, and other mixed gatherings during the war. On the wall hangs a bronze plaque, from the SOS Forces, commemorating the Allied effort in the area, and thanking the locals for their hospitality, cooperation, and generosity. I also tasted the famous local Mineral Water, which is still salty as hell, though not as bitter as I heard it would be. The flavor was with me for some time. I laughed as I told the Mayor that I pay more than $70 a month in the U.S. for liquid mineral & vitamin supplements.
Returning to Mayor Banyard's Chambers, we shared coffee and a chat, and took some pictures. Mayor Banyard could not have been more gracious, and spent the better part of his day with me; as Wednesdays are generally his lightest day, this worked out wonderfully. He presented me with some papers that various staff people had found: A program from an entertainment of American Show Music; a book about the Cotswolds area of the UK; a beautiful print of the Cheltenham Spa; and a photocopy of the Town Council Minutes from 1952-53, when it was resolved to name a new subdivision road "Lee Close." We went there later.
After taking him to a quick lunch, we drove past the large, and still best-in-town Queen's Hotel. I was told that Gen. Lee had stayed there, though no one knew how much, or how long. Returning later that night, on a walkabout, the staff there gave me a copy of the hotel's history booklet, which says the building was used as The American Services Club from September 1942 until the end of the war. God knows Granddaddy did like a nice spot to relax, and it was all of that.
This was on the way to Thirlstaine Hall, which was the actual HQ of the SOS Forces. This had been a hotel, and was again after the war, so it was suggested that some personnel lived, as well as worked there. (Maybe Col. Mayhall can set me straight on where Gen. Lee lived in Cheltenham. Was he driven to work, or walked, or just walked down the hall?) The building is now the general offices of a local Building Society, a sort of mutualized-credit-and-construction-management organization. They were most uncooperative; almost paranoid, even though I was there with the town Mayor, wearing his (very British) gold Chain and Seal of office. We were given a very brief tour of the public areas of the building, and the grounds, by a nice, but clearly frightened and very junior Public Relations staff member. She was fascinated to learn that the place had such an auspicious history, but could not allow us to see any of the larger upstairs offices. She made it very clear that no photos were to be taken, though I did manage one of the front of the building before we entered, and I sure wasn't going to give it back. I don't know what they feared from me, but they certainly showed it.
We then drove to Lee Close, a short cul-de-sac in a postwar residential subdevelopment. I photographed the road signs on both sides of the road, and wondered aloud if the pair of chatting housewives I saw had any idea why their street was so named. I was tempted to strike up a conversation, and brag like hell, but instead had a good laugh with the mayor about not doing it.
The main depot for the sorting and storage of materiel was the Race Course outside of town, still used for horse races 6 weeks a year. There are no known photos of the place in wartime, understandably, but Mayor Banyard recounted the scene as being covered with North American-produced vehicles, artillery, armor and construction materials for miles in every direction. A gigantic place, but easy to see it that way in my mind's eye.
Now being near to the City of Gloucester, he graciously took me to the Hertz office, where I rented a small left-hand-drive Fiat. I had already been in London for 4 days, so I had experienced the road some that way, which acclimated me, and alleviated my initial fears. Driving was fairly easy, though shifting with my left hand was a bit rough at first. I eventually put 340 miles on that car, so I did get comfortable. But there were a couple of instances where I came out of a driveway into the right lane, and even got caught at it once. That woman was more shocked than I, but I remember having this goofy thought of wishing I'd had a small American flag to wave in sheepish apology.
I followed Mayor Banyard back to his office, collected my bags, and we exchanged farewells. I left him with a photocopy of the chapter on Cheltenham from my grandfather's Service Reminiscences, a memoir written in 1956, which he was very grateful to receive.
Next stop was the Town Museum, where I had no luck, and then the Town Library, where I met a very helpful man named Roger Beacham. On the way, I walked past the 900-year-old St. Mary's Church, and at the Library, was shown a copy of a book about that church. In a later chapter, it described three flags hanging inside: the Union Jack, one from Gloucestershire County, and the Stars and Stripes, "presented to [then] Rev. John Goodliffe from Lt. Gen. John C.H. Lee, commander of the Allied Service Forces headquartered in the town during the war." I was amazed, and went back to the church, which was closed by that time. But there was a sign posting hours, with a phone number for the current vicar. I checked into the lovely and accommodating Wyastone Hotel on Parabola Road, and called Rev Timothy Watson from there that evening. He very kindly put me in touch with (retired) Rev. Lionel Fitz, and we arranged to meet at the church at 10:45 the next morning.
This fine old gentleman had been a very young, very new Anglican priest during the war, and had met my grandfather. The General was very devout throughout his life, but even more so during this crushingly stressful time, and Rev. Fitz told me that he had worshipped in this ancient church almost daily, so Rev. Goodliffe and he apparently became good friends, and they corresponded until the last. Rev. Fitz took me inside, and showed me the old Stars and Bars, hanging in all its' dusty, discolored Glory, where I stood on a pew beneath it and took a very long time-exposure. He also introduced me to a perfectly English lady he had invited, who had served as a secretary in the motorpool section of the SOS. She'd had no direct contact with Gen. Lee, but it was wonderful to meet her, and hear her stories about the American boys she'd met, and the urgency and dedication needed from all for the task at hand. The church is the only medieval structure still standing in Cheltenham, and as we stood in the nave, I shared with Rev. Fitz that part of the purpose of this trip was to try to become a little closer to a storied ancestor who passed when I was but a boy of 6 years. I thanked him, did some quick gift shopping, and then drove on to Nottingham for the next part of my trip.
Nearly everyone I met in the Borough of Cheltenham was as helpful, and friendly, as could be imagined in helping me accomplish my goal. I learned a great deal about John Clifford Hodges Lee, or Cliff as he was known, in an English town three thousand miles from home. A very worthwhile visit, and one I'm glad I made.
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