Room where D-Day landings were planned has lockdown refurbishment

“The Normandy Invasion may seem a million miles from the sedate atmosphere of the Combination Room of St John's but for three days at the end of March 1944 the room played a very significant role in the preparations for the Landings”

Army officials planned the D-Day landings in the Senior Combination Room at St John’s College – now 76 years later the oak floor of the historic room has been returned to its 17th century roots.

The 93ft Senior Combination Room on the first floor of Second Court was a key location for planning the D-Day landings because its lengthy floor space was ideal for poring over maps.

The D-Day combat between Allied troops and German forces in Normandy was the largest seaborne invasion in history and resulted in the Allied liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control. The invasion was one of the largest military assaults in history and required extensive planning.

Although it was kept a closely guarded secret at the time, it has since been revealed that a key part of this planning happened in the Senior Combination Room in Second Court.

Tim Waters in Senior Combination Room
Tim Waters, Head of College Buildings, in the historic Senior Combination Room after the installation of the new oak floor. Photo credit: Nordin Ćatić. The top archive photograph shows the Senior Combination Room in the 1950s.

The Grade 1 listed room, and the Small Combination Room next door to it, were once part of the Gallery of the original 17th century Master’s Lodge. Described as ‘one of the glories of Cambridge’, College archives suggest the wooden floors of the Gallery were made of elm or oak, but it is thought they were replaced with softer pine boards during building works in the 1860s.

This was when the Victorian Chapel was built, The Hall was extended and the Gallery was taken over as the Combination Room, with some of the joinery elements reused in the building of the current Master’s Lodge.

Fast-forward to 2020 and the pine floors were showing their age. Although mostly covered by rugs, the floorboards along the perimeter in the Senior Combination Room revealed splintered edges, uneven wear and damage and evidence of various attempts to stain them over the decades to match the room’s oak-panelled walls.

The College decided to replace the flooring of the Combination Rooms with traditional oak boards and obtained Listed Building Consent in 2017, later adding the corridor next to the Senior Combination Room to the plans.

As part of its Heritage statement in support of the application, Cambridge architects Freeland Rees Roberts noted the College and Fellows had been concerned about the state of the pine floor since the 1930s, adding that the oak boards ‘would be more in keeping with the early 17th century plaster ceiling and panelling, and more durable and resistant to wear in future’.

Specialist carpenters began work replacing the floorboards in June this year and the new floor has just been revealed, prior to the installation of carpets.

Tim Waters, Head of College Buildings, said: “The pine floor had been in for more than 150 years, it had been up in a number of places during that time for cabling and other access works and it was generally in a poor state, the finish was very bad.

“The new flooring is aged, reclaimed oak from Belgium. We have existing oak flooring in some older parts of the College so it is in keeping with tradition, we even found a small section of the original 17th century oak flooring while undertaking the works.”

Pine floors before photo
The Senior Combination Room and Small Combination Room floorboards before the refurbishment. Photo credit: Tim Waters.

The Senior Combination Room is used for Fellows’ dining and special events, but no great treasures were discovered beneath its floorboards, though workers did unearth a few old packs of cigarettes and some carrier bags from Eaden Lilley, a Cambridge department store that closed just over 20 years ago.

Helen Murley, Domestic Bursar, said: “The newly restored floor in the Combination Room is both beautiful and a tribute to the perseverance and dedication of the Fellows on the Buildings Committee and the College Buildings Team. The hard work to source appropriate wood in good condition and the careful treatment of the timber during the fitting and staining has ensured that the finished room is all that we had hoped it would be. Special thanks are owed to all who were involved.”

In St John’s College Cambridge: A History edited by St John’s Fellow Dr Peter Linehan, who died earlier this year, Professor Boyd Hilton, historian and Trinity College Fellow, writes that the Combination Room ‘remains one of the glories of Cambridge’.

 “The new flooring will ensure it has a new lease of life,” said Tim. “If it’s looked after and maintained correctly there’s no reason why it can’t last a couple of centuries at least.”

In an article to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019, Dr Frank Salmon, Senior Lecturer in the History of Art and Fellow of St John’s, explained: “The Normandy Invasion may seem a million miles from the sedate atmosphere of the Combination Room of St John's College but for three days at the end of March 1944 the room played a very significant role in the preparations for the Landings.

“Cambridge was chosen as the location for 'Exercise Conqueror', in which the British Army's 30th Corps then stationed in East Anglia, plotted their part in the Invasion of Gold Beach. The officers stayed and held most of their meetings at Trinity College, but it was necessary for a physical model to be studied – for which a long, narrow space was required. So, for those three days, the Combination Room at John's housed a model of the Normandy beaches which was central to the organisation of the operation.”

Published: 12/10/2020

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