Remembering St Albans D-Day veteran and Cold War radio operator

Len Davidge.

Len Davidge. - Credit: Davidge family

Tributes have been paid to a 96 year old D-Day veteran and holder of the Legion d’Honneur who lived in St Albans for almost half a century.

Leonard John Davidge, known as Len, was born in Eastbourne in 1924, but moved to St Albans as a small child.

His father worked in the city as a printer's compositor - perhaps even for the Herts Ad - and Len went to school locally.

When he left school he worked as a messenger for a printing company in St Albans, and when the Second World War broke out, Len was anxious to do his bit.

Len Davidge in 1943.

Len Davidge in 1943. - Credit: Davidge family

Upon reaching 18, and now living at St Albans with his parents and brother, he volunteered to join the Navy "until the end of the period of the present emergency".

Following training at various Naval shore establishments he passed his exams at H M Signals School at Portsmouth to become an Ordinary Telegraphist.

LCG (L) 681 leaving Southampton Docks on 5 June 1944 to join the D-Day invasion fleet

Len’s boat LCG (L) 681 leaving Southampton Docks on 5 June 1944 to join the D-Day invasion fleet – Marines in khaki lining the rail. By kind permission of Imperial War Museum. - Credit: Imperial War Museum

Early on the morning of June 5 1944, Len was on board ‘Landing Craft Gun (Large) 681 (LCG (L)) departing its berth at Southampton Docks to join the massive D-Day invasion fleet gathering in the Channel south of the Isle of Wight. At 19 years of age, Len was the youngest crew member.

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Len’s boat and those around it came under fire from the Le Havre heavy gun battery. He requested smoke cover, which was provided by Marines in craft weaving in and out of the target vessels, burning oil. One of these Marines turned out to be a church mate of Len’s from St Albans, who hailed him across the water in the middle of the action!

Part of the D-Day invasion fleet

Part of the D-Day invasion fleet. By kind permission of Imperial War Museum - Credit: Imperial War Museum

The campaign kept Len’s boat off the French coast for three months, providing support as required for the invasion along much of the length of the Normandy beaches, following which he moved towards the Far East in preparation for the Allies’ planned Japanese invasion, but only got as far as Singapore before the Americans dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Normandy beach under attack during the D-Day landings.

The Normandy beach under attack during the D-Day landings. By kind permission of Imperial War Museum - Credit: Imperial War Museum

He returned to St Albans at the war's end, but his old employer refused to re-hire him, having left them ‘in the lurch’ by volunteering to serve King and country!

The Cold War was on us, and Len’s Navy training and experience was to lead him into the job which lasted until his retirement. The Government was recruiting ex-GPO and services personnel with radio experience to man a network of ‘Listening Stations’ across the country to keep an ear on what Russia was up to.

Len was engaged as a radio operator at Woodcock Hill, Sandridge, St Albans. This had been a World War II ‘Y station’ intercepting enemy and ‘diplomatic’ radio traffic and locating the source of German transmissions. He started in the employment of the Foreign Office, then the Home Office and finally GCHQ.

Len’s work was always a bit of an enigma to family and friends. He was very close about his job, and it was going to stay that way as he had signed the Official Secrets Act. This stance did not change even in the face of numerous well publicised revelations from some in much more exalted positions. 

He met and married the love of his life Beryl Clamp at Dagnall Street Baptist Church, in 1949, where they were members. Their two daughters arrived in their time living at St Albans. Len then moved to the GCHQ outpost at Flowerdown, Winchester - another World War II ‘Y’ station - where he was to stay until its closure and his early retirement.

He died from natural causes whilst out walking near his Winchester home on Sunday 27December 27 and a service celebrating his life was held at the Charlton Park Crematorium, near Andover, on January 26.