The remarkable story of how the opinions of drinkers at a Marylebone pub came to influence British military strategy in the second world war

Words: Tom Hughes
Illustrations: Matthew Hancock

It is hard to believe that Marylebone was once home to more pubs than anywhere in London. The area was known (and not favourably) as a veritable “El Dorado of drink”. Every street, every corner, every mews, it seemed, had a boozer. Pub crawls are always fun, and Marylebone could test even the most ambulatory tipplers of London. One suggested rota might start in the wee confines of Marylebone Lane at the Prince Alfred; on to the Worcester Arms on George Street, to the Wallace Head in Chiltern Street, a swift half at the grand old Windsor Castle on Crawford Place and arriving in time for last orders at the stately Black Horse on the high street. One tip: don’t come thirsty—for all those pubs are closed.

Marylebone is not unique, of course. Across the capital, public houses have been shutting down at an alarming rate, often refurbished to serve changing tastes, reborn as restaurants, cocktail bars and, gasp, even coffee shops. And the roll call of the lost pubs of Marylebone is so much longer than the five numbered above, a short list that merely serves as a device to call attention once again to the last named establishment: the Black Horse.

Since the 1790s, there had been a public house on that site—now numbered 109 Marylebone High Street—and the swaying sign had read The Black Horse from its very earliest days. For much of the Victorian period, the pub enjoyed a raffish, anti-establishment reputation, hosting the “convivial meetings” of the London Labour League and being the scene of the founding of the Marylebone Radical Association in 1880. But by the late years of the 19th century, as part of what was seen as a much overdue clean up, The Howard de Walden Estate launched numerous improvements to the high street, especially the west side. In 1892, the Black Horse was reopened behind one of the grandest pub facades in the realm.

The new Black Horse was designed by a ‘brewery builder’ named William Bradford and built to conform with the neighbourhood’s “neo-Jacobean domestic revival”. Philip Temple of University College London explains that Bradford relied on aping early-17th century designs, which were suitable for “a large pub at the time in a busy and prosperous area like this”. Even today, more than a century later, the red brick and stone building demands attention. To really appreciate the architecture, the viewer must admire it from over the road. There is a massive bow window, intricately carved stone, and everything is arranged in glorious symmetry, rising four floors above the pavement. The actual entrance to the pub was recessed within the ground level stone archway.

The D-Day invasion
Alas, the Black Horse closed around the turn of the millennium and since 2001, the property has been home to The Providores and Tapa Room, Peter Gordon’s respected and highly popular restaurant. But those who dine there on Turkish eggs and more may not be aware, until reading these pages, of the forgotten history of the building. During the second world war, behind double sets of tightly gathered blackout curtains, the D-Day invasion was planned at the Black Horse. All right, that might be a slight exaggeration—but it’s a story worth telling all the same.

In January 1943, at Casablanca, Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt were under pressure from our Soviet allies. Stalin hadn’t even come to north Africa, being rather busy with the siege of Stalingrad. All were agreed that an invasion in Europe had to be launched by the summer of 1944. Where the strike against Hitler’s Fortress Europe would take place, and who would command it, had not been decided. But the planning was begun under Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Morgan, given the title of COSSAC: Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander. Morgan’s team worked out of Norfolk House, one of the great mansions in St James’ Square.

Peter Wright of the Royal Canadian Engineers was a senior intelligence officer on the staff and while in London he was billeted in Marylebone. On many of the long winter evenings in early 1944, Wright would make his way through the city’s darkened streets for a pint at the Black Horse. Wright would take his glass to a corner table with his evening paper. But he soon found the conversation among the regulars of far more interest—and greater potential.

As everyone knows, the chaps down the pub between them have more than enough ideas to run a football club, Transport for London and the Church of England. Thus, the quiet officer became fascinated by these friendly argy-bargies. Why aren’t we doing this or that to win the war? In the view of the Black Horse drinkers, the war was being prolonged by “incompetent leadership, by vested interests, and other well-known obstacles to progress”.

Secret Black Horse Group
Wright, without revealing his rank and role in the continuing hostilities, soon joined these nightly conversations. Back at Norfolk House, he couldn’t stop talking about his secret “Black Horse Group”. It became Wright’s habit, whenever he had “a ticklish point of invasion planning”, to swing by the pub and “get the regulars arguing” about how they would carry out whatever thorny gambit was under discussion.

General Morgan, in his post-war memoirs, recalled that Wright had an “ebullient sense of humour”. On a few occasions, he convinced the COSSAC to come along on an impromptu reconnaissance mission. Morgan, in mufti, with a big bowler hat, would enter alone and sit off to the side while Wright and his mates returned to their chinwags on tactics and strategy. General Morgan, Freddie to his friends, found it a profitable interlude: “We listened, naturally without their knowledge, to the thoroughly representative body of opinion that congregated at this hospitable bar.”

Now, no one is suggesting that the ultimate call that the great invasion should strike first at Normandy and not Calais was made over a few rounds in a public bar on Marylebone High Street. But the story of this curious consulting group is right there in General Morgan’s memoirs, Overture to Overlord.

The general’s book wasn’t published until 1950 and when the reporters from the Mail and Express invaded the Black Horse, they found some of the old regulars enjoying a peacetime pint: Fred Bennett, a clerk, Tom Chandler, a butcher, and Leslie Rivers, a well-known furrier from Baker Street. They hadn’t any idea that they’d been of such importance to king and country while standing at the bar rail. With pride, they remembered those conversations and when shown Morgan’s photograph, someone said, “Oh, sure, that’s the bowler hat bloke!”

Cornerstone of democracy
There’s no plaque on the wall today at 109 Marylebone High Street but the general’s words serve the Black Horse group well: “Sound opinions are not the prerogative of those who are paid to give them. It is comforting to record that our operation was not launched without, at any rate, some consultation with that cornerstone of Western democracy—the English pub.”

HistoryMark Riddaway