“In a way you could say it’s perhaps the most important printing operation in recorded history.”

That’s a strong claim made by Peter Harrison, the grandson of one of the most important men in Watford’s industrial past, but it is wholly justified when you consider the enormity and magnitude of a task undertaken by one of the town’s best-known firms during the Second World War.

Peter’s grandfather was David Greenhill, the managing director of the Sun Engraving Company, and he enjoyed an “exceptional partnership” with the firm’s chairman Edward Hunter. By 1939, Sun Engraving employed 2,500 workers and had become one of the largest print companies in the world.

The firm printed much of the Allied propaganda material during the war but in autumn 1943, David was contacted by the Air Ministry about some “highly secret work” that was to be key to one of the most important events in 20th century history – D-Day.

Watford Observer: The Sun Engraving works, from Ascot RoadThe Sun Engraving works, from Ascot Road (Image: sunprintershistory.com)

Tomorrow marks the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings, the largest seaborne invasion in history which began the liberation of France and ultimately to the Allied victory in the war.

David’s biography – David Greenhill Master Printer written by Peter’s aunt Miriam Leach and published in 1950 – described the work as “of the highest importance and had to be conducted under conditions of absolute secrecy and urgency”.

It was the ‘bible’ of the invasion.

When planning had started for Operation Neptune as it was codenamed, the RAF began to secretly photograph northern France using reconnaissance aircraft. The result was tens of thousands of pictures which were pieced together into aerial photographic maps showing every detail of the landscape.

The task of Sun Engraving was to compile the maps into books, called Tactical Targets, to be used by the Allied forces when the time came. Like the scale of the invasion itself, the numbers involved were staggering as David’s biography recalled.

“It was probably the largest process engraving order ever placed, comprising the etching of over 600,000 square inches of 175 screen plates, over 70,000 hand engravings of lettering and diagrams, also the make-ready and printing of over 1,300 separate sheets, 14,000,000 hand-folds and 27,000,000 hand collations.”

Watford Observer: Copy #469 of Tactical Targets, Area 4901W (Caen), May 1944Copy #469 of Tactical Targets, Area 4901W (Caen), May 1944 (Image: sunprintershistory.com)

Each book weighed up to 7.5 pounds and it ultimately ran to 37 individual volumes, covering not only D-Day, but also the Allied advance through Belgium and Holland and the subsequent operations on the Rhine, the Ems and the Elbe rivers and the Southern Redoubt on the Danube.

Such was the highly confidential nature of the work, every production department had an area screened off, entrances were guarded and plates and copy were taken between departments in locked containers.

Sun Engraving was famed for its photogravure process but the ‘bible’ was produced using printed letterpress. David’s nephew, Cyril Greenhill, was general manger of the letterpress department and the demands this work placed on staff was huge.

Watford Observer: Map #5 of Tactical Targets, Area 4901W (Caen), May 1944. The map contains numbered rectangles corresponding to each aerial photo in the bookMap #5 of Tactical Targets, Area 4901W (Caen), May 1944. The map contains numbered rectangles corresponding to each aerial photo in the book (Image: sunprintershistory.com)

The letterpress machine department worked 43 Saturdays out of 52, while the warehouse worked for 30 weeks without a single day off.

Their efforts were noted in a letter of appreciation sent by Air Commodore G. N. P. Grant, Director of Intelligence (Operations) at the Air Ministry, shortly before D-Day on May 31, 1944.

It read: “Dear Mr. Greenhill, Wing-Commander Verity has drawn my attention to the magnificent work which you and your firm have been carrying out during the last few weeks under great pressure of time in connection with material for A.I.3c(I).

“He is very high in his praise of the way you have responded to his repeated calls for urgent work to be completed at short notice.

Watford Observer: Aerial photo #11 from Tactical Targets, Area 4901W (Caen), May 1944. The photo shows the coastline and the town of Les Bains. Taken March 7, 1944Aerial photo #11 from Tactical Targets, Area 4901W (Caen), May 1944. The photo shows the coastline and the town of Les Bains. Taken March 7, 1944 (Image: sunprintershistory.com)

“I would like to confirm to you that the material you are producing is vital and of the highest operational importance, and the splendid work which you and your staff have been doing, and are continuing to do, is very much appreciated by those responsible for planning and carrying out the ever-increasing bomber offensive against the enemy.

“I fully realise the heavy strain that this may have put upon your staff, and I trust you will convey to them our appreciation of the work they are doing.”

Watford Observer: Sun Engraving Company managing director David GreenhillSun Engraving Company managing director David Greenhill (Image: sunprintershistory.com)

Peter described his grandfather as an “extraordinary man” who left school at 14 to undertake a printer’s apprenticeship with Dalziel’s. A leading firm of wood engravers in Victorian London also operated Camden Press and are perhaps best known for producing the bookplates for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

David was at first general manager of Sun Engraving, then managing director and in 1945, two years before his death, he became the first chairman of Sun Printers.

Peter, who lives in Eastbourne, said: “He was called the king of photogravure printing in this country and he invented a machine called the rotary photogravure printing press. This enabled for the first time very, very large printing runs to be done in colour and the most famous publication of all was Picture Post.”

David’s contribution to Watford went far beyond printing. He was the founder President of Watford Rotary Club in 1924, played a key role in helping to finance what became the Peace Memorial Hospital and also took over the management of Cawdells department store for a time when the business was going through a difficult patch.

“He was a wonderful grandfather,” said Peter. “He was very much a family man and he had a lovely house built called Gade House in Hempstead Road.”