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The wartime role of Country houses

By Marcus Binney

The wartime role of Country houses

Crucial to our success in the Second World War, which began 70 years ago this year, British country houses became hotbeds of culture, military operations and, occasionally, local resistance, as Marcus Binney explains

Every country house had its war, some more peaceful than others. My favourite is Inverailort, where many soldiers were sent for the first stage of commando training at the head of a brooding loch west of Fort William. Here, they were greeted by two former Shanghai policemen, Fairbairn and Sykes, inventors of the famous commando knife. They weren’t quite the Capt Mainwarings they first appeared. Maj Hall of the Dorset Regiment described his arrival: ‘We gathered at the foot of a large staircase in a big house, and two old gentlemen, aged about 59 and 56, appeared at the top of the stairs and proceeded to fall down together and landed in battlecrouch position with a handgun in one hand and a Fairbairn-Sykes knife in the other.’ With the threat of imminent German invasion, plans were drawn up for a British resistance, the Auxiliaries, which would fight a guerrilla war against the Germans as they marched through England.

The training centre was Roger Pratt’s masterpiece, Coleshill in Berkshire. Colin Gubbins, who took charge, wrote: ‘There would be no question of co-ordinating these forces into large units or grouping them for battle; they must be very small units, locally raised… The highest possible degree of secrecy must be maintained.’ One such house was Wolverton Hall in Worcestershire. Peers and poachers served together, and hide outs were contrived in woods, farm buildings and cellars even deserted badger setts. Prescient owners of great houses, some of which had been offered voluntarily as hospitals during the First World War, decided the least damaging use was as a girls’ school.

Longleat became home to the Royal School for Daughters of Officers of the Army. Chatsworth was offered to Penrhos College, whose buildings at Colwyn Bay were due to be commandeered by the Ministry of Food. At Castle Howard, taken over by Queen Margeret’s School from Scarborough, a savage fire broke out: girls and teachers helped rescue paintings before the Fire Brigade arrived. Catholic owners turned to convents. The Actons at Aldenham in Shropshire invited the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington Square and its school to take up residence.

Monsignor Ronald Knox came to work on his new Catholic translation of the Bible, as well as acting as chaplain to the nuns. Bletchley Park, where the enigma codes were broken, is perhaps the most famous of the country houses employed for secret war work. Beaumanor Hall, near Loughborough, was one of a number of listening posts that intercepted enemy signals and sent them on to Bletchley. Blenheim was taken over by MI5 and a boys’ school, and Wilton Park near Beaconsfield, demolished in 1967, was the base of Norman Crockatt’s MI9, which ran escape lines in occupied Europe and hid compasses in pens and buttons sent to prisoner-of-war camps (the park was later used as an interrogation centre for senior Nazis).

Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, which trained secret agents, took over more than 70 country houses and Highland deer stalking lodges, and was jokingly known as Stately ’Omes of England. Elizabethan Wanborough Manor on the Hog’s Back near Guildford was one of the houses where trainee agents were plied with drink to see if they would talk when light-headed. Alas, the glamorous girls employed to extract details of missions were so successful that the tests were abandoned as ever more brave, painstakingly trained young men succumbed.

Military requisitions

By far the largest numbers of houses requisitioned were taken over by the military, and used after Dunkirk for training and housing the growing army being readied for the invasion. One major problem was that pre-war houses were almost all without cen- tral heating. Park trees, antique furniture, panelling and carved staircases were fed progressively into fireplaces and stoves. A select number of country houses served the nation’s key commanders. Dowding masterminded the Battle of Britain from Bentley Priory, Fighter Command HQ. Mont-gomery used Elizabethan Longford Castle as his headquarters. Patton was at Peover Hall in Cheshire. Palladian Foot’s Cray in Kent became HMS Worcester, a naval training establishment.

Eisenhower was at Southwick House, where the restored War Map set for H-Hour on D-Day is still in the drawing room. Many country houses in the east of England were used in conjunction with the numerous airfields built for the RAF and the USAAF. Harlaxton Hall was the headquarters of the 1st Airborne Division of the RAF, the USAAF was at Wycombe Abbey, Disraeli’s Hughenden  Place was used by RAF signals and Blickling became an officers’ mess for RAF Oulton. Hospitals included Harewood, for wounded officers, Carlton Towers as an overflow convalescent hospital for York Military Hospital, Hatfield House, and Leeds Castle lent by Lady Baillie. In 1944, the new threat to the capital from V1 rockets or ‘doodlebugs’ prompted London County Council to move 200 patients of Colindale TB hospital in a special evacuees’  train to mighty Kinmel in North Wales.

Saving the nation’s art

Even before war began, large country houses were seen as a safe haven for the nation’s art treasures. Penrhyn Castle was chosen by Kenneth Clark for the National Gallery its doors were the only ones large enough to admit Van Dyck’s vast equestrian portrait of Charles I, although the pictures were later immured in slate quarries near Blaenau Ffestiniog. ‘Bury them in the bowels of the earth, but not one picture shall leave this island,’ advised Churchill. The Gold State Coach was sent to Mentmore Towers. The Tate used Muncaster Castle in Cumbria. The Natural History Museum sent prize exhibits to 15th-century Tattershall Castle, where damp inflicted disastrous damage on the butterfly collection. The Public Record Office sent archives to Belvoir Castle: the Duke of Rutland was enrolled as official curator to comply with regulations.

After the war

The aftermath was less romantic. Dozens of houses were so roughly treated that the owners never returned. At Tottenham Park in Wiltshire, where the grounds were used as an ammunition dump by the Americans, an accidental explosion blew every pane of glass out of the house and the glorious conservatory.

As John Martin Robinson puts it in his absorbing volume The Country House at War: ‘Nearly every house which was used to accommodate the military has some horror story to retail of staircases chopped up for firewood, subsidiary wings gutted, the Van Dycks used as dartboards.’ At Hylands House in Essex and Marston in Somerset, there are stories of US troops driving jeeps up the staircases. More stories emerge every month. Seventy years after the Second World War began, the hunt is absorbing more people than ever before. What are your memories of the Second World War?

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