Tomorrow marks VE Day 75: 75 years since World War Two ended. I’ve been reading so many interesting articles and watching so many interesting things about the Second World War, in particular the home front experience, so wanted to share with you some interesting stories about how British country houses played their part in the Second World War.
This National Trust property near High Wycombe is mostly famous for being the home of Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who acquired it in 1848. But did you know it was an incredible important place during the Second World War, where maps were produced for night time bombing missions, including the Dam Busters raid?
The Air Ministry requisitioned the mansion in 1941 and gave it the codename of Hillside. A hundred people were stationed in the house, including both RAF and civilians who were artists, architects and graphic designers, thus had the attention to detail to complete the maps. What they were doing was so detailed that they could only create two maps a week!
The maps, when completed, were despatched to Bomber Command HQ at night, via trucks kept in the Manor’s stable yard, then circulated to sixty RAF airfields and to the American Air Force.
All traces of the operations at Hillside were immediately removed from Hughenden Manor at the end of the war, and everybody who took part bound by the Official Secrets Act. The secrecy was so much that the National Trust didn’t find out about the integral role Hughenden played in the war effort until about fifteen years ago, when a volunteer room guide overheard somebody telling their grandchild about being stationed there during the war.
Now there is a fascinating exhibition about what happened at Hillside at Hughenden – read more about the house and its war efforts here.
Chatsworth is known as one of the quintessential British stately homes, is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year and is suggested to have been Jane Austen’s inspiration for Fitzwilliam Darcy’s home Pemberley in the novel Pride and Prejudice. Yet during the Second World War, it played host to a very different kind of visitor: the students of Penrhos College.
Penrhos College was a girls’ school in Colwyn Bay, North Wales. Their school building was taken over by the Ministry for Food for the duration of the war, and the students needed somewhere to go. The Duke of Devonshire very quickly (and cleverly) decided to offer Chatsworth House as a solution. Clever, because the students of a girls’ school would cause a lot less damage and upheaval to a country house compared to if it was requisitioned by the army.
The girls made their home in the house, with the major state rooms being used as dormitories, and the furniture and valuable belongings of the Devonshire family being stored in the library. Also stored on the Chatsworth estate were several paintings from their London home: split (in secret) between the old Estate office and the home of the Head of the Duke’s Household.
Read more about this extraordinary period in Chatsworth history here.
In the grounds of this beautiful eighteenth-century National Trust property, you can find the former buildings of RAF Defford, which was a secret airfield built within land requisitioned from the Earl of Coventry in 1940.
The airfield housed the Telecommunications Flying Unit, which was carrying out flight trials for the Telecommunication Research Establishment. The work at Defford involved the development of Airborne Radar, the work on which carried on after the Second World War ended.
By the end of the war, almost 2,500 personnel and scientists were working onsite at Defford. This included 600 women.
If you visit Croome, they have a wonderful museum in the old Second World War Defford buildings to visit, which tell plenty of stories of the people who worked there, including a substantial exhibition on women’s history there. Part of this can be viewed on the National Trust website here and more can be read on the Defford Airfield Heritage Group website here.
The beautiful Rothschild chateau of Waddesdon Manor is full of wonderful art treasures which were packed away in a hurry during the war to accommodate evacuees. James and Dorothy de Rothschild quickly moved into the Bachelor’s Wing to make room for a hundred children who were evacuated from London – it was the first and last time children have ever lived in the mansion.
Alongside this, in March 1939, twenty-one Jewish boys, along with their headteacher and his family, arrived at Waddesdon from Frankfurt through the Kindertransport. Nine more boys joined them a short while later. Where the boys had been staying in Frankfurt to attend a Jewish school had been attacked on Kristallnacht in September 1938, which prompted their headteacher and his wife to find a way out.
They were housed at The Cedars and became known as the ‘Cedar Boys’. Dorothy de Rothschild followed their lives as they grew up and moved across the world, taking a keen interest in the progress of the boys and even helping with academic scholarships for some whilst they lived at The Cedars.
In 1983, fifteen of the thirty boys came back to Waddesdon for a reunion with Dorothy, which you can read about in this archived New York Times article here.
I’d love to hear about other country houses too that were put to work for the war effort – please share more in the comments below!