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The earliest reference that I can find to the mention of RAF Woodcote is Air Ministry Minute No.852/41 around September 1941 which stated that four new Equipment Dispersal Depots were then under construction and that No.70 Woodcote was one of them. A location near Pangbourne, Berks was given and it was to be placed in No.40 Group, Maintenance Command.
South Oxfordshire already had a number of war time airfields due to the natural lay of the land, and the River Thames provided perfect training opportunities for the building of pontoons and Bailey bridges. At various times Americans, Canadians, Australians and Royal Engineers received periods of training on the Thames at Pangbourne. Howbery Park at Wallingford conducted similar exercises on the Thames for the Royal Engineers. Throughout the war years the propensity of empty stately homes locally provided ideal Headquarters for use by the Allied Armies. Two units of the 101st Airborne Division of the American Army completed their training for D-Day at Basildon Park, whilst the British Army used the Park for practising tank warfare. Coombe Park and Walliscote Manor House both in Whitchurch housed American soldiers and later ex Polish soldiers. Mongewell Park Mansion housed the Royal Air Force from 1939 to 1945. In Goring the Air Ministry trained Belgians who had escaped Nazi persecution to become pilots for the Belgian Air Force to fly in 349 and 350 Squadrons. The BBC moved to Caversham forcing The Oratory School to Woodcote and both of them have remained 'in situ' ever since. An American Rehabilitation Centre was set up at Moulsford; a Rehabilitation Centre for the civil war blinded at Goring; the Royal School for the Deaf moved from Margate to Goring; a Red Cross Hospital was set up at Flint House and the Royal Veterinary College moved to Streatley.
Once an ideal site had been identified to house a Headquarters Site and 3 separate sites, one to three miles apart and not unduly conspicuous from the air and therefore difficult to attack, land had to be acquired. The attraction of Woodcote was the ancient beech woodlands on the edge of the village, most of which was owned by Christ Church College, Oxford. The University was and still is a major landowner in these parts. The woodland provided a natural camouflage from the air. A total of over 176 acres of mixed woodland and open pasture bordered by some 7 miles of winding country lanes was requisitioned on compulsory leases from a number local landowners on a total compensation rental of £ 100 pa.
The Headquarters Site was located on land belonging to Captain Cyril Julian Goldsmid OBE, a local landowner; a Councillor representing Goring on the Henley Rural District Council and a Justice of the Peace at Henley on Thames Magistrate Court. This site was known as 'Pedigree Poultry Farm' opposite his farm house at Newhouse Farm on the road to Crays Pond and occupied approximately ten and a half acres of open land. Separate entrances and exits were made at each end and the site was secured and the gates locked at night. A sewage disposal works covering approximately half an acre was established not far from this site.
The remaining three sites were located on the edge of the country lanes. These sites were not fenced and therefore the boundaries were arbitrary.
Site 1 abounded the edges of the road to Crays Pond and Eastfield Lane and covered almost 58 acres generally to a depth of no more than 100 yards from the road. This Site was owned by Leslie C. Garton to the west of the road to Crays Pond and the Trustees of Goring Heath Charities to the east of the road to Crays Pond. Leslie Garton owned Great Oaks House and Great Oaks woods and the surrounding land.
Site 2 covered approximately 35 acres to a depth of generally 100 yards on the edges of Long Toll and encompassed Friar Hampstead Cottage and Long Toll Cottage. The Trustees of Goring Heath Charities also owned this site.
Site 3 covered 63½ acres to a similar depth on the edges of the road to Exlade Street. The site to the west of the road and also bordering Deadmans Lane was owned by Christ Church College, Oxford University, whilst the site to the east was owned by Lawrence Hignett of Hook End Farm, Checknedon; a director of W.D. & H.O.Wills, cigarette manufacturers. He later sold the woodland to Sir Charles Clore.
A further separate and isolated 7½ acres of woodland known as The Hocket was acquired and was probably owned by C.H.Palmer of Bozedown House, a J.P. and a director of Huntley & Palmers Ltd, biscuit manufacturers in Reading.
Discreet adverts were placed in the local papers by the RAF in March 1941 calling for bricklayers, plumbers, pipe fitters, steel erectors, electricians, wiremen, drainlayers, concretemen - in fact all the necessary skills for the building of 70MU.
The local residents recalled the building activities; "Its beginnings in 1941 were very noisy. The blasting of trees in the woods shook our homes. Lorries loaded with sand, gravel, steel and corrugated iron roared through the village. Then gradually the monstrous black huts reared their heads."
Bill Fidler is a local man who was employed by Foster and Dicksee Ltd, the builders and contractors to whom the contract for the building of 70MU was awarded. He was a bricklayer on the HQ site and recalled that the bricks used in some of the buildings were 'old London bricks - made of sewage'. He said that the stench of sewage was terrible when they broke a brick in half. I deduce that Bill was implying that the bricks were already second hand having been reclaimed from the building rubble, including bricks used to line the sewers, as a result of the 'blitz' and bomb damage to London in 1940. It was common practice to remove the rubble to storage areas in the London parks, and then reclaim them for future use.
Bill Fidler further recalled spraying the roofs of the Storage Sheds with tar and cork chippings in the summer to increase the camouflage. HQ Maintenance Command would make regular reconnaissance flights over the unit in daylight to check the camouflage effectiveness and during the hours of darkness similar flights to ensure that the Storage Shed lighting and solid fuel stoves used for heating did not 'show a light' and impair the camouflage.
Another local man, Jack Hatt, recalls transporting from Goring railway station the long steel girders produced by Dorman Long & Co Ltd of Middlesborough and used in the erection of the Storage Sheds. He had set himself up in business as a haulage contractor and remembers using his Austin lorry towing a pole/timber wagon to carry the steel to the site.
Gordon and Jack Ritchie who operated from the site of the current garage at Crays Pond had several lorries that were used to collect and deliver on site gravel, sand and ballast. Another local man called Barrett did all the blasting and earth moving.
The building works continued well into 1943 and provided much needed work for the locals from bus driving; part time lorry driving; tree felling and making concrete shuttering; although the contractors brought in gangs of bricklayers from as far afield as Bournemouth on a daily basis.
Their Department of Works drew up plans for the Air Ministry. The first Storage Shed (150' x 50') which was a lightly built steel framed building, walled and roofed with corrugated iron, was ready for use by February 1942 and the last one; the 40th Shed; by July, all at a total cost of £ 200,000. A vast Transportation Shed (300' x 100') was erected together the Maintenance Sheds, Workshops and Petrol Installations; An Ambulance and Fire Station; a Gas Defence Centre; a Guard House and Armoury; a sewage works; fuel compounds; static water tanks; and anti freeze storage tanks.
The usual selection of half brick; Laing; Nissen; Richmond; Turner and wooden buildings were built as canteens; barrack huts; Police huts; latrines; sanitary blocks, ablutions, search rooms; offices; workshops, dining rooms; checkers huts; and finally, although thankfully never used, 15 brick blast shelters and one sunken air raid shelter.
On 23 February 1942 the first to arrive on site were Squadron Leader A.S.Thompson; Mr.W.J.Palmer, the Civil Assistant and Accountant; and Mr.J.Jefferd, A.S.C. Grade 3; followed shortly by Mr.M.Rowe, Clerical Officer transferred from Glossop; soon to be followed by Mr.Ashworth, Foreman of Stores and Mr.W.Sherman, Principal Foreman transferred from 7MU. A party of Airmen from No.3MU Milton took 3 days to complete the erection of 28 skeleton 'Milton' racks in Storage Shed No.1.
On 1 March 70MU was formed and formally opened as an Equipment Dispersal Depot to take dispersed stocks from the Parent Unit, No.3MU Milton, the Universal Equipment Depot who held the main stock records of 70MU.
The function of these Equipment Dispersal Depots was to be the storage of equipment as it came off production on a depository basis, and issue would be in bulk to either Universal Equipment Depots (a storage and supply depot holding universal stocks in all respects) or Equipment Parks (a storage and supply depot holding stores forward with operational units or on behalf of a Universal Equipment Depot so as to relieve pressure on that depot).
On the 27th four 3 ton lorries loaded with Section 33A stores, consisting of general paints and painters' materials, arrived at the Unit.
The intial establishment was 8 RAF Officers and 476 civilians and during the next few months the civilian establishment was increased to 755 with the help of the local Employment Exchange as local people were recruited and existing employees of 3MU Milton, and other more distant MUs, were transferred in.
On 7 May 1942 70MU was renamed an Equipment Distributing Depot and by August it was renamed a Ground Equipment Depot; a fully self accounting unit serving the same geographical area, but still remaining under the control of 40 Group, Maintenance Command. In December Squadron Leader J.E.Linford took over command from Squadron Leader A.S.Thomson.
The Monthly Operations Record Book meticulously details the equipment movements both by volume and destination; the RAF Officer postings; and visiting dignitaries. At its peak 70MU was monthly unloading 345 railway trucks from the long since disused railway sidings at Pangbourne; unloading 5 barges from the River Thames at Moulsford; covering almost 75,000 miles on road transport; and issuing 2037 tons of equipment.
The destinations comprised of some familiar industrial names (eg. De Havilland Aircraft Co Ltd at Hatfield Aerodrome; Dodge Bros Ltd at Kew; Spurling Motor Bodies Ltd at NW9) and some unknown industrial names (eg. B.P. & P Ltd at Staysfield); RAF Stations both at home (eg. Odiham; Fife;) and abroad (eg. Mombassa; Calcutta; Portugal), and a number of destinations identified by a code name only (eg. 'Pine/U'; 'Play/M'; 'Ugly'; 'Bump').
Woodcote was a reception area for the arrival and billeting of evacuees from London in 1939 but by the time the second exodus from London began all billets that fell vacant had the priority of war workers and consequently were the prerogative of 70MU under the Essential Work Order Certificate dated 24 September 1943.
In April 1943 Squadron Leader H.G.Cadwallader took over command from Squadron Leader J.E.Linford and was himself transferred out a month later when Squadron Leader H.Cartwright assumed command.
The Air Ministry Police stationed at the camp comprised of 27 Constabulary and were kept busy with cases ranging from petty theft from the Unit by the civilian establishment to a case against a depressed young airman who took a RAF articulated lorry and 'Queen Mary' trailer for a trip around the countryside without consent, insurance, or a drivers licence and collided with a lamp post.
On 29 February 1944 70MU had completed the transfer of Section 53BK and 53BF stores from 14MU Carlisle and now stored these on site. Section 53 was body shell spare parts and may have referred to Avro Anson Reconnaissance aircraft and Handley Page 'Hampden' and 'Hereford' bombers, or Spitfires and American aircraft.
It was about this time that Tony Merrill recalls the movement of aircraft. His family had moved to Goring Heath from London after the initial bombings and as a schoolboy at the local Goring Heath Endowed school during the years 1942 to 1945, and with a father who was employed by the Ministry of Aircraft Production at 70MU as a civilian at Headquarters Site, he took an immense amount of interest in the 'goings on' there. He was mad keen on aircraft and used to watch the large wooden crates arrive at the Unit. The crates were marked with black stencilled American cities and he believed them to contain aircraft spares, aero engines and sometimes whole aircraft including Mustangs. Crates of English origin contained Spitfires. These aircraft were assembled at 70MU and loaded onto Queen Mary trailers, with their wings folded away or removed otherwise the loads could not negotiate the local roads. He believes that the aircraft were sent overseas. He is positive over the American origins as the packing cases were in great demand and were later sold to staff and members of local communities as they made wonderful wooden sheds and even garages with the black stencilled names permanently displayed.
In April 1944 the weekly inflow of Airmen totalled 95 in the month, followed by another 35 in May and finally a further 37 in June. On 28 August 1944 control passed to 57 Wing based at 3MU Milton, near Didcot, Berks. The existing seven Wing structure was dissolved leaving Nos.55, 56 and 57 (Maintenance) Wings in their respective geographical regions, each being responsible to No.40 Group based at Andover, Hants. August was also the month that Paris was liberated and Leading Aircraftsman 'Taffy' Jenkins recalls flying from Nova Scotia where he had spent the last 3 years (No.40 Group, Maintenance Command) and landing at Le Bourget airport where he boarded an RAF Dakota and flew to Croydon. RAF lorries took his contingent of 30 airmen to Paddington railway station where they caught a train to Reading. At Reading a RAF Woodcote lorry was waiting and took the group to Goring Heath direct to Site 1, Storage Shed No.3. It was midnight. There was no electricity in the hut but there were two hurricane lamps. The hut was large and empty with nothing in it - neither beds nor mattresses, just one pair of trestle legs and an old door laid on top of them. He immediately claimed it as his bed and placed his great coat on top of it. They were all dog-tired and went to sleep. He was the only one with a bed. The next morning the lorry collected and took them all to the HQ Site for breakfast. On the way back they had to collect their own beds and mattresses from Sheds 4 and 5. When back at Shed 3 they assembled their beds. When Taffy came to remove his great coat from the trestle table it had to be peeled off. The door had been painted green the day before and was wet that night when he used it as a bed. His coat was now RAF blue on the inside and green on the outside. That was his introduction to 70MU. He spent only a few weeks at Shed 3 and then the rest of his time at HQ Site. In all he spent 2 years there until his demob in 1946.
Taffy recalls a story of when Bruce Woodcock (British Heavyweight Boxing Champion in 1945 and European Heavyweight Boxing Champion in 1946) was stationed there with him. He remembers an occasion when a group of them that included Woodcock came back to the camp all very drunk. The HQ static water tank provided the water for fire fighting and was full of stale water and slime. They put planks up to the edge of the tank from the ground to form a ramp. Woodcock stripped naked and prepared to ride a bike up the ramp and cross the water. They all bet a shilling each that he would not make it. Woodcock pedalled like mad up the ramp and as he reached the water the lads pushed him off and he fell into the tank and came up covered in slime.
As the number of airmen stationed at the camp continued to increase so did the number of Air Ministry Police prosecutions. Whilst some airmen were fined for bicycling at night without a rear light, the prosecution of civilians for petty theft included one individual whose stolen goods were so many that they could not be exhibited inside the court and had to be displayed on a lorry parked outside.
Temporary accommodation was provided by 2 large tents and by the time the location plan Drawing No.WCT/1839/45 dated 27 April 1945 was made, Woodcote was a Dispersed Aircraft Depot with a new role; although this is not apparent from the Monthly Operations Record Book it refers back to February 1944 when aircraft were assemble and additionally stored. A few months later the Operations Record Book shows a relaxing in the tensions, with the detailed recording of movements of equipment reduced to a bare minimum; the statistical recording of time lost through Air Raid Warnings and Air Raids dropped, having been a monthly NIL return beforehand; but the recording of entertainment, recreational and sports activities; and the recording of educational and work experience for the impending release of airmen now that the war was over.
Some further miscellaneous building works took place with the erection of a NAAFI, AMWD Offices, Barrack Stores, Cleaning and Preservation Plant and two new canteens.
October 1945 saw the retirement of Squadron Leader H.Cartwright and command passed to Wing Commander W.A.D.Collingwood. A number of airmen waiting for release undertook re-training; some were given work experience with the General Post Office; Electricity Generating Station; Borough Surveyor's Office; Reading Standard Newspaper; Berkshire Hospital and Huntley & Palmers Biscuits.
Classes in leatherwork and woodwork were started. Whilst some airmen took driving lessons and obtained 'HGV' licences, others sat their War Educational Certificate Examinations.
The opening of the NAAFI Canteen in September 1945 to a concert by the Station Band was short lived as it was closed down and all furniture removed in May 1946 together with the Unit's library. Equally short lived was the Music Circle, which collapsed when the Officer who owned the only gramophone was transferred.
Despite RAF dances with local ladies and Land Army girls in abundance, ENSA shows, Cinema shows, Housey-Housey, cricket and soccer matches, moral was low as the compliment of 15 Officers and 204 airmen at October 1945 awaited release.
By 1946 the local residents had accepted 70MU. They reported "The MU does two things; it provides employment for the village and the village has to provide accommodation for the imported workers. All is quiet now but busy. The 'Camp Bus' whizzes through the village at regular hours, and on Friday evenings the chattering in the roads tells of the crowd coming home from the weekly cinema show."
The Unit Fire Brigade was not always busy putting out fires. On one July Saturday morning, about mid day, in 1946 when Vera Stratton who worked in Shed 9 was cycling along the road, the MU red Karrier 'Bantam' Fire engine knocked her off her bicycle. It was driven by Fireman Whitehead at the time who stopped immediately and called out the MU ambulance. A small RAF pick-up truck with a canvas top arrived and took her to HQ where the Medical Staff there declared her fit and arranged for an airman to drive her home to Ladygrove Farm. The matter went to the Magistrates Court in Henley and she has suffered from a bad back ever since.
During 1946 both the number of airmen and civilians employed at 70MU decreased as the workloads fell. In June 1946 Wing Commander W.A.D.Collingwood was posted out and Wing Commander F.W.Taylor posted in to assume command. There were only 6 Officers, 13 airmen and 530 civilians but by the end of the year the number had dropped to 6 Officers only and 521 civilians. The thought of civilians staffing the Officers Mess was so serious that the AOC was granted permission for them all to live out.
Civilian petty theft continued to thrive, and in view of the harsh winter of 1946/47, I can feel sorry for the man, who after work at 70MU, one cold evening, took two empty buckets down to the fuel compound on Site 2, which held coal and coke for the Sheds and Offices, and filled them and then walked home into the village at Woodcote. It was snowing and when the Air Ministry Police made their evening rounds checking security they discovered his footprints in the snow and a trail of coke, both of which led to his home. He was fined and lost his job.
Aerial surveys over the site were made in April, July, and November 1946, and again in January and March 1947. On each occasion the photographs show that the camouflage was effective.