The Doorstep History Series explores the hidden military histories of towns and cities around the UK.
In this article, BFBS writer and former soldier James Wharton details a forgotten WWII Prisoner of War camp in Warwickshire and the lifechanging consequences war had on the nation's children in 1939.
While walking my dog Lando during the more recent lockdown at the start of this year, I stumbled upon a large group of Commonwealth war graves in my local cemetery. In itself, there is nothing extraordinary about white-stoned memorial structures featuring in graveyards; indeed, they are quite an everyday matter. However, concerning this particular group of war graves, the sheer volume prompted me to consider a broader, perhaps more remarkable, story regarding my local history.
The cemetery is about ten minutes by foot from the middle of town, interestingly a walk which partly passes the burial site of William Shakespeare. Stratford-upon-Avon Cemetery, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website told me, is the site of 173 war graves commemorating those lost in both the first and second world wars. A few clicks later, I was able to get a pretty substantial overview of the core reason behind why so many war graves existed at the site.
Warwickshire sits in the West Midlands of England, roughly 30 miles south-east of Birmingham and 90 miles north-west of London. It is a stunningly green county, with no cities and apparently endless rolling meadows. For these reasons, it does not immediately stand out as a likely site for twentieth-century warfare. Yet, here in a popular among tourists' town, hundreds of war graves exist. Why is this?
During the Second World War, areas of the English countryside played a pivotal role in the direct and non-direct overall war effort. Communities away from larger cities like Birmingham took in children – known as evacuees – for safety. The generation of tomorrow needed to be preserved. The way to do that was to send the children away from danger to the countryside.
One such evacuee was Irene Mead from Birmingham, who in 1939, aged 13, was sent to live with strangers in Stratford-upon-Avon.
She and her two younger brothers arrived by train late one Friday evening, two days before war was declared. Irene's story features on the Our Warwickshire website, where she recalls:
At the station, the families chose the children they'd take home. Therefore at 10pm I was separated from my brother[s] and went home to a very lovely couple who had no children. As they didn't have any children, they had no idea what to do with me! My mother stayed behind in Birmingham and had to identify relatives who'd died by bombs. Three of my cousins died due to a bomb explosion.
The upheaval of the war and the separation Irene experienced consequently changed the course of her life. Irene describes gaining employment in Stratford-upon-Avon a year into the war. During the next four years, her job led her to meet George, who she would marry and spend the rest of her life with.
Irene's story continues on OurWarwickshire.org.uk:
During the war, when I was 14 I started working in the printing trade. I stayed there for four years and worked in the lithographic transfers department. Through the job, I met my husband George! I worked with his sister who as a coincidence was also called Irene, she introduced me to George and aged 19 I wedded him- and we've been married ever since!
All in all, 3.5 million children became evacuees during the Second World War. Like Irene, many never returned to their previous lives once peace was secured in 1945. This individual story begs the question, how different could peoples' lives had been in the second half of the last century were it not for the war?
The graves at Stratford-upon-Avon Cemetery are, for the most part, related to World War Two, but for a more directly-conflict related reason to that of the circumstances around evacuees. When looked at closely, seen in the image below, a common theme on many of the headstones is the Royal Canadian Air Force's emblem. I wanted to find out why.
The answer lies in the truly international make-up of the brave men who defended the skies above Britain throughout the Second World War, primarily during the Battle of Britain. You see, the danger lay not only in operations against the enemy. To be able to do that, first, vital training had to be undertaken.
The airfields of Stratford-upon-Avon and its surrounding areas were pivotal in providing this crucial training. Evident by the number of graves and the written testimonies of those who were there or who have spent years recording this history, training missions like those operating from Warwickshire cost many lives.
Within the cemetery, information is provided about the Canadian influence within the grounds. Unmissable within the landscape is a dug-out trench covered in lawn, surrounding which are several maple trees. A plaque provides information: they were gifted to the cemetery by the people of Canada as a solemn gesture of the close ties between this small town in England and the world's second-largest country. Within the grounds also lies a memorial unveiled in 1949 by the High Commissioner for Canada.
The Loss Of XMF 509
One such incident underlining the danger of life training out of the airfields of Stratford-upon-Avon is the story of Bomber XMF 509.
XMF 509 crashed into the side of a hill in the Brecon Beacons on the evening of November 20, 1944, having taken off from the town an hour earlier.
Thanks to mostly amateur historians' detection work (and this is said with great respect – I am one myself), the story behind the loss of XMF 509 has been detailed. I found the information on an online WWII history forum called WW2Talk.
On the forum, men and women from all over the world had pieced together crumbs of evidence that told the story of a terrible wartime accident. Observing the polite scrutiny these strangers had to their collective work was really quite heartening. In this online community, those lost in WWII are never forgotten. It was remarkable detection work, all laid out for people like me to explore and enjoy.
I learned that aircraft XMF 509 had been assigned a training mission of cross-country bombing runs on the night of its loss. The Bomber was part of No.22 OTU (Operational Training Unit) based at Stratford-upon-Avon, a satellite airfield to the main base at nearby RAF Wellesbourne. Today, Wellesbourne still has runways and even a disused Vulcan Bomber. Something I have enjoyed many a glance at over the years I have lived in the area.
On November 20, 1944, the night in question was a costly one for the men of No.22 OTU. No fewer than three bombers were lost in the wintery conditions - all while conducting training.
On WW2Talk, historian Harry Ree explained what happened:
The Wellington in question, Wellington X MF 509 took off at 1926 from Stratford and about 2050 radioed for permission to descend below the cloud base as they were experiencing engine problems. It is reported that shortly after this time the aircraft crashed into the Brecon Beacons.
Another contributor adds that the aircraft's starboard engine developed problems mid-flight and brought the Bomber down, crashing into the Black Mountains. All excellently concise.
On the blog, 'Caroline D' revealed that her grandfather was present at the crash site three days after the incident and recovered a photograph of a uniformed airman. A snippet of information which jumped out of the screen at me. It was, it seemed, all these years on still a mystery as to the identity of the handsome young man pictured in the photograph. But, suggestions on the site raised possibilities that it could be an image of one of the six men lost that tragic night. Others pointed out that the uniform was more representative of a Royal Air Force's "best blue" uniform. Almost 80 years on, this picture of the uniformed man remains a mystery.
The six men who died that night were:
- Joseph Paul Ernest Burke, aged 20, an Air Gunner from New Brunswick.
- Joseph Arthur Edmond Groulx, aged 22, an Air Gunner from Hull, Quebec.
- Joseph Lionel Underic Du Sablon, aged 20, an Air Gunner from Montreal.
- William Joseph Allison, aged 28, an Air Bomber from Montreal.
- Jules Robert Rene Villeneuve, aged 22, a Navigator from Quebec.
- Charles Hamel, aged 21, a Pilot from Montreal.
Note: The men are not buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, but instead at Chester.
Elsewhere online, histories have been recorded from former members of the Armed Forces who were based in Stratford-upon-Avon, who for the most part operated out of nearby RAF Wellesbourne.
On Forces-War-Records.co.uk, excellent information about the airfield's more general backstory is compiled. The site tells us that the land on which RAF Wellesbourne was built was purchased by the government in 1940 and became home to No.22 Operational Training Unit on April 14, 1941.
On the now-achieved BBC website WW2 People's War, the urgency around the land's requisition in 1940 by the government was explained in a written record provided by Warwickshire County Council. It read:
…over two hundred acres of prime farmland, six miles east of Stratford-upon-Avon, was requisitioned by the authorities giving its owners, the Littler family, immediate notice to remove their dairy herd and leave their farmhouse to the bulldozers.
In a later passage, the same record described the military's need for secrecy among local villagers:
Locals suddenly found they could no longer travel freely along the roads as the RAF police were on patrol moving on anyone inquisitive enough to stand and stare at the amazing scenes. It wasn't long into the war, before all three roads surrounding the airfield were closed and barbed-wire barriers placed across each end. This was not only done for security reasons, but also to protect the over enthusiastic public from the danger of low flying aircraft.
The airfield was attacked by the Luftwaffe a month after its opening in May 1941. A year later, aircraft from Wellesbourne were involved in the mighty 1,000 Bomber raids on Germany.
By the end of the war, No.22 OTU had lost 96 Wellington Bombers, resulting in the deaths of 315 men.
243 of those lost were from the Royal Canadian Air Force. The graves of 97 exist in Stratford-upon-Avon Cemetery.
After the war, RAF Wellesbourne operated in different forms until 1964. Today, it handles small aircraft, is the home to two flying schools and is the logistics centre for luxury car manufacture and F1 team, Aston Martin.
There is something rather striking about a set of graves positioned slightly away from the other headstones within Stratford-upon-Avon Cemetery.
In a row of their own, and with unmistakable Germanic emblems chiselled into the masonry, are the war graves of four soldiers of the Third Reich.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission websites names these men and provides their dates of death:
- Otto Mueller, German Army, died December 20, 1946.
- Walter Maeurer, German Army, died March 25, 1945.
- Erich Nuggel, German Army, died August 5, 1945.
- Karl Hoffmann, German Army, died June 9, 1947.
It does not take an eagle-eyed observer to spot that three of the four men died after VE Day was announced by Winston Churchill on May 8, 1945. A sign at the graveyard references the graves. It provides a general overview that the four men were prisoners of war, held at camps locally. But there is little else in terms of information.
And so I turned again to the internet, which quickly informed me there were plenty of POW locations across the UK.
In December 2020, while working on another story about German prisoners of war, I had learned that captured soldiers were held in England for as long as three years after the war. Frequently, in circumstances similar to the evacuees explored earlier, many Germans remained here after captivity and set up their lives.
A list compiled in 2003 as part of English Heritage funded research revealed that there were at least ten different PoW camps within Warwickshire alone. The county boundaries have changed since then, so to figure out the actual number of camps listed as being in Warwickshire, let alone the number of prisoners, is a bit complex. However, nationally, from 1939 to 1948, all in all, 400,000 enemy soldiers were held in the UK.
One such camp was situated less than 9 miles away from Stratford-upon-Avon close to the small settlement of Newbold on Stour. I was keen to understand what the camp looked like nowadays, so I decided to drive there to see if anything remained.
The site is close to a famous hotel, the Ettington Park Hotel, used as the spooky setting for the 1963 film The Haunting. Thanks to the assistance of two local residents, Sandy and Norman Hewitt, I learned that the hotel was originally the manor house of the estate in which the PoW camp was located. The base was called Ettington Park Prisoner of War Camp, or numerically in the national list, Camp 31. As an interesting side note, while researching PoW camps, next on the list at No.32 was Wormwood Scrubs.
Sandy and Norman, who lived in the nearby village, explained that the camp's remains would be easily found and set me off in the right direction through thick forest. It was an eerie exploration forward for which I was glad to have my four-legged friend Lando acting as a pathfinder.
Quite out of the blue, I noticed the ground underneath me change to something more structural, the unmistakable feeling of concrete, albeit below thick mud. I had reached some sort of junction between a dirt track and what was once quite obviously an adequately constructed road. The dog and I persevered. Sandy and Norman were accurate in their describing the unmissable nature of the brick structures. The first building I came to still had prison bars in front of what would have been glass windows—small slits in the brickwork. A closer look at the ruin led me to guess that the structure in question was a guardroom-type building. There was a corridor with cells, a small admin area at the end. It was somewhat similar to guardrooms I spent time in on duty or in trouble while serving in the army.
The trees gave way to a noticeable clearing on from the guardroom, which again, on closer look, betrayed nature's reclamation that soon will no doubt have swallowed up these last few artefacts of Camp 31. This was a solid concrete base structure in the shape of a large rectangle. Perhaps the walls and roof were made of wood, now long perished. The positioning and shape had very much an accommodation block feel to it all. I stood and weighed up for a minute the rows of bed spaces that might have existed there 75 years ago. Men the same age as me, perhaps?
While exploring what remained of Camp 31, I felt conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I undoubtedly felt a great sense of isolation; the men held there were in the most rural location. You could escape but to where? Even if you knew you were somewhere close to Birmingham (which you likely would not), what would you do there? How would you get anywhere? This perhaps is when it dawned on me that these men could not escape their imprisonment. Much easier to just become passive to it all. Negotiating this, the other overriding feeling I experienced was that of sadness. It might be cliché to say, but the human element of it all really weighed upon my shoulders as I quietly navigated the now-deserted site of Camp 31. While England and the rest of Europe were rebuilding in the immediate years after the Second World War, German soldiers lived here in what had to be a glum existence. They were waiting to go home.
For me, all these years on, the location is too out of the way. It felt hidden. I wondered how many men had died there. Were the four German graves in the cemetery - Otto, Walter Erich and Karl - directly related to the now overgrown forest area, a mile or so off the main A-road through South Warwickshire? A road thousands of people use, passing the site unknowing of the history in the trees.
When I set out to explore the hidden military history on my doorstep in Stratford-upon-Avon, I thought my findings would be somewhat obvious. I knew, roughly, that the area played a role in the country's air defence, but so did many other places. What I did not expect to find was repeated examples of the human cost of conflict. Irene Mead's childhood evacuation from her home and family in the big city altered the course of her life. Becoming familiarised with the six names of the Canadian Bomber crew who set off from Stratford-upon-Avon on a training flight that cold night in November 1944, never to return or speak to their loved ones again. Another sobering instance from this journey was seeing the uniformed man's young face in the photograph recovered from the crash site of that ill-fated Wellington Bomber, which remains a mystery to this day.
But what moved me most was the discovery of Camp 31. It is not just online in records, but the tangible experience of spending time there, taking in the isolated nature of the site's placement. Retracing steps walked by captured German soldiers 75 years ago. It all felt too real—a golden-opportunity for any amateur historian interested in World War Two. I would urge visiting the site before it's too late. There are no plaques, wrongly I would suggest, and perhaps this last matter should be addressed.
Many of us have turned to walks in our neighbourhoods to keep ourselves fit and in shape during lockdown while keeping to the Government guidelines on daily exercise in our local area. We also know that many of us love the history of our local area that feeds into the fabric of the places where we live – not least the military history that helps keep alive the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Our Doorstep Histories series explores the hidden and not-so-hidden armed forces’ history in towns, villages and cities across the country.
In this series, we have started with a few Doorstep Histories of our own – but we want to hear from you too … what military history is on your doorstep, in your neck of the woods?
It may be a place you wander past on a daily basis, a place where you go to reflect for Remembrance, or it may be part of your favourite walk that includes sites of battles, monuments, statues, memorials, or remnants of operations or defences during the Second World War, or even sites that form today’s armed forces – walks near the dockyards, bases, training grounds that you can see on your local wanders.
Tell us your doorstep histories and we will try to include some of them in our series.
You can email us at [email protected] and let us know some of the military history on your doorstep that captures your imagination on a local walk.