Cheshire's stately homes in the war effort

PUBLISHED: 09:46 18 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:07 20 February 2013

Lady Louis Mountbatten inspecting a Macclesfield unit when she visited Stockport to see members of the St John Ambulance Brigade from East Cheshire. This photograph appeared in the February 1943 issue of Cheshire Life

Lady Louis Mountbatten inspecting a Macclesfield unit when she visited Stockport to see members of the St John Ambulance Brigade from East Cheshire. This photograph appeared in the February 1943 issue of Cheshire Life

Historian Andrew Hobbs reveals how the county's great houses played their part in Hitler's downfall.

Seventy years ago this summer, Britain was preparing for the inevitable, war with Hitler's Germany. And Cheshire's stately homes were at the heart of those preparations.

Most of the county was a safe distance from bombing targets, and its ancient families of gentry and aristocracy, in their country houses and halls, were about to give great service to the war effort. As early as 1937 a survey had begun of all buildings which could be used in case of war, and country houses were earmarked as military bases, and as safe centres for the evacuation of children, hospital patients and even art treasures.

When war was declared in September 1939, requisitioning began, but the cannier landowners volunteered their houses and parkland as homes for girls' schools and hospitals, fearing the damage that could be wreaked by soldiers and prisoners of war.

Eaton Hall, the 150-bedroom Victorian Gothic palace which was home to the Duke of Westminster, became a hospital, and then, in 1943, the new home of the Royal Naval College, evacuated from Dartmouth after bombing.

The Grosvenor family never moved back into the house, which became an officer cadet training school after the war, before its demolition in 1961, to be replaced by the present Eaton Hall. Eaton Golf Club, in the grounds, continued throughout the war, with the nine-hole course maintained first by the army and then by the Royal Naval College.

The Duke of Devonshire invited Penrhos College, the Welsh public school, to take up residence at Chatsworth after the school's buildings in Colwyn Bay were commandeered by the Ministry of Food. The school took 22 pianos with them.

North Wales was the ideal location for the treasures of the National Gallery, most of which were stored at Penrhyn Castle near Bangor, one of the few buildings in the country with a door or window large enough to take Van Dyck's huge portrait of King Charles I.

The gallery had a dry run for its evacuation during the Munich Crisis in 1938, when all the paintings were packed up and put on a special train. At Crewe the station master, dressed in top hat, frock coat, gold watch chain and flower in his buttonhole, gave the news that war had been averted, and sent the train back to London.

While the Home Front was vital to military success, some Cheshire landmarks had a role closer to the front line.

Around 60,000 parachutists made their first jumps in Tatton Park, which became the training ground for No.1 Parachute Training School RAF, at nearby Ringway Airport. Some 10,000 special agents, including Evelyn Waugh, passed through Tatton before they were dropped behind enemy lines. Some asked specifically to be dropped over Tatton Mere, or into trees, to prepare them for their secret tasks.

A large-scale model of the Apulia aqueduct in southern Italy was built in Tatton Park to prepare parachutists for Operation Colossus, the February 1941 raid on the bridge, and the first deployment of Allied paratroops. A memorial and Wartime Tatton Trail commemorate its place in history.
Doddington Hall, the former home of Sir 'Jock' Delves Broughton of Kenyan 'White Mischief' infamy, was one of three national training schools for the Home Guard.

Despite its Dads' Army image, this new approach to civil defence was frowned on by more traditional army authorities, and was the brainchild of the Marxist Tom Wintringham, based on his experience of the Spanish Civil War.

Tens of thousands of British and Allied soldiers were billeted in Cheshire's stately homes and gardens, including General Patton of the US Army at Peover Hall, and the army of the Czech government in exile, at Cholmondeley.

Patton's Third Army trained in Cheshire before the invasion of the Continent, and 'Monty' (Field Marshall Montgomery) and General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied forces and future US president, visited him at Peover to plan the invasion. The Bells, the village pub, still flies the Stars and Stripes in memory of the strategy meetings held in the bar by Patton and Eisenhower, and a plaque on the wall of St Lawrence's church commemorates the Third Army's stay.

In the run-up to D Day, the US Army were also based at Delamere House, Marbury Hall, where wooden huts were built along the avenue of lime trees, Wincham Hall, and Doddington Hall, where the Fifteenth Army stayed briefly in November and December 1944.

The gates of Doddington Hall, designed by 18th-century architect Samuel Wyatt, were destroyed when a military vehicle hurtled through them without waiting for them to open. Doddington also housed some 'free French' troops, who were partial to the park's deer, and to the local girls.

The grounds of Cholmondeley Castle were given over to the Czech government in exile to organise their army, including 3,000 troops evacuated after the fall of France. But political differences among the troops led to a 'mutiny' of more than 500 soldiers in July 1940, despite the personal appeals of visiting Czech president in exile, Edvard Benes.

Cholmondeley was also the site of preparations for Operation Anthropoid, a daring assassination of the SS chief of Bohemia and Moravia. Two members of the Czech army in exile at Cholmondeley, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik, were parachuted into Czechoslovakia in May 1942 and achieved their aim, although they were later killed as part of brutal Nazi reprisals.

Another of Cholmondeley's wartime roles was as a Royal Navy Auxiliary Hospital, treating 'cases of good morale, who are suffering from nervous breakdown usually as the result of operational stresses'. Adlington Hall became a maternity hospital for service wives, and Capesthorne Hall was a Red Cross hospital.

Prisoner-of-war camps dotted the countryside, including those at Blakemere Hall, Marbury Hall, Crewe Hall (housing 2,000 German officers), Toft Hall, Ledsham Hall and Dunham Massey Park, where Austrian and German prisoners built a miniature Bavarian castle. Some of these camps, and others, housed refugees.

Although compensation was offered, most landowners saw it as their patriotic duty to offer their houses and lands to the country, and a stiff upper lip helped them to cope with the upheaval. At Lyme Hall, Lady Newton helped with a WVS nursery for children from blitzed areas of London, and 40 evacuees from Manchester spent the entire war in her house. Her husband, Lord Newton, moved into the library, where he consoled himself with a roaring log fire and his favourite dogs.

Do you have wartime memories of Cheshire to share? Write to us at Cheshire Life Letters, 3 Tustin Court, Portway, Preston, Lancs, PR2 2YQ or email

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