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24th March 2018
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It is now seventy years ago since Britain went to war against the regime of Adolf Hitler. What is now The Transport Museum, Wythall, and adjacent premises, played their part in protecting the West Midlands in those dark days, and then later contributed towards the nation's defences during the "Cold War" in the 1950s.
During the 1914-18 War, there had been several bombing raids over Britain using airships, but by the mid-1930s long range bomber aircraft - and the ammunition to go with them - had developed into a real threat, as seen in their deployment during the Spanish Civil War. To defend against similar attacks over Britain, fighter aircraft and ground based anti-aircraft guns were augmented by barrage balloons. Quite simply, these were gas-filled balloons, shaped rather like small airships but unframed, which were tethered on steel hawsers to 'fly' at such heights for them or their cables to obstruct the flightpath of airborne invaders. These balloons were often known as 'blimps'.
In 1939, the War Office commandeered Yew Tree Farm, which occupied 105 acres between Middle Lane and Chapel Lane at Wythall, upon which to construct a base for the local aerial defence. It had been thought that the farm buildings were already unoccupied and the land uncultivated since - according to the Ministry of Defence in a letter to a researcher in 1967 - the RAF would not have taken over land under cultivation. However, in May 2010, Wythall History Society interviewed Olive Moore (nee Fernihough), daughter of the family that farmed there, and a different story emerged.
Yew Tree Farm consisted of 105 acres of arable and pastoral land, having a herd of milking cows. The buildings were in good order in 1939; the farm house had been rebuilt during Olive's grandparents' time, but did not have indoor plumbing. Cold water was provided by a storage tank, and other facilities were outdoors. The outbuildings included a Dutch barn, which was repitched every year, and there was a good number of other buildings.
Olive recounted an incident of anthrax on the farm, which resulted in a cow being placed in a hand-dug pit and then burnt. A knife used by her father was also buried, as he had used it on the infected cow.
In 1939 the family consisted of John Henry Fernihough, his wife Mabel Hancox (nee Griffin, of Clewshaw Farm), and Olive, who was then fourteen years old. There was an older sister who was married and lived away, and a brother who had unfortunately died that year of undiagnosed diabetes.
The Fernihough family owned the farm, which was compulsorily purchased, with only six weeks notice, to facilitate the building of the RAF camp. They had a farm sale on the last day of the year, which soon turned into a party atmosphere. From Yew Tree Farm they moved to Grimepits Farm, off Redhill Lane.
The farm buildings were demolished and replaced by a variety of new structures for housing the balloons and personnel. (Despite this, however, some street maps continued to show the farm at least fifty years after its demise! Incidentally, there is another Yew Tree Farm, on Crabmill Lane, about two miles to the north, just west of the modern Hollywood Bypass.)
For the next twenty years, the detailed histories of units based at RAF Wythall were recorded in weekly or monthly diaries, known as Operations Record Books, which are now deposited at the Public Records Office at Kew. We have yet to examine these detailed documents, but the general history of the station is known.
RAF Wythall was opened later in 1939 as the Headquarters of No.6 Barrage Balloon Centre with responsibility for the balloon defence of the southern part of Birmingham and Coventry. Subsequently, it was to control balloon defence for the whole of Birmingham and part of the Black Country. The territory covered was about 600 square miles and employed both RAF and WAAF personnel. (Further details of this period are to be found in Public Records AIR 29/65 and AIR 29/863.)
At least one of RAF Wythall's barrage balloons did actually disable an enemy aircraft. On Wednesday 9 April 1941, a Heinkel He111P bomber flown from an airfield in Northern France hit a balloon cable and part of its wing fell off onto houses in Balden Road, Harborne; it was shot down by a Boulton Paul Defiant and crashed in Hales Lane, Warley.
The RAF camp provided employment to the people in the area, and also a social side with dances and ENSA concerts. One reference suggests that the Air Training Corps held its annual camp at RAF Wythall in 1943, though this awaits clarification.
Barrage balloon defences at RAF Wythall were reorganised early from February 1944 onwards, though most of the units were based there for only a few months:-
- 992 (Balloon) Squadron from Tuesday 1 February until Tuesday 5 December 1944;
- 993 (Balloon) Squadron from Tuesday 1 February until Thursday 4 May 1944;
- 994 (Balloon) Squadron from Tuesday 1 February until Saturday 29 July 1944, then again from an unknown date until Friday 1 September 1944;
- 995 (Balloon) Squadron from Tuesday 1 February until Tuesday 15 February 1944;
- 996 (Balloon) Squadron from Tuesday 1 February until Saturday 29 July 1944;
- 997 (Balloon) Squadron from Tuesday 1 February until Wednesday 26 April 1944, then again from Friday 1 September until Saturday 2 December 1944;
- 998 (Balloon) Squadron and 999 (Balloon) Squadron, both from Tuesday 1 February until Wednesday 26 April 1944;
- 991 (Balloon) Squadron from Saturday 1 April until Saturday 20 May 1944;
- 976 (Balloon) Squadron from Friday 14 April until Tuesday 9 May 1944;
- 980 (Balloon) Squadron from Friday 14 April until an unknown date in May 1944, then Monday 9 October until Monday 16 October 1944, and again from Wednesday 1 November 1944 until Friday 19 January 1945.
- 974 (Balloon) Squadron from Wednesday 1 November until Saturday 25 November 1944.
Contrary to one suggestion, there is no indication on the plans that RAF Wythall ever had a runway. During the 1950s, as with many RAF stations, there were two redundant Hawker Hurricanes on static display at the main entrance, but that is all. Nevertheless, there is a story that sometime in the 1960s a light aircraft, low on fuel, made an emergency landing on the site.
Following the end of hostilities, the station became No.105 Personnel Despatch Centre (WAAF) Wythall, handling the release of servicewomen from all types of air force work. (See Public Records AIR 29/1103.)
Upon closure of the demobilisation centre, RAF Wythall became the Headquarters of No.1 School Of Administrative Trades, essentially a training centre for air force clerks. One source of information describes the unit as having reopened in April 1947 after the great freeze-up of the winter, suggesting a temporary closure of the base. In addition, from sometime in 1947 (April, perhaps?) until Tuesday 13 July 1948, RAF Wythall was a sub-site of No.25 Maintenance Unit. The School Of Administrative Trades was transferred to Credenhill, Hereford - possibly combining with an existing clerical training unit - in 1949, after which RAF Wythall was closed, being kept on a "care and maintenance" basis until 1951. (See Public Records AIR 29/1767.)
Although remembered as a balloon site, the station's longest service was actually as Headquarters of No. 90 Signals Group, latterly Signals Command, between 1951 and 1959. From April 1952 until Thursday 12 February 1953 Radar Navigation Aids Wing was based there, while 591 Signals Unit (SU) was formed at RAF Wythall on Sunday 1 June 1952, though it soon relocated to RAF Medmenham, and later to RAF Digby.
However, RAF Wythall's significant activity between 1952 and 1957 was being part of the Joint Services School For Linguists, which catered for all three services by teaching servicemen Russian, Chinese, Polish, Czech, and German, for them to become interpreters and translators. JSSL had been established in September 1951, with bases in Army, Royal Navy and RAF camps - such as Crail on the Fife coast, or Kidbrooke (now the site of Thomas Tallis School) near Greenwich - as well as using the facilities of Cambridge University, London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, and London School of Oriental and African Studies. Some of the courses would begin at one site, followed by specialist training elsewhere.
For instance, Russian courses started in 1951 at a former army camp in Bodmin, each being followed by technical training at Wythall. In 1955, Russian courses transferred from Bodmin to Crail, but still with the final stint at Wythall. From 1952 until 1955 RAF linguists learning Chinese would spend nine months at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, similarly followed by one month of technical training at Wythall. Then in October 1955, the RAF organised the first of its own Chinese courses at Wythall, which lasted a full year. The second Chinese course began in April 1956, but transferred to Worth Matravers (Dorset) a month later, though it returned to Wythall for technical training in April 1957. Later Chinese courses were held at Pucklechurch, which like Wythall was a former balloon site; the Russian course also moved to Pucklechurch from Tuesday 2 July 1957 onwards.
RAF Wythall's official motto was "Seek, Hear & Guide". It is not known when this was adopted, though it seems more appropriate to the camp's 1950s activities than to its original function.
Meanwhile, from 1956 onwards, the main hangar at RAF Wythall was leased to the Austin Motor Company as a storage outstation for the Longbridge factory. (See Public Records AIR 25/1642.) Shortly before the camp closed, stocks of the new Austin Mini Seven (as it was originally named) were stored there, prior to the model's public launch.
RAF Wythall finally closed operationally in December 1959. During the next few years of "care and maintenance" it became well known for its beautifully kept gardens and greenways. However, following the reorganisations of the Ministry of Defence and the three armed services in 1964, it was decided that the Royal Air Force would have no further use for the station and the land would be put up for sale by auction.
The business was handled by Edwards, Son & Bigwood of St. Philip's Place, Birmingham, the first 43 acres being sold to Western Motor Holdings on Wednesday 14 July 1965. This deal involved the central and northern parts of the station adjacent to Middle Lane, including eight of the main buildings. The largest of these, at 480ft x 200ft had BMC as a sitting tenant at £10,000 per annum, but the other buildings were substantial - one at 250ft x 50ft, two at 100ft x 32ft and four at 90ft x 54ft, the latter being partly two-storey. There was also a total of 15 acres of concrete or tarmacadam roadways and hardstanding. Although in the Green Belt, Worcestershire County Council had indicated four weeks before the sale that the site could be used for outside vehicle storage, subject to certain conditions. This is the land now occupied by the Pearl offices.
A further 43 acres, to the south and west, were put up for auction by Edwards, Son & Bigwood on Wednesday 14 September 1966. This included the old garrison playing fields, plus some roadways and hardstanding, but no buildings except for an old air shelter and some ruined pig sties. The land was advertised as suitable for agricultural purposes, but apparently there were no offers since it remained unsold over six months later.
However, 18.1/2 acres adjacent to St. Mary's Church were sold to Bromsgrove Rural District Council in February 1967. It is the middle portion of this plot that since February 1978 has been occupied by The Transport Museum, Wythall. The Caravan Club of Great Britain now occupies the portion to the east of the Museum site.
Concrete foundations of several of the garrison buildings - most of which seem to have been timber - were still in place in 1978, but they were progressively removed as the Museum developed. The last one remained visible until the Museum's third main display hall - the Power Hall - was built in the winter of 2006/7. Thereafter, only the extensive drainage network dates from the RAF site.
Since 2007, the exhibits inside the Power Hall have included a small display about RAF Wythall. A ceremony to mark the work of the RAF Linguists at Wythall was held on Friday 26 June 2009, when a plaque was unveiled at the entrance of Wythall Cemetery.
This history is largely based on an article published in 'Omnibus' (journal of The Transport Museum, Wythall) in December 1989, compiled by Andrew Gardner from research by Derek Barwell, Ken Allsop, Mr A M Wherry (Head of Record Services, Hereford & Worcester Council) and Mr P J V Elliot (Librarian, RAF Museum, Hendon). Additional information has since been provided by Mrs Olive Moore (in an interview on 17 May 2010 by Wythall History Society), Alan Robson (Webmaster, RAF Linguists Association), the "Black Country Bugle" (11 September 2008 edition), and various websites.
The Transport Museum would be pleased to hear from anyone with memories of RAF Wythall. Likewise, the RAF Linguists Association would be pleased to hear from anyone with memories of the base during its JSSL era.
The Transport Museum, Chapel Lane, Wythall, Worcs B47 6JA Tel: 01564 826471 | email email@example.com
TRANSPORT MUSEUM WYTHALL is a registered charity no 1167872