The RAF North Luffenham Officers’ Mess has the been the topic of a ‘consultation’ conducted on 22 November 2022 by the Ministry of Defence DIO (Defence Infrastructure Organisation).
MOD recently (November 2022) held a consultation day to ask selected people in Edith Weston how they thought the Officers Mess complex could be developed for housing. This was predicated by MOD DIO’s Vision:
Our vision for the site is to replace the Officers’ Mess with a development that makes a positive contribution to the village. A development that makes the site more open and accessible with new homes that reflect the local character, buildings and landscape. We believe the site has the potential for up to 100 new homes, and that a high quality build and design will set a benchmark for any future development on St George’s Barracks.
The site would be developed in isolation from the main St Georges Barracks site – which when disposed would also be developed as primarily housing – a town of up to 2300 houses. This is not what Rutland needs.
Also this against the context of other planning applications in Edith Weston Parish and possible development of a new town at Woolfox Lodge (and of course precedent if Cottesmore Barracks are vacated – a new town there also!)
This post aims to provide a point of view on some issues related to DIOs cunning plan. Provide information on what does the Officers’ Mess complex at St Georges represent and why it should be valued as a heritage asset. It provides a view as to why it should not be developed yet or at all, in isolation from the main site. For those interested, at the end of the post I have also made some outline recommendations to aid thinking.
A valuable historic and cultural asset. Firstly, what does the Mess represent?
For 82 years The Mess is and was the home to officers in the armed forces who are and were employed by Nations to serve as directed, and to where required, do extraordinary duties in defence of our values and nations.
It has also been home to other allied nations officers from the Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Czech and other nations of the allied dominion.
The Mess site was acquired and built in a time of national emergency in 1939 and on land that was taken out of agricultural production (plus the playground for the Old School House).
The Mess is a central part of the overall culture and structure of military life where bonds and comradeship are built to equip officers (and their spouses/community) to form a leadership team able to withstand the stresses of military and combat service, particularly in the extraordinary times of operations and war.
The Mess is part of the battlefield of RAF North Luffenham, where men came together to fight for a cause and where required made the ultimate sacrifice. It has national historical significance.
What happened here, the context?
In World War II – from this station, the Bomber Command Squadrons ( 61, 144 and 408 Squadron RCAF) fought the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ and the early years of the Bomber Command campaign against Germany. These operations had extremely high loss rates of young men and machines.
Later in the war the station supported training for operations on D Day, the invasion of mainland Europe. Throughout the war the Mess was also used by the Officer’s serving at RAF Woolfox Lodge.
In the Cold War, training and operations took place. Signicant activities such as the formation of the NATO Canadian Sabre Wing, nuclear deterrence with Thor missiles (Project Emily), RAF fighter training, language training and continued operations guarding of airspace with radar. The base also supported the Berlin Airlift.
Later the base had supporting roles, such as aviation medicine, training for air explosive ordnance disposal/rapid runway repair, aerial capability and electronic servicing (the ‘G’).
The leaders (the men and women) who served here made it happen. Leading operations and the daily grinding and underestimated task of maintaining high readiness.
The Mess is associated with nationally recognised and decorated RAF and Allied leaders. Examples are Sir Gus Walker DSO, DFC, Group Captains, such as Hale DFC, CD RCAF, Barrett DSO, DFC and decorated airmen such as Sqn Ldr Peter Stevens MC and many others. You can read some of their stories in this blog.
Many VIPs, including Royal visits (e.g Duke of Edinburgh, Secretary of States etc) and allied VIPs have visited the station and been hosted in the Mess. Many social occasions, such as dining-in, sunset ceremonies, funeral wakes, marriages and other occasions have been held in the Mess over the years as a normal part of service life. The fabric of service life to build unbreakable bonds.
Today the Mess continues to be home for those ready to provide Army operations in the extraordinary conditions the armed forces serve in.
What part did the Officer’s Mess complex play in operations?
The historic context: in World War II the fact is that this Mess is where over at least 200 men had their last meal before departing on operations, and who never returned to the station. Often the last supper was in this building. A losses table is at http://www.rafnorthluffenhamheritage.me.uk/
They died on operations but also many officers were captured. They spent years as prisoners of war in brutal conditions under a Nazi regime. Over 1 in 20 failed to return after being made captive. The Mess was for some the last place of civilisation, before the brutal shock and reality of capture and the next years in captivity. http://www.rafnorthluffenhamheritage.me.uk/?tag=pow
In reality the Mess is the place of ‘empty chairs and tables’. Many have no known grave. http://www.rafnorthluffenhamheritage.me.uk/?p=106
In the Mess, Bomber Command standing orders stated that aircrew could not leave any valuable or personal effects in common areas or shared ablutions, as this aided packaging up of personal effects should the man fail to return.
It is worth reflecting that officers left the mess at the right time of day to command aircraft or take part in nationally significant operations in Word War 2 and in the Cold War, such as:
- Operation Fuller (the Channel Dash) in the Battle of the Atlantic. http://www.rafnorthluffenhamheritage.me.uk/?p=106
- Operations Sunrise (daylight raid against heavily defended ports and German battleships in Brest and on the Atlantic Coast) in the Battle of the Atlantic.
- Raids across Germany at night, many aircraft did not return. Examples are the loss of the Station Commander Gp Capt Barrett – ‘the Great Gentleman’ http://www.rafnorthluffenhamheritage.me.uk/?p=406. It should be remembered that the night time raids were conducted in sub-optimal aircraft, such as the Hampden and Manchester, which were built for daytime operations. The casualty rate was very high. The Avro Manchester was an operational failure.
- Operation Millenium. The 1000 bomber raids on Germany (Cologne, Essen and Bremen) in May and June 1942, where instructors and trainees were used from 29 OTU.
- Base for raising, training and deployment of RAF Regiment ground and air defence squadrons and systems.
- Operation Overlord – D Day: Operation Glimmer (spoofing the Germans) and the invasion of Europe. This included training of glider pilots for their D Day role.
- Operation Plainfare – the Berlin airlift.
- Workup of No 1 Fighter Wing RCAF. The casualty rate was high in a 3 year period, flying early generation jet fighters.
- Training for invasion of Japan with heavy bombers.
- Providing the nuclear deterrent for the UK with Thor ICBM (Project Emily).
- Providing continued air defence missiles, surveillance and regional air traffic control.
In the early part of the war after, the time of the defeat in Crete, the Mess was a defended location of importance (with barbed wire, guards and pillbox etc). The station was also bombed by German raiders. People would have taken cover at the Mess in shelter trenches.
Officers left the mess to conduct and undergo training and within sight or a short distance from the Mess – over 50 men lost their lives in crashes from the operational training (OTU), glider training and bomber heavy conversion units (HCU).
The sacrifice for our values went on in the Cold War where our Canadian allies from 1 Fighter Wing RCAF left the Mess to fly first generation jet fighters (the Sabre) and many young men failed to return http://www.rafnorthluffenhamheritage.me.uk/?p=372.
There may be a sense that nothing ‘nationally significant’ happened from this Mess, I would strongly disagree. It is part of the RAF North Luffenham battlefield and a part of our heritage – this was a ‘home for heroes’ who campioned our values for our freedom and many paid the supreme sacrifice.
Is the Officers’ Mess a ‘heritage asset’ and what is its value?
The Heritage England definition of a heritage asset is “A building, monument, site, place, area or landscape identified as having a degree of significance meriting consideration in planning decisions, because of its heritage interest. Heritage asset includes designated heritage assets and assets identified by the local planning authority (including local listing).
“The value of a heritage asset to this and future generations because of its heritage interest. That interest may be archaeological, architectural, artistic or historic. Significance derives not only from a heritage asset’s physical presence, but also from its setting.”
The North Luffenham Officers’ Mess meets this definition. It has rich history and in relation to its setting…….
Historic England includes RAF North Luffenham, Rutland Opened in 1940, in the list of key sites .
‘Key’ sites in England retain the best-preserved airfield landscapes and/or most historically significant groups of original buildings. Almost all of these sites started out as RAF stations and many of them are still in military use. Some of them are also designated conservation areas. They write:
RAF North Luffenham is representative of contemporary bomber bases. It retains two J-type hangars as well as a coherent group of contemporary technical and domestic buildings. The runways, perimeter tracks and dispersal platforms were added in 1944 and form one of the most complete airfield landscapes of that period. The site was adapted in the Cold War period as a Thor IRBM (intermediate-range ballistic missile) site and a Bloodhound missile tactical control centre was also added.
The Officers’ Mess site is part of this key site and it has architectural and historic significance.
How would you describe the mess as a heritage asset?
The Mess could be described as follows:
Architectural interest: it has a fine neo-Georgian composition with carefully judged proportions and good quality building materials; This Mess uniquely, also has additions of flat roofed extensions to cope with the additional officer numbers to support No1 Wing RCAF and the Thor ICBM squadrons.
Interior: the interior treatment displays the spatial quality and understated refinement typical of the neo-Georgian idiom;
Degree of survival: the layout, fixtures and fittings of the Mess and reception rooms in the central range survive with an extraordinary degree of intactness, and overall the external composition and configuration remains close to its original form; This is unusual and is a result of post war use.
Historic interest: it is a very well preserved example of a Bomber Command ‘Type C’ Mess, that encapsulates the aims of the architect Mr A Bulloch FRIBA and the Ministry of Works. The Mess supported nationally significant RAF operations in World War II and NATO and national operations post war. The Mess can be linked to many nationally recognised airmen, including many recipients of national gallantry awards, such as the Air Force Cross, Distinguished Flying Medal, Military Cross and many mentioned in dispatches. It housed and supported the leaders in operations where they displayed the highest order of bravery, discipline and sacrifice in defence of national values in order to counter existential threat to the nation.
Unusually the Mess has also housed a Cold War language school and latterly the Army Innovation Centre.
Context: it retains its immediate contemporary setting, character and relationship to the station, including the carefully designed layout and gardens to be south facing. It is a local landmark.
So what? the Officers’ Mess is valuable cultural and historic asset, what should we do about it?
In regard to the flawed DIO vision what could be recommended at this time. I think there are 4 recommendations that can be made to inform debate:
Recommendation number 1. Heritage Asset designation. The Officers’ Mess is a site where many brave men led from and had their last civilised meals. It is nationally significant in contribution in World War 2 and in the Cold War. It is associated with many nationally recognized airmen of exemplary leadership, courage and high gallantry. It should be recognised as a ‘heritage asset’ worthy of conservation. A report on heritage value should be commissioned – so that heritage asset value can be agreed by interested stakeholders. Listing should be reconsidered.
Recommendation number 2. Deliberate decision making with due regard to Heritage Considerations. We should think very carefully about grinding this Cultural Heritage Asset to dust without clearer thinking. As a community we should recognise that the very institution charged with defence of the realm and who wants effective armed forces, does not value this heritage asset and is prepared to bulldoze it for short-term return. As an interested community, we should get our position clear. Is grinding it to dust and building a housing estate acceptable to us?
Recommendation number 3. Not developed in isolation. The mess is a standing valuable facility already paid for by the Nation in blood, sweat and taxes.
It is designed for people to use, it has value for other uses if the military depart. The default should not be to knock it down before alternative use is considered.
- Alternate uses for Mess building are available (e.g Officers’ Messes at former RAF Duxford, Hemswell, Coltishall etc). It makes no sense to knock this facility down when the fate of the main site have not been decided.
- The need in Rutland is for high tech jobs and affordable housing. The definition for ‘ Optimum Viable Use’: “If there is a range of alternative viable uses, the optimum use is the one likely to cause the least harm to the significance of the asset, not just through necessary initial changes but also as a result of subsequent wear and tear and likely future changes.” Optimum viable use should be defined.
- If the main site is developed as Campus use and some housing, then assets such as a school, community centre and medical practice, or a hotel site centre etc will be needed. It makes no carbon sense to knock down a valuable facility like the Mess and build new facilities.
- Developing this site in isolation will fail to result in joined-up infrastructure, energy, carbon and built environment design (the Circular Economy!). In isolation the road and green space layout cannot be considered to be unconstrained.
- Incremental development is against the current Edith Weston Neighbourhood Plan and the Local Plan.
- Rutland and Edith Weston local needs are not for more housing estates. Hi-tech Jobs and affordable housing in a built enviroment are needed. A campus use is needed.
- The Mess site should not be developed in advance of the main site. Alternate use should be evaluated as a part of an integrated St Georges plan. Once it is gone it is gone.
Recommendation number 4. Due respect and sensitivity. Currently discussions treat The Mess as just a piece of real estate to gain an optimum return for MOD.
- However, the Mess is not a ‘normal’ building. It has played its part in the extraordinary times or war and in post war operations.
- Destroying this heritage asset without due respect to the people who fought is disrespectful. The site is part of an RAF battlefield.
- All stakeholders in debate on this topic should be aware of the heritage value of the site. We should think about how we should respect and provide thanks to those Allied airman who had their last meals here and who made the ultimate sacrifice or entered the brutal regime of life as a prisoner of war. Lest we forget. http://www.rafnorthluffenhamheritage.me.uk/?p=406