MOD plan to demolish the Officers’ Mess, erase heritage and enable a housing estate. Is that really the right thing to do ever, now and in isolation of the possible development of the main site?

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!)

Aerial view of Officers’ Mess complex – MOD want to fill this space with houses/delete the Mess buildings. Photo source: MOD

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?

RAF North Luffenham Officers’ Mess

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, including the 1000 raids. 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. Early jet avaiation was hazardous and the Canadians lost about 20 aircraft and had 8 deaths. The 7 young flying officers who died in air accidents had their last meals in their home the Officers’ Mess.

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 many nationally recognised and decorated RAF and Allied airmen and leaders. This includes holders of the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), Distinguished Service Order (DSO), Air Force Cross (AFC), and a Military Cross (MC) holder.

The DFC and DSO are awarded for extarordiary bravery almost all in relation to combat with the enemy, and are the next level below the Victoria Cross. A bar is the repeat of the award. The DFM was awarded to other ranks and an officer with a DFM had been commissioned. The Military Cross is only awarded for extreme bravery on the ground and is rare for an air force officer to receive this award. In this case it was awarded for extreme and sustained bravery for escape attempts as a prisoner of war. Mid is mentioned in despatches.

  • Flying Officer G F Wise DFM
  • Flying Officer H E Aspey MiD
  • Flying Officer D S Matthews DFM
  • Flying Officer H Wathey DFM
  • Flying Officer R F Sidwell DFC
  • Flying Officer J P Farrow DFM
  • Flight Lieutenant J F Craig DFC
  • Flight Lieutenant A B Harrison DSO (died over Berlin)
  • Flight Lieutenant F E Sheppard DFC
  • Squadron Leader T N C Burrough DFC (died over Brest)
  • Squadron Leader Peter Stevens MC
  • Squadron Leader A M Paape DFC and Bar
  • Squadron Leader Don Dickson AFC, DFM, DFC
  • Squadron Leader T R Holland AFC
  • Wing Commander Parks DFC
  • Wing Commander Valentine DFC (died over Berlin)
  • Wing Commander A C Richards DFC
  • Wing Commander G F Simmond MiD (died over the Channel)
  • Wing Commander R A V Gascoyne-Cecil DFC and Bar
  • Group Captain Hale DFC, MiD
  • Group Captain Barrett DSO & Bar, DFC (died over Berlin)
  • Group Captain P I Harris DFC
  • Group Captain J D Somerville DSO, DFC
  • Group Captain J D Smythe DSO, DFC, AFC
  • Group Captain P R W Sands MBE, DFC
  • Group Captain J A Sowrey DFC AFC
  • Air Marshal T C Weir CB, CBE, DFC
  • Air Marshal Sir Gus A Walker GCB, CBE, DSO, DFC, AFC
  • Air Marshal E C Bates CB, CBE, AFC, CD
  • There are many others who were awarded bravery awards at North Luffenham. The list above is not complete and is primarily defined from the Bomber Command Losses books. Further research is required. You can read some of their stories in this blog.
Sqn Ldr Stevens medals including military cross for escape activity. Picture permission – his son.

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.

Officer Mess a formal gathering. Sir Gus Walker as Station Commander RAF North Luffenham in 1942. Others are unkown? Photo H Stretton.

Today the Mess continues to be home for those ready to provide Army operations in the extraordinary conditions the armed forces serve in. One wonders where will they live when the Mess is gone and the base still active?

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 perhaps over 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 and often they were not decorated, they were just casualties. 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 and France 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.
  • Training bomber crews for the invasion of Japan.
  • 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 RAF night fighters
  • 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 Squadrons, 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. The main 1940s portion of the Mess , as the heart sof teh heritage asset hould be listed. 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.
  • Holistic planning. 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. It makes no sense to build a shop when there is a car park and a disused building (the power house) across the road from the Officer’s Mess.
  • Historic England guidance to government departments on disposal of heritage assets specifically states – saleable assets should not be ‘picked off’ and sold in isolation of the heritage asset being developed in a ‘holistic’ manner.
  • Circular Economy. Developing this site in isolation will fail to result in joined-up infrastructure, energy, carbon and built environment design resulting in more emissions and use of primary resources (the Circular Economy to manage at end of life to maximuse the value of resources and minimise waste. In addition reduce demand for precious primary materials, lower emmisions, reduce impact on socitey). 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 and design options for the Mess site are reduced if not taken in context of the main site.
  • The Mess site should not be developed in isolation and 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
Lest we forget – here lies a fraction of the men who gave their lives and freedom in support of our values
RADF North Luffenham Officers' Mess
View of the Officers’ Mess skyline in Feb 2023

References

The following books = provide detailed information for research:

  • The Bomber Command War Diaries – outlines day by day missions flown, by whom and where.  Of great relevance to North Luffenham was the Channel Dash 12 Feb 42 – where the 2 Nazi battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the light cruiser Prinz Eugen dailed from Brest through the English Channel in a carefully prepared and well-executed operation. Bomber command launched 3 waves to find the ships in bad weather and low cloud, the operation was called Op FULLER. 144 Sqn from N Luff lost 2 aircraft, 1 aircraft AE141 was hit by flak and was wrecked while making an emergency landing at Norwich killing 1 crew member. Another aircraft AT175, was lost without trace – the crew of 5 included the Squadron Commander Wg Cdr Simmonds.
  • Bomber Command Losses – 1941 and 1942. This provides a day by day detail of losses and occasion chapter summaries. I have used these to collate the losses from July 1941 to April 1942 for 61, 144 and 408 Canadian Squadrons to get a picture of losses.
  • 5 Group Bomber Command – An operational record by Chris Ward. A history of the Group and detail information on the Squadrons.
  • Hampden references:
    • Hamden Special by Chaz Boyer – provides full history of the type and points of history. No pictures of North Luffenham but representative pictures 5 Group operations/squadrons, bomb loads and aerial mines.
    • Hampden Squadrons in Focus by Mark Postlethwaite. Excellent photographic record of Hampden Squadrons. Picture of 144 Squadron in front of a hangar at N Luff before the Sqn transferred to Coastal Command to re-role as torpedo carriers.
    • Handley Page Hamden and Hereford by Alan W Hall. Warpaint Series no 57. More pictures and camouflage colour schemes
  • Avro Manchester – The legend behind the Lancaster by Robert Kirby. The full story of the Manchester and its ill-fated existence. Includes detail about all Manchester losses including those lost from 61 Sqn at N Luff/Woolfox Lodge. Some very courageous and tragic stories of desperately trying to operate the aircraft, but ultimately failing due to the technology not being up the task.
  • RAF Evaders by Oliver Clutton-Brock. A fascinating book outlining the escapers and their escape lines over 1940 to 1945. This is a book you can open any page and read about amazing journeys and courage. For North Luffenham, out of all the airmen who did not return I could only find one man who was an evader – Sergeant Albert Wright – Upper Gunner in a 61 San Manchester shot down and crash landed near Brest on the night of 1 Feb 1942. He finally returned to the UK at the end of September.
  • The Strategic Air Offensive aginst Germany 1940 to 1945. This is a 3 volume reference by Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland published by HMSO in 1961 as the official history of the Second World War. Volume 1 ‘Preparation’ covers the background of my snapshot ( July 1941 to June 1942). By this stage of the war daylight bombing had been proven to be a lost cause due to the severe losses of Wellingtons and Hampdens in daylight to 20 mm armed fighters (Heligoland 18 Dec 39 – 10 out of 22 returned). The drift into ‘area’ bombing had happened and we find 61 and 144 Squadron at North Luffenham prosecuting raids into Germany and most sorties directed to the the battleships in port on the west coast of France and the conduct of mining sorties to support the Battle of the Atlantic. So a day bomber design was being used to operate at night and over the sea.
  • Escape, Evasion and Revenge. By Marc H Stevens. Story of a German jew called Georg Ranz Hein, who was sent by his mother to Britain to escape the rise of the Nazis. He committed identify theft to avoid be locked up as an alien in 1939 and joined the RAF. He completed 22 missions flying the Hampden bomber, but was shot down and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. He became an escaper and 3 times escaped. This book plots the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the life in the RAF and in the prisoner of war camps. Amazing story.
  • Before the Storm. By Robert Jackson. The story of Bomber Command 1939 to 1942. Covers the history of the RAF bomber force from the end of the first world war and gives the context as to why the RAF entered the war with a lot of substandard tactics, aircraft and training. The bravery of the crews is not at question and the scale of some losses from tactical failures was sometimes extreme. The change from daylight bombing and massive losses to fighters and the switch to night attacks. Also traces the efforts of the French air force in the blitzkreig. This is a comprehnsive accout of the early years.

Correspondence with a family member.

4 Comments

  1. Nicholas Minns permalinkHello, I have been researching my uncle who was based at Woolfox Lodge in 61 Squadron. He was killed on the night of 6/7 April 1942 on the way to, or on the way back from Essen. Only three crew members could be identified by their tags, and a fourth tag had IV/144/IV Woolfox inscribed on it. Do you have any idea what this referred to? The Germans thought it was a crew name, and then that it might have been a dog’s name.
    Thanks,Reply
    • rutlandhampdens permalinkNicolas, Thank you for posting and discussing this. The only explanation I can think off as I have seen it used in the early 1980s in the RAF – is that ID tags used to be made of a fireproof material and everyone had 2. The details were put on the tags by using letter punches. I have sent hem used to tag piece of flying equipment such as life vests, parachutes etc as they are durable and were easy to use in this manner. Whilst your uncle was on 61 Sqn the safety equipment or other items of equipment e.g navigation may have been used in a pool in the North Luffenham/Woolfox operation. This is of course all just a theory. Many thanks of posting. If you have any other information I would be happy to post it if you are willing to do so – of course with agreement. Scanned log book entries/photos would be welcome. I will e-mail you my contact details.Reply
  2. Shaun McDermott permalinkIs this still going?My father flew his first tour from North Luffenham first on 61 Sqn then on 144 Sqn. During his time there, completing his 200+ hour fist tour, 144 Sqn lost 39 a/c on Ops. My father was awarded an immediate DFM after a daylight raid in the battleships at Brest on 24/12/41. If you need any other info just shout.Reply
    • rutlandhampdens permalinkShaun, sorry not posted recently but would like to post more. So many thanks for posting a comment. If you have any photos or his log book – I would be very interested to see these – if you would be willing to scan the pages that would be excellent and if you are content we could post them subject to you being happy about the content before it was posted etc. I will e-mail you may contact details and it would be good to have a chat if you are willing to contribute etc. Many thanks