Many relics from WWII remain in the airmen's recovery ward. © NTPL
Part of Britain’s last remaining WWII RAF Hospital is to open its doors to the public for the first time as part of National Archaeology Week.
The airmen’s recovery ward, one of three buildings that also comprise a surgical block and decontamination chamber, is situated in the grounds of the National Trust’s Croome Park in Worcestershire and will be open to the public on July 15 and 16.
The Park is famous for its Capability Brown designed landscape but was requisitioned in 1941 to become RAF Defford - home to Wellington Bombers and the Telecommunications Flying Unit (TFU), which carried out top-secret trials and radar research.
“Its an interesting story, because the base was established in the heart of the historic parkland, presumably taking advantage of the surrounding woodland for cover,” said Michael Smith, Property Manager at Croome Park. “It comprised huge runways and accommodated over 2,500 personnel, it was really like a small village.”
Upwards of 100 aircraft operated out of Defford at its wartime peak but today all that remains of the base is its medical centre, complete with its remarkably untouched original fabric and décor.
The doors to the airmen's recovery ward. © NTPL
“Tucked away in the North West corner of the estate, the medical quarters were constructed to treat personnel in case the base came under attack,” added Michael. “At the time they were very wary about chemical attack, which explains the decontamination unit.”
“It’s interesting to note that almost equal space was given to female as there was to male personnel, which I think reinforces the fact that it was originally designed to treat base personnel rather than airmen injured in combat.”
After the war the hospital became the site-base for the construction of the M5 motorway and was later used as a station for the local hunt; both of which contributed to the building’s survival.
Now the National Trust is about to embark on an ambitious project to restore the buildings to something near their original state using period paint schemes and fittings. The project, which will take about a year to complete, will also include a cafeteria restored in a WWII period style.
“We have a large project team working on it,” said Michael, “but we’re also very keen to work with RAF Defford veterans. It’s amazing how many of them have incredibly clear memories of the base and the hospital – obviously it was a very important time in their lives.”
A view of Croome Court from the Temple Greenhouse in the park. The grounds were quickly returned to their pre-war state following WWII. © NTPL
Members of the RAF Defford Reunion Asssociation will be in attendance at the weekend to reveal more about wartime life on the base, whilst an exhibition space is also being planned that will eventually tell their story and of RAF Defford during WWII.
But for the moment the hospital building still offers an evocative glimpse into life on an RAF base during the last war and visitors this weekend will be able to see many clues to its original use - including signs for the Matron’s Office and Airmen’s Ward as well as quaint period directions to the Medical Officer.
“This weekend is the first time the public get to see beyond the doors of the larger part of the hospital,” said Micheal. “They will be able to see how it looks now and we’re very keen for people to understand that we will not be fundamentally changing the building or its interior.”
Britain was littered with air force bases after World War Two but the pattern of post war reconstruction saw many of them knocked down and put back to former or new uses. This was the case with RAF Defford – save for its hospital, which now remains as the only complete RAF medical hospital of its kind to survive from the period.
“In years to come it will be seen as something that was very important to have preserved,” added Michael.