World War II
Bicester at the beginning of World War II was typical of the small country towns located in the north of Oxfordshire.
A number of Royal Air Force stations had been long established in the area including aerodromes at Bicester, Upper Heyford and Weston-on-the-Green. Preparations had been made for the onset of war with the establishment of air-raid precaution measures and plans to deal with the reception of evacuees should it prove necessary. Little was it realised how the character of the town would change over the following years and the lasting impression that the military would make on the town and the surrounding countryside.
With war imminent Fairey Battle bomber squadrons were dispatched from R.A.F. Bicester to form part of the Advanced Air Striking Force in France. Two members of No.12 Squadron, based at Bicester prior to the war, were to gain Victoria Crosses in May 1940 for their bravery in attacking enemy held bridges in Belgium during the German advance into France. The Halifax heavy bomber made its maiden flight from the airfield in October 1939. Bristol Blenheim aircraft were a common site in the skies over the town during the early part of the war as Bicester played an important role in training bomber crews.
The first evacuees from London arrived at Bicester North Station at 4:30pm on 1st September 1939. The children and their teachers were taken to Crockwell School which served as a receiving centre for the town. The 107 children, 12 adults and 21 relations were allocated to families in the town by the billeting officers. The following day 600 mothers with babes in arms arrived. A constant influx of evacuees continued to arrive over the next few months. Over four thousand children were evacuated to Bicester during the course of the war and many adults as well. Although most returned home when the conflict was over a number of families stayed in the area after the war finished. Bicester’s most notable wartime evacuee was the entertainer Kenneth Williams, who was billeted with Mr Chisholm, the local vet, in Sheep Street when his school was evacuated to the town towards the end of 1939.
Life on the ‘Home Front’ adjusted to wartime conditions. Rationing was introduced and the residents supplemented their supplies by growing vegetables in their gardens and allotments. Some kept pigs.
The ‘blackout’ was enforced and many adults and older children volunteered to join organisations such as the Air Raid Precaution, Police Special Constables, Red Cross or Auxiliary Fire Services.
The fear of air raids saw shelters constructed both at private residences and in public places such as in the Market Square or at local schools. The A.R.P. established its Headquarters at Claremont House in London Road. Volunteers undertook fire watches from the roof of the Headquarters building and witnessed the distant glow of bombing raids on London and Coventry in 1940. Local residents living in the town at the time still recall the vivid memory of the drone of enemy bombers flying towards Coventry on 14 November 1940. Although few bombs fell on the area Weston-on-the-Green airfield became the most heavily bombed location in Oxfordshire as a number of German aircraft dropped their deadly cargo on the airfield when returning from raids on other targets. Bicester airfield was attacked by an enemy aircraft on 13th October 1940. Anti aircraft defences damaged the attacking aircraft which eventually crashed in the south of the county. Members of the local Fire Brigade were deployed to a number of the bombed cities as relief crews to assist the hard pressed fire services in those areas.
Recruiting for the Local Defence Volunteers began on 15th May 1940. The Unit was renamed as the Home Guard on 22nd July 1940. The first Commanding Officer of the Bicester Company was Col. Lloyd Mostyn. Platoons were set up in the surrounding area to serve the Deddington, Kidlington and Woodstock areas. The Headquarters of the unit was originally based in Claremont House but facilities were inadequate and a new H.Q. was established in the Lodge at the Garth in June 1940. The Battalion eventually stood down on 31st December 1944. It totalled some 62 Officers and 1611 other ranks at that point.
The Home Guard was responsible for patrolling the town and guarding sensitive strategic locations such as the railway stations and goods sidings, Bicester Aerodrome and the gas and waterworks. Defences and strong points were built in the area. A number of these features still survive today. The Oxford Canal was designated as a stop line to be defended in the case of an invasion. Bridges on the London to Birmingham railway line became defensive positions in case enemy forces landed at Bicester airfield.
As the war progressed military forces built up in the area and training exercises became a regular feature in the surrounding countryside. Army camps were built on the outskirts of the town off the Bucknell Road and at Ambrosden. American troops were based at Middleton Stoney and Kirtlington Park prior to the invasion of Europe.
Although R.A.F. Upper Heyford served primarily as an Operational Training Unit, Wellington and Hampden aircraft based at the Aerodrome took part in bombing raids on Germany during 1942.
Weston-on-the-Green aerodrome assumed an important role in training glider crews destined to take part in airborne operations during the invasion of Europe.
Land Army volunteers assisted local farmers increase food production. Hostels for the Land Army volunteers were established at Highfield, Chesterton and Bletchingdon. Some of the volunteers were billeted on the farms where they worked.
A major ordnance depot was built at Arncott and Ambrosden to serve as a supply base for the armed forces. Built in 1941-42 it was to become the largest military supply base in the United Kingdom and was operational to support the Allied landings in Normandy and the re-supply of the armies as they advanced through Europe. The site was selected as it had good communications by road and rail, an R.A.F. aerodrome nearby and it was in an area that offered protection from air attack. A military population of over 24,000 were employed at the Ordnance Depot at its peak. The camps associated with the Depot were mainly built of Nissen huts. The base was served with its own railway network.
Recreation and entertainment were an important element in maintaining morale in the town and the surrounding area. Dancing and the cinema provided welcome distractions from the harsh realities of wartime life. A favourite venue for civilians and military personnel was St Edburg’s Hall in the London Road. Dances featuring local bands and other entertainments were held there. There were sometimes clashes between British and American troops which required the intervention of the military police. The town had two cinemas at the beginning of the war. The Crown cinema in Sheep Street was to be destroyed by fire in July 1943 but the Regal cinema in London Road survived the war. Many of the local military camps had their own cinemas to entertain the troops. Pubs provided an attraction for civilian and military personnel alike. The radio was a source of both entertainment and information.
Mrs Coker at Bicester House was well known for providing garden parties in the grounds for troops stationed in the area.
Prisoners of War were housed at Windmill Camp at Blackthorn. Another Camp for Italian prisoners was constructed at the back of the Star pub in Bucknell Road later in the war. Prisoners worked on farms, at the local clay pits or in the countryside clearing ditches and maintaining fences. The Italian prisoners were well known for their artistic and craft skills. Examples of their handiwork still survive today.
Many of the local large houses and estates in the area were requisitioned for wartime use. Hospitals and recuperation centres for the wounded were established at Middleton Stoney Park, Fritwell Manor and Tusmore House. Local houses were used to billet civilian evacuees or military personnel such as Bicester House or Market End House. Women’s Royal Air Force personnel were housed at Brashfield House and Launton Vicarage. The British Broadcasting Corporation had wartime offices at Woodeaton Manor and billeted staff at Bucknell Manor, Bletchingdon House and Weston-on-the-Green Manor.
Requisitioned buildings were used to train radio operators at Poundon and for billeting M.I.5 staff as at Kirtlington Park whilst they were stationed at Blenheim Palace.
Celebrations took place in the town centred on the Market Square when ‘Victory Europe’ was declared on 8th May 1945. A bonfire was set ablaze and fireworks lit up the sky. The streets were packed with celebrating civilians and military personnel. Repatriated allied prisoners of war who had just flown into R.A.F. Oakley as part of ‘Operation Exodus’ were cheered as their convoy drove through the town. Street parties were organised in Bicester and celebrations took place in the surrounding villages. Celebrations were repeated for ‘Victory Japan’ day on 14th August 1945.
A number of local women married service personnel after the War and emigrated to America to begin a new life there!