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Beningbrough at War, Beningbrough Hall, near York, until November 4
9:27am Friday 1st March 2013 in Features
Beningbrough at War project officer Wendy Taylor with the motorbike exhibit at the foot of the staircase.
An exhibition telling the story of how a North Yorkshire stately home did its bit for the war effort begins today. MATT CLARK previews Beningbrough at War
SEVENTY years ago the Vale of York was full of bomber bases. The men flying the planes weren’t British, they were Canadian and to local children their presence was like one big adventure.
The airmen brought things never seen before, such as softball, Pepsi and chewing gum in exotic juicy, fruity flavours. They were boyhood heroes and all any youngster wanted to do was become a pilot.
In truth there was no glamour in the air, just hours spent in hope and fear. Nightly, villagers would look up into the sky and say prayers for their new neighbours, then eight hours later they once again gazed skywards to see the crews home; praying the night’s toll would prove less costly than the last one, or the one before, or the one before that.
The price paid was a high one. Nearly half the men who served with Bomber Command died in action and that was a worse survival rate than infantry troops faced in the trenches of the First World War.
Most were members of the RAF, but by 1943 Vale of York aerodromes such as Linton on Ouse had been transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) as part of the newly formed Number 6 Group.
Linton’s 408 (Goose) Squadron flew the most sorties with the heaviest losses of any Canadian unit.
For those who made it back, there was a treat in store to match the bacon and eggs for breakfast reserved for flyers only; home was a baroque mansion, a short cycle ride down the road.
Beningbrough Hall was requisitioned as a billet for Linton crews from 1941 and today a new exhibition opens to tell the stories of the British and Canadians who lodged there.
Wendy Taylor, the Beningbrough at War project officer, says her favourite one concerns young love.
“Olie was a member of 408 Squadron, who fell in love with a local girl called Gipsy,” she says. “He carved Gipsy loves Olie into the drawing room fireplace after they met at the Alice Hawthorn pub in Nun Monkton.”
Any relationship during wartime was fraught, as you will discover, Wendy says, and Gipsy and Olie’s affair was no exception.
The exhibition includes portraits, displays and items from the Second World War alongside the stories of loss, peril and play.
All highlight the stark contrast between day-time rural idyll at Beningbrough and night-time horror during the bombing raids.
Perhaps one of the most heart-rending photos is of Sergeant Albert Henery sunning himself on the front lawn just before a raid on The Scharnhorst, during which his plane was shot down.
Fortunately there is a happy ending. Bert’s crew survived and all were taken prisoner. His story is told on a board entitled Lying on the Lawn.
This is one of many examples of how behind the pastoral setting life at Beningbrough Hall was anything but tranquil.
Stress before and after missions was ever present and, as a relief, all manner of pranks were thought up – including running from the bar, around the house, up the stairs, along the top floor and then back down to the bar. Anyone who did the circuit in one minute was rewarded with a free pint.
“It was a way of letting of steam and being their young selves,” says Wendy. “They had to put their lives into compartments or they wouldn’t have coped.”
But she says sprinting through the stately home was nothing compared to the mad dash when the bar opened.
“Whoever got there before the barman could pull the first pint and receive it on the house. Sometimes the winner made it on a motor bike.”
This is why there is one at the foot of the staircase for the rest of the year.
Beningbrough Hall received £42,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the project and some of that money has funded a ‘Dig for Victory’ allotment for local families in the grounds as well as a Second World War vegetable patch inspired by the story of Clifford Hill, who was billeted here.
One day, in the walled garden, Clifford met Lady Chesterfield, the hall’s owner who had moved out during the war. It seems she regularly went for a walk around the property and when she happened on the young airman, accused him of treading on her vegetable patch.
“Clifford protested his innocence but to no avail, the lady of the house pointed to a footprint, so he apologised on behalf of the others before moving the conversation on quickly,” says Wendy.
“Eventually Lady Chesterfield bade him farewell, saying ‘Good Luck, boy and don’t tread on my vegetables’.”
Beningbrough wasn’t the only place where you couldn’t move without bumping into airmen. In York many headed for Bettys – and not for afternoon tea either, because in those days the basement was a bar.
Today the café’s memorial to its war time clientele are mirrors into which are inscribed the signatures of hundreds of flyers.
The men borrowed diamond rings from barmaids to scratch their name for posterity.
Jim ‘Buck’ Rogers, an English wireless operator with 408 Squadron, was one of them and on Monday he will be back at Beningbrough to see the exhibition.
“We were billeted, generally together as a complete crew, in the servant’s quarters in the basement, some in rooms and some in the corridors,” he says. “Everything of value had been provided with covered protection and other areas were shut off.”
The men were collected by crew buses every morning and taken to the base, where they worked and trained, before being collected again by bus each evening or after returning from a trip.
Mr Rogers says nights off were usually spent at Bettys or at the Alice Hawthorn pub in Nun Monkton.
“There was a ferryman who could bring us across the Ouse for sixpence a trip. After one beery night out, a tragic episode occurred on our way back, when one of our gunners, who had been suffering severely from stress, decided to dive in off the ferry to swim across and couldn’t afterwards be found.”
His body was recovered some days later, far downstream.
Most RCAF crews had British wireless operator/gunners and a flight engineer and Mr Rogers says they found the Canadians could be a bit rowdy.
“Officers were billeted at Linton and as we had no one supervising us, the parties could get wild and great fun of course.
“Despite all this, we respected Beningbrough Hall and I believe very little lasting damage was ever done.”
One thing that strikes you when browsing the photos in the exhibition is that despite everything they must have been going through, everyone is smiling. And it’s not a forced smile.
The lasting impression is of people who are just getting on with it; if your number’s up, so be it.
This is perfectly illustrated in the Saloon with the saddest display, Empty Bed, which highlights the fate of Sergeant Arthur Stroud who was killed in action over Berlin.
To ameliorate distress among the other airmen, the empty bed was, dependent on need, dismantled and all that remained was the memory of its previous occupant and a little box containing his belongings, waiting to be collected.
The war had to carry on.
“To me this is the most poignant thing here,” says Wendy.
“I find it very emotional because the fact is they were all so young, so brave and had such a responsible, traumatic job to do.
“And they knew some wouldn’t come back. However did they cope with that on a daily basis?”
• Beningbrough at War opens today and runs until November 4. The event is free but normal admission charges apply. Some activities carry an extra charge.
• Do you know someone who was billeted at Beningbrough Hall, or who has memories of the war period there? If so, please let the hall’s staff know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
• CANADA was the first Commonwealth country to send troops to Britain during the Second World War. In 1939 hundreds of thousands of men enlisted – more than 40 per cent of the male population aged 18 to 45.
By 1943, RAF aerodromes in North Yorkshire had been transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force as part of the newly formed Number 6 Group, which was unique in RAF Bomber Command by virtue of its overseas nationality.
All costs were borne by the Canadian Government.
Number 6 Group headquarters were at Allerton Park – immortalised by the airmen as Castle Dismal – and the group’s heaviest attack of the war was against Dortmund on the night of October 6/7 1944, when 293 Lancasters and Halifaxes took off from their Yorkshire bases. Only two failed to return.