Croome at War

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The heading photo shows O/C Defford, Group Captain J.A. McDonald (front row, third from left) and Mrs. McDonald at the Station Sports Day in 1946 – photo taken in Croome Park with the Church in the background.

Croome at War

Croome Court was redesigned and rebuilt, and the Park landscaped, with features and follies, by “Capability” Brown in the 18th century. The interior of the house was by Robert Adam, and the features and monuments in the Park and the more distant “eye-catchers” by James Wyatt.

Croome Court in July 2010 (Photo: Bob Fisher)

When the Second World War started in 1939, the Croome Estate had been in decline for some years. The war soon had an impact on Croome. The 10th Earl of Coventry was killed while serving with the Worcestershire Regiment during the retreat to Dunkirk. In 1940, part of the Park was requisitioned by the RAF for Defford airfield. The Court itself was not immediately affected, but was intended to accomodate the Queen of The Netherlands, exiled by the German invasion of Holland. The airfield was taken over in May 1942 by the Telecommunications Flying Unit. At the height of the war, over 2500 servicemen and women were stationed in buildings in and around the Park. Some of the buildings survive and have been restored by the National Trust. See the National Trust Croome page.

The Youngest Resident of Croome at War?

(First published in “Contact!”, the newsletter of the RAF Defford Re-Union Association, and in The Friends of Croome Park Newsletter, Autumn 2009).

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Michael McDonald, the son of Group Captain J.A. McDonald, CBE, AFC, the Commanding Officer of RAF Defford from October 1943 to October 1946. He kindly allowed me to access and photograph his father’s Flying Log Book and other private papers, at his home in Buckinghamshire.

As Station Commander of RAF Defford, Group Captain McDonald and his family lived in the Commanding Officer’s House in the grounds of Croome, close to the Officers’ Mess, and located on the knoll overlooking the Court and the Park. The buildings were demolished after RAF Defford closed in 1957, but the footings and access roads remain on the grassland within the London Arch and between the Drive and the Church.

As a five year old, Michael remembers roaming the Park. He was enchanted by the Grotto, which he called the Romantic Garden, the statues and stonework among the undergrowth, and the terrors of The Pit, a dangerous place for a small boy which we now know as The Ice House. The Park was wonderful to explore, but as the only child within the Top Secret security base, it was lonely place too.  Michael’s best friend was a kindly German prisoner-of-war, whose job it was to cut the grass in front of the house – a continuous, non-stop job using a scythe .

Later, the family moved to a live at house called Hind Fields at Overbury. But Michael feels he can well lay claim to be the youngest person to have lived at Croome during the War.

Group Captain McDonald, who was familiarly known as “Mac” by everyone in the RAF from Air Chief Marshall Sir John Slessor downwards, was born in 1898, and had a long career in the RAF starting in the First World War. In Jan. 1921, he joined HQ Communications Flight at Northolt as a young Pilot Officer with 56 hours flying time in his log book. The Chanak Crisis in Turkey in 1922 forced the British Government to rush reinforcements to the area, and “Mac” was posted to No.4 Squadron. He and his fellow pilots flew their Bristol Fighters off the deck of HMS Argus to land in the Dardanelles neutral zone, even though none of them had flown off an aircraft carrier before. Later, this experience was put to good use when forces were rushed to the crisis in Shanghai in 1927, and “Mac” had to learn quickly to fly float-planes as well as landplanes. After serving with various squadrons in the UK, he was posted to India in 1943, only to return to England in the autumn to take command at Defford.

On arrival at Defford, “Mac” found morale had been dented by a series of fatal crashes. Experimental test flying of radar was a dangerous business for aircrew and scientists alike.

He set about restoring morale by leading from the front. He piloted many of the different aircraft at Defford, including such challenging types as the Corsair, Typhoon, Tempest and the jet Meteor. He was obliged to bail out of a Spitfire which buried itself in the ground near Cheltenham. Most memorably, he championed the pioneering work on automatic blind landing, and personally piloted the aircraft on many of the trials and demonstrations. He identified correctly the need to sell the idea to Government officials and, with the end of the war in sight, the Civil Aviation authority. We have to thank the pioneering drive of “Mac” McDonald for the ability of modern airliners to take off and land in all weathers by day and by night, something we now take for granted. After the War, as Deputy Commandant of Heathrow Airport, “Mac” would have had the satisfaction of seeing his early vision brought to fruition with the integrated blind-landing system of the Trident airliner. Group Captain J.A. McDonald, CBE, AFC, died in 1983, aged 85.

Michael McDonald visited Defford when he attended the RAF Defford Reunion in 1994, and he was delighted to hear of the great progress made since then at Croome by the National Trust and the supporting volunteers. He was unable to come to the 2009 Reunion (held for the first time this year in The Court itself), as the date Sept. 12th clashed with the family gathering for his 70th birthday! But he sent a message of encouragement and support to the veterans and volunteers at the Reunion. Michael hopes to visit Croome again soon, and perhaps re-live his boyhood memories.

(Above) Michael McDonald, with his father Gp. Capt. J.A. McDonald and his mother, circa 1945


(First published in the Friends of Croome Park Newsletter, Spring 2010)

The Friends of Croome Park Newsletter (Autumn 2009, No. 11) reported on meeting Michael McDonald, who told of his adventures as a five year old living in the grounds of Croome Park during the War. Michael, as the son of Group Captain J.A. McDonald, Officer Commanding RAF Defford from 1944 to 1947, lived with his father and mother in the CO’s House, which stood next to the Officers’ Mess on the knoll overlooking the Court.

It was suggested Michael must have been the youngest resident of Croome at War, but now there is another candidate – Roger Knowles, the son of Flight Lieutenant Eric Knowles DFM. After earning the DFM sinking U-boat U-540 when with Coastal Command, Eric Knowles flew experimental radar trials with the Telecommunications Flying Unit from November, 1944. In February 1947, he switched to ground duties at Defford as Chief Air Traffic Controller, a no less onerous responsibility.

Roger lived with his father and mother in the huts of the Officers’ Married Quarters (OMQ), which were adjacent to the WAAF Site, off the road towards Pershore a few hundred yards to the east of the London Arch. This area and all the land to the south of the road was historically part of the Croome Landscape Park, requisitioned by the authorities in 1940, together with Defford Common for the runways. The wooded landscape of Capability Brown’s Croome Park provided valuable cover from the prying cameras of Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft, for the top secret work of RAF Defford.

From his family hut at the OMQ , Roger had a good view of aircraft being worked on in the dispersal areas around the Technical Site.  On occasions, on a Saturday morning, his father would take him for an illicit flight, perhaps in an Oxford or a Wellington. Eric Knowles’ flying log book seen in the RAF Museum, shows that he flew 27 different types of aircraft, ranging from the unique legendary Boeing 247D DZ 203, to Spitfire, Brigand, Meteor and Canberra.

So Roger is a candidate for the title of “The Youngest Resident of Croome at War” – although his parent’s accommodation in the OMQ hut, which he describes as a cold and primitive, was probably not have been as pleasant as the C.O.’s house enjoyed by his young contemporary, Michael McDonald

All trace of the OMQ area where Roger lived with his parents has long disappeared, but some of the Technical Site buildings and other traces of the aerodrome still survive – all were built on what was historically part of Croome Park. It would be nice to think that one day, this “missing quarter” of the Park which is now in private ownership, will be re-united with the remainder which is preserved. In any event, it is to be hoped those RAF buildings which do remain in this area, and form a magical time-capsule, will be preserved in memorial to the scientists and aircrew of TFU Defford who played a brave and dedicated part in one glorious chapter in the history of Croome.

Reverting to the subject of Michael McDonald, on March 25th, 2010, the day of the Friends’ AGM, he returned to Croome, and was given a guided tour of the Court and of the Park, including a visit to the site of the C.O.’s House and the Officers’ Mess, which is now being grassed over. At the AGM in the evening he was introduced by our Chairman and welcomed to the meeting. Michael has joined the Friends, and is keen to see the war-time history of Croome preserved and presented to the public.

As mentioned in the last edition of the Newsletter, the flying career of Michael’s father stretched back to the last days of the First World War. Group Captain McDonald, as he later became, as a young Pilot Officer flew operationally in the Chanak Crisis of 1922 – 1923. It has now emerged that one of the Bristol Fighter aeroplanes which he flew for the RAF during the campaign in Turkey has not only been preserved – but is still flying!  Bristol F2B Fighter D-8096 is still airworthy with the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in Bedfordshire. Group Captain McDonald’s log book shows that he piloted D-8096 on a sortie from the aerodrome at San Stefano in the British enclave on November 3rd, 1922. There cannot be many aircraft still flying that can be shown to have been flown by a pilot who served at RAF Defford, which closed in 1957! And the ancient Bristol Fighter is a most unlikely candidate….

Michael McDonald and his family, will be honoured visitors to the Shuttleworth Collection this summer, when he will show his grandsons “the aeroplane your Great Grandfather flew”. Michael and family have also promised to attend the RAF Defford Re-union on July 17th, 2010 during the National Trust’s “RAF Defford at 70” weekend. And an invitation is on its way to Roger Knowles in the hope that the two once very young residents of Croome at War, will be able to meet, with other Veterans, at the Re-union.

(Above) Group photo of RAF Officers at Defford, probably taken soon after the War. Flight Lt.  Eric Knowles DFM is seated far left of the front row.

(Above) A map circa. 1935 showing Croome Park – the eastern part of the parkland became part of Defford aerodrome in 1940 and was dotted with huts, hangars and aircraft hard-standing amongst the trees. The actual runways were built on Defford Common.

(Above) Bristol Fighter D-8096, which was flown by Group Capt. McDonald in 1922, in its hangar at Old Warden aerodrome in the summer of 2009.