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The History of Holmewood Hall

The present day Hall was built for the distinguished Wells family, who inherited the manor of Holme in 1752.

Holmewood Hall was bought by British Sugar in 1951, initially to serve as little more than a document warehouse. Fortunately, the house was not left to gather dust and became an agricultural research and development base for the company, before being fully restored to its former glory as a venue of true distinction. Holmewood Hall also played a crucial role during World War II. Read on to learn more about our history

The Wells Family Legacy

The Wells Family made their fortune in shipbuilding back in the 16th century, and even get a mention in Samuel Pepys's Diary. Although records are few and far between, it is believed there were two or three previous houses on the site before fire destroyed the 18th Century building, and William Wells (1818 - 1889) commissioned the present hall.

The first William Wells inherited the Holme estate including Holmewood Hall from his wife Elizabeth Neave’s maternal Uncle Thomas Truman in 1752, Truman having bought it from the Cotton family. William Wells, the eldest surviving son of William and Lady Elizabeth Wells, inherited Holmewood Hall in 1826 from his father, a Captain in the Royal Navy and son of Admiral Thomas Wells. He also inherited the Redleaf estate in Kent from his great uncle William, a former Captain in the Honourable East India Company's naval service, Trustee of the National Gallery and leading patron of the arts, many of whose paintings found their way to Holmewood. William Wells, a former Captain in the 1st Life Guards, was an agriculturist at heart. He was very active in the community as a Liberal MP, first for Beverley in Yorkshire and later for Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, High Sheriff of Huntingdonshire and President of the Royal Agricultural Society. He was also responsible for draining much of the fenland around Holme, and rebuilding the Hall to the designs of renowned Scottish architect William Young, who designed the War Office. The plans must have been quite something in their day because they featured extensively in 'The Architect' magazine in 1874. The Hall dates from that time and is a perfect example of Tudor Gothic revival building. Although Wells was married in 1854 to Lady Louisa, daughter of the 9th Earl of Wemyss, he died childless in 1889. Holmewood Hall and its 6,000 acre estate were bought for £72,000 by neighbouring landowner Lord de Ramsey, who in turn sold it to John Ashton Fielden in 1901.

The Fielden era & beyond

Fielden, the 'silent Squire' as villagers called him, was a strict and somewhat eccentric man with a passion for country sports. Respected rather than popular, he was also generous to a fault. In the First World War he donated £500,000 to the country and allowed his steam yacht to be used as a hospital ship. During WWII he gave thousands more to buy four Spitfires, ambulances, munitions and hospital equipment to help the war effort.

Although a handsome man, Fielden cut a lonely figure. He never married and died in 1942 leaving much of his estate to various hospital funds. The property was turned over to the Crown Estates when the health service was nationalised.

World War II

That wasn't the end of the story however. We had known for some time that the Hall played a role during World War II but exact details of what went on during this time were sketchy. After fifty years under Official Secrets wraps, an interesting twist came to light. In fact, the Hall had played a cruicial role during the war. Between 1944 and 1945 the house and grounds at Holmewood Hall was used by the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) for packing airborne containers to be parachuted into occupied Europe. However, we knew little else.

This all changed in 2009 when we were visited by Phil Gioia from San Francisco. Phil’s father, Joseph Gioia was an officer with the OSS and was based at Holmewood Hall, known as ‘Area H’ during World War II. During Phil’s visit we discovered the full extent of the OSS operation at Area H.

Holmewood Hall as it is today  Holmewood Hall - 1944

 Holmewood Hall as it is today

 Holmewood Hall - 1944

On 26 June 1942, the OSS and its equivalent, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), agreed to divide the world into regions. The SOE retained Western Europe while the OSS would operate there under general SOE supervision, but would retain its independence. While the British had excellent operational capabilities, they had been fighting since 1939 and lacked material. The fledgling Special Operations (SO) branch had to build a supply chain in England to assist in the allied liberation of Europe as the SOE could not also support OSS operations. The first step was to get aircraft capable of clandestinely delivering supplies into occupied Europe. The B-24 squadron commanded by Colonel Clifford Heflin were re-designated the 801st bomb squad but were popularly known as the “Carpetbaggers” after their mission code. The first missions were flown out of RAF Tempsford in January 1944.

With airlift resolved, the OSS needed a logistics base in England where it could accumulate, store and prepare items for airdrop into occupied Europe. That need was established with OSS Area H at Holmewood Hall. Construction on the OSS facilities at Holmewood Hall began in January 1944 and was completed 2 months later. Area H became the largest SO supply facility in the European Theatre. By then, Area H could accommodate 18 officers and 326 enlisted men. The Hall was used to house the officers and their mess, and also served as the administrative headquarters common recreation rooms. Agents were sometimes housed, and isolated in the Hall prior to departing on their missions.

Sheet metal buildings housed the dispensary, administrative and maintenance sections, as well as the motor pool. Isolated buildings for ammunition and explosives, such as incendiary devices were erected away from the main camp. That area had four Nissen huts and five brick buildings each revetted with brick walls to contain any accidental explosions. Another Nissen and four Romney huts housed the packing operations. In total, Area H could store 500 tons of material. Security at Area H was heavy. High woven-wire fences topped with barbed wire surrounded the compound. At night, guard dogs patrolled the fence line. Three gates had guard houses to control access.

 Officers briefing in the main Hall - 1944  The Main Hall - 2010

 Officers briefing in the main hall - 1944

 The main hall today

The delivery of supplies to occupied Europe started with specially designed packing containers. These long tubular metal and plastic containers came in two types, the “H” and the “C” model. Nearly identical from the outside, type “H” containers had compartments inside while the “C” type did not. Once dropped the “H” container could be unclamped and separated into five segments, each of which could be carried by one man. The “C” containers were for long items such as rifles or machine guns. The contents of each container were padded with shock absorbing material such as burlap to ensure that they could withstand the opening shock of the parachute as well as the landing. The containers might contain any of 400 separate U.S. Army, British Military, OSS or SOE issue items. Supplies of these items had to be kept on hand and included British and American weapons of different calibres. When resistance and OSS groups were armed, the personnel at Area H had to know what weapons each element carried to provide the correct ammunition. Often, drops to multiple groups required similar items. This lead to the development of a series of standard loads and provided a more accurate estimate of the total weight. For instance, one of the standard loads for a type “H” container was 5 Sten guns with 15 magazines, 1500 rounds of 9mm ammunition, 5 pistols with 250 rounds of ammunition, 52 grenades and 18 pounds of explosives. The weight of this container was 281 pounds. The same was true for the type “C” container. Typically, one standard load would contain two British Bren light machine guns complete with 16 magazines and 2000 rounds of .303 ammunition weighing 303 pounds. To verify their packing techniques the personnel at Area H conducted drop tests to see if their containers survived impact.

Once packed, the containers were taken by convoy to the waiting aircraft at nearby SOE or USAAF airfields. The primary airfield that Area H supported was Harrington in Northamptonshire where the Carpetbaggers were based. Specially modified B-24 Liberators were used by the Carpetbaggers. These planes had radar, flash suppressors mounted on their machine gun in the top and rear turrets. British container release equipment replaced the bomb racks and they were painted all black. The removal of the belly ball turret created a “joe hole” for parachuting agents. All missions were conducted only during the full moon period, when the extra light could assist the pilot’s vision. The Carpetbaggers pioneered low level night flying in the USAAF. They stayed below 2,000 feet to avoid German radar and anti-aircraft defences as well as to make more precise air-drops. The drops were made between 400-600 feet and under 130 miles per hour. This velocity was near the stall speed of the B-24, but it reduced the opening shock of the parachute and reduced the risk of damage to the container contents.

 Containers being packed at Area H  Container drop testing at Area H

 Containers being packed at Area H

 Container drop testing at Area H

USAAF started dropping supplies into occupied Europe in January 1944. These initial drops added an ever increasing demand on Area H. Operations conducted during January and February 1944 presented a steep learning curve for the Carpetbaggers, Only 28 of 76 operational sorties were successful. “Success” was defined as containers dropped and whether the plane returned. By March the ratio had improved with 44 of 72 sorties successful.

Work schedules at Area H were demanding. Although the personnel at Area H considered their job complete when the packed containers were delivered to the airbases, it was the volume of supply drops that set their pace. To provide the 10,000 containers a month required in July 1944, two eight hour shifts worked overtime seven days a week. Packing personnel were given one day off a week. Periodic surges were also required. During one month alone Area H packed 15,233 containers. After September 1944, the pace at Area H slowed. France, the primary country for aerial re-supply operations, no longer needed specialised air supply. This was however, short lived. In November 1944 Area H was the scene of renewed activity when the re-supply of the resistance in Denmark and Norway was increased and personnel were quickly back to packing 10,000 containers a month.

The OSS logistics effort at Area H was an unqualified success. During 1944, Area H packed 50,162 containers for air delivery by the RAF and USAAF. In the first nine months of 1944, this included more than 75,000 small arms and 35,000 grenades. Area H provided 96 tons of supplies to Belgium, 9 to Denmark, 3,055 to France, 199 to Poland and 56 to Norway. Supplying the resistance forces came with a price though. Twenty-one Carpetbagger aircraft and most of their crews were lost in action.

Area H personnel with the 50,000 packed container  

Area H personnel pose with the 50,000 container packed

Lt Col Chandler with his dog Ack-Ack at Area H.
Ack-Ack was GI slang for 'flak' or German anti-aircraft fire

Although the logistics division gets very little credit for the success of OSS operations, the personnel at Area H played a vital role in the liberation of France. Major General William J. Donovan, Director of the OSS, commended the Area H personnel , “I personally wish to commend each of you for the superior manner in which you have performed your duties. Unquestionably, the work of the packing station constitutes a vital link in the difficult job of supplying the Resistance groups and has contributed materially to the effectiveness of these groups against the common enemy”. Following the end of the war, the OSS was re-born as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1947.

We would like to thank Dr Troy Sacquety for giving us permission to publish this fascinating history. Troy is a historian in the Army Special Operations Command.

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