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Wartime secrets of Marwell Hall
AS all eyes turn towards Normandy this week for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, there will be another, less celebrated, anniversary happening much closer to home.
It is 60 years since Marwell, the now famous zoological park, was used as a secret base for sheltering aircraft built or modified at the Cunliffe Owen Aircraft factory at Swaythling in Southampton.
By 1941, the new manufacturing plant at Cunliffe Owen's factory based at Eastleigh Airport was operating at a peak, modifying both British and American aircraft. These modifications included converting land-based Spitfires into carrier-borne Seafires, and reassembling American fighters such as the Tomahawk and Aircobra, which arrived in crates at Southampton docks.
As production increased so too did the need for testing and dispersing the aircraft. This increase in output bought about its own problems as Southampton was surrounded by balloon and gun defences. Test flying and even ferrying aircraft away from Eastleigh required aircraft to have individual clearance to fly within the immediate airspace. These restrictions caused great frustration among both the pilots and the factory staff until a fortunate twist of fate helped to bring a solution to the problem. Cunliffe Owen's managing director, Mr Rex Hoyes was also the owner of Marwell Hall, a country house situated in several acres of land four miles north east of the barrage balloons of Eastleigh Airport. Hoyes suggested that, if hedges were removed and several fields joined together, a sizeable grass landing strip could be created. The natural woodland that enveloped the grounds provided excellent camouflage and made the airfield difficult to spot from the air. From a security point of view this was ideal although this also proved troublesome for Air Transport Auxiliary pilots trying to find the airfield
Using Marwell was agreed by the Air Ministry and work to make the area ready was carried out in 1941, with aircraft ferried almost immediately between Eastleigh and Marwell by pilots of the ATA. Out of a total six hundred ATA pilots, over one hundred were women. Some of these ladies played a major part in the movement of Aircobras and Spitfires from Marwell to various factories and airfields around the south coast. It was also the women who were responsible for bringing the largest aircraft into Marwell. Many looked on in astonishment as the diminutive lady pilots of the ATA flew the mighty four-engined Halifaxes in and out of Marwell.
Activity at Marwell was at full swing during 1943. The company was now busy on continued modification of American aircraft, including Venturas and Liberators, and on the production of Seafires. In March 1944, Cunliffe Owen ceased using Marwell Hall, and Air Service Training took over the site using the buildings for design work, although there was little flying activity during this time. When the war ended, Willmot and Manser Experimental Aircraft used the buildings for a short time, though for what purpose it is not known. After this brief spell, the land and buildings around Marwell Hall were quickly returned to agricultural use before it became a zoological park. On Tuesday, July 6 Marwell Zoo is holding a day of nostalgia. "Remembering the Forties" will be a day when Marwell invites everyone to share in this commemoration of those wartime days and see a display of historical information, items and a variety Seconf World War vehicles will be on display in front of Marwell Hall.
For more information call Gaynor Worman on 01962 777947 or e-mail: email@example.com