Discovering the remains of a mansion that served as a top secret training facility for OSS Operatives during World War 2.
We often aspire to travel to the most faraway places to satisfy our wanderlust. But trust me when I say this : some of the most astonishing, and frequently overlooked places to discover, are right at your doorstep.
Well, my doorstep is currently at Ruislip, Middlesex. And my very neglected gem close by was the mysterious Battle of Britain House, a local wartime legend. Elder neighbours sometimes referred to it while reminiscing of the past. They talked about a beautiful old mansion nearby, where people used to attend residential courses, such as beekeeping, music, or art.
On further investigation, I found some local publications and memoirs referring to it as a local college operating after 1948. Records show that it was managed by Victor and Gwendolen Stanyon, a local artistic couple who organised the various art courses offered by the college. For a time, the Ruislip and District Natural History Society was also headquartered at the mansion.
On a dry summer day in August 1984, a sudden blaze devoured the mansion, rendering it beyond repair. But still, people talked of a stately home with grand spaces, lavish furnishings, a well stocked library, and decorations commemorating the Battle of Britain, including a memorial plaque and the blazons of RAF squadrons adorning the walls. Apparently, the house had been purchased on the initiative of a local appeal, shortly after the war. They wished, and succeeded to opening it as a youth and learning centre, commemorating the R.A.F. pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. But such was the scale of devastation on that fateful August day, that what remained of the once grand mansion had to be razed to the ground, never to be restored to its former glory again.
But for me, the most intriguing part of the Battle of Britain’s House legend was its colourful ownership history, as well as it’s alleged wartime usage. I have found out that certain owners had been compelled to relocate from the mansion under difficult circumstances, and this happened twice ! And what’s more interesting, the wartime Ministry of Works seems to have requisitioned the building at the outbreak of World War 2, and later permitted its use as a secret training facility for US personnel based in England. Operatives from the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to modern CIA, were apparently based there during the war, preparing for secret missions into occupied France !
Stories of the mansion’s past owners
The story of the site begins circa 1905, when Josef Conn – a German immigrant – and his wife Emily, obtained a 99 year lease for the Duck’s Hill Plantation in Ruislip. This included permission to improve the existing buildings into their house, which was named Horsens upon completion. However, the finished structure was apparently much criticized by locals, and only a few years later, just as the First World War broke out, Conn was accused to be a sympathizer on the basis of his German origin, and was subsequently interned for a period of time. Upon his release, which appears to have happened around 1916 – before the war ended – the Conns moved away from the area, leaving Horsens forever.
During the 20s, the house became the property of Meyer Franklin Kline, a well travelled American. A colourful and interesting character, Kline made his fortune as a travel journalist who spent most of his life creating, compiling and editing the Official Shipper’s Guide, a periodical journal sponsored by the Osaka Merchantile Shipping Company. Due to his business and personal connection with Japan, he renamed Horsens to Kokyo, the name of the Japanese Imperial Palace in Tokyo. He is then known to have re-decorated the house in accordance – Kline’s Kokyo was furnished with luxurious pieces from a luxury ocean liner’s state room, perhaps a consequence of his shipping industry connections. He is also known to have improved the mansion’s grounds significantly during the same period, including the two oriental lions once adorning the pillars of the rear garden steps.
The Official Shipper’s Guide became a definitive guide book for travellers in the 30s : original, leather bound copies of it can still be obtained through reputable antique book merchants. It looks great, a book I’d love to own for my library one day. But beyond his love for travel and writing, Kline was also known to have loved women. Perhaps a bit too much… he married no less than 4 times, and as rumours go, when his last wife caught him with the housekeeper, reportedly she proceeded to burn the entirety of the photos and films Kline had accumulated during his travels ! This is a terrifying story.. and a very dear price to pay for infidelity.
Kline eventually renamed Kokyo to Franklin House at some point after 1933. Franklin was his middle name, but he is said to have also named it so in honour of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States. During the same period, he appears to have leased the home to an unknown German national, shortly before the outbreak of the 2nd World War. But the new leaseholder was forced to abandon the lease, as stipulated by wartime regulations in force at that time. He was, so to speak, the second German to be driven out of the property as a consequence of Britain and Germany being at war ! By some other accounts, there was “a woman of German origin” who lived in the house at the time, a “Mrs Hertog”. She was said to have been related to the Van Der Bergh family of margarine magnates from the Netherlands.
My research shows that she could have been Rica Hartog, the daughter of Hartog Hartog and Maria Anna Van Den Bergh. The Hartogs and Van Den Berghs were among the most important Dutch industrialists of the late 19th – early 20th century – indeed they were the kings of margarine ! The two families, among other important names in the Dutch margarine trade began as competitors, but didn’t hesitate to become partners when things got tougher during the 1920s. To remain afloat and continue enjoying a strong market position, they gradually entered agreements and formed pacts, pooling resources, brands and distribution networks over a period of years. This network of Dutch alliances, interests and dependencies eventually branched out across the Channel to involve British companies, and ultimately leading to the formation of Unilever in 1937, which remains a widely recognized international brand to this day. So with their businesses intertwining over several decades and spreading towards the UK, it’s no surprise members of their families ending up tying the knot too at some point, and perhaps finding themselves living in this wonderful mansion in Ruislip. So Mrs Rica Hartog is my best guess : she fits the event timeline, and had ancestry from both families. The only problem that remains was that both the Hartogs and the Van Den Berghs were Dutch, and indeed Jewish families. Rica Hartog was born in Brabant, much as the rest of her siblings, so it’s rather unlikely that she would be evicted for her origin, or even accused of sympathising. The truth is that I can’t know for certain, and more research would be required to establish the story of the mansion’s last tenant.
What is absolutely certain however, is that the outbreak of WW2 finds the mansion in the hands of the Ministry of Works, and soon, through them, it will be leased to its new foreign residents, the fearless men and women from the Office of Strategic Services.
The OSS in Britain
The US Intelligence apparatus was severely lacking at the outbreak of World War 2. Indeed the majority of information they collected at the time came in via their British counterparts : the Secret Intelligence Service (known as MI6) and their Special Operations Executive (SOE) branch, the so called “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, a nickname alluding to the covert nature of its activities. The Brits were well ahead in the spy game at the time. They were active since summer 1940, performing intelligence and counter-intelligence activities, and conducting actual operations inside Nazi occupied Europe as early as 1941.
By autumn 1941, the fledgling OSS had established a permanent mission in London, at a building in 70 Grosvenor Street, Mayfair. The purpose of this overseas presence was the sharing of information and expertise, as well as agent training and exercises for field operatives. Americans with European backgrounds and a cool head were preferred, and after training in various locations in the USA, Britain and elsewhere, were sent into the field, for missions in countries where their accents would help them blend in successfully.
The Franklin House was one of those secret locations. OSS agents would train in hand-to-hand combat, explosives, communications, as well as the latest spy gadgets : Lightweight sub-machine guns, silenced pistols, compasses disguised as buttons, playing cards doubling as maps, and even cannabis extract-laced cigarettes to induce incessant chatting. Because remember – Loose Lips Sink Ships ! Beyond the seriousness of their mission and the real dangers involved, the young men and women of the OSS must have enjoyed the adventurous character of their training thoroughly.
This joint allied intelligence and special branch effort culminated in Operation Jedburg : Small teams consisting of 3 agents each paradropped behind enemy lines on the 5th of June 1944, the night before the Allied landings in Normandy. These were no ordinary grunts : They were by now highly trained agents from the OSS and SOE, with elements from the Free French, Dutch and Belgian armed forces. They were tasked with infiltrating deep inside occupied territory, conducting sabotage and guerilla operations and directing and organizing the Resistance ahead of the main Allied advance. I tend to think that some of those clandestine men and women who took part in Operation Jedburgh, whose names and identities were declassified only recently, might have trained and prepared at the Battle of Britain House, ahead of their paradrop.
Exploring the Battle of Britain House today
There’s not much left from the Battle of Britain House today. After the devastating fire in August 1984, the mansion was deemed irreparable, and its charred walls were razed to the ground. None of the lavish furnishings, books and RAF memorabilia survived the blaze, and council lorries soon moved in and removed any of the reusable materials. After a number of failed attempts to invite re-development, the council decided to abandon the project in 1993, and agreed to allow the space to be reclaimed by nature, thus returning it to its original state.
Visiting the site today is a reasonably easy and fun challenge. Trying to locate the remains of the stately home through dense woodland, using contemporary photos and maps offers a pleasant pursuit for the budding archaeologist. I have discovered the more modern vehicle access gate and driveway, including a small pumping house and a road sign from the 80s. Further, one can see the remains of railings, electricity pylons and drains. Eventually, one reaches an open plateau, in what once was the beautiful gardens in front of the house. There, one can still see the main steps leading up to the mansion, which is perhaps the most significant relic on site. Turning east, one can find the remains of two outhouses, perhaps one was a storage shed and the other a greenhouse, judging from the amount of broken glass still there. There’s not much present testimony to the house’s wartime usage, although metal detector enthusiasts are known to have unearthed a number of interesting items, including a fake firearm used for hand-to-hand combat training. Here’s a short video of the site when I visited in January 2019 :
I have visited the location a number of times, and it is unfortunate to see less and less artefacts. There was much more to see in older photos, but it appears that irresponsible people have been removing any amount of scrap metal they could get their hands on. There was much more to see as evidenced in photos from about a decade ago, but unfortunately the non-protected status of the site means that it will continue to suffer from vandalism, until one day the forest will swallow it entirely,along with any sign of its presence. The legend of the Battle of Britain House, however, will remain – and I hope I have somewhat helped to preserve it for future generations.
All colour photos and videos in this article © explorabilia except where stated otherwise.
Except where expressly indicated, all non-attributed photos are public domain, to the best of my knowledge. If you own the rights, or have further information on any of the material in this article, please contact me – I will be delighted to attribute provenance or ownership, and relate your story.
- Genealogieonline for Rica Hartog’s family tree
- The formation of Unilever – Info Guide No.4, Unilever Archives and Records Management
- From Horsens to Ruislip College : The story of Battle of Britain House – Ruislip, Northwood and Eastcote Local History Society Journal, April 1985
- http://www.wikipedia.com (various articles)
- The Home Front : Ruislip, Northwood and Eastcote in Wartime – Ruislip, Northwood and Eastcote Local History Society, 2007