Memories of St Mary’s during the War
In an assembly today, Remembrance Day 2019, pupils paid tribute to those that lost their lives during the wars. Tabby E, LVI, spoke about the important role St Mary’s, known as Coombe House, played during World War II. Originally a fine hotel in the 1940s, the house stood in 50 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds with, “a magnificent ballroom, hot and cold running water, central heating and electric light,” – features that very few hotels had in 1943. Consequently, Coombe House was requisitioned by the Air Ministry to be used by the US Air Force and was to be referred to as “Flak Shak.” It became a house of recuperation run by the Red Cross, which gave air crews a place to recover from the rigours of flying in combat missions. The men enjoyed the relaxation and services offered by the likes of a butler named Michael Flynn, a local man who dressed in tails and a bow tie, served them orange juice in bed each morning. As well as horse riding, cycling and football, a popular pastime was playing badminton in the Hall or enjoying a drink in the downstairs bar.
Many of the rules imposed on them sounded rather familiar to current pupils today – namely that all transport to Shaftesbury had to be arranged via the office, the men were not permitted to mix their uniform with civilian clothes and tea was taken each day at 4.30pm.
One of the men stationed at Coombe House was Lieutenant Donald J Hudson, US 9th Army Air Force pilot. He was a keen amateur film maker and recorded the activities of the USAAF 391st Bombardment Group during the Second World War. His films are now housed at the Imperial War Museum but thanks to the recent digitising of old film stock, the clips were able to be shown to pupils for the first time.