Category Archives: Ruislip Woods

A walk with Miles Gillman

My phone rang one day last March. I didn’t seem to recognize the number. These days, I tend to communicate via email, social media and a multitude of internet messengers, so receiving a direct call is a bit unexpected. And when I do, it’s usually wrong numbers, cold automated calls, or bad news…

But I was soon delighted to find out it was none of that – at all. The caller was Mr Miles Gillman of Northwood, a Friend of Ruislip Woods and trustee of the Ruislip Woods Trust. Having just read through a recent article of mine about the Battle of Britain House that went out with the RWT Newsletter, he went on to congratulate me about the write, and the renewed interest it has sparked over the history of the ruined mansion in Ruislip Woods. He also seemed eager to share his own experience of the site, as well as a very interesting theory about the mansion : for he had reasons to suspect that an underground Cold War bunker may have existed nearby.

“Will you show me?!” I asked, instantly hooked on the prospect of peeling back more layers of the history of the mansion. We promptly set up a meetup at the woods for late April.

What lies beneath ?

The meetup

I met Mr Gillman, Miles, at the mansion’s steps on a sunny Saturday morning. He was in great spirits, and happy to be back to Ruislip Woods after quite some time. I was equally delighted with the opportunity to meet him and record his story. I was in for a treat !

We proceeded to a clearing next to the mansion and its car park. It is an area as big as an average garden, and reasonably flat. Miles remembers the existence of a hut there : he describes it as a cabin with a lower and an upper level, and perhaps a balcony. I am instantly reminded of the Annexe, an outhouse which used to accommodate the students, au-pairs and other guests that lodged at the Battle of Britain House :

“There still remained another newer building in the grounds which had been used as a
dormitory and not touched by the fire, but in spite of being boarded up it was eventuallyvandalised and had to be demolished”

Colin Bowlt
Ruislip, Northwood & Eastcote Local History Society 2011 Journal
An artists’ impression of the Annexe from a 1960s leaflet

This Annexe was clearly a later building, possibly post-war. It would have been erected during a time when the mansion was transitioning to its new utility as a residential college. And then Miles dropped a proverbial bomb : he maintains that the Annexe might have been a cover for a Cold-War era ROTOR Station.

ROTOR and the Cold War

A few words about ROTOR (which as far as I’m aware is a code name, rather than an acronym). In the early days of the Cold war, one of the the greatest threats posed to Britain was from Soviet bombers performing a potential sneak nuclear attack. The Soviets had acquired U.S. long range bomber technology since 1945, when on four separate occasions, B-29 Superfortress bombers crash landed in Siberia on their return from bombing raids over Japan. The Soviets surveyed the wrecks and proceeded to reverse engineer an exact clone of the B29 into what would become their own Tupolev Tu-4 in 1947. By 1951, the Soviets had also being successful in detonating an air dropped nuclear device, code named RDS-3. It was nearly 3 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.

Uncanny similarities (photo sources here and here)

This was the threat the ROTOR system was meant to counter. It utilized elements of the existing Chain Home early warning system, consolidated and upgraded with the latest Radar technology, a new command and communications structure, and all new, nuclear bomb-proof installations that comprised an underground bunker with a distinctive bungalow on top to serve as living quarters for the operators. The ROTOR bunker hut’s design was very distinctive, probably the outcome of a common blueprint.

The ROTOR hut at Kelvedon Hatch vis-a-vis the Annexe at Ruislip Woods

There certainly are differences and similarities here, but it’s difficult to establish a match as the Ruslip Woods hut is now long gone. What remains, however, is the wide flat area where the Annexe once stood, which still remains mysteriously clear from the large trees and thick foliage of the area immediately surrounding it. So could there be something underneath?

It’s difficult to tell. Miles has visited the site a number of times with friends from Subterranea Brittanica , a well known project that have been charting Britain’s underground heritage for decades. They also speculate that the Annexe may have resembled a typical ROTOR hut. Yet there should have been other visible clues, like ventilation shafts or solid bases for Radar dishes and other above ground elements – but there are none visible. Although maybe these are still around, somewhere out of sight. Or maybe they have been removed, or covered by nature over the years.

ROTOR guard hut at RAF Goldsborough, Yorkshire / image © from OneLife – 28 Day Later

Today, the location of every ROTOR site in Britain is public domain, but as you might expect, Ruislip Woods doesn’t feature. So was there ever anything there, after all? Miles suggests that metal detectors or a ground penetrating radar might be the only way to answer that question. And I have some eyebrow-raising questions of my own. For someone has told me in confidence how there has been top secret training taking place at the Battle of Britain House well into the 60s, and it had to do with radar technology… And another testimony has emerged, vividly describing the gruff looking military men who attended courses at the mansion during the same period… I will be relating these stories in detail on future posts. All will be revealed !

In the end, the post-war technology race saw the Soviets and the Western Allies constantly vying to top each other. Faster, jet powered nuclear bombers were being built, prompting the need for earlier warning and better radars to upgrade ROTOR with. By 1959 the Soviets had successfully launched their first intercontinental ballistic missile, soon to be armed with nuclear weapons. This new technology, and the proliferation of nuclear armed missiles that came with it changed the strategic defense outlook dramatically. There was no point in maintaining a complex system to warn about a bomber – or ten – entering one’s airspace. If there was an attack, the Soviets would do well to throw everything at it, every bomber and every missile, eventually overwhelming the defenses. So the new doctrine aimed to detect missiles at launch, and hopefully prompt an immediate retaliatory response within the 15 to 25 minutes it’d take for the Soviet blow to land. So in the 60s, the ROTOR system was abandoned in favour of airborne and over-the-horizon radar systems that could detect a missile launch thousands of miles away.

The Ice House

We now found ourselves walking along the old driveway towards the Ducks Hill road gatehouse, talking excitedly about rumours and possibilities. I felt compelled to ask Miles whether he might know what those mysterious stone walls built against and earth bank were, so close to the old gatehouse and driveway? He believes those are the remains of an Ice House that may have existed here. (I regret that for all the times I’ve seen the remains of those stone walls, I couldn’t find a single picture in my collection – but I promise I will as soon as I visit the site again).

Ice House at Ruislip Woods / Battle of Britain House
The Ice House. Maybe.

Before the invention of refrigeration, people depended on ice houses to preserve perishables. Those were underground stone or brick chambers packed with ice brought in from frozen lakes or rivers in the winter, or sometimes imported from as far as Scandinavia. The thick walls of the structure coupled with the lower underground temperature meant that ice could last from winter to winter before it needed replenishment, providing businesses and important households with adequate refrigeration all year around. There are still many surviving examples in the UK.

A typical ice house at Eglinton Country Park, Scotland / image source : Wikipedia Commons

So could these indeed the remains of an Ice House? Perhaps. The mansion was a stately home, and a farmhouse before that. Ruislip Woods were famed for the game that could once be hunted there, particularly pheasants, that may have been hunted there up to the 1930’s. So it is possible that a cold storage might have once existed, at least until there wasn’t a need for one anymore. At any case, it is great to finally have a working theory about the mysterious stone wall next to the driveway.

Ice House at Ruislip Woods / Battle of Britain House
The Ice House. Maybe.

The Shooting Range

Our next stop is the part of the woods adjacent to the Battle of Britain House, roughly between the ruin and Poor’s Field. Soon, we come across a sizable horseshoe-shaped mound. It looks like what it might have been : a firing range for the agents who trained in Ruislip Woods during the war.

The firing range

I’d seen photos of it through the years, but never got to see it in person before today. And it is surprising that I’ve missed it, having unknowingly walked next to it several times ! Firearms training would have been integral to the agents’ preparation for para-dropping into enemy territory. Their weapons of choice would be the British Sten gun or its US counterpart M3 (often referred to as the Grease Gun). Miles showed me one of the spent cartridge cases that have been found in the vicinity of the range.

A spent cartridge case from Ruislip Woods

It is an amazing find that demonstrates the possible use of this area for discharging firearms. I’ve read that metal detectorists have found a fake hand grenade that would have been used for throw training in the same vicinity a few years back.

A spent cartridge case from Ruislip Woods

I am not an expert, but at first glance it looks like a rimmed cartridge case (meaning without a characteristic flange around its base). This fact might limit the search for the weapon type drastically, but corrosion didn’t help in this case, since the cap markings are totally illegible. If you know of an expert who can identify the cartridge case, please do ask them to get in touch.

The Pumping House

And there were yet more discoveries to be made. In the near distance, past a picture-perfect bluebell clearing, I could see the outline of a brick structure. Getting closer, it was evident that this wasn’t a living space : it looked rather like a workshop or machine room. Miles believes that this used to be a Pumping House, possibly to mechanically draw water from a nearby source.

Miles Gillman exploring the Pumping House

And there is mention of such a venture in local history groups – one that has led to misadventure, so to speak. In 1942, the Colne Valley Water Company (the precursor to Three Valleys Water) committed to establish a water well in this part of the woods. The drilling was successful, but didn’t yield the expected amount of water. Towards the end of the war, it was decided to bore an additional tunnel which roughly followed the contour of the Northern side of the Ruislip Lido reservoir into Poor’s Field. A pumping station was built to aid in the extraction of water from the well.

A crank shaft cradle? at the pumping station

However, the water yield from the well remained unsatisfactory, despite the mechanical aid. And to make things worse, mysterious swallow holes began appearing close to the Ruislip Lido. According to geologists, these dangerous holes were a result of the collapse of the layers of chalk under Poor’s Field. There were 6 or more such collapses between 1944 and the early 1960s’, all in connection to the operation of the well and the changes it brought about to the geology of the woods. That fact and the low yield eventually led to the well being abandoned.

An underground chamber filled with water and debris

Today, the abandoned pumping station is testament to this failed effort to extract water at Ruislip Woods. It is an interesting ruin, especially once one becomes aware of what it represents. It is quite possible that the underground opening may lead to a tunnel under Poor’s Field – however I would absolutely not recommend trying to explore it. No-one knows what dangers may lie down there, not least the danger of collapse which I have already mentioned.

The way back

Our one-hour was up, and we started making our way back to the car park. But Miles Gillman’s storytelling didn’t abate. Inspired by the stories of bunkers and tunnels under the woods, we discussed about other local rumours and landmarks, such as the (now permanently closed) Pinner Chalk Mines as well as other known or suspected tunneling and mining efforts under our feet here in Hillingdon. It’ll suffice to say that some of us might have tunnels running under our gardens – about which we have no idea about ! It was a great discussion that certainly merits its own dedicated post and research.

As we went past the mansion on our way to the car park, Miles produced another interesting item : fragments of china recovered from the woods near the Battle of Britain House. These were probably part of a platter or dining plate, but otherwise difficult to tell how significant they were, or even whether these belonged to the crockery of Battle of Britain House. Miles remembers how in the days before recycling, it wasn’t uncommon for households to dispose of broken household items near their gardens. It is another interesting theory, and if it’s true, then there must be a potential treasure trove of fragments and other items close to where these were found! It’s yet another fascinating avenue of exploration that may yield more insights into the past of the ruined mansion at Ruislip Woods.

I am grateful to Mr Miles Gillman for being generous with his time, and for the interesting stories, artifacts and locations he shared.

For those interested in further detail, the story of the Ruislip Woods water well and pumping house has been described in great depth on the 1998 Ruislip, Northwood & Eascote Local Hisotry Society journal.

A new audio tour, and some thoughts about the de-evolution of leisure

Between October 2020 and March 2021, I developed an audio tour about the history of the Battle of Britain House in Rusilip Woods with the help of Voicemap, a GPS driven audio guide app. The tour costs £5 / $6.99 per device, and you can pick it up here. I am delighted to share this with you, and I’m taking the opportunity to reveal a bit more about where I come from, why am I doing what I’m doing, and some of the thought processes that went into creating this audio walk.

Exploring bomb craters in Ruislip Woods, winter 2020

Why make an audio tour about the Battle of Britain House ruin, or even at all

The easy answer is that I loved hosting the first guided walks in the woods in summer 2020, and so I thought I’d commit the story to audio as well. I wanted to use a new format to reach a broader audience. There were many who didn’t get the chance to join physical walks on weekends because of other commitments, and there are those who preferred to remain distanced from a group. Then there are others, including myself, who just enjoy a radiophone or podcast-style delivery. First I toyed with the idea of making this an online experience, like a zoom tour. But then I realized that in the course of the last year, so many of us were already stuck living out great parts of our lives in front of a screen, doing most of our socialising online, or taking part in numerous zoom calls about this and that. So what I really aimed for was creating something that didn’t just relate a noteworthy story in a refreshing way, but also urged people to get off their seats and enjoy nature, and the great outdoors.

But there were more complex reasons for creating a tour in this new format. Reasons that didn’t have to do with the global health situation per se. In recent years, I have arrived to the belief that the way we’ve been doing leisure is past its due date, and dying fast. Travel and leisure across the planet in the last 70 years has become a mass manufacturing process, standardised, packaged, and plastic. Looking beyond the immediate benefits to the economy, people people have started waking up to the detrimental effects travel has and leisure on local communities, the environment, and ultimately our psychology. Coming from a 15 year career in travel and leisure, I was directly involved in the inner workings of package travel, and grew disillusioned by the ways we do leisure, and what it has come to mean to us.

Exploring bomb craters in Ruislip Woods, winter 2020

There’s a need to go back to basics

Armed with an inquisitive mind and a philosophical mood, I began looking for alternative, more individual, and ultimately less intrusive ways to approach travel and leisure. The quest became a rabbit hole : to places I’d never been before, to perspectives that were alien to me, and straight to the heart of our very thought processes as human beings. I began looking at the ways our perceptive and psychological mechanisms affect our need for leisure and wanderlust. Soon I understood the basic mechanisms, and arrived at the realisation that we don’t make the most of our capacity to experience when we’re crammed like sardines inside venues and resorts. The breakthrough came when I was acquainted with the work of Agoraphobic Traveller, which kickstarted an extraordinary 18-month philosophical exchange about what is a travel experience, after all. For those of you who’d like to find out more, I have committed these thoughts and discussions in a long read called The Drift : an interview with the Agoraphobic Traveller

While I was in the midst of this process, the new decade started in style with a huge global challenge : the outbreak of disease, forcing upon us isolation, social upheaval, financial and psychological pressure . Adding the heart-breaking death toll of Covid 19 to that, we are admittedly living through a multitude of stacking, universally experienced hardships such as the world hasn’t seen since World War 2 – as some world leaders put it. A pleasant thought is that mankind, for once, aren’t at each others’ throats in anger (well, mostly anyway). The global effort to find a cure to the malady is progressing, while governments and organisations around the world are releasing, to the best of their ability, unprecedented support to alleviate the impact of this crisis and ensure that livelihoods aren’t in immediate danger.

A beautiful Cedar of Lebanon at Watford’s Cassiobury Park

Each one of us will have a story to tell once this is over. My story is that the major plans I had for Explorabilia my small tour company in 2020 had to be put on hold. None of my painstakingly researched, lovingly crafted weekly guided walks and monthly international adven-tours took place, leaving me with a hole in my pocket, and also another one in my heart. All the excitement that comes with a new venture and doing what I love most had to be put on hold – indefinitely.

I know I am not alone in experiencing this, and that gives me courage, and perspective. One of the benefits of the situation, is us witnessing and participating in a massive cultural shift in our travel and leisure habits. I found that this situation validated my existing thoughts about the changing ways we experience the world. Homeworking. Video calling. Non-commuting. Spending more time with those closest to us, in non-commercial spaces, in the park or in the woods. And there have been ample opportunities to change some of our deep-rooted habits, and somewhat forcefully, embrace change. Given, it’s not ideal for everyone, but most of us have had the time to develop new approaches, or change our perspectives on how we live our lives, how we get things done, and what really matters. A lot of this change, in my mind, is for the better, especially when it comes to realising how we want to spend our precious leisure time. I, for one, have enjoyed my freedom from shopping malls, multiplexes and resorts, and poured myself into experiencing the best my immediate environment has to offer. I guess I’m just lucky it’s Ruilsip Woods !

Admiring oak trees at dusk : a new form of leisure ?

I have the certainty that much of this fundamental shift in how we experience our lives is here to stay. Working from home, less commuting, breaking our routines with new experiences and venturing outside our routines and comfort zone might become part of a new, post-Covid19 way of life. Subconsciously, many of us might still want to stay away the crowds, enjoy more peaceful lifestyles and remain open to new perspectives and pursuits. It’s been a tough period, but if that’s the silver lining, then I’ll be almost glad it happened by the time it’s all over. Hopefully soon.

Globetrotter : the World of Meyer F. Kline

Occasional global pandemic aside, travelling around the world doesn’t pose much of a logistical challenge in our day. There’s an abundance of flight options, efficient train networks, powerful cars to take us over vast distances safely – in much less than Phileas Fogg’s proverbial 80 days. What’s more, going from A to B has become reasonably affordable : most of us will plan a longer annual trip whether for holiday, meeting friends and family, or expanding our horizons.

At the turn of the 20th century, however, round-the-world travel was a much more challenging affair. Aircraft were still a new fad at the time, and commercial flights didn’t “take off” until the late 1920s. Extensive train networks existed, especially in Europe and the United States, but ambitious transcontinental projects were still a dream – such as the ‘Cape to Cairo’ project to connect Africa from north to south (whose insurmountable technical and political challenges meant that it still remains incomplete to this day). Reasonably powerful motor cars did exist, as well as their intrepid drivers, committing to improbably long expeditions. But cars weren’t nearly as available as we might think, and road trips largely remained the domain of daredevils. In the improbable 1908 New York to Paris race – a 17.000 km race across North America, and onward via the Bering Strait to Russia and Europe – around 300 cars took part, and that was basically every car in New York at the time. So In the early 20th century, the most reasonably safe and enjoyable way to see the world was aboard a ship.

A 1930 poster advertising round the world service aboard the Buenos Aires Maru of the Osaka Shosen Kaisha

Our hero, Meyer Franklin Kline, was one of those dreamers : a globetrotter from a very early age. Born in Tennessee, raised in Los Angeles, he was just 18 in year 1900, when he rode the 4.600 km between L.A. and Montreal – on a bicycle. He then got on a boat to Europe, where he attended the 1900 Paris World Fair. Soon after, he began his career in editorial work on behalf of various newspapers in Portland and Seattle.

Osaka Shoshen Kaisha and the Official Shippers Guide

Despite settling down in the Eastern US for a few years, Kline had been irrevocably gripped by wanderlust, and kept dreaming of more travel : ‘How fine it would be if I could get up some sort of a guide book so I could get expenses paid for a trip around the world’ he reminisced much later, in a 1935 interview with the LA Times. Sure enough, 1913 found Kline across the world, employed at the Japanese firm Osaka Shosen Kaisha (O.S.K.) – also known as the Osaka Mercantile Steamship Company Ltd. The company began as a conglomerate of 55 ship owners comprising 93 vessels – some of whom were managers at Osaka’s powerful Sumitomo zaibatsu, one of Japan’s family controlled monopolies that defined the country’s business and industry between 1860 and 1945. By 1919, the O.S.K. had become a global player : its ever-expanding shipping lines connected Japan to busy international ports like Adelaide, Bombay, Buenos Aires, Genoa, Marseille, and New York – to name a few. By 1935, their fleet had grown to 116 owned vessels plus 65 chartered, with another 7 under construction. The O.S.K. was active in both cargo and passenger shipping, and its modern steamers soon acquired a fame for luxury and comfort.

A 1921 O.S.K. promotional calendar

Kline’s role was the quintessential dream job : to travel around the world sponsored by the O.S.K., and then consign his travel memories into an annual luxurious volume called the Official Guide for Shippers and Travellers to the principal ports of the World on behalf of his employers.

The Official Shippers Guide could be found in each cabin of every O.S.K. ship, and also at the offices of the company and those of all its subsidiaries and representatives around the globe. As suggested by its name, it contained a wealth of up-to-date information about the major ports of the world, as well as the company’s ships, routes and activities. And so Kline travelled non-stop, in a seemingly never ending Grand Tour, visiting each place, and writing about its history, sights, and places of interest. He also used his own photography and poetic prose to bring each port to life for his readers :

“Across the boulevard from the Manila hotel is the Luneta, the favourite short evening walk. And well it might be, for Manila harbour presents a beautiful spectacle, especially at sunset. After the last vestige of the often peculiar and indescribably beautiful sunsets have gone from the skies and the fresh evening breezes set in, on come the lights, myriads of them. When the fleet is in, powerful searchlights throw their white beams slowly back and forth across the sky, and the riding lights of swift-moving harbor tugs, together with the brilliant flood lights of cargo vessels working overtime and the lighted portholes of the many passenger vessels, all contribute to the beautiful lighting effect”

Manila / from The Official Shippers Guide (1936)
Kline’s photos of Sydney from the 1936 Official Shippers Guide

Alongside his wonderfully descriptive travelogues, Kline worked meticulously to gather and analyse news, rumours, figures and data, then compiling it into business briefs for global shakers and movers :

“There are hopes of Cotton in South Manchuria – a fertile field for this fibre only a century ago; There’s a project for cotton growing in Siam, largely because Siam is tired of buying from Japan without selling to her ; and there’s a similar project in the Philippines”

Aspects of Japan’s Textile Trade / from The Official Shippers Guide (1936)

Above all, the Official Shippers Guide afforded an excellent opportunity for business advertisement, which would have been an excellent additional source of revenue for Kline. Between his employment at the O.S.K. and the rights to his annual publications, Kline managed to make a fortune out of his travels.

“A glance at our Index to Advertisers reveals a very impressive list, and this is our best endorsement. That many of these organisations have been advertising with us since the very beginning is elegant tribute to the advertising value of our pages. This in no small measure is due to our Distribution”

Foreword / from The Official Shippers Guide (1936)
A typical 2 page spread with advertisements on the 1936 Official Shipper’s Guide.

1916 trip to Japan

In 1916, while employed by O.S.K., Kline and his wife Mildred (the first of four wives, I believe) embarked on one of his typically long journeys from London to Japan. For that trip, Kline chose to bypass war-torn mainland Europe, taking instead a northerly route.

A 1916 Map of Europe and Asia showing Kline’s approximate route

His passport, preserved at the National Museum of American Diplomacy, shows that the adventurous couple made their way from London to Newcastle sometime in June 1916, where they sailed to Haparanda at the Swedish border with the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. From the Finnish town of Tornio across the border, they entered the Russian Empire in Beloostrov outside St. Petersburg, and then made their way to Moscow, where they – very likely – boarded the newly completed Transiberian Railway that took them across the steppe to Port Arthur (today’s Dalian) in the Yellow Sea. From there, they would have sailed to Japan, maybe even directly into Osaka where he was employed, as the O.S.K. ran a direct daily route between Osaka and Dairen (the Japanese name for Dalian). There are stamps on their travel documents that mention all of these stops, plus additional extensions for travel to Norway, the Straits Settlements of Malaya, India, along with a stamp from a colonial Secretary in Hong Kong authorising a travel permit for as far as Australia for November 1916.

It’s difficult to tell whether the Klines visited all these additional places they had permits for, or whether they had to change their route as circumstances around them changed. This trip presented a considerable amount of additional risk beyond what was inherent to early 20th century global travel, since Meyer and Mildred Kline skirted a dangerous warzone along their route : they crossed the North Sea in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Jutland, perhaps indicating that they rushed for the post-battle lull to sail the dangerous waters to the Kattegat, and then on to the top of the Gulf of Bothnia. It goes without saying that the rest of their Transiberian trip was as arduous and challenging then as it is today. The whole venture shows Kline’s ambitious globetrotting scope, fuelled by his indomitable spirit of adventure, and enabled by the freedoms and income afforded through his relationship to the omnipresent O.S.K. :

“To the executives and employees of the Osaka Shosen Kaisha, in all parts of the world, whether on land or sea, the Editor acknowledges with deep appreciation the many kindnesses bestowed upon him”

Foreword / from The Official Shippers Guide (1936)

In Ruislip

Circa 1920, Kline purchased the lease for a house in Ruislip Woods (in Middlesex, UK) known as Horsens. The lease previously belonged to Joseph Conn, a farmer of Danish or German origin who is rumoured to have been compelled to leave the property at the outbreak of the war. Kline, who had previously resided in the American East, would now take another residence at the mansion in the outskirts of London, bringing along with him his private collection of Asian objects collected during his trips. He soon began upgrading and expanding the existing residence into a luxurious mansion, which he renamed to Kokyo after the name of the Japanese Imperial Palace in Tokyo, thus highlighting his ever strengthening involvement with Japanese business and culture.

  • Battle of Britain House, Ruislip, UK
  • Battle of Britain House, Ruislip, UK

Kline is known to have salvaged the entire state room from one of the O.S.K. older luxury steamers before it went to the breaking yard, shipping it over to be installed at the Kokyo mansion. The luxurious suite is said to have included lavish wood panels, ornaments and associated furnishings. Other objects included the bronze-cast Chinese lions and other animals in the mansion’s garden, seen in photos from summer 1962. These art objects have survived in sketches and photographs, or described by eye witnesses with many remaining in place well into the 80s before the summer blaze that consumed the mansion.

Meyer F. Kline posing for an interview with Los Angeles Times, 1935

Kline will “reside” at the mansion for the next 20 years. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, since he was known to be out travelling the globe for 11 out of 12 months in a year. Sometimes he’d spent the first half a year travelling the North Hemisphere, and the second half of the year travelling the South. During that time, he went through 4 marriages, a possible side-effect of his constant travels. Rumour has it that his last wife caught him in bed with one of the maids, upon which she proceeded to burn all of his travel photo albums along with the negatives.. a monumental act of revenge for sure, befitting a traveller of such distinction.

“I once crossed the meridian on July the 4th on board of one of the Empress liners out of Vancouver. The British master took a cruel enjoyment out of the fact that the calendar jumped from the 3rd to the 5th of July. ‘Here’s one time you Americans won’t celebrate’ , said the captain”

In an interview for The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) Thu 19 Sep 1935

A lot of sightings and stories about Kline appeared on global English language newspapers during that period. His extensive trips along with the stories that came with these were ideal matter for catchy, titillating news articles. Each brief sojourn seems to have borne a report or a mention in the local press. In these, he tended to cultivate an image of a cosmopolitan, yet down to earth man of the world, a situation which without doubt added to his legend as a dashing travel writer, and was a boon to his business advertising revenues.

The Singapore Free Press & Mercantile Advertiser, 30 June 1926

One of the weirdest newspaper mentions was that of a court appearance in Singapore as the plaintiff in a 1926 action against Frank H. Buck, a hard-nosed, well travelled Texan who became infamous in the 1920s as a controversial wild animal collector. Like an original Joe Exotic would, Buck started off by winning $3500 in a poker game, which he invested on a trip to the Amazon rainforest. Making a tidy profit in New York by selling the exotic birds he brought back with him from that trip, Buck soon built a fortune by roaming the jungles of Asia and Latin America, bringing back wild animals for sale in the U.S. He somehow wrangled himself to a surprising appointment as the first director of San Diego Zoo, a tenure that was beset by several counts of mismanagement, corruption, animal cruelty, and frequent clashes with the local Zoological Society. Nevertheless, at the time of the action, Frank H. Buck was an established, infamous personality, considered by many as the foremost animal collector in the world. One can only guess at the sort of dealings that could have brought the two globetrotting celebrities to clash at court in Singapore. It is an interesting mystery I’ve yet to uncover fully, but nevertheless the story gives us some further perspective into the character of Kline.

The downfall

By 1935, Kline appears to be sharing his precious free time between Washington D.C. and Ruislip, boasting about how he was 22 days younger than everyone else on the planet, since he had circumnavigated the globe 22 times, always in an easterly direction, ostensibly gaining a day each time he crossed the International Date Line :

Article on the Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia) Sun 4 Aug 1935

There’s a flurry of newspaper articles, interviews and listings about Kline in 1935. Most of these are repeats of the same motifs : Klein having travelled 1,225,000 miles, Klein being 22 days younger, etc It appears that Klein might have been compelled to pay for these entries to boost his profile, and consequently, that of his business venture. The 30s were a difficult time for the US and global economy : between 1929 and 1933, the financial crash and Great Depression that followed put incredible strain on the global financial system. The Osaka Shosen Kaisha posted two consecutive years of losses in 1930 and 1931, slowly recovering from 1932 onwards. All of this pressure must have affected Klein’s fortunes in ways we can only surmise. What is known is that during that period, he renamed his London mansion from Kokyo to Franklin House, apparently to honour the newly elected US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his sweeping New Deal reforms that paved the way for the recovery of the U.S economy. Markedly, this was also Meyer F. Kline’s middle name, who seemed to favour wordplays about Japanese emperors and US Presidents for his fabulous mansion in Ruislip.

An O.S.K. Line flyer from 1933

However, the dark clouds of the next big war kept gathering in the horizon. The Empire of Japan, long harbouring expansionist ambitions in Asia, had embarked on an aggressive political and military programme, invading Manchuria in 1931, attacking China in 1935, and skirmishing with the USSR in 1939 – a terrifying prelude to the all out Pacific War that followed against the USA and its allies. It is entirely plausible that a keen traveller and geopolitical analyst such as Kline was would be able to experience the rise of fascist rhetoric and the undisputed horrors of Imperial Japan’s interference in Asia, and could foretell the impending reversal of his fortunes. Kline is known to have vacated Ruislip’s Franklin mansion between 1938 and 1939, possibly heading back to the United States. It remains unknown whether his nearly 3 decades of dealings with the Japanese raised questions back home, but it is a plausible expectation.

Arizona Maru as an IJN Air Defence Transport ship in Guadalcanal, 1942

At the outbreak of World War 2, the Osaka Shosen Kaisha paused trading as a shipping company, and most of its ships were requisitioned into the Imperial Japanese Navy. Its largest cargo ship, the 9,600 ton Arizona Maru, once transporting cargo to ports like Seattle or Montevideo, was pressed into service – first as a hospital ship in 1937, then fitted with AA guns and quarters for troops and horses, and designated an Air Defence Transport Ship in 1940. She participated in the Invasion of the Philippines and the Battle of the Java Sea. On 14 November 1942, the Arizona Maru was attacked by 8 SBD dive-bombers from USS Enterprise while attempting to reinforce Guadalcanal, and sunk about 80 miles NW of the island.

The Rio De Janeiro Maru shipwreck ©

The 9,600 ton Rio De Janeiro Maru, once ferrying passengers in luxury as far as Galveston or Cape Town, was converted into an auxiliary IJN Transport and Support ship. It survived being torpedoed twice, in two different actions, in the space of two months, by two different US submarines in 1942. In 1943 and 1944, it carried armaments, food, mail and prisoners of war to Batavia, Surabaya and elsewhere in the Pacific. It met its demise by dive bombing while at station inside the Truk lagoon, where it still rests on its side, 500 yards from shore. Here’s a video of what remains of Osaka Shosen Kaisho’s passenger flagship ! I’d like to think that Meyer F. Kline might have been on board the Rio De Janeiro Maru on one of his many trips.

During the war, the O.S.K. lost two thirds of its ships to allied action, but managed a miraculous recovery post war. The company went on to become the Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, which is one of the largest shipping companies in the world today. You are certain to see their cargo ships around major ports in your country. As for Kline, he vanished from the world stage and little is known about what happened to him during or after the war. He passed away at 82 in 1964, and is buried in a family plot at the Home of Peace Memorial Park in Los Angeles. He remains one of the most colourful and interesting residents of Ruislip’s Battle of Britain House, and the person behind its transformation into the lavish mansion in the woods that still lives in the memory of local residents.

Conservation, health, and safety at Ruislip Woods

A Visitor’s Guide

Earlier today, I had the pleasure of exchanging correspondence with Mr Richard Hutton, Woodland Officer with the Borough of Hillingdon. I have contacted Mr Hutton with a view to find out more about the former mansion site’s accessibility and other best practices, as well as discuss the possibility of signposting the location with a view to enhancing visitor experience. Mr Hutton confirmed that ‘they are intending to produce a heritage leaflet of the woods, which will include this site as well as bomb craters and earth banks’ . This is very exciting news, and ties well with the forthcoming Woodland Centre exhibit at Ruislip Lido to highlight the historic importance of the Battle of Britain House.

As the number of people who visit the Ruislip Woods is set to increase in the future, it is important to remember that the former mansion site rests inside the boundaries of a woodland conservation area. Mr Hutton authored the most recent Ruislip Woods Management Plan 2018 -2022, outlining the council’s conservation considerations and strategy for Ruislip Woods. It is useful to familiarise with this document before visiting the woods, particularly where it sets out the best terms for public access, as well as what is at stake.

Why should it matter how I visit or use Ruislip Woods?

Ruislip Woods in general, and the area around the site of the mansion in particular, is home to uncommon plants and rare reptiles that should be preserved. The woods are a protected ecosystem with a carefully managed equilibrium comprising flora, fauna, the weather, the natural environment, the soil, and of course us as responsible visitors. In addition to ecological considerations, we have to be aware that the abandoned mansion site is dotted with various hazards, such as broken steps, holes, branches, glass and metal shards, among others.

Stick to the footpaths, in good weather !

What are the best practices for visiting the woods ?

When at Ruislip Woods, you are encouraged to stick to statutory footpaths and well trodden trails, and avoid disturbing plants, trees or animals with your presence. Yes, it is entirely possible to make most of your visit by using the beaten paths, and entirely possible to make the most of your visit without disturbing the woodland. If you are uncertain as to which footpaths are statutory, there are maps that outline these at the entrances to the woods. Google Maps on your phone is also a great resource, and I notice all statutory footpaths are marked with dotted lines mostly matching the council’s maps (if uncertain, please prioritise the information on the council’s maps). Last, there are wooden posts at most junctions marking footpaths you should ideally be using.

In addition, please exercise caution when visiting the woods, especially if you happen upon the ruins. Please try to not use the steps, as they are broken and an accident risk. Needless to say, please beware of glass and metal shards, as well as stubs, holes or stones set in the ground. Last, please avoid visiting the woods on rainy days altogether, as it tends to get very slippery. All of these considerations are important for your health and safety.

I trust we will all remain sensitive to the environment during our visits to the woods.

Battle of Britain House and The Secret War

Battle of Britain House and the Secret War

Secret agent training, the TOOL Missions, and Cold War mistrust : The latest revelations about the Battle of Britain House in Ruislip Woods.

Abandoned signs of past existence always fascinated me. First the excitement of discovery, then the mystery, and ultimately the revelation that comes with meticulous research. Suddenly, out of a tiny part, comes an astonishing whole, and the past reveals itself to us in glorious detail. When I first happened upon the ruins of Battle of Britain House in 2018, it was just a pile of rubble in the woods. But today, it feels like a site of significant (if overlooked) historic importance, with a story whose fascinating details can be traced from our local Ruislip Woods to the last days of the 3rd Reich in Berlin, from Canadian internment camps to South Virginian top secret facilities, from cosmopolitan interwar Osaka to the glamour of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Wealthy heiresses, globetrotting playboys, Danish farmers, health & wellness pioneers, secret agents – the Battle of Britain House has truly seen it all.

Among those intertwining stories, perhaps the most fascinating narrative is the one about the role of Ruislip’s (then called) Franklin Mansion during the War. Requisitioned by the Ministry of Works at the outbreak of World War 2, the mansion would become a training centre where the tactical aspect of the new collaboration between the British Secret Intelligence Service and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (later CIA) would take place. Many aspects of this intelligence relationship still remain a mystery nearly 80 years on. The declassification of top secret files under Freedom of Information legislation is a gradual process. But each time a file, a photo or a record comes to light, a new aspect is revealed, and previously unheard stories emerge from the Fog of Time.

One of the earliest revelations of Ruilsip being used for the training of OSS agents came in Joseph E. Persico’s 1971 Piercing the Reich. It was one of the first books to describe the formative days of the OSS and the giant steps it took with the help of the SIS here, in London. Persico extracted rigorous detail from the available data and first person accounts, even revealing the daily lives and practices of the agents training for those seemingly impossible missions.

Battle of Britain House Ruislip Woods
London’s Area F (perhaps for Franklin) has since been identified by some authors to be the mansion known as the Battle of Britain House

As more and more records are revealed, researchers are enabled to access and evaluate the records , furthering our knowledge about what took place at the mansion in Ruislip Woods during the war. One of the most important breakthroughs happened in recent years with the publication of the memoir of Joseph Gould, an OSS officer who arrived to London shortly after the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. His orders were to recruit and train agents for top secret missions behind enemy lines, a need that became even more pressing after the massive German counterattack called the Battle of The Bulge in December 1944, when the Allies realised they were heading into Germany with little or no intelligence to support their operations. What was the actual strength of the Nazi Army, after all? What was the state of their industry? How was the German people’s morale and their will to carry on? Were rumours of a National Redoubt at the Bavarian mountains true, and did Hitler have more Wonder Weapons up his sleeve?

With the entire Allied effort at stake, Joseph Gould was sent incognito to London, tasked with locating and recruiting … Germans. Yes, London during the war had become a hotbed for German dissidents who had escaped Nazi Germany in the late 30s. Artists, homosexuals, trade unionists – many of those who didn’t fit Hitler’s terrible vision and had managed to escape via the so called Czechoslovak Corridor found refuge here, organising in societies such as London’s Free Germans. They were an assortment of secretive groups that met, discussed, and planned for Germany’s day after. It was among German Socialist workers that Gould found his cadre of recruits : ordinary, working class people with no prior military training. The daring plan devised by the OSS was for those men to parachute into Germany using false identities, mingle with the population, gather intelligence using the techniques learned at Franklin House, and report back via the cutting edge (for the time) technology provided to them.

Joseph Gould and TOOL agents in Rusilip, UK
Joseph Gould (Left) with TOOL mission trainees at Franklin House, Ruislip

The TOOL missions were codenamed after, well, tools : There was BUZZSAW, HAMMER, JIGSAW and so on. The Free Germans were to be paradropped into their hometowns in places like the Ruhr Valley, Leipzig, or Berlin, and report back with local intelligence. Many of them never made it through, neither the air crews that transported them. Some others were captured by the Soviets, their fate remaining unknown until after the Cold War ended in 1991. But some of them were successful, returning to a blacked-out, besieged Berlin like revenants one night in March 1945 after a decade of absence – to the disbelief of their relatives.

Sadly, the TOOL missions men who readily risked their lives to help the Allied effort didn’t fare very well after the end of the war. Being staunch Communists, they became unwelcome in Great Britain and other allied states as Cold War paranoia intensified. Most of them found their way to East Germany, where they were also treated with mistrust, having previously associated themselves with the OSS and SIS. Their effort and sacrifice remains largely unrecognised to this day. We are very lucky to know their story, including evidence of their presence in Rusilip, by virtue of the memoir of Joseph Gould named An OSS Officer’s Own WW II Story: Of His Seven German Agents and Their Five Labor Desk Missions into Warring Germany which was recently published by his son.

Gould’s memoir is a fantastic primary source, but there’s further testimony to the story of the Free Germans and their activity in the UK. Not least their extensive, and now declassified intelligence files, pieced together by reports from the Metropolitan Police and Secret Service who tracked their activities (along with those of all foreign nationals originating from enemy countries). Much of my expansive archive of the Battle of Britain House can be accessed and downloaded in the Members Area which is expanded & updated frequently.

Where’s Fischer? A declassified 1950 Home Office memo in reference to the whereabouts of Werner Fischer, one of the TOOL agents that paradropped into Germany. The Special Branch confirms they’ve lost track of him, and he’s presumed to be in the USA . The truth about Fischer’s whereabouts was very different, and was only revealed after the end of the Cold War in 1991.

It is said that the use of the mansion for military training may have have continued into the Cold War. There are claims (..which I cannot confirm or deny..) that secret allied technology training took place there around the early 60s. Maybe another story to write about after its declassified ! Until that time comes, I welcome you to join me for a deep dive into the astonishing history of the Battle of Britain House in Ruislip Woods by joining me on one of my regular walks, available to book on this page and/or join the Facebook Group dedicated to the history of the mansion.

Bomb Craters in Ruislip Woods

Bomb crater hunting in Rusilip

An astonishing 579 bombs hit Hillingdon during the Blitz. Hunting for those craters is a fantastic way to experience the area.

Some of you may know Bombsight , a great website mapping out the locations where bombs, incendiary devices, doodlebugs and other airborne implements of war dropped from the skies over London, courtesy of the Luftwaffe. In recent years, I found myself using it a fair bit, locating the craters left behind, and thinking about the ways Blitz marked London’s soil, as well as the lives of Londoners.

In the built up areas of central London such craters have since been filled in, the visible marks of war smoothing as time went by. In Hillingdon, however, blessed with fabulous rolling countryside and woodland, the marks of war are still visible. All it takes is getting up and getting out, armed with a map, good shoes, and some patience.

Hunting for craters is a great excuse to get out of the couch and into the streets and woods of the neighbourhood. For me, it justifies my strolls – I just can’t stand walking around aimlessly just to take in the fresh air. I need goals. So chasing after old WW2 craters and other historic landmarks is my way to keep fit and healthy, know my neighbourhood better, and satisfy my need for experiencing history !

Recently, I was made aware of a very special piece of kit : it is a detailed map of all bomb crater locations in Ruislip Woods. This is actually much more than dots on a map There is a expansive legend featuring numbered locations, paths, landmarks, even crater diameters to bomb types – an excellent and informative companion for your next walk!

The high quality map was created on behalf of the Hillingdon Athletic Club as an orienteering checklist. I am making it available for download here courtesy of its creator, Mr Nigel Ealand – with special thanks to Mrs Suzy Nowlan for bringing this to my attention. Download it as a .pdf using the link below :

Mr Ealand further explains : “If you have wondered why some of the craters are quite small the answer is the Germans never had a heavy bomber. The Dornier Do-17 was a two engine bomber and nicknamed the “Flying Pencil”. It could carry a payload of 1000Kg. It had four bomber racks and was configured to carry either two 500Kg or four 250Kg bombs, but the weight limited its range. The alternative was to carry half the payload of ten 50Kg bombs. There is only one Do-17 left in existence and it was recovered from the Goodwin Sands on the 10 June 2013 and is now exhibited at RAF Cosford . I had the pleasure of organising the BBC News coverage of the raising.”

Here’s the new coverage about The Last Dornier 17 :

I hope you’ll enjoy many interesting walks in Ruislip Woods using this excellent map! Send in your pictures of any bomb craters you spot, and I’ll be delighted to add you to a new Ruislip Bomb Crater Gallery I’ll be putting together in the next few weeks.