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80 years ago on 23 September, Rougham Hall was bombed by the German Luftwaffe.
23 September 1940 was a Monday and Monday evenings were the traditional night off for some of the house staff, including the butler whose name was Mattins. Those staying in the main part of the house that night upstairs were Sir George Agnew, my great grandfather, his son-in-law Hinton Stewart, (whose wife had died earlier that year and was probably in need of a bit of company) and Sir George’s daughter Bel Chance. Such house staff as there were in that evening would have been in the kitchen wing.
The air raid sirens went off in Bury St Edmunds, about three miles away during the night. Mattins, the butler, was normally in charge of getting the house up in the event of an air raid, but as he was out in Bury, quite possibly in the pub, he could do nothing. No one else heard the siren or felt that it was not their responsibility to wake everyone up, so people stayed in their beds. The bomber came over and instead of making for Bury St Edmunds as was expected, it headed straight for Rougham Hall instead. It flew around the house for a few minutes, dropping flares and then it came round for its bomb run, the first bomb fell straight through the Mattins’s bedroom down into the cellar below, where it exploded. The cellar is exactly where everyone used to go during air raids and had Mattins been there, the entire household would have been gathered there and would almost certainly have all been killed. As it was, no one was down there. Apart from massive shock, no one was actually injured in the bombing. Bel was asleep in the tower bedroom above the front door. Her recollection was of hanging on to the bed head in sheer terror until she was rescued by a fireman who appeared at the window. She was black with soot from the bedroom fireplace, which had fallen down the chimney in the blast. Sir George had to be rescued through his bedroom window in the other tower as the main house staircase had collapsed. The 89-year-old man never recovered from the shock. He went to live with his son-in-law Hinton Stewart at the Grange in Thurston, where he died about 15 months later.
Why was Rougham Hall bombed at all and why during the early days of the London blitz, when you would think that the Luftwaffe had more important targets to bomb? For the answer, we have to look back a few months to understand the context for these events. The retreat from Dunkirk started in late May 1940. Hundreds of thousands of British and allied troops we rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk by a motley array of small boats, helping out the Royal and Merchant Navies. During the following months, a German invasion was expected at any time. Arms dumps were being strategically located around the country to supply our defending troops in the aftermath of an invasion. One such dump was located under the avenue of Douglas Fir trees in the park of Rougham Hall. There were also troops based there, to defend this important military asset, and there were armed guards and barbed wire on the entrances to the park for the same reason. To people in the village, rumours about what was happening up at the Hall must have been rife. It is easy to imagine that one such rumour could easily have been that the hall was about to become a military headquarters for the area. The guards on the gates and all the comings and goings would have given strength to these ideas. Word of this would not have taken long to reach the ears of the various fifth columnists who lived in the area. It was known that there was a district nurse, a doctor and a vicar in the area who were somewhat favourably disposed to the German side in the war. The nurse was later caught signalling to German aircraft with her car headlights when out at night, on her rounds. So one can imagine that an inaccurate report might have made its way back to Berlin, suggesting that Rougham Hall was a key target in Suffolk.
The original date set for the German invasion of Britain (Operation Sea Lion) was September 15, 1940. This was postponed until September 21, as Hitler did not feel that the Royal Navy had been sufficiently weakened by German air attacks and still presented an unacceptable threat to the invasion force. The RAF had not been destroyed either and were actually beating the Luftwaffe in the skies, though it was not until then end of October 1940, that the Battle of Britain was considered to be over. In the midst of all this confusion, on September 17, Hitler postponed the invasion of Britain indefinitely.
The German invasion plans were highly detailed and famously included a hugely elaborate photographic survey of southern England, which still today is considered to be the best aerial photographic record of southern England for the time and is used to map hedgerows before their partial removal began in the 1960s. Such an organised war machine would have had many thousands of pieces, all needing to be fitted together for an invasion to succeed. The bombing of a military headquarters in Suffolk would have been one very small part of the whole, and word of the postponement of Operation Sea Lion might not have reached all those in charge in all parts of this plan until later, so various planned operations would have still gone ahead.
There is a local tradition that the night after the bombing of Rougham Hall, the English language broadcast from Berlin presented by Lord Hawhaw, is supposed to have announced that the night before, the house of the richest Jew in Britain had been bombed. The hugely rich Jewish banking family, the Rothschilds, owned Rushbrooke Hall in the adjoining village at the time, and it is possible that there was a bit of confusion in their minds as to who lived at Rougham Hall. Perhaps the German propaganda machine was involved and this gave Rougham Hall a higher priority in the scheme of things.
After the bombing of Rougham Hall, the house was uninhabitable and the occupants moved out. This included the staff who were found alternative employment. Mattins the butler was no longer needed by Sir George. He was found a job with a wealthy London family, who needed someone to look after their house whilst they sheltered in the countryside, during the London Blitz. As part of his job, he was in charge of the keys for the house and these include keys for the extensive wine cellar. Mattins was an ex-guardsman and enjoyed a drink from time to time. Sometime later Mattins died of cirrhosis of the liver and the extensive wine cellar was not so extensive any more.
Written by George Agnew
22 September 2020