In 1937 a prescient government committee called the Committee of Imperial Defence compiled a list of buildings that they might have to requisition if there was a war. It came in extremely useful in 1940 as immediate action could be taken. My family’s house was on the list and after Dunkirk a very sad cohort of bewildered soldiers was housed in a large stable building behind the main house. A local resident described it to me in 2007 long afterwards:
“And then there was this convoy came and there was 150 soldiers, Scottish Reg… some in Scottish Reg… all tattered and torn they were, but none of them were wounded or anything. Some of them were a bit mental and shell shocked. And there were two Lieutenants and a Captain came with them. And I remember the first morning … they were building them up. They got plenty of food ‘cos they were just shattered. Some of them had been on road through France and all this… all over. And they commandeered pigs and all sorts. They really fattened them up.”
This was just the first instalment and by the end of the war the grounds around our house were covered with Nissen huts in which WAAFS slept, the stable were dormitories in which the RAF men slept (well away from the girls!) and the largest empty building became an operations centre for the North Yorkshire network of airfields. (It still exists today with a rather ghostly tier of balconies overlooking the central room where planes were plotted on a vast table).
Nowadays in the fight against Covid 19 the wartime metaphor is being used and there are still requisitions. At first it was hotels or hostels to house those on rescue flights from overseas; then it was conference centres for the Nightingale hospitals, and latterly store car parks have been taken over for testing centres. There are others we do not know about; several very smart London clubs have been commandeered to house the top military brass who are overseeing the contributions that the armed forces are making to the effort. One club has reported what has happened to its members:
The Ministry of Defence needed to move military personnel around to support the fight against Covid-19 so they mobilised a lot of staff and moved them to London. They chose us as one of the few places to accommodate their officers, so at the moment we offer them accommodation, and breakfast and dinner only, because most of our guests are in service during the day. The head waiter wrote “Right now it’s important to keep a distance. We bring a buffet, don’t get close to the tables, people serve themselves and we just clear the tables after they leave. We use gloves and sterilise the equipment on a regular basis.
When we serve drinks we leave them on the side of the table too, and all is charged directly to the guests’ rooms so there’s no credit card, no cash, no contact at all. I just served one beer last week, but the majority of what we serve now is soft drinks, because most of our guests are on call 24/7: if something happens they have to step in straight away and take over.”
Someday it will return to normal. The stores will get their car parks back and the clubs can take in members. There may even be compensation. In my family’s case we got £250 in 1946 when the RAF moved out and we are the proud owners of a World War II Operations Room, wondering what to do with it.