The interesting role of Chobham in the second world war

Many locations around the UK are famous for their role in the second world war. Bletchley Park housed the codebreakers who were vital to the allied victory. The people of Southampton and Birmingham built the spitfires that fought in the Battle of Britain, and Glasgow was a city of shipbuilders, creating a powerful navy.

Yet, there are countless towns and villages around the country that also had an important role to play, even if they don’t get the same recognition. And Chobham is one of them.

Read on to learn more about the interesting role of Chobham in the second world war.

Chobham Common played host to soldiers and prisoners of war

As you might have read in our previous article on the best walking routes in the area, Chobham Common is a beautiful nature reserve with lots of wildlife and green spaces. However, it has a long military history.

It was used for training exercises as far back as the first world war and throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

When the second world war came around, Chobham Common was once again taken over by the war office in 1942 to use for training purposes.

The army also built a series of temporary metal huts that housed local military figures and visiting soldiers from Canada before they headed to the front lines. These buildings were sometimes used to store important military equipment too.

Later in the war, military leaders separated a portion of the common and used it as a prisoner of war (POW) camp for captured German and Italian soldiers.

Bombing raids destroyed many homes during the blitz, creating a housing crisis after the war. This gave birth to the squatters movement and, interestingly, many locals lived in the disused military camps on Chobham Common, safely fenced off from the remaining POWs.

Crucial military technology was developed and tested in Chobham

Chobham also played a role in crucial military vehicle research and manufacturing during the second world war and beyond.

In 1942, the military created the “Fighting Vehicles Proving Establishment” (FVPE) with a dedicated camp in Chertsey, on the former site of RAF Chobham.

Here, they developed tanks and other military vehicles for testing on Chobham Common. This crucial research continued long after the second world war, creating military technology that is still used today.

For example, many modern tanks are fitted with “Chobham Armour” – a specialist type of ceramic armour developed on the site in the 1960s.

Chobham Common was likely unrecognisable after the war as the whole area had been churned up by tanks and heavy vehicles.

Fortunately, the common was reseeded and allowed to grow back into the green space that you know today.

A world war two spy and suspected Soviet defector lived in Chobham

Graham Russel Mitchell lived in a house overlooking Chobham Common in his later years, but during the second world war he spent most of his time at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.

He was deemed unfit to fight as he had lasting damage from polio, so he joined MI5 instead. Throughout the war, he monitored suspected Nazi sympathisers and right-wing activists, with the important aim of catching spies.

Unfortunately, Mitchell’s later years were shrouded in controversy. After the second world war, he remained with MI5, investigating potential Soviet infiltration of the British intelligence services.

Eventually, Mitchell himself came under suspicion.

In 1956, he was appointed the deputy director of MI5, during which time questions were raised about the lack of Soviet spies the organisation had uncovered. This led many officials to believe that a Soviet mole had infiltrated MI5 at the highest level.

Ultimately, Mitchell retired early and was later exonerated after an internal investigation. The matter remains unsolved to this day and some of his colleagues are still suspected to have been Soviet spies.

These stories go to show that there is a rich history underneath the streets we walk every day. Did you think that Chobham would be the site of vital military research or the home of a suspected spy?