District home to World War Two boffins

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Ardenvhor-wTHE World War Two role of the now boarded-up Helensburgh seafront mansion Cairndhu as the headquarters of a degaussing unit was just one example of how the district helped the war effort.

Within days of war being declared on September 3 1939 hundreds of visitors started arriving for a stay that would last more than five years — and they had the pick of accommodation available.

In some cases, existing residents and tenants had to move out because their properties were requisitioned by the Government.

The top secret Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, about which there are a number of articles on this website, was a significant part of this when it moved from its long-time base at Felixstowe in Suffolk.

Retired newspaper editor and MAEE expert Robin Bird said: “Moving MAEE from one end of the country to the other was a mammoth task bearing in mind that the nation was on a war footing.

“MAEE, which tested seaplanes and flying boats, was too important to remain at Felixstowe, where its work would be seen by Luftwaffe pilots and vulnerable to their bombs.”

Ardenvohr at Rhu (pictured above in 1952), a former private house which had become the home of the then Royal Northern Yacht Club (now the Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club) in 1937, became MAEE’s new headquarters for the duration and doubled as the officers mess.

“A high ranking RAF officer had done a spot of sailing there and recommended it as the ideal location,” said Robin. “The Gareloch was to be the ‘airfield’ for RAF Helensburgh as a flying boat base.”

Much of the establishment was sited at Rhu, where hangars and other buildings were built to service the aircraft.

Ardenconnel, built by the Buchanan family in the late 18th century and then a holiday association home, now became the sergeants mess.

Rosslea, conveniently next door to MAEE headquarters, housed the boffins and some civilian staff. The WAAF contingent moved into Woodstone and other buildings taken over included Shorelands and Inchallod.

Guest houses in Rhu and Helensburgh took in MAEE lodgers — welcome guests in the absence of holidaymakers. A few family houses were also requisitioned.

Robin said: “The evacuation to Helensburgh from Felixstowe went off smoothly with little friction considering the complexity.

“Although a number of local people found employment with the MAEE, its work continued largely unnoticed by the wider community, who must have seen flying boats and seaplanes taking off and landing.

“MAEE even escaped noticeable damage during the Clydeside Blitz.”

Frances McLaren, nee Shedden, was an evacuee from Clydebank living in Rhu, who was planning to go to university but ended up working for the MAEE.

She told Robin: “In the spring of 1942 I was placed in a small back room in a lovely building called Rosslea. I was guarded by two RAF men while I analysed top secret films.

“Only after the Dambusters Raid did I realize I can been analysing trials of the Highball bouncing bomb.”

Robin visited Helensburgh and Rhu in 2010 with his wife to research his second book about MAEE Helensburgh and to see where his late father lived while serving as an airborne photographer.  His digs were at 9 William Street.

“What surprised me was there was no evidence that the MAEE had been based at Helensburgh and Rhu,” he said.

“I had a good look round the yacht club and the adjacent hotel for clues of the MAEE having been there, but there were none. So I left a certificate commemorating the MAEE role for the club's Commodore to display.

maee“I stayed at Floral Cottage, Rhu, where my host Mrs Fletcher recalled an elderly guest a few years previously with an interest in MAEE. We looked through the visitor books and discovered the name of John Allen.

“He was a boffin at MAEE Helensburgh and later became an eminent scientist and expert on aviation matters. Now aged over 90, he has given me several stories about the important work carried out by MAEE during the war.

“However I would still like to receive any more local stories about MAEE and names of buildings they used. I am hoping my latest book will be published in 2011 despite the economic climate.’

Shortly after the war MAEE packed up its bags and seaplanes and returned to Felixstowe, giving back the houses to the original owners. MAEE disbanded in the mid-1950s as the flying boat era came to an end.