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Historic England Research Records

Graven Hill Depot

Hob Uid: 1411454
Location :
Oxfordshire
Cherwell
Bicester
Grid Ref : SP5900020500
Summary : The site of Graven Hill Depot, an ordnance depot that was used during World War II. This huge depot consists of a complex of sites clustered around two hills - Graven Hill and Arncott Hill - to the south-east of Bicester. On completion in 1943, the depot covered an area of over 12 square miles, with nearly 50 miles of railway track. It was planned as the main supply base for the British Army's operations during the Second World War and became an important supply base for the United States forces in Europe, under Operation Bolero. At its peak in 1944, more than 20,000 people were employed here. The site has continued to function as a supply depot ever since; although its functions have changed over time and some areas have fallen out of operational use. However, numerous storage hangars and much of the original infrastructure remain. It is the outstanding example in the UK of a bulk storage depot built during the Second World War, designed to be fully integrated into rail and road transport networks and is the precursor of the modern commercial distribution depots dotted around the motorway network.Central Ordnance Depot Bicester is split into two main sites - Graven Hill Depot and Arncott Depot. These two depots are further sub-divided into six distinct functional sites, A, B, C, and F at Arncott, and D and E at Graven Hill; this record is concerned with the latter two sites. Completed in 1943, the depot at Graven Hill was operated by a mixture of soldiers, Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), and civilian staff; military personnel were originally housed in temporary Nissen huts, later to be replaced by permanent barrack blocks - St.David's Barracks (completed 1958). The complex was served by the Bicester Military Railway, fed from the Oxford to Bletchley railway line. After 1945, COD Bicester remained the premier ordnance depot for the British Army, although since the 1960s, the functions associated with the different parts changed. It is now subject to disposal
More information : The site of Graven Hill Depot, an ordnance depot that was used during World War II. At the time of the Defence of Britain survey the site was found still to be in a good condition. It is located in Graven Hill Wood. (1)

The Romano-British settlement of Alchester is situated a short distance to the west of the western boundary and the site is traversed by the Akeman Street Roman road, although its exact route remains conjectural. The deserted medieval village of Wretchwick is situated a little to the north east. The depot is reputed to be the site of a battle between the Danes and the Saxons in AD 871. Substantial earthwork entrenchments also exist on the eastern edge of Gravenhill Wood (outside of disposal area). It is unclear when these substantial earthworks were excavated, or what they represent; a number of suggestions have been made including Iron Age, Dark Age, or medieval field boundaries, or possibly an English Civil War fortifications.


The presumed route of the Roman road Akeman Street passes through the site east to west from Wretchwick Farm to Langford Lane.
In A.D. 871 Graven Hill was reputedly the site of a battle between the Danes and Saxons.
A substantial unidentified ‘arrowhead’ plan earthwork is situated at the eastern end of Gravenhill Wood, part of which forms the boundary at the eastern tip of the woodland. A number of plausible suggestions have been made as to what this feature represents, including an Iron Age defensive ditch, a medieval boundary, or an un-finished Civil War period ‘Royalist’ artillery fortification.


Graven Hill Depot is built around the base of an isolated hill within the Ray River catchment area and is situated on former clay-loam farmland. The storage areas of D and E sites are built on a surface geology of glacial sands, silts, gravels, and clays that overlay Jurassic-period marine sedimentary rocks of the Oxford Clays and Kellaways formations; while the higher ground of Graven Hill comprises of Jurassic Cornbrash and Great Oolite Series rocks.

Akeman Street Roman road ran along the north-eastern side of Graven Hill, before it curved round the northern side of Graven Hill, crossed a ford and entered Alchester Roman settlement by the east gate. Part of E Site over-lays a former 600-yds rifle range, dating from the latter half of the 19th century The range was aligned north - south with target butts set into the slope of the hill (SP 59084 20668), a little to the south east of the Garrison Theatre. It would appear that this rifle range was reduced to a 100 yds range once the depot was built.
The impermeable clays result in rapid run-off of rain and flooding in winter; consequently, the storage hangars and the associated barracks were built on the lower slopes of Graven Hill with all structures and infrastructure situated above the 65m contour line, with the exception of some of the Bolero stores. Parts of ‘D’ site and the sorting sidings were built on relatively poor quality agricultural land that was subject to winter flooding, this fact necessitated the raising of ground levels by infill and the digging of open drainage channels on the lower ground. The 1885 Ordnance Survey map shows the field boundaries around the hill radiated in south westerly (West side), north westerly (North side), and south easterly (South & East sides) directions. The majority of the field enclosures had areas of between 4.25 to 4.85 hectares (10.5 to 12 acres), although some were up to 9.71 hectares (24 acres) in size. The boundaries appear to have been predominantly low hedges with trees, but on the western side of the hill some were formed by drainage ditches. Extensive ridge and furrow plough earthworks are visible in most of the fields around Graven Hill on aerial photographs taken throughout the 1940s, and although these features have been gradually reduced by changes in farming practices introduced since the 1960s, some fields retain these features.
An avenue formed by a track flanked by a pair of parallel tree-lined field boundaries, aligned South-east – North-west, ran from the northern edge of Ambrosden Park and terminated against Graven Hill to the east of the site of Mount Pleasant. A fragment of which survives abutting the boundary fence in a wooded area south east of the concrete hard standing for the former Bolero Store D35. The track leading to Mount Pleasant ran on the western side of the westernmost of these two boundaries. Only two field boundary alignments within the depot site have survived its construction and these are situated in the grassed area south of the circular road on the north eastern edge of Graven Hill.
Langford Lane is aligned north-west – south-east and follows the western side of a drainage ditch outside of the western side of the depot. A number of paths branching from these two roads rose up to the apex of Graven Hill. The route of Langford Lane appears to be of some antiquity, branching to Merton village; however, the true alignment of the lane appears to head south-east bridging the River Ray at Astley Bridge Farm, thence continuing around the southern boundary of Arncott Depot (where it has been diverted), and then onto Muswell Hill.
The construction of Graven Hill had a minimal impact on the built environment, resulting in the demolition of only one farm house of an unknown date called Mount Pleasant (SP 58618 20151), its associated farm buildings & yard (SP 58736 19845) on the south western side of the hill, together with some isolated field shelters (SP 58704 19666 and SP 58308 20121). A fold yard and sheds (SP 51038 20318) associated with Wretchwick Farm situated on the south-eastern side of Gravenhill Wood were also demolished. Although virtually all field boundaries within the depot were removed, the majority of Gravenhill Wood, with the exception of the site of St.David’s Barracks (built 1958) remained intact.


The site of Graven Hill has a long history of occupation and use, probably as far back as the Iron Age. The Romano-British settlement of Alchester is situated a short distance to the west of the western boundary, and the site is possibly traversed by the Akeman Street Roman road that linked Watling Street to the Fosse Way; although its exact route remains conjectural. Nearby, the village of Ambrosden is also reputedly built on the site of a Roman villa of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a 5th-century Romano-British leader who fought the Saxons. The depot is reputedly the site of a battle between the Danes and the Saxons in AD 871 (some accounts state AD 873).
6
The deserted medieval village of Wretchwick is situated a little to the north east of the depot beyond the A41(T) road. A very substantial earthwork entrenchments also exist on the eastern edge of Gravenhill Wood (outside of the disposal area). As yet the function and date of this earthwork is un-determined.
The first modern military feature to be built at Graven Hill was the 600-yds rifle range constructed on the northern side of the north-eastern end of the hill. The range was built during the latter half of the 19th century to permit target practice for the volunteer movement in the Bicester area. It appears to have continued in use as a rifle range up until the building of the depot, when only the last 100-yds were retained as a range. Originally, firing points were established in a northerly direction at 100-yds intervals out from the targets to a 600-yds post near to the A41, to the north of the site of Wretchwick Lodge. The covered way of the target gallery was sunken and built into the side of the hill, with a low earthen glacis supported by a ‘battered’ concrete wall. A ‘lean-to’ brick walled target store was built at the western end of the covered way and an earth bank to the rear (south side) of the covered way acted as a stop-butt to catch bullets that had passed through the targets. The covered way and the target store still exist, although the covered way has been infilled with earth borrowed from the stop-butt. The line of the covered way can still be delineated by the crest of the ‘battered’ covered way wall that shows just above ground-level. (SP 59083 20670)

The origins of the establishment of the Central Ordnance Depot (COD) at Bicester date back to the mid-1930s when concerns grew over the likelihood of a war breaking out with Germany. The War Office was acutely aware of the limited infrastructure (five ordnance depots) available to support the existing British Army, let alone to allow for any degree of expansion in the size and capability of the British armed forces. A number of new depots were proposed; some created by adapting pre-existing sites, including the extensive underground stone quarries at Corsham, Wiltshire. By the time the British Army was mobilised in 1939, work on the large storage site at COD Donnington in Shropshire was well underway, but it was necessary to establish numerous temporary depots on race courses and similar sites as a stop-gap until more permanent depots could be built.

The answer took the form of a project, code-named ‘X Depot’, to build a modern depot situated centrally in the southern half of England, with the capacity to handle large volumes of goods rapidly, and using both rail and road links for the intake and distribution of stores. Early in 1941, Colonel G.W. Palmer was appointed Commandant (Designate) of ‘X Depot’ project and was given permission to choose its location and layout. Eight sites were considered, but Bicester was chosen for a number of reasons:
1) The use of relatively poor land that was subject to winter flooding, thus negating the need to take large tracts of productive farmland.
2) Close proximity of a sizeable civilian workforce was available at nearby Bicester, Banbury, and Oxford.
3) Adjacent to the LMS (LNWR) Oxford to Bletchley railway line.
4) Natural camouflage given by the presence of Graven Hill, and Arncott Hill.
5) Low-level bombing made difficult by the presence of the two hills.
6) Central location away from other potential targets.

Early in 1941, Lt. Colonel J.P. Haugh was appointed Commander Royal Engineers (CRE), and was given the responsibility for over-seeing what was then, the largest military building project in the country. The initial survey was completed during May 1941, and during the following month, requisition notices were served on the owners of the necessary land, and the setting out of the depot commenced. The first work undertaken was to start laying the rail connection from the Oxford to Bletchley railway line and to commence the laying of the exchange sidings. The railway system was laid in very difficult muddy conditions by conscientious objectors drafted into the army, forming the Non-Combatant Corps (NCC).

Initially, accommodation was provided under canvas but gradually hutments using 16-ft span Nissen huts were built to provide the necessary temporary accommodation for the labour force and eventually for the garrison. These huts were scattered in the fields around the base of Gravenhill Wood and Arncott Hill and were only replaced in 1958 on the completion of St. David’s and St. George’s Barracks. None of these huts remain extant at Graven Hill (2011), although a gathered pile of broken concrete slabs near to the Circular Road may represent the remains of their footings.

Although most of the construction work was undertaken by the Royal Engineers and the Non-Combatant Corps, specialist civilian steel erectors were brought in to build the steel frameworks of the storage hangars. On completion in 1943, the Bicester Central Ordnance Depot became the main supply base for the British Army’s operations in Europe and an Army Mobilisation Centre. It comprised two depot complexes, one encircling Graven Hill (D & E Sites) and the other (A, B, C, and F Sites) surrounding Arncott Hill.

The various store buildings on both sites occupied an area of 6,739,000 square feet, with a further 5,177,000 square feet of open storage, served by approximately 24 miles of roads, and nearly 50 miles of railway track, all contained within 21 miles of perimeter fence. The combined area of the two sites amounted to 12.5 square miles, and the buildings were dispersed with large grassed areas between them, as a passive air defence (PAD) measure to minimise the effects of enemy bombing and to reduce the risk of fire spreading between buildings; although at times of peak capacity, the grassed areas were also used for open storage. The Armaments and Small Arms sub-depots (Graven Hill D and E Sites) alone had 491,000 square feet of covered storage and by 1944 over half of the country’s total output of small arms were stored at Graven Hill; this included thousands of 9-mm Sten machine carbines (sub-machine guns) and the total output of 6-pounder anti-tank guns.

The number of personnel working at the depot has fluctuated throughout its life, but the peak was reached during the latter part of 1944, when 20,000 troops and women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) were employed together with the supporting garrison. A proportion of this total were U.S. troops responsible for the issuing of supplies from the ‘Bolero’ Stores Buildings D30-35 and E30-32 which were built to support the invasion of Europe. The ‘Bolero’ stores at Bicester played an important and considerable role in supplying the US army in Europe both before and after D-Day. The materials and equipment held by the US Army in the Bolero Stores arrived by rail from the Inland Sorting Depot (ISD) at Kirkby, Liverpool, with over 100,250,000 cases of stores being received in 14,000 wagon loads by May 1945.

Three groups of Romney huts in the Bolero complex and two groups of accommodation huts were used post-war as Prisoner of War Camps. PoW Camp 657 was located at Bolero group D35, PoW Camp 1011 was located at Bolero group D30, but PoW Camp 553 which was known as ‘Bolero Camp’ was an altogether more complex site; it included Bolero groups E30-E31, the Ordnance Support Unit, together with former Nissen accommodation huts to the south of storage hangar E2, and to the north-west of storage hangar D6.

The depot at Graven Hill was divided into two sites, with D site responsible for the storage and despatch of small arms (handguns rifles, machine guns etc) and E Site for armaments etc. Immediately post-war and well into the late 1950s, the main function of the depot was to support the activities of the Central Ordnance Depots at Chilwell and Donnington, and the Vehicle Organisation of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC). With the ending of National Service and the consequent reduction in size of the Army, a major re-organisation of the depot’s activities became necessary.

In 1961 COD Bicester was chosen to undertake a new role to support the smaller ‘Regular Army’. It assumed the responsibilities for ‘General Stores’ from COD Didcot, and Clothing from COD Branston. The changes required the handling of 150,000 tons of stores, a complete revision of the depot organisation, and an increase in staff and facilities to cope with the new role. In April 1961 the Commandant COD Bicester became the Commander, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Sub District, administering 2,000 troops and Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) and in excess of 4,000 civilian personnel, some 20% of whom had previously served in the armed services.

The necessary changes took until 1964; part of the process was the building of a new Provisions Control and Accounts Office, a civilian staff canteen, and a military Medical Reception Centre. Over the next year building work commenced on a new Headquarters Office Block, and an Officers’ Mess. The need to maintain long-term civilian staff loyalty was also addressed by the Ministry of Defence, by subsidising the building of 810 houses in conjunction with the Urban District Council in Bicester.
Since that time, the basic role of COD Bicester of ordering, stocking and issuing Clothing and General Ordnance Stores to support the Army has changed very little, although the methods of handling and accounting have. As the Army has continued to reduce in size, the function of some of the storage hangars and workshops have been rationalised and some have been adapted to permit temperature controlled storage. Sites D and E are currently ‘non-explosive’ areas.

Access to the Graven Hill site is provided by two road gates, the northern gate off Westacott Road, (E Site) and the eastern or Pioneer Road Gate (D Site). The section of road that leads into the depot from the Pioneer Road gate was re-named Anniversary Avenue in May 1992 to commemorate the 50th year of the Bicester Garrison. The two road gateways are flanked on either side by a police post and a clocking-in room, both being low single-storey fair-faced brick structures with flat concrete roofs. The self-contained former Ordnance Support Unit site is accessed by separate road and rail gateways to the east of Westacott Road, while the Bicester International Freight Terminal that occupies the former gun (artillery) park associated with the Unit is accessed by a gateway off Pioneer Road. Two further railway gates also exist into the site, one from the exchange sidings alongside the Oxford – Bletchley Line, and the other in the south-east corner of the site, allowing rail access to Ambrosden and the Arncott Depot.
Apart from a number of small ancillary structures, the principal buildings on E & D Sites are the twelve large single-storey steel-framed storage hangars (Bldgs. E1 – E3, E15, D1 – D7, and D9), a small storage/despatch hangar (D8), a modern temporary store, three unidentified stores (E4 - E5 and D10), locomotive depot, motor transport garage (E6), railway headquarters (D19), a central heating boiler house and associated coal store and oil tanks (E14), the training block (D3), an electrical sub-station, twelve square-plan static water tanks, and a modern fire station.

Seven different designs of storage hangar have been used; all are rectangular in plan, steel girder-framed with brick walls. E1 differs in plan as it has a lower rectangular-plan range attached to the western elevation that acted as a small items store and office; this range gives the structure an overall ‘T’ plan. No internal inspections were permitted during the survey.

Storage hangars D1, D2, D4, D5, D8, E1, E2, E3, and E15 have large road and rail doorways in the outer bays of both sides of the structure. The doorways were originally closed with large rolling bolted steel-framed doors clad with corrugated steel sheeting. All of these doors have been replaced by roller shutter doors, and some have been blocked-up. D6, D7, and D9 are all served by combined road and rail doorways. All of the storage hangars have low single-storey flat concrete roofed latrines and small office blocks attached to one or more elevations. In addition most have an air-raid shelter at each end of the attached blocks.
The roofs of all of the storage hangars at Graven Hill Depot would originally have been clad with corrugated-asbestos cement sheeting, and the side panels and windows were glazed with ‘Georgian’ wire reinforced glass to reduced splintering. The panels were set high under the eaves or in the gables, both for daylight illumination and as a passive air defence measure - to allow any bomb shattered glass blasted at a high velocity to travel horizontally over the heads of any workers beneath. The asbestos cement cladding of all of the roofs of the storage hangars on D and E sites have been re-clad by plastic coated corrugated metal sheeting and glazed panels with clear plastic sheeting. Likewise most Crittal galvanised steel windows have been replaced by uPVC double glazing.
The three most common designs of storage hangar are twelve bays wide and have ‘ten-bay’ steel girder-framed depressed gabled roofs, with a ‘cat-slide’ lean-to roof over the outer road access bays. Storage hangars D8 and E15 are of differing floor lengths and areas, but they have a similar roof arrangement. Storage hangar D9 (currently Clothing, Textiles, and Ceremonial) has a totally different design of roof and a different arrangement of glazing.
Three of the storage hangars in D Site - D6, D7, and D9 (formerly D11) are all tall single-storey structures designed to allow the use of travelling cranes for heavy lifts. These loads included artillery pieces, and in May 1944 alone, some 3,600 gun ‘reserve stock’ in D6.

Two smaller designs of storage sheds are also to be found at the depot E4, E5 and D10. The two designs are unusual and noteworthy; they differ from the storage hangars in having reinforced concrete framed construction with brick walls, and reinforced concrete shell roofs. The roof design probably indicates that these particular buildings may have been used to store inflammable materials like oil, paints, and lubricants, and needed to be proof against 2-kilogram incendiary bombs. Remarkably, the concrete has been finished to a high-standard with chamfered and stopped detailing; an un-necessary flourish during wartime conditions.

The Training Building D3 is identical in design to the attached range on storage hangar E1 and has an integral internal air-raid shelter in the north-west corner. As in storage hangar E1, the shelter functioned as offices with internal rolling steel blast doors and hinged steel blast shutters protecting windows in the external wall. The shutters would have been kept open during daylight hours, but they would have been closed upon an air-raid warning, or at night as a black-out requirement.

Apart from the integral shelters mentioned above, all of the air-raid shelters at the depot were ‘Double’ 50 person capacity surface shelters, i.e. a shelter design built above the ground surface (due to the wet ground), with sufficient width internally to permit two rows of 25 people to be seated or standing opposite each other. Some of the storage hangars have two air-raid shelters attached integrally to one of the external walls; whereas, others have additional free-standing groups of shelters built a short distance to one side, reflecting the larger workforce in that particular hangar.
The shelters are low single-storey, rectangular-plan, brick-built structures with flat mono-pitched re-inforced concrete roofs that have raised verges on three sides. As no reinforcing bars are visible, it is impossible to tell whether or not the shelters were built using reinforced brick construction. Access was obtained by two diagonally opposed timber doors or slat gates protected by brick blast walls, at opposite corners of the structure. There was no heating and the only provision to comfort were two brick chemical closet recesses; it is possible however that there was only a plain bucket provided in each. Very unusually, the shelters have a wide-splayed observation loop in the side walls.
In case the water supply was disrupted by bomb damage, twelve sunken square-plan Emergency Water Supply (EWS) static water tanks were built at strategic locations around the depot. Some were served by a small brick cubicle that housed a water pump, all originally had a timber and steel framework that allowed fire hoses from a hydrant to be laid directly into them. The former fire section building (D14) survives on D Site (SP 59146 19975), it comprises of a single Turner’s curved asbestos cement hut, divided into a fire-pump garage and a crew room; a small latrine cubicle is built to the rear.
The tallest building at the Graven Hill Depot is the Boiler House (Bldg. E14) (SP 58162 20308). This is one of three such boiler houses built at COD Bicester, which supplied heating to the storage hangars via a system of insulated pipes supported on concrete posts. The boiler house is associated with two steel oil tanks and a coal yard. During the 1980s an automated coal unloading system was introduced using British Rail ‘Railfreight HEA bottom discharge wagons. This arrangement fed the coal to a conveyor system that carried it into the boiler house at high level. Ash could also be brought out of the boiler house using the same conveyor system working in reverse, or it could be blown along a pipe system into a small silo to permit over-head loading into road tankers.
All of the buildings associated with Operation Bolero at Graven Hill have been demolished with the exception of the Ordnance Support Unit complex near Wretchwick Lodge, one Romney hut (Bldg. E31), and one Ministry of Works and Planning (MOWP) ‘standard’ hut that was used as a tea-break room in Bolero Group E31. The Ordnance Support Unit comprises seven miscellaneous huts of differing types, one circular-plan static water tank, and a row of eight rail-served Romney huts. The footings of the demolished Bolero complexes E30 – E32, and D30 - D35, have been retained and are being used for the storage of engineering equipment, container boxes, palletised loads, and vehicle parking.
(2)

The parchmark traces of numerous huts and buildings associated with the dispersed accommodation for the Central Ordnance Depot Bicester can be seen on aerial photographs taken in August 2010. A group can be seen on the northern flank of Arncott Hill on either side of Haugh/Patrick Road. (3)

Sources :
Source Number : 1
Source : Migrated Defence of Britain Project database record originally compiled from various sources
Source details : The two databases developed by the Project can be searched on-line through the Archaeology Data Service at http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/specColl/dob/index.cfm
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Source Number : 2
Source : Field Investigators Comments
Source details : Site Visit Roger J C Thomas 25-July-2011, also Roger Thomas and Will Holborow 21-Nov-2011. EH:Defence disposals project
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Source Number : 3
Source : Oblique aerial photograph reference number
Source details : 26784_001 03-AUG-2010
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Monument Types:
Monument Period Name : Roman
Display Date : Roman
Monument End Date : 410
Monument Start Date : 43
Monument Type : Road
Evidence : Documentary Evidence
Monument Period Name : Second World War
Display Date : World War II
Monument End Date : 1945
Monument Start Date : 1939
Monument Type : Ordnance Depot, Ordnance Store, Barracks, Road, Prisoner Of War Camp, Railway
Evidence : Structure, Extant Building

Components and Objects:
Related Records from other datasets:
External Cross Reference Source : DoB Non Anti Invasion Database UID
External Cross Reference Number : 172
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : National Monuments Record Number
External Cross Reference Number : SP 52 SE 149
External Cross Reference Notes :

Related Warden Records :
Associated Monuments : 1363495
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1475538
Relationship type :
Associated Monuments : 1475678
Relationship type :
Associated Monuments : 1475752
Relationship type :

Related Activities :
Associated Activities : Primary, THE DEFENCE OF BRITAIN PROJECT
Activity type : MEASURED SURVEY
Start Date : 1995-04-01
End Date : 2002-03-01
Associated Activities : Primary, EH AERIAL RECONNAISSANCE (SOUTH): 2010-11
Activity type : AERIAL RECONNAISSANCE
Start Date : 2010-04-01
End Date : 2011-03-31
Associated Activities : Primary, MOD BICESTER, GRAVEN HILL
Activity type : ARCHITECTURAL SURVEY
Start Date : 2015-01-01
End Date : 2015-12-31